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 Magic Unchained

Nightkeepers 7

Jessica Andersen

This book is dedicated to Paula R. Happy birthday to a dear friend, fan, teacher, poet, and occasional lead foot. This one’s for you!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for a handsome daredevil, especially one with a soft spot for animals. Enter Sven, a former wreck-diving, hard-partying adrenaline junkie who has become the Nightkeepers’ best tracker, thanks to his coyote familiar, Mac. Sven is a loner, though, a wanderer who, sharklike, suffocates if he’s in one place for too long. And Cara Liu, who’s known him all her life and loved him just as long, knows he won’t always be there when she needs him… so she’s learned not to need him. Or anyone, really—she’s a powerful leader in her own right, and does just fine on her own. So when the two of them are thrown together in the final months before the doomsday war, and tasked with turning four dozen former rebels into a magic-wielding army, fur flies.

Please join me now as Sven and Cara snarl and snap, and try not to fall for each other all over again while the doomsday clock counts down, friends turn against friends, and the promise of a powerful ally means cheating death itself.

To explore the Nightkeepers’ online world and sign up for my newsletter, please visit www.JessicaAndersen.com. Also, please become a fan on Facebook to get a look at my oh so Freudian typos and other authorial misadventures!

My heartfelt thanks go to Deidre Knight, Claire Zion, Kara Welsh, and Kerry Donovan, and others too numerous to name for helping me bring these books to life; to J. R. Ward for being my sounding board; and to my family, friends, and many e-friends for always being there for a laugh or (cyber)hug. And most of all to my husband, Greg, for showing me that soul mates, spontaneous combustion, and true love do exist, and that they’re so very worth waiting for.

Finally, thank you, dear reader, for picking up Sven and Cara’s story. I hope you love it as much as I do— this one is very special to me.

Jessica (aka Doc Jess)

CHAPTER ONE

September 10

T-minus three months and

eleven days to the foretold doomsday

Skywatch

Near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Cara Liu figured it didn’t matter whether it was a Catholic mass or a bloodletting ritual; funerals just flat-out sucked. More, the grief of losing Aaron—who had been a good guy, always ready with a laugh, a beer, or an ass kicking, depending on the situation—came with an equal amount of fear, because the men and women gathered around the pyre knew damn well that it could’ve been any one of them.

Aaron might’ve been the first winikin to lose his life fighting alongside the Nightkeepers, but it was a sure bet he wouldn’t be the last. With the earth’s magic-wielding guardians decimated and the end-time approaching fast, their new leader, Mendez, hadn’t had a choice. Within a month of Cara’s persuading fifty rebellious winikin to return to the training compound that they and their parents had fled nearly three decades earlier, Dez had “promoted” the traditional servants on to Nightkeeper-led fighting teams and put them through a crash course in killing demons and protecting their own asses, roughly in that order.

Sure, the winikin had voted in favor of fighting… but given that the alternative was an apocalypse that would turn mankind into an undead army, what other choice was there?

As the last of them passed by the pyre, thunder grumbled in the distance, warning that the darkening horizon meant business. It had been a dry desert summer, but it looked like the autumn rains were coming sooner rather than later.

Like now.

“That’s just freaking great,” Cara muttered to nobody in particular, using irritation to blunt the knowledge that Aaron wouldn’t be dead if it hadn’t been for her. She had tracked him to a small town in upstate New York, where he’d been teaching high school English and coaching basketball, and she’d persuaded him to come to New Mexico. The world needs you, she’d said. And now, nine months later, he was dead, killed down in central Mexico when it had turned out that the extermination team hadn’t taken care of all of the infected villagers after all. There had been one left, and it had gotten Aaron before any of the others had had a chance to react.

When Cara’s eyes prickled, she scrubbed at them on the pretext of shoving her black, skunk-striped hair out of her face. She stood apart from the others, halfway up a flight of stone steps that led from the packed earth of the ball court. Wearing slim black pants and a matching blazer punked out with chains and zippers, with her weapons belt conspicuously absent in deference to the ritual, she thought—hoped—she looked calm, controlled, and capable. Nobody else needed to know that her insides were churning with anger and grief, along with the unease that had been dogging her for days now, weeks.

Don’t think about it, she told herself. It’s nothing.

Only it didn’t feel like nothing.

If she had been a true Nightkeeper, she would’ve thought it was prescience, a foretelling of some dire threat. She was a winikin, though, which meant that the nerves were probably just nerves, brought on by the knowledge that the zero date was almost on top of them and her people weren’t the united force they needed to be. Far from it, in fact.

Don’t think about it, she repeated inwardly, and forced herself to look at the intricately tied funerary bundle that rested atop the pyre. But it was like trying not to think about a big white wolf, because the moment she thought it, boom, there the big furry bastard was, smack in the middle of her brain, along with all the other stuff she was trying to ignore. It wasn’t like she was playing ostrich, either. In fact, she was emulating the Nightkeeper warriors and their ability to prioritize their goals and put the needs of the many over those of the few, even if those few were teammates or even their families and loved ones.

Love… Now, there was a concept. As was family.

She glanced over at her father, Carlos, who was a stocky bull of an ex-rancher in his fifties. His hair was silver-shot and his face was showing its age now, where before he’d looked a good decade younger than his calendar years. As she gazed at him, his shoulders went suddenly very square beneath his dark suit jacket, letting her know he’d caught her look, though he didn’t respond, didn’t even meet her eyes. The fiercest of the traditionalists, he hadn’t forgiven her for leaving Skywatch in the first place, never mind everything that had happened since circumstances had forced her to return.

Jamming her hands in her jacket pockets, she rocked back on the worn heels of her black cowboy boots. Holdovers from her old life in Montana, they were as much a comfort to her as chocolate might be to another woman. They reminded her of green meadows, endless gallops, and family dinners, all long gone.

She sighed and glanced again at the horizon. “The winds are changing,” she said, pitching her voice so it would carry to her second in command, who stood below her on the ball court.

Zane nodded without taking his eyes off the pyre. “We should move this along if we want to beat the rain.” The ex-marine was at parade rest, though she wasn’t sure whether he was standing guard, awaiting orders, or a

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