Blood Heir (Aurelia Ryder # 1) by Ilona Andrews



1





The moon was full and silver. It peeked at me through tattered clouds as I rode my horse down the old I-20, staying in the center of the highway. Magic had been chewing on the edges of paved roads for decades, and the asphalt near the shoulder often crumbled under the weight of a horse.

Nothing to see here, moon. Just a lone woman in a tattered cloak riding her horse into her home city after being gone for far too long.

Around me dense pines towered on both sides of the once busy highway. Glowing eyes watched Tulip and me from the darkness between the roots and branches, yellow for racoon, white for deer, green for foxes, electric red arranged into a triangle for hell alone knew what. The forest critters gave me the stink eye but kept to themselves.

The trees stopped abruptly, replaced by fields wrapped in razor wire. A sign loomed ahead.

WELCOME TO ATLANTA

We’re Glad Georgia Is on Your Mind





A bit optimistic of them.

Below someone had scribbled in white ink.

“Praise the Lord and get the fireballs ready.”





That was more like it.

A dark shape swooped above my head. The moonlight slipped over it, dancing on its feathers, and then it soared into the endless indigo of the sky. Like most eagles, Turgan didn’t like to fly at night, but something must’ve unsettled my raptor. He’d taken off the moment we left the ley line and refused to land on his perch on my shoulder.

Another sign jutted into the night.

ALL VISITING SHAPESHIFTERS

Present to the Pack in 24 hours

Take I-85, head northeast, follow your nose.





Twenty-four hours? When I left eight years ago, foreign shapeshifters had three days to introduce themselves to the Pack. Times had changed.

A high, eerie howl floated up to the clouds on the night breeze. Not a shapeshifter. Just some garden-variety monstrosity venting to the moon. Too far to worry about. Tulip flicked her ears and kept going.

Shapeshifters were a paranoid, suspicious breed. Lyc-V, the symbiotic virus that gave them the ability to change into animals, came bearing many gifts. Some, like enhanced strength, speed, and senses, were beneficial. Others, not so much.

Those who changed shape lived lives of discipline and self-control. The other way lay loupism, a catastrophic plunge into hormone-addled hell that turned shapeshifters into sadistic spree killers. Loupism had no cure, except for a blade to the neck or a bullet to the brain.

Shapeshifters required the kind of structure that regular society could no longer deliver. They set themselves apart in packs, and the rest of the population, acutely aware that each shapeshifter was a spree killer in waiting, was happy to let them govern themselves.

Of all the shapeshifter packs active in the continental US, Atlanta’s Free People of the Code were the largest and by far the strongest. Most packs rarely reached over a hundred members. Atlanta’s Pack counted nearly three thousand shapeshifters and seven different clans, defined by their animal forms and unified under the rule of a Beast Lord. It was so large, that it was known simply as the Pack. Only the Ice Fury Pack in Alaska was larger.

A long time ago, I was one of the rare humans who were considered members of the Pack. I had lived in the Keep, the massive shapeshifter fortress northeast of the city. All my friends had grown fur and claws. Back then, the Pack had had a different Beast Lord, and he’d treated me like his younger sister.

The fields ended, and ruins began. I adjusted the weight of the spear in the sheath on my back, nudged Tulip, and she picked up speed. I had a morning appointment to keep on short notice.

The highway narrowed. We took an exit to the left onto Basilisk Road and followed it as it looped northeast, climbing through the exposed corpses of once tall apartment high-rises.

Magic hated technology. It came in waves, flooding the world, snuffing out electric lights and gasoline engines, chewing on skyscrapers, and spawning monsters. Then, as unpredictably as it appeared, the wave would wane, and technology once again came out on top. Spells fizzled, and guns once again spat bullets.

The taller the building, the harder magic gnawed on it. Most skyscrapers and office towers had fallen long ago. A lot of the overpasses had crumbled to dust or collapsed. The old skyline was but a distant memory.

In its wake, new buildings sprung up, built by craftsmen mostly by hand to minimize magic erosion. Here and there, the new structures hugged the road, solid homes and offices with thick walls, strong doors, and narrow windows guarded by steel bars. The soft yellow glow of electric lights fought with the gloom. The magic was down now. If it had been up, some of the grates on the windows would shine with silver and the blue radiance of fey lanterns would replace the electric bulbs.