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 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.