Authors: Kate Baxter
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For my mom who instilled in me both a love of reading and fantasy.
Tons of love to my family, who continue to put up with me while I eat, sleep, drink, and breathe words. Thanks to my agent of awesomeness, Natanya Wheeler, and everyone at NYLA, and to my a-ma-zing editor, Monique Patterson, who has made my writing so much better in the past year that it's almost unrecognizable. Thanks also to Alexandra Sehulster and the awesome cover designers, copy editors, proofreaders, marketers, and publicity people at St. Martin's Press. You guys are the best! A shout-out to my friend and awesome beta reader, Chelsea Mueller, and to the Writer Chicks for being there when I need you. As always, any mistakes are my own, and to anyone I might have missed, you know who you are and what you mean to me.
The creature that had once been a woman was standing out in the rain for shit's sake. Her face, tipped up toward the heavensâblasphemy. 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 flinchâshe was already in the grip of something too powerful for even a force of nature to interruptâher 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.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“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.
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.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
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 suffocationâof helpless imprisonmentâthat 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. Magicâmalicious magicâcorrupted 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 unemploymentÂ â¦ 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
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
. 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.