"Got it."


The city, caught in the light and shadow web of the triumphant moon, lay empty and silent. Maybe the boy wonder would manage to keep his human skin on in the Casino. I certainly hoped so.

THE MAGIC HAD A SELECTIVE APPETITE. WHEN IT came to buildings, it gnawed on the sky scrapers first, from the top down and then it pounced on anything large, complex, and new. The Bank of America Plaza went down first, followed by the SunTrust skyscraper. One Atlantic Center, the Peachtree Plaza, even the new Coca-Cola building took a pe. The Georgia Dome crashed before the proverbial dust cleared, and the rest of the monuments to the engineering might of man raced to commit seppuku in the face of the magic onslaught. So when one day the Georgia World Congress Center rumbled, quaked like a milk tooth about to come out, and collapsed in a huge dust cloud, the locals didn't even bat an eye.

Few expected the People to purchase the lot. Nobody expected them to clear it and raise their own private Taj Mahal in the ruin's place within five years. And when the ornate doors of the magic palace opened and the public saw gleaming rows of slot machines within, well, the city that had seen everything had to stop and stare. The shock lasted only until the first fool realized he had a few bucks in his pocket. Now the Casino was just one of the seven wonders of Atlanta, sucking in the crowds eager to pay the stupid tax. Fortunately for Derek and I, it was late even by the standards of degenerate gamblers and we didn't have to fight the human currents as we closed in on Nataraja's little nest.

I've seen the Casino many times, and yet again, it caught me by surprise. Like an ethereal castle born from a mirage among the shifting desert sands, the People's HQ towered above the city. Alabaster-white in daytime, at night its walls glowed with gold and indigo, illuminated by powerful electric lamps or feylanterns.

The People had made some modifications. A total of eight slim minarets, instead of the original four, flanked the central domed building. High walls enclosed the complex, punctuated by blocky guard towers, equipped with howitzers and sorcerous ballistae. Solemn guards and occasional vampires patrolled the textured parapets. The place oozed necromantic magic.

We made our way between the brass statues of strange gods, poised above the waters of long, rectangular fountains. I recognized a few, but Hindu mythology was never my strong suit.

The largest of the statues stood in a circular fountain of its own just before the entrance. A strange figure, caught in the whirlwind of a fiery dance, balanced on one foot atop an ugly demon. Two pairs of arms protruded from its shoulders. One hand held a flame, the second beat a drum, the third pointed to the raised foot, and the fourth offered a blessing. A cosmic dancer, trampling the ignorance of the world, his body on fire, his face serene. Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance.

Derek studied the statue, as I slowed before it, and scowled at the castle. "So he named himself after a god?"


In this age it took a particular kind of nerve to take the name of a deity for yourself. Nerve was something the owner of the Casino had in abundance, but if Shiva was what he aspired to, he had a long way to go.

Nataraja served as the local lord of the People. The People styled themselves to be a new breed of human or a really old one, depending on whom you talked to. Like the Order, they had domains throughout the country, but unlike the Order, they appeared concerned with accumulating wealth to fund their research into the "mysteries of life and death," as their brochures put it. They had proficiency in a variety of both technological and magical fields; most showed a slant toward necromancy and necronavigation - the raising, studying, and caring for the dead.

The People had power in abundance. Dangerous as hell, they had raised necromancy to the level of art, demonstrating a high degree of professionalism in everything they did, which I admired. It didn't keep me from despising them.

The entrance to the Casino was open to the public. We tied our horses to the rails outside and walked in past the twin sentries wearing black cloaks over chainmail and brandishing scimitars. The scimitars had a worn look about them, the kind that originates from repeated sharpening after being dulled on something hard.

We entered the main floor. I hated casinos. The lure of easy money brought out the worst in people. The air smelled of greed, disappointment, and desperation.

Derek and I marched past the slot machines reconditioned to be run manually. Lost to the world in their concentration to feed more money into the machines, the slot players looked undead, going through the motions with the monotony of automatons. A woman won, jumping frantically as a waterfall of coins spilled, filling the receptacle of her machine. Her face, illuminated by delight, looked berserk, almost mad.

We passed the card tables, turned to a small service entrance, strode through it and found ourselves in a small room opening into a staircase. A pair of lean guards, dressed in the same garb as the sentries outside, flanked the stairs. Almost immediately, as if on cue, a woman stepped into our view.

She stood a couple of inches above five feet, about half a foot shorter than me. Her emerald green dress left no aspect of her figure to the imagination. She was neither slender nor willowy. When writers of sappy romances ranted about "glorious curves tapering to a small waist" and "soft flesh that begged to be explored," they had her in mind. All in all, her body was a far cry from my own. I wasn't jealous. My body served me fine; it was strong, resilient, and equipped with quick reflexes, which let me kill things before they killed me.

I did envy her hair. Fiery red, it fell in curls and ringlets shining with red gold all the way to her hips. Derek's face split into a first-class leer. Rowena smiled as if he had just read her a poem.

"Kate! How pleasant to see you again." Her smile could launch a spaceship into orbit. Coupled with a contralto, tinted with a soft Polish accent, that smile made men lose the last remnants of their self-respect.

I glanced at Derek. The boy wonder didn't melt into a pile of goo, although his gaze was glued to Rowena's chest. Avoiding eye contact. Good strategy.

"Sorry we're late."

"Not a problem. Please follow me."

We did, climbing the staircase up the long hallway.

"You've been here before?" Derek asked, his gaze firmly fixed on Rowena's ass shifting under the shimmering green silk a few steps above us.

"Wiggles," I told him.

He blinked, then realized I wasn't referring to Rowena's backside. "Wiggles?"

"She's about fourteen feet long, triangular head, gray and blue scales..."

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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