The Witchkin Murders
Magicfall Book 1
by Diana Pharaoh Francis
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance
Four years ago, my world—the world—exploded with wild magic. The cherry on top of that crap cake? The supernatural world declared war on humans, and my life went straight to hell.
I used to be a detective, and a damned good one. Then Magicfall happened, and I changed along with the world. I’m witchkin now—something more than human or not quite human, depending on your perspective. To survive, I’ve become a scavenger, searching abandoned houses and stores for the everyday luxuries in short supply—tampons and peanut butter. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, but anything’s better than risking my secret.
Except, old habits die hard. When I discover a murder scene screaming with signs of black magic ritual, I know my days of hiding are over. Any chance I had of escaping my past with my secret intact is gone. Solving the witchkin murders is going to be the hardest case of my life, and not just because every second will torture me with reminders of how much I miss my old life and my partner, who hates my guts for abandoning the department.
But it’s time to suck it up, because if I screw this up, Portland will be wiped out, and I’m not going to let that happen. Hold on to your butts, Portland. Justice is coming, and I don’t take prisoners.
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THE SCAVENGE HAD proved more successful than Kayla had expected, and she’d expected a lot. She’d come away with a treasure trove of difficult-to-find foods and spices, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, tampons and pads which brought a premium price, and most important of all, two cartons of cigarettes, three jars of peanut butter, and a stockpile of Mountain Dew, the latter of which she’d have to get later. She was already practically bent double with the weight of the backpack without the soda. It was too bad about the Skittles, but this was a good haul.
Going up into The Deadwood offered the chance to mine houses that hadn’t already been picked over by a hundred other scavengers. Mostly because the rest of them liked breathing and so stayed away. Kayla wasn’t so burdened with common sense. That, and she carried a gun, several knives, and a couple of magical taser charms. Not to mention she was pretty decent at hand-to-hand. Leftover habits and skills from her life as a cop. She could more than take care of herself against people hiding in dark alleys.
Of course, The Deadwood was filled with a lot more dangerous beings than the ordinary street scum that preyed on pedestrians back before Magicfall. Before the Witchwar. Before the whole world had turned inside out and all the monsters in the closets and under the beds came crawling out of hiding. Back when Kayla was just an ordinary human.
The Witchwar exploded within days of Magicfall—a worldwide eruption of magic that birthed The Deadwood, changed Kayla, and set off an untold number of other bizarre transformations straight out of fairytales and hallucinogenic nightmares. The entire world had been engulfed.
Right smack in the middle of all the chaos, witches leading armies of supernatural warriors and creatures out of myth, legend, and nightmare marched against the human cities that had survived. Humans were like termites eating up the world. They needed to be eradicated like roaches.
The war had gone on for a year or so when the attacks on the cities stopped. It still wasn’t clear why. Maybe they figured enough humans had died, or maybe they figured out humans aren’t so easy to kill. Over the last couple of years, an uneasy truce had developed between humans and witchkin. Turns out, we needed each other.
Kayla hitched the backpack higher, bending forward to help balance it. Her lips twisted in self-ridicule. How the mighty had fallen. From cop to scavenger. Before the shit had hit the fan, she’d been a detective, a damned good one. Then she’d been infected with magic and game over. Bye bye career, friends, and, worst of all, Ray.
A familiar ache bloomed in her chest. She missed him every day, even after everything he’d said, everything he’d called her, when she quit.
Back then she’d had zero control over herself. Not that she’d improved much since. But quitting the department had been a no-brainer. With the Witchwar and hatred of the supernaturals, she’d have either been lynched when it got out, or else locked up in a zoo somewhere.
Leaving had been the right decision. The only decision. Regretting it didn’t change that. And Kayla regretted it with all the fabric of her being.
She pulled her mind from the quagmire of memories and what-ifs that circled her like sharks, chomping down whenever she didn’t keep her mind on task. Focus, she told herself. Forget about who you were before. Staying alive today is all that counts.
The Deadwood lay west of downtown Portland inside the neighborhood that used to be Goose Hollow and extending into the Southwest Hills and Washington Park. When the magic had struck, a sinister black forest had grown up in the blink of an eye. The twisted, gnarled trees grew taller than the houses, and were spaced far enough apart to allow a lot of the buildings to survive. Possessive nettles and vines swayed and wriggled from the trees, growing over most of the houses. The blowtorch hooked to Kayla’s belt had convinced them to withdraw and allow her access.
Within the shadowed gloom of The Deadwood, hundreds of denizens lived and hunted. All too often, folks who wandered too close disappeared, never to be heard from again. So people—human and not—avoided the place, which suited Kayla just fine. The untouched houses made the forest a scavenger paradise. If you could stay alive long enough to get out with your haul.
Since Magicfall and then the Witchwar, so many of the comforts of everyday American life had stopped getting made. Sure, the metal infrastructure of the cities had protected them from complete transformation and given birth to the technomages who worked with all sorts of technology, which meant industry could still function. But shipping proved supremely expensive and dangerous, so anything the locals needed either had to be made in Portland, or it had to be scavenged.
Tampons were popular. And chocolate. A lot of foods, really. Jeans, too. And silk. Some enterprising entrepreneur had started a toilet paper factory on the east side, so that wasn’t much in demand anymore, but pots and pans were. Medications, cosmetics, spices, CDs and DVDs, olive oil, guns, ammunition, bows, arrows, toys . . . anything that couldn’t be obtained without a lot of money or magic.
Most people didn’t like going to Spider Island—over where the Willamette had expanded into a giant lake covering West Linn and Oregon City—to buy magic. That’s where witches and other supernaturals had set up a bazaar to sell their skills and wares. Humans called it Nuketown, since they’d have liked to nuke the place.
Humans had a love/hate relationship with magic. They liked the benefits, but feared the dangers, not to mention all the mythological creatures besides witches that had crawled out of the woodwork after Magicfall.
They counted the technomages as good guys since they’d fought on the human side in the war and because mages made most electronics work again. People still couldn’t live without their cell phones and video games, and it was damned nice to still have working modern hospitals and refrigerators.
Unlike witches, technomages had hard limits to their powers. They worked with industrial magic and couldn’t heal or make charms or anything separate from wire, steel, electricity, and computers—or what computers had turned in to, which was an amorphous semi-sentient cloud of information the technomages called The Oracle. Every big city had birthed one. The mages were working on getting them to talk to each other like the old internet.
That made Nuketown necessary and despised all at once. Most humans only went there when desperate, usually preferring to buy from middlemen, a service that Nessa—Kayla’s usual buyer for salvage—often performed. A few went for the thrill.
Kayla hitched the pack higher again and dodged around a glass bush. It chimed in the light breeze. It marked the edge of The Deadwood and the return to civilization. She climbed up a bank to the road, using the thick, wiry grass to help pull herself up.
The asphalt had buckled and cracked apart, leaving knee-deep potholes and long trenches. Portland’s ubiquitous blackberry vines crawled across the road and sprouted out of the crevices and holes. The city hadn’t gotten around to repairing this road yet. Maybe they wouldn’t, not with it so close to The Deadwood.
It took her a little over an hour to work her way back to downtown. After that, it got trickier. Fog had rolled in off the river again, smothering sound and sight. The breeze did nothing to dissipate it. Kayla could only see a few feet ahead of herself before the walls of gray nothingness closed in around her. She sighed and turned west.
The tule fogs rolled in once or twice a week. They didn’t usually last more than a day. They’d started after Magicfall and didn’t seem to coincide with any weather phenomena. It tended to settle maybe a mile wide on either side of the river. As annoying as it could be, Kayla couldn’t hate it. It had given her cover more than a few times when the transformation had taken her and she’d no way to hide.
Tonight she had no need. Her shifter form wasn’t threatening. She decided to head uphill until she was above the fog and go home for the night. She’d take her scavengings to Nessa in the morning.
A noise from the right sent the hair on the back of her neck prickling. A ring of metal, like a sword being unsheathed, and muffled movement. A loud sound and the tang of something in the air—hot, wet, stony, acrid. She recoiled as it coated the insides of her nose and mouth, feeling caustic.
Kayla’s cop genes ignited. She jerked forward a step then made herself stop and retreat. Not her circus, not anymore. She’d walked away from all that. She should leave it alone, whatever was happening.
She took a couple more steps toward home and stopped. Goddammit. Curiosity killed the cat, she told herself, then slid the pack from her shoulders, setting it down against a fire hydrant. She glanced around, seeing only cottony fog. Odds were nobody would see her pack and take it. Even if they did . . . there were always more backpacks and more stuff to scavenge.
She drew her .357 semi-auto from her hip holster. All carry laws had been suspended after Magicfall. Mostly because everybody ignored them. The blowtorch bottle bounced against her thigh as she followed the noises.
She moved cautiously, placing each foot carefully to keep from tripping or worse. She nudged up against a curb at the side of the road and stepped up onto the sidewalk. It shuddered and rippled under her feet, and she began to sink. Kayla jumped back onto the solid asphalt. Her boots stuck to the ground. She smelled the acrid stench of her rubber soles melting. Dammit. She liked these boots.
Weird spots like this one popped up all the time. They all manifested different properties and none particularly pleasant. The worst part was they could appear anywhere at any time, with no warning. Once reported, technomages would get rid of them, but finding them was usually a matter of stepping into one. Sometimes that was fatal.
She jerked her boots free from where they’d cooled and stuck to the ground, and followed the curb, listening closely. More noise came from the left. Kayla tested the sidewalk and found it solid. For now, anyway.
Taking several quick steps, she scuttled across, finding herself at the top of a flight of steps at the edge of a small park. The muted sounds of running water made her stomach drop. She’d stumbled into Keller Fountain Park.
Taking up the entire block, the ziggurat-shaped fountain for which the park was named had been constructed into the side of a steep hill. On the high side, an angular maze of wading canals channeled water over a mashed-together collection of square-topped pyramids of various heights and sizes. The blocky juts and peaks had always reminded her of an Aztec temple. The different sizes created deep chimney insets in between, some fifteen feet wide and ten feet deep, others a scant five. Water cascaded down each of the flat planes. No little fountains of neatly contained water here.
She shuddered. Her worst nightmare. Now she really should leave.
She didn’t move.
Kayla drew in a slow breath. Something was wrong here. She could feel it. Her instincts had never let her down before. She wouldn’t forgive herself if something awful happened because she was too worried about herself to check it out.
She started down the steps, listening for telltale sounds, trying to hear through the splashing of the fountains.
Guttural words—not English—spoken in a gravel-filled voice that rumbled through the air like thunder. A cadence to the language, sort of chanting, but nothing musical about it. Weighted silence, heavy and breathless. Movement. A rippling and clutching in the fog. A red glow washing outward, turning the fog bloody.
The wave of power hit Kayla like a club and sent her sprawling onto the shallow steps. The hard concrete cut into her back and legs.
She lay still a long moment, her head reeling from where she’d hit it on the cement. Perfect. Carefully she examined the sudden lump on the back of her skull with the fingers of her left hand. At least her ponytail had kept the blow from knocking her out. She still clutched her gun in her other hand. Old habits died hard.
She firmed her grip and sat up, glancing down at herself. A shiny white powder covered her clothing and the ground all around. Kayla stood, dusting herself off with one hand. The powder clung to her skin and clothing.
She licked her lips. Fine grit coated her tongue. It tasted like vinegar and something putrid. Worse than the air before the spell. She grimaced and spit. If her fall hadn’t already alerted whoever had set that spell, a little spitting wouldn’t give her away.
The sour grains clung to her mouth and then seemed to absorb into her skin. That couldn’t be good. She resisted the urge to try dusting herself off again. She didn’t need to give the stuff more opportunity to infect her, whatever it was. On the positive side, she hadn’t broken out in boils and weeping sores. That was good.
She resumed her descent to the bottom of the fountains. Gray cement platforms layered over each other like giant slices of bread stacked ten or so feet back from the angular, red fountain walls. Between, a patchwork of rectangular pools collected water.
The splashing of the fountain covered any sounds there might have been. Holding her gun ready, Kayla walked closer, heading for the central platform, knowing instinctively that it was the best place in the park to cast a spell. Her feet found the first of the stacked cement sheets. Three others were layered on the sides and in front of the base platform. She stopped again to listen, breathing silently. Still nothing.
Adrenaline thrummed through her veins. She stepped up on the left platform and then to the highest central platform. She expected to find a spell circle like the kind used by witches, but as she stepped up, she found only cement coated in a sheet of silvery-white powder.
She circled the platform, angling inward until she came to the middle. Nothing. What was she missing?
Her brows furrowed. Maybe someone had used an amulet or charm? A hex? Kayla didn’t know enough about magic to make a decent guess.
A thought struck her, and she gritted her teeth. Son of a bitch. Of course. Things couldn’t just be simple, could they?
She crossed to the edge of the platform where it jutted several feet above the catch pools and squatted down. She could only see a foot or two out into the fog. A scum of white powder floated across the top of the otherwise clear water, disguising the mortared river rock bottom.
Kayla rubbed her hand over her mouth. Was she really considering jumping in? This wasn’t her problem, and anyway, who knew what this even was? Nobody would thank her for getting involved. And if she went into the water—
She could only hold off a transformation for so long once she got wet. If she dried quickly, she could keep it from happening, but wading into water? Risky. Too fucking risky and stupid.
Kayla straightened and turned away from the water and then stopped. Instinct fought against instinct. The need to protect herself wrestled with the need to serve and protect the people of the city. Being a cop was in her DNA, and leaving the force hadn’t changed that. God, could she be any more fucked up?
Don’t tempt fate, she admonished herself. The universe never refuses that kind of challenge.
She pivoted back around. The water wasn’t deep. Mid-calf, maybe to her knees. That wasn’t so much. She could handle it, no problem.
In your dreams, came the mocking voice of reality in her head.
“No one will see with the fog,” she said out loud, her voice paper thin, but steady with purpose. Her heart, her soul, had already decided. Time for her brain to get with the program.
She gave a little hop and splashed down into the pool.
COOL WATER SPLASHED up her thighs as Kayla landed in the water. It soaked through her pants and filled her boots, settling just above her knees. At only five foot four inches, she should have expected that. The moment the water kissed her skin, she felt the transformation trying to start. She clamped down on it, bending all her will to keeping the change from happening. She couldn’t hold long. A minute. Maybe two.
Quickly she waded through the pool to the base of the waterfall. The spray from the water and fog beaded on her ball cap and bathed her face. Deep inside, she felt a quiver run through her. Crap. Not yet.
Putting all her strength of will into holding her shape, Kayla examined the waterfall in front of her. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But the sound seemed off. Uneven.
She moved through the fog inside the shallow alcove before her, only to stop cold when she came up against the wide vertical plane of the central fall, red planes of stone jutting out on either side. No water fell over it. Instead, three bodies hung pinned like specimens to the wall, the mutilated corpses arranged as part of a grisly ritual.
She’d seen everything she needed to. Now to get the hell out of the water.
Kayla backed away, flinging herself up onto one of the cement platforms. She scrabbled at her neck to draw out her necklace. On it hung an amulet. She invoked it, feeling it heat under her hand. Brilliant yellow light streamed out from between her fingers, and then desert heat washed over her. Instantly she was dry.
She waited. Sometimes the transformation was too far along and getting dry didn’t matter. The ripples inside her increased, wriggling like panicked eels. She clenched her hand on the amulet, the edges of the brass sun disk digging into her palm. She made herself breathe slowly, gritting her teeth and clenching her entire body. Please don’t shift, please don’t shift, please don’t shift.
The words tumbled over one another in her brain. She pressed down on the expanding ripples inside her. She felt the battle between what she was and what she wanted to be. But getting dry had robbed her transformation of its strength, and at last she felt a give, like shoving a car over a curb.
She lay still, panting as if she’d been running uphill in mud. Her heart slowed, and the adrenaline pounding in her veins drained away. She became aware that she was still clutching her gun and the amulet in her hands. She tucked the latter back beneath her shirt and then rolled over, rising into a crouch. Her ears strained to sort through the sounds of the rushing water.
Whoever had committed the murders she’d just discovered seemed to be gone. Her mind started rolling over her next steps to investigate, and she caught herself up short. Not her. Still not her circus.
Sighing, she stood. God but she missed the work. She’d been damned good at it, too. But if she’d stayed on the force—
Sooner or later her brothers and sisters in blue would have found out and then the shit would have hit the fan. Big time.
The brass would have kicked her out on her ass, and her fellow cops would either have despised her or felt sorry for her. That is, if they decided not to hunt her down and put a bullet in her head, all in the name of cleaning up the city.
At least she still had some dignity and self-respect, not to mention her life. She planned to keep it that way, come hell or high water. Her mouth twisted. Or any water at all. One of these days she’d get a handle on controlling the transformation and then maybe she could go back. Nobody needed to know about her little quirk, and they needed people. Word was the thin blue line was very thin these days.
But only if and when she wouldn’t transform every time it started raining.
All the same, she couldn’t help wondering—who had cast the spell? What was it for? And were they gone or lurking around?
The last question she should have asked herself before hightailing it out of the water, but she hadn’t been thinking then. All she’d wanted to do then was stop her transformation at all costs.
She shook her head. She was nearly invulnerable in her other form—at least when it came to normal weapons like guns or knives or even explosives. It would have been smarter to let it happen, as much as she hated it. The fog would have hidden her from anyone more than a few steps away. Then again, it was hiding her from anybody wanting to use her for target practice now. Of course, a witch could just blow away the fog and incinerate her where she stood, which meant she was damned lucky to still be alive.
Not wanting to push her luck, she retraced her steps back to her backpack. She didn’t need to get involved by reporting the murders. The fog would lift, someone would notice, and there’d be an investigation.
If the evidence wasn’t destroyed by then.
She bent and pulled her phone out of the strap pocket of the backpack. It was an older model—a clamshell style she’d found while scavenging. Powered by technomagic, it worked fine and was sturdier than a touchscreen phone.
She flipped it open and tapped in a number from memory. She wasn’t likely to ever forget it. Hopefully it hadn’t changed.
Ray picked up on the second ring. “Garza here.”
An ache of pain and regret flashed through Kayla. She’d missed his voice. His humor. His call-it-like-it-is attitude. Ray had been the best friend she’d ever had. She’d trusted him with her life, and he’d trusted her with his. Tears burned her eyes, and she blinked to clear them. Now was not the time. She set the pain aside to deal with later.
“Hey, Ray. Long time.”
Seconds ticked past. “Reese?”
Another silence. “What the hell do you want?”
Kayla cringed at the animosity dripping from his voice. “I got a murder for you. Three murders, actually.”
His voice shifted into cool professionalism. “Where? Who?”
“Keller Fountain, downtown. Don’t know the victims, didn’t see the perpetrator. Whoever it was seems to have fled the scene.” She paused. “Someone cast a spell. I got hit in the wash. There’s white dust everywhere. Absorbs right into the skin. No idea what it does.”
Kayla could tell by his distracted voice that he was writing notes. “How long ago?”
“Maybe fifteen minutes.”
A disgusted noise. “And it took you this long to call?”
She didn’t answer since he wasn’t really looking for one, and he wouldn’t like the one he got if she did.
“All right. I’m sending a hazmat crew to clear the scene. Where are you?”
“A little ways up Southwest Third.”
“Get back to the park. Hazmat will need to clear you, too. And Reese? Stay out of the scene, and don’t even think about disappearing before I get there.”
“I was already in the scene. Anyway, I called you,” she said. “Why would I do that if I was just going to ditch?”
“Maybe because your calling card is leaving when the going gets tough.”
He hung up before Kayla could respond. She glared at her phone. Asshole. What the hell did he know? He had no idea what it had done to her to quit the force, to quit their partnership. Being a cop had meant her entire life.
She tried to ignore the hurt that dug into her with sharp barbs, but tears burned in her eyes. To be fair, he didn’t know because she hadn’t told him, but he hadn’t trusted that she’d had a good reason, either.
She grabbed her pack and carried it across the street to Keller Auditorium. The fog made it impossible to see more than a foot or two ahead of her, and she nearly ran into one of the slender white pillars holding up the high portico in front of the building. She dropped her pack against its base and found herself pacing around it as she waited for the hazmat team and Ray to show up.
Did she really want to do this? See Ray? Get in the middle of an investigation? Just talking to her old partner had opened a vault of painful memories and regrets. Seeing him face-to-face was going to be infinitely worse.
As the minutes passed, it was all she could do to not walk away. Only her unwillingness to fulfill Ray’s bitter accusation kept her there.
Why do you even care? she asked herself. You made your choice. Be a big girl and deal with it.
Even with the stern pep talk, the siren signaling the arrival of the hazmat crew twisted her stomach into a knot. Then another thought occurred to her, sending chills running over her skin.
They’d want to wash her down. The longest she’d ever been able to stave off a transformation when totally submerged was just over a minute, which was why she no longer took showers and lived on sponge baths. Being tired, hungry, and seriously stressed would only speed the transformation if they hosed her down.
She grabbed her backpack. Not a chance. She was not gonna let that happen.
Diana Pharaoh Francis is the acclaimed author of a dozen novels of fantasy and urban fantasy. Her books have been nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award and RT’s Best Urban Fantasy. The Witchkin Murders is the first book in her exciting new urban fantasy series—Magicfall.
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