Home > Grave Ransom (Alex Craft #5)

Grave Ransom (Alex Craft #5)
Author: Kalayna Price

Chapter 1

The first time I realized I could feel corpses, I had nightmares for a week. I was a child at the time, so that was understandable. These days I was accustomed to the clammy reach of the grave that lifted from dead bodies. To the eerie feeling of my own innate magic responding and filling me with the unrequested knowledge of how recently the person died, their gender, and the approximate age they were at death. When I anticipated encountering a corpse, I tightened my mental shields and worked at keeping my magic at bay. Usually that was only necessary at places like graveyards, the morgue, and funeral homes—places one might expect to find a body.

I never expected to feel a corpse walking across the street in the middle of the Magic Quarter.

“Alex? I’ve lost you, haven’t I?” Tamara, one of my best friends and my current lunchmate, asked. She sighed, twisting in her seat to scan the sidewalk beyond the small outdoor sitting area of the café where we were eating. “Huh. Which one is he? I may be married and knocked up, but I know a good-looking man when I see one, and, girl, I don’t see one. Who are you staring at?”

“That guy,” I said, nodding my head at a man in a brown suit crossing the street.

Tamara glanced at the squat, middle-aged man who was more than a little soft in the middle and then cocked an eyebrow at me. “I’ve seen what you have at home, so I take it this is business. Did you bring one of your cases to our lunch?”

I ignored the “at home” comment, as that situation was more than a little complicated, and shook my head. “My case docket is clear,” I said absently, and let my senses stretch. When I concentrated, I could feel grave essence reaching from corpses in my vicinity. All corpses. There were decades of dead and decaying rats in the sewer below the streets, and smaller creatures like insects that barely made a blip on my radar, but like called to like, and my magic zeroed in on the man.

“He’s dead,” I said, and even to me my voice sounded unsure.

Tamara blinked at me, likely waiting for me to reveal the joke. Instead I pushed out of my seat as the man turned up the street. Tamara grabbed my arm.

“I’m the lead medical examiner for Nekros City, and I can tell you with ninety-nine point nine percent certainty that the man walking down the street is very much alive.” She put extra emphasis on the word “walking,” and on any other day, I would have agreed with her.

My own eyes agreed with her. But my magic, the part of me that touched the grave, that could piece together shades from the memories left in every cell of a body, disagreed. That man, walking or not, was a corpse. Granted, he was a fresh one—the way he felt to my magic told me he couldn’t have been dead more than an hour. But he was dead.

So how the hell had he just walked into the Museum of Magic and the Arcane?

I dropped enough crumpled dollars on the table to cover my portion of the bill and tip before weaving around tables and out of the café seating. Behind me, Tamara grumbled under her breath, but after a moment I heard her chair slide back as she pushed away from the table. I didn’t wait for her to follow me out as I all but sprinted across the street to catch up with the walking corpse.

The museum’s wards tingled along my skin as I stepped through the threshold. I’d been inside the museum a few times, and the collection of rare and unusual artifacts from both pre- and post-awakening was impressive, but I was a sensitive, capable of sensing magic, and between all the security wards and the artifacts themselves, the museum tended to be overwhelming. Definitely migraine-inducing in large doses. I noted that the magic in the air was particularly biting today, like one of the security wards had recently been triggered. I sucked in an almost pained breath, trying to adjust to the sudden crush of magic all around me. The extra sting of the deployed ward didn’t help.

I should have walked the extra few steps to clear the entrance wards.

I’d entered only minutes behind the man, but he almost barreled into me as the door swung closed behind me. His shoulder brushed me at the same moment he hit the antitheft wards, and several things happened at once. The wards snapped to life, blaring a warning to the museum staff to let them know something was being stolen. Simultaneously, a theft-deterring paralytic spell sparked across the would-be thief, locking his body—and the artifact—in place.

Unfortunately, while the wards were powerful, they weren’t terribly specific. Where his shoulder touched mine, the spell jumped from him to me, immobilizing me as well. Under normal circumstances, that would majorly suck. Under these circumstances? It was so much worse.

My magic still identified him as a corpse. I could feel the grave essence lifting off him, clawing at me. My mental shields, while strong, were already overwhelmed, and my magic liked dead things. A lot. I hadn’t raised a shade in nearly a week, so the magic was looking for release. Typically I made a point not to touch the dead. Now I couldn’t get away.

My magic battered against the inside of my shields, looking for chinks in my mental walls that it could jump through. Fighting the spell holding me was a waste of energy—I was well and truly caught—so I focused all of my attention on holding back my own magic. But I could feel the chilled fingers of the grave sliding under my skin, worming their way into me and making paths for my magic to leach into the animated corpse frozen against me.

I wanted to open my shields and See what the thing in front of me was truly made of. But if I cracked my shields to gaze across the planes of reality and get a good look at the body, more of my magic would escape. And too much was already whispering through my shields, making fissures where more could follow. Sweat broke out on my paralyzed brow as I poured my focus into holding my magic at bay.

But I was touching a corpse.

The grave essence leaking from the body clawed at the fissures my magic was chewing through my shields, and it was too much. If I could have stepped back . . . But I couldn’t.

All at once a chunk of my mental wall caved, and the magic rushed out of me. Color washed over the world as the Aetheric plane snapped into focus around me. A wind lifted from the land of the dead, stirring my curls and chilling my clammy skin. I could now see the network of magic holding me in place, as well as the knot of magic in the sprung ward, but more importantly, I could see the corpse in front of me. And it was a corpse, no doubt about it, the dead skin sagging, bloating.

But under the dead flesh, a yellow glimmer of a soul glowed.

Which meant the body was both dead and alive. Considering it was up and walking around, it was a heck of a lot more alive than a dead body should have been.

The soul inside was the color I associated with humans, so this wasn’t a corpse being worn and walked around by something from Faerie or one of the other planes. I still couldn’t see spellwork shimmering across the dead flesh, but it had to be there, binding the soul inside the corpse. But whatever kind of half-life the man existed in wasn’t going to last much longer if I couldn’t get hold of my magic.

The hole in my shields wasn’t huge, but I could feel my magic filling the body. And the grave and souls didn’t get along. I couldn’t stop the hemorrhage of magic, but I managed to slow it to a trickle.

I’d barely noticed the crowd gathering around us until one of the museum guards began releasing the spell holding us. If the antitheft paralyzing spell was dropped, I’d be able to get my distance from the corpse.

But either he wasn’t a very good witch, or he was stalling—likely to wait for the cops—because he was taking his sweet time as more and more of my magic flowed out.

I’d ejected souls from dead bodies before. While souls didn’t like the touch of the grave, they tended to cling to their flesh pretty hard and it took directed magic to pry them free. I was actively fighting expelling the soul, and only a small portion of my magic had filled the corpse, but the soul’s connection to the body felt weak, tentative.

I couldn’t shift my gaze to the museum worker, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye. Oh please, release the damn immobility spell.

Too late.

In a burst of light, the soul popped free of the corpse.

Nothing about the body changed. It had already been dead and it was still held immobile by the spell, but the soul stood free. For a long moment it was almost too bright to look at, a shimmering, crystalline yellow. But souls can’t exist without a body, and in a heartbeat the glow dimmed, the form solidifying as the soul transitioned to the purgatory landscape of the land of the dead.

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