Outskirts of Birstall, Eastern Region
The girl sat up in her tent, her heart pounding. With trembling fingers, she pushed straggly, auburn curls away from her ears and listened to the wind rushing through the leaves.She was sure she’d heard a crackle.
She’d just begun to drift off to sleep when the sound jolted her into a state of panic.
Was it that the wind had snapped off a tree branch?
Or was it the sound of twigs being crushed under approaching footsteps?
If she hadn’t had a fight three days earlier with Jake, her boyfriend of ten months, the nighttime sounds in the woods outside her small canvas tent wouldn’t have bothered her. Built like an ox, tattooed from head to toe, and always spoiling for a fight, Jake was not a man that anyone in the squatter community dared to tangle with.
But now he was gone, and she was all alone.
She reached back to feel among her clothes and books for a flashlight. In her early twenties and broke, she was just an ordinary girl who owned nothing worth stealing. Still, she was a female, so theft was not the only reason she might be under attack.
Just as her fingers touched something smooth, cool, and cylindrical, another crackling sound made her jump.
The flashlight rolled away, out of reach.
Breathing heavily, she got on her knees and frantically patted the ground in the darkness, searching for the object. Where the hell is that light? she thought.
Maybe whoever was out there would think twice if they saw she had a light on in the tent. They’d realize she could shine the flashlight in their faces and identify them.
Or maybe she could save it for when they were close, and then suddenly shine the light in their eyes to blind them and give herself time to run.
But run to where?
Beyond the thin canvas of her tent, there was nothing but a narrow, lonely road up on a hill, and forest for miles around.
There was certainly nothing resembling law enforcement anywhere nearby, which was the attraction of these woods for people down on their luck or on the run from the authorities who found their refuge from the world here.
Tents and makeshift huts were spread out haphazardly among the trees and brush. For all she knew, she could run for an hour and not encounter a soul to help her. Or she could run for mere minutes and crash into the hovel of someone more dangerous than whoever was prowling outside.
Her mind raced. Ex-cons, wanted men, and people on the lam would be bad enough. She knew there were plenty in these parts. Even Jake was fleeing warrants.
But what worried her more were the things she’d only heard whispered about. She tried to push them out of her mind because thinking about them only made her more terrified.
Men who turned into werewolves, panthers, or bears were only urban legends, right?
Vampires, gargoyles, and dragons were just the stuff of scary bedtime stories and couldn’t really exist, could they?
And those evil magicians who tortured people for fun, they’d all been rounded up and jailed or executed a long time ago, if they ever even existed, hadn’t they?
“Where the hell is that damn light?” she muttered under her breath.
In her mind, she cursed that blockhead she’d been stupid enough to have a relationship with. It’d been Jake’s idea to move out here a few months after they’d met. How could he have abandoned her in this place?
She’d been used to hardship since she’d run away from foster care in her early teens. She’d scraped by on menial jobs, and she’d had plenty of experience sleeping on people’s bug-infested couches in cold basements. But living in a tent in a squatter settlement in the woods had been a new low.
Three days earlier, they’d argued like cats and dogs over something trivial and stupid. She’d awoken the next morning to find him gone, along with the little money they’d saved up.
She’d spent the last few days stunned and unsure what to do next.
And now this!
The sound of twigs snapping outside grew louder.
It couldn’t be a good thing that someone approached her tent at this hour. What did they want with her?
She couldn’t think of one good reason for someone to be out there.
Goose bumps covered her flesh and she knew, instinctively, that whatever the reason, it had to be bad. Very bad.
Her entire body shook uncontrollably as her fingers found the slim form of the small flashlight and curled around it.
“This is the third and final one for the night,” a deep male voice said from outside.
The girl froze on her hands and knees.
The crackling of twigs, louder and more frequent now, was unmistakable as the footsteps—of more than one person—drew nearer.
“Remember,” the voice, muffled but clear beyond the canvas that offered her no protection whatsoever, said, “I’m the only one who gets to enjoy her.”
Her heart banged against her ribs, and she fell back on her butt. Digging her heels in, she scrambled backward. She nearly jumped out of her skin as her spine met the back of the tent.
She wanted to scream. But when she opened her mouth, her throat was dry and no sound came out.
It went quiet outside.
Inside the tent, her breaths came loud and fast, and the noise filled up the small dome. Her head spun and her hand clutched the flashlight so tightly her knuckles ached.
She couldn’t decide if the silence was a good thing. Did they leave? All she wanted was to be safe.
Suddenly, a ripping sound sent a shiver down her spine. A sharp object had stabbed the tent, just inches from her left shoulder, dragging down in an attempt to open it.
She finally found her voice. The scream was so forceful her lungs felt like they would burst.
But her shrieks did nothing to stop her attackers.
The canvas split apart violently. Something sharp dug into her shoulder, riveting her with pain as her cries rang out…
Tresmort, Eastern Region
“Fenix! Behind you,” Java shouted.
Before Fenix could turn around, the blow to her back sent her down to her knees. Her flat cap flew off her head. She grabbed it and rammed it back as she scrambled over a mountain of rubbish in the dark alley.
With a short shag haircut almost permanently hidden under the flat cap, and a uniform of jeans, T-shirts, a leather jacket, and combat boots, she’d succeeded in passing herself off as male these past few years. It helped that she fought like a warrior—and was flat chested.
But even the best warriors got struck down sometimes, and this seemed to be her unlucky night.
What had hit her hadn’t been solid. It’d been magic. But the blast of energy was just as painful as having a mallet slammed into her back.
She curled into a ball and tried to push the agony out of her mind.
“Ivan. Twain,” Java called out to the rest of the gang. “Fenix has been hit.”
As Fenix struggled to right herself among the bags of garbage, she saw Java run down the alley. Suddenly, he leapt, shifted into a peregrine falcon, and soared into the night air.
Sitting up on the cool concrete, Fenix reached to feel the back of her leather jacket. Much of the hem was gone, and the top of her jeans was smoldering.
Footsteps pounded toward her. The tock-tock rhythm gave her comfort because she knew it was Twain.
The sound stopped. A shadow swept above Fenix’s head, and Twain landed by her side, touching down in a silent crouch. He had leapt over the pile of rubbish, thanks to the wooden legs that Alda, the witch who hired them, had given him. Fashioned from charmed broomsticks, they gave him the ability to run fast and jump great heights.
“Fenix, you okay?” Twain asked, resting a hand on her shoulder.
She nodded, although she felt anything but. “Where’s Ivan?”
“He ran toward the demon to get it.”
“One of Carpetha’s?”
“Looks like it,” Twain said as he raised himself above the rubbish to peep ahead.
A shrill cry punctured the air.
“Ivan,” Fenix and Twain called at the same time.
At twenty-two, Ivan was the oldest among the lot. He was also the bravest—or most foolhardy. He had no special abilities that they knew about. The only thing he had that resembled a gift was his relentless fighting spirit. But that was good enough for him to save all their tails on many of the missions Alda sent them on.
Since the Great Purge across the continent, magic was strictly regulated in Tresmort, making life as a witch both difficult and dangerous. But Alda refused to leave. According to her, powerful Ley lines converged here, and that made her magic more potent.
Carpetha, a rival witch who was jealous of Alda’s reputation, had been trying for decades to have Alda arrested, to steal her magic, or to strike her dead. Alda, therefore, hardly ever left her base.
Instead, she used underlings to fetch her ingredients, as well as to deliver the potions and charms she made for her clients. The gang of four was the latest in a string of helpers she’d hired. They’d come out this night to the most dangerous quarter of the city to pick up a vial of powered wyvern scales.
They had faced many close calls before. On almost every occasion, the sheer force of Ivan’s unrelenting fighting spirit had seen them through.
If he’d run toward the demon, then he would have been closer to it than Fenix had when she’d got hit. Fenix fully understood why he’d made that bloodcurdling cry.
She got to her knees and rushed to Twain’s side, holding her nose as she peered over the smelly heap of garbage bags.
Further down the alley, Ivan was sprawled on the ground. One of his arms lay twisted in an unnatural position. Fenix couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not.
A demon towered over him.
Twain was right—it did look like a minion sent by Carpetha. Like all Carpetha’s servants, this creature seemed almost human, except it was three times the size of an average man and had no neck. Huge, muscular shoulders seemed to sprout from the sides of its face. Its head was bald, and its bare torso bulged with muscles. From the waist down, the creature was covered in dark gray scales. At the end of its massive legs were hooves instead of feet.
A leather pouch strapped to its waist glowed bright blue. The demon shoved its hand into the bag and pulled out a ball that blazed with blinding blue light.
The creature looked down at Ivan and heaved the orb into the air.
A direct hit like that would finish Ivan.
Fenix tugged Twain’s shirtsleeve. “We’ve got to save him.”
Pain shot through her palms, as if a million needles stabbed her all at once.
“Damn, not now,” she mumbled under her breath. The familiar sensation threatened to burst into fiery magic. She’d fought hard to suppress it these past five years.
It had flared up hundreds of times in the eighteen months she’d spent living on the streets of Tresmort, either on her own or as part of gangs. And it had been worse since Alda had scooped her off the streets and roped her into her ragtag band of helpers.
Fenix had learned to shut down the tingling in her palms. She did it by gritting her teeth and swallowing hard to blank out her surroundings as she pictured herself floating on white, puffy clouds in a pale blue sky.
Sure, it was cheesy, but it worked to keep away the magic that had ruined her life once before. And if she was sure of anything, it was that she would do whatever it took to keep that frightening magic from flowing through her again.
Just as she sank into her reverie, a loud squawk pulled her back into the present.
The sound caused the demon to look up, too.
Without further warning, Java, in falcon form, came pelting down from above. His wings and legs were tucked in for the dive, and he sped like a bullet through the air.
The demon had no time to react.
As Java neared the creature, he extended his talons. At the last moment, he opened his wings and pulled up again. He swooped over it, his sharp claw slicing into the monster’s scalp.
Thick gray smoke billowed out of the top of its head.
The demon dropped the glowing globe and grabbed its skull.
The orb crashed to the ground with a thunderclap. Sparks flew everywhere. Blinding blue light traveled up the demon’s body.
It shrieked and flailed its arms, not seeming to enjoy the taste of its own magic.
But Fenix knew it was powerful and would survive. When the spell from the orb extinguished, the demon would be livid.
Fenix slapped Twain on the back. “Quick, land in front of it and distract it. I’ll get it from behind.”
Twain hopped over the rubbish heap, taking off at a blistering pace toward the demon.
Fenix stood and shook her shoulders to throw off any remnants of pain from the hit she’d taken. Reaching under her jacket, she retrieved the knife she kept hidden in a sheath in her waistband. Tucked into her boot was a smaller backup knife.
They were gifts from Alda, and they were charmed.
With a flick of the wrist, Fenix could change the knives into whatever blade or rudimentary tool she envisioned. At least it worked that way with the knife she carried at her waist. The backup was a little wonky.
Its charm had been damaged decades before, when Carpetha had stolen it from Alda and given it to one of her demons. When Alda got it back, she rejigged the magic. Now, it would transform only in Fenix’s hands, but she had to contend with its unpredictable behavior.
Fenix scooted over the rubbish heap and raced down the alley.
Up ahead, Twain crouched in mid-sprint as he prepared to leap. He sank all his weight into his peg legs. Then, like a spring that had been pressed flat and then released, his body shot up into the air.
He summersaulted as he soared over the demon.
In the wide gap between the giant creature’s legs, Fenix saw Twain touch down, just in front of Ivan, who lay motionless on the ground.
The look on Twain’s face told her he was terrified to be so close to the demon.
The beast roared as it realized Twain was before it. It lunged and swung its massive arms at him. Twain sprang out of reach, just in time.
As Fenix ran toward the demon, she flicked her wrist. She envisioned a tomahawk with a long handle, broad head, and gleaming, sharp blade. She tightened her grip on the knife as the handle vibrated and grew hot. The knife disappeared in a quick burst of orange light, and was instantly replaced by the tomahawk.
When she was five paces away from the demon, she lifted the tomahawk, swung it back, and released it. It went tumbling through the air and planted itself in the back of the demon’s right knee.
The creature roared as its right leg collapsed.
Fenix dashed out of the way as the demon tumbled down. The ground shook with the impact of the massive creature’s fall.
It swung its right arm, aiming for Fenix. She scampered behind a tall garbage bin.
Still on its back and growling, the creature brought its clenched fist down on the bin. The steel box crumpled like a soda can, just inches in front of Fenix.
The demon flicked the bin away and reached for her. Its heavy fingers came down on Fenix’s legs and pinned her to the spot.
Trying to yank her legs free would risk breaking a lot of bones, so Fenix rolled up to a sitting position. There was no way to reach under the demon’s fingers to get to her backup knife.
As she frantically tried to lift the heavy hand off her legs, she noticed the creature move its left hand toward the pouch at its waist.
This wasn’t good.
The needles began to stab her palms again. No. She couldn’t let the magic rise in her.
Without warning, a rush of wind swept over her head, and a small form torpedoed past her.
It was Java.
He swooped down and slashed the demon across its nose.
The creature roared and covered its face with its hands as dark gray smoke hissed out of the wound.
With her legs now free, Fenix pulled out her backup knife. She flicked her wrist and pictured another tomahawk. The blade vibrated, but it only went lukewarm. After a flare of pinkish light, Fenix looked down and saw she was holding a filet knife.
Time was running out. The demon would attack her again at any moment.
She gritted her teeth tighter, swallowed hard, and pictured a tomahawk again. It was her preferred weapon because it would allow her to attack from a distance.
This time, the knife vibrated so hard she had to hold it with two hands. Orange light flashed, and the knife got so hot it scorched her palms.
Now, she was holding a falcata, a long, curved sword with a pointed end.
The demon sat up, swinging its arms wildly through the air. The smoke pouring from the wound on the demon’s nose must have blinded it.
Fenix ducked to avoid being floored. She had no time to make a third try for the tomahawk. The falcata it was.
Running to the demon’s side, she waited until it swung its hand lower. She had one chance to get this right. As soon as it brought its hand down, Fenix bounded up its massive right arm. She felt the powerful muscles moving under her feet.
The demon must have noticed her weight because it flung its arm in the air.
Fenix used the upward motion to her advantage, treating its arm as a springboard and curling into a summersault. As gravity pulled her body downward, she pointed the falcata blade-side down. She held it rigidly with both hands as she hurtled toward where she imagined the demon’s heart would be.
Her aim was perfect.
The sword plunged into the demon’s heart as she planted her feet on the beast’s chest.
The demon howled and shook violently.
The air hissed and crackled as blue bolts of light shot out from its chest.
Fenix looked at the demon’s leather pouch. It bulged with unused magic orbs. It would be quite the victory to end this encounter by escaping with more than just their lives.
She rode the waves of the demon’s death throes and reached toward the pouch. Just as she did, a blue bolt of light hit her in the side and sent her flying across the alley.
Her back slammed into a wall, and she slid to the ground.
With a massive explosion, the demon disintegrated. The night air was filled with the creature’s screeches as its essence returned to the witch who’d sent it after the gang.
When silence returned, Fenix got to her knees and called out. “Twain, Java.”
“Over here,” Twain shouted.
Fenix looked around but saw nothing. “Where are you guys?”
“Down this way,” Java said.
Fenix ran toward the sound of their voices. In a dark corner of the alley, two figures knelt with slumped shoulders over a third that lay on the ground.
Her worst fears played before her eyes as her heart banged against her rib cage. “How’s Ivan?” she whispered as she dropped to her knees beside Twain.
“He’s barely breathing,” Java said.
“We dragged him here to get away from the demon,” Twain said. “I think we made matters worse, though. His wound looks bigger than it was before.”
Fenix put her palm to Ivan’s nostrils. There was only the faintest hint of warm breath. But at least he was still breathing. She looked at Ivan’s lower abdomen where he’d been struck. A hole the size of a fist pulsated with a dull blue light, right where his navel should have been.
Alda had warned them about this. It was the worst kind of magic. The light would continue to throb and grow. As it did, it would eat away at the flesh surrounding it. It was just a matter of time before it would reach the vital organs. When that happened, all hope was gone.
Fenix slumped onto Ivan and clutched his right hand.
Images of him flashed through her mind—the kindness in his voice when he’d welcomed her to Alda’s gang; his efforts to teach her to fight; how he’d laughed at himself when he discovered she was more skilled than he was; the many times on assignment he’d bravely, or foolishly, knocked down their opponents with his bare hands.
“No,” Fenix cried. “No, Ivan. You can’t leave us like this. You can’t die on us.”
Her hands grew colder and heavier by the second. It was the strangest feeling. She couldn’t understand what was happening, nor move her hands. When they went completely numb, a soft white glow seeped out from under her palms and between her fingers.
“Wha—what’s going on, Fenix?”
It was Twain’s voice, but it sounded distant in her ears.
Her eyes were open, and she saw how the white light traveled beyond her palms and encircled Ivan’s body. Regardless of the proof before her eyes, it was as if she wasn’t actually there. It felt as if she were outside of herself, watching it happen from a distance to a stranger—one who positively blazed with magic.
Her head began to spin. The scene in front of her went hazy, and then dark. Silence enveloped her.
“Fenix! Fenix, are you all right?”
It was Twain’s voice. He was shaking her.
“Fenix, can you hear me?”
She nodded, lifting her hands to her head to stop the sensation of spinning. As she pressed trembling fingers against her temples, she realized her hands weren’t cold or heavy anymore.
“That was scary,” Java said.
“You must have passed out when you saw Ivan’s wound.”
A groan came from below them.
“Ivan,” Java shouted.
Ivan groaned louder and tried to sit up, but he fell limply back to the ground. “It hurts so bad.”
Fenix looked for the glowing hole, but it was gone. Ivan’s shirt was in tatters just as before, but his abdomen and everything else looked normal, including his outie navel.
Twain widened his eyes. “What the hell just happened?”
“Must have been leftover magic from the demon,” Fenix said. “It probably reversed the destructive magic when it returned to Carpetha.”
She hoped they’d accept that explanation, but she didn’t buy the story herself.
What had happened was totally different to anything she’d experienced before. But she knew it was some weird new thing that had happened to her, and, through her, a strange magic had been released. It was one more thing she had to hide about herself, one more thing she had to fight to control, even though she had no clue what it was.
“Are your sure that this—” Twain was saying.
Blaring sirens approached. Their impending arrival gave her a quick exit.
“We’ve got no time to figure this out,” Fenix said, grabbing one of Ivan’s arms and pulling him up.
“That the cops?” Java asked.
“Yeah. Let’s get Ivan out of here. Alda won’t be impressed if we fought off Carpetha’s demon only to get arrested for possession of powdered wyvern scales.”
“How’s he doing?” Twain said as he drove Alda’s battered 1970’s Beetle toward the warehouse on the old wharf that they used as a base.
“Looks like we’re losing him,” Fenix said from the backseat where she sat with Ivan’s head in her lap. The magic that had flowed from her hands had closed his wound, saving him from immediate death. But it seemed the injury ran deeper than she’d first thought, and it was taking its toll.
Fenix looked up to see the witch in her long, gray dress. Alda gazed down at them from a second-story window in their rundown building.
This part of Tresmort had fallen on hard times. It had been partially destroyed several decades before in the series of meteorite strikes known as The Events. But what finally killed the area was the bullet train. When tracks were laid down on the other side of the city, business on the wharf dried up.
The other buildings in the area were crumbling and stood empty. Alda’s place was barely habitable and was held up mostly by magic, but it was a welcome sight. Fenix remembered the disaster that had turned her into a runaway in the first place. After having slept on the mean streets of Tresmort for over a year, she always thought of Alda’s warehouse as the closest thing to home she could ever hope to find.
The building had a heavy metal door that, in times past, would have rolled up to allow trucks in and out. But as there was no electricity on the wharf, the door had seized up long ago. The witch preferred using a magical entry, in any case.
Fenix squeezed her eyes shut as the Beetle headed straight toward the grimy, red-brick façade. The car ran on lavender water and a drop of dragon bile, which made it a bit slow, but allowed it to enter the charmed portal. The Beetle sliced through the seemingly solid wall, leaving every single brick in its place.
Three and a half years on and Fenix still hadn’t got used to that.
Twain brought the car to a stop in the cluttered garage, parking between barrels of lavender water.
Alda pulled the passenger door open as soon as Twain switched off the engine.
Though she never revealed her exact age, Alda was extremely old, with the wrinkles and wiry silver hair to show for it. Yet, she was full of energy and quick on her feet. Fenix wasn’t surprised that the witch had made it from the second-story window to the garage in the few seconds it had taken them to enter the building.
“What happened here, boys?” Alda gasped.
“Ivan took a close-up hit,” Fenix shouted.
It had been a tough ride for Fenix, holding Ivan in her arms as he writhed and moaned for most of the way. Now, though, he was near motionless.
Fenix had been tempted to place her hands over his stomach to see if that would have helped, but she’d resisted. She wasn’t even sure how she’d caused his wound to disappear earlier, and she had no clue what she should have done to ease his pain.
Besides, she feared the strange sensations she’d felt in her hands.
She was no shrinking violet. When it came to facing off with the toughest, meanest baddies, she had no problem. The skills she’d picked up during the time she’d bounced from street gang to street gang, plus her charmed knives, made her feel ready to kick butt any day. But the strange power that occasionally flared up in her hands struck terror into her heart.
Not only did she not know what to make of it, but, if discovered, this unexplained power could get her jailed or killed. She wished it would just go away.
Twain came around to the passenger side as Java stepped out. They grabbed hold of Ivan’s legs to help lift him out of the car as Fenix tried to help from the backseat.
“One of Carpetha’s demons attacked us,” Twain said.
Fenix hopped out of the car once Twain and Java had Ivan, helping to hold him. “It was throwing blue lightning.”
Alda rushed to the door that led to the stairs. “Quick, get him to my apartment!”
Tresmort had a massive medical complex that serviced even the smaller towns on its outskirts. But taking Ivan there hadn’t even crossed their minds.
He’d been brought down by magic, so only magic could heal him.
Alda bounded up the stairs and ran down the corridor toward her apartment. She held open a beaded curtain to a room that was dimly lit by a dozen candles. Floor-to-ceiling shelves lined the walls, sagging under the weight of bones, gemstones, tree roots, books, and hundreds of bottles containing strange-smelling liquids, powders, and gasses.
“Lay him on his back,” Alda said as she quickly removed drying herbs from a table in the center of the room.
When it came to magical medicine, nobody could top Alda.
It was her main line of business. She made poultices and potions to heal every known condition. Even took on clients with ailments nobody else in the world had ever heard of. Her charms could mend broken bones and stitch shredded flesh back together in the wink of an eye.
Her clients were all supernatural.
The average human believed vampires, werewolves, fae, gargoyles, dragons, and the like to be the stuff of myths. But Fenix knew that any person who’d lived in the rough underbelly of society, like she had, would have encountered supernaturals.
Species waged war against each other over turf, and individuals battled with others of their own kind in long-standing feuds. Apart from their internal wars, they lived quiet lives in normal societies, keeping their species secret, and those who attacked humans and risked exposing the supernatural community were dealt with harshly. Fenix had heard that what government the supernaturals had ensured that rule breakers were hunted down and killed.
Because the supernatural community was so violent, Alda had all the business she needed from their members alone.
After they laid Ivan on the table, the witch held a candle close to his head and peeled back his eyelid. The worried look on her face surprised Fenix.
“What’s the matter?” Fenix said.
“He’s in a very bad way.”
“But you can heal him, can’t you?”
Alda scrunched up her face. “I don’t know. Carpetha must have added something different to boost her spell.”
As far as the use of magic among humans went, the handful of witches who held licenses to practice were limited to applying their magic to themselves and a maximum of four helpers.
Using magic on humans outside of that small community was illegal.
In the years following The Events, a jittery government had outright banned the use of magic. Alda said it was because of the year a secret grimoire had been released on the Internet. Thousands of would-be witches and wizards had wreaked havoc by casting half-baked spells. Some had caused the entire continent’s wheat crop to shrivel up; took down the power grids of the Eastern Region; made roofs collapse and water mains burst in every major city; and had been blamed for a rash of politicians doing silly things, like stripping down to their briefs in the middle of live, televised speeches.
After intense lobbying for years by the Academy of Casters, the government had agreed to issue licenses to sorcerers who could prove they had been practicing for at least thirty years before the grimoire had been published online.
Even so, vigilante gangs had taken it upon themselves to hunt down and torment spell casters, as well as people who illegally sought them out. Magic was so reviled that the police turned a blind eye to reports of suspected witches or wizards being gunned down or strung up.
Those situations made Alda wary of stirring from the wharf. She preferred to use courier gangs, the latest of which included Ivan, Twain, Java, and Fenix.
Alda turned and grabbed a large, heavy book off a shelf. “I’ll need to figure this out.” Flipping through a few pages, she stopped to read in the glow of the candles. Replacing the tome, she grabbed four more books off the shelves. She buried her head in them one by one.
“Might as well give it a try,” she eventually mumbled.
Fenix, Twain, and Java stood against the beaded curtain to give Alda space as she flitted around the room.
She lit some incense, then gathered up bottles of liquids and packets of powders and took them to a corner. She carefully measured out small amounts and mixed the ingredients together in a deep wooden bowl.
Thin plumes of smoke filled the air, along with the refreshing scent of oranges and peppermint.
Everything was quiet, except for Alda whispering words Fenix didn’t understand.
Then the witch poured a glowing, white liquid into a small vial and swirled it three times through the perfumed smoke.
“Okay,” Alda said, looking strained. “This will either kill him or bring him back. But it’s his only hope.”
Fenix, Java, and Twain stared at each other.
Fenix knew they were thinking the same thing she was—the gang could never be the same without Ivan.
Their work was dangerous, so the four of them had had to rely on each other to stay alive. Naturally, they had grown very close over the last few years. Although no one acted as leader, they often took their cue from Ivan because he was the oldest and had been working for Alda the longest.
Fenix was the last to join the team. This was the longest she’d been in one place with one group of people since she’d become a runaway. The three boys and Alda felt like family to her. She didn’t want anything about this cozy existence to change.
“Do whatever you have to,” Fenix said.
Alda positioned herself near Ivan’s head and beckoned the gang around the table. “I’ll need your help.”
Java sniffled. “What do you want us to do?”
“You, hold down Ivan’s legs. Twain, you take his shoulders. And Fenix, I need you to hold his head absolutely still.”
As they took up their places, Fenix could feel her heart pounding against her ribs.
“This is a very powerful potion.” Alda looked at them with eyes that burned with intensity. “His body is going to try to reject it. No matter how hard he fights, you must hold him down to give the medicine a chance to work. Understood?”
The three nodded.
“Here goes,” Alda said.
Java squeezed his eyes shut.
Twain stared at Alda as if he were in a daze.
Fenix held her breath as she watched Alda force Ivan’s mouth open and pour the glowing potion down his throat.
Immediately, his shoulders jerked as he let out a bloodcurdling shriek.
“Don’t let his head move, Fenix,” Alda shouted.
Fenix pressed down on Ivan’s forehead with all her strength. But he pushed up hard, and Fenix could feel her hold weakening.
“Keep his head down!” Alda screeched.
“I’m doing the best I can,” Fenix shouted back. She leaned her entire upper body over Ivan’s head and pressed down harder.
He bent his knees and tried to pull out of Java’s hold.
“Grab his legs,” Alda yelled. “Grab him! Grab him.”
Java threw his body across the table and covered Ivan’s legs. It didn’t stop Ivan from kicking.
Still screaming, Ivan banged his feet down on the tabletop in rapid succession. He swung and pulled away. The table creaked and thumped on the floor. Bottles clinked and boxes rattled on the shelves.
Above the commotion, Alda yelled. “Hold him down! I said to hold him! Keep his head still. You can’t let—”
Without warning, Ivan flung his left arm up and slammed into Alda.
She flew right across the room and crashed into a shelf. Books, bottles, and brambles rained down around her as she slumped to the floor.
Alda quickly got back on her feet. She dusted twigs out of her hair and returned to the table. “Don’t let go, now, boys,” she said as if nothing had happened. “Hold him tight.”
The three held on to Ivan as his body continued to convulse.
A few minutes later, his screams went silent. His limbs went limp, and his breathing slowed down.
Alda checked Ivan’s eyes again. “You can let him go now.”
Trembling, Fenix stared at Ivan’s motionless body. “Will he be all right?”
Alda sighed. “I can’t say. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
She picked up a book, dusted it, and put it on a nearby table. Looking stunned, Twain leaned against the wall and stared at Ivan. Java and Fenix went over to help Alda straighten up.
“You said he was hit close range with a blue light?” Alda said.
Alda scratched her head. “I’m surprised he even made it home alive.”
“Me too,” Java said. “When I saw the hole in his stomach, I thought for sure he was a goner.”
Alda rolled back on her heels. “What hole?”
“There was a big hole with pulsating light right here.” Java made a circle over his own navel.
The witch frowned. “What happened to it?”
Fenix widened her eyes to signal to Java that he should keep quiet.
“Fenix made it disappear,” Twain piped up.
Fenix turned around and scowled at him. “I did not.”
“Yes, you did. You put your hand over the hole, your hand lit up, and then Ivan’s whole body flared with light. And then, the hole disappeared.”
Fenix gritted her teeth. Twain’s memory was faulty. She hadn’t placed her hand over the hole in Ivan’s body. She’d merely held one of his hands, and then magic had started flowing from her into Ivan’s body. Twain’s imprecise recollection gave Fenix the opening to shoot down his story without exactly lying.
“That’s not what happened.”
“That’s exactly what happened. Or were you too spaced out to remember?”
“Maybe there was light around my hand, but it didn’t come from me.”
“I saw it, Fenix.” Twain pushed himself off the wall and puffed out his chest.
“What you saw must have been a leftover spark from Carpetha’s magic. The demon must have left some magic behind.”
“Don’t try to tell me I didn’t see what I saw,” Twain shouted.
Alda raised her hands. “That’s enough, boys!”
Twain grunted. “But Fenix is lying, Alda.”
“I said that’s enough!” Alda kicked one of Twain’s peg legs.
He wobbled before righting himself.
Alda paced in front of him, looking him up and down. “What do you know about magic, huh? Since when did you become an expert? Who are you to say where that healing power did or didn’t come from?”
“But nothing,” Alda shouted. “Fenix is right.”
What did she say? Fenix had to fight hard to not let her jaw drop.
“It could’ve been leftover sparks that healed Ivan,” Alda continued, propping her fists on either side of her waist. “When Fenix sent the demon back to Carpetha, any stranded magic could have become distorted. It’s easy to see how that distorted magic could have reversed some of the damage that had been done.”
Fenix could hardly believe what she was hearing.
She had made up that theory on the spot to protect her secret about the strange power she’d suspected had flowed through her hands. But did she somehow hit upon the true workings of Carpetha’s magic? Or was Alda spinning out her theory to back up her deception?
The second possibility made Fenix uneasy.
Why would Alda further the lie? The witch didn’t usually play favorites. She couldn’t know the reason why Fenix had made up the lie in the first place. At least, Fenix didn’t think so.
“Listen, boys,” Alda said in a calmer voice. “This is a stressful time. But let’s not let it get to us, okay? That’d do us no good. Let’s not turn against each other and start fighting in here. You guys are a team, and you’ve got to stick together, to stick up for one another, and act as one unit. Okay?”
Twain looked down at his peg legs.
Alda slapped him in his chest with the back of her hand. “Okay?”
He sighed and nodded.
“Sure, fine,” Fenix said.
“What we go through in our work is hard enough without you guys fighting each other,” Alda said. “I want no more of it.”
A groan from the middle of the room caught Fenix’s attention. “I think that was Ivan.”
They all rushed to the table.
Ivan lay expressionless. His chest didn’t even rise or fall to indicate that he was breathing.
“Maybe you just imagined that sound,” Java said.
Fenix shrugged. “I was sure I heard him.”
Alda placed her hand over Ivan’s face, but as soon as her finger touched his eyelid, he turned his head away and groaned.
“Yay,” Java shouted.
Fenix’s heart thumped.
“He’s alive,” Twain yelled.
Alda shushed them. She bent to Ivan’s ear and shook his shoulder gently. “Ivan, can you hear me?”
“Yes,” he groaned slowly.
Alda was not one to smile much. In fact, Fenix couldn’t recall ever having heard her laugh before. The witch almost always had a serious look on her face. Fenix supposed it came from deep concentration as Alda studied her thick books or mixed up a batch of magic.
But Alda laughed now.
She threw back her head and cackled.
“That’s the best groan I’ve heard in centuries,” she said. “Get him to sit up, boys.”
The three helped Ivan up. Alda inspected his stomach, his palms, and under his eyelids.
“He’s going to be just fine,” she said. “Just needs a little bit of rest and a little bit of this.”
She walked over to a shelf and rested her hand on two brown sachets. “Java, Twain,” she said. “Take these to Ivan’s room and sprinkle them on his pillows.”
Although small enough to fit in one hand, the sachets looked to Fenix like they must have weighed a ton. Java and Twain bent forward and struggled to carry the tiny parcels through the beaded curtain.
“I was saving that for something special,” the witch said.
“What is it?” Fenix said
“Dust from the ground Heracles stood on when he killed the giant Antaeus,” Alda said. “It’ll help restore Ivan’s strength. He needs all the help he can get.”
Fenix felt Ivan push away her hand as he raised his own hands to his throat and rubbed it.
“That’s going to sting for a little while,” Alda said.
Ivan took a deep breath, then exhaled heavily. “You need to charge more for your work.”
Alda smiled, and Fenix thought that she should do it more often. It lit up her face.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” the witch said.
“No, I mean it, Alda,” Ivan growled. “You need to start charging money for your work.”
Alda stepped back as the lines on her brow deepened. “You’re seriously telling me to ask for money for healing my clients?”
Ivan’s face hardened into a scowl. “Yes, so that you can start paying us.”
Alda’s jaw fell. “I just brought you back from death’s door and that’s all you have to say to me?”
“It was all I could think about as I lay there so close to the end. I thought, This is it? I’ve been risking my life all these years carrying around your magic, and all I get in return is room and board. The work I do is worth more. I’m worth more, and I want to make damn sure I get to enjoy my life before I lose it.”
“You’re saying I don’t provide well enough for you?”
Ivan slid off the table. “Meals and a roof over my head are no longer enough, Alda. And look at this place. It’s a dump. If you charged the proper price for your work, you could move out of here. And you could start giving us a salary.”
Alda narrowed her eyes. “Don’t try to tell me how to run my affairs, boy.”
“But your clients can afford to pay a hundred times more than you charge. You’re wasting the chance to—”
Alda slapped her hands together right in front of Ivan’s face. “Shut up, boy!”
Ivan pulled his head back and scowled.
Fenix squeezed Ivan’s shoulder and stepped forward to place herself between him and Alda. “He’s just delirious,” she said. “He doesn’t really know what he’s saying.”
“No, Fenix.” Ivan tried to push her out of the way, but he stumbled. She caught him in her arms. Still, he remained defiant. “I meant every word I said.”
Twain and Java parted the beaded curtain and entered. They looked at Ivan and Alda’s faces, and then exchanged concerned glances.
“What’s the matter?” Java said.
“Nothing.” Alda folded her arms and snorted. “Just get Ivan to his bed.”
When the others had left, Alda walked over to a window in the corner and opened it.
From where she stood, Fenix inhaled the salty air that wafted in. In the distance, the waxing gibbous moon shone over the shimmering waters of the ocean.
Alda stared out and sighed. “I knew this day would come. I guess it was too much to hope it would come later than now.”
“Don’t worry,” Fenix said. “Ivan will be back to his normal self when he’s better.”
“No, he won’t.” Alda kept her eyes fixed on the moon as she spoke. “This gang is about to break up. Just like all the ones before.”
“How can you say that?”
“The signs are there. I’ve been through this many times already. It’s hard to find good help. But it’s even more difficult to keep ‘em.”
Alda turned and cast her eyes on the shelves. “‘Charge more,’ he said. I heal my clients, ease their pain, restore their health, and he wants me to charge more for my services? If the ingredients I use weren’t so difficult or dangerous to come by, I’d gladly give my medicines for free.”
Fenix smiled. “Better not tell Ivan that. Then he’d leave us for sure.”
Alda didn’t return the smile. “Speaking of ingredients, where’s the powdered wyvern scales I sent you for?”
Fenix dipped into her jacket pocket for the small package they’d risked their lives for. She handed it over, surprised Alda took it without the usual twinkle that would light up her eyes whenever they delivered some new ingredient.
The witch was taking this hard.
Fenix felt she understood. She knew only too well how unsettling it was to have the world ripped apart and how painful it was to lose loved ones. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m sure things will soon get back to normal around here.”
Alda shook her head. “After a while, they all leave me. Even you, Fenix Graystone, you will leave me, too.”
“I have no plans to leave.”
“But you will,” Alda said with such certainty and resignation that Fenix felt a twinge in her heart. “Someday, you will.”
“I won’t leave you,” Fenix said softly.
Alda looked Fenix directly in the eyes, as if searching for something beyond them.
“Tell me something,” Alda said. “Did anybody else get struck by Carpetha’s blue lightning tonight?”
“I did as well,” Fenix reluctantly offered.
“And it didn’t affect you like it did Ivan?”
“Well, he was up close, but I was about thirty feet away when the demon hit me.”
Alda shook her head. “That doesn’t explain it. Carpetha delved into Base Magic for this latest spell. A person hit from even three hundred feet away would have been struck down.”
What was Alda implying? Fenix shrugged. “I don’t know what to say about that.”
Alda nodded. “Okay,” she said simply and pursed her lips. Folding her arms, she turned to stare out at the moon again. “I wanted to ask you about what Twain said.”
“About you healing Ivan.”
A tense smile stretched across Fenix’s lips. “You said it yourself, Alda. It was leftover magic that reversed the damage. It had nothing to do with me.”
“You didn’t really think I bought a story like that—” Alda began, but then suddenly fell silent. She pushed her head through the window and peered out.
Fenix was suddenly aware of a soft rumbling sound coming from outside.
“What the hell is he doing here?” Alda said.
She brushed past Fenix, almost knocking her over, and was through the beaded curtain in a flash. Her footsteps pounded down the stairs.
Fenix rushed to the window and looked down.
A sleek white SUV stood in front of the warehouse. A tall, slender figure in all white emerged from it and closed the door with a soft thud. He pulled the flaps of his jacket closer together and buttoned them. Although he wasn’t brawny, his pecs and biceps showed under the soft fabric.
He walked toward the entrance of the building with long, confident strides. That’s strange, Fenix thought. To her knowledge, Alda had never revealed her location to clients or suppliers.
Just before the stranger stepped into the shadow of the building, he looked up. Instinctively, Fenix pulled away from the window. But the brief glimpse she got was enough to show the outline of his face.
She had no clue who this stranger was, but, at the sight of him, her heart slammed against her rib cage.
Fenix felt unsettled, suddenly unsure of herself.
Carly Hansen is convinced that when she was born the doctor used a novel to whack her on the bum to make her take her first breath. She’s been lost in the world of fiction ever since she can remember, either devouring books by her favorite authors or scribbling the wild imaginings that pop into her head. She’s kept conjuring up stories, even after growing up and working in the admin department of a not-for-profit organization.
Carly cherishes spending time with her family and is proud to be owned by a very possessive cat and an overly-protective dog (though she suspects the real reason the pooch chases away all those other dogs in the park is so as to not have to share the treats in Carly’s pocket). When not writing, Carly likely to be found in skis or skates in the winter, or in her swimsuit throughout the rest of the year.
Carly feels humbled and grateful that she gets to share her writings with the world and positively loves to be in touch with readers.
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