Brady’s favorite gay nightclub was Dionysus because the majority of the regulars were not magically inclined. It wasn’t as though witches weren’t allowed in nonmagical clubs; it was more that witches tended to hang out in their own clubs, where magic was to be found everywhere. In witch-only clubs, magic was in the music that took on psychedelic colors in lieu of the ordinary disco ball, and in the trays full of refreshments that floated above the dancers’ heads. It was in the familiar-themed wildlife that accompanied hordes of witches out on the town, and in the drinks that had decidedly magical properties, properties that nonwitches were ill-equipped to handle.
Brady avoided those clubs because he’d be the only witch of his age there without a license, and it wasn’t like he’d be allowed to enter unlicensed. Even if he was allowed in on the off chance that the bouncer sympathized with him, his odds of finding another witch willing to sleep with him were nonexistent, given his dearth of accomplishments and his inability to cast magic in public. He’d never impress a fellow witch into making out, much less having sex.
But here, at Dionysus, nobody had to know he was a witch. And even if they did know, his status as an unlicensed witch wouldn’t bar him from entry or signify a status so low on the magical food chain that people would fabricate unrealistic excuses to escape him and his unwanted flirtations. At Dionysus, he could be just another person.
The club was blasting Lady Gaga remixes at the volume of a sonic boom, and even though it made Brady’s eardrums pop, he managed to wade through the throng of gyrating bodies to the bar. His ass got groped at least five times on the way there, which he ignored, because it wasn’t like anyone genuinely wanted him, skinny and excessively twinky as he was. They were just drunk enough to grope a random passing ass, and maybe, just maybe, he’d pick up a hottie drunk enough to fuck
a passing ass.
It was a depressing realization, that mindless objectification was the most he could ever expect from a sexual partner, but he was accustomed to one-night stands, even if they were woefully far apart. Brady usually couldn’t afford to buy anybody—including himself—a drink. Which meant that club hopping was reserved for approximately every tenth Saturday, and so was getting laid.
Luckily, after only fifteen minutes of drinking idly at the bar, a hunk in a plaid shirt and baggy jeans approached him. Brady perked up. He cast about for a moderately clever pickup line, but before he could so much as speak, there was an uproar on the dance floor. There were a few isolated shrieks as the bouncer shouted a warning from the entrance. Both Brady and the hunk whirled around in surprise, momentarily distracted from each other.
“Familiar on the loose!” yelled the bouncer, and Brady wondered which irresponsible witch had misplaced their familiar in a nightclub, of all places—particularly a nonmagical nightclub. How careless. Brady squinted into the strobe-lit haze, curious about what sort of familiar could engender such panic among the club’s clientele. It must be spectacular.
Spectacular or not, the familiar was evidently terrifying. There was an alarmed scuffle on the dance floor, a frenzied commotion that ended with people tripping all over themselves to get out of the way of something—something that carved a path through the crowd like a shark’s fin through a shoal of fish, something dark and velveteen and glossy, something ink-black and graceful, almost liquid, all rolling haunches and gleaming fur and golden, burning
“Malachai?” Brady squeaked, disbelieving. It was undoubtedly Malachai, but a huge version of Malachai. A very, very huge version of Malachai. It was like Malachai the cat had been Version 1.0, and this was…Version 1,000,000. It was as if everything that was Malachai had been dialed up to the max. That swinging tail was as thick as an anchor’s rope. Those were the sleek, rippling muscles of a predator, pouring into each loping stride like honey on honey, slow and strangely sensual. That was Malachai’s commanding presence, multiplied tenfold and transformed into a casual, almost idle menace. Heck, those paws alone were bigger than a human’s face.
This wasn’t a tame house cat. It was a panther.
Brady collapsed onto a barstool, his knees weak.
Who the fuck had a panther as a familiar? Even the president of the United States, who happened to be a witch, had a lynx. And that was considered special.
If that was special, then what was this?
“M-Malachai,” Brady stammered, his brain running a couple of steps behind what was transpiring, scrambling to assemble the puzzle pieces into a picture that was remotely rational “When did you— How are you— Did you take a Captain America serum or what?”
“Or what,” Malachai said blandly. He surveyed Brady’s skimpy nightclub outfit—the mesh shirt and tight pants—just as he had back in the apartment before Brady had gone out. Malachai’s gaze was unreadable. “We’re leaving.”
“Whoa,” said the hunk from before, and Brady startled, abruptly reminded of where he was and why he was here. “So you’re a witch? Must be a helluva witch, with a familiar like that. If you like, maybe we could grab some drinks, and you could tell me all about it? Or maybe we could—”
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me,” Malachai drawled silkily, baring his fangs. His long, dagger-sharp, glinting fangs. “We’re. Leaving.”
The poor guy meeped. Actually, literally meeped. And fled.
“Hey,” Brady protested faintly, still awestruck by how colossal Malachai was. “I’m not done here.”
“You’re done,” Malachai said decisively, flexing a paw until talons worthy of a B-grade horror movie sprouted from it. Was that a threat? “Trust me.”
not done explaining yourself, Mister.” Brady was utterly stumped. “Why are you not you?”
“I am always me,” Malachai said, turning and heading for the exit, and Brady tagged along like an errant schoolboy after a stern schoolmaster.
“Not right now, you aren’t.”
“Yes, I am.” They were out of the nightclub now, a short walk away from their apartment. “I can shape-shift.”
“Familiars can’t shift.”
Brady stopped dead in his tracks. The magnitude of that announcement rang within him like a gong. The cool night breeze made him shiver in his thin mesh shirt, but it wasn’t until Malachai had almost disappeared around a corner that Brady stumbled after him, mind reeling. “Hey, wait. What?”
“Think about it,” Malachai instructed. “Figure the ‘what’ out yourself.”
“Panther or cat, you’re still a pain in the—”
So Brady thought. He was amazed that he was still capable of thought, after seeing his beloved familiar quadruple in size like a bodybuilder on steroids. A feline bodybuilder.
Okay, then. Thinking. Brady was doing it. He was totally doing it.
And this was where his thinking led.
Only…only guardians could shape-shift. The guardians were not beasts but gods, ancient deities of magical protection that had once created the lesser beings known as familiars. They’d given those familiars to the human race to help humans channel magic, much like the mythical Prometheus had given fire to mankind.
Witches almost never had guardians; they had familiars. The last witch to have won a guardian’s favor was born four hundred years ago.
Four centuries. Four centuries
, and Brady was the best Malachai could do?