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Magic grave, p.7

Magic Grave, page 7

 

Magic Grave
 


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  On the floor, Saiman lay unmoving. I checked his pulse. Breathing. Good. I went back to the island. I deserved some coffee after this and I bet Saiman stocked the good stuff.

  *** *** ***

  I sat by the counter, sipping the best coffee I'd ever tasted, when the big screen TV on the wall lit up with fuzzy glow. Which was more than a smidgeon odd, considering that the magic was still up and the TV shouldn't have worked.

  I took my coffee and my saber and went to sit on the couch, facing the TV. Saiman still sprawled unconscious on the floor.

  The glow flared brighter, faded, flared brighter… In ancient times people used mirrors, but really any somewhat reflective surface would do. The dark TV screen was glossy enough.

  The glow blazed and materialized into a blurry male. In his early twenties, dark hair, dark eyes.

  The man looked at me. "You're the bodyguard." His voice carried a trace of Russian accent.

  I nodded and slipped into Russian. "Yes."

  "I don't know you. What you do makes no difference to me. We have this place surrounded. We go in in an hour. " He made a short chopping motion with his hand. "You're done."

  "I'm shaking with fear. In fact, I may have to take a minute to get my shivers under control. " I drank my coffee.

  The man shook his head. "You tell that paskuda, if he let Yulya go, I'll make sure you both walk out alive. You hear that? I don't know what he's got over my wife, but you tell him that. If he wants to live, he has to let her go. I'll be back in thirty minutes. You tell him. "

  The screen faded.

  And the plot thickens. I sighed and nudged Saiman with my boot. It took a couple of nudges, but finally he groaned and sat up.

  "What happened?"

  "You fell."

  "Really? What did I fall into?"

  "My fist."

  "That explains the headache." Saiman looked at me. "This will never happen again. I want to be absolutely clear. Attempt this again and you're fired."

  I wondered what would happen if I knocked him out again right there, just for kicks.

  "Is that my arabica coffee?" he asked.

  I nodded. "I will even let you have a cup if you answer my question."

  Saiman arched an eyebrow. "Let? It's my coffee."

  I saluted him with the mug. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law."

  He stared at me incredulously. "Ask."

  "Are you holding a woman called Yulya hostage?"

  Saiman blinked.

  "Her husband is very upset and is offering to let us both go if we can produce Yulya for him. Unfortunately, he's lying and most likely we both would be killed once said Yulya is found. But if you're holding a woman hostage, you must tell me now."

  "And if I was?" Saiman rubbed his jaw and sat in the chair opposite me.

  "Then you'd have to release her immediately or I would walk. I don't protect kidnappers and I take a very dim view of violence toward civilians, men or women."

  "You're a bewildering woman."

  "Saiman, focus. Yulya?"

  Saiman leaned back. "I can't produce Yulya. I am Yulya."

  I suppose I should've seen that coming. "The man was under the impression he's married to her. What happened to the real Yulya?"

  "There was never a real Yulya. I will tell you the whole story, but I must have coffee. And nutrients."

  I poured him a cup of coffee. Saiman reached into the fridge and came up with a gallon of milk, a solid block of chocolate, and several bananas.

  Chocolate was expensive as hell. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had some. If I survived this job, I'd buy a couple of truffles.

  I watched Saiman load bananas and milk into a manual blender and crank the handle, cutting the whole thing into a coarse mess. Not the chocolate, not the chocolate… Yep, threw it in there too. What a waste.

  He poured the concoction into a two quart jug and began chugging it. Shapeshifters did burn a ton of calories. I sighed, mourning the loss of the chocolate, and sipped my coffee. "Give."

  "The man in question is the son of Pavel Semyonov. He's the premier volhv in the Russian community here. The boy's name is Evgenii and he's completely right, I did marry him, as Yulya, of course. The acorn was very well guarded and I needed a way in."

  "Unbelievable."

  Saiman smiled. Apparently he thought I'd paid him a compliment. "Are you familiar with the ritual of firing the arrow?"

  "It's an archaic folkloric ritual. The shooter is blindfolded and spun around, so he blindly fires. The flight of the arrow foretells the correct direction of the object the person seeks. If a woman picks up the arrow, she and the shooter are fated to be together."

  Saiman wiped his mouth. "I picked up the arrow. It took me five months from the arrow to the acorn."

  "How long did it take you to con that poor guy into marriage?"

  "Three months. The combination of open lust but withholding of actual sex really works wonders."

  I shook my head. "Evgenii is in love with you. He thinks his wife is in danger. He's trying to rescue her."

  Saiman shrugged. "I had to obtain the acorn. I could say that he's young and resilient, but really his state of mind is the least of my concerns."

  "You're a terrible human being."

  "I beg to differ. All people are driven by their primary selfishness. I'm simply more honest than most. Furthermore, he had the use of a beautiful woman, created to his precise specifications, for two months. I did my research into his sexual practices quite thoroughly, to the point of sleeping with him twice as a prostitute to make sure I knew his preferences."

  "If we get out of this, I need to remember never to work for you again."

  Saiman smiled. "But you will. If the price is right."

  "No."

  "Anyone will work for anyone and anyone will sleep with anyone, if the price is right and the partnership is attractive enough. Suppose I invited you to spend a week here with me. Luxurious clothes. Beautiful shoes." He looked at my old boots, which were in danger of falling apart. "Magnificent meals. All the chocolate you could ever want."

  So he'd caught me.

  "All that for the price of having sex with me. I would even sweeten the deal by assuming a shape preferable to you. Anyone you want. Any shape, any size, any color, any gender. All in total confidentiality. Nobody ever has to know you were here. The offer is on the table." He placed his hand on the counter, palm down. "Right now. I promise you a week of total bliss – assuming we survive. You'll never get another chance to be this pampered. All I need from you is one word."

  "No."

  He blinked. "Don't you want to think about it?"

  "No."

  He clamped his mouth shut. Muscles played along his jaw. "Why?"

  The TV screen ignited. Evgenii appeared in the glow. Saiman strode to the screen with a scowl on his face. "I'll make it short." His body boiled, twisted, stretched. I shut my eyes. It was that or lose my precious coffee. When I opened them, a petite red haired woman stood in Saiman's place.

  "Does this explain things enough?" Saiman asked. "Or do I need to spell it out, Evgenii?"

  "You're her?"

  "Yes."

  "I don't believe it."

  Saiman sighed. "Would you like me to list your preferred positions, in the order you typically enjoy them? Shall we speak of intimate things? I could recite most of our conversation word for word, I do have a very precise memory."

  They stared at each other.

  "It was all a lie," Evgenii said finally.

  "I call it subterfuge, but yes, in essence, the marriage was a sham. You were set up from the beginning. I was Yulya. I was also Siren and Alyssa, so if you decide to visit that particular house of ill repute again, don't look for either."

  Oh God.

  The glow vanished. Saiman turned to me. "Back to our question. Why?"

  "That man loved you enough to risk his own neck to negotiate your release. You just destroyed him, in passing, because you were in a hurry
. And you want to know why. If you did that to him, there's no telling what you'd do to me. Sex is about physical attraction, yes, but it's also about trust. I don't trust you. You're completely self-absorbed and egoistic. You offer nothing I want."

  "Sex is driven by physical attraction. Given the right stimulus, you will sleep with me. I simply have to present you with a shape you can't resist."

  Saiman jerked, as if struck by a whip, and crashed to the floor. His feet drummed the carpet, breaking the herbs and fledgling ferns. Wild convulsions tore at his body. A blink and he was a mess of arms and legs and bodies. My stomach gave up and I vomited into the sink.

  Ordinarily I'd be on top of him, jamming something in his mouth to keep him from biting himself, but given that he changed shapes like there was no tomorrow, finding his mouth was a bit problematic.

  "Saiman? Talk to me."

  "The acorn… It's coming. Must… Get… Roof."

  Roof? No roof. We were in the apartment, shielded by a ward. On the roof we'd be sitting ducks. "We can't do that."

  "Oak… Large… Cave-in."

  Oh hell. Would it have killed him to mention that earlier? "I need you to walk. You're too heavy and I can't carry you while you convulse."

  Little by little, the shudders died. Saiman staggered to his feet. He was back to the unremarkable man I'd first found in the bedroom. His stomach had grown to ridiculous proportions. If he were pregnant, he'd be twelve months along.

  "We'll make a run for it," I told him.

  A faint scratch made me spin. An old man hung outside the window, suspended on a rope. Gaunt, his white beard flapping in the wind, he peered through the glass straight at me. In the split second we looked at each other, twelve narrow stalks unfurled from his neck, spreading into a corona around his head, like a nimbus around the face of a Russian icon. A bulb tipped each stock. A hovala. Shit.

  I grabbed Saiman and threw him at the door.

  The bulbs opened.

  Blinding light flooded the apartment, hiding the world in a white haze. The window behind me exploded. I could barely see. "Stay behind me."

  Shapes dashed through the haze.

  I slashed. Slayer connected, encountering resistance. Sharp ice stabbed my left side. I reversed the strike and slashed again. The shape before me crumpled. The second attacker struck. I dodged left, on instinct and stabbed my blade at his side. Bone and muscle. Got him between the lower ribs. A hoarse scream lashed my ears. I twisted the blade, ripping the organs, and withdrew.

  The hovala hissed at the window. I was still blind.

  Behind me the lock clicked. "No!"

  I groped for Saiman and hit my forearm on the open door. He ran. Into the hallway, where he was an easy target. I lost my body. God damn it.

  I sprinted into the hallway, trying to blink the haze from eyes. The stairs were to the left. I ran, half blind, grabbed the door, and dashed up the stairs.

  The blinding flare finally cleared. I hit the door, burst onto the roof, and took a kick to the ribs. Bones crunched. I fell left and rolled to my feet. A woman stood by the door, arms held in a trademark tae kwon do cat stance.

  To the right, an older man grappled with Saiman. Six others watched.

  The woman sprang into a kick. It was a lovely kick, strong with good liftoff. I sidestepped and struck. By the time she landed, I'd cut her twice. She fell in a crumpled heap.

  I flicked the blood off my saber and headed for Saiman.

  "You're Voron's kid," one of the men said. "We have no problem with you. Pavel's entitled. His son just threw himself off the roof."

  Ten to a million, the son's name was Evgenii.

  I kept coming. The two men ripped at each other, grappling and snarling like two wild animals. I was five feet away, when Pavel head-butted Saiman, jerking his right arm free. A knife flashed, I lunged, and saw Pavel slice across Saiman's distended gut. A bloody clump fell and I caught it with my left hand purely on instinct.

  Magic punched my arm. Pale glow erupted from my fist.

  Saiman twisted and stabbed something at Pavel's right eye. The volhv stumbled back, a bloody pencil protruding from his eye socket. For a long moment he stood, huge mouth gaping, and then toppled like a log. Saiman spun about. The muscles of his stomach collapsed, folding, knitting together, turning into a flat washboard wall.

  The whole thing took less than three seconds.

  I opened my fist. A small gold acorn lay on my palm.

  The golden shell cracked. A sliver of green thrust its way up. The acorn rolled off my hand. The green shoot thickened, twisted, surging higher and higher. The air roared like a tornado. Saiman howled, a sound of pure rage. I grabbed him and dragged him with me to the stairs. On the other side, volhvs ran for the edge of the roof.

  The shoot grew, turning dark, sprouting branches, leaves, and bark. Magic roiled.

  "It was supposed to be mine," Saiman snarled. "Mine!"

  Light flashed. The roaring ceased.

  A colossal oak stood in the middle of the roof, as tall as the building itself, its roots spilling on both sided of the high rise. Tiny lights fluttered between its branches – each wavy leaf as big as my head. Birds sang in the foliage. A huge metal chain bound the enormous trunk, its links so thick, I could've laid down on it. A feeling of complete peace came over me. All my troubles melted into distance. My pain dissolved. The air tasted sweet and I drank it in.

  At the other side of the roof, the volhvs knelt.

  Metal clinked. A black creature came walking down the bottom loop. As big as a horse, its fur long and black, it walked softly, gripping the links with razor-sharp claws. Its head was that of lynx. Tall tufts of black fur decorated its ears and a long black beard stretched from its chin. Its eyes glowed, lit from within.

  The cat paused and looked at me. The big maw opened, showing me a forest of white teeth, long and sharp like knives.

  "Ask."

  I blinked.

  "You were the last to hold the acorn," Saiman whispered. "You must ask the question or it will kill all of us."

  The cat showed me its teeth again.

  For anything I asked, there would be a price.

  "Ask," the cat said, its voice laced with an unearthly snarl.

  "Ask, Kate," Saiman prompted.

  "Ask!" one of the volhvs called out.

  I took a deep breath.

  The cat leaned forward in anticipation.

  "Would you like some milk?"

  The cat smiled wider. "Yes."

  Saiman groaned.

  "I'll be right back."

  I dashed down the stairs. Three minutes later the cat lapped milk from Saiman's crystal punch bowl.

  "You could've asked anything," the creature said between laps.

  "But you would've taken everything," I told it. "This way all it cost me is a little bit of milk."

  *** *** ***

  In the morning Peters came to relieve me. Not that he had a particularly difficult job. After the oak disappeared, the volhvs decided that since both Pavel and Evgenii were dead, all accounts were settled and it was time to call it quits. As soon as we returned to the apartment, Saiman locked himself in the bedroom and refused to come out. The loss of the acorn hit him pretty hard. Just as well. I handed my fussy client off to Peters, retrieved Peggy, and headed back to the Guild.

  All in all I'd done spectacularly well, I decided. I lost the client for at least two minutes, let him get his stomach ripped open, watched him stab his attacker in the eye, which was definitely something he shouldn't have had to do, and cost him his special acorn and roughly five months of work. The fact that my client turned out to be a scumbag and a sexual deviant really had no bearing on the matter.

  Some bodyguard I made. Yay. Whoopee.

  I grabbed my crap and headed for the doors.

  "Kate," the clerk called from the counter.

  I turned. Nobody remembered the clerk's name. He was just "the clerk."

  He waved an envelope at me. "Money."

/>   I turned on my foot. "Money?"

  "For the job. Client called. He says he'd like to work exclusively with you from now on. What did the two of you do all night?"

  "We argued philosophy." I swiped the envelope and counted the bills. Three grand. What do you know?

  I stepped out the doors into an overcast morning. I had been awake for over thirty six hours. I just wanted to find a quiet spot, curl up, and shut the world out.

  A tall lean man strode to me, tossing waist long black hair out of the way. He walked like a dancer and his face would stop traffic. I looked into his blue eyes and saw a familiar smugness in their depths. "Hello, Saiman."

  "How did you know?"

  I shrugged and headed on my way.

  "Perhaps we can work out a deal," he said, matching my steps. "I have no intentions of losing that bet. I will find a form you can't resist."

  "Good luck."

  "I'm guessing you'll try to avoid me, which would make my victory a bit difficult."

  "Bingo."

  "That's why I decided to give you an incentive you can't refuse. I'm giving you a sixty percent discount on my services. It's an unbelievable deal."

  I laughed. If he thought I'd pay him twenty-six dollars a minute for his time, he was out of luck.

  "Laugh now." Saiman smiled. "But sooner or later you'll require my expertise."

  He stopped. I kept on walking, into the dreary sunrise. I had three thousand dollars and some chocolate to buy.

  About the Author

  Ilona Andrews is the pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team. “Ilona is a native-born Russian and Gordon is a former communications sergeant in the U.S. Army. Contrary to popular belief, Gordon was never an intelligence officer with a license to kill, and Ilona was never the mysterious Russian spy who seduced him. They met in college, in English Composition 101, where Ilona got a better grade. (Gordon is still sore about that.)

  Gordon and Ilona currently reside in Texas with their two children, three dogs and a cat. They have co-authored two series, the bestselling urban fantasy of Kate Daniels and romantic urban fantasy of The Edge.

 
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