MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The creature that had once been a woman was standing out in the rain for shit’s sake. Her face, tipped up toward the heavens—blasphemy. Monsters didn’t have the right to look to the sky when they prayed. Yet there she stood, palms facing upward, eyes closed, while water and unspent magic collected in her palms.
Naya waited in the shadows, tucked beneath an umbrella as she watched the creature. Her fingers twitched, wrapped tight around the dagger’s hilt. The sound of magic swirled in the air around her. A sound only she could hear, a melody sung to her soul. Only this tune was off. Too flat, and then, sharp. It offended her inner ear, the pitch not quite right. The hilt of the ancient dagger grew warm in Naya’s hand, the blade hungry for the evil that had taken root and spread like a cancer in the body that had once been human. Tonight’s retrieval had to be done by the book. Dark magic poisoned the woman’s body and soul. Either willingly or by force, foreign magic had consumed the woman’s body, the wrongness of the music’s tune proof enough, and it was Naya’s job to recover what lived inside of her before the magic burned through the body of its human host and went out in search of new prey.
Consume the magic. Contain the power and extinguish the demon it’s created. The words rang true, even as Naya’s stomach twisted in on itself. A streak of lightning cleaved the sky followed by a peal of thunder. The woman didn’t even flinch—she was already in the grip of something too powerful for even a force of nature to interrupt—her features contorted and losing any sign of her former humanity.
A host, once infected with malicious magic, became a mapinguari. A demon whose singular thought was the creation of chaos. Naya watched as the magic manifested in the woman’s upturned hands. Her long fingers became tipped with vicious claws and her legs bent at an odd angle, more avian than human now. Energy flowed from her palms, dripping to the black pavement like fluorescent paint in a room of black lights. The sound of it twined around Naya’s soul, myriad wind chimes dancing in an unnatural rhythm to form a cacophony of sound rather than a beautiful melody. It was now or never. No longer human, the mapinguari wouldn’t waste any time in cutting a path of death and destruction. Naya had an obligation to her people. To the innocent humans who lived in Crescent City. And to her own magic that abhorred the dark energy.
A disturbance tickled the air, like a wave of heat after a cool morning. The mapinguari turned to face her, teeth bared as a snarl worked its way up the demon’s throat. Naya took a deep breath, steeled herself for what had to be done, and struck.
* * *
“Naya.” Santiago Molina nodded his head in acknowledgment as she walked through the door of his shop. He eyed the brilliant gold box in her hand before meeting her face. “Another job well done, I assume?”
Another job. Sure. For the past week, the small town of Crescent City, California, had been swarming with mapinguari. Well done? She supposed she was good at her job. But did she like it? That was the million-dollar question. “Here.” She shoved the gilded box into his waiting hands. “She was already starting to transition by the time I’d found her. Completely mindless. She couldn’t contain the magic, either. It was leaching from her pores. I managed to neutralize the situation before she killed anyone, though.”
Santi eyed the box, turned it over in his hands. Naya knew he would never think to open it, but no matter how many times they did this, he fidgeted like an Oxy addict in a pharmacy. Not many could control the magic once it had been repossessed. But it just so happened Naya was one of the lucky ones. One of many job perks she’d grown tired of dealing with.
“Paul’s been asking around about you.” She knew it would only be a matter of time. Still, the noose of implied servitude tightened at her throat. Naya tried not to immerse herself too deep in culture. Separating the real world from familial and tribal obligations was something she struggled with. She did her job, turned over to Santi at the end of every hunt the gold boxes that held the repossessed magic, which he turned over to the elders. Maybe there was a warehouse full of them somewhere, like a repo lot for stolen magic. The elders were simply the keepers of what she’d repossessed. None of them could handle it. That was Naya’s job. And after her part was played, her only interest was in dragging her tired butt back to her house.
Naya cocked her head to the side and held out her hand. Santi slapped a stack of bills in her palm and she turned, the bell ringing in protest as she swung the glass door wide.
“Keeping your distance isn’t going to solve any of your problems,” Santi said before she could get both feet out the door. “Pissing them off is just biting yourself in the ass.”
She nodded, just so he’d know she’d heard, and let the door shut him out behind her.
* * *
Naya’s Subaru Outback wagon looked like a soccer mom’s ride. In Naya’s line of work she needed a practical vehicle, and the Outback carried a lot of shit. She slid in behind the wheel and let her head loll back against the headrest. Fatigue tugged at her eyelids, but she didn’t dare close her eyes. Every time she did, she relived the bloody moment when she’d stabbed the dagger into the woman’s chest, piercing her heart. It didn’t matter that she’d been more monster than human at that point. It never got easier, no matter how many times Naya had to remind herself that she was serving the greater good.
Her breath came in quick little pants as Naya gripped the wheel. Stars sparkled at the periphery of her vision and her heart beat a violent rhythm in her chest. Anxiety coursed through her; she fought against the sensation of suffocation—of helpless imprisonment—that threatened to lay her low. Thanks to the Subie’s soundproof interior, no one heard the release of pent-up emotion and magical energy that burst from her lips in a scream. She hadn’t even known the woman’s name. But Naya had done what she’d had to do. Magic—malicious magic—corrupted those not born to control it. Magic in the wrong hands created monsters, and Naya’s very existence demanded that she be responsible for damage control.
That woman had come by her power through unnatural means, whereas Naya had come by hers through birthright. Bruja. Shaman. Witch. Sorceress. Whatever her title, it was half a dozen of one or six of the other. The indigenous tribes of South America took their spirituality and magic very seriously, and her ancestors had crawled right out of the goddamned rain forest.
Naya’s tribe, the Bororo, had taken on the responsibility of policing the magic in this world centuries ago. More specifically, they policed those who stole and misused magic in this world. If you didn’t come by your gifts naturally, it was considered a crime against the natural order. A perversion. A break in the sacred circle. And once possessed by magic, those unworthy of wielding it became nothing more than mindless monsters hell-bent on death and destruction. Demons. The vile mapinguari of legend. Naya was an enforcer. Her job was to find the creature and play judge, jury, and executioner. It’s not a job she would’ve wished on her worst enemy. The tribe paid her expenses, but aside from that, she didn’t get many benefits. No insurance, retirement, 401(k). As for unemployment … The only way to get let go from her job was to be paired off in an arranged mating or die in the line of service. Personally, she’d rather die, and a bruja wasn’t exactly easy to kill.
The woman’s death tonight had been an unfortunate necessity. She’d already been too far gone to save and the magic she’d stolen had to be retrieved. She’d been human before she’d come by the magic, but once it had merged with her essence she had become something dangerous. Other. A rabid beast that had to be put down. Naya suppressed a shudder as she recalled the empty expression on the woman’s distorted face, her irises nothing more than solid white orbs in her skull, and the snarl that tore from her lips before Naya drove the dagger into her chest. The woman was no innocent. Only through vile acts of darkness could true magic be stolen. And no matter how many times Naya had done this, she still could not reconcile her soul to the violent lengths people would go to possess true, terrifying power.
With a quick turn of the key the Subie purred into life and she pulled out onto the rain-drenched street. The entire city block was actually a small village and no one was the wiser. Her tribe’s entire culture centered on the village circle. Time flowed in its circumference: the past, present, and future. And right now she wanted the hell out of it.
Panic pounded in her chest as Naya sped through a yellow light. She was always twitchy as shit after a repo, but tonight she felt like crawling out of her skin. A metallic tang burned her mouth, scorched with the evidence of what she’d done to that woman. That creature. Naya had had no choice but to kill the demon, she reminded herself, and what she’d done was no different from any repossession she’d performed in the last eight or so decades. So why did it suddenly feel so shameful?
The familiar tune of “Black Magic Woman” played from the cell phone mounted on her dash. His was one of only a few special ringtones programmed into her contacts. But only because she needed a good thirty seconds warning before she answered any of his calls.
“Where have you been lately, Naya?” Paul’s voice scolded, despite his calm, level tone. He hadn’t gone by “Paulo” for many years. Naya guessed he thought the Americanization of his name helped him blend in. She didn’t have the stones to tell him he wasn’t fooling anyone. “For weeks no one has seen you, and Joaquin says you haven’t been at your apartment. You know you’re supposed to stay close to the circle when you’re not patrolling.”
“I work all night. It stands to reason that I might not open my door during the day because I’m sleeping. Wouldn’t you agree?” She tried to keep her own voice as calm as his. “I haven’t been hiding from anyone. Just busy.” His silence was as good as a string of curses shouted in her ear. “It isn’t necessary for me to check in all the time,” she continued, wondering why she kept the conversation rolling. “Besides, you know I always get the job done. Santi has the box.”
Over the dead air she heard the sound of a low growl, a jaguar, and she suppressed a shudder. Apparently Paul didn’t appreciate her pop and drop system. “It shows lack of faith that you separate yourself from your people,” he said in a strained voice. “Do you forget that you have vowed to serve not only the tribe, but our pod?”
How could she forget? The bastard reminded her daily. “I never forget a vow,” she said as she hung a sharp left. She pulled the phone off the cradle and turned off the speaker function, putting the receiver to her ear. “I do what you ask, damned efficiently I might add. So don’t ever call in to question my loyalty.”
“Others would disagree.” Gods, she hated it when he got all high-and-mighty. “You are bound to serve the elders until the time of your pairing. You should be happy to interact with the members of this pod. Attend tribal functions.”
Fuck you. I’d like to see you try and make me go.
“I’ll make you go if I have to.”
Son of a bitch, she hated when he did that. Just as she opened her mouth to give her thoughts a voice, he ended the call. But not before she heard that warning growl one more time.
Naya drove out of downtown Crescent City ready to put as much distance between her and tribal business as possible. Every member of their pod lived on the same square city block of property, including her. Well, sort of. A few months ago, she’d decided that she’d be damned if she lived every day of her life near Paul and his antiquated bullshit, and rented a house ten or so miles out of town. That way, when she needed space—like tonight—she had a secret haven in which to lay low. Only Santi and her cousin Luz knew about the house and that’s the way it was going to stay. Naya could trust them to keep her secrets.
With the switch on the back of her steering wheel she searched for an appropriate radio station. She found one that echoed her mood, all deep bass drops and screaming techno beats. Against the backdrop of night, blue and red lights flashed, reflecting off the wet street. A group of greasy-looking guys sat on the sidewalk, handcuffed, their heads hanging and water dripping from their lank hair into the gutters at their feet.
Criminals, more than likely.
And they deserved whatever those cops dished out.
The voice of reason scratched at the back of her brain, Yes. They did.
Naya brought her hand up and rubbed her sternum, wondering at the sudden twinge in her chest. Probably nothing more than a little residual mojo left over from the repo. The pain increased from mild annoyance to sharp, pounding, fuck me pain. And then, the music began to play.
Not the radio. But the music only she could hear. The siren song that was the essence of magic in use. Only abruja could hear it. And it wasn’t an acquired skill. All of the women in her family had heard the sounds of magic since their birth. As fate may have it, she was one of only two living females in her family line. Which was why Paul had such a bug up his butt about her skipping tribal functions. In fact, she had a sneaking suspicion he was antsy to get her good and mated. And breeding a new generation of “ears” for their pod.
Lilting notes tugged at her chest, high, tinkling, and delicate followed by deep, hollow echoes. Whoever was using was close. And packing. Definitely not an amateur like the woman Naya had killed earlier in the night. This user had street cred and enough power to make not only Naya’s chest ache but her ears ring also. She lost focus of everything around her, the magic enveloping her senses until only the ringing cadence of its presence remained. Her vision blurred, the wet pavement becoming nothing more than a smear across her eyes. Shit. Those cops weren’t too far back; they’d notice if she swerved all over the rain-drenched road.
She eased her foot down on the brake, slowing to a cautious but not suspicious speed. Nostrils flared, she dragged in lungfuls of breath and expelled them slowly through parted lips. In through the nose, out through the mouth. She focused on the act of breathing in a futile attempt to curb the sensory deprivation caused by the magic’s song. Tears sprang to her eyes at the beauty of the tune. So perfect and pure, only to dive into a raucous, offensive noise that made her brain pound in her skull. What in the hell is going on?
By small degrees her vision cleared and the road came back into focus. Two repos in one night—almost unheard of—especially so close to each other. She’d popped the first mapinguari in a back alley not far from here. Maybe two or three miles.
Alarms sounded in her brain, caution flags flying high. The possibility for disaster imminent. But the power seeking her out was too great to ignore. No way could she turn her back. Not because she had any great sense of responsibility. But because if she ignored it, an innocent might be hurt. And no matter how divided her loyalty to her pod had been lately, she couldn’t allow another demon to be born of malicious magic tonight.
As soon as she was sure the cops couldn’t see her, Naya flipped the car around in the middle of the four-lane road. Right in front of a no U-turn sign. Heh. She retraced her route for a block and when her vision began to blur again she knew she was close. Pulling into an empty parking lot, she killed the engine and gripped the steering wheel while she took a few more deep breaths and centered her own energy. No use going out half-cocked. Trouble was, no matter how she focused, the meditation didn’t bring her an ounce of calm. She slipped out of the car, stumbling in the parking lot as she felt her way to the hatchback. As she pulled the latch, the door silently glided up and another wave of crippling sound caused her muscles to lock up. If she didn’t get to the abuser soon, the magic could level the entire block. Unchecked power had a way of backfiring in the wrong hands. Or causing a shit-ton of chaos in the right ones. Either way, it was a lose-lose situation.
She shook off the paralyzing effects of the magic’s influence and dug through the case she kept stashed in the cargo area. No way could she have hauled all of her gear in a little coupe. The case was more like a shallow trunk, with drawers and removable trays. At the very bottom of her arsenal, Naya found the ammo she’d been looking for. Though she wasn’t opposed to using real bullets when the situation called for it, the SIG had been modified to shoot rubber slugs. Great for stoppage. She didn’t shoot to kill, especially if she didn’t have a clean shot. That’s what the dagger was for.
The blade pre-dated history. Glowing citrine bright and ever sharp, it disappeared into an obsidian handle wrapped in old, oiled leather. Like an extension of her arm, the dagger was precisely balanced as if forged specifically for her height, weight, body construction. And when she held it in her hand, Naya felt a surge of power that nearly knocked her off her feet. It was a killing weapon, a ceremonial tool, and the only thing that could extract the magic from the heart of the thief. Magic was a fickle bitch, and if you didn’t follow every rule to the letter, well, you might as well kiss your ass good-bye.
She tucked the SIG into her waistband and held the dagger with a death grip. The target wasn’t far off. She sensed a wave of power from the far side of the parking lot toward the rear of the abandoned retail space. A row of floodlights had burned out, no doubt from the surge of magical energy. Perfect for a sneak attack. Not so great for the thief.
Water pooled in the uneven asphalt and soaked through her Nikes and the hems of her jeans. But she didn’t have time to worry about her soggy socks or the fact that she’d left her umbrella in the car. The notes drifting from the source of power pulled at her heart, no longer corrupt but almost pure. Why? How? She could think of nothing else, the melody urging her forward like a trail of bread crumbs. Looked like she wasn’t going to dodge the elders tonight. They’d see her at the banishing after all, perhaps with one more gold box to add to their collection.
Rainfall masked Naya’s approach in this asphalt and metal jungle. Her prey had no idea a hunter lurked in the shadows. Just the way she liked it. A surprise attack was so much more efficient than a mad rush. If the thief had already surrendered his humanity for magic, there was no question in her mind as to what had to be done. This would be a quick kill. A clean kill.
Disable. Disarm. Her instincts flared as she crept closer to the source of power. A steady beat, trilling, then deep, sang in the well of her soul, awakening her own seat of power that coursed through her veins like quicksilver. She’d never heard anything so … right. How could the music be so corrupt one minute and speak so strongly to her soul the next? Pulse racing, heart pounding, her body kept pace with the sound of the magic that increased in volume and tempo until it threatened to crash over her in a crescendo of raw energy.
Her prey was in sight.
As he leaned against a lamppost, his tawny hair fell gently across his brow, dripping with a steady stream of water. He was huge, with cords of bulky muscle that flexed with each shuddering breath he took. He ripped at his shirt, tearing the fabric from his body, and a feral growl echoed above the rush of rain. He kept his head bowed low over his upturned hands as shallow breaths caused his powerful shoulders to heave.
She had no idea why, but magic always pooled in the hands of the experienced and inexperienced alike. Amethyst light leached from his pores like sweat, dripping thick and sludgy before pooling at his feet. His fingers curled and Naya could tell from the set of his jaw that his teeth were clenched tight. This wasn’t the typical theft-gone-wrong she was used to seeing. The magic’s tune was now in perfect pitch, the purest melody she’d ever heard. But despite that, this guy was in serious trouble. Scared shitless or at the very least hurting like a sonofabitch.
Crouching low, she continued toward him. Her eyes watered from the power leaching out of him. She’d never felt anything like it in all her life. And she’d been around the block a few times. Her heart pounded in her chest and emotion swelled like a rising tide: anticipation, excitement, and … tenderness. A moan escaped his lips and he fell to his knees, dropping his hands onto the wet asphalt. The glow of magic spread out around him in a perfect circle like he was bleeding the stuff, and he threw back his head while he panted like a wounded animal.
Holy shit. What in the hell was she looking at here? Before she could answer that question the mystery guy hopped up from the ground like his ass was on fire. And made a beeline straight for her. May the goddess forgive her … she stood there like an idiot and just watched him advance.
Time seemed to slow and she saw the whole damned thing as though she were nothing more than a spectator. Water splashed out from beneath his feet, his head tucked down as he ran. He hit her in a football tackle, shoulder to her stomach, arms wrapped tight around her waist. It barely registered when he spun, cradling her against his chest as he took the brunt of the fall. Shit, she was dazed out already by the power the guy was throwing off. Forget keeping her balance. Her eyes opened slowly after impact, her lids dragging across her eyeballs, which felt as though they were floating around in her skull. She met his gaze nose to nose, his bright green eyes boring into her with an intensity that stole her breath.
“Protect. You. Naya,” he gasped before losing consciousness right on top of her.
Copyright © 2015 by Kate Baxter
Excerpt from The Dark Vampire copyright © 2016 by Kate Baxter