I spun the spear. "One more argument and I'll ground you."
Julie rolled her eyes with all the scorn a fourteen-year-old could muster and pushed her blond hair away from her face. "Kate, like when will I ever use this in real life?"
"You'll use it in the next five seconds to keep me from impaling you."
In my twenty-six years, I've held many jobs. Teaching wasn't one of them. Mostly I killed people in bloody and creative ways. But Julie was my ward and my responsibility, and practicing with a spear was good for her. It built muscle, reflexes, and balance, and she would need all three when we moved on to the sword.
Several decades ago magic returned to our world, crushing our technological civilization and whatever illusion of safety we had with it. Magic and technology still fought over us, playing with the planet like two kids tossing a ball to each other. When one functioned, the other didn't.
The cops did the best they could, but half of the time the phones didn't work and all available officers responded to important emergencies, like saving schoolchildren from a flock of ravenous harpies. Meanwhile, with resources scarce and life cheap, people did a fine job preying on each other. Smart citizens didn't go out at night. If the lowlifes didn't get you, the magic aberrations with giant teeth would.
Every person was responsible for his or her own safety, and we relied on magic, guns, and blades. Julie's magic was rare, and highly prized, but useless in combat. Seeing the colors of magic wouldn't help her to kill a vampire. My best friend, Andrea, was teaching her to handle guns. I couldn't hit an elephant with a gun at ten feet, although I could probably bludgeon it to death. Melee weapons, those I could teach.
I struck at Julie's midsection, moving slow like molasses. She rotated her spear like an oar and slapped mine, knocking it down.
She gave me a completely blank look. Most of the time Julie took practice seriously, but on days like this some switch malfunctioned in her head, disconnecting her brain from her body. There was probably some way to snap her out of it, some right "mom" words I could say, but I had found Julie about a year ago on the street and the whole parent thing was still new to me. My mother died before I could form any memories of her, so I didn't have any experience to fall back on.
To make things worse, I'd used magic to save Julie's life. She couldn't refuse a direct order from me, although she didn't know it and I was determined to keep it that way. I'd slipped up a few times and learned that intonation had a lot to do with it. As long as I gave her instructions instead of barking commands at her, she had no problem ignoring me.
Around us the Pack woods teemed with life. The afternoon sun shone bright. Leaves rustled in the breeze. Squirrels dashed to and fro on the branches, completely undeterred by several hundred werecarnivores living next door. In the distance the faint sound of chainsaws rumbled-the narrow road leading to the Keep was in danger of becoming impassable and a team of shapeshifters had been dispatched this morning to cut down some of the trees.
A yellow butterfly floated up. Julie watched it.
I pulled my spear back, reversed it, and stabbed her in the left shoulder with the butt.
I sighed. "Pay attention, please."
Julie made a face. "My arm hurts."
"Then you better block me, so I don't make something else hurt."
"This is child abuse."
"You're whining. We're doing oar block."
I spun the spear business end forward and stabbed at her again, in slow motion. Julie pinned my spear with hers and stayed there.
"Don't just sit there with your spear. You have an opening, might want to do something about it."
She raised her spear and made a halfhearted attempt to stab me in the chest. I gave her a second to recover, but she didn't move. That was it. I'd had it.
I turned the spear and swept her legs from under her. She fell on her back and I drove the spear into the ground a couple of inches from her neck. She blinked, pale blond hair fanned out wide from her head.
"What's your deal today?"
"Kevin asked Maddie to the Moon Dance."
Maddie, a werebear, was Julie's best friend. The Moon Dance was the Pack's way of letting the teenagers blow off steam-every other Friday evening, provided the magic was down, the shapeshifters hauled the speakers out and blasted dance music from the Keep's battlements. Being invited to the Moon Dance by a boy was understandably a big deal. It still didn't explain why two months of lessons and spear practice had vanished from my ward's head.
"I'm supposed to help pick the outfit for tomorrow," Julie said, lying there like a slug.
"And this is more important than practice?"
I pulled my spear out. "Fine. Go do your thing. You'll owe me an hour on Saturday." No force on the planet could make her concentrate when she got like this, so making her practice was a waste of time anyway.
The slug-child turned into a nimble gazelle and sprang to her feet. "Thank you!"
We headed out of the woods. The world blinked for a second and a tide of magic splashed us, drowning the woods. The chainsaws sputtered and died, followed by loud cursing.
The official name for the phenomenon was post-Shift resonance, but everyone referred to it as magic waves. They'd come out of nowhere and roll across the world, snuffing out electricity, killing internal combustion engines, strangling guns, and spitting out monsters. Then the magic would vanish, the electric lights came on, and firearms once again became deadly. Nobody could predict how strong a wave would be or how long it would last. It made for a chaotic life, but we persevered.
The trees parted, revealing a vast grassy field. In the middle of it the Keep rose like a gray man-made mountain, an example of what happened if several hundred deeply paranoid and superhumanly strong people got together and decided they needed a safe place to crash. From one angle, the Keep resembled a modern fortress, from another, a medieval castle. We approached from the north, which gave us a view of the main tower, and from here the place looked like a grim, foreboding high-rise, complete with a penthouse, where Curran and I made our lair.
It wasn't always this way. We hadn't started out by looking at each other and instantly deciding we were soul mates. When we met, he thought I was a reckless merc who defied authority because I felt like it, and I thought he was an arrogant bastard who had enough issues to fill the Keep from top to bottom. But now we were together. He was the Beast Lord and I was his Consort, which put me in a position of authority over fifteen hundred shapeshifters, the largest pack in the South. I didn't want the responsibility, and given the choice, I would run as far as I could away from it, but it was the price I had to pay to stay with Curran. I loved him and he was worth it. He was worth everything.