THE RINGING OF THE PHONE JERKED ME FROM MY sleep. I clawed my eyes open and rolled off my bed. For some reason, someone had moved the floor several feet lower than I had expected, and I fell and crashed with a thud.
A blond head popped over the side of the bed, and a familiar male voice asked, "Are you okay down there?"
Curran. The Beast Lord was in my bed. No, wait a minute. I didn't have a bed, because my insane aunt had destroyed my apartment. I was mated to the Beast Lord, which meant I was in the Keep, in Curran's rooms, and in his bed. Our bed. Which was four feet high. Right.
"Would you like me to install one of those child playground slides for you?"
I flipped him off and picked up the phone. "Yes?"
"Good morning, Consort," a female voice said.
Consort? That was new. Usually the shapeshifters called me Alpha or Lady, and occasionally Mate. Being called Mate ranked somewhere between drinking sour milk and getting a root canal on my list of Things I Hated, so most people had learned to avoid that one.
"I have Assistant Principal Parker on the line. He says it's urgent."
Julie. "I'll take it."
Julie was my ward. Nine months ago she "hired" me to find her missing mother. We found her mother's body instead, being eaten by Celtic sea demons who had decided to pop up in the middle of Atlanta and resurrect a wannabe god. It didn't go well for the demons. It didn't go well for Julie either, and I took her in, the way Greg, my now deceased guardian, had taken me in years ago, when my father passed away.
People around me died, usually in horrible and bloody ways, so I'd sent Julie to the best boarding school I could find. Trouble was, Julie hated the school with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. She'd run away three times in the past six months. The last time Assistant Principal Parker called, a girl in the school's locker room had accused Julie of being a whore during the two years she'd spent on the street. My kid took exception to that and decided to communicate that by applying a chair to the offending party's head. I'd told her to go for the gut next time--it left less evidence.
If Parker was calling, Julie was in trouble again, and since he was calling at six o'clock in the morning, that trouble had a capital T attached to it. Julie rarely did anything halfway.
Around me the room lay steeped in gloom. We were on the top floor of the Keep. To my left a window offered a view of the Pack land: an endless dark sky, still untouched by dawn, and below it dark woods rolling into the night. In the distance the half-ruined city stained the horizon. The magic was in full swing--we were lucky it hadn't taken out the phone lines--and the distant industrial-strength feylanterns glowed like tiny blue stars among the crumbling buildings. A ward shielded the window, and when the moonlight hit it just right, the entire scene shimmered with pale silver, as if hidden behind a translucent gauzy curtain.
The female voice came back online. "Consort?"
"He put me on hold."
"So he calls because it's urgent and puts you on hold?"
"Should I hang up?" she asked.
"No, it's okay. I'll hold."
The world's pulse skipped a beat. The ward guarding the window vanished. Something buzzed in the wall and the electric floor lamp on the left blinked and snapped into life, illuminating the night table with a warm yellow glow. I reached over and turned it off.
In the distance, the blue feylantern stars winked out of existence. For a breath, the city was dark. A bright flash sparked with white among the ruins, blossoming into an explosion of light and fire. A moment later a thunderclap rolled through the night. Probably a transformer exploding after the magic wave receded. A weak red glow illuminated the horizon. You'd think it was the sunrise, but the last time I'd checked, the sun rose in the east, not the southwest. I squinted at the red light. Yep, Atlanta was burning. Again.
Magic had drained from the world and technology had once again gained the upper hand. People called it the post-Shift resonance. Magic came and went as it pleased, flooding the world like a tsunami, dragging bizarre monsters into our reality, stalling engines, jamming guns, eating tall buildings, and vanishing again without warning. Nobody knew when it would assault us or how long each wave would last. Eventually magic would win this war, but for now technology was putting up a hell of a fight, and we were stuck in the middle of the chaos, struggling to rebuild a half-ruined world according to new rules.
The phone clicked and Parker's baritone filled my ear. "Good morning, Ms. Daniels. I'm calling to inform you that Julie has left our premises."
Curran's arms closed around me and he hugged me to him. I leaned back against him. "How?"
"She mailed herself."
Parker cleared his throat. "As you know, all of our students are required to perform two hours of school service a day. Julie worked in the mail room. We viewed it as the best location, because she was under near-constant supervision and had no opportunities to leave the building. Apparently, she obtained a large crate, falsified a shipping label, and mailed herself inside it."
Curran chuckled into my ear.
I turned and bumped my head against his chest a few times. It was the nearest hard surface.
"We found the crate near the ley line."
Well, at least she was smart enough to get out of the crate before it was pushed into the magic current. With my luck, she'd end up getting shipped to Cape Horn.
"She'll come back here," I said. "I'll bring her back in a couple of days."
Parker pronounced the words very carefully. "That won't be necessary."
"What do you mean, not necessary?"
He sighed. "Ms. Daniels, we are educators. We're not prison guards. In the past school year Julie has run away three times. She's a very intelligent child, very inventive, and it's painfully obvious that she doesn't want to be here. Nothing short of shackling her to the wall will keep her on our premises, and I'm not convinced that even that would work. I spoke to her after her previous caper, and it's my opinion that she will continue to run away. She doesn't want to be a part of this school. Keeping her here against her will requires a significant expenditure of our resources, and we can't afford to be held liable for any injuries Julie may incur in these escape attempts. We're refunding the remainder of her tuition. I'm very sorry."
If I could reach through the phone, I'd strangle him. On second thought, if I had that type of psychic power, I might pluck Julie from wherever she was instead and drop her in the middle of the room. She would be begging to go back to that bloody school by the time I was done. Parker cleared his throat again. "I have a list of alternative educational institutions I can recommend to you ..."