If that furry bastard could stop intruding on my thoughts for five seconds, I might have to dance a jig in celebration.

The rakshasas had made a pact with Roland, the People’s leader and my biological father. He provided them with weapons and in return they tried to destroy the shapeshifters. The Pack had grown too large and too powerful and Roland wanted it out of the way before it grew any larger. The rakshasas failed. If Nataraja turned out to be a rakshasa, I wouldn’t be surprised. Roland still wanted the Pack out of the way and Nataraja answered to Roland.

Maybe Nataraja had hatched some sort of a plan in retaliation, and he sent Ghastek here to me to create an appearance of propriety.

Maybe I was just getting paranoid . . .

I looked into the vampire’s eyes. “What’s the catch?”

The bloodsucker shrugged, a revolting gesture that jerked his whole body. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Should I take that as a refusal to accept the petition?”

Ghastek one, Kate zero.

“On the contrary, the Order would be delighted to accept your plea.” I pulled the petition sheet from the stack of forms. The People accumulated money to fund their research. Their extreme wealth went hand in hand with severe frugality. They were notoriously tightfisted. “The Order charges on a sliding scale, according to one’s means of income. For the impoverished, our services are free. For you, they will be shockingly expensive.”

“Money is no object.” The vampire waved his claws. “I’ve been authorized to meet your prices.”

They really wanted the Order involved. “Tell me what happened.”

“At six oh-eight a.m. two men wearing ragged trench coats approached the Casino. The shorter of the men burst into flames.”

I paused with the pen in my hand. “He burst into flames?”

“He became engulfed in fire.”

“Was his buddy made out of orange rocks and did he at any point yell, ‘It’s clobbering time’?”

The vampire heaved a sigh. It was an eerie process: it opened its mouth, bit the air, and released it in a single hissing whoosh. “I find your attempted levity inappropriate, Kate.”

“Consider me properly chastised. So what happened next?”

“The pyromancer directed a jet of flame at our building. His companion aided it by creating a strong wind, which carried the fire toward the Casino’s entrance.”

Most likely a fire mage and a wind mage. A firebug and a whistler, working together.

“The fire swept the front of the Casino, scorching the outer wall and the parapet. A team of four vampires was dispatched to deal with the issue. Their appearance caused the two intruders to shift the flames from the Casino onto the approaching vampires. The intensity of the fire proved to be higher than anticipated.”

“They took down four vampires?” That was unexpected.

The vampire nodded.

“And you let them walk away?” I couldn’t believe this.

“We did give chase. Unfortunately, the two intruders disappeared.”

I sat back. “So they appeared, sprayed some fire, and vanished. Did you receive any demands? Money, jewels, Rowena in lingerie?” Personally, I was betting on Rowena—she was the Master of the Dead who handled the Casino’s PR, and half of the city’s male population would kill to see her naked.

The vampire shook its head.

Was this a prank of some sort? If it was, it ranked right up there with dropping a toaster in your bath tub or trying to put a fire out with gasoline. “How badly did they burn the vampires?”

The vampire gagged. The muscles of its neck constricted, widened, constricted again, and it disgorged a sixinch-long metal cylinder onto my desk. The bloodsucker grasped it, twisted the cylinder’s halves apart, and retrieved a roll of papers. “Photographs,” Ghastek said, handing me a couple of sheets from the roll.

“That’s disgusting.”

“He is thirty years old,” Ghastek said. “All his internal organs, with the exception of the heart, atrophied long ago. The throat makes for a very good storage cavity. People seem to prefer it to the anus.”

Translation: be happy I didn’t pull it out of my ass. Thank the gods for small favors.

The two photographs showed two charred blistered ruins that might have been bodies at some point and now were just burned meat. In random places the undead flesh had peeled away, revealing bone.

A mage who could deliver a blast of heat intense enough to cook a vampire was worth his weight in gold. This wasn’t some two-bit firebug. This was a high-caliber pyromancer. You could count those guys on the fingers of one hand.

I held out my hand. “The m-scan, please.”

The vampire became utterly still. Many miles away, Ghastek was deep in thought.

“You have enough diagnostic equipment in the Casino to make the entirety of the Mage College giddy with joy,” I said. “If you tell me the scene wasn’t m-scanned, I’ll be very tempted to make a new storage cavity in your vampire with my saber.”

The vampire peeled another page from the roll and handed it to me. An m-scan printout, streaked with purple. Red was the color of undeath, blue was the color of human magic. Together they made the purple of the vampire. The older the vamp, the redder the signature. These four were relatively young—their residual magic registered almost violet. Two bright magenta lines sliced through the vampiric traces like twin scars. No matter how old a vampire would grow, it would never register magenta. The tint was wrong. Bloodsuckers ran to the deeper tones of purple.

But magenta still had red in it, which meant . . .

“Undead mages.” Holy shit!

“It seems so,” Ghastek said.

“How is this possible?” I was beginning to sound like a broken record. “The use of human elemental magic is directly tied to cognitive ability, which ceases to exist after death.”

The vampire shrugged again. “If I had answers, I wouldn’t be here.”

Just when I got comfortable with the rules of the game, the Universe decided it was time for a swift kick to my rear. Were-coyotes caught deadly plagues, the People asked the Order for assistance, and undead creatures used elemental magic.

“Do you have any idea who could be behind this? Any suspicions at all?”

“No.” The vampire leaned forward. A long yellow claw traced the slice of magenta across the m-scan. “But I’m dying to find out.”

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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