I RODE THROUGH the night-drenched streets of Atlanta on a mammoth donkey. The donkey’s name was Cuddles. She was ten feet tall, including the ears, and her black-and-white hide suggested she might have held up a Holstein cow in some dark alley and was now wearing her clothes. My own blood-spattered outfit suggested I’d had an interesting night. Most mounts would’ve been nervous about letting a woman covered with that much blood on their back, but Cuddles didn’t seem to mind. Either it didn’t bother her or she was a pragmatist who knew where her carrots were coming from.
The city lay in front of me, deserted, quiet, and steeped in magic, unfurling its streets to the starlight like a moonlit flower. Magic ran deep through Atlanta tonight, like a current of some phantom river, slipping into the shadowy places and waking hungry things with needle-long teeth and glowing eyes. Anyone with a drop of common sense hid behind reinforced doors and barred windows after dark. Unfortunately for me, common sense was never among my virtues. As Cuddles quietly clopped her way down the streets, the sounds of her hoofbeats unnaturally loud, the night shadows watched us and I watched them back. Let’s play who can be a better killer. My sword and I love this game.
None of the monsters took the bait. It might have been because of me, but most likely it was because one of them was moving parallel to my route. They smelled him, and they hid and hoped he would pass them by.
It was almost midnight. I’d had a long day. My back ached, my clothes smelled of fetid blood, and a hot shower sounded heavenly. I had made two apple pies last night, and I was pretty sure that at least one piece would be left for me. I could have it tonight with my tea before I went to bed . . .
An annoying spark of magic ignited in my mind. A vampire. Oh goody.
The spark “buzzed” in my brain like an angry mosquito and moved closer. The Immortus pathogen, the disease responsible for vampirism, killed the minds of its victims, leaving behind an empty shell driven by an all-consuming bloodlust. Left to its own devices, a vampire would hunt and slaughter, and when it ran out of things to kill, it would starve to death. This particular bloodsucker wasn’t free to rampage, because its blank mind was held in a telepathic grip by a necromancer. The necromancer, or navigator as they were called, sat in a room far away, directing the vampire with his will as if it were a remote-controlled car. The navigator heard what the vampire heard, saw what the vampire saw, and if the vampire opened its mouth, the navigator’s words would come out of it.
Meeting a bloodsucker this far south meant it belonged to the People, an odd hybrid of a corporation and a research facility, whose personnel dedicated themselves to the study of the undead and making money on the side. The People avoided me like the plague. Two months ago they had figured out that the man behind their organization, the nearly immortal wizard with godlike powers and legendary magic, happened to be my father. They had some difficulty with that development. So the vampire wasn’t for me.
Still . . . I knew most of the People’s patrol routes and this undead was definitely off course. Where the hell was it going?
No. Not my circus, not my undead monkeys.
I felt the vampire make a ninety-degree turn, heading straight for me.
Home, shower, apple pie. Maybe if I said it like a prayer, it would work.
The distance between us shrank. Home, shower . . .
An undead leaped off the roof of the nearest two-story house and landed on the road next to me, gaunt, each shallow muscle visible under the thick hide, as if someone had crafted a human anatomy model out of steel wire and poured a paper-thin layer of rubber over it.
The undead unhinged its mouth and Ghastek’s dry voice came out. “You’re difficult to find, Kate.”
Well, well. The new head of the People’s Atlanta office had come to see me personally. I’d curtsy but I was too tired to get off my donkey and the sword on my back would get in the way. “I live in the suburbs and come home almost every night. My business phone number is in the book.”
The vampire tilted its head, mimicking Ghastek’s movements. “You’re still riding that monstrosity?”
“Feel free to stomp him,” I told Cuddles. “I’ll back you up.”
Cuddles ignored me and the vampire, defiantly clopping past it. The bloodsucker turned smoothly and fell into step next to me. “Where is your . . . significant other?”
“He’s around.” He was never too far. “Why, are you worried he’ll find out about this romantic rendezvous?”
The vampire froze for a second. “What?”
“You’re meeting me in secret on a lonely street in the middle of the night . . .”
Ghastek’s voice was so sharp, if it were a knife, I would’ve been sliced to ribbons. “I find your attempts at humor greatly distressing.”
“I assure you, this is strictly business.”
“Sure it is, sweet cheeks.”
The vampire’s eyes went wide. In an armored room deep in the bowels of the People’s Casino, Ghastek was probably having a heart attack from the outrage.
“What are you doing out in my neck of the woods?”
“Technically, the entire city is your neck of the woods,” Ghastek said.
Two months ago my father had decided to dramatically claim Atlanta as his own domain. I tried to stop him in an equally dramatic fashion. He knew what he was doing, I didn’t, and I ended up accidentally claiming the city in his stead. I was still fuzzy on how exactly the claiming worked, but apparently it meant that I had assumed guardianship of the city and the safety of Atlanta was now my responsibility. In theory, the magic of the city was supposed to nourish me and make my job easier, but I had no idea how exactly that worked. So far I didn’t feel any different.
“But still, I heard you were promoted. Don’t you have flunkies to do your bidding?”
The vampire twisted his face into a hair-raising leer. Ghastek must’ve grimaced.
“I thought you would be happy,” I said. “You wanted to be the head honcho.”
“Yes, but now I have to deal with you. He spoke to me, personally.”
He said “he” with the kind of reverence that could only mean Roland, my father.
“He believes that you may hesitate to kill me because of our shared experiences,” Ghastek continued. “Which makes me uniquely qualified to lead the People in your territory.”
Showing how freaked out I was about having a territory would severely tarnish my City Guardian cred.
“I’m supposed to cooperate with you. So, in the spirit of cooperation, I’m informing you that our patrols have sighted a large group of ghouls moving toward the city.”
Ghouls were bad news. They followed the same general pattern of infection, incubation, and transformation as vampires and shapeshifters, but so far nobody had managed to figure out what actually turned them into ghouls. They were smart, supernaturally fast, and vicious, and they fed on human carrion. Unlike vampires, whom they somewhat resembled, ghouls retained some of their former personality and ability to reason, and they quickly figured out that the best way to get human carrion was to butcher a few people and leave the corpses to rot until they decomposed enough to be consumed. They traveled around in packs of three to five members and attacked isolated small settlements.