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Maywitch

Maywitch

by Ria Fritz

StreetLib Edition | Copyright 2017

 

Acknowledgements

To everyone who gave feedback on the Wattpad and Tablo versions of this work – thank you all! Your insight was incredibly valuable as I revised and rewrote parts of this.

 

This ebook is free, but all rights are retained by the author. Please do not redistribute. Copies are available at all major ebook retailers.

 

 

Chapter 1: Summons

 

The rattle of the front door cut through Kay’s sleep like a knife. Someone might have knocked, but since the door sat loosely in its frame, the rattle was much more audible than the knock itself. In her half-asleep state, she couldn’t decide if she had heard the wind or a potential intruder.

She sat upright and fumbled around for the obsidian pendant around her neck. She would rather not kill an intruder with magic, since the cops would ask too many questions, but it was better than getting shot or stabbed herself.

There was another knock, this time louder, and she calmed slightly. Whoever was at her door in the dead of night wasn’t trying to sneak up on her.

She stepped into her apartment living room just in time to hear a muffled voice say: “Kay? Open up; I’m from Maywitch.”

That was the last thing she wanted to hear at any time, let alone at 3 a.m. the first day of summer semester finals.

She strode to the door and opened it, squinting in the light of the hallway outside. “You trying to wake the neighbors?” she hissed.

The man in front of her was a few inches taller than her, with broad, sloping shoulders. His expression was gentle, though, and he waved a hand over his shoulder dismissively. “I strategically placed some silence sigils around the hall. Don’t worry, no one can hear me but you.”

And no one can hear any screams of protest, Kay thought as she bit her lip. She had heard rumors about Maywitch, the de facto governing force of the witching world, having to step up their activities in recent weeks, but this was unexpected.

“I, Juan Fredricks, am here to inform you that your presence is needed at Maywitch Western Base, and failure to comply will result in heavy sanctions under the Magical Unification Code,” he said, his tone practiced and level.

She started to roll her eyes, stopped herself, and tried to disguise her emotion by sweeping brown strands of hair out of her face. She had known all along that Maywitch could come for her eventually; mage children were always taught to honor any request from them, for the good of their magical community. But she knew she wouldn’t be much use to them, since she had stopped using magic except in self-defense. Plus, any sanctions levied against her wouldn’t accomplish much. She could survive any attacks on her thin ties to the witching world.

“I decline,” she said. “No offense, just not—”

“One of those sanctions will be the termination of your lease,” he said.

She stared at him for a long moment. “What? You can’t do that.”

He offered a nervous half-smile. “Sorry, but we have an agreement with the landlord. I think you were under the impression some funds from your father’s estate were paying for it, through an arrangement your mother’s lawyer made. It’s actually been us. It was part of your mom’s agreement with us. We will revoke your access to the trust and make sure your lease is—”

“What agreement?” Kay stopped and folded her arms. “Back up. Where’s my mom? I want some proof for what you just said.”

He nodded. “Let’s get in the car and talk there, before any neighbors spot us,” he said. “No obligation. Just a talk.”

She stared down at the floor as she considered his offer. Part of her was terrified at the prospect of having to get in a car with some random man claiming to be from Maywitch. Her heart, though, pounded faster at the thought of getting some answers regarding her mother’s whereabouts. She had been missing for nearly two years – and if Maywitch had some kind of agreement with her, then surely they had some kind of clue as to where she was.

“How do I know you’re really from Maywitch?” she asked.

“Because I know the date of your father’s death, as well as the manner in which you found out, as well as the exact day and time you last saw your mother. We keep these on file as security questions, of sorts, and your mother left them with us—”

“Answer the last one, then,” she said.

He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, clearly deep in thought. “August 8, 2014, shortly after 8 p.m. outside this apartment.”

She sighed. That was exactly it. While his answer didn’t technically prove he was from Maywitch, it at least proved he knew something about her mother – and that was enough of a reason for her to follow him.

“Let’s go. You can explain the rest in the car,” she said.

“Pack a bag, first, in case you decide not to come back.”

She stared at him. “I mean it,” he said. “We can’t just sit in the car in the parking lot; it’ll look like a drug deal. We have get moving.”

——————————————————————————

Before the sun began to rise over Maywitch’s base in Salt Lake City, Felicity Gardner was already reviewing Juan’s notes from the night’s recruitment.

Follow-up: Samantha Clark. Scouts determined at 0245 that she was spending the night at a friend’s house. No safe course of recovery determined at that time.

Contact: Michaela “Kay” Adamis. Target was taken in at 0415 with no resistance. Briefing will occur after I complete more urgent matters.

Gardner sighed and rubbed her eyes. She would have much preferred to have contacted Clark. Kay Adamis was almost twenty years old, but she was currently far less useful than many of her peers. In the Houston Metro area alone, there were some 200 mages who had been identified by Maywitch – and there was a slim chance that any had been overlooked. Adamis was likely one of the least skilled mages in the area, since Maywitch’s surveillance suggested that she hadn’t used her magic in a long time.

But she was easy pickings. Most of the world’s mages were either too old to fight effectively, or were too politically powerful to be drafted. Though Maywitch didn’t grant exemptions in writing, it was well-understood that certain families simply weren’t good choices for being roped in for emergencies.

Gardner’s cell phone rang, making her jump, and she whipped it out of her pocket and answered it. “What?” she snapped.

“Director, we got seismic activity near Denver.”

“How strong?”

“Weak, but growing. It also seems to be spreading south. There’s a weird line it seems to be radiating from. I’m sending real-time data to your pad—”

The small tablet on her desk lit up, and Gardner swiped her mahogany fingers across its screen. She sighed and set her phone on the desk before putting it on speakerphone.

“Casey, tell Juan’s group to veer south. I don’t care if it takes them an entire week longer, just keep them away from that,” she barked as she stood up. “I’m grabbing my things and coming upstairs-”

“Um – actually, if you look at the data now…” Casey’s voice trailed off, and Gardner’s tablet suddenly showed a map, with multiple spidery lines of red spreading out.

Gardner stopped with one of her desk drawers open. She watched as the thickest red line inched outward, across deserts, roads, and several highways hundreds of miles apart. “Shit,” she muttered. “That was fast.”

“What are your orders?”

She sat back down as fear gnawed its way into her stomach. She hadn’t been prepared for this. Logistically, most of the pieces were falling into place, and defending against this new and unknown enemy shouldn’t be horribly difficult. But every decision she made would always be a gamble. There were too many variables, and the chessboard was always shifting – and in danger of being overturned completely. Her predecessors had never dealt with anything this bizarre, so there was no protocol or precedent to utilize.

“Dispatch Dia’s team,” she said. “Let the Feds know. And if Dia can’t handle it, reroute Juan to do it, since he’s the only other one with a good grip on the trap spells.”

There was a faint grunt of surprise from Casey. “Er, roger that,” he said.

Gardner ended the call and rubbed her temples. Magical accidents and occasional cover-ups were all that she thought she was signing up for when she accepted the job as Director of the Western Region. It was just her luck that the world would throw her such a dangerous curveball.

——————————————————————————

As they barreled down Interstate 10 away from Houston, Juan hadn’t gotten off his phone long enough to answer Kay’s questions. Judging by his frustrated tone and occasional swearing, it was something important.

The driver, a middle-aged man, politely declined to answer any of Kay’s questions. When Juan ended his next call, Kay snapped: “Hey, you wanna explain why we’ve been driving away from my house for the past hour?”

“We can drive you back, but we didn’t want to drive in circles,” Juan said. “Someone would eventually notice if we did that. Also, Marcus, take the next exit south, will you?”

The driver nodded, and Kay felt the last of her patience slip away. “Wait, I’ve been trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but now I want answers,” Kay said. “Start from the beginning. Where is my mom?”

“We don’t know,” Juan said. “She’s off the grid, and we’re more than a little worried. We don’t have any reason to think she’s dead, though.”

She stared at the floor of the car. If even Maywitch didn’t know where her mother was, then that was a serious problem. Her mother was a talented mage who had shied away from the witching world as she focused on raising Kay, her only daughter. She had vanished soon after Kay turned 18, but had unlocked a sizable trust fund – left by Kay’s father, supposedly – that could’ve lasted her through college.

“So as soon as she left me, she went with you guys?” Kay said.

“Exactly. We needed her help on a top-secret research program. About seven months ago, we sent her on a mission to investigate something, and she vanished.” Juan turned around and met her eyes. “How much do you know about Maywitch in general? It seems you’ve never been very plugged in to our world, so maybe I should start with the basics.”

“Y’all basically keep the magical world from mashing up against the non-magical folks. Cover-ups when needed.”

Juan shrugged and turned back around. “I mean, we also do research and education. Plus, when previously non-magical folks start dabbling in Wicca or something else and inadvertently discover they have more abilities than the average human, we have to do some damage control.”

Kay couldn’t suppress a smirk. “So, cover-ups.”

“Yeah, and luckily that doesn’t happen that often. But our other purpose…” He trailed off for a moment as he glanced at his phone. “We are also responsible for assembling a militia in times of war or other crises. And a crisis has come. You know that explosion in Illinois all those Congress folks were fussing about eight months ago?”

Kay nodded. It had barely registered in her mind through the haze of work and studying, but it was hard to ignore when every politician in the country had been shouting about it. “I do. Was that Maywitch?”

“Not exactly. It was the precursor to the current mess, though. There’s been a huge uptick in low-grade earthquakes across the western half of North America, mostly in the U.S. and Mexico, since that explosion. To make a long story short, we suspect demon-summoners have reemerged.”

She tilted her head in an attempt to read his expression, but the pre-dawn darkness obscured it. “I thought they didn’t exist anymore,” she murmured.

“That’s what we thought, too, but it’s not like there’s a DNA test for this shit. Just gotta wait til someone’s powers emerge.” He glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. “And that’s where—”

His phone rang, and he sighed and flipped it open. “Fredricks.”

She scowled out the window, trying to conceal her annoyance. A few seconds later, Juan barked: “Marcus, head back north, past the highway. We might have trouble.”

The driver nodded and flicked on his turn signal. “Are we heading into it, or running away from it?”

Juan waited, apparently listening to something. “Shit. Got it.” He ended the call and tossed the phone onto the dashboard. “Heading into it. Dia’s squad fucked up, so we’re Plan B.”

Kay suddenly felt her heart rate increase. She tried to get a glimpse of her escorts’ expressions as they careened down the two-lane road, but they seemed stoically focused on the task at hand. “Kay, can you shoot some fire for long enough for me to trap this thing?” Juan said. “It should take about fifteen seconds. Marcus will do whatever it takes to shield you, so just shoot when he tells you to.”

“I haven’t used magic in at least six months,” Kay said, running a finger over her pendant. “Can’t y’all do it?”

“Marcus’ main skill is possession, but possessors can’t take over demons, so our options with two people are—” He sighed loudly. “Dammit, I didn’t mean for you to get involved, but I need you to trust me!”

Kay watched out the window as the car rushed through a stop sign and past a gas station, the only building visible in the vicinity. Her situation was dire. There was no shelter – at least, nothing that wasn’t a major explosive hazard – and it was too dark for her to run anywhere without risking major injury. She had little choice but to fight.

“If I die, I’m gonna haunt y’all long enough to make sure my mom kills you,” she said without thinking.

Juan glanced up to the rearview mirror and laughed. “You’re just like her, too!” he said. “And Bailey could totally kill me, too. Don’t worry, just give me fifteen seconds of fire and we’ll be fine.”

Easy for him to say, she thought as he continued giving directions to Marcus. Several minutes later, the car crunched to a halt on a gravel road. They were pulling off the main road into sandy plains, with the last remnants of starlight providing the only natural source of light. It was a foreign, surreal landscape that only made her more nervous; her home was in the city where her mother had raised her, with metal and brick drowning out the natural world that now surrounded and exposed her.

“There’s one of those really rare tunnel-type demons heading southeast in our general direction, and we’re gonna see if we can draw it out,” Juan said over his shoulder as he opened his door. “Kay, stay here a minute.”

Marcus followed him outside. Kay sat back in her seat, wondering just what the hell he was hoping to accomplish.

Something in Juan’s hand lit up in a blue glow, casting jagged shadows on the plains around him. The scene outside the van remained quiet and still for several minutes. Just as Kay was starting to wonder if they could leave, she felt something tremble beneath her feet.

“Get out, Kay,” Juan yelled over his shoulder.

Kay’s arms felt like lead as she pushed the car door open. He handed a vial of something to her – wormwood, she realized after a moment – and ran a hand through his sweaty hair.

“Whatever the fuck it is, blast it with fire and move however I tell you to,” he said. “I have no idea how agile this thing is.”

He turned back around and held his right hand away from his body, almost as if motioning for someone to join him. The earth stopped trembling, then started again, the magnitude of the quake seeming to grow every second.

Then, somewhere behind the car, there was a furious roar.

 

 

Chapter 2: The Magical World

 

Kay turned around just as something massive and scarlet appeared over the top of the car. It was easily fifteen feet tall, with inch-wide scales covering the shining mass that seemed to be its chest. Tan-flecked arms – at least, that’s what Kay thought they were – emerged from at least four points on the sides of its torso.

Even with part of its bulk obscured by the car, it was formidable, and unlike anything Kay had seen or heard of. She heard Juan yell something behind her, but her racing thoughts seemed to be crowding out all ability to sort through silly things like directions.

Something grabbed her arm and dragged her to the right, and at the same time, some kind of bright green light erupted in front of her. “Marcus, shield her,” Juan said somewhere to her right. “Kay, I need fire from you, too, until I get in the line of fire.”

Kay tore her eyes from the creature and stared at Juan, who was clutching several vials in his hand. “Got it?” he said as he handed another vial to her.

“Launch a bunch of fireballs until you’re in the way. Got it,” she said. “What are you—”

He was gone before she could finish her sentence. As the green light before them faded, she fumbled with the vial’s cap and muttered the shortest fire incantation she knew.

The vial in her right hand began to grow hot. She hadn’t gotten as rusty as she thought, but it would still take her a minute to build power. Tendrils of flame curled around the fingers on her left hand, and she hastily stuck her palm outward, away from her body.

The creature had begun to climb over the top of the van, but Juan hit it with some sort of spell, and it stumbled back several feet. Marcus moved around the left side of the car, and green translucent appeared in front of him and Kay. She followed, her eyes darting between the creature and the fire beginning to grow in her hands.

Juan was a little to her right, crouching and trying to do something with the dirt and grass at his feet. He was probably trying to draw a magic circle, she knew, but why wouldn’t he have one already on his person somewhere – a pendant, a tattoo, or even just a piece of paper? Maybe this was the ‘trap’ he had been referring to.

The creature lunged toward him, and Kay panicked, unleashing the full might of her flames.

The sky flashed as bright as the noontime sun. Fire sprinted forth from her palms, seeming to paint the air in front of her with opaque yellow waves, and Marcus’ shield disappeared. The crab-like creature recoiled as flames spread over every spindly limb, and another wild shriek pierced the air. Something hot flew past her face as the flames themselves lashed out at the world around them, out of control and indiscriminate in their rage.

Something glowed green, and she could see Juan casting some kind of spell. Darkness danced before her eyes in inky spots, but before she could fully realize what was happening, she had fallen to her knees, gasping for breath.

Her head pounded miserably. The creature’s shrieks were the only thing her senses could process. Other noises boomed around her, but she couldn’t make out what they were. Her heart seemed to bang against her ribcage, chopping her breaths into shallow gasps.

She could feel someone – something – draw near her, to her left, and she pulled away. The creature’s cries were fading, but she sensed some other danger.

Her vision finally faded, and she blacked out, crumpling into the dirt.

——————————————————————————

The chatter around Felicity Gardner had grown obnoxiously loud, and had she been any more sleep-deprived, she probably would’ve barked at her colleagues to shut up. The tiny communications room at Maywitch’s Salt Lake City base was busier than usual. The morning’s chaos had drawn many mages from their bunks in a hurry, and there were people in the room whom Gardner knew didn’t really need to be there.

Someone’s cup of coffee fell and splashed on the floor, its fall apparently unimpaired by any last-ditch attempts to catch it. That was the last straw. “Listen up!” Gardner barked.

The twenty or so mages all stopped what they were doing and looked at her. “All non-essential personnel need to leave. I don’t care if you think this is relevant to your side project or whatever. You can get your updates via phone or email, like everyone else,” she said.

Almost a dozen people headed for the door behind her, and she didn’t hear a single muttered complaint from any of them. Most of those who stayed were seated at computers, phones or ancient tomes of witch history, doing research or checking in on various Maywitch employees.

The only two still standing were Gardner and a petite, dark-haired mage standing quietly to her right. “You did want to see me, right?” the young woman said.

Gardner smiled half-heartedly. “Yes. Thanks, Nadia. Any updates?”

“They texted about five minutes ago. Said there haven’t been quakes in town.”

“Good.” Gardner held back a sigh of relief and let her smile grow. Nadia’s charges were far too important to lose sight or sound of, especially in the current situation. “They’re not leaving the safe house, right?”

Nadia nodded. Gardner noticed that the younger woman hadn’t returned her smile. “I can keep checking on them every half-hour, if you want,” Nadia said.

“Please do. Thanks. I’m sure it’s been hard doing double-duty like this…”

Nadia shook her head, still not offering a smile or any other hint of emotion. Gardner had to suppress a grimace. The girl was like a robot. “Go get some rest in your bunk, but keep doing those thirty-minute checks,” Gardner said, waving a hand to dismiss her.

One of the communications staff handed her a phone, and she took it as Nadia left. The work was never done, Gardner thought. Hopefully, the new girl, Kay Adamis, would survive her ordeal and manage to make herself useful.

——————————————————————————

Kay’s entire body felt hot, and she tried to shed the sheets on top of her, but couldn’t find the strength. She slowly opened her eyes and stared out at the white room in front of her. It took her a long moment to realize that she had no idea where she was.

A petite woman in a gray uniform was wiping down a countertop nearby. Kay tried to get a look at her face, but couldn’t see under the long black bangs. She spoke up to get the woman’s attention, but could only manage a hoarse grunt.

The woman turned around and grinned. “Oh, good!” she said. “You weren’t even out that long. How are you?”

Kay coughed in response. The woman – a nurse, Kay assumed, based on her pale green tunic and pants – sighed and busied herself with something nearby before bringing a cup of water to Kay’s bedside. “Let’s get you upright,” she said.

Kay tried to wriggle upright on her own, but found to her chagrin that she needed the woman’s help. Cool water slipped out of her mouth and spilled onto the sheets, but she couldn’t have cared less.

“Your vitals are better, but you should stay here a bit longer and then go straight to bed,” the woman said. “Does anything hurt?”

The back of Kay’s head hurt, but not like it was bruised – more like she was severely dehydrated and her brain was about to fry. She gulped the last of her water and shook her head. “Head hurts a little, but I’m guessing water helps,” she said. “Where am I?”

“You’re at Maywitch’s Salt Lake City base. I’m Meilan Wang. I’m the head nurse here, so let me know if you need anything else,” the woman said as she refilled the cup.

“Is Juan okay? And Marcus?”

Meilan nodded as she handed back the water. “Yup. You all made it out just fine. Juan said you bought him enough time to destroy it—”

A hydraulic hiss to Kay’s left startled her. Meilan turned toward the noise and nodded politely at something out of Kay’s range of view, behind some kind of tan curtain.

“She’s awake,” Meilan said. “Take it easy, though; she’s exhausted.”

A young woman came into view from behind the curtain. She looked eerily like Kay – the same sloping eyebrows and long, dark lashes framing gentle eyes. This woman’s skin was darker, though, and she had thick, curly black hair pulled back into a bun. She clasped her hands in front of her and offered a shaky smile.

“Kay?” she asked.

Kay nodded, and the woman continued: “I’m Holly. Well – I don’t know if you’ve been told about me, but I’m your half-sister. Mark Grayes was my father.”

Kay’s hands seemed to lose their strength, and her cup slipped into her lap, sending water soaking into her pants. She quickly set the cup on the table beside her bed. “Wait, what?” she said, turning to Meilan.

Meilan nodded and smiled, but her eyes betrayed her, revealing tense concern. “Based on our records, anyway,” she said.

“I’m eighteen,” Holly said quickly, “and I’ve lived in Carson City my whole life. My mom’s too frail to fight, but I can help…” She trailed off, seeming to notice that Kay wasn’t looking at her. “Um, when dad was about to pass on, he told me to keep an eye out for you. He said you could use magic, too. So I’m glad I get to meet you, even in these circumstances.”

Kay’s heart sank. Her mother had told her some three years prior that her father had died from injuries sustained in an accident. She hadn’t heard much at all before then – certainly not enough to know if he’d had another daughter after leaving Kay two months after her birth. If Holly was eighteen, he must’ve moved pretty fast, she thought sullenly.

“I see,” Kay said, faking a smile. “Nice to meet you. This is quite a surprise.”

“We figured we should clear that up as soon as possible if you two are going to be working together,” Meilan said. “You two are about the same age and have similar abilities. You’ll probably be fighting and training together.”

“I have possession abilities, though,” Holly added. “Gardner already told me a bit about you, and it sounds like you’re a firecaster, and I can do a little—”

Kay held a hand up, more forcefully than she intended to, and Holly fell quiet. “Wait, who’s Gardner?” Kay said. “Sorry, I just woke up here.”

“Sorry! Felicity Gardner is the Field Director for Maywitch’s Western U.S. Region,” Holly said. “She’s in charge of this base. She’s our boss. I guess you haven’t met her yet. I should let you rest before you get everything explained…”

“Kay should be mentally fine,” Meilan said. “Give her an overview of things, will you, Holly? Juan said his little info session got interrupted.”

Holly took a deep breath. “I’ve been here for six months. Volunteered in place of my mom since she’s not well. We don’t really know what’s going on, other than earthquakes where there shouldn’t really be earthquakes. That thing you and Juan fought, though, was something we hadn’t seen before. We thought demon-summoners were involved, and had prepared for that possibility, but we didn’t have confirmation.”

Kay felt her blood start to chill as she remembered their fight with the demon. Her adrenaline had been running full-force then, but now, as she stared out past Holly’s thin frame, she somehow felt more vulnerable than she ever had in her life.

“So this is what I’ve been roped into?” she said.

Holly smiled, but the expression didn’t seem to reach her eyes. “We thought demon-summoners were extinct, so it throws a wrench in things. I thought I was only signing up for accidents and the occasional rogue nutjob. There’s been a lot of wild stuff happening, though, and we aren’t getting to the bottom of it like we’d hoped.”

Somewhere near Meilan, something beeped loudly, and she sighed and pulled a phone from her front pocket. “Alright, the Director wants you to get some rest before you make your decision,” Meilan said. “If you want to go home tomorrow morning, you can.”

Holly frowned. “Decision? Aren’t you officially in?”

“Not yet.” Kay stretched and turned to swing her legs out of bed, hoping to convince the others that she was well enough to be left alone. She had no visible wounds, though her pajamas were slightly singed. Either they had done an incredible job healing her, or she had escaped harm thanks to whatever Juan and Marcus had done. She felt like she had a serious hangover, but she suspected that was just dehydration.

More importantly, though, she wanted to figure out what happened to her mother, and not be homeless. If Maywitch took away her financial aid, she was basically screwed. “Where’s Juan? I have a few more questions for him,” she said.

“He’s in meetings and doing damage control, probably for the rest of the day. Get some rest and you can talk to him tomorrow,” Meilan said. “Holly, take her to her room, will you? I think Juan already dropped her stuff off.”

“Sure. I was told she’s in Claire’s old room?”

“Yep.”

Kay decided against asking who Claire was. Her knees and shoulders creaked in protest as she slowly stood and nodded to Holly. “Ready.”

Meilan thrust a canvas tote bag into her hands. “Work phone, keys, and ibuprofen. The rest of your stuff is in your room.”

“Thanks for your help,” Kay said.

Holly traipsed toward the sliding door, and it opened with a hydraulic hiss, revealing a brightly-lit hallway. Kay followed her as she turned right, then left, then left again – Kay knew this would take some getting used to – and walked quickly down a long, narrow hall. Holly waved cheerfully to a man talking on his phone, who shot Kay a concerned glance.

“That’s George DeMason,” Holly said softly. “He’s not usually here. He’s in charge of the North Carolina base for the Eastern U.S. Region. We have six bases in North and Central America, plus smaller outposts.”

Kay feigned interest, but she wasn’t really listening as Holly rambled on about Maywitch. “First of all, just so you know, we’re pretty well-hidden in these woods outside of Salt Lake City, so don’t worry about us ever being found,” Holly said with a smile. ”We’re solidly underground, and any regular folks who stumble upon this place are told it’s government property. It’s pretty cool. Anyway, these guys are at the cutting edge of everything. Juan is one of the best at socio-emotional spells, and has a weird knack for these demon-trapping spells we’re developing. Gardner is the only hydrokinetic in the country. I’ve already gotten some great pointers on possession and firecasting—”

Firecasting – of course, Kay thought to herself. Their father had been incredible at it. Holly’s possession skills must have come from her mother’s side, though.

“And there’s this really incredible healer named Nadia – I don’t know where she gets it from, but I saw her at work in the long-term wing and—”

It took Kay’s mind a moment to react. “Wait,” she said, “Nadia? What’s her last name?”

Holly glanced up at the ceiling and frowned. “It starts with an A,” she said. “We don’t really use last names much around here, especially if it’s a long one like hers. Why? You know her?”

“Dunno,” Kay said, shrugging. It actually sounded very familiar – too familiar – but she didn’t want to explain that to this girl she had just met.

Holly shrugged and went on listing off a bunch of names that Kay knew she would never remember. They rounded another corner, and as Holly started to explain whatever wing of the base they had just entered, she suddenly stopped. A woman stood in the hallway ahead, her dark brown hair falling in front of her face as she fiddled with a keypad on the wall.

“Oh, Nadia,” Holly said, “the new girl’s awake. This is Kay.”

The woman looked up, and as her long hair fell away from her eyes, Kay feigned a smile. It was her, alright – exactly who Kay didn’t want to be working with in an unfamiliar place on a potentially dangerous assignment. They had been well-acquainted throughout middle school, though things had grown complicated, to say the least.

To Kay’s surprise, Nadia made no indication of recognizing her, and casually extended a hand. “Nadia Abendroth. Good to have you on board, though I’m sorry it was so sudden,” she said. “And it sounds like you had a pretty harrowing first day.”

Kay felt the urge to grimace as she shook Nadia’s hand. They hadn’t seen each other in three years – no, four years – but she felt almost insulted by Nadia’s coldness. Then again, she mused, she really didn’t want to explain to Holly how they already knew each other.

As Holly started chatting away again, Kay stretched, wincing as something popped in her shoulder. “You must be exhausted,” Nadia said. “One of us can bring you some dinner in a bit.”

“I’m fine, thanks. I feel like I could sleep for days.” And, Kay thought sullenly, she didn’t want help from Nadia.

Holly’s lips tightened into a pout. “You’ll wake up feeling worse if you don’t eat…”

“I’m fine. I still feel a bit nauseous,” Kay lied.

“Fine. Give me your work phone, though, so I can put my number in it.”

Kay handed over her phone, and as Holly typed her number in, Nadia turned back to the keypad on the wall. “Gardner needs me to grab something, so I gotta go,” Nadia said. “Take it easy, okay?”

“Sure,” Kay said.

Holly seemed to notice her furrowed brow as Nadia disappeared. “Nadia’s the best healer we got, and she’s a pretty good brain to pick if you need something” Holly said as she handed the smartphone back to Kay. “Anyway, you share a bathroom with me. There are some clothes in the closet, but we can get you some better ones tomorrow. Call if you need anything.”

“Thanks,” Kay said. “This is all a little messy, but I appreciate your help.”

“Yeah. It’s always like this. New people don’t always get attacked on their first day, though.”

Kay smiled weakly as she turned the key in the knob. She felt ready to collapse with exhaustion as she dropped her bag on the floor inside. “Night,” she said over her shoulder.

“Night. And… welcome.”

——————————————————————————

The orange moon stared down at Kay, giving the entire world a warm glow as it cut through the air. She glanced around, unsure of where she was.

Then she looked down. She was shorter, thinner, and wearing her old school uniform in hues of blue.

Shit, she thought. What am I doing here?

Somewhere to her right, someone laughed, and someone else responded in a low whisper. Kay turned and saw two figures, their shadows sharp in the darkness.

One of them was Nadia, though she was younger and shorter, with long hair pulled back into a ponytail. The other, taller figure looked eerily like Nadia, but with shorter hair and glittering light brown eyes.

Kay wanted to run.

The tall one waved, and the moonlight glinted off of something on her hand. “Kay, come here,” she said. “I told you, I’m getting you a present!”

But Kay already knew what it was. She turned to run, but her dress shoes slipped in the mud – the cemetery mud, she knew, though she couldn’t even see the headstones in the darkness – and she fell hard.

The tall girl was on her in a heartbeat, pulling her to her feet. “This isn’t optional. I fucking need you,” the girl hissed, her grip tight on Kay’s wrist.

Kay wanted to say something, but her lips moved in vain, the sound swept away by wind, or magic, or both. She turned to Nadia, who stood stone-faced in the moonlight, eyes reflecting yellow fire.

She knew she was being dragged into serious trouble. She remembered it all too well – the attempted necromancy on the grave of Kay’s grandmother, and the experimental hex that had been placed on Kay in an indiscriminate rage, all while Nadia watched.

It had been Nadia’s sister doing the hexing, after all, so of course the bitch had stood by and watched.

——————————————————————————

Kay woke up drenched in sweat and lay awake for what felt like hours. Four years ago, that incident caused her to flee the magical world, and now, she was faced with the prospect of having to work with Nadia. The girl had no morals and would probably end up being a threat to Kay’s safety, in one way or another. Plus, Maywitch itself seemed disorganized at best, if they were throwing nineteen-year-olds into the fray before they had even agreed to join.

And worst of all, she wouldn’t even have a home to return to if she refused to join. She found herself thinking back to something else Nadia’s sister had said that night: “Fate dealt you a shitty hand of cards this time, huh?”

So be it, Kay thought. The choice was clear and indisputable. Joining Maywitch was still better than being homeless, motherless, and powerless.

 

 

Chapter 3: Contracts

 

At the sound of the siren, Renaya’s gray eyes glanced up to her rearview mirror, where blue and red lights flickered into life. Dustin, who had been sleeping in the passenger seat, abruptly sat up and swore.

“What? Were you speeding?” he asked.

She only shrugged in response as she pulled the car to the shoulder, navigating the dark road carefully. Denver’s streets were not as bad as some others she’d driven before, but she had still spent several minutes earlier swerving around potholes on one section of road.

Dustin rubbed his pale forehead, and she could sense that he was biting back some criticism of her driving. “You think we’re okay?” he whispered as he turned around.

“Relax. You know what I’m gonna do, right?”

A grin slowly spread across her face as he frowned. “Don’t,” he said.

“But I will.” The coolness of her tone seemed to whistle over her teeth. They had only been working together for two weeks, but she had already figured out that he didn’t require much persuading. He was sensible, yet pliable. She reminded herself to thank her boss for recruiting such a perfect partner for her.

“Are you sure this is—”

“You don’t even have to do anything. Just stay put.”

He opened his mouth to argue more, but was cut off by a knock at Renaya’s window. She rolled it down, a sharp grin still cutting across her features, and turned to face the tall, barrel-chested officer.

Before the officer could even say a word, Renaya’s hands twitched in a quick, spider-like motion, and her body went limp. Dustin barely remembered to break her fall before her head could hit the steering wheel. He leaned her back against her seat, and the officer laughed, breaking the silence of the night outside with a harsh roar. “Well, I’m going to go see what I can make of this,” the officer said.

Dustin felt his legs grow weak, as if urging him to sit still. “Ren – your possession can’t last that long, right?” he hissed, though there was no need to whisper.

“I don’t need long. Be back in ten or so.” With that, the officer strode back to his car, jumped inside, and sped down Route 83 in the direction they had been heading.

As the night grew quiet again, Dustin rubbed his hands together for a solid minute. It was a nervous habit he had developed in elementary school. He had no idea what to do with himself while he waited, and the sight of Renaya’s still body in the driver’s seat was only making him more anxious. He shuddered and rolled up her window, since she hadn’t bothered to do so herself, but it made him feel even more claustrophobic.

Nearly fifteen minutes passed. He reached over to check her pulse – if the officer died before her consciousness returned, she would die too – and to his relief, she was still alive. He glanced around outside, wondering if someone passing by on the sidewalk might notice the girl slumped over next to him.

There was a soft grunt beside him, and he whirled back around to see Renaya sitting up. “Shit,” he muttered, rubbing his hands together. “Ren, you okay?”

She let out a croaking laugh. “Did you hear that? Could you hear it from here?” she asked, her voice more high-pitched and strained than before.

His stomach tightened into a knot. “Hear what?”

“I drove the fucker into a gas tank. Got out just in time. It had to have blown. Whew!” She grinned, and for a moment, Dustin thought he saw fangs in the shifting light of the city. “Sorry I made you wait. Let’s go.”

He nodded, and she turned the car back on and jerked it away from the curb. He could only hope that this new gig didn’t get any more bizarre.

——————————————————————————

When Kay woke up the next morning, there was numbness in her fingers that hadn’t been there before – possibly from the strain of casting so much fire in a short amount of time, she thought as she showered and dressed.

She suspected that she had lost control of her powers because she was missing some of the catalysts that helped control the flames. Flamecasting, her specialization, was considered a less-refined version of pyrokinesis, and required fewer raw materials to make it happen. Like a cheaply-made firework, though, any use of flamecasting could be complicated by the user’s poor planning and lack of safety precautions. One of those basic precautions was to keep control materials on hand at all times, instead of just relying on your willpower to control whatever was brought forth from the other materials. No matter how skilled the firecaster, though, pyrokinesis was always more precise and easier to extinguish when needed.

Kay ran a finger over her obsidian pendant. Her mother had given it to her some four years prior, knowing that obsidian was the most effective raw ingredient any pyrokinetic or flamecaster could have. It was a convenient and oddly stylish way for Kay to be able to defend herself, and she never took it off.

Control materials, like charcoal, were another matter entirely. Kay always kept some in her backpack and her dresser drawer at home, but in the heat of the moment when they were fighting the demon, she hadn’t insisted that Juan give her some in addition to the wormwood. She had paid the price for that.

There was a knock at her door. She glanced down to make sure she was presentable before walking over to the door. “Who is it?”

“It’s Juan. Check your phone.”

She glanced down at her personal phone before remembering the one Maywitch had given her yesterday. She had left it on silent mode.

She opened the door and tried to offer a sympathetic smile. “Sorry. I fell fast asleep last night—”

She stopped as she saw a shiny, red burn and several stitches on Juan’s forehead. He waved a hand dismissively when he noticed her gaze. “It’d be nice if you were a pyrokinetic instead of a flamecaster,” he said, “but we knew what we were getting into when we brought you on board. Good job getting that thing, by the way.”

It took Kay a moment to realize that the ‘thing’ he was referring to was the demon. She glanced away and shrugged. “Bet you wish you had someone more precise,” she said. “A sniper rifle instead of a nuke.”

“Yeah, that’s you, alright.” He smiled. “I heard you had more questions.”

“A clarifying one. That money in the trust fund – that was actually from you guys? And if I refuse to join, are you gonna take [_all _]of it?”

“Correct. It’s nothing personal, but it’s technically the sort of thing covered under the—”

She held up a hand. “So I really don’t have a choice unless I wanna end up broke and homeless, right?”

He sighed and glanced down the hall. “It’s shitty, I know. It’s not my call, and it’s not even really Gardner’s. She has her pressures from above to keep us staffed, and with how many folks we have seriously injured right now…” He shrugged.

“How long would I be stuck here?”

“The contract is year-to-year, but until we downgrade our state of emergency, the same sanctions would apply if you don’t renew.”

“So I can’t just leave when the state of emergency is over?”

“We’d consider releasing you, but there’s no guarantee. We also need you more than we need most other mages. About half of the mages out there are considered non-combat – at least, as far as we know about their abilities. Another twenty percent or so are what we call Class D. They have some basic shield and offensive magic, but not much, so we utilize them mostly in research and investigative capacities. Now we need folks with more raw power. And that includes you.”

Kay raised an eyebrow at him. “What, are you saying I’m stronger than other mages?”

“Well, not stronger than your mother,” he said, smiling. “She’s Class B. You’re Class C, as far as we’ve guessed with what she told us about your abilities in the past, and based on what we saw yesterday. Holly and I are also Class C. Gardner’s one of five Class A mages in the country, and she earned it, with all the shit she can do.”

She ground her teeth and stared at the floor. She didn’t want to care about how strong she was, but she did. If she was stronger than average, that could mean she was less likely to die, she thought as she looked up at him again.

“If you don’t want in, is it possible for you to stay with someone else?” he asked.

“It is, but it’d be too far from school and work,” she said. “Besides, being here means I could potentially find Mom.”

He smiled gently. “I hear you. I’m sure you’re worried—”

“Don’t get it twisted. I just want answers from her.” She held out her hand. “I’m guessing there’s a contract or something?”

His smile faded as he reached into a briefcase at his side and rifled through a folder. “Don’t rush into this. Gardner told me you can stay for another twenty-four hours while you decide. We [_did _]just throw you into a battle before you’d even signed on.”

He placed a stapled packet of papers on top of the folder and handed it to her. She glanced over the tiny print, but didn’t bother to read it carefully. “Who’s this ‘Board of Trustees’ on here? Are they elected?” she asked.

“Yeah. The last time we held elections, you were too young to vote. They’re the ones who can enforce sanctions and stuff, but as you’ve probably guessed, most of the contract is…” He hesitated. “Kinda unenforceable, at least in a legal sense. The sanctions can be harsh, but the U.S. government doesn’t back us up in any way.”

Kay sighed. “So most people have the option to just refuse to sign and live their lives outside of the magical world, but since y’all are paying my rent, I’m fucked.”

“You could say that.”

She fumbled with the pendant around her neck, as she often did when she was nervous. She opened her mouth to ask for a pen, but stopped suddenly. She could be literally signing away her life, she knew, but it somehow didn’t seem to matter. The idea of never knowing what happened to her mother – as well as the anxiety of facing homelessness – seemed to be suffocating her sense of reason.

Was it really worth plunging back into the brutal world she had left behind?

She noticed Juan watching her carefully. “Got a pen?”

He visibly relaxed and nodded down the hall. “We have to get a second witness. Meilan’s around; let’s go ask her.”

——————————————————————————

Ten minutes later, the contract had been signed in a blur of signatures and amiable chatter. Meilan seemed completely unconcerned with the gravity of the occasion. Juan, however, offered Kay a sympathetic smile as they left.

“I hate to bring you along on something so soon, but we need your help on an assignment tonight,” he said. “Just babysitting, though. Pretty easy.”

She frowned. “Babysitting?”

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared at it for a moment, dark eyebrows furrowing in annoyance. “Holly’s gotta possess someone, so someone has to watch her body. We actually need you in the conference room upstairs in thirty minutes. Sorry for the short notice. I was gonna bring Marcus, but you’re a better option.”

“Gotcha. What am I supposed to bring?”

He glanced down at her tank top and slacks before turning on his heel. “Your clothes are fine, so just bring your keys and phone. See you soon. And—” He stopped. “Congratulations on signing.”

——————————————————————————

Kay, of course, got lost on her way to the conference room. Fortunately, she ran into Holly in another hallway, and they walked together to their destination. “This is where we usually brief and plan for stuff,” Holly said as she held the door for Kay.

Inside, Juan stood before a giant projector screen, with Nadia seated facing him. He looked up from his phone when Kay entered. “Good timing,” he said. “I’m giving you guys the short version and then you’ll get the rest on the way there. We had to move up the timeline.”

Holly raised an eyebrow. “Where are we going?”

“Outskirts of Vegas. There’s been some weird-ass tremors and we think we’ve located the source, but we’re pretty sure the guy who lives there isn’t a mage. We’ll wait until infrared shows he’s alone, then you’ll possess him while we search the house. Then we’ll drug him, so he doesn’t remember any of it.”

Kay could hear Holly suck in a breath. “It’s a little risky,” Nadia said, as if affirming Holly’s fear, “but we did it a couple months ago, right before you got here. We have it down to a science.”

“I barely remember how to make a memory potion,” Holly said.

Nadia offered her a kind smile. “One of us can re-train you on the way, if needed. Don’t worry, the team’s been planning this for a while.”

Juan looked at his phone again and pointed at the door Kay had just come through. “Let’s go. Van’s outside and it’s already loaded. It’s a five-hour drive, so we have plenty of time to talk on the way.” He stopped and thrust a stack of paper at Kay. “We need you to fill these out, since you’re new. Work on them in the car.”

Kay sighed. At least she’d have something to do to entertain herself for the next few hours.

 

 

Chapter 4: Shadows in the Alley

 

Five hours and two bathroom breaks later, the white van was still barreling along, its headlights cutting pale swatches in the dusk. Kay felt like she could see the neon glow of Las Vegas’ lights already, but perhaps that was just her imagination. She set her paperwork aside just as Juan finished a phone call and turned around, facing the others from the passenger seat.

“We actually just finalized the plan, so listen up,” he said. “Advance team has confirmed that he’s alone, and will contact us if that changes. Holly, you and Kay are getting out first and staking out the target. Photo’s on your phones. Non-mage, as far as we know, but it’s fishy as hell that he just happens to live at the exact epicenter of some of these tremors. Holly, you’re possessing him, but you’re also responsible for making and drinking the memory potion, and then getting out before the potion kicks in. Not too soon, though, because we want this guy to be wobbly enough that he can’t call 911 before he passes out. Wait for my signal and then wait one minute.”

Holly nodded confidently, and Kay wondered if she had spent the entire car ride playing out the scenario in her head. The plan was fairly simple, but since possession required the mage to have the target in her sight, they could be staking out the house for a while as they waited for him to come near a window.

And possession itself was an ugly art. Since the victim could see and hear everything that was happening to them while their body was under someone else’s control, it was critical that the memory potion work as planned.

“Nadia, head over to the house with me about two minutes after Holly and Kay, as discussed. Kay, your sole job is to stay by Holly’s body outside and be prepared to haul her out of there if things go south somehow. Let us know if you spot anyone fishy, if the situation allows. But Holly is your first priority, and leave us if you need to.” Juan nodded firmly to Holly, who smiled back. “Emergency rendezvous point has been sent to your phones. Otherwise, meet at the cafe at Winston and North when we’re done. Let’s do this.”

Though she had some lingering questions – why didn’t they know for sure whether or not he was a mage? And what were they looking for? – Kay figured she should let the others finish getting ready instead of asking. They had given her an easy job, so she didn’t need to know details right away. Nadia and Holly scrolled through the docs in their Maywitch-issued smartphones, but seemed generally unconcerned with the mission at hand.

The van pulled into a parking spot behind a dilapidated store, and Holly jumped out, followed by Kay. They strolled across the parking lot to an alley, where Holly glanced over her shoulder for an instant before walking into the violet shadows.

Kay could feel her heart pounding, but somehow, she was more concerned for Holly than herself. What was Maywitch doing trusting someone so young with something like this? Was this the best possessor they had – or the only one?

They cautiously crossed a side street and walked into an alley even darker than the first one. Holly stopped and glanced at Kay. “The lights are on,” she whispered.

Kay squinted ahead, where the back of the white, two-story house was visible through chain-link fencing. Since it was a duplex, they could likely sneak up to the side of the house and feign ignorance if they were caught – just say that they were there to see the person upstairs, and got confused about where the door to that unit was. But Kay didn’t want to play that card unless necessary, since it meant that Holly’s possession-induced fainting would occur dangerously close to the house.

And what if the person Holly possessed wasn’t alone, or she possessed the wrong person in her haste? Kay found herself regretting not asking about the intel and reasoning that had brought them to this point. It all seemed more dangerous than it was worth.

Holly, though, seemed nonplussed as she took a few steps closer, trying to act casual as she squinted at the house. Kay glanced around, knowing that while their target probably wouldn’t spot them from such a distance, other nosy neighbors could.

Holly took several steps closer. Kay tiptoed behind her, about to encourage her to slow down, when a door slammed somewhere ahead of them. Holly craned her head to the right before glancing over her shoulder and nodding to Kay. She turned back around, and a second later, her body was falling to the ground.

Kay barely had time to react, and she strained her arms as she caught Holly’s petite form. She scrambled backward and dragged Holly over to a neighbor’s garage just out of sight of the target’s house. This whole possessor-babysitting thing would take some getting used to, she mused as she pulled out her phone.

H in, she texted to Juan.

There was no response, but a few minutes later, she heard a door open and close again in the target’s yard. She had no choice but to wait for them to be done. Asking them for a progress report would only slow them down.

Holly was still breathing, so Kay focused on keeping an eye out for nosy neighbors and trying to act casual. There wasn’t necessarily anything weird about two college-age girls loitering in a back alley, and one of them being unconscious, she told herself. They could be drunk and waiting on a ride. They could be waiting on a roommate to get home because they locked themselves out.

Or, she thought, they could be weirdos trying to cause trouble. It was Las Vegas, after all. What was her cover story if someone called the police? And what would they do if they figured out Holly was unconscious – but not because of alcohol?

For a moment, Kay considered trying to take Holly back to the van, but then there was a loud, clanging noise in the target’s yard. It sounded like a gate being closed.

Kay glanced around the corner of the garage, and was relieved when she saw Nadia. There was something glowing in her hand. It took Kay only a second to realize that it was an old, obsolete flip phone.

That’s odd, Kay thought as she watched Nadia type something into the phone. Maywitch’s phones, including the one Nadia had with her in the car, were all smartphones. Had Nadia found a phone in the house?

But as Nadia continued typing for over a minute, Kay realized that it had to be her personal phone. They had been ordered to leave their personal phones behind – mostly for external security reasons, but also to ensure that staff couldn’t do anything without Maywitch having a record of it.

Kay watched as Nadia went to the trash bin just outside the fence, looked inside, and walked back to the house. Juan had probably asked her to check the trash for anything weird, Kay thought.

As Nadia reached the top of the back steps, she turned and glanced around the yard, and Kay pulled back out of sight. There was no way that Nadia wasn’t up to something. She had lost Kay’s trust a long time ago, and now, Kay was in a position to do something about it.

Kay peeked around the corner again, and when she saw that Nadia had disappeared again, she crept toward the house. A light popped on behind one first-floor window, and her heart leapt into her throat.

A shadow passed in front of the window, but disappeared shortly after. It was too tall to be Nadia – it had to be the target, possessed by Holly. Kay froze at the edge of the yard, wondering if she should turn back before someone caught her there and started asking questions.

A few minutes later, the light in the window turned off, and Kay decided to tiptoe back to her post. She quietly latched the gate behind her before walking toward the alley, turning right, and running directly into Holly.

Holly’s expression was impossible to read in the evening darkness, but Kay could sense her anger. “There you are,” Holly said as she brushed off her jeans. “Let’s go.”

Kay bit her lip as color rushed to her cheeks. She wanted to say something – explain, apologize for leaving her alone, tell her about Nadia, something – but Holly turned and walked toward North Avenue, her footsteps seeming louder than usual. Kay followed, wondering if her young charge would say something to the others when they got to the cafe.

Nadia and Juan had left through the front of the house, and when they met Kay and Holly a few minutes later, they seemed to have no idea that Kay had left her post. They walked through the half-lit streets back to the van, where their driver hurried them back to the base.

Holly was silent on the ride home. As Kay stared out the window, she felt a nauseating feeling of dread sink into her stomach. Not only was Nadia up to something shady, but Holly was pissed off – rightfully so – and might not care to hear Kay’s explanation of the situation.

When they got back to the base, Juan held a debriefing: nothing of interest was found, and they would be leaving this person alone for a while. Their surveillance team indicated that the target had called 911 after waking up from his amnesia-inducing slumber, but other than that, the mission had been completed without any hiccups. Kay thought about asking more questions about next steps, but she doubted they had been decided upon yet. Juan seemed to get information constantly and change his plans accordingly.

As they headed to the cafeteria to grab dinner, Nadia offered Kay a quick smile. “Did you get bored back there?” Nadia asked.

Kay froze before trying to disguise her nervousness with a shrug. Had Nadia spotted her after all? “Sure did,” she said. “But it’s all good. Comes with the job, right?”

“Yeah. Once we get you trained a bit better, maybe you’ll get to do something more interesting, huh?”

Kay shrugged again. Nadia’s expression held no hint of that familiar, subtle unease that Kay knew so well. Then again, she thought, maybe Nadia had gotten a little more poker-faced over the years.

They grabbed their food from the cafeteria, but since it was about to close, they took their food back to their respective rooms to eat instead. Kay stared at her meal for nearly twenty minutes before eating. It was more than just concern about what Holly would or wouldn’t say – it was fear of what Nadia would or wouldn’t do. That, she knew, was her own experience warning her to sleep with one eye open.

 

 

Chapter 5: Liar

 

Nadia ground her teeth as she glanced down at her phone. The mission in Las Vegas had been completely unproductive, and their intelligence teams had failed to pick up any further information after Nadia and the others had left. They were back to square one, rummaging around in the dregs of whatever intel they had to find a clue.

The past several months had been tumultuous, to say the least, but whoever was causing trouble had managed to do a lot of damage without leaving many clues. Maywitch investigators had stumbled upon booby traps multiple times while on seemingly innocuous missions, like missing mages or suspicious explosions. The Western Region in particular had seen a horrifying number of deaths and injuries, relative to prior years – or even decades. Nadia had heard that the death count for the past twelve months was now at ten, with fifteen still recovering from serious injuries.

The common assumption around the base was that it all tied back to the explosion in Illinois eight months prior. That rumor was true, Nadia knew, but she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone that.

She swerved around a corner and ran into Holly, who seemed to be returning from Gardner’s office. “Sorry!” Holly said, nearly dropping her phone and stack of paperwork.

“No, my bad,” Nadia said. “Is that for Kay?”

Holly looked down at the papers she had almost dropped. “This? Yeah. Review stuff. She apparently hasn’t actually studied witchcraft in a minute, so we’re giving her a skills assessment.”

Nadia sighed. Kay, it seemed, was an absolute last resort for Maywitch. According to Gardner, Kay had tried to assimilate into society and minimize using magic for the past four years. There was no clear reason why. Perhaps Kay had decided that her magic wasn’t that much use after all, and that she was better off developing other skills.

Or, Nadia thought, perhaps Kay had been scared off by some of the more dubious characters of the witching world – but Nadia couldn’t blame her for that. She had almost gone down the same road of normalcy, at the same time Kay did, but had chosen the other fork in the road.

“Let me know if she ends up needing help learning,” Nadia said. “Can’t guarantee I can answer all her questions, but I can at least point her to someone who can.”

Holly nodded. “Will do.”

Nadia offered a supportive smile before heading to Gardner’s office, but stopped as Holly spoke again: “Nadia, you used to live near Houston, right? Did you two know each other?”

That was a little too perceptive of her, Nadia thought. She smiled as she turned halfway and shook her head. “Kay? I mean, not that I remember,” she said. “Why?”

“Nothing. I’m imagining things.”

Nadia shrugged and kept walking. “Houston is a big city, and the mages there don’t hang out together much. Maybe our paths crossed at some point, though.”

She could sense Holly’s gaze on her as she turned another corner. For such a young mage, Holly sure had a good head on her shoulders, and there would be a hefty price to pay if she figured out she had just been lied to.

She already somewhat regretted pretending not to know Kay when they’d met in the hallway. She hadn’t even heard anything about Kay’s arrival, so seeing her again had been a shock.

And her gut reaction had been to try to start fresh and not reopen any old wounds. Nice, but naïve. It had all the potential in the world to backfire horribly, she thought as she rang the buzzer for Gardner’s office.

The door slid open, and she hesitated before stepping into the small, dimly-lit space. Gardner might well be a vampire with how dark she kept her office. “Morning, Director,” Nadia said.

Gardner tapped something on her tablet screen and smiled at Nadia. Her deep red hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and she looked slightly more disheveled than usual. “Morning. I have some changes to your ongoing assignment. I just sent maps and lists to your phone. Let me know now if there are any questions.”

Nadia nodded and scrolled through her phone. The updated information was fairly straightforward, as were the maps. “This all makes sense. Just to be clear – Kay doesn’t know anything, right? And it should be kept that way?”

“Of course.” Gardner folded her pale hands on the desk and fixed her gaze on Nadia. “You don’t think she knows anything, right?”

“I don’t.”

“Is there any reason for us to tell her?”

“No.” Nadia shook her head fervently.

Gardner smiled. “She’ll find out eventually, though. Are you prepared for that?”

Nadia glanced at the floor. There was no guarantee that Kay wouldn’t set something on fire if she found out that Nadia had been hiding such an important secret from her.

“Not really,” she said, “but there’s nothing we can do about that.”

“Fair enough. Come see me if you need anything else.”

“Of course. See you soon.” Nadia turned and left immediately, knowing that Gardner preferred to keep their visits short and to the point. There was a good chance someone would start asking questions if they saw Nadia spending too much time in that office.

——————————————————————————

Kay slept late the morning after the mission, and was annoyed when she woke up to a text message on her work phone from Holly: Call Juan as soon as you get this. We are trying to sort out logistics for something.

She rolled over and dialed Juan’s number. “Morning, Kay,” he said as soon as the call connected.

“Morning. What’s up?”

“How much do you weigh?”

Kay stared at the phone for a minute before answering: “The fuck?”

Juan sighed. “It’s a serious question. We’re trying to figure out who’s the smallest. You’re tall, but kinda skinny…”

“Fine. I’m 175 or so,” she said.

“Okay. I figured you weren’t the smallest but I had to check.” He sighed again, and Kay could hear exhaustion in his voice. “We may need you as backup on this mission tonight, though. Weird-ass earthquakes in Denver, and law enforcement is overwhelmed. We might have the source narrowed down. Feds haven’t given us permission to go in, though. These quakes are over 5.5 and actually doing some damage.”

Kay scowled. Since when did Maywitch need permission from the Feds to go after mages? Did the cops plan on doing it themselves?

But that was a relatively unimportant point, she told herself as she took a deep breath. “Are you sure I’m… ready?” she asked. “I mean, I can still barely use shield spells.”

“It’s not ideal, but like I said, you’ll just be backup in case you need you,” he said. ”Just be on standby. We may need you at a moment’s notice.”

“Sure thing.”

“That means be dressed and less than two minutes away from the conference room at all times.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, but then realized it didn’t matter since he couldn’t see her. “Sure,” she said. “Will do.”

“Thanks. Call Holly if you need anything in the meantime.”

There was a faint click, and Kay realized he had hung up. She sighed and laid back onto her bed. It was only a little after 10 a.m. – Mountain Time, she had to remind herself, which meant that she had slept in until her usual time if she was basing her schedule on Central Time.

She felt a pang of homesickness. If she was still in Houston, she would be heading to brunch right about now, and gorging herself on some of the best chilaquiles in the state. The food at Maywitch wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t nearly as good or diverse as the food back home. Maybe she could put in a request for some Mexican breakfast food, she thought as she stared at the ceiling.

There was a timid, almost inaudible knock at the door. She resisted the urge to groan. “Who is it?”

“Hey, are you on standby, too?” Holly’s voice said. “I figured we could go get breakfast, if you haven’t already. And I got some stuff for you from Gardner.”

Kay sat up. Holly didn’t sound annoyed at her at all. Ever since Kay had left her unconscious in an alley the evening before, she had been avoiding being alone with Holly. She didn’t want to get reamed out for dereliction of duty – though that would go against Holly’s nature, anyway, Kay thought. The girl seemed far too nice to curse anyone out for what could be considered a rookie mistake.

Kay stood, walked to her dresser and pulled on a shirt. “Yeah, good idea,” she said. “Dunno when we’ll get to eat next, huh?”

There was a faint chuckle behind the door. Kay opened it and mustered a smile, and Holly returned it. “It’s not usually this hectic,” Holly said. “Hopefully things won’t be too crazy in Denver, though. Set these on your desk, and let’s go eat.”

Kay obeyed and followed Holly down the hall. “Do you know what they’re serving?” Kay asked.

“I already heard Gardner saying something about banana pancakes. They try to mix things up sometimes. I heard tomorrow’s breakfast burritos and chilaquiles.”

Kay grinned for the first time in days. If she made it through the next mission, the chilaquiles would be a welcome reward.

“By the way…” Holly slowed and glanced over her shoulder. “There better be a good reason why you left your post last night.”

Of course she would bring it up, Kay thought as she quickly nodded. For a split second, she debated telling her about Nadia, but decided to wait and see. It wasn’t worth looking like a snitch or turning Nadia against her if the unauthorized cell phone use turned out to be nothing.

“I heard something fall, and I panicked. Maybe a trash can lid or something. It was the wind knocking it over, apparently, but my gut instinct was to check. In hindsight, that was stupid,” Kay said.

“Oh.” Holly’s shoulders relaxed as she smiled. “You must’ve been really nervous. Just leave it to the others next time, yeah?”

“Right,” Kay said, returning the smile. It was only a half-lie. She didn’t plan on pissing off Holly again unless absolutely necessary.

——————————————————————————

As Kay and Holly quickly ate their food, they kept an eye on their phones, knowing that they could be asked to leave at a moment’s notice. Just as Kay finished her pancakes, Holly frowned, tapped at her phone, and announced that it was time to leave.

They rushed to the conference room, where Juan waved them toward the garage. “We think we have it narrowed down to a single building,” he said. “Things have gotten worse, though.”

A tall, turquoise-haired woman met them a short distance down the hallway, her dark eyes darting over Kay with suspicion. “Kay, this is Perry Daniels,” Juan said, waving at the woman. “She’s been on medical leave for a few weeks. Perry, Kay’s new.”

Perry’s expression seemed to lighten somewhat as she extended a hand. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “You’re brand new, huh?”

Kay nodded. “Yeah. Nice to meet you, too.”

“Van’s loaded up. Let’s go,” Juan said, his voice echoing as they entered the garage. “And everyone better be on the lookout for trouble as we go.”

Nadia was already in the backseat of the van, her purse on her lap and her smartphone to her ear. Kay begrudgingly seated herself beside her. “Roger that,” Nadia said softly. “Yup. Bye.”

Holly, Perry, and Juan squeezed in next, and the driver pulled the van out through the winding tunnels leading to the surface. They barreled down the highway for nearly two hours before stopping for a bathroom break in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but trees and plains for miles around the gas station.

As they walked from the gas station back to the van, Juan waved them away, a massive duffel bag slung over one shoulder. “Helicopter’s on its way,” he said. “It’ll land in that parking lot next door.”

Holly looked alarmed, but Nadia merely nodded. “Guess we’re in a hurry, huh?” Nadia said, squinting at the sky to the east. “What’s the plan?”

“Bust into the basement of a church near downtown, see what’s in there, and hopefully get the hell out. It’s the source of the tremors, we think, so…”

Kay frowned. That wasn’t much of a plan.

“I thought that was someone else’s job,” Nadia said.

Juan shook his head. “The team that was supposed to check it out is dealing with demons on the outskirts of town. It’s up to us. Even the Feds get that now.”

“Demons?” Holly glanced at Perry, then Nadia.

“They can handle it,” Nadia said. “At least, if they’re anything like the one Kay and Juan fought.”

A tiny dark speck came into view over the trees, and Juan waved them toward a flat field a short distance away. The noise of the helicopter grew as it came closer and touched down among the grass and weeds.

As they ran, Kay could hear someone yelling near the gas station behind her, but ignored it. Someone else would take care of civilian witnesses, if they were even important enough to matter at a time like this. She had to focus on not throwing up at the thought of flying hundreds of feet above the ground at 150 miles per hour.

Nadia seemed to notice her strained expression. “Ever been in a helicopter, Kay?” she yelled over the roar of the helicopter.

“No,” Kay said, her voice laced with annoyance.

The helicopter slowly landed, its blades kicking up dust and debris as they whirled. Juan waved them toward it as its door opened, revealing a single pilot. Kay climbed in last, wanting to keep her feet on the ground for as long as possible. The less time she spent crammed into a tiny seat in a machine that was whirring loudly and going to be airborne any second, the less likely she was to throw up.

As she climbed in and fastened her seatbelt, she noticed Holly motion to Nadia, who sighed and reached into her purse. “This will help,” Nadia mouthed, seeming to know she wouldn’t be audible over the helicopter.

It was peppermint oil. It wouldn’t calm Kay down any, but it would help with the nausea. She wasn’t sure how Nadia had figured out her distress, but chalked it up to a disturbance in her aura, since Nadia was likely well-trained enough to detect such fluctuations.

She took it reluctantly and nodded her thanks. The last thing she wanted was to be indebted to Nadia, but it was better than losing her brunch.

Then again, she thought, maybe throwing up was the least of her concerns on this mission.

 

 

Chapter 6: Living Things

 

Just over an hour later, the helicopter touched down at what appeared to be a hospital. Juan rushed off the helipad toward a parking lot, waving at the others to follow him.

Kay hadn’t thrown up, but she still felt shaky as she lumbered across the blacktop after the others. She tried to give herself a pep talk, and had almost succeeded when her thoughts were interrupted by a tremor beneath her feet.

Nadia whirled around, eyeing the multi-story hospital fifty feet to their right, but quickly grew poker-faced again. Juan yelled something at them, but it was drowned out by a nearby car alarm.

Kay jogged after Juan, and the other three women followed. Juan waved to the driver of a beat-up, two-door pickup truck and motioned to the bed of the truck. The driver waved back, and Kay realized the driver must have been arranged by Maywitch. Nadia jumped in the back without even lowering the tailgate. Kay nearly fell as she attempted to climb in, and Nadia caught her hand.

Kay didn’t even have the energy to be annoyed. She carefully sat down against a wheel well, and when the others were seated, the truck took off with a jolt.

The earthquake seemed to have ended, though it was hard to tell for sure with the movement of the truck. As they drove down side streets toward downtown, traffic lights were out. Pedestrians milled about, usually staying out of the way of cars but sometimes walking in front of them. They were lucky it wasn’t the middle of the night, Kay thought.

A police car stopped them at a large intersection, but waved them through after a conversation with the driver. The truck swerved into a nearby parking lot and skidded to a halt. Juan immediately jumped out as he barked: “You all follow closely and keep quiet. If I give the order to fire, aim to kill, not disable.”

Kay felt her legs grow weak again as she climbed out of the truck bed. She hadn’t signed up for killing people. She looked at Holly, who was biting her fingernails before Juan handed her a fistful of vials containing various herbs.

Nadia and Perry, on the other hand, seemed completely calm as they followed Juan down the sidewalk. Holly smeared something on her hands – charcoal, Kay realized after a moment, to help control fire magic – before following.

Kay reached into her pocket, pulled a stick of charcoal from a plastic bag, and did the same. No sense in burning down a church if she could help it. She was so nervous that she felt like her hands would spark and burst into flame at any second.

Juan took them around a corner, and a large, gothic church came into view, its stained-glass windows damaged by the quakes. A few police cars had blocked traffic down the street, but otherwise, the area seemed to be mostly abandoned. They were outside the heart of downtown, where there could still be people trying to get home.

There was a tall apartment building right next to the church, though. Kay suddenly found herself desperately hoping that the church would end up being a false alarm, just like the house that the others had searched the night before. She didn’t look forward to potentially fighting indoors, much less in a heavily populated area.

Juan suddenly stopped, peered across the street at the church, and muttered an incantation. Nothing happened, and it took Kay a moment to realize that it was an aura-shielding spell. No sense in getting caught because of a sensitive mage among the enemy’s ranks. It wasn’t unheard of for some mages to be able to sense others from quite a distance.

As he waved over his shoulder, Juan started to run across the street. Kay could barely lift her feet to follow. Why wasn’t there someone else at Maywitch – someone stronger, someone with more experience – who could do this? Why were they the backup team in such a dangerous situation?

She ground her teeth and reached for a bag of wormwood in her pocket. No sense in whining now, she thought bitterly as they crossed the church’s parking lot.

Juan tried the side door, but it was locked, and he glanced over his shoulder only briefly before blasting it open with a few words and a wave of his palm. If there were enemies in the church, they definitely heard the noise. Kay considered trying to cast a silence spell to conceal future noise, but realized that would also keep them from hearing any potential threats approaching. Every spell had its unintentional side effects.

Juan ran in, followed immediately by Nadia and Perry. Holly glanced over at Kay before running in next, and Kay followed, struggling to keep her legs from shaking.

The power was out inside the church, and only sunlight from the windows illuminated the wide hallway they had entered. Juan paused before heading to the right, his shadow casting ripples of darkness on the old stone walls.

Kay found herself jumping at every sound and shadow as they went. Holly was clearly just as nervous, her eyes darting about wildly and her neck craning to see the source of every noise. Sweat poured down Kay’s face, and she wiped her forehead with charcoal-stained hands as they walked down two short hallways.

Juan paused before an open stairwell near the entrance to the sanctuary. Kay felt her heart pounding in her throat as her senses urged her to keep moving. He seemed to steel himself for a moment before nodding to the others and darting down the dark stairwell.

He had to be just as scared as everyone else, Kay thought, pushing her way past Nadia to follow him. His magical abilities weren’t even that strong, were they? And God forbid he should get in the way of Kay or Holly’s fire spells.

Juan’s footsteps echoed in the stairwell, no matter how softly he stepped, and the volume only increased as the others began to tiptoe behind him. It was a peaceful sound, like the white noise of a distant highway on a summer night, but it was still terrifying to know that it could give away their presence. Kay found herself holding her breath until her lungs wanted to explode.

There was a soft scraping noise somewhere behind then, and she whirled around. A vaguely humanoid figure leapt down from the landing above them, its contorted face glowing orange in the burst of light that had appeared.

She instinctively lashed out, flames bursting from her hands, but Holly had beat her to it. The blinding light made Kay shut her eyes. Scalding heat filled the air, and she recoiled, nearly falling down the steps behind her.

The figure let out a piercing shriek and began to stumble backward as Kay opened her eyes again. Holly’s flames faded and were replaced by a shield, courtesy of Nadia, and the creature thrashed against the thin green haze before crumpling against the stairs.

“Let’s go,” Juan said, his voice shaking as he jumped down several stairs.

Kay followed, not wanting to be anywhere near the thing that had just chased them, and she heard the others’ footfalls thumping behind her. When they reached the bottom landing, Juan barged out of the stairwell without stopping, his palms outstretched.

There was another dark hallway before them, but it was short, and Kay could see someone’s silhouette in a well-lit room up ahead.

“Get ready!” Juan said, his hands glowing. “Shields up!”

Somewhere nearby, Nadia spoke a rumble of syllables, and a green glow appeared before Kay again. She couldn’t find the pride to be annoyed by Nadia protecting her. All she cared about was getting out of this alive.

Just as Juan’s shield came up, there was a loud, haughty cackle in the room ahead. A hulking mass emerged from in the doorway, crouching low, slinking toward the intruders with glimmering eyes.

It was a panther. Kay’s heart jumped into her throat. Shield spells didn’t work on Earthly flesh and bone – only magic, demons, and non-living things. They could stop a bullet, but they were useless against even the smallest of insects.

She opened her mouth to say something to Juan, but the giant cat leapt forward, its growls echoing in the tiny hallway.

Juan dropped his shield and pulled something from his pocket. Just as Kay raised a hand and was about to unleash her flamecasting, collateral damage or not, the panther thudded limply to the floor – probably thanks to some kind of stunning spell, she thought. Without even hesitating, Juan stepped over it and ran into the next room, with Kay and the others close behind.

The room was lit only by candles, but their light spread over every inch of the fifty-foot-square space. A young woman leaned against the far wall, her expression unreadable as she surveyed her guests. Short, gray hair fell in waves around the side of her face, and a heavy red pendant rested against her collarbone. She wore a gray dress that was slightly singed around the bottom hem. Kay saw wounds on her arms that looked suspiciously like half-healed burn marks.

“Quake magic is easy to trace,” Juan said, nodding to the woman. “Come with us. You can’t keep this up—”

The woman’s eyes flicked upward for a split second, and Kay instinctively raised her eyes in time to see something black falling from the low ceiling beams. She threw her left palm up and shot fire upward as she pushed Juan away from the thing’s trajectory.

Her flames missed, but she moved quickly enough to keep the thing – whatever it was – from falling on her. As it landed on four legs, it whirled around, snarling, and she realized it was another panther. Juan raised a shield to deflect an attack from the gray-haired woman, and in the same instant, Kay launched her flames at the panther as it lunged at her. It was forced backward and fell in a burnt, twitching heap.

Someone yelled behind Kay, and she looked up again just in time to see a man swinging a blade downward at her and Juan. The floor beneath her seemed to give way, and she fell sideways against Juan, tumbling to the floor as there was a yell of pain above her.

Juan grunted in pain as Kay fell against him, and she scrambled to her feet. Pain shot through her right arm, and for a moment, she feared it was sprained or broken. The floor had apparently spiked upward and knocked them away from their assailant, who now lay on the floor some ten feet away. Kay guessed that one of her comrades had sent some kind of spell through the floor. The man with the blade immediately rose and cast a shield about himself.

“Good try, Dustin,” said the woman against the wall. She had vials of herbs in each hand, and Kay knew she was readying her next attack. “I’ll take these first two. Surely you can handle the others, right?”

Unsure of what to do, Kay glanced down at Juan, who was finally getting to his feet. The other man – Dustin, Kay assumed – nodded and charged toward Nadia and Holly.

Perry, though, did nothing. Kay watched her for a moment before Juan yelled something and a strong wind tore across the room.

Kay turned back to face their opponent just as Juan activated a shield, blocking the gust of wind that had threatened to knock them over. The woman charged, pulling something from her pocket. The gust had been a ruse as she was preparing her next attack.

Juan lowered his shield, and Kay launched flames toward the woman, who dove sideways to avoid the blast. Before Kay could adjust, there was a strangled gurgling noise beside her.

She turned just in time to see Perry pulling a knife from Juan’s neck, and blood falling to the floor with a sound like rain.

 

 

Chapter 7: Ash

 

Kay’s first instinct was to attempt to save Juan and call for Nadia, but before she could, Perry brought the knife around and swung at Kay’s neck.

Kay stumbled back and launched another salvo of flames. Somewhere nearby, the gray-haired woman cackled as Perry raised a shield and the fireballs disintegrated.

Was Perry possessed? The gray-haired woman and Dustin both seemed to have their senses about them. If both of them were still in action, then either there was a possessor hiding in the shadows, or Perry was acting of her own free will.

“Perry, what the fuck?” Kay yelled, raising a shield to protect her back from the gray-haired woman.

Perry lunged at her, and Kay leapt to the right, landing hard on the cold floor. She could feel her pulse pounding in her ears as she whipped her head up, trying to keep her guard up. “Nadia!” she said as she rolled over, scrambling to regain her footing. “Nadia, help Juan!”

Nadia, though, was pinned down in the corner, fighting with a knife and small bursts of wind magic as Holly fought to keep a shield up. Whatever Dustin was doing, it was working.

The gray-haired woman and Perry both ran at Kay at once. Kay struggled to her feet and raised her bleeding palms, muttering forbidden words of a hex beneath her breath.

The flames ripped themselves from her hands with a screech, like metal scraping stone, and even Perry’s shield wasn’t enough to stop it. The woman disappeared in a tornado of blinding yellow flames less than three feet from Kay. The heat was burning Kay’s face, but she was powerless to stop it. She could only close her eyes as the fire billowed out of control.

She heard a yell of pain, and realized the gray-haired woman was still alive. Kay forced herself to open her eyes and could see a faint green oval amidst the flames.

She used all of her strength to weaken the flames, but she could tell by the smoky haze in the room that the ceiling had caught fire. It was only a matter of time before the whole building was ablaze. She looked to her left, where Nadia knelt behind a shield, holding Holly’s limp body.

But where was Dustin?

A battered, pale form burst from the smoke and flames, launching himself at the gray-haired woman. It was Dustin. Holly must have possessed him – but if he died before she left his body, she would die too. It was a risky move.

The woman shrieked with rage and hit Dustin with a spell that knocked him on his back with a thump. A second later, she turned to Kay and tried to cast something her way as well.

Kay raised a shield and glanced over at Nadia and Holly. Holly had regained consciousness, but Dustin wasn’t moving. Now was their chance to escape. Ash and debris were raining down from the ceiling, and the smoke was intensifying. They were in a vulnerable position if they stayed underground without any backup scheduled to come.

“Where’s Juan?” Nadia yelled.

As the gray-haired woman paused to ready another attack, vials in hand, Kay looked toward where Juan had fallen. She couldn’t see him amidst the smoke and debris. Part of the ceiling was already raining down flaming wood, and her eyes were almost useless with the smoke stinging them.

Something hit her hard, and she flew backward, hitting her head against the wall. For a moment, she couldn’t see, and could feel herself losing consciousness.

Then Nadia grabbed her and dragged her upright, yelling in her ear. Kay’s skull throbbed in protest, and her lungs were stinging – smoke, she realized after a moment. There was a green glow of a shield nearby, but other than that, all she could see was Nadia and thick, billowing smoke in the red haze. Nadia’s healing magic had to be the only thing keeping her that strong in the suffocating smoke, Kay thought as she coughed heavily.

“Let’s go!” Nadia said.

Holly, who was casting a shield between them and the other woman, doubled over coughing as she stumbled backward. Nadia pulled Kay toward the door, and once all three of them were in the hallway, they made a break for the stairwell.

Kay could barely feel her legs, but she forced herself to run. Something moved in the flickering shadows ahead of them. Nadia waved her hand, and Kay heard a howl of pain as a gust of wind sent the creature flying into the wall.

“Hurry up,” Nadia said, before casting one last glance into the flames behind them.

Holly grabbed Kay’s other arm, pulling her into the stairwell. Kay felt nausea rush over her, but adrenaline overpowered it and let her move shakily up the stairs.

They reached the main floor, where the air was slightly clearer, and rested for a few seconds before stumbling into the parking lot. Kay could see smoke and flames billowing from the basement windows and part of the first floor. The stained glass accents around the building – what remained of them, anyway – seemed to wink as fire began to dance behind them.

She could hear Nadia retching in the grass nearby. She wondered if the fire department was on its way, but figured they could be tied up with other fires. She thought about calling for paramedics, at least, but realized with a pang that they wouldn’t do much good anymore. She would live, as would Nadia and Holly. It was certainly too late for Juan.

She sprawled out on the warm concrete as sweat dripped from her skin. Her head was pounding. She could feel blisters on her arms, but they barely registered in the fog of pain and heat.

The last thing she remembered was the sound of sirens.

——————————————————————————

Everything hurt, but her head hurt the most, with pain seeming to echo between her ears. Her throat and mouth felt as dry as summer pavement. Eventually, she coughed, and something nearby made a noise in response.

“Kay?” a voice said.

Something nudged her arm, and she recoiled. “Easy – you’re back, Kay,” the voice said, closer this time.

Kay’s eyes flew open, and Meilan’s face came into focus, silhouetted against a white ceiling. “How are you feeling?” Meilan asked.

Kay shook her head. “Where’m I?”

“The base. It’s a little after 0700. You’ve been out a while.”

“How?”

Meilan sighed and adjusted something to Kay’s right. “Paramedics found you and then we took custody of you. Got some smoke inhalation, burns, a concussion, and general exhaustion from over-exerting yourself. You used a ton of magic, it seems, but you’ll be fine.”

Kay stared at the ceiling for a long moment, trying to piece together the fragments of moments dancing in her brain. She remembered the fire, the panther, a gray-haired woman, and a man named Dustin. She looked down at her arms, where bandages covered several inches of skin.

Then, with a jolt, she remembered Perry.

“Juan’s dead.” It was a statement, not a question.

Meilan grimaced as she nodded. “Cause of death to be determined, but it looks like it wasn’t your fault…”

“I know.” Kay slowly began to sit up, waving Meilan away when she tried to help. “Holly?”

“She’s fine. In fact, I’ll go let her know you’re awake.”

Kay started to shake her head, but winced as pain shot up through her neck. Why was she still in such terrible condition? “Where’s Nadia?”

Meilan’s face darkened further, and she turned away to fiddle with the dark, messy bun perched against her neck. For a moment, the only sound was the dull, dry hiss of the air conditioning, and Kay felt her chest tighten. “We’re not sure,” Meilan said. “She got you out of there, but after that, she vanished.”

Kay stared across the room. She thought back to the mission some two days prior, when Nadia had apparently been skulking around on her personal phone in the middle for the assignment. What, if anything, was she doing? If she had made it out of the church alive, what possible justification could she have for running off afterward?

Meilan seemed to notice her concern, and added: “It’s not unheard of for people to end up missing a ride back to the base afterward, especially since your squad leader was killed, but let us know if you have any idea where she might be.”

“Sure,” Kay said, stretching as much as her body would let her. “Is there anything else I can do right now?”

“Gardner wanted to see you as soon as you were awake and functioning. Are you feeling okay?” Meilan’s brow furrowed. “You can say no, if you’re not.”

“I want to talk to her, especially if she’ll tell me what’s going on.”

Meilan nodded and stepped back to the counter, where her cell phone was plugged into a charger on the wall. Kay suddenly wondered how long the nursing staff had been awake. “Okay, she’s on her way,” Meilan said after a moment. “Look sharp.”

Kay rubbed her eyes. She felt surprisingly well, considering the amount of fire and smoke she had escaped, but she still felt physically drained.

When Gardner appeared a few minutes later, she had dark circles under her eyes. Her uniform jacket was wrinkled, and her name badge was crooked, as if it had fallen off and been re-attached in a hurry. Kay had never met her before, and had to wonder if she always looked like that, or if she had just been up all night. “Glad you’re okay, Adamis,” Gardner said.

Kay nodded. “Likewise. What even happened?”

Gardner sighed and rubbed her temples. “Here’s what we think we know. The woman you guys fought goes by Renaya. We don’t even know if that’s her real name, nickname, or what. We think she’s a possessor, not a demon-summoner, and we’re pretty sure she survived the fire last night.”

“How do you guys know all that?”

“We’ve been keeping tabs on her for several months, after the explosions in rural Illinois. We just didn’t know anything for sure until now. Yesterday, she didn’t arrive in Denver until right before the quakes started. We think there was someone else who summoned a bunch of demons – one of which you guys fought in the stairwell of the church, it seems, and another four of which our mages killed on the outskirts of town.”

Kay sucked in a breath. No wonder it had been just a small group of them going into the church – the others had their hands full.

“We’ve determined with relative certainty that the earthquakes are a direct result of demon-summoning spells. We’re not sure if all such spells result in quakes, though.” Gardner’s lips tightened, and a flash of anger lit up her eyes for a moment. “I wish we knew more, but we thought demon-summoners were a dead race. We thought we contained the last of them over a century ago. That goal was part of the reason why Maywitch was created in the first place.”

Witchcraft’s history had never been of much interest to Kay, and her mother had only given her vague, fleeting glimpses into its depths. Now, she wished she had paid more attention and tried to learn more. She leaned back against her pillow, her head aching horribly. “We were created to… get rid of demon-summoners?”

“Contain the last of them, anyway, until they died off. Our efforts to be humane about it apparently allowed some to reproduce.” Gardner sighed. “There are some ethical arguments to be made about how we handled it, but that’s a discussion for another time.”

Kay frowned. It sounded suspiciously like eugenics. “Okay,” she said. “How much does the public know about what happened?”

“About last night? A little too much, unfortunately. We’re doing damage control, but the government conspiracy crowd is already all over this.” Gardner’s upper lip twitched, but she didn’t smile.

“Casualties?”

“No civilians, mercifully. Next time we won’t be so lucky. Three of ours dead, including Perry. Did Perry give any indication that anything was wrong before she snapped?”

Kay gritted her teeth and stared down at her lap. She didn’t want to think about Perry. Even if she did, she didn’t know [_what _]to think, and didn’t know what questions to even ask.

“No,” she said. “I can’t think of anything. She was quiet, I guess, but I don’t even know if that’s her normal personality.”

“Let me know if you do think of anything. We’re investigating possibilities ranging from long-term possession to some kind of spell we haven’t seen before. Maybe it was just plain betrayal, though.”

Kay suppressed a shudder. “And Nadia? Where did she go?”

“She’s AWOL. We know she made it outside alive, but she disappeared after that. If you hear anything from her, you let us know immediately.”

“Right. Is Holly okay?”

“Yes, physically, but we’re trying to let her get some rest. I think whatever happened with Perry shook her up considerably.”

“She doesn’t…” Kay stopped, searching Gardner’s expression. “She doesn’t blame herself, does she?”

Gardner sighed. “She does. She didn’t figure out what was happening quickly enough to possess her and stop it. But she’ll get over that. We still have no idea how or why Perry did what she did, and that makes everything that much worse for Holly, I think.”

“Because if anyone’s at fault, though, it’s me—”

“No, you’re not,” Gardner said. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine, for sending you and the others into something that dangerous. It wasn’t supposed to be your team going into the church. We thought it would still be manageable for a group of five with your respective Combat Classes, but we still shouldn’t have taken that chance.”

They fell silent, and only the beeping of something nearby kept the silence from suffocating Kay. “We’re going to work incredibly hard on your training, from here on out,” Gardner said. “And it’ll be tedious and hard at times, but you’ll do it, if you want to keep this from happening again. I was never planning on sending you into such dire situations, but our forces are thinning out.”

Kay nodded. There was no sense in arguing. Now that she was in Maywitch at a time like this, there was no getting out of it. There was no way they would let her leave – and even if she did, there was no guarantee that Renaya or the demon-summoner wouldn’t come after her next.

She officially knew too much, and had been seen by too many enemies, to return to the way things were in Houston.

——————————————————————————

Meilan and another healer worked well into the next evening to get Kay’s head and lungs fully healed. The burn marks started to heal as well, and by the time she was discharged from the clinic, she was beginning to feel normal again. Her breathing was steady and strong, and the pain from her remaining burns was mitigated with healing salve.

When she arrived back at her room, she considered knocking on Holly’s door, but decided against it. She went into her own room and found a thick book on the nightstand.

There was a handwritten note set on top of it, which read:

Here’s your homework for tonight. Read chapters 3-5 and come to the conference room at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Be ready to discuss recognition of basic spells. You’ll need to learn their ingredients too – even if you have no intention of ever using them.

– F.G.

That must be Gardner, Kay thought as she examined the book, titled Magical Defense Theory. It had to be over thirty years old, with the amount of wear and tear on the outside.

She crawled into bed, wincing at the pain still lingering in her neck, and opened the book. Luckily, it had diagrams and charts, instead of just a wall of text. She had never done well in school when books were involved. She was too much of a visual learner.

As she began to read, the pages blurred before her eyes, and she had to stop to blink back tears. It was frustrating – stupidly frustrating – that she had to be learning the basics at that point. Growing up, she had no desire to practice magic, since using it in everyday life was so risky. None of her friends were mages – not after things had gone south with her and Nadia, anyway. The only mage she knew besides her mother was the old lady down the street back in Houston. Why would she learn anything other than fire and shields, which were all she needed for self-defense?

And now she was paying the price for it. She hadn’t even been able to bring back Juan’s body – or protect him, or heal him, or anything – because all she was capable of was blazing, deadly fire. It was possible that she wouldn’t be much good at other types of magic, but she wouldn’t know until she actually tried.

She didn’t give a rat’s ass about Maywitch or meddling in the affairs of other mages, but she sure as hell didn’t want to see anybody else around her suffer. She wiped her eyes and started to read again, struggling to commit the foreign words and names of plants and stones to memory.

——————————————————————————

A muffled knock roused her from her sleep. She blinked and sat up, the book falling from her chest. She had fallen asleep with the lights on.

She crossed to the door and opened it. Holly stood outside, hair unkempt and eyes red. She looked unharmed, but it was possible her blue bathrobe was hiding the injuries from the previous mission.

“Hey,” Kay said. “You okay?”

Holly nodded. “Gardner said you’d been released. You okay, though?”

“Yeah. Anything on Nadia?”

“Not yet, but…” Holly smiled. “Don’t worry. She might have run off to check on someone or something and got caught up in the chaos.”

“You really think that?”

Holly flinched, and Kay immediately regretted her choice of words. “Sorry, but you know Gardner doesn’t even know where she is, right?” she continued.

“I know, but you don’t know how crazy things can sometimes get around here,” Holly said, her eyes narrowing. “Phones get broken. People get separated. She could’ve been taken to a hospital and released before we could catch her. If our comms weren’t so heavily secured, she probably would’ve found a way to contact us by now. She’ll turn up soon.”

For a fleeting moment, Kay wanted to tell her about Nadia’s suspicious phone usage during their mission in Las Vegas, but decided against it. Maybe Holly was right. “Okay, fair enough,” Kay said. “I hope you’re right.”

Holly pulled her phone from her pocket and frowned. “I got a meeting with one of Gardner’s brass. You got training in a half hour, right?”

“Shit, I do?”

“It’s 8:30,” Holly said, a smile drifting into her eyes. “You overslept?”

“You could say that. Thanks for the wake-up call. How did you know I had training?”

“Gardner asked me to drop by,” Holly said.

Kay smiled, but it felt insincere. Juan was dead. Perry, fresh back from medical leave, was incinerated by Kay’s own flames. It still felt raw. The half-healed burns on Kay’s arms twinged as she raised a hand in a wave. “Thanks.”

“Take it easy, okay?” Holly turned and walked down the hall, her shoulders tense with worry.

——————————————————————————

Four days after the earthquakes, Nadia hadn’t reappeared. Kay watched as Holly’s face grew more and more distraught with each passing morning, until it looked as if she would cry at a moment’s notice.

Rumors swirled about Nadia: her phone had been tracked to somewhere in suburban Denver before being turned off; a book of forbidden hexes had been found in her room; a police officer had seen her setting a school ablaze and fleeing into nearby woods.

Kay took them all with a grain of salt, and figured it wasn’t worth it to add to the furor with any rumors of her own. After all, who really cared if Nadia had been on her personal phone in the middle of the mission in Las Vegas? That didn’t tell them anything about where she was or what she might be doing.

And, Kay thought, the last thing she wanted was for that to get twisted into something crazy before getting traced back to her. The less she got grilled by Gardner and the other higher-ups, the better. The entire base was on edge, and Kay could almost taste the paranoia in the air with each breath. From the chatter around her, she could tell that deaths at Maywitch used to be rare, but the number of fatalities had risen dramatically in the past few months.

At the memorial service for Juan, there was no mention of Perry’s betrayal. Gardner, clad in all black, offered strong words for Juan’s intelligence and willingness to charge into any battle.

Yeah – with a team full of untrained brats barely old enough to vote, Kay thought bitterly. Even if Nadia was somewhat trained, she apparently couldn’t do much besides heal and conjure shields. Maybe that’s why she had left: she had defected, unwilling to face the danger and chaos of their desperate, disorganized militia.

As several mages lit incense and recited rites over Juan’s casket, Kay glanced to her right and saw Holly crying several seats down. She had to be traumatized. This had been her home for several months, and the pain of seeing someone she cared about stabbed and burned to charred bone by colleagues had to be horrible.

Kay, on the other hand, was still too stunned to feel much of anything. At the end of the service, she waited in line to offer her blessing over the casket, as was customary for mages, and walked away.

She stopped at the assembly hall’s main doors, though, and turned around to wait for Holly. That, at least, she could do.

When Holly finished comforting another mage twenty minutes later, she and Kay walked silently toward their dorms, not looking at each other. Holly spoke first: “You have training again in the morning, right?”

“Yeah,” Kay said. “I have a few questions about possession, if you have time—”

They rounded a corner, and Kay stopped short, her stomach lurching. Ahead of them stood Nadia, hair and clothing soaked from the rainstorms aboveground.

Holly started to say something, but stopped. Nadia offered a reluctant half-wave, her exhaustion apparent in her gesture.

Then, the words left Kay’s lips before she could stop herself: “Oh, this better be good.”

 

 

Chapter 8: Mother

 

Nadia’s eyes were rimmed with red, and there was a gray pallor to her tan skin. Kay glanced over her, hoping to spot any signs of trouble – magical or otherwise – before it started. Nadia was empty-handed, though, and simply nodded in greeting.

“Kay,” Holly said, raising a hand. “Don’t—”

“Where the hell did you go for four days?” Kay snapped. “We’re down multiple people, and if anything else had happened while you were on your little vacation—”

Kay!” Holly yelled, louder than Kay had ever heard her.

The hall fell silent until a whistling sigh left Nadia’s lips. “I know,” she said. “I can’t tell you here, though. Come to my room.”

She walked away, waving a hand in an invitation to follow. Kay could see Holly gritting her teeth as they followed.

Nadia stopped outside a room, turned the knob with shaking hands, and let them into a bedroom. A backpack lay on the bed, half of its contents strewn in a wet circle on the floor.

“I’m sorry I left so suddenly after what happened in the church,” she said softly. “Your mother’s living in Denver working on something important, so needless to say, I felt obligated to check in on her after—”

“You what?” The words left Kay’s mouth before she could even process what she had just heard.

Nadia bit her lip, visibly annoyed by the interruption. “This is top secret, so keep it quiet, but as soon as I got back Gardner relayed to me that I could tell you.”

Kay could feel blood boiling between her ears, and barely noticed Holly lift a hand. ”You’d better explain a bit more,” Holly said. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she and her partner are fine. It’s a long-term assignment. You won’t get to see her for a while, but trust me, she’s fine. I brought you a note from her that explains some things,” Nadia said, rummaging in her backpack for a moment.

“You’re lucky I’m still bad at magic,” Kay muttered, “otherwise I would hex you before you could even react.”

Nadia looked up from her backpack. “Excuse me?”

“You two,” Holly said, her voice a low hiss, “do not start this here, or I swear—”

“How long have you known?” Kay yelled. “You guys lied to me, and I haven’t even heard from her in—”

“Let me explain,” Nadia said as she pulled something from her backpack. “Your mother’s no coward. She has another responsibility right now, is all. Maywitch asked me to keep an eye on her. We couldn’t tell you about it because certain people above Gardner’s pay grade don’t even know.”

She thrust the object into Kay’s hand. It took Kay a long moment to realize it was a folded piece of paper crammed inside a plastic bag – and an elaborate, circular series of runes was drawn along the paper. Explosive runes were her mother’s specialty. “Better start explaining why you kept me in the dark,” Kay said, running her fingers along the penciled runes.

“It’s orders. Nothing personal.” Nadia eyed Kay’s hand warily. “And Gardner gave me the authority to disappear without even telling her, if necessary. Speaking of which, I was going to check in—”

“What’s my mother’s responsibility?” Kay asked. “What’s keeping her away from here?”

Nadia sighed. “If you’d read the note, you would know.”

Her fingers shaking, Kay yanked the note out of the bag and nearly tore it as she unfolded it.

Michaela,

I hope this finds you well. Nadia said you were a bit bruised up after your battle. It must have been terrifying. I’m sorry you had to go through with that, but I’m proud of you for deciding to join _][_Maywitch.

I guess I should disclose that I’m the one who gave them permission to recruit you. Gardner was reluctant, but I told them you’d grow into it.

Kay stopped and glared at Nadia, who said: “What? Don’t look at me, I didn’t even read it.”

Holly glanced between the two of them, her face strained as if she wanted to ask a question, but Kay ignored her and kept reading.

We need you more than you know, and at first, I felt like the best way to protect you was to rope you into this. Maybe I’ll turn out to be wrong. You can be mad at me if that’s the case.

I wish I could tell you more about what’s going on with me, but I’ll give you this much: When I was caught up in something with _][_Maywitch, I met the most wonderful woman. I’m helping raise a child with her right now. It’s a long story, but I am needed here. This child needs protection. I would’ve come back to live with you much sooner if it wasn’t for this.

Nadia smiled as Kay looked back up at her. “She wrote about the kid, right?” Nadia said, seeming to read Kay’s perplexed expression. “I can’t give you any more details than what your mother put there, since she has more clearance than me, but it’s basically advanced baby-sitting. Believe me, she doesn’t want to be out there, but she needs to be.”

Kay stared down at the floor, suddenly gripped by a nagging feeling of abandonment. She tried to push it aside as she looked over at Holly, who was staring at her with wide eyes.

“I don’t care,” Kay said, shoving the note into her pocket. “This’ll be helpful, though. I never got good at enchanting runes.”

Nadia nodded. “She asked me to wait nearly an hour while she worked on it. She really does care about you—”

“Like you would know.” Kay turned to leave, her legs shaking as she marched to the door.

“Wait.”

“No way—”

Wait,” Nadia said, “I’ll tell you my theory.”

Kay paused, trying to summon the last of her patience. “Hurry up.”

“It’s only a theory, but I think the baby is a demon-summoner. I don’t know how our team would’ve figured that out, though.”

Kay’s mind went blank for a long moment, then she turned around, searching Nadia’s expression. “What?”

“I’m serious. That’s the only scenario I can think of that fits everything I know.”

“But how would we know that it’s a summoner, though?”

“That’s what doesn’t make sense,” Nadia said, dropping her voice. “But this baby came into our custody at the same time that all this earthquake shit and other weird shit started happening. There was an explosion in Illinois almost eight months ago that started all this. The baby came into our custody a week later. Before that, your mom was working on tracking someone who we think is connected to all this.”

“Whatever. I still can’t believe you all dragged me into this but kept me in the dark,” Kay snapped as she strode toward the door.

Nadia said something else, but Kay couldn’t hear much over the blood pounding in her ears. She slammed the door behind her as she walked into the hallway.

As she walked, though, she realized she wasn’t sure who she was truly pissed off at: Nadia, Gardner, or her mother.

——————————————————————————

The slam of the door echoed in the silence Kay left behind. Nadia could see tears in Holly’s eyes, and she stepped closer, trying to act nonchalant as she addressed the younger woman. “I know, it’s ugly,” she said. “I think we should both give her some space.”

“Figure her mom could’ve sent something a bit more than a note,” Holly murmured.

“I know. She hadn’t even written to Kay in two years. That’s Bailey for ya, though.”

“And it sounds like Kay was brought here thinking we didn’t know where her mother was.”

“Gardner’s about to get an earful. Hope Kay doesn’t get fired,” Nadia said. “But between you and me, Gardner deserves it. She’s the one who had Kay brought here under false pretenses.”

Holly nodded as she took a shuddering breath. “At any rate, I’m glad you’re back and safe. Sorry you had to go through all that…”

Nadia sighed. The fatigue had begun to seep into her arms and legs, and she sat down hard on the bed. “It’s fine,” she said. “I’m just happy to be back. I’m sorry it took so long.”

“You must be exhausted. I’ll let you get some rest.”

Nadia looked up and grinned at Holly, who gave a shy smile in return. “No, you can stay, if you want,” Nadia said.

“I thought you needed to talk to Gardner.”

“That can wait.”

Holly barely hesitated before crossing to the bed and throwing her arms around Nadia. Her hair smelled amazing, Nadia thought as she closed her eyes. Clean and herbal. Nadia, on the other hand, smelled like mud and sweat.

But Holly didn’t seem to notice. They stayed that way for a long time, until Holly’s rapid heartbeat returned to normal, and Nadia felt exhausted enough to fall asleep.

“Come on,” Nadia said, moving away just enough to pull her into bed. “I missed you.”

——————————————————————————

Gardner had approved Nadia’s entry to the base the moment the security team sent a message to her office. She could feel her stress level decrease somewhat as she sat at her desk, a fresh mug of tea in front of her. Nadia hadn’t relayed any emergency codes to the guards, so Gardner was almost certain that everything was alright – and that Nadia’s charges had survived another near-miss.

Her office buzzer rang, and Gardner paused for a moment before remotely unlocking the door. The aura outside wasn’t the one she had been expecting.

Kay stormed in, her eyes dimly shining with tears in the low light. “Anything else I should know about?” she said.

Gardner raised an eyebrow. She hadn’t heard an attitude like that in her office in a very long time. “You have every right to be annoyed,” she said calmly. “You had no idea Bailey was even alive, right?”

“Annoyed doesn’t begin to describe it, and if you want me to stay on your team—”

“How much did Nadia tell you?”

Kay shook her head. “You first. You brought me here under false pretenses. Any other relatives of mine you’re in touch with?”

“Just Holly and your mother. You don’t have any aunts or cousins or anything else that we know of—”

“How long has my mother really been with Maywitch?”

“Two or so years, just as Juan told you,” Gardner said, sighing. “And no, we didn’t forcibly recruit her. You’ll have to ask her yourself if you want her reasons for leaving you.”

“Is there anything stopping me from terminating my contract right now?” Kay snapped.

Gardner’s eyes narrowed. She had a lot of patience for pissed-off employees – after all, the stakes were always high for them, and Maywitch was dysfunctional enough that a little frustration was understandable. But Kay was completely unwavering in her rage. “No, but then you’d be shit out of luck for reaching her. As of now, you’re welcome to pass messages through Nadia, and she’ll relay them when safe and appropriate,” Gardner said. “You get why we didn’t tell you of her whereabouts at first, right? You hadn’t proved yourself, but after your close call in Denver, you’d earned the right to know. If you were in Bailey’s shoes—”

“What, I’m not even entitled to know if my mother is alive?” Kay said. “If you were inmyshoes—”

“Enough!” Gardner yelled, rising and pushing her chair backward. “I have a lot of patience, Adamis, but you’re stretching it thin enough that you’ll regret it soon. Listen up.”

Kay fell silent. Gardner sucked in a breath, leaning heavily on her desk. She had been debating whether or not to recruit Kay into a difficult assignment – and now, she felt like if she didn’t make the ask now, she risked Kay defecting at the next possible opportunity. It was a gamble, but it was the only way to get the young woman back on board when her trust had worn so thin.

Plus, Gardner thought bitterly, there weren’t many people left to send on this assignment – not since Juan and Perry were both dead.

“We think Renaya managed to take Dustin with her when she escaped the church,” she said. “Based on what you and Holly and the others told us, and based on other intel we got from the FBI, we think she’s in Grand Junction. We want to send two people undercover, figure out what’s going on, and see if we can identify the demon-summoner. Renaya seems to be looking for allies, so it should be possible to get at least one person in.”

The tension seemed to fade from Kay’s shoulders. She nodded, the motion barely visible in the low lighting, and Gardner continued: “It’ll be painful because we’ll have to modify your aura and temporarily change your face. Those two spells will take some work. Normally, we’d just send someone she hasn’t seen before, but our ranks are pretty slim right now.

“Aren’t there other bases?” Kay said.

“Yes, but…” Gardner frowned at her teacup. There was no sense in trying to bullshit her way around it. “They have their own difficulties right now. This mess seems to have moved from east to west. The Eastern Region is rebuilding and recovering after a major hit to their forces on what was supposed to be a routine recon assignment a month ago. And we can’t get the proper help from outside the U.S., because the government won’t give us the right visas that quickly. They’re still wrapping their heads around our actions as a de facto militia. It’s one thing if we’re just investigating someone, but things change if we intend to eventually take someone out.”

Kay sighed, and for a fleeting moment, Gardner thought she saw the rage appear again. “I don’t expect you to say yes right away, but I want you to think about it,” Gardner said. “It’d be a good fit for you. Not much fighting or tactical decision-making involved. Your magic skill levels are fine as they are. You go in, get information until it starts to feel unsafe, and get out.”

“And what if I don’t get any useful information?”

“I highly doubt that will be the case. And even if you get minimal info, it at least gives us a place to start,” Gardner said, a sad smile crossing her lips. “And anything you get can help us protect your mother – and the baby, if Nadia didn’t tell you about her already. We’re only going into things this fast because our opponents are clearly getting stronger, and we don’t know how much longer that trend will continue.”

Kay seemed to straighten up slightly, but she stared at Gardner’s desk for a long moment before nodding. Gardner smiled. Even an undertrained, rookie mage could piece together how they needed to make a move sooner rather than later.

“And if I say no, I risk getting sent into an even more hectic and dangerous assignment elsewhere, right?” she asked.

Gardner shrugged. “Basically. Either that, or you try to defect. And that comes with its own consequences.”

As Kay nodded again, Gardner sighed and sat down again, running her fingers over the rim of her teacup. “Sleep on it, okay?”

“I will.”

“Let’s check in after that training you have tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure.”

As Kay left without another word, Gardner reached for her phone and typed: Kay might be in on Op Lux. _][_Any other suggestions? _][_I know it’s not ideal, but it somewhat suits her.

She sent the message to Nadia before draining the last of her tea and turning back to her emails.

——————————————————————————

Nadia’s phone buzzed, and she awoke with a start, gently pushing Holly’s arm down from her chest. She read the text message from Gardner with a mix of confusion and disbelief. Kay, of all people, was being considered for Operation Lux? They had been preparing to potentially launch that mission for weeks, with Gardner making it clear from the beginning that Nadia was likely to go with a more experienced mage.

Then again, Nadia thought as she stared at the ceiling, they were about out of experienced mages. More than twenty combat-trained mages were now in the long-term hospital ward at the Eastern U.S. base. The earthquake investigations had become more and more dangerous over the past few months – and more and more difficult to cover up, for that matter – with suspicious fires and booby traps sometimes maiming or killing their mages. Juan’s death was just the latest.

She glanced over at Holly, who was still fast asleep, and thought for a long moment before typing her reply: Don’t you think we need a possessor on this one?

She hesitated before hitting “Send.” A few minutes later, Gardner’s reply came through: Maybe. Are you thinking Holly? We _][_kinda _][_need her here.

Are there any other options? If push comes to shove, Kay can provide the brawn, I’m the brains, and a possessor provides the stealth, Nadia replied.

Holly’s arm seemed to tighten around Nadia’s waist. The glow of Nadia’s phone illuminated both of them in a cold, haunting light, and for a long moment, Nadia wondered if volunteering her lover for this mission would end up being the death of them both.

But then again, Operation Lux could be the only way to prevent future deaths, and a possessor could be the key to its success.

She laid awake for a long time, waiting for Gardner to respond, but nearly twenty minutes passed without a reply. Eventually, Nadia tucked her chin back into Holly’s hair, resuming the jigsaw puzzle of limbs and torsos that they always fell into – at least, until one of them woke up with an itch in the middle of the night.

It took her a long time to fall back asleep.

 

 

Chapter 9: Auras

 

Kay barely slept, and she went to training with bleary eyes and a heavy heart. She was still furious at Nadia, but couldn’t stop thinking about Gardner’s mission.

Her trainer, a middle-aged mage named Wojtec, went through spells and ingredients for barely an hour before dismissing her. His clipped sentences and furrowed brow told her that he sensed her lack of focus. Kay was given a long list of tasks for her homework, but she chose to ignore them for the time being, and wandered to the cafeteria to grab lunch.

The door to the cafeteria swung open with a bang as she approached. Nadia stepped through, her expression stormy. Kay stepped around her, determined to avoid a confrontation, but Nadia spoke up: “So are you gonna do this with us?”

Kay stopped and fought the urge to sigh. Had Gardner told Nadia already? “What?”

“You know. The mission Gardner talked to you about.” Nadia’s voice was low, but she didn’t seem overly concerned with the possibility of being overheard.

“I haven’t decided yet. It’s not like you guys gave me much info—”

“I hope you don’t turn it down,” Nadia said. “This mission could be what makes things safer for your mom—”

“Don’t bother.” Kay headed into the cafeteria, not looking over her shoulder for Nadia’s reaction. The last thing she needed was Nadia parroting what Gardner had already said – especially when it was so manipulative.

She ate her lunch in a quiet rage, and just as she finished, her phone buzzed with a text from Gardner: Please relay your decision to me in the next hour. Keep in mind that you cannot back out once you commit.

Kay stared at her phone for a long while, mulling the two equally unappealing options. If she went, she’d be relying on selfish, cowardly Nadia to have her back.

But if Kay didn’t go, she’d be leaving the mission solely in Nadia’s hands – unless Gardner got someone else to go. That, of course, could result in someone being sent who trusted Nadia too much. And Kay wasn’t sure she could live with the guilt if some naive soul got fucked over by Nadia at the cost of their life. It was quite a dilemma, she thought as she picked up her phone and typed:

I’m in. Let’s do this.

A half-hour later, as she finished showering back in her room, her phone buzzed with a new text: Meet in the conference room in 20 minutes. Don’t bother bringing anything yet – we have lots to do before you leave.

She dressed and headed out, not even bothering to lock her room as she left. When she arrived at the conference room a few minutes early, she was greeted by Gardner, Nadia, and – to her surprise and concern – Holly.

“We might as well start, since everyone’s here,” Gardner said. “Close the door behind you.”

——————————————————————————

Two hours and several top-secret documents later, Kay had figured out her role in a very basic scenario: she was going to pose as a malcontent drifter named Lisa Michaels. Her first task was to try to gain the trust of Dustin Reyes, Renaya’s right-hand man, as he made his weekly trip to karaoke night at a bar in Grand Junction. Since she probably only had one shot, she had to pretend to sense his malevolent, troubled aura and introduce herself directly.

If that didn’t work, it was unlikely that Dustin would try to kill her – at least, that was what Gardner thought based on the intelligence they had on him. Kay would have to slink away back to Maywitch, and her role in the plan would end there.

But if everything went well, he would quickly bring her into the fold once he saw her capabilities. Gardner had given Kay a crash course on making lumericite, a low-grade explosive that most firecasters were able to make. The raw ingredients were easy to obtain – salt and charcoal formed the base – but its production was strictly forbidden because it was so dangerous. Renaya and her crew, though, had used it in one prior ambush on Maywitch staff, and would surely have some appreciation for mages who could make it.

Nadia and Holly would be heading in separately from Kay, and would be known as Dawn and Billie, respectively. Their plan was a bit more dangerous: set a fire someplace relatively harmless, but close enough to a known associate of Renaya’s to catch his attention. From there, they would brand themselves as malcontents and would-be violent radicals who just hadn’t found the right cause yet.

The three of them glanced nervously at each other as they headed to the clinic, where their hair would be cut or dyed, their faces would be altered temporarily, and their auras would be permanently changed.

The last two procedures would be the most stressful. Gardner had warned them that face and aura alterations were painful – and aura alterations could be traumatic. While auras were usually influenced by personality, instead of the other way around, forcibly changing an aura could have negative effects on one’s psyche. Kay tried not to think about it too much as she settled in to have her hair dyed black, an unwelcome change from its usual auburn.

Holly fought having her hair cut, and ended up agreeing to dye it deep purple. Nadia let them cut her nearly waist-length hair, and by the time they had finished, it hung in an angled bob above her shoulders. She didn’t even flinch, Kay noted afterward as Nadia gazed into a handheld mirror.

The facial changes were painful, just as expected. The minute Gardner’s assistant began to apply a thick yellow balm to Kay’s face, it felt like icy needles were being stabbed into every pore. The half-hour process burned nearly the entire time, but the three were given poultices and potions to relieve the pain as much as possible. Kay wondered if the change back would be just as painful, but didn’t dare to ask. Holly and Nadia seemed to tune out the ordeal as much as they could, avoiding interaction and seeming to escape into their thoughts.

When the procedure was complete, Kay’s eyebrows had become thicker, but the hardest change of all was her nose. It had become obviously thinner, and it ached from bridge to tip despite the poultice she held to it. Her eyes were slightly larger and had changed color from brown to muddy hazel.

She didn’t like the change, even if it was aesthetically pleasing. Something about it felt wrong on principle, she thought as they took her photo for a fake drivers’ license.

Then Gardner brought in an old, white-haired woman who walked with a cane and smiled at the young mages as she entered. “Well,” the old woman said, her green eyes narrowing, ”I can tell already this is going to be interesting.”

Kay bit her lip. That was not what she wanted to hear.

The woman proceeded to silently draw and arrange ingredients on the floor. Fifteen tense minutes later, the three spies sat on the tile, each of them surrounded by a magic circle. The old woman – whom Gardner hadn’t introduced properly, though perhaps that was on purpose – handed each of them some kind of quartz-like stone. She took a deep breath and stood in the midst of them with her hands clasped in front of her.

“Are you really ready?” she asked. “Your aura is only a superficial part of your magic – cosmetic, if you will – but it still hurts to have altered. I don’t want to hear any regrets later.”

Nadia immediately nodded, and Holly did the same. The woman turned to look at Kay, who finally forced herself to nod.

“Here we go, then,” the old woman said, tensing as she held her arms in front of her.

A few seconds later, Kay could hear the woman muttering in Latin, and everything went bright white.

——————————————————————————

The moon that stared down at Kay was red this time. She glanced down and saw her old school uniform, stained with mud and grime and blood.

It felt much more real than the dream she had several nights ago.

Something pushed her, and she fell forward, landing on a stone panel with a thud. There was a sharp laugh somewhere behind her.

She rolled over, fully prepared to fight, but something pressed down on her chest. A few Latin words rumbled in the air above her, and a tall, short-haired figure leered at her in the red-tinged night.

Nadia stood several feet away, watching silently.

Kay struggled, trying to move away from the suffocating weight on her chest, but nothing worked. More Latin poured forth, syllables echoing across the cemetery. Pain radiated from her torso down to her feet and the tips of her fingers.

Panicking, Kay tried to cast a fire spell, but something snapped in her chest as soon as she spoke the first word. A rib had broken – or maybe two; she couldn’t remember anymore. She gasped in pain, and the woman above her laughed again.

Something glowed above her. She struggled for several slow minutes, trying to gain some leverage and wrench herself free. The longer she fought, the weaker she became. Her terror was punctuated by wild laughter from above.

For a moment, she tried to see if Nadia was still nearby, but gave up. It wasn’t worth looking. She knew Nadia would do nothing.

Eventually, the glow above her grew into a blinding light, and she screamed aloud.

——————————————————————————

Kay woke up drenched in sweat. Gardner was kneeling a few feet away, her face more deeply furrowed than Kay had ever seen it. “You alright?” Gardner asked.

Kay sat up. The back of her head ached; she had apparently passed out on the floor. Nearby, Holly and Nadia sat in chairs, nursing glasses of water and staring at the wall. They looked as if their own experience hadn’t been much better.

“I’m fine,” Kay said, though her voice was hoarse. She shakily stood up and ran a hand through her sweaty hair. “Can I go shower?”

“Are you sure you’re okay? You look—”

“I’m fine,” Kay said, turning to leave.

Mei and the old woman were standing nearby, and they almost moved to interfere, but Gardner waved them away. Kay rushed into the hallway before anyone else could try to stop her.

When she reached the showers, she hesitated for a long moment before stripping down, stepping into the stream of lukewarm water, and bursting into tears.

 

 

Chapter 10: The Reader

 

Kay only had an hour to finish getting ready before being driven to Grand Junction. Gardner sent her off with a backpack full of clothing and a few supplies, as well as a few documents to be memorized on the way over.

“Get in the black sedan. Your driver will refer to you as ‘Lisa’ to help you get used to it,” Gardner said. Her voice held no concern, as if she had completely forgotten about the aura change ordeal. “You’ll have to leave the documents with him when you’re dropped off, too. Prepaid phone and a bottle of lumericite is in the backpack. Good luck.”

The garage was a warehouse-like space tucked into the north end of the base, and Kay’s sandals echoed eerily on the concrete as she walked. The black sedan looked menacing, at best. As she climbed inside, the driver glanced back at her, eyes wary. “Welcome, Lisa,” he said. “Let me know if you’d like some music on or the air conditioning turned up, okay?”

Kay nodded. She realized with a pang that something felt off – foreign, almost – and it wasn’t just the new name, or the pain lingering in her head and neck. The magic flowing through her fingers tingled in a strange way, an apparent side effect of having her aura changed. Gardner had made her leave her obsidian pendant behind, since it was unique and easily recognizable, and Kay felt naked without it. She would just have to get used to it, she thought as she looked out the window.

As the car pulled toward the exit to the outside world, Kay spotted Holly and Nadia, now with dramatically different hair and faces, climbing into a nearby car. She hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to them, but perhaps it was better that way. She couldn’t stand the thought of talking to Nadia right now.

She pulled out the papers Gardner had given her and began to read them, fighting the urge to sleep as the car pulled into the early evening shadows.

When the driver dropped Kay off two blocks from her destination, she had barely memorized her backstory and personal details. What a potential clusterfuck, she thought as she looked around to catch her bearings. Maywitch sure could be reckless. Gardner had emphasized to them that these were desperate times, but she hadn’t really articulated why. If times were less desperate, would Kay have gotten another day to prepare, or just a few more hours? She had no idea what “less desperate” looked like for Maywitch.

She pushed that thought aside as she headed toward the karaoke bar. She’d have plenty of time to seek answers later.

A few wrong turns later, she found herself in front of a neon sign with a bright blue cat in the middle. She slid into the noisy bar and flashed her fake ID at the bouncer, who ignored her. The crowd inside was mostly male. Her briefing materials had warned her it was a gay bar, but she suddenly worried that she stood out in the crowd.

Then she noticed a few middle-aged women huddled around a table in the corner, and she relaxed. She ordered a drink at the bar and looked around for Dustin Reyes, who hopefully hadn’t had time to change his own appearance yet.

A few minutes later, he came into view on the other side of the room. He looked completely healed from his injuries, other than a shiny mark on his right forearm. He was chatting animatedly with another man, and as they finished their drinks and wandered back toward the bar, Kay wondered if they were about to leave together. Gardner and the others had said that he didn’t seem to go out much, and he would probably try to make the most of his Saturday night.

To her relief, the other man left, but Dustin loitered at the bar ten feet away from Kay. She glanced down at her drink before pretending to study the table full of women nearby.

When she turned back around, he had ordered another drink, but was glancing nervously around. He looked toward her, and she lowered her eyes a moment too late. She could feel his gaze intensify into a glare – or, at least, that was what it felt like. She struggled to keep calm as she sipped her beer.

One of the women from the nearby table came over and struck up a conversation with Kay, who let her ramble on for nearly ten minutes. The woman had no detectable magic aura, so Kay smiled and nodded politely between occasional glances at Dustin.

Dustin meandered back over to the other side of the room, where the volume of the karaoke had increased. The woman noticed Kay’s gaze and nudged her shoulder. “Are you gonna do a song? You should!”

Kay grimaced. “I’m terrible. You should, though.”

The woman laughed, nearly spilling her drink on her dress as she waved her hand. “I’ll get the girls to do it! You have to watch, though!”

Great, Kay thought as the woman darted back to her table. One more potential distraction.

As the karaoke became more rowdy, Dustin’s shoulders began to droop, and he inched toward the door while dodging attempts at conversation. Kay wiped her sweaty palms on her pants and reached to finish her beer. When it was gone, she grabbed her backpack and casually headed for the door.

Once outside, she loitered for a long moment, fishing around in her backpack for the tiny bottle of lumericite. Dustin came outside a minute later and headed east on foot. Her heart thudded in her throat as she put the bottle in her pocket.

He turned south and walked out of sight, and she followed, trying to mentally practice her story one last time. The cool night air brought up goosebumps on her bare arms as she walked.

When he reached a stoplight, Dustin stopped and turned around. “What do you want?”

Kay smiled and held up her hands. “Easy, there. You from around here?”

“I went to college here.” His eyes narrowed, and Kay’s heart leapt into her throat. “What do you want?”

“I sensed something weird about you. You know what I’m talking about?” She was trying to use the vague hints and word games mages used when trying to search each other out, though she had never gotten much practice with them.

His expression relaxed slightly. “Blessed be,” he said, smiling.

“You were brought up Wiccan?”

“Sorta. It’s a long story. But yes, I think we’re on the same page now.”

Kay smiled back. The game had worked. “But beyond the basics of who you are, I sense there’s something else going on. There’s something funny happening in this city, isn’t there?”

He shrugged. “What are you getting at?”

“Something darker than usual. Especially in Denver, where I’m from. I’m sensing strange things – well, stranger than our kind usually is – and I’m sensing something strange about you too.”

“I’m gay, y’know.”

Kay chuckled. “That’s not what I’m talking about. My name’s Lisa. You know what this is?” She grabbed the bottle from her pocket and pulled it into the light.

He squinted at it, and she noticed his mouth twitch ever so slightly. “Weed?”

“It’s lumericite. You know what that is?”

“And who gave you that?”

“Made it myself. You want some?”

He stared at her for a long while, and for a terrifying moment, Kay thought he was about to turn and walk away. Then he sighed, scratched his head and looked away. “Lumericite, huh?” he murmured. “You’re nothing to fuck with, that’s for sure. What do you want?”

“I want power. Whatever power’s brewing in this city, I want it.”

“Don’t we all.”

Kay tensed. She was finding this persona hard to maintain, and her charisma would only hold for so long before her nervousness started to show. “There’s only one thing I still care about in this whole world,” she said, her voice low, “and that’s making sure someone ends up dead. Someone who deserves to die. And I’ll take whatever collateral damage comes with it. Whatever you’re into, I sense it, and I want in. It’s a little immature, but…”

He smiled, and she stared down at the ground, feeling fear creep into her for the first time. “Lisa, was it?” he said. “Who is it you’re after?”

“This bitch I went to school with. It’s a long story.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You hate her so much you want her dead? Is she an ex, or just a friend?”

“Friend. Never had any exes quite that bad.”

Before she could react, he suddenly waved a hand in front of his face, and something fell in bright, white sparkles. He was performing a spell. She flinched, but stopped herself from lashing out, knowing that it wasn’t necessarily a combat spell.

He closed his eyes. “I’m not sensing real resolve from you, though.”

She reached to uncork the lumericite bottle, but he opened his eyes again and smiled. “I sense some really strong malice from you. Mistrust, too. But not resolve. You’re angry at the world. You want to do harm to someone, but you have no idea how you’ll accomplish it.”

Kay’s jaw dropped. He was a Reader – not quite a psychic, but he could sense emotions and intent, and determine if someone was lying. Somehow, though, her feelings about her mission and Maywitch were cloudy and complicated enough to make her story believable to him. Maybe he wasn’t even that good of a Reader, she thought.

Or maybe she really had that much pent-up anger. Maybe her aura change had fucked her up more than she thought.

“I guess I can’t argue with that,” she murmured.

“Don’t look so surprised. You’re not a Reader yourself? How else did you know what my deal was?”

“I can’t Read the way you can, but your aura reminds me of someone, so I thought I’d take the chance. What’s the worst that could happen, you know?” She smiled. “Worst case scenario, you look at me like I’m some kind of nutcase, and I run off.”

“Fair enough,” he said, turning south again. “But once you follow me, you can’t back out. We won’t hesitate to kill you if we think you’ll snitch.”

She hesitated, searching for the words to make her attitude more believable. “Is it that bad?” she asked. “I mean, I still want in on whatever it is, but…”

“It’s not bad, per se. Just… has the potential to get messy.” He looked over his shoulder and smiled sadly. “If you got other goals in life, just walk away and pretend we never met, ‘cause this’ll get in the way of those.”

She smiled back and tugged on her backpack strap. “See this? I got nothing, as of this week. Let me in on it.”

He watched her for a long moment, seeming to search her expression – or perhaps her intentions, if his magic was still active. “Good. Let’s go. But I’ll warn you one last time: once you follow me, you’re ours.”

He headed south, and she followed, trying to ignore the shaking in her legs. “What’s your name, anyway?” she asked.

“I don’t feel comfortable telling you that yet.”

“Oh.” She laughed nervously. “Fair enough, I guess.”

Dustin was quiet for most of their half-mile walk, and had focused most of his attention to text messages on his phone. Once he was within sight of a small, weathered apartment building next to a railyard, he turned and asked Kay: “Hey, you hungry? I’m not really a good cook, but there are places that deliver this late.”

“I’m fine. Thanks, though,” she said. She was too nervous to even think about food. Her legs had stopped shaking, but she could feel fear eating away at her insides.

“Before we go inside, I need your cell phone.”

She frowned. Gardner had given her three different phone numbers to memorize in case of trouble, but Kay hadn’t anticipated having her phone taken so soon. She had only memorized two of them. “Seriously?”

“You can have it back once you’re vetted.”

He shot her a wary glance, and she sighed. “I can’t believe I’m going someplace with a stranger in the middle of the night and giving up my phone,” she said as she handed him the burner phone.

He unlocked the front door of one of the apartments and led her inside. It was tiny, but neatly kept, to the point that it barely looked lived-in. She had to wonder how often he traveled for whatever mission he was on. “You live here all through college?” she asked.

“Nah, lived in the dorms my first year.” He locked the door and went into the kitchen. Kay heard him rummage around for a moment before he returned with a locked metal box. “Lumericite. Show me how you make it.”

He motioned to the couch, and she sat. “What are your powers, other than Reading?” she asked.

“Not gonna tell you that yet. Show me this, and then I’ll vet you more.”

She nodded as he set small bags of rock salt and charcoal on the coffee table. “How much do you know about the process?” she asked.

“I know it’s pretty easy, if you’re wired the right way. Tell me what you know.”

“That same bitch I wanna kill taught me about it,” she said, the lie coming out more easily than expected.

He shot her a sympathetic glance as he sat down in the rocking chair to her left. “I hope you weren’t ever on the receiving end of this stuff.”

“Sure wasn’t.”

“Isn’t there some chemistry involved?”

“Something about… the sodium in the salt, and the charcoal, and then the fire magic does something,” she said, shrugging.

He waved a hand at the coffee table. “Go ahead, then.”

“One question. What are you gonna use this stuff for?”

There was a long silence as he stared up at the ceiling. She couldn’t tell whether he was annoyed, or simply pondering his answer. “Look,” he said, “I get that you want to help, but you know I have to vet you first, right? Otherwise I’ll get my ass kicked.”

“At least reassure me you won’t be using this on innocent people. I’m fine with not-so-innocent people getting hit, but…” She forced herself to smile. “Please?”

“Believe me, we have no interest in hurting more than necessary.” His eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t you bring that up sooner?”

“I didn’t want to ask it in the middle of the street.”

“Fair enough. Again, I hope you understand that we’ll kill you if you try to leave from here on out.”

“Easy,” she said, raising a hand. “I’m in, okay? I’m just surprised we’re already discussing this. I sensed something was up, but I didn’t expect it to get this serious so soon…”

She wasn’t sure he would buy it. After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded, his expression relaxing from concern to sheepish acceptance. “You’ll have to do something about your lack of resolve,” he said. “I’m not gonna be the only one who senses it. I have a boss, you know.”

She tried to feign surprise. “Oh? Is he, like, around?”

She,” he said, smiling, “is gonna be pissed that I let you in this soon. We need you, but not so badly that we can’t properly vet you. So show me what you got, okay? For both of our sakes.”

That had to be Renaya, she thought, trying to keep her expression level as she opened the bags of salt and charcoal. She broke the charcoal sticks into dime-size pieces and arranged them in a circle with the chunks of salt. “If you want smaller pieces, I’m gonna need something to crush them with,” she said.

“No, those are fine,” he said. “Continue.”

Her hands had begun to shake, and she struggled to combine the ingredients properly and arrange them in a circle. “Okay,” she said, smiling as she began to recite the spell in German.

The air above the circle glowed softly, and a faint smell of smoke filled the air. As she reached the end of the incantation, the white pieces of salt turned a pale, sickly yellow. She nodded to Dustin, who smiled and picked up a piece. “This looks good to me,” he said. “Let’s go test it out.”

He held up his free hand and snapped his fingers. She heard soft, rapid footsteps approach down the hallway next to the kitchen, and her heart leapt into her throat.

Three German Shepherds appeared, their tails still and their faces calm. Dustin stood and motioned to the door. “Don’t worry; I’ll cast a silence spell so no one will hear the explosion. Let’s go.”

She nodded and followed him outside. The dogs followed behind her, as if their job was to keep her from escaping. They were acting so unnaturally that they had to be familiars, she knew, but animal familiars were rare, and having multiples was unheard of.

Were they somehow related to the demon-summoning that had been happening? Was Dustin a key figure in that?

She wiped her sweaty palms on her shorts as they walked toward the train tracks. She had made the lumericite exactly as instructed – because while she didn’t want to play a role in any terrorist plots, Gardner had warned her that her first batch would likely be tested right away. But Kay had almost no practice making it, and there was a chance, however small, that she had made a mistake. 

“What are you gonna do?” she asked Dustin.

“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna use it on anything.” He smiled. “This isn’t enough to be much more than a firework, right?”

“Right.” She stopped as he set the lumericite on the ground, whispered the words to a silence spell, and took several steps back.

A moment later, his lips moved, but Kay couldn’t hear the words. A flash of flame burst out of the ground where he had set the lumericite, but the explosion was silent. The yellow-white light burned for less than a second before going out, leaving gray smoke visible in the moonlight.

His lips moved again, and the silence spell broke, plunging them back into the chatter of crickets and groaning of trucks on the nearby rode. ”Well,” he said, a toothy grin spreading across his face, “Nice job. You pass. Let’s go make some more.”

——————————————————————————

Kay stayed awake until 4 a.m. making more lumericite, taking care to make each batch as weak as possible. Dustin watched her work indifferently. He seemed not to notice that her ratios of salt and charcoal were not the same as before, and that the words of her spell were slightly altered. The color of the lumericite became a lighter shade of yellow, but if he asked about it, she could just blame it on inconsistencies in the charcoal sticks and the size of the chunks of salt.

Eventually, he yawned and waved at the couch. “Get some rest. I’m gonna take the dogs out and go to sleep.”

She nodded and stood. “Let me clean up a bit first?”

“Sure.”

As she washed her hands in the bathroom, she couldn’t help but stare at her reflection in the mirror. She still didn’t recognize herself.

What would happen if she was killed? If her body was ever found, would civil authorities even be able to identify her? Her real drivers’ license was back at Maywitch, and any law enforcement worth a damn would eventually discover that her current IDs were fraudulent.

She hoped desperately that she would get to go back to Maywitch sooner rather than later. Surely there was only so much intel she could collect before the risk of getting found out grew too high. Plus, as soon as they attempted to use the useless lumericite, they probably wouldn’t bother asking for answers – they would want her dead.

She would have to keep her ears peeled for any planning they were doing. As soon as they hinted at using the lumericite, she would have to run, or she would risk dying before being seeing her mother again.

 

 

Chapter 11: Trapped

 

When Kay finally woke up the next day, the sun was already shining brightly through the front window. She could hear Dustin’s voice in the kitchen, and when he emerged a minute later, he thrust a bagel at her. “Cream cheese in the kitchen, if you want it,” he said. “But hurry up. I just got a call.”

She blinked heavily as she took the bagel. “What time is it?”

“It’s noon.”

“Sorry.”

“No, I let you sleep,” he said, shrugging. “Silence spells are handy.”

She smiled as she sat up. “Thanks. You’re a pretty good host.”

“Yeah, girls crash on my couch more than you think.” He smirked as he walked down the hallway. “No time to shower, but we’ll worry about that later.”

“Where are we going?”

“Can’t tell you that.”

“How much longer til I’m vetted?”

“You’re halfway there. I read through your cellphone and there was nothing suspicious.”

Maywitch had apparently made a pretty convincing phone for Lisa Michaels, Kay thought as she feigned annoyance. “That’s kinda rude. I hope you at least didn’t look at the photos—”

“What? There were only a few cat photos!”

“It’s the principle of it.” She sighed. “But I guess it’s fair.”

He pulled a duffel bag from a hall closet and walked back to the living room. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’re getting picked up in two minutes.”

“You don’t have a car? Who’s picking us up?”

“You ask too many questions,” he said as he unlocked the front door. “Grab your shit. I already got the lumericite. Let’s go.”

Kay grabbed her backpack and followed him outside. “We only got a half-hour drive, and you can change and stuff when you get there,” he said.

A beat-up gray sedan was idling a short distance away. Dustin threw the duffel bag into the backseat and climbed into the front passenger seat. “Get in,” he said.

The driver’s face wasn’t visible, but Kay caught a glimpse of shoulder-length gray hair. Her stomach leapt into her throat as she climbed into the car.

“Morning,” she said, hoping to conceal her nervousness.

“Morning,” the driver said. It was a woman’s voice – and it took Kay less than a second to recognize it as Renaya’s.

Kay set her hands in her lap and watched as they pulled away from the curb. “So where are we—”

“Coffee, first,” Dustin said, handing her a thermos. “We’ll need you awake.”

Kay smiled and took it. “Oh? This’ll be an exciting day, huh?” She took the cap off of the thermos and took a long sip of the lukewarm coffee.

“Curb your enthusiasm,” Renaya said. “You’re only coming with us because we can’t leave you alone.”

“Well, we’ll need you for some stuff,” he said, smiling, “but nothing exciting. And it’ll be a lot of waiting.”

Kay sipped the coffee again. It was pleasantly sweet. “Okay. No complaints.”

“Yeah, and that better not change once we give you some busywork,” Renaya said.

As she took a longer swig of the coffee, Kay fought back a bitchy comment. She handed the thermos back to Dustin. “I’ll have more later, thanks. What about…”

She trailed off. Small, fuzzy spots of black had begun to dance in front of her eyes. Dustin’s coffee had been spiked, likely with a sleeping potion.

“You guys, what…” She felt her head sag forward, and before she could finish her sentence, she was asleep.

——————————————————————————

“We’re here!” someone said loudly in her ear. “Wake up.”

Kay grunted and jerked upright. Renaya was leering at her from the front seat. “Have a nice nap?” she asked. “Nothing personal. We just couldn’t have you knowing where you are.”

Dustin stood outside the car, looking uneasy. “Lisa, you good? I might’ve made that a little strong. Didn’t mean for you to be out for more than twenty minutes.”

Kay rubbed her eyes. It took her a long second to realize that he was talking to her. “Oh – yeah,” she mumbled, “you sure did. What was that for?”

“Until you’ve proven yourself a bit more, we can’t let you know anything, including the location of our base,” Renaya said as she climbed out of the car.

Kay bit back a scowl. That line of reasoning was uncomfortably familiar. “Alright,” she said, trying to act casual. “I mean, it wasn’t a bad nap. Wish you coulda warned me, though.”

The sedan had pulled up outside of a massive house with wood siding. It was a few decades old, but well-maintained, and Kay found herself wondering how they could afford such a place – or who they had killed to get it. The massive pine trees around the house sent looming shadows over them, even with the sun almost directly overhead.

“Come on,” Dustin said, waving her toward the door. “You can continue your nap inside.”

——————————————————————————

For the rest of the day, Kay alternated between napping on the torn-up couch and reading the faded copy of [_Das _][_Kapital _]on the living room table. No one gave her any work to do until dinnertime, when Renaya waved her into the kitchen.

“Cut these up, will ya?” she said, pointing to a cutting board full of vegetables.

Kay grabbed a knife from the counter and set to work. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Renaya pouring vegetable stock into a large pot. Renaya’s face was calm – too calm, Kay thought, for all the death and destruction she was responsible for.

For a fleeting moment, Kay could focus on nothing but the knife in her hand. She was close enough that she could stab Renaya in the neck and fight her way out, escaping into the woods in under a minute. It would be a fitting end to the woman who had played a role in Juan’s death.

Later, Kay told herself, forcing herself to begin chopping vegetables. Intel first. Protect Mom – and Holly, and even Nadia, for that matter.

Renaya didn’t seem to notice Kay’s ill intent, and less than thirty minutes later, they had quietly prepared a small feast of stuffed red peppers and vegetable stew. “Everything’s vegetarian here, by the way,” Renaya said as she nodded to the table. “Hope that doesn’t bother you. Sit and make yourself a plate.”

She walked off with a bowl and a plate in hand, and Kay sat down heavily at the table. She ladled herself a bowl of stew and ate quickly, realizing how hungry she was after a long day.

Ten minutes later, Renaya returned. “As soon as you’re done, go to your room for the night,” Renaya said. “You aren’t sharing a room with anyone right now, but if you get up for anything other than to go to the bathroom, we’ll notice.”

Kay smiled shyly. “I understand,” she said. “Um, how much longer until I can help?”

Renaya’s expression relaxed, and she smiled back. “Aw, that’s nice of you,” she said. “Soon, okay? Gonna need a lot of lumericite real soon.”

Kay nodded, hoping her eyes hadn’t just betrayed her terror. She was going to run out of time sooner rather than later.

——————————————————————————

Kay barely slept in her windowless room, which she guessed used to be an office or drawing room. She was awake and reading a battered copy of [_Frankenstein _]when someone knocked on her door.

“Morning,” Dustin’s voice said. ”Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” Kay said, setting the book aside. He was quite the gentleman, for someone who had drugged her the day before.

He entered and closed the door behind him. “Is there any real limit to how much lumericite you can make?” he asked. “Renaya wants to know as soon as possible.”

She shrugged. “Not that I know of. Don’t forget, I very rarely make it.”

“Okay. I guess we’ll find out. We need a lot within the next four days.”

Kay nodded, trying to ignore the sweat starting to appear on her hands. “Where do you plan on using it?”

He frowned. “Can’t tell you that yet.”

“I need to know so I can adjust for humidity,” she said. “You want the best product possible, right? There’s a difference between using it in Las Vegas and, say… Houston.”

He tensed, and for a moment, she worried that the lie that Gardner had taught her wouldn’t work. Humidity did matter with lumericite, but it was the humidity of the production site that mattered, not the place one wanted to blow up. “Well, I’m sure it’s pretty humid, but I’ll check,” he said. “Hot, too. Does that matter?”

“If you could tell me what we’re trying to blow up, I could maybe make some suggestions,” she said. “I might not be too helpful, but I could tell you if the amount you wanna use is enough, or if you’re basically wasting it.”

“I think we’re already getting good advice, but I’ll pass that along,” he said. “Stay here for a while longer. We’ll let you out to do work and get breakfast soon.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes as he left. She was growing weary of treated like a captive instead of a worker.

An hour later, Dustin came back and walked her to the kitchen, where Renaya handed her a biscuit and a mug of coffee. “Sorry, our grocery run got delayed,” she said. “We got your ingredients, though!”

Kay smiled. “Just say when, and I’ll get started.”

“We’re doing this someplace hot and humid, and the target is a concrete and steel building. Tall and modern architecture. Heavily populated, but we’re being careful about our targeting.”

Probably a major city, Kay thought to herself. How many major cities were also hot and humid besides Houston?

Her heart plummeted. They better not be targeting Houston.

“I see,” she said, her smile wavering. “I’ll tweak the ratios a little, then, to account for the humidity.”

“How much do you know about explosives in general? We got someone pretty well-versed in engineering helping us, but anything you got to add would be helpful,” Renaya said.

Kay shook her head. She considered making something up to try to minimize their damage, but didn’t want to get caught in a lie. “They probably know a lot more than I do,” she said. “I just know how much you need, and stuff.”

“Get to work, then,” Renaya said, setting a bag of rock salt on the table.

As Kay complied, Renaya and Dustin stood idly by the sink, where the breakfast dishes were soaking. “I forgot to ask more details about last night,” Renaya said. “How was it? Sorry you had to go so suddenly.”

“I’m glad I went. Both girls seem legit. One of them is pretty scared, though. I think she’s just following the other,” Dustin said.

“What, Billie?”

Kay paused. That was Holly’s fake name.

“Yeah. We’ll have to keep a close eye on her. I believe their couple story, though,” Dustin replied.

“Are you sure? It seems weird that a couple would stumble upon us like this. It makes more sense that we’d attract…” Renaya paused and tilted her head. “Loners.”

Kay’s hands were shaking, and she took a long sip of coffee in an attempt to hide her nervousness. If anything happened to Holly’s cover, both her and Nadia were as good as dead.

“I’m pretty sure. You should see the way the other one, the tall one, thinks about her when she thinks no one is watching.”

Kay choked, spitting coffee back into her cup. Dustin and Renaya turned around. “You good, there?” Dustin asked, his voice almost mocking.

Kay smiled and hoped her distraught expression would be hidden. “Uh, yeah. Sorry. That was funny, is all. You read their… feelings?”

He grinned back, and Renaya seemed to relax. “Sure did. If I was straight, I would’ve blushed,” he said. “I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I can’t, actually. Pretty sheltered. Got homeschooled for a long time.”

Renaya let out a sharp, biting laugh and turned toward the door. “Thanks, Dustin,” she said over her shoulder.

He shook his head. “Anyway, you’ll get to meet the new girls soon enough,” he said to Kay. “They’ll arrive tonight. Dunno if they’ll be as helpful as you, but Kyle will come up with something for them to do.”

“Kyle?”

“He’s our best recruiter,” Dustin said, his smile fading. “A little too good. Senses auras clearly, but can’t read their intentions like I can. Every time I’ve vetted his work, though, he’s found something special, you know?”

Kay nodded, but her heart still felt uneasy. Their aura modifications back at Maywitch had been designed to attract attention from mages with evil intentions, but Nadia and Holly hadn’t planned to be recruited so quickly. Plus, if Nadia had fooled Dustin’s Reading abilities, that either meant that she had complicated feelings like Kay’s, or was plotting something nefarious.

That, of course, could be lethal for the other two Maywitch spies.

 

 

Chapter 12: Lumericite

 

Kay spent the rest of the day creating batch after batch of lumericite. By dinnertime, she had worn herself out physically and mentally. She wondered if she could fool them into believing her magic was exhausted, and possibly delay their attack.

“Damn, I haven’t used that much magic in a while,” she said, stretching as she finished cleaning off the kitchen table. “Can I go shower? I’m kinda sore.”

“Please shower. You’re a mess,” Dustin said over his shoulder as he put something in the oven. “Come join me for a beer afterward. You’ve earned it.”

She frowned and wiped a hand across her face. Her freshly-washed fingers were suddenly stained with gray. “Yikes. Will do.”

As she walked down the hallway to the bathroom, someone emerged from a side room. Kay intuitively reached out a hand to introduce herself, then hesitated. It was Nadia – no, Dawn, she corrected herself.

“Oh, h-hi there,” Kay said, stumbling over her words. “Are you new? I’m Lisa.”

Nadia stared at her groggily. Kay wondered if she had been given the same sleeping potion as herself. “Hi, I’m Dawn. Sorry, just woke back up,” Nadia said, shaking Kay’s hand. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“That door,” Kay said, pointing to a half-open door.

“Thanks,” Nadia muttered.

As Kay waited outside, she glanced at the door Nadia had just come from, and wondered if Holly was awake. There was something eerie about being in the same place as two colleagues and forcing herself to act like she didn’t know either of them.

Then again, she thought, she and Nadia had done just fine pretending not to know each other at Maywitch. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all.

When Nadia was done, Kay showered quickly. There was something eerily vulnerable about being naked in such an unfamiliar place – especially a place where she was being held against her will. She re-dressed and went back to the kitchen, where Dustin offered her a beer.

“C’mon, let’s go sit on the balcony,” he said. “You been out here yet?”

She shook her head and took the bottle from him. “Nope. Thanks.”

He strode out to the balcony, where four folding chairs sat around a tiny card table. “It isn’t much, but it’s nice when you don’t get to go out often,” he said.

The sun was setting behind the massive fir trees to the west, and the sky over the cabin was turning darker every passing minute. Kay tried to enjoy the scenery, but couldn’t.

“Rest assured, Lisa, you are earning our trust,” Dustin said a few minutes later. “I can tell you’re perturbed by how you were brought into the fold, but it’s what you wanted, right? And you’ll see the benefits soon enough. I promise, you’re fitting in just fine. I’m glad you decided to reach out to me on a whim.”

She realized that she had played right into his hands by following him back to his house. Even if she had turned out to be useless or a fraud, he would’ve found a way to make her useful – even if it meant killing her. His words were suave and calming, but they didn’t mask the fact that he never had trusted her, and never would.

But she smiled – not at him, but at the realization that she had figured out his game. He was skilled both at Reading and at manipulating people, but those skills wouldn’t protect him from her flames in the end. She would still win. “I appreciate hearing that,” she said.

His face darkened slightly, and she realized that he had sensed her murderous intentions. “The sooner you really let me at ‘em, though, the sooner I can accomplish what I came for,” she continued.

“Even after you accomplish that, though, we can’t just let you go,” he said. “But we’ll give you incentives to stay. Don’t worry too much about that.”

“I’m sure you will.” She searched his expression, but it was hard to read as he raised his bottle to his lips again. “Why do you do this, though? What brought you here?”

He smiled. “You only have one person you’re pissed at, Lisa? Or is it many?”

“I mean, it’s mostly just the one.”

“But think of how many people shaped that one person. Think of how many people allowed that person to become who they are.” He drained the last of his beer without meeting her eyes.

She stared out over the landscape for a long moment. “Sure,” she said, “there’s a lot of people—”

“People responsible for her doing whatever she did,” he said, “whether directly or indirectly, right?”

Her heart sank. She knew where he was going with his statement. “I guess there’s a lot of people responsible, at least a little bit. People who saw the trouble she was causing and said nothing.”

“I want the world to start anew,” he said, barely audible over the rustle of the wind in the trees. “I want to recreate everything. Like Noah’s flood. I want the sinners washed away, and only the truly good to stay alive. Those who stand up for what’s right. Those who actually protect the weak instead of turning the other way.”

“Do you think that’s really what’s going to happen?”

He stood up and dusted off his pants. “There will be some collateral damage, right? Just like with your goal,” he said softly. “I was scared at first, but I’ve kinda grown into this.”

A cold, fleeting wave of fear rushed over her, and he walked away without giving her a chance to respond. Then, at the door to the cabin, he turned around again as glimmering white powder fell before him.

“You need to toughen up, Lisa. I’m sensing that lack of resolve again.”

Her head began to swim as he walked back to the building. There was no way he wasn’t onto her. She had said too much.

——————————————————————————

As she went to bed, she caught glimpses of Holly and Nadia hovering just outside the kitchen. She said nothing, though, knowing it would look suspicious if she went out of her way to greet them. If Dustin was keeping a close eye on her, he would surely make a note of who she associated with.

She read the miscellaneous books in her room for a long time before finally growing tired, but even then, she slept horribly. She made mental plans for how she would address Dustin in the morning. There had to be a way to make sure that he believed in her – or at least trusted her enough to let her live.

She had been asleep for barely three hours when she was awoken by shouting in the hallway. She sat upright, fumbling for the lamp on her nightstand. Maybe something bad had happened. Maybe she was about to die. As she managed to turn her light on, she reached for the pendant around her neck, as she had done barely a week ago when Juan had knocked on her door.

Then Renaya burst into the room, a knife in her hand and fury in her eyes. “You have about five seconds to explain what was wrong with that fucking lumericite,” she snarled as she walked toward the bed.

Kay raised both her hands and shook her head. “Wait, wait,” she said. “What happened? It should work just fine—”

“It had the explosive power of a fucking car backfiring!” Renaya yelled. She rammed a knee into Kay’s stomach and knocked the lamp from the nightstand.

As Kay’s head hit the wall behind her, she heard Dustin’s voice in the hallway. “Ren, don’t kill her just yet,” he said. “She might not even know what went wrong. She could just be incompetent.”

“And if that’s the case, [_you’re _]fucking dead,” Renaya said over her shoulder. “And get the fuck in here.”

Kay barely noticed the pain in her head and neck as she calculated her next move. Renaya knew Kay was a firecaster, but seemed unaware that her close proximity put her in mortal danger, if Kay had wormwood within reach. Then again, Kay thought, attempting to burn Renaya from this range could cause her own death or injury as well. The cabin around her and the bedding beneath her were certainly more flammable than the church they had fought in previously.

“Fucking spill,” Renaya said.

“I don’t know,” Kay gasped, squirming under the weight of Renaya’s knee. “Let me take a look at the batch, okay?”

There were more voices in the hallway. Renaya seemed to hesitate for a moment before waving the knife in front of Kay’s face. “I really don’t want to kill you,” Renaya said, “but you’re either incompetent or some kind of sneak, as far as I can tell. If you give me a good reason, though, I can spare you for now, while also reserving the right to possess you and throw you off the balcony later—”

“Wait!”

Renaya turned halfway. Holly – no, Billie, Kay reminded herself – stood in the doorway, her face shining with sweat. Kay’s mouth went dry as Renaya straightened up, keeping her eyes fixed on the tiny girl. “This better be good,” Renaya said.

“Kyle told me what happened,” Holly said, her voice barely above a whisper. “It – it’s probably not L-Lisa’s fault. I did some batches last night, and I hadn’t realized my cycle had started, and – and that can throw it off, so I went back through—”

“What are you blubbering about?” Renaya snapped as she stepped closer to Holly.

“I tried to take out the batches that I had done, but I might’ve done it wrong. I was tainted! Being on your period can taint lumericite; it’s that sensitive!” Holly said. “I’m sorry! I – maybe I grabbed the wrong ones and the bad ones were left in the box!”

Kay slowly struggled to sit up. Holly was right, but the lumericite was their father’s talent. Had he known about menstruation throwing off auras that subtly, or had Holly learned that somewhere else? It wasn’t a problem for most spellwork.

Whatever the case may be, Holly might have just saved the day, Kay mused as Renaya turned back to her. “Is that true? Your period can even fuck up lumericite?” Renaya said.

“Yeah, if you get anemic, apparently. Something to do with the oxygen and iron required for this kind of magic. My cycle’s not for another week, though,” Kay said, shrugging.

“ And mine started really suddenly, and I've been feeling dizzy and stuff. You can ask N- Dawn,” Holly said. Kay saw her face twitch and knew that she had come close to using the wrong name.

Renaya’s face contorted in disgust. “No, thanks, I’d rather not.”

Dustin snickered, and Holly flushed deeper red. “No, I meant – I bled through my pants,” she muttered. “And that’s when I realized it had started. I’m sorry. I caused so much trouble.”

“I didn’t even know we had two lumericite-makers, though.” Renaya stepped closer to Holly again, and the room grew eerily silent. “I don’t think Kyle told me that.”

Kay shuddered. The statistical likelihood of two lumericite-makers joining such a small team at almost the same time was minuscule – and Holly couldn’t come up with an excuse for that.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” Holly smiled.

“I wonder how likely that is, though. Fire abilities are rare – less than ten percent of the mage population, I’ve been told. And you have both that and possession?”

Holly’s smile twisted into a wide, sinister grin, and Kay shuddered again. “How did Lisa end up here? Maybe there’s something about us fire-starters that kinda draws us here,” Holly said softly. “I mean, since most mages don’t really… appreciate our talents.”

For a moment, Renaya’s expression was hidden from view as she lowered her head. Then Kay heard a low chuckle, and when Renaya raised her head again, she looked much less concerned than before. “I guess that’s possible,” she said. “Hell, maybe there’s a psychological side of things that’s bringing us together. Kyle did say you and Dawn were starting trouble when he found you.”

As Kay realized she had been holding her breath, she turned away from the others to hide her relief. Renaya was unstable, but perhaps she wasn’t totally irrational.

“At any rate, you’re both off of lumericite duty for today,” Renaya said, her voice much softer than before. “We lost our opportunity to hit our target. We have another two people moving back in tomorrow. Billie, clean the cellar and the stairwell. Lisa, clean the first floor.”

“Sure thing. Sorry about all the trouble,” Holly said, her voice back to its usual volume. Her eyes met Kay’s, and she nodded. “Sorry, Lisa. I caused a lot of panic for you—”

“Enough,” Renaya said, waving Holly away. “Go back to bed. Breakfast isn’t for another two hours.”

——————————————————————————

Sure enough, Kay spent the day scrubbing and vacuuming every inch of the first floor. It was unnecessarily punitive, but better than being dead, she thought as she finished wiping down the bathroom mirror. She owed Holly at least a few beers when they got back, regardless of them both being underage.

As she finished putting cleaning supplies away at the end of the day, Nadia caught her eye in the hallway, and scratched her nose. That was the signal that they should start looking for a way out. Kay rubbed her eyes in response, to show that she had received the message.

She knew that their chances of escaping were slim, though. Their cabin was in the middle of the woods, and if none of the three of them could determine their location, their chances of making it to the nearest major road, let alone actual safety, were slim.

They would probably have to steal whatever vehicle they could, Kay thought as she stretched and headed to dinner. It would probably take a few more days for Renaya to calm down again, after Kay and Holly had lost her trust in such dramatic fashion. After that, though, they might be able to make their move.

At dinner, Dustin, Kyle and Renaya were uncharacteristically quiet. The people who usually visited for dinner – mages that had come to pick up supplies, or meet with Renaya about something – were absent. Holly and Nadia mostly kept to themselves, but occasionally voiced a question or idea.

“What will I be helping with tomorrow?” Holly asked at one point.

Dustin shrugged, and Renaya ignored the question entirely. “Hard to say,” he said. “We’re waiting on some more updates from someone tonight before we plan our next move. Don’t worry; things will get interesting again soon.”

Holly mustered a smile. “Cool.”

Nadia stared down at her plate, and Kay looked away, not wanting to seem to interested in her compatriots. She picked at her food for a long while before Renaya, Nadia and Holly wandered off, leaving herself, Dustin and Kyle to clean up.

As they finished washing dishes and putting leftovers away, Dustin spent several minutes typing on his phone. “Any updates?” Kyle said softly.

Dustin shook his head, his expression unreadable. “Lisa, let’s grab a beer,” he said. “It’s a nice night. Go on outside; I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Sure,” Kay said, trying to sound enthusiastic. Her heart sank as she stepped outside and closed the screen door behind her. She doubted he was grabbing her for another camaraderie-building chat.

The variegated sky before her calmed her nerves slightly. She sat down on the same wooden chair she had sat in before, and placed her shaking hands in her lap. The strain of the past few days had finally begun to wear on her. She felt as if she would burst into tears.

Then again, she tried to tell herself, maybe he had some good news for her. There was no way she would get to go home – at this point, she was essentially a victim of human trafficking, she realized with a jolt – but maybe he had talked Renaya down from the rage that had consumed her that morning. Maybe if they trusted Kay with a new assignment, a chance to escape would present itself.

Dustin emerged with a bottle of beer in each hand. “You had a long day, huh?” he said as he gave her one.

She took it. “Yeah. Thanks for this.”

“No problem. Hey, don’t worry too much about the lumericite craziness. We know how particular that stuff can be.” He smiled at her, but the emotion didn’t reach his eyes. Even in the dim lighting of the woods at sunset, his face was clearly strained. “We used to have someone else who could make it, but we needed to send her somewhere to scout out something else.”

“Gotcha. No worries.” She smiled and took a sip of her beer. “How much more will you need?”

“A lot. Got big plans.”

She hesitated for a long moment. She knew she had to press him for information, though she was unlikely to get it. “Will you tell me who you’re going after? I know you guys gotta be careful about who you trust, but…”

“Patience, Lisa.” He took a swig of his beer, and when he spoke again, he didn’t meet her eyes. “You’ve got some time to kill before you find that out.”

“Look, can you at least try to make sure I accomplish what I came here for? Sooner rather than later,” she said. She could feel her face growing hot, and she knew her temper was rising.

He glanced over at her, his expression unchanged. “That won’t be happening. Sorry.”

Her chest grew tight – and as she struggled to process his ominous words, a wave of dizziness rushed over her. The beer bottle slipped from her fingers. The last thing she heard as her knees gave way was the dull thunk of heavy glass on the patio deck.

 

 

Chapter 13: Cellar

 

Kay could taste blood in her mouth. As she regained her senses, the taste of iron threatened to overwhelm everything else. Her sight was blurry and dim, but she wasn’t sure why.

“Sorry you got a shit hand this round,” Renaya’s voice said somewhere nearby.

Kay couldn’t hold back the wave of panic gnawing at her chest. Something cut into her neck, wrists, legs, back – she was restrained at nearly every joint. The more she tried to move, the weaker she seemed to become.

“This game we’re playing is like a poker game, isn’t it?” Renaya’s voice was suddenly very close.

It was hard to breathe in the damp, hot air of the cell. Kay struggled to open her eyes, and closed them again when she saw that Renaya’s face was inches from her own.

“You thought you could bluff. You didn’t think I would check the other batches after that?”

Kay was struggling to breathe, let alone talk, and she realized after a long moment that there was a poultice taped over her mouth. It smelled like the sleeping poultices her mother had for herself when the stress of single parenthood had been too much.

“By the way, we did some more digging and found a hole in your story. Your little ‘Lisa’ character isn’t in some of the local government records she should be in. I’m guessing you’re with Maywitch, right? You really wanna make up rules for other mages to follow? You really wanna be limited in what you can and can’t do?” Renaya bent down, frowning as she met Kay’s gaze. “We’re trying to make the world better, y’know. It’s a little messy right now, but if you’d just stay out of our way…”

For a minute, Renaya’s gaze was sympathetic – almost concerned – and Kay found herself wanting to know more. Could some silver lining be lurking beneath the earthquakes and the demons? What could possibly be Renaya’s justification for whatever mayhem she was plotting?

Something hard collided with the edge of Kay’s jaw beside the poultice still taped to her mouth. She grunted in pain and recoiled, tugging hard at her bonds. The taste of iron clouded her senses again. For a moment, she felt disoriented and nauseous, and worried that she could end up choking on her own vomit if Renaya didn’t remove the poultice.

“You’re getting me in some trouble with my boss, you know,” Renaya said as she stood back up. “You’ll fuckin’ pay for that. Too bad we need you alive right now.”

She walked away, and as Kay felt her nausea fade, she tried to sense the limits of her magic in her current state. She was almost powerless. Apparently, there was little to no wormwood residue or other ingredients on her person. Renaya and the others had probably checked her well.

Kay glanced around at her surroundings, and her heart dropped when she realized she was likely underground. The stone walls around her had no windows. It was likely the “cellar” that Renaya had asked Holly to clean the previous day, she thought.

But what had even happened to Holly? Had she been locked up somewhere as well? Had Nadia been found out?

She felt fatigue begin to set in again, and she closed her eyes. She had no strength to fight anything, even sleep, and she felt her thoughts turn to jumbled nonsense as she fell asleep again.

——————————————————————————

Nadia would have been pacing frantically, if Kyle and Dustin didn’t have her at gunpoint. She had been held in her room for nearly two hours. Holly had been hauled off by Renaya and another woman to someplace else inside the cabin; Nadia only knew that because she could occasionally hear Renaya yelling.

“Look, if you’re telling the truth and Billie didn’t do anything wrong,” Dustin said, “then Renaya will sort it out and return her soon, okay? Shit’s just a little weird right now.”

Nadia sighed. She had been voicing objections to her and Billie’s treatment for the past hour and a half, and it was clearly going nowhere. Dustin was still eyeing her with the same passive, cold stare he had when he had first entered. “I’m gonna have to pee in about ten minutes, you know,” she said.

“Fine. I’ll walk you to the bathroom whenever you want.”

As Nadia stood, though, there were footsteps in the hallway. Dustin glanced over his shoulder, though his gun didn’t move.

“She’s clean,” Renaya’s voice said. “Kyle, Dustin, go downstairs and watch over Lisa. She’s been in and out of sleep for the past hour.”

Nadia’s heart plummeted. As Kyle and Dustin disappeared into the hallway, Holly reentered the bedroom, her eyes cast to the floor. “Everything on you and your girlfriend here checks out,” Renaya said as her face appeared in the doorway. “Sorry. We had to triple-check everything ‘cause it turned out Lisa’s a fuckin’ snake.”

“What?” Nadia said, trying her hardest to feign surprise. “What happened? Is that why the lumericite didn’t work?”

“Good guess,” Renaya said. “We’re doing damage control. If you saw or heard Lisa do anything suspicious, or have any clue as to her real name, let me know now.”

Her eyes narrowed. Nadia’s thoughts raced as she tried to piece together a believable response. “I mean, we didn’t really talk,” she said. “Like, at all. I can’t think of anything right now…”

Renaya shrugged and turned away. “We’ll make you two useful later today, but for now, sit tight,” she said as she left the room.

Holly waited for a moment before crossing to the door and closing it. Her eyes were wide with fear, and the minute the door was latched, she sank to the floor.

“Holly—” Nadia hissed, then caught herself. The walls could damn well have ears, she thought. “Billie, what happened? Are you okay?”

Holly shook her head, and Nadia climbed out of bed and went to her. “Are you okay?” Nadia repeated.

“I’m fine, but—” Holly paused, seeming to realize her proximity to the door was dangerous. “Give me a minute.”

Nadia embraced her, and they sat by the door for several minutes. Holly’s skin was sweaty and cold, and Nadia could feel her rapid heart rate slow only slightly over a few minutes. “They had a mage there who could detect lies, they said,” Holly whispered. “They told me that, and—”

She stopped again and nodded toward the window. Nadia helped her to her feet and walked over to the bed, where Holly immediately sat down again. “They must have been bluffing, though,” Holly whispered, “to see if I would try to make a break for it, or something.”

Nadia frowned. If the mage had really been able to detect lies, Renaya and the others probably would have figured out Holly was with Maywitch. They had apparently been betting on Holly revealing herself – attempting to break out, or refusing to talk, or something like that.

Or, she thought, perhaps the mage’s powers were real, and they were simply trying to lull Holly and Nadia into a false sense of security before killing them.

“So you just acted innocent as possible?” Nadia said.

“Yeah. I figured… I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to be strong enough to beat all three of them. Plus, I assumed they still had you at gunpoint.” Holly rubbed her eyes. “God, I can’t believe that didn’t end worse.”

Nadia pulled her close and kissed her forehead. “What did they tell you about Kay?” she whispered.

“Not much. Just that she had apparently tainted the lumericite on purpose, and that they’re holding her somewhere. Did they tell you anything? And did they ask you anything?”

“Not really…” Nadia frowned. “I wonder why they were so aggressive toward you, though, and not me.”

“I think they were checking out our backgrounds, too. Maybe there was a minor inconsistency with mine. Or maybe they just thought I would break more easily under pressure.” Holly smiled thinly.

“You did good,” Nadia said, kissing her forehead again. “Now we have to look for a chance to break Kay out or reach out to the outside world.”

Holly nodded, but Nadia knew they were both thinking the same thing: they might only have a few hours before Kay outlived her usefulness.

——————————————————————————

Two hours later, after Holly and Nadia had showered and taken naps, Kyle summoned them to the kitchen. He waved to the table as they entered. “Sit,” he said. “I’ll have something for you to work on in a minute.”

Nadia watched as he set a styrofoam box on the table and took off the lid. He went to the fridge and pulled out a test tube rack with tiny, sealed vials in it. She didn’t have to look close to see that there was blood in the vials.

She tried to keep her expression neutral. Blood was only used for hexes – truly powerful, awful spells.

Holly’s face had turned a pale, tawny shade. Nadia tilted her head in concern, and as Kyle went to get something else from the fridge, Holly pointed a shaking finger at the vials.

“Kay,” she mouthed. “It’s Kay.”

She lowered her hand as Kyle turned back around. Kyle said something to them, but Nadia couldn’t hear anything over her furious, panicked thoughts. Holly was too freaked out for there to be any doubt. She must have sensed her half-sister’s aura coming from the blood.

As Kyle opened his mouth to say something else, Nadia slipped two fingers into her back pocket and pulled out a poultice of sage and sea salt. Holly tensed.

The wind spell left Nadia’s mouth with more venom than usual, and it seemed to react to the potency of the poultice as well as the blood pounding in her ears. Kyle thudded against the fridge behind him, crying out only briefly before falling to the floor. The vials on the table rattled in their holders. Holly flinched, but Nadia barely noticed.

With shaking hands, Nadia shoved the poultice back into her pocket and stared at Kyle’s limp body for a moment. “We better move quickly,” she said.

“You should’ve interrogated him first,” Holly muttered. “Because Kay might be in the basement, but if she’s not…”

Nadia smiled. “I have a better idea, actually.”

——————————————————————————

Kay’s eyes fluttered open again, and she stared at the ceiling for several minutes as she tried to catch her bearings. She had no idea how long she had been unconscious. To her right, Renaya’s form came into view, looming overhead in distorted, blurry angles. “Glad you’re awake again,” she said. “Let’s talk before you’re in too much pain.”

Kay’s arms ached, though she wasn’t sure whether that was because of her invisible bonds or something else. She craned her neck as much as she could, hoping to see as much of the room as possible. Renaya seemed to notice her efforts and leaned down.

“Thanks for all this blood,” she said, holding a red-filled vial in front of Kay’s face. “See? I knew you would end up useful somehow. When we take people in, we know that even if they end up being snakes, we can make something useful out of them.”

The poultice over Kay’s mouth was damp, and for a minute, she had to fight the urge to gag. Sweat beaded on her neck and forehead. She suspected that she had lost too much blood to be able to escape, even if the bonds on her arms and legs were suddenly weakened.

Renaya suddenly kicked Kay hard in the head. “You fuckin’ hear me? Listen up,” she yelled. “I’m not letting you live. I’m letting you die slowly.”

Kay grunted in pain and closed her eyes, bracing herself for another blow, but it never came. There was a soft whisper somewhere in the hallway leading to the cell. She heard footsteps move away from her, and she opened her eyes to see Renaya walking away.

“Hey, you might want to take it easy on her. We’ll need more blood than this,” said a male voice.

“Fine. Get in here and do it,” Renaya replied. “What’s she doing here, though?”

“Thought I should bring her in case we needed her. We can’t be killing her too soon.” Kyle stepped into view, with Nadia right behind him.

Kay’s heart sank. What was going on? Was Nadia being coerced – or was she about to show her true colors?

Then again, she thought, if Nadia had been brought to heal Kay, that probably couldn’t hurt. Kyle, though, glared down menacingly, his eyes narrowed.

“Wait, did you bring the equipment down?” Renaya said.

He stiffened. “Shit, I forgot,” he said. “Dawn, make sure she doesn’t die—”

“Wait.” Renaya’s eyes narrowed. “Where is everyone else?”

Nadia’s eyes darted between the other three. Kyle frowned and tilted his head. “I mean, Billie is upstairs cleaning,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t know exactly where Dustin is—”

Before Renaya could even react, Nadia had lunged at her, a kitchen knife in her right hand. Kyle projected a shield in front of himself and Kay.

“You—” Renaya stopped mid-sentence and began speaking Latin.

“Move!” Kyle yelled, and Nadia dove back behind his shield.

An instant later, hurricane-strength wind surged forth from Renaya’s hands, shattering the windows high on the cellar walls. Kay watched, bewildered, as Nadia said something to Kyle before handing her knife to him.

“Kay,” Nadia said, kneeling next to her. “I’ll have you free in a minute. Hold still. I expect you’ll faint if we move you too quick in the state you’re in.”

Kay felt something poke her right arm, and she fought the urge to pull away, though she wouldn’t have gotten far anyway. A few moments later, she heard Nadia muttering under her breath, and Kay’s bonds loosened.

“Is Kyle… Is that Holly?” Kay asked.

“Sure is.”

“Hey, I can’t hold this much longer!” Kyle – or rather, Holly – suddenly yelled. Shield magic arched from his palms in bright green rays, reflecting sharply off the sweat on his face.

“Need two minutes,” Nadia replied.

Kay slowly sat up, rubbing her aching legs with her free arm. She already felt somewhat better, though she still felt as if she had a massive hangover. “What do you have on you?”

“I got salt, wormwood and a couple other herbs, plus an amethyst I swiped. But hold still so I can heal you—”

Kay shook her head as Nadia prepared a second syringe of something – likely blood with some kind of magic done to it, she thought. “I need a little blood. When you finish with that one, let it bleed a little,” Kay said.

Nadia nearly dropped the needle, and she fixed Kay with a stony gaze. “What are you going to do?”

“Getting a little revenge. Just look the other way.”

Nadia smiled, but it was a pained, sympathetic expression. “I don’t blame you at all,” she murmured as she slowly injected the syringe.

Kyle yelled something just as Renaya charged through the shield, seeming oblivious to the knife in his hand. He swung wildly, and the knife dug a shallow cut into her fist as she swung at him.

In a heart-wrenching instant, Kay realized that Holly was effectively defenseless: she could use almost none of Kyle’s powers, nor her own, while she was possessing him. The use of possession magic took up too much of her own energy to use more than a shield or weak wind spell.

Nadia whirled around and lunged at Renaya with the bloody syringe. Startled, Renaya stumbled back, but Kay could see her lips moving as she prepared another attack.

Kay said the Latin words to a hex as quickly as she could while fumbling with the various herbs in Nadia’s pack. Her hands glowed as they became painfully hot.

“Move!” she yelled as her fingers grasped a vial of wormwood.

Nadia and Kyle dove out of the way without even turning around. Renaya’s lips were moving rapidly, but it was too late. With just a few more words, Kay had lunged forward and unleashed the full fury of her hex.

Blinding orange light shot forward from Kay’s hands. Unlike her regular fire spells, this one chased human flesh with relentless speed, like a lion chasing its prey. It wouldn’t stop until there was nothing left to burn. It was forbidden precisely because it was impossible to call off.

Renaya didn’t even scream as her clothes and hair ignited first, followed by her skin, sending jet-black smoke toward the ceiling. The pungent smell of burning flesh made Kay recoil as it reached her.

It took less than a minute for Renaya’s body to burn to a shriveled crisp. Kay could feel the adrenaline beginning to wear off as she lowered her shaking hands. Kyle stood motionless for a moment before dropping his shield and vomiting on the stone floor.

Nadia, however, seemed completely calm, but her fingers shook as she rested them on Kay’s arm. “You okay?” she asked. “And who the fuck taught you that?”

Kay shrugged. “I live alone and work weird hours. Gotta teach myself some things to keep safe.”

“That’s a little more than necessary for ‘keeping safe.’“

Kay ignored her as she turned to Kyle. “Holly, you good?”

Kyle wiped his mouth. “Yeah,” he said faintly. “We gotta move. Let’s go.”

He turned to head back the way they had came, and Kay followed, feeling intense relief at finally being freed from her bonds. “You should go back to your body,” Kay said.

“No,” Kyle said, “I’m staying with you guys until—”

“Holly, go back upstairs,” Nadia said. “Seriously.”

Kyle cast an annoyed glance over his shoulder. “I’m not leaving you two alone with Kyle, though. Let me lock myself in there and then I’ll go up. Hurry up.”

Nadia nodded and started to run down the hall. Kay followed, unsure of where they were going or what had transpired before they came to rescue her, but assuming it was better to ask later.

They heard the clang of the cellar door, and five seconds later, a muffled thump echoed down the hall. Then, as Nadia and Kay reached the stairwell, there was a shriek somewhere upstairs.

Nadia swore and bolted up the stairs. “Shields up!” she said as she reached the first landing.

Kay’s legs burned as her feet pounded the steps. At the first floor, Nadia dashed down the hallway before bursting into the kitchen. As Kay ran into the room, her senses were assaulted by a putrid, decaying smell mixed with the lingering scent of smoke.

Then she saw the shadowy creature looming above Holly, and as it turned to greet its visitors, it let out a bone-rattling roar.

 

 

Chapter 14: Demons

 

Kay clasped her hands over her ears. Holly rolled to the right and scrambled under the table as Nadia raised her hands. “Kay, back me up!” Nadia yelled.

Kay uncovered her ears just as Holly yelled: “It’s immune to fire! We’ll have to try something else!”

That explained the scorch marks on the wall and ceiling, Kay thought, glancing at Nadia.

“Shit,” Nadia muttered. She cast a shield, and Holly crawled out from under the table to hide behind the fragile-looking spell. “Kay, go check the closet in the hall for lavender and wolfsbane.”

The demon lunged at them, and Nadia dove left while Kay stumbled backward out the kitchen door. “We can hold them off for a few seconds. Go check the closet in the hall,” Nadia yelled.

Kay didn’t have to be told twice. She sprinted the five meters down the hall and yanked the closet door open; after several seconds, she found both herbs in neatly labeled plastic containers.

A scream echoed out from the kitchen, followed by a bang. Kay ran back and stuck her head in just as Nadia and Holly were running out.

“I only stunned it. Let’s go,” Nadia said as she darted for the front door.

“To where?” Kay asked.

“To grab one of the cars — just follow me!”

Nadia’s tone was icy, and Kay realized it was probably best not to argue. Her head hurt horribly, and it was difficult to process any thoughts more strategic than “run” and “fight.”

Nadia paused by the front door to rummage through some jackets left on hooks. A few seconds later, she yelled with delight, keys in hand. But her enthusiasm was short-lived: a low growl rumbled in the kitchen behind them. “Okay, we’re taking the Hummer,” she said as she opened the front door. “Get out and keep moving.”

She sprinted outside, and Holly and Kay struggled to keep up as she headed for a black SUV. There was a muffled bang somewhere in the house. “Holly, where the fuck did that thing come from?” Nadia asked as she gasped for breath.

“I don’t know! I mean, it looked like it broke through the window right before I woke up, but…” Holly shook her head.

Nadia remotely unlocked the car and pulled the driver’s door open. Holly opened one of the rear doors and ushered Kay inside before jumping in after her. “Whatever the case may be, there’s probably a demon-summoner nearby,” Nadia said. She swore under her breath as she started the car. “Or maybe someone activated some kind of trap that let that thing out. You two, be on guard.”

Holly rummaged in her pocket for a moment before murmuring a spell. A second later, a faint green haze surrounded the car. “We’re not so worried about being seen by non-mages right now, are we?” she asked.

“No. We’re taking the back roads, anyway.” Nadia hit the gas, and the car sped down the gravel driveway.

For nearly ten minutes after that, the only sound in the car was the sound of rain tapping against the windshield and roof. Nadia’s knuckles were white as she gripped the steering wheel, struggling to maintain control on the slippery roads.

Holly removed her cotton jacket and gave it to Kay, who soaked it in rainwater to cool her face. “We’ll get you a poultice when we get there, Kay,” Nadia said, her voice hoarse. “Just hang in there, okay?”

Kay didn’t respond. She still wasn’t totally convinced that she was still alive. Was she dreaming? Was she passed out in the cellar, never to awake again?

She pulled the damp shirt away from her face and ran her fingers over it. It was wet and soft, even with the congealed blood staining parts of it. Maybe she was still alive after all. She reached over to pinch her arm with her right hand, but her hand hurt too badly. Renaya must have bruised it at some point.

Holly seemed to notice Kay’s discomfort. “Nadia, do you want me to drive a bit so you can heal Kay?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” Kay protested.

Nadia didn’t respond for a moment. “There’s a little town up here,” she said. “I think it’s safe to pull over. I’ll try to call the safehouse, but if they don’t pick up, we keep driving.”

Two minutes later, she pulled over at a gas station. The three of them jumped out, Nadia making a beeline for the pay phone, and Holly and Kay heading for the restrooms.

Kay kept her head low to hide her bruises while she used the restroom, but couldn’t keep from noticing her face in the mirror. She still had the unfamiliar, false face they had given her at Maywitch. It made her feel even worse, and she wanted to get rid of it the minute they made it back.

Suddenly, more than anything, she wanted to talk to her mother. Even if Renaya tracked Kay down and killed her tomorrow, she at least wanted to be able to tell her mother everything that had happened. Maybe she would come back from her assignment, or at least take Kay along on it, if she knew how much her daughter had suffered.

“Kay,” Holly’s voice said softly behind her.

Kay looked at her half-sister in the mirror, but didn’t turn around. “I’m okay,” she said. “I’m not as sore as I was.”

“Okay. C’mon, the sooner we go, the sooner we can get back to the base,” Holly whispered, stepping toward the bathroom door.

When they climbed back into the car, Kay curled up in a ball with her knees to her chest, not wanting to let the others see her cry.

——————————————————————————

Twenty minutes later, Nadia abruptly pulled off the road again. Kay looked up to see bushes and branches all around. “We have to ditch this car and get picked up,” Nadia said over her shoulder. “Kay, you good?”

“Yeah.”

They hurried out of the car, and within thirty seconds, a black sedan had stopped at the side of the road. The passenger-side window rolled down, revealing a pale, tawny-haired young man with a pistol in his hand.

He aimed it at Nadia. “Password?”

“Lux aeterna,” she replied. “And yours?”

He smiled as he flipped the safety switch. “Pax aeterna,” he said. “Get in.”

The three women squeezed into the backseat, and the driver accelerated as soon as the door was closed. “Long time no see,” the man in the passenger seat said, turning toward Nadia. “Glad you’re alive.”

“Renaya’s dead,” Nadia said. “You relayed to base that there’s a demon on the loose, right?”

“I did. They were a little surprised you didn’t kill it,” he said, his voice gentle. “I told them you had an injured teammate, though, so they’ll monitor it via satellite and send in a team as soon as necessary. “

He trailed off, and he turned further to look at Kay and Holly. “I’m Lysander Reynolds,” he said, nodding. “The maniac driving us is Akani Wright. Kay, you need anything right away?”

Kay shook her head. “Thanks,” she murmured. She knew she shouldn’t be surprised that he knew her name.

Nadia resumed filling him in on the rest of their mission. She had skipped introductions and other niceties, Kay noted. A professional, through and through.

Eventually, the car pulled up outside a small brick house, and they went inside as quickly as they could. “Akani and I will stay on guard,” Lysander said. “Get some rest. I might need someone to take over for one of us a little later, though.”

Kay stood in the sparsely-decorated living room for a long moment, pondering her options. She was exhausted, but she had no desire to sleep. She wanted to be back at the base as soon as possible.

“When do we get to go back to the base?” she said softly.

Lysander offered her a wan smile. “Tomorrow morning, first thing. We just can’t risk driving back right away. Too far of a distance to cover without any time to plan precautions.”

She nodded as Nadia appeared at her side, herbs in hand. “What hurts?” Nadia asked.

“Really, I’m fine,” Kay said. “Is there a room where I can lay down?”

“Pick a bedroom upstairs, and just holler if you need anything,” Lysander said, waving a hand toward the stairwell. “Akani and I are sleeping on the couches down here tonight. Get some rest.”

Her legs ached as she struggled up the stairs. She wandered to the only open door, which was at the end of the hallway, and stood with her filthy toes in the carpet for several surreal seconds before realizing she needed to shower. Instinctively, she went to set a backpack or suitcase next to the bed, but realized she had nothing but the clothes on her back.

She found the bathroom, threw her filthy clothes aside, and showered for as long as her aching body would let her. When she finished, she drank a tall glass of water, wrapped herself in a towel, walked back to her room, and slept for nearly four hours.

——————————————————————————

There was a soft knock at the door, and she bolted upright. “What?” she asked hoarsely.

“It’s me,” Holly’s voice said. “I brought you some fresh clothes.”

Kay fumbled around for her towel, wrapped herself in it again, and opened the bedroom door a few inches. “Thanks,” she said as Holly handed her a shirt and pants.

“No problem. Your other clothes are in the washer, and this is all we got for now…”

Though Kay couldn’t see her entire face, Holly had clearly been crying. “Are you okay?” Kay asked.

Holly nodded. “Yeah. I was just freaking out for a little bit. I’m fine now.”

Kay couldn’t help but smile. “Same. Hold on a minute, okay?”

She closed the door and threw on the baggy t-shirt and pants. “Are these Lysander’s?” she asked.

“Yeah. Sorry, he apparently didn’t plan to have three girls show up here,” Holly’s voice replied.

“No money for underwear in Maywitch’s budget, huh?” Kay said without thinking.

Holly burst into giggles. Kay opened the door again, smiling sheepishly. “Sorry, I think I’m still half-asleep,” she murmured.

“I don’t care,” Holly said, shaking her head. “Are you feeling any better? Do you need Nadia?”

Kay leaned against the doorframe and avoided her eyes for a moment. “I do feel better,” she said. “I mean, I’m still sore, but…”

Holly’s eyes were wide and searching. Kay shook her head and smiled, unsure of how to proceed. “I guess I feel alive, a little,” she said. “I guess I’m still homesick, but it feels less miserable than it did a few hours ago.”

“Yeah,” Holly said, nodding enthusiastically. “I’ll feel even better when we’re back at the base.”

Down the hall, footsteps echoed up the stairwell, and Lysander appeared with a tray of food. “Oh, I was about to bring her down,” Holly said.

“No worries. Kay, you can eat up here if you want, or the rest of us are downstairs,” he said.

Kay’s smile widened. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll eat downstairs. Sorry you just bothered to bring it up.”

As they headed downstairs, she didn’t even feel soreness in her legs. She ate quietly while Akani and Lysander argued about something related to sports, and Holly and Nadia sat in the living room, writing out their draft reports for Gardner.

It felt strangely home-like to Kay. Then again, maybe anything felt like home after the twisted, cult-like hell she had just been through.

Lysander handed her a capsule, and explained that it would change her face back to normal. The change back would be less painful than before, but she grabbed some ibuprofen from the cabinet just in case. No sense in bothering Nadia for a pain poultice when there were modern alternatives at hand, Kay thought as she downed both pills.

When she went to bed a few hours later, she hovered by the hallway window for a little bit, admiring the scenery in the moonlight. The house had a fenced-in patio in the backyard, though the fence was hardly needed, with the distance between the surrounding houses.

She was looking down at the patio, half-wishing that she had taken some time to enjoy it, when she spotted two shadowy figures at one of the tables. Her heart dropped, but a second later, she recognized the figures as Holly and Nadia.

She half-smiled, chiding herself for being paranoid, but her heart dropped again as she saw the figures lean very, very close to each other.

She looked away, her face flushing. Since when were Nadia and Holly actually involved with each other? Was that the result of them posing as a couple on the assignment?

She glanced back down, and saw that their faces were touching. They were being so cavalier about it, she thought as she went to her room. Maybe it was already an open secret.

She sat down hard on her bed, her mind reeling from the revelation. It was none of her business, she knew, but there was something about the thought of Holly with Nadia that made her stomach hurt.

She sighed aloud as she realized what it was. Despite making it through the assignment alive, she still didn’t trust Nadia – that was all. And it didn’t surprise her much at all.

She curled up under the covers, but she lay awake for a long time, unable to lull her anxious mind to sleep.

 

 

Chapter 15: Silence

 

The noise of the kitchen staff always woke Gardner by 6 a.m. There was no avoiding it; her tiny room was situated above the kitchen, and no one had figured out a silence spell that didn’t also risk muting her phone.

The night of her team’s escape from Renaya’s clutches was harrowing, and though Gardner wasn’t there, the thought of their brush with death had kept her awake for hours. When Lysander had relayed to her that they were unharmed after a direct confrontation, she could barely believe her ears. There had been so many unknowns, but all three of the young women had performed their duties well – so well, in fact, that it scared Gardner just a little.

So it didn’t surprise her when she woke later than usual the next morning, just a few minutes before her 7 a.m. backup alarm was scheduled to go off. What did surprise her, though, was the resounding silence from the kitchen below.

Maybe someone was out sick and they were short-staffed. That likely meant breakfast would be simpler than usual; no breakfast burritos or cinnamon rolls. The cooks did like to show off when given a chance.

She checked her phone and stared at it for a long moment when she saw that she had no service. There was equipment in place to keep that from happening. She reached over and picked up the hard-wired phone on her nightstand, and heard nothing but dead air.

Her heart lurched into her throat. Immediately, she kicked off the covers and rolled out of bed, her normally stoic expression tensing as she gritted her teeth. If it was a simple systems issue, someone would have knocked on her door by now to wake her. The clock on her nightstand was still glowing its usual eerie red, so a power outage was out of the question.

She grabbed her belt from its hook by the door and pulled it around her waist, not even bothering to put her pants on first. For a minute, she considered pulling on shoes, but decided there was no time. She ran a hand over the capsules attached to the belt, making sure her herbs and supplies were securely attached, and drew her gun.

She hadn’t used a shield spell in so long that she stumbled over the words as the incantation left her lips. When she could feel the shield’s faint warmth enveloping her, she took a deep breath and opened her bedroom door.

Or tried to, at least. It was locked. It was always supposed to open without hassle from the inside. The electronic locking system was only supposed to be activated in an emergency, and that would have also set off alarms across the base.

That settled it, she thought. There was no way this was some accidental, minor issue. The security systems must have been overridden – or hexed, maybe.

She gritted her teeth and pulled a vial of lumericite from her nightstand. It would likely burn her belongings to a crisp, but she didn’t care. She dropped four tiny beads in front of the door and lit a fire in one hand.

When she waved her hand, the lumericite exploded with a bang and a blinding flash. Her shield protected her from the damage of the blast, but the fire rushed around her, and the sprinklers above her turned on within seconds. The door was bent open less than halfway, but she was able to ram it with her shoulder and knock it fully open.

It was dark except for the dim glow of flames behind her. She glanced behind her and considered extinguishing the flames with magic, but the sprinklers were already beginning to work.

When she turned around again, something lunged at her from the shadows, and she reacted far too late to stop it.

——————————————————————————

Nadia woke with a start as an unfamiliar banging noise reached her ears. It took her several seconds to realize it was the sound of someone knocking on the rickety bedroom door.

Beside her, Holly made a faint noise of concern, but Nadia hushed her and crept to the door, nearly tripping over something in the faint pre-dawn light. “Nadia, wake up. We got a problem,” Lysander’s voice said after a moment.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Can’t get ahold of base and Holly’s missing.”

“She’s right here,” she said as she reached for a shirt. “And why are you trying to get ahold of base this early?”

There was a sigh on the other side of the door. “Letty was supposed to check in this morning and she hasn’t. I can’t get ahold of anyone. Main comms, Gardner, nobody.”

Nadia stopped halfway through pulling on the shirt. “Main comms?”

“Yeah.”

She swore and turned around. Holly was sitting up in bed, her hair sticking out at odd angles as she rubbed her eyes. “Trouble?” she asked.

“We gotta move.” Nadia tossed her a shirt. “Ly, what’s Kay’s status?”

“I’m knocking on her door next. Tried calling but she didn’t pick up.”

If only psychic abilities were more common, Nadia mused as she pulled on a pair of jeans. She could sense Kay nearby, but had no way of knowing if the rookie was sleeping or otherwise incapacitated. ”Go. Make sure she’s there.”

“On it.”

In the silence that followed, Nadia could almost hear her stomach doing somersaults. “We have to get back,” she said, to no one in particular.

There was a shuffling noise behind her. “Yeah,” Holly said.

As she finished getting dressed, Nadia turned around to try to offer words of reassurance, but stopped as she saw that Holly wasn’t even halfway dressed. “Hol, what’s up?” she asked, her voice coming out more harshly than she meant.

“I can’t find my bra.” Holly’s voice was sullen, but a hint of mirth laced the last word.

Nadia wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. “I think it was near the foot of the bed. Hurry up.”

——————————————————————————

Kay was dressed, packed, and downstairs barely five minutes after Lysander woke her up. He joined her a few minutes later, followed by Holly and Nadia, whose faces had also changed back to normal overnight.

“Akani confirmed that the communication issues are with the base, and not us,” he said, nodding to the others as he pulled car keys from his pocket. “We can communicate fine with the other remote staff in the region, who are all also cut off from base. He said his standing orders have been to stay here no matter what, and it sounds like the other remote staff are in the same boat. Eastern Region is sending a team, but they won’t be able to get there for at least five hours. So it’s just the four of us. Let’s go.”

Kay bit her lip. If the base had somehow been compromised, what were four young mages supposed to be able to do about it?

She tried to push that thought away as Nadia took the keys from Lysander. Holly threw her bag over her shoulder and followed Nadia to the car.

The sun was just coming up as they climbed in, and as Kay got comfortable in the backseat, she had to fight the urge to lean against the window and fall asleep. Nadia was barking orders – requests, really, since she had no authority over them – and she put Holly on protective detail and Lysander in charge of calling various people at the base.

Once Lysander had left voicemails for everyone from Meilan to the cooks to the single accountant working for Maywitch, the car fell into tense silence. Holly was rubbing her hands together nervously as she maintained a shield around the car. Lysander offered to take over for her, since it was draining to keep a shield up for extended lengths of time, but she declined and said she would be fine for a while longer.

It didn’t take long for Kay to nod off against the window, but she slept fitfully, running through the halls of the base in her grayscale dreams.

——————————————————————————

They took turns napping over the next two hours, with Nadia even allowing Lysander to drive for a while so she could get some rest. Nadia explained that between the face-change magic and the trauma of the previous day, they were going to be more exhausted than usual, and should use every chance they had to recharge. When they were twenty minutes away from the base, she ordered them all awake, though she still looked exhausted herself.

Kay didn’t have a single reason to argue with anything Nadia was saying. Though her trust in Nadia was almost nonexistent, Kay had no idea what to expect or what to do when they charged into the base. When they had left a few days prior, she hadn’t even learned the names of everyone at base, let alone the protocols for handling emergencies.

She stared out the window at the still-unfamiliar trees and mountains, her heart thudding against her ribcage. Beside her, Lysander shifted restlessly, his hand clutching several vials of herbs and a quartz. Nadia and Holly were silent as well, staring out at the road ahead with stony gazes.

Nadia reached the gate across the road and punched in her passcode. The massive gunmetal-gray gate didn’t move, and she swore loudly.

“Try mine,” Holly said, before reciting a short string of numbers.

Nadia tried again, but the gate remained closed. “Shit,” she said. “Get out. This could be an ambush.”

Lysander and Holly bolted from the car without any hesitation. Kay grabbed her bag and did the same, fingers locked on her vial of wormwood. Nadia maneuvered herself between the car door and the keypad mounted near the gate, turning west and facing the nearby woods.

“Back way. Through the tunnels,” she said, barely looking at the others before wading into the knee-high grass. “Shields up. Kay, if you see one of those goddamn demon things, help me with it.”

Holly only nodded in response, and Kay assumed it was better to keep the talking to the minimum. More than anything, she wanted to ask what they were supposed to do when they got in there. Maybe Nadia had a plan. Maybe she didn’t. But then again, Kay mused, Nadia had been there longer than any of the other three mages now wading through cobwebbed grass. If anyone could figure it out, it was probably her.

They reached a locked gate in the barbed-wire fence not too far from the main road. Nadia hexed her way through it when it didn’t respond to her passcode. Kay guessed that it was a last resort – whatever was going on inside the base, it was possible that their security systems would pick up on the incursion.

Several yards ahead was a shallow ravine, littered with flowers and puddles from the recent rainfall. Nadia waved them toward it and began to slide down the walls of the ravine, nearly losing her footing as the ground became steeper. Kay and the others followed, though much more slowly.

A squeak beneath Kay’s feet startled her, and as she whipped her palms up, she lost her balance and fell backward. Holly gasped, and Nadia immediately turned around, left arm held out to destroy whatever threat she thought she detected.

Kay’s heart lurched into her throat as her eyes met Nadia’s. After a tense moment, the others seemed to realize there was no threat, and turned back toward the direction of the base as if nothing had happened. Kay scrambled to her feet and followed, rubbing her aching back. She must have slipped on the wet grass – and she was lucky Nadia wasn’t too trigger-happy.

As they made their way up the next embankment, the rising sun reflected off of a metal panel in the side of the hill. It was barely large enough for Holly, let alone some of the larger mages around. Nadia pressed her hand against a smooth, round stone in the middle of the panel, and something glowed softly as the panel began to move to the right.

Holly shot a look of amazement to Lysander, who shrugged. Kay assumed that this back entrance was disclosed only to truly trusted veterans – and with Nadia’s recent missions, she could likely fall into that category.

A narrow tunnel appeared, its green-tinged shadows oddly menacing in the early morning sun. Nadia swept her bangs out of her face before crawling inside. “Come on,” she whispered over her shoulder.

 

 

Chapter 16: Blood in the Water

 

Content Note: Gore and character death in this chapter.

——————————————————————————

 

Holly felt like her lungs were caving in on themselves. The hot, humid air of the tunnel was starting to make her dizzy, and it didn’t help that she felt claustrophobic as hell stuck between Nadia and Kay.

She tried to keep her mind on the mission at hand. Gardner and the others would surely be holed up somewhere, under siege – instead of dead. There was no way they could be dead, she told herself.

Nadia abruptly slowed. Holly peeked around her and caught a glimpse of some kind of metal panel in the dim light of Nadia’s spell.

She turned around and caught a glimpse of Kay’s nonplussed expression, then took a deep breath as she turned back around. She could do this. They could do this.

There was a loud [_click _]up ahead, and Nadia scrambled forward, no doubt anticipating enemies in whatever space lay ahead. Holly ran a finger over the charcoal in her pocket, checking that it was still there before scrambling forward.

Nadia had climbed out into a hallway illuminated only by dim emergency lights. Holly shuddered as she crawled out and surveyed the eerie scene. Her home for the past six months was unrecognizable. Ghostly piles of debris littered the dark tile floor, and a large light fixture had fallen from the ceiling a little ways away. The hallway extended thirty feet to their right before ending in a shadowy, cave-like room.

They had arrived in the end of the base closest to the comms room. As Kay and Lysander emerged from the tunnel behind them, Holly got Nadia’s attention and pointed toward the comms room.

There was a moment’s hesitation before Nadia shook her head. Holly’s stomach lurched, and she pointed again, not wanting to believe that Nadia wouldn’t want to check on their colleagues.

Nadia bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder before waving them toward the shadowy space at the end of the hallway, which led to the comms room. Holly nodded firmly and reached for the rune-inscribed bracelet on her left wrist. She didn’t even need it yet – she just wanted to be certain that it was there.

The four of them crept along the hallway, choosing to rely on the dim emergency lights instead of drawing attention to themselves with a light spell. When they arrived at the intersection of another hallway, Nadia and Holly scanned their surroundings to the best of their abilities before waving the others through.

They reached the room and tiptoed inside. Holly felt her skin crawl as she realized that the room smelled faintly of blood, and was warmer than the outside hallway.

Nadia’s foot crunched on a piece of debris beneath her. The others froze.

Then there was a strangled, clipped scream, almost as if someone had turned off a movie halfway through a fight scene. Holly whirled around, and felt something hot and wet collide with her face.

Beside her, Kay cried out. When Holly looked up again, she could see white reflections on a gray, wrinkled face just above her eye level – and just above Lysander’s decapitated body.

The thing grabbed Lysander with steely, narrow claws and leapt backward, howling in triumph as it went. One down, three to go, it seemed to say.

Holly couldn’t process the cries of despair that seemed to ricochet off the walls. She didn’t think they were hers. She looked down at her hands, where deep red blood and mangled flesh had covered her bracelet.

She didn’t feel pain, though. The blood wasn’t hers.

Spells began to light up around her. She looked up, trying to decide what to do, but couldn’t process anything other than the smell of death and Lysander’s body before her.

Nadia appeared in front of her, yelling something. Holly ignored her. Kay was pushing the red beast backward, but it lashed out with a tail that seemed to come out of nowhere, and she had to hurriedly raise a shield to deflect it.

Holly strode past Nadia, raised her bracelet, and let words of forbidden spells spill out of her mouth. The blood and skin stuck to her arms glowed orange, as if dawn was breaking on her body.

The monster snarled and sank one set of claws deeper into Lysander’s mangled torso. Kay turned halfway and screamed something at Holly.

Holly wasn’t listening. Fire erupted from her arms, soared across the few feet between herself and the beast, and crashed into its sweaty chest with the force of a runaway train.

Both the creature and the body in its clutches burst into flame, and a piercing shriek rattled Holly’s eardrums. She ignored the flaming debris falling from the ceiling and fired another salvo, knocking the beast backward into the hall. Something stuck her cheek, leaving a stinging burn, but the pain seemed to dissipate before it could even reach her brain. The sprinklers overhead went off, sending droplets of water raining down on the scene.

The demon fell backward, its smoldering body convulsing and curling into a ball. Lysander’s charred corpse lay on the floor a few feet in front of it.

Kay grabbed Holly’s arm and pulled her down the next hallway, away from the comms room. Holly looked over her shoulder and, through the haze of smoke and water, saw Nadia cast a pitying glance at Lysander’s body before following Kay.

Then, they went around the corner, and Holly let the water wash the blood from her body as she walked.

——————————————————————————

Nadia insisted on taking them toward the clinic, where she thought there could be a few holdouts trying to treat the injured. She led the way around shadowed corners, offering half-baked reassurances as they walked. She said that the sprinklers would put out the fire and that their best bet at safety would be to seek out the others, but Kay wasn’t convinced that they stood a chance anymore.

Kay watched Holly closely, unsure of what to do. Holly’s deep brown eyes held none of their usual light. She didn’t even look like she was about to cry – she looked like she wanted to incinerate the next thing that got in her way.

For a fleeting moment, Kay wondered where the hell her half-sister had learned that particular fire spell; it was the same one Kay herself had used several days prior in the church in Denver. Had it come from their father, or had Holly taught herself?

She didn’t have long to think about it, though. Nadia suddenly came to a halt just steps from the clinic, and Holly and Kay nearly tripped over her. A hollow, rasping cough could be heard behind the half-closed door of the clinic, and as Nadia glanced at the other two mages behind her, there was a low rumble beneath their feet.

Nadia fumbled with the door for a moment before successfully yanking it open. It was dark inside the clinic, except for a single beam of light. A thin form lay in the shadows, barely visible except for her white sneakers stained with red.

“Mei,” Nadia said, rushing forward.

The nurse was prone in a pool of her own blood. Nadia rolled her over and immediately began healing magic. “Mei, talk to me,” she said. “Meilan!”

Kay and Holly swept the room for signs of danger before kneeling down next to Nadia. Meilan’s chest and shoulders had several deep gashes. Several vials of herbs lay next to her on the floor.

“She just wore herself out trying to heal herself,” Nadia said, her voice tight. “Mei!”

Meilan’s eyes fluttered halfway open. She coughed heavily, and Kay could have sworn she heard a gurgle in her throat.

“Holly, get me some of the poultices in a red bag in the second cabinet,” Nadia said. “Mei, you’re okay! Hang in there!”

Meilan’s eyes opened wider, and as her gaze met Nadia’s, she smiled. “Nad, I don’t believe it,” she whispered. “I don’t. There’s no way you’re—”

She coughed again, and as Holly scrambled back with the poultice, Nadia turned her attention to the wounds on Meilan’s chest. “Don’t try to talk, okay?” Nadia said. “We got you, but you need to save your strength—”

“You can’t be,” Meilan said. “You saw her, right?”

Nadia opened her mouth to speak, but stopped. “Saw who?” Kay asked softly.

Blood seeped from Meilan’s mouth, and her eyes slid closed. “Mei, don’t!” Nadia said. “Holly, get another poultice!”

Holly complied, and as Nadia scrambled to heal the worst of Meilan’s injuries, Kay turned away. Meilan had gone completely pale. She was clearly dying. “I’ll watch your back,” Kay said. “Do whatever it takes—”

“Goddammit,” Nadia said, “Holly, hurry up!”

Kay ran two bloodstained fingers over her collarbone, where her pendant usually rested. Who – or what – had Meilan seen? And how had it done this to her?

As Holly brought another poultice, the room grew silent. Kay closed her eyes. She heard Nadia take a deep breath behind her, and several seconds later, Holly muttered: “Nadia, you tried.”

“She’s not dead yet,” Nadia said, her voice choked with tears. “She’s not.”

Kay didn’t open her eyes. She wanted to be anywhere but here. She couldn’t stand the stench of blood and smoke; the darkness of the destroyed room; the sound of Nadia’s shocked, ragged breathing.

There was a rustling sound behind her. She opened her eyes and turned around, but it was only Nadia adjusting a poultice. “Mei, wake up. You can do this. I can’t do this alone,” Nadia sobbed.

Her hands fell to her sides, and Holly pulled her into an embrace. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Holly said. “We have to go, Nad. There could be others.”

“Feel for a pulse. I can’t find one, but that doesn’t mean…”

Holly reached for Mei’s neck, and came away with her fingers coated in blood. “She’s gone. Nad, we have to try to help the others.”

An eerie silence filled the air before Nadia wiped her hands on her jeans and stood up. “Kay, you got room in your backpack for poultices?” she asked, her voice shaking.

“Yeah,” Kay said. “Second cabinet, right?”

“Red bag has the ones for stopping blood loss. Get as many of those are left, and grab a few from the bag next to it, too.”

Kay nodded, but Nadia didn’t meet her eyes. “If the enemy made it this far, they’re likely headed for the Sanctum next,” Nadia said. “Keep quiet. I’ll lead the way.”

As Kay shoved the poultices into her backpack, Nadia took a few hesitant steps toward the door. Holly joined her shortly after, and Kay followed, stealing one last glance at Meilan before heading back into the hall.

“Holly, shield our backs,” Nadia said. “Kay, be prepared to blast anything that moves, unless I say otherwise.”

They didn’t speak for a long time, allowing their wet footsteps and the gentle sound of dripping water to fill the silence. A musty, damp scent filled the air, and Kay realized that some of the water lines had to have burst. Nadia held the flashlight under her shirt, allowing the dim glow to illuminate a few feet in front of them without broadcasting their location to potential enemies.

She stopped suddenly and turned her head a few degrees to the right. “Did you hear that?” she whispered.

Holly and Kay waited for several seconds, ears straining to hear the slightest noise. “Hear what?” Holly said.

“That groaning noise? You don’t hear it?”

Holly looked at Kay, who shook her head. “Let’s keep moving,” Kay whispered.

Beads of sweat had broken out on Nadia’s forehead. She hesitated for a long moment before tiptoeing ahead, her hand shaking as she fought to maintain her shield spell.

A minute later, they arrived at a fork in the hallway. Nadia stared down the left fork, her whole body motionless except for her trembling fingers. She pivoted and headed to the right, and the other two followed.

A metal door blocked the hall a few feet ahead. Nadia tiptoed toward it, adjusting the flashlight under her shirt to give her more light. “I’m not sure it’ll let me in, but if it does, be prepared for anything,” she whispered over her shoulder.

Kay nodded, and Nadia turned her attention to a thumb scanner next to the door. She held her thumb up to it, and it glowed for a moment. Several seconds passed, but the door remained closed.

A sudden, muffled boom could be heard beyond the door, and the three women stiffened, words of spells frozen on their lips. “Kay, I might need you to blast this open,” Nadia said, stepping backward.

Kay raised a hand and began to murmur words in German, but just as she reached the end of the spell, the door slid open on its own. The florescent lights inside the cavernous room ahead were mostly dark, but a few remained lit, though they were spitting sparks all over the room.

She could see the shadowy outline of a woman, standing in front of a glowing yellow orb the size of a small child. The strange orb didn’t concern Kay nearly as much as the woman did, though.

“Well!” the woman exclaimed, waving a hand toward Kay. “Long time no see. I thought I killed you already, but I must’ve mistaken someone else for you in all the chaos.”

Kay didn’t respond. Short black hair, tall, and a high, raspy voice – she didn’t even need to see the woman’s face to know who it was.

After all, it was the voice of her nightmares.

 

 

Chapter 17: Sanctum

 

Nina Abendroth looked as if she had barely aged a day since Kay had seen her last. Her features were heavily shadowed in the dim light of the Sanctum, but there was no hiding her wide, dark brown eyes.

“Nina?” Nadia said, the name coming out as little more than a whisper.

Nina tilted her head. “Hey, sis! I can finally bring you up to speed. I’m here ‘cause—”

Before Kay could stop herself, she had rushed inside the room. Flames poured from her outstretched arm, cascading toward Nina in massive orange waves. Nina’s face glowed orange for a split second before she raised a shield.

“Kay, no!” Nadia yelled. “It’s no use, especially with the Grimoire right there—”

“Don’t worry, I’ll protect your precious Grimoire,” Nina said, her grin leering through the translucent shield. “What I’m really here for is my daughter. If you tell me where she is, maybe I’ll spare all three of you, even after that shit you pulled at my cabin.”

Kay launched another blazing salvo, but Nina didn’t even flinch as it dissolved on contact with her shield.

“What are you talking about?” Nadia yelled. “Nina, what—”

“You know the one! A little birdy told me you were even the one assigned to her protection detail!”

Kay froze.

“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nadia said, her voice shaking. Kay heard her take a few steps closer. “Nina, whatever you think you’re here for—”

“Don’t play dumb. The child who’s been in Maywitch’s care for the past eight months is mine. Now where the hell is she?”

There was a wild, piercing shriek, and before Kay could even react, something had knocked her to the ground. Pain surged through her arms and back, and as she struggled in vain, she could hear Nina laughing.

She wrenched her arm free of whatever was pinning it, but the massive weight on top of her shifted, pressing her neck and head into the tile floor. Then the smell reached her nose – a nauseating, ripe scent of death.

Even with her head pressed hard against the floor, she could see the huge, scaly claws pinning her right arm in place. It didn’t take her long to figure out what that meant.

“The hell?” she said, though it came out no louder than a whisper. “You’re… Are you the demon-summoner?”

The only response was a quiet cry of pain somewhere behind her – Nadia, it sounded like – and a giggle very close by. She tried to twist her free arm again, but a sharp, stabbing pain kept her in place. She knew something was likely dislocated.

Nina’s footsteps thudded softly across the floor, moving closer to Kay. “I want to know where my daughter is,” Nina said. Kay struggled to move her arms, knowing that her flame attacks were useless if she couldn’t aim, but stopped as she heard Nina’s voice close to her ear: “You have about five seconds to tell me everything you know.”

Just out of Kay’s range of vision, something near the entrance to the Sanctum glowed red. Nina stumbled into view as she moved away from the glow, toward the back right corner of the room. “Oh,” she said, smiling. “Nadia, what are you doing?”

There was a primal scream, and a few seconds later, a jet-black figure inched toward Nina. It was easily eight feet tall and thirty feet – no, forty, Kay realized – from head to tail.

Except Kay had no idea what it was. Its head resembled a dragon, but its body was more like a long, grotesque centipede. It charged at Nina, opening its mouth to reveal multiple rows of glimmering silver teeth. Dozens of spindly, knife-like legs chattered across the floor, sending bits of tile flying in every direction.

The weight on Kay’s back and arm lifted, and she rolled over to see a dark gray griffin taking flight. She scrambled to her feet and turned to Nina, who was defending herself against the black, dragon-like creature.

As Kay raised her good arm and began to recite a spell, something glimmered in the corner of her eye. Before she could react, a massive wave of water rushed past her, soaking her as she stumbled out of the way.

When she turned around, she saw Gardner kneeling in the doorway, covered in blood. Holly lay motionless beside her. Nadia was on her hands and knees, staring at the floor, where Kay thought she could make out a magic circle. A dark green, bus-sized lizard lay near the door, black blood spurting from a gaping wound in its back.

“What—” Kay whirled around, saw that Nina and the griffin were still preoccupied with the black beast, and turned back around. “Nadia, are you okay? Gardner? What happened—”

“Focus on Nina,” Gardner said. She was clutching her stomach, and as Kay looked closer, she could see that Gardner was holding a poultice to her side.

“But Nadia – what happened?”

“Focus!” Gardner said, yelling over the inhuman shrieks and sounds of fighting echoing through the room.

Kay turned and ran toward the battle, hoping to lend support to whatever that black creature was. She fumbled in her pocket but yanked her hand away as something sharp stabbed it. Apparently, the plastic vial of wormwood had shattered into pieces sharp enough to cut.

She grimaced as she stuck her hand back in. The combination of blood and herbs would make quite the grisly fireworks show.

Nina noticed her approach and waved at her. Kay raised a shield just as the griffin flew away from the black dragon-like thing and dove straight at her.

She hesitated for a moment before dropping the shield and firing flames instead. On the off-chance that the griffin was a living thing, instead of a demon, her shield would be completely useless.

Her fire did little to slow the creature, though, and she felt its claws tear into her shoulder. Its smoldering feathers burned her face and neck, but she gritted her teeth and fired another salvo at its left flank. It shrieked in fury and pulled away, ripping its claws out of her skin in the process.

She heard herself screaming in pain as blood spattered on the floor. Her head felt light, and she struggled to keep her wits about her as she sank to her knees. Both of her shoulders were now wrecked. She stared vacantly at the scorched griffin several feet away from her, struggling to calculate her next move as pain overwhelmed her brain.

“Kay!” she heard Gardner yell behind her.

Something hard collided with her left side, and she screamed in pain as she fell to the ground. Spots danced before her eyes.

“You’re late, Renaya,” she heard Nina’s voice say somewhere to her right. “Make sure you finish Kay off first. She’s been a real pain in the ass.”

The sound of crashing waves echoed through the Sanctum again, and Kay was doused with drops of water. She realized that Gardner had probably attacked. There was a yell of fury, and she turned her head, desperate to see what Nina was talking about. Renaya was dead. There was no way she could be—

“Damn you!” Kyle’s voice yelled. “You’re that water bitch, aren’t you?”

A rush of wind forced Kay to close her eyes. When she opened them again, Kyle was standing twenty feet in front of her, wearing the same clothes he had been wearing when she saw him the previous day.

But his aura was different. Even Kay could tell that it was unstable, violent, and very familiar.

There was a grunt of pain somewhere to her left, but she lacked the strength to look for the cause. Kyle, though, stiffened and began to run toward her.

She tensed and moved her arm as much as she could, hoping to launch a blaze at him, but she moved too slow. He grinned gleefully as he kicked her in the head and kept running. “I’ll get you next time, bitch!” he yelled. “I’ll get you for that flame hex you used on me!”

Another crash of waves resounded through the room, followed by a shriek from some inhuman source. Gardner yelled something, but was drowned out by a loud, rumbling bang.

Kay stared off into space, barely able to process the sounds around her. Her blood was oozing into the water pooled on the floor. The glowing gold orb in the center of the room was still there, whatever that meant.

“Kay? Kay!” Nadia yelled.

Maybe that was a warning, Kay thought. Maybe something else was coming at her.

Gardner’s voice rang out again, this time more harshly, but Kay couldn’t make it out. She heard something splash in the shallow water, coming closer to her every second.

As her vision started to blur, she saw Nadia’s face appear above her. “They’re retreating,” Nadia said as she touched Kay’s shoulder wound. “Dammit, the backpack – I need those poultices—”

“Help Holly first,” Kay murmured.

“No, she’s fine. You’re bleeding too much.” Nadia began rattling off spells in Latin, and Kay could feel her shoulder growing warm.

“Tierra, we need another healer over here!” Gardner yelled from very close by. “Tell George we have a second summoner on our hands, but I have her guarded. Kay’s in bad shape, and she’ll need…”

The sound of Gardner’s voice faded out, and the last thing Kay remembered was the warmth of Nadia’s hands on her shoulder.

 

 

Chapter 18: Another Home

 

Kay could smell something burning. It was similar to the stench that enveloped the room when Lysander was killed: bitter, acrid, and nauseating. Something dark darted in front of her eyes from left to right, and as she turned to track it, Renaya lunged at her from the shadows.

Though she couldn’t speak, a blast of fire shot out from Kay’s hands, slamming into Renaya’s face. There was a shriek and a horrible crackling sound as Renaya began to disintegrate. Kay knew she was dreaming, but as she fought to wake up, her eyelids stayed tightly shut.

An unfamiliar voice rumbled nearby, and she finally woke up as a sharp pain stung her arm. Blurred, dazzling sunlight was streaming through the window to her left. A tall figure stood to her right, and seemed to be attaching something to Kay’s arm. It wasn’t who Kay was looking for, though, and she ignored it. A few seconds later, the figure said something in hushed tones before scurrying out the door to Kay’s right.

Two nurses soon appeared, peppering Kay with questions about how she was feeling. She felt fine, and she told them as much, but they interrogated her further, asking her to move her arms and legs. She complied, and when they finally seemed to finish prodding her, someone else came through the door.

It was Gardner, though she was barely recognizable. Her face had gone from fair to bone-white, and judging by the bandages on her head, she had fared little better than Kay.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

Kay just stared at her for a long moment. Her memories were vague, at best: she remembered the base being in trouble, and Lysander being killed by whatever that monster was. Then they had run around in the dark for a while, and —

It all came rushing back to her. Meilan was dead. Nina had shown up. Nadia had done something wrong, but the details were blurry in Kay’s mind.

“I’m okay,” she mumbled. “Where am I?”

A thin smile crossed Gardner’s face. “South Carolina, in the long-term medical ward of the U.S. Eastern Region Base. You seem to be pretty awake, I guess.”

Kay tried to sit up, but one of the nurses stopped her just as a stabbing pain shot across her shoulders. “Where did Nina go? And what happened to everyone else?” she asked hoarsely.

“We don’t know. We know little other than that the child your mother is watching is Nina’s. It all adds up, since we know Nina and Nadia are both summoners, and we’ve always suspected that it was genetic.”

Kay stared at Gardner, struggling to process. She remembered the circle drawn in blood, and the black, serpentine thing appearing out of nowhere. The pieces of the puzzle fit together – sort of, anyway. “Where’s Nadia?” she asked.

“She’s fine. She’s quarantined, for now. It’s unprecedented to have one of our mages also turn out to be a summoner, so…” Gardner trailed off, her brow furrowed. “I’m doing everything I can for her, okay? Please trust me on this. It also looks like Nadia had no idea, either, because Nina hid her own summoning abilities.”

“But…” Kay thought for a moment. “Didn’t Nadia summon that snake thing? How did she do that if she had no idea?”

“She says Nina taught her that hex when they were younger, but Nina had said it was a hex for suffocating animals and humans. Nadia intended to use it on the demon Nina had summoned.”

Kay nodded. She had no reason not to believe that. It seemed like exactly the kind of manipulative thing Nina would do: hide Nadia’s abilities from her, but make sure that Nadia still had the ability to defend herself, albeit in the worst way possible, in a truly life-or-death situation.

Somehow, though, the revelation that Nadia was a summoner didn’t bother Kay that much. Maybe that was just because the news was unimportant compared to Nina’s reappearance, she thought with a shudder.

“What about Renaya? Is she alive?” she asked.

“We’re not totally sure what’s going on there. We suspect she somehow possessed Kyle, based on what I saw, as well as statements from Nadia and Holly.”

Kay’s heart sank. “How’s Holly?”

“She’s fine. You can probably see her soon, in fact. Your mother was here until about fifteen minutes ago,” Gardner said. “I’m sorry you missed her. Everything is a little crazy right now, and we urgently needed her back in the field.”

Kay didn’t meet her eyes. Once again, she wanted nothing more than to tell her mother everything that had happened – and once again, she had no way to. “I can write to her, though, right?” she whispered.

“Yes. And she actually left a note,” Gardner said, reaching for something on Kay’s nightstand. “There are a few other possessions of yours in the drawer. We recovered your pendant and a few other valuables, but a lot of clothes and the textbook you had were damaged beyond repair.”

Kay’s eyes widened. “My pendant? Can I have it back?”

Gardner smiled and opened the drawer. “Yes. I’d help put it on you, but I don’t think my back and arms will let me,” she said as she set the necklace in Kay’s bandaged hand.

Kay clumsily ran her fingers over the gold and obsidian amulet before taking the note from Gardner. She unfolded the lined paper and squinted at the messy handwriting.

Michaela,

I’m so proud of you. I just wish I could stay long enough to tell you that in person.

Tears blurred her vision, and Kay set the note down on her lap. “Where is she now?” she asked.

“Same assignment as before; different place. And yes, in case you didn’t guess, she’s watching Nina’s child,” Gardner said.

“Did Nadia even know the baby was Nina’s?”

“No, she had no idea, because none of us even knew.” Gardner sighed. “We had our suspicions at first, based on circumstantial evidence, but then the rest of the evidence pointed elsewhere. We thought Nina was overseas, just like Nadia did, it seems.”

Kay wiped her eyes and skimmed the rest of the note, but it was mostly words of encouragement – words that meant little to her, by that point. The last lines of the note, though, stood out to her:

I guess I never understood what happened with you, Nina and Nadia when you were younger. Will you tell me sometime? You weren’t still mad at Nadia when you came to Maywitch, were you?

Write me back soon. I made Felicity promise to deliver notes.

– Bailey

She turned the note over, pretending to study the runes drawn in pencil on the back. She had never told her mother how abusive Nina had been. When her mother had asked, Kay had dismissed the dispute as a “fight” between herself and Nadia. Surely, though, her mother knew by now that more had happened.

“I’ll write her back soon,” Kay said. “I just need some time to process all this.”

——————————————————————————

Two days passed. No one else was allowed in Kay’s room except Gardner, nurses and healers until the third day, when Holly barged into Kay’s room with a bouquet of bright carnations.

She almost cried at the sight of Kay’s bandages. “I haven’t gotten to see anyone with serious injuries yet,” Holly said. “It’s been a nightmare, Kay. I’m glad you’re okay. How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling fine. And I’m glad you’re okay, too,” Kay said. “Have you seen Nadia yet?”

Holly tensed. “Did… how much did Gardner tell you?” she said, seeming to choose her words carefully.

Kay frowned at her. “Good question. What’s going on?”

“Nadia elected to be sterilized.” Holly was staring at her lap, lips pursed. “I mean, she never wanted kids anyway, so that’s not even-”

“Wait, what?” Kay said. “Did Maywitch pressure her into it? Because they don’t want demon-summoners to exist?”

“Yes, and since it seems to be a purely genetic trait, they basically gave Nadia the option to be sterilized or be locked up,” Holly murmured.

Kay slumped back against the bed. “What the hell?”

“Even when she is released, it’ll be with strict conditions, especially now that Nina is involved,” Holly said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she never sees combat again.”

After a long moment, Kay sighed and stretched. “If she’s feeling up to it, I should pay her a visit, either way,” she said. “She basically kept us from getting killed back there.”

Holly nodded, a smile slipping over her lips. “Yeah. I was turned away earlier, but maybe she’ll be up for it, since it’s been a few hours. I’ll go check, okay?”

“Take your time. You’re probably…” Kay hesitated. “You’re probably a more comforting presence than me, y’know?”

Holly laughed as she stood. “I mean, you’re not wrong, but it’s not your fault,” she said, turning toward the door.

Once she left, Kay closed her eyes, trying to figure out if she was dreaming or not. It was surreal. Nadia was a demon-summoner and had never known it. Nina, the bane of Kay’s existence as a high schooler, had turned out to be one too. None of the chaos that had occurred in the Sanctum was a fluke – it all just ran in the Abendroth family.

“Screw this,” Kay muttered, to no one but herself.

——————————————————————————

An hour later, Holly returned and offered to wheel Kay down to Nadia’s room, but Kay declined. With the help of a nurse, she shakily stood, detached her IV lines, and staggered down the hall. She didn’t even need an IV anymore. A rookie mage from the North Carolina base had periodically slipped in to heal her as much as possible, but his attention had mostly been focused on more critically-injured mages.

Nadia was only allowed one visitor at a time, so Holly waited in the hall as Kay entered. At first glance, Nadia appeared mostly unharmed. Her face was no longer bloodied, but it was much more pale than usual, Kay thought as she stepped closer to the bed.

“How are you feeling?” Kay asked. “Sorry, I didn’t have time to grab flowers yet.”

“I have enough of those, believe me. I guess I feel better than expected,” Nadia said, waving a hand dismissively. “Thanks for coming down here. I asked Holly to bring you, but I didn’t expect you to come if you weren’t feeling up to it.”

Kay shook her head. “Of course I came. Everything is…”

She trailed off, and Nadia nodded. “Yeah. Holly told me she brought you up to speed, so I guess that’s that,” Nadia said.

They were quiet for a long moment. The window to Nadia’s left seemed to flicker, as if someone had walked right past it, and she turned to look outside. “Do you forgive me for everything that happened way back then – when we were kids? Because it seems like you haven’t,” she murmured.

Kay stared at her, dumbfounded. “What?”

“You heard me, right? Have you forgiven me?”

Nadia turned to face her again, and Kay avoided her gaze, staring at the tile floor instead.

“You’re right,” Kay said dryly. “I haven’t. You hadn’t earned my trust yet—”

“Your trust? What, did you think I was one of Renaya’s freaks?”

Kay sighed, and she paused in an attempt to calm her racing heart. “Let’s not talk about this right now. I know you’re tired—”

“Don’t pull that patronizing shit with me,” Nadia snapped, sitting further upright. “I’m fine.”

“Okay, fine, then!” Kay took a deep breath. “I was pretty sure you were on our side, after we escaped her cabin in the woods, anyway.”

“Then what the fuck do you mean by trust, Kay?”

“I just don’t trust you to always do the right thing!” Kay crossed her arms, and her left shoulder twinged in protest. “How do you just expect me to trust you and act like we’re friends again? You used to be a real coward sometimes, ‘cause you – you would let Nina do whatever she wanted, even to your own best friend!”

The last two words seemed to hang in the air, suffocating them both. Nadia’s eyes filled with tears. “Forget it,” Kay mumbled, turning toward the door. “I guess it’s not fair to bring that up right now. You’ve been through a lot—”

“Wait, I brought it up for a reason,” Nadia said.

“Don’t.” Kay barely breathed the word as she raised a bandaged hand to the doorknob. She was too exhausted to fight about it – and somehow, her feelings about the whole matter were more conflicted than ever.

“I’ve wanted to apologize for a really long time, but do you – do you at least understand what I went through? Do you really think she treated me any better than she treated you? I lived in constant fear of her!”

Kay’s hand dropped to her side. She turned around and opened her mouth to reply, but stopped as she saw Nadia’s quaking shoulders. For a moment, the only sounds in the room were dry, angry sobs.

“Because goddammit, I’m sorry. I really am. You don’t have to forgive me, but I’m not just gonna let you think I wanted all that to happen!” Nadia wiped her eyes, nearly dislodging the IV in her hand. “She was a goddamn sociopath! You know that! And with how powerful she was—”

The door inched open behind Kay, and a nurse appeared. “Nadia, what happened?” the nurse said, scurrying toward the bed.

Kay stepped closer, but the nurse shook her head. “Nadia needs to rest,” the nurse said, “so you need to—”

“I’m fine!” Nadia said, shaking her head. “I’m fine, let her stay!”

“I’m sorry, too,” Kay whispered. “I’m sorry you had to deal with Nina for so long.”

Nadia looked up. Her eyes shone with tears of rage, and she shook her head furiously. “Are you? Or are you just saying that—”

“Nadia,” the nurse said, laying a hand on her arm. “Please, this isn’t—”

“I’m sorry I didn’t even try to give you the benefit of the doubt.” The words tumbled out of Kay’s mouth. “I mean, bringing it up sooner probably would’ve been better than letting things sit like this. I wasn’t wrong to not trust you, but…”

“It would’ve been ugly, but it would’ve been worth it to talk about it. I mean, it’s partly my own fault for not bringing it up myself,” Nadia said. “But I never stopped liking you, y’know? So I guess I just didn’t realize how mad you were about it. I tried to start fresh, partly because I didn’t want to explain things to Holly, and that turned out to be stupid, too.”

“It’s okay, Nadia.” Kay shook her head. She was almost unnerved by how calm she felt, but the pieces were finally adding up in her mind. Nina had never actually hurt her sister in front of Kay, but it didn’t surprise Kay at all that Nadia felt threatened.

And somehow, the thought of Nina hurting Nadia was more painful than the idea of Nadia being a terrible, traitorous friend.

“I feel like, given just how awful she’s turned out to be, and how much you’ve done to fight Nina now…” Kay paused, her eyes stinging with tears as she searched for the right words. “You deserve the benefit of the doubt. I mean, I’d like to think I would’ve made up with you even without the whole demon-summoner thing, but since you fought so hard…”

She trailed off as the nurse waved at her again. “Okay, you’re both done. My patient needs to rest,” the nurse said.

“Night, Nadia. Rest easy, okay?” Kay, said, turning back to the door.

Nadia was silent for a moment. “You know what’s ironic?” she said, barely audible over the hum of the air conditioning. “I probably was strong enough to stand up to her. I just didn’t know. I could’ve wiped her off the face of the earth, if I had known that I could summon.”

Kay stopped with her hand on the doorknob again. “But that could’ve made everything so much worse,” she murmured. “Aren’t you glad you made it this long without knowing?”

She heard Nadia sniffle, but she didn’t turn around. “I guess you’re right,” Nadia said. “I would’ve been so pissed if I didn’t even get to fight as part of Maywitch for a little bit. ‘Cause something tells me this is so much bigger than Nina, and I guess I’m glad I got to help.”

The nurse put her hand on Kay’s shoulder, and Kay opened the door and stepped outside, smiling at Nadia before allowing herself to be led down the hall.

But I never stopped liking you, y’know?The words echoed in Kay’s head, making her numb to her surroundings as she walked back to her new room in her new home.

 

 

Chapter 19: Loyalties Lie

 

Twelve days later

 

The wound across Kay’s left shoulder had faded to a narrow scar just above her heart. It was amazing how well magic could heal wounds, she thought as she pulled on a button-down shirt.

A stabbing pain shot through her shoulder, and she flinched. She had apparently jinxed herself.

As she finished pulling on her shirt, her Maywitch-issued phone buzzed with a text message from Gardner: Meet in the conference room in ten minutes.

Kay grabbed her room keys before heading into the hall. Got it, she typed back. As she hit ‘send,’ her heart seemed to skip a beat, knowing that whatever awaited her in the conference room couldn’t be good.

——————————————————————————

To her surprise, Gardner wasn’t in the conference room. Kay was greeted instead by Wojtec, a gray-haired mage who had helped train her briefly at the Salt Lake City base. He waved her inside the room, which was much larger than the one at her former base. Holly sat in the front row, looking more well-rested than the last time they had met, Kay thought as Holly waved.

A few feet to Holly’s right, a young, dark-haired woman stared at her phone. Her shoulder-length, curly hair looked vaguely familiar, and Kay wondered if she had seen the woman’s silhouette somewhere around the base. The woman didn’t look up, though, as Kay approached and sat down between her and Holly. Nadia was absent, but Kay knew that was because she was still under quarantine – with no release date in sight.

“Let’s get started,” Wojtec said as he handed them each a stack of paper. “Don’t worry about these right now; you can familiarize yourself with them within about thirty minutes on the plane. They can’t come with you once you’ve touched down in Denver, though.”

Kay’s heart sank. Whatever this assignment was, it was taking them back into danger, she thought as she glanced at Holly.

“Short version is, three campers drowned under suspicious circumstances in Rocky Mountain National Park,” Wojtec said as he leaned against the podium at the front of the room. “All three victims knew each other. Toxicology reports aren’t back yet, but the drownings occurred in rapid succession, and the cops found a stunning circle near the lake the victims were pulled from. It looks like someone might have stalked and paralyzed certain campers before drowning them. We don’t think the attack was targeted, because of the methods and timing involved. This all just happened early yesterday morning, though, so we’re still getting info. Questions so far?”

Holly nodded and raised a hand. “Are there details on the stunning circle in this packet?”

“Yeah. Short version is, it looks like Norse runes, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Whoever made it tried to erase it, but they did a sloppy job.”

Kay was unfamiliar with the concept of stunning circles, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they were magical in nature, she thought as Wojtec rifled through his own stack of papers. “You’ll be posing as campers. Your cover story is in the second part of that packet,” he continued. “Your sole job is to keep an eye on things and root around for clues for a few days while avoiding stepping into any traps yourselves. The area you should camp in is marked in the packet as well. You’ll be given satellite phones and regular burner phones. Tierra’s in charge, if anything comes up.”

The dark-haired girl next to Kay nodded. Wojtec didn’t bother with any more introductions, though, and continued: “We don’t have a secure base of operations out there, but we have two non-combat mages already on the ground nearby. We’re chartering an overnight flight, since there are no direct commercial flights, and will send you three straight into the mountains in a rental car. Be ready to go by 10 p.m. Flight is at midnight. Try to sleep on the plane, but it’s only a five-hour flight.”

Kay resisted the urge to groan. She hated flying, and she knew she had little chance of sleeping during the flight. Holly looked unenthusiastic, but Tierra nodded and smiled.

“Go pack,” Wojtec said. “Bring a minimal supply of herbs and other supplies. No magical texts or runes. You have two hours. Dismissed.”

Tierra stood and immediately left. Kay and Holly looked at each other for a long moment before following her into the hallway.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to go camping,” Holly said. She smiled, but Kay noticed it didn’t reach her eyes.

“I hate camping,” Kay murmured, low enough that she hoped Tierra wouldn’t hear it.

“That’s fair. Hopefully this isn’t for too long, though.”

Up ahead, Tierra veered to the right at a fork in the hallway, toward the older dorm rooms. Holly paused, as if she was about to call after the other mage, but turned and headed to the left without a word.

Kay followed her, trying to ignore the knot of worry forming in her chest. There was something unsettling about having such an unfriendly face in charge of them.

——————————————————————————

Two hours later, Kay and Holly had packed some basic belongings, eaten dinner, and reconvened at the entrance to the garage. Tierra joined them a few minutes later with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder.

Wojtec drove them to the airport, and they rode in silence for much of the way. Holly occasionally tried to make conversation with Wojtec and Tierra, but Tierra mostly gave one-word responses.

Kay eventually texted Holly’s burner phone: Do you know Tierra well?

Holly replied: No. She moved here from the Quebec base when things got crazy eight months ago, and she’s moved between the North American bases quite a bit, so I _][_dunno _][_if anyone knows her well. I think her and Nadia were pretty close at one point, though. Maybe she’s stressed out about Nadia? It’s been a rough two weeks.

Kay re-read the message with pursed lips. What did “pretty close at one point” even mean? If Nadia and Tierra had been romantically involved at some point, maybe that explained the frosty attitude toward Holly.

But maybe it wasn’t that serious, she thought as they pulled up to a small regional airport terminal. Wojtec parked the car, and Tierra jumped out with a mumbled farewell over her shoulder.

“Good luck, you two. You’ve been through a lot in a short time, and I can’t guarantee this mission will be easy, but it’s probably not gonna be as bad as you’re thinking,” he said, glancing back at Holly and Kay.

“We got this,” Holly said as she opened her door. “Thanks, Wojtec.”

“See you soon,” Kay said as she climbed out.

——————————————————————————

Forty minutes later, they were on the plane and barreling down the runway. The tiny plane had barely twenty passenger seats, and Kay was mildly surprised it had the speed to get airborne.

Holly chatted with Kay for a few minutes after takeoff, but curled up to go to sleep soon after. Tierra had taken a seat in the row behind them, and when Kay peeked back twenty minutes into the flight, she saw the dark-haired girl sleeping as well.

Kay hadn’t been awake for the flight from Salt Lake City to the North Carolina base, and hadn’t flown on a plane in years before that. She stared out the window for a while, unwilling to try to sleep, but grew bored at the sight of deep gray clouds on a moonless night.

After nearly an hour, she rose and went to the tiny restroom at the back of the plane, and nearly collided with Tierra. “Sorry,” Kay mumbled as she moved to let Tierra pass.

“Wait a minute.” Tierra’s tone was calm, but her brown eyes flickered as she flipped her hair out of her face.

Kay nodded, though she was simultaneously nervous and happy to finally hear something from her new colleague. “What’s up?”

“Have you been completely forthcoming with Gardner and the others about everything that’s happened?”

“What?” Kay said, her eyes widening. “Of course I have.”

Tierra stepped closer to her and glanced toward the front of the plane, as if concerned that Holly could overhear. “Every detail of everything?” she murmured. “Because they’re trying to make sure there aren’t any more surprises hiding inside Maywitch.”

Kay nodded. “Of course. I mean, I gave them every detail they asked for, once I wasn’t so drugged up.”

“They might not always know what questions to ask, though. Better to sound too paranoid than not careful enough, right? Because I should also point out that if you’re holding anything back, even unintentionally, it could end up reflecting really poorly on you in the future. If you noticed the slightest thing off about anyone or anything – anyone close to Nadia acting funny, or anything like that…” Tierra trailed off, her eyes still fixed on Kay’s.

Kay nodded again, but her heart sank as she realized that Tierra might not know about Holly and Nadia after all. Maybe it wasn’t as open of a secret as she had assumed, she thought as she forced a smile. “I hear you, okay? Believe me, I want our shit protected as much as you do—”

“Do you?”

Kay’s jaw dropped, but Tierra’s gaze remained unwavering. “Why wouldn’t I?” Kay snapped, her volume rising. “I may be new here, but I still have to help protect my mother—”

There was a dull creak a few feet away, and Kay realized that Holly had stirred. Tierra frowned and headed back to her seat as if nothing had happened.

Kay stared at her, baffled, before turning away to go to the bathroom. Paranoid brat trying to act tough, she thought sullenly.

When Kay returned, Holly stirred for a moment before going back to sleep, apparently unaware of what had just transpired.

——————————————————————————

Kay barely slept the rest of the flight, and when they landed in Denver, she couldn’t keep her eyes open. Tierra, though, seemed ready to go, and she trotted down the stairs to the tarmac without hesitation.

Outside the terminal, they jumped into another black car, which sped them down the highway toward the national park. Kay didn’t recognize their driver, but she was surprised it wasn’t Akani, who had helped them after their last undercover mission. She knew he hadn’t been caught up in the fighting at the Salt Lake City base, but maybe he had been moved or reassigned in all the chaos.

It was just after 4 a.m. when they pulled up to the ranger station at the edge of the park. Their driver flashed an ID badge at the ranger, who let them through without any questions, despite the park entrance being closed for the night. Maywitch’s methods and range of influence were still a mystery to Kay, but she didn’t have the energy to ask what had just happened.

The inside of the park was pitch dark, aside from the tiny swatch of road illuminated by the headlights. It seemed their driver didn’t want to turn his brights on, perhaps to minimize their risk of being spotted by unfriendly characters. It was a cloudy night, and while Kay could sense the moon beyond the black sky, she wished she could see it. The darkness was unnerving.

The driver suddenly slammed on his brakes, and Kay was pitched forward. Holly gasped and held out a hand, but she seemed to be more concerned with a potential attack than with catching herself as she lurched forward.

A young, petite woman had stepped into the two-lane road, but she had spotted the sedan before attempting to cross. She waved sheepishly before crossing, her sequined jacket shining in the headlights.

“Something’s not right,” Tierra said from the front seat. “Did anyone get a good look at her?”

“Brown hair and glasses. Why, what’s wrong?” Holly asked.

Tierra leaned forward, squinting into the dark woods where the girl had disappeared. “Her aura is weird, eh?” she said, sighing and sitting back in her seat. “I dunno, I don’t think she’s a mage, but it still felt weird.”

The sedan trundled down the road again, and as Kay peered out the window after the girl, she thought she saw a glimmer of light.

 

 

Chapter 20: The Woods

 

Soon after, the sedan dropped them off at a dimly-lit wooded area. Yellow-tinted lampposts illuminated a sign reading “Moraine Park Campground,” but there were no tents or RVs in sight. “I’m dropping you here because I don’t want to arouse suspicion by coming any closer,” the driver said as he turned off his headlights and handed a flashlight to Tierra. “Your gear is in the trunk. Your camping spot is A18, about a quarter mile ahead. Try not to wake anyone up at this hour.”

Kay and Holly mumbled farewells to the driver before climbing out and helping Tierra with their supplies. In the trunk was a backpack, a duffel bag, and a tent in a giant, heavy bag. Kay shouldered the tent bag and followed Tierra down the road, and Holly followed a moment later, lugging the duffel bag from the trunk in addition to her own.

The sedan turned around and trundled off, and the trio of mages was plunged into darkness as its headlights disappeared. Then Tierra flicked on the flashlight and kept walking, pointing her flashlight toward the ground as much as possible. Kay and Holly silently followed, their footsteps shuffling as they navigated the uneven road.

There was a crackling sound somewhere behind Kay, and she froze, her stomach somersaulting. Tierra whirled around, her mouth open as if to cast a spell. Kay glanced over her shoulder, too terrified to turn around fully.

Holly turned around as well and let out a small shriek. A raccoon sat perched on the edge of the road, its tiny hands clasped to its mouth as if it was just as scared of them as they were of him.

Tierra sighed, and as Kay’s heart rate began to return to normal, the raccoon scampered off. Holly turned back around and began walking, her face flushed yet resolute.

Kay and Tierra followed, but as Kay lugged the duffel bag along, she wondered what they were getting themselves into.

——————————————————————————

They set up their tent and collapsed inside, sprawling out over their sleeping bags in the late summer haze. By the time Kay opened her eyes again, the sun was far overhead, and Holly had set up a small picnic outside. To the right of their tent, the land was engulfed by trees; to their left, other campers meandered about, in no particular hurry to be anywhere. It would be relaxing, if they weren’t in the middle of such a strange assignment, Kay thought as she waved to Holly.

“Morning,” Holly said. “How’re you feeling?”

Kay squinted in the sunlight. “Kinda stiff. You? And where’s Tierra?”

“I slept like shit. Tierra went for a walk. Should be back soon.” Holly glanced over her shoulder before striding toward the tent and squatting in front of Kay. “We’re gonna take turns patrolling this area. The guys who drowned were staying at campsite A28, not far from here. If we can find something…”

She trailed off, and Kay nodded. “Got it. Are we going anywhere as a group?” Kay asked.

“Nope.” Holly glanced over her shoulder again. “To be honest, I don’t know if I like the idea of going off alone. I think pairs would make sense, and then one person can stay behind and cover the campsite, but—”

She stopped as Tierra appeared at the edge of the campsite. “Morning,” Tierra said as she unshouldered her backpack. “The trail along the water looks lovely. Kay, wanna give it a go? I already took the trail directly north of here.”

Kay understood that as an order, not a suggestion. “Sure,” she said, grabbing her shoes from outside the tent. “We got maps somewhere?”

Tierra rummaged around in her backpack before handing a piece of paper to Kay. “Don’t lose it. I dunno where we’d get another one.”

“How long do you want me to go out for?” Kay asked softly.

“Maybe three hours or so. I’m gonna lay down.” Tierra waved her away, and Kay stepped outside so she could enter the tent.

“Yeah, get some rest.” Kay finished putting her shoes on, grabbed her backpack, and nodded to Holly. “Later.”

“Aren’t you gonna eat breakfast?” Holly said, waving a granola bar at her.

“Not hungry.” Probably because of nerves, Kay admitted to herself as she headed toward the woods. “Later.”

The unpaved, leaf-strewn trail was packed with people, and Kay realized that any clues along the route could have been damaged already. She paused at the edge of the river where the campers had drowned, noting the makeshift memorial set up on some nearby stones.

She couldn’t sense any magic usage or weird auras – not that her senses were that attuned, she thought. The trail Tierra had checked was more likely to have clues or magical residue, though, since it was closer to where the stunning circle had been found.

She ambled along the path, trying to act uninterested in anything but the scenery, but stopped short at the sight of something metallic in the bushes. She crouched down to pick it up.

“Looking for something?”

She whirled around. A tall, blond-haired man with sunburned skin stood on the path, hands thrust into the pockets of his slacks. He wore a white button-down shirt that looked out-of-place among the plaid-wearing campers. “Not really, but I thought I saw something glimmer,” she said. “Maybe someone lost a bracelet or something.”

He stepped closer, and her heart leapt into her throat as he pulled his hand out of his pocket. “We’re investigating the drownings that happened early Sunday morning,” he said as he flashed a gold badge at her. “Were you here when those happened?”

She shook her head. “Just got here last night.”

“Gotcha. You here with friends?”

“Yeah, from college.”

He waved her away and walked over to the spot she had stopped by. She watched carefully as he knelt and picked up a shiny, flimsy object. “Looks like it’s just a granola bar wrapper,” he said, smiling. “No offense, but maybe you need glasses.”

She frowned. There was something about his tone that was far too casual. Why would law enforcement be running around there, if the area wasn’t still cordoned off as a crime scene?

“I guess I got my hopes up,” she said as she took a step in the direction she had originally been heading. “Whatever. Good luck.”

She strode off, struggling to get her heart rate back to normal. As she rounded a bend in the trail further ahead, she glanced over her shoulder and noticed that he was still watching her.

She combed the rest of the riverside trail for another two hours, taking care to watch over her shoulder for the sunburned detective. After finding nothing else of interest, she turned back toward her campsite. Maybe she should’ve doubled back sooner to warn Holly and Tierra about the cops snooping around, she thought.

When she got back, though, Holly and Tierra seemed less concerned than she had expected. “I don’t blame them for keeping an eye on the area. Rumor has it that the LEOs here were really freaked out by the drownings happening the way they did,” Tierra whispered, shrugging. “I mean, the first guy disappeared, the second guy disappeared, then the first guy washed up on shore, and then a third guy went looking for the second guy…”

“And then they all ended up dead. Yeah, I guess I can’t blame them for having extra cops around, if they’re really short on clues.” And, Kay thought, she hoped that none of the local officers had any clue that magic was suspected – or that Maywitch had been called in.

“At any rate, I guess it’s my turn to go out, huh?” Holly said.

Tierra nodded. “Kay, do you mind going back out with her? I haven’t eaten yet.”

“That’s fine by me,” Kay said. “Where to?”

“There’s a trail northwest of here we haven’t looked at yet. Go look there.”

“Cool,” Kay said, waving her map at Holly. “Let’s go.”

Holly grinned as she grabbed her backpack, and as they headed out of camp, she whispered: “I think this feels safer, right? You think we’re going out in pairs because the cops are around?”

“Probably.” Deep down, though, Kay wondered if the decision was more because of Holly than the detective. Was it possible that Holly was so mistrusted that she wouldn’t be allowed to go out alone?

But maybe she was reading too much into it, Kay thought as the ambled down the trail. If any mistrust was brewing, it was probably aimed at Kay just as much as it was at Holly – and Tierra wouldn’t dare send two mistrusted people out together in the middle of an important mission.

——————————————————————————

Thirty minutes later, they were rounding a corner in the trail when Kay’s satellite phone rang. “This is Kay,” she said softly as she answered.

“It’s me,” Tierra’s voice said. “Meet me back toward camp. There’s something—”

Tierra stopped, and Kay frowned. “Tierra, what’s up?”

“Head south of the latrines,” Tierra whispered.

“Wait, what’s going on?”

There was only silence in response. Kay stared at the phone in her hand, and the call ended a second later. “Let’s go,” she said, turning around. “I think Tierra’s in trouble.”

She sprinted up the trail, and Holly followed, struggling to keep up. “Where is she?” Holly hissed.

“South of the bathrooms by the campsite.” Kay ignored the suspicious stares from other hikers as she rummaged in her pocket for a vial of wormwood. “I don’t know what’s going on, but it sounds like she saw something.”

Her feet pounded the trail, straining her legs and winding her. By the time they reached the trailhead, adrenaline was the only thing keeping her moving.

She stopped suddenly as she spotted flashing lights a short distance ahead. “Shit,” she said. “That’s the…”

“Latrines,” Holly finished, barely audible. “She said she was south?”

“Heading south, yeah. Let’s not move too quick, though.” Kay started jogging again, hoping they would avoid the attention of the cops.

“You said that detective was blond and sunburned, right?” Holly whispered.

“Yeah. Nudge me if you see him.”

As they passed the latrines, though, there was no sign of him. Several uniformed cops milled about as an ambulance pulled up, its siren issuing sharp blasts to move bystanders away. An elderly woman stood crying next to a police officer, and Kay’s heart sank as she realized that whatever happened was likely serious.

“Come on,” she said to Holly as she increased her pace. “She said south, but I have no idea if she’s following someone or…”

There was a soft crack somewhere ahead of them, and dozens of birds rose from the trees into the air. Kay sprinted ahead, no longer concerned with avoiding stares and suspicion. Behind her, she could hear Holly uttering a spell between ragged breaths.

They darted between trees, struggling not to trip over vines and underbrush, and Tierra’s silhouette soon came into view. “Tierra!” Kay hissed, slowing her approach. “Tierra—”

Something in front of Tierra moved, and Tierra waved a hand, unleashing a furious onslaught of leaves and vines. The woman from the night before stumbled into view, her jacket shimmering in the late afternoon light.

Kay stood stunned for a moment. Tierra’s magical abilities were earth-based – which was an incredibly rare skill set.

But Kay forced herself to focus as she saw the woman in the sequined jacket move her lips. “The hell?” Kay said. “Tierra, who is she?”

Tierra glanced over her shoulder. “Leave it to me.”

The other woman raised her arm, and a gust of wind burst through the trees, sending twigs and leaves into Kay’s face. Holly began murmuring the words to a spell, but Kay raised a hand. “I dunno if it’s worth using our fire, here,” Kay said.

“Who said I’m using that?” Holly whispered.

Possession wasn’t a bad idea, Kay thought as she pulled a stick of charcoal from her pocket. “Good call. I’ll cover you.”

Tierra launched another attack, and one of her vines slammed into the woman’s neck. The woman fell backward, but not before a knife shot out from her hand, missing Tierra’s head by less than an inch.

Kay raised a hand and began to recite a spell under her breath as Tierra took several hesitant steps backward. “She’s probably got something else up her sleeves, if her magic is this half-assed,” Tierra said. “Let’s just—”

Something dark crashed down from the sky, sending a gust of wind ripping through the woods. Kay was forced to close her eyes, but opened them again as soon as she could, knowing that another attack was imminent.

It took a long moment for her to process the scene before her. Very little had changed, but the woman with the sequined jacket was now fully prone, blood gushing from her neck and seeping into the ground. A gray-skinned beast stood over her, teeth glistening in the sunlight. Something brown behind it began to fold like paper cranes – wings, Kay thought as they arched and retreated against the creature’s back.

It had to be a demon, Kay knew, but it appeared so suddenly that the three mages stood motionless, unable to calculate their next move.

 

 

Chapter 21: Know Thine Enemy

 

The creature before them was humanoid, but as it reared its head, Kay saw that its face was scarred and wrinkled. Dark brown hair twisted downward from its scalp, meeting a thin red line across its collarbone.

But most disturbing of all were the deep brown wings, wide and bat-like, that sprouted from its back. It stood, revealing its full height, and Kay was suddenly conflicted: was it truly a demon, or was it human? It was one of the smallest demons she had ever seen, if it was one.

Tierra hurriedly cast a spell, the last syllables coming out as a low hiss, and vines surged toward the winged creature. It flapped its wings and shot into the sky, barely escaping the vines, and it flew low over the trees to the east.

Kay had almost finished reciting her own spell when Tierra held up a hand. “Don’t,” Tierra said. “It’s not worth risking exposing us. Fire will attract too much attention.”

Holly began to run toward the woman on the ground before them. “Wait! I think it’s Renaya,” Tierra said, reaching out a hand.

“What? Why?” Kay said.

Tierra stared toward the campsite that Holly and Kay had come from. “It would explain why her magic was so weak. That branch over there—” She pointed to her right, where a massive tree limb lay on the ground. “— was her idea of a trap. I’ll explain more later. I’m calling Gardner for quarantine. If it is Renaya, and she could potentially possess one of us, we have to keep people away from her.”

Kay glanced toward the half-dead body. The woman’s face was turned away from them; without line of sight, she couldn’t possess any of them. “Should we try to divert the cops if they come this way?” Kay whispered.

“Yes. Go back maybe fifty meters, and if they come this way, tell them you saw a bleeding woman run that way,” Tierra said, pointing west. “I’ll stay here.”

Holly cast a long, hesitant glance at the woman on the ground before turning to follow Kay. They walked about eighty feet through the trees before stopping, ears perked for any wayward snaps of twigs or rustles of leaves. Further away, the police cars’ lights still flashed in the early evening light.

“Do you really think that was Renaya?” Kay whispered. “And if so, what the hell was that thing that got her?”

Holly flinched as a bird fluttered overhead. “I’m afraid Tierra’s right,” she said. “That stone around her neck looked like a possession stone. I didn’t even know people could still make them, but it would explain a lot…”

Kay frowned. “A what?”

“Possession stones. They’re really hard to make, but the idea is that a possessor’s soul could remain in the stone instead of a body for a really long time,” Holly said. “Renaya wore a necklace all the time when we were at her base, but I never got to see what kind of pendant it was. The girl back there was wearing an amber pendant. Amber is the best kind of material to make possession stones with. I’m surprised Tierra picked up on it before I did.”

Kay opened her mouth to respond, but Holly continued: “I mean, it could be anything, and we could be completely wrong. But if that woman attacked Tierra, then that stone could still contain Renaya’s soul, if Renaya reacted quickly enough when that demon attacked her new body.”

“I gotcha. So that’s why we’re calling for Maywitch to try to quarantine? Can we actually do that?”

“We can try,” Holly murmured. “We’ll see if our folks or the Feds make it before the cops get antsy.”

“And—” Kay whirled around, staring at Tierra’s distant form. “Renaya didn’t possess her, right? Why not?”

“Possession requires lavender unless it’s being done to and from a possession stone. In other words, if she was short on lavender, Renaya only could’ve escaped to the possession stone. Normally, a possession stone has to be touching a person in order to jump into their body, so if we keep our distance—”

Holly stopped as a police officer stepped into the woods a short distance ahead of them. “You two! This area is off-limits. Stay on the trails,” he shouted.

Holly waved and nodded. “Shit,” she muttered under her breath, glancing over her shoulder at Tierra. “Let’s comply and hope for the best.”

Kay opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a buzz from her satellite phone. Holly’s had apparently vibrated too, and they stared at the text message they had each received.

Report to front of campground immediately for extraction.

Behind them, Tierra rushed forward, waving at them. “You saw it. Let’s go,” she said.

“But – don’t we have to worry about someone getting possessed?” Kay said. “And what about the demon?”

“Maywitch has already contacted the FBI. They’ll take care of quarantine. Nothing we can do about the demon right now; that thing was too damn fast.”

Kay nodded and followed Tierra without arguing further. At least Maywitch was being smart about the whole matter, she thought as they charged toward the main road. They must have thought through contingency plans for different scenarios – but then again, they probably hadn’t expected anything quite like this.

Twenty minutes later, they were at the front of the campground, exhausted and out of breath. “I’m assuming someone else will get our tent and stuff, right?” Holly whispered.

“Yeah. Right now, their priority is to keep us away from the local LEOs,” Tierra said as her eyes darted around the scene. “This investigation is officially out of our hands. Freaky drowning incidents are one thing. A visibly murdered body, though… Someone way above us is gonna have to step in on this one.”

They waited silently for another ten minutes, casting wary glances at every camper and police officer that passed by them. Eventually, the black sedan pulled up again and flashed its lights at them.

The three women wasted no time in piling into the back seat. Once the door was closed, the driver said: “Well, y’all are back much sooner than I expected.”

Tierra cracked a smile – the first one Kay had seen in their entire time together. “Can’t complain,” she said, running a hand through her messy hair. “Get to shower sooner than expected.”

The sedan barreled down the road, and Kay could only assume they were headed toward the entrance of the park. The road looked completely unfamiliar in the daylight.

“Let me text Gardner to confirm we’re en route,” Tierra said, leaning back in her seat. “Good work, you two. Thanks for backing me up. That could’ve gotten ugly.”

Holly smiled, but she didn’t seem to relax the same way Tierra did. Instead, she stared out the window, craning her neck to see the woods they had just passed. “I kinda wish it had gotten ugly, though,” she murmured, barely audible to Kay.

“What happened, though?” Kay asked.

“I found a sunburned, blond-haired man murdered in the women’s latrine,” Tierra said calmly. “It looked like it could have been your detective friend, Kay. I left, called you, and then saw that camper high-tailing it out of there. Followed her for a second. Then she figured out I was onto her and she tried to activate a magic circle. I moved out of the way just in time, and then she tried to hit me with some kind of falling tree limb she’d set up as a trap.”

Holly let out a low whistle. “You just stumbled onto the murder scene at the right time, then.”

“Damn right. Like I said, thanks for backing me up. I was caught in a weird spot, potentially, especially if that demon had come after us next…” Tierra shook her head, her eyes wide as if she was in awe of her luck. “I’m glad Gardner had briefed the rest of us on Renaya and the others, eh?”

Kay nodded, feeling her sympathies toward Tierra increase slightly. If that woman was Renaya, then her powers were probably only mitigated by the fact that she was possessing another body. Facing an unknown opponent alone had to be nerve-wracking.

——————————————————————————

They arrived at the airport just as Maywitch confirmed a return flight for them. They had made it out of the campsite with nothing other than their phones and IDs, though, so security gave them some odd looks as they passed. Kay was shocked that they weren’t stopped entirely, but she also realized that their tickets could be flagged to avoid additional scrutiny. Since they boarded their charter flight without their possessions, she knew they would be bored on the way back.

Kay picked a seat close to the front of the plane, and Holly sat across the aisle from her. “I’m gonna try to sleep, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to,” Holly said with a thin smile.

“Same. Night,” Kay said, addressing both Holly and Tierra.

“Night,” Tierra said as she walked past.

Instead of sleeping, though, Kay stared out the window for nearly four hours, her mind racing. If Renaya could possess anyone from that little pendant, was anyone worth trusting? Holly had seemed unperturbed by the revelation that Renaya could be using a possession stone, but maybe that calmness was unwarranted.

Plus, what exactly had happened between Tierra and Renaya? What had tipped Tierra off that Renaya was the one who was responsible for the blonde detective’s death? Tierra’s timing and ability to follow Renaya seemed far too lucky for it to have been a complete coincidence.

Or maybe Kay’s concern was verging on paranoia, she thought as her eyes began to droop shut. Tierra had acted on a hunch – that was all. The girl’s magical powers were probably better than Kay’s own. If anything, maybe Kay needed some more training and practice, she admitted. She made a mental note to seek out more training on auras and sensory magic when she saw Wojtec again.

——————————————————————————

Less than two hours after their flight landed, they were back at the base, and Kay collapsed into bed as soon as she could. Her sleep was disturbed by visions of the winged demon; his gray face appeared only briefly before flying off, dodging her flames as she tried to take him down.

Holly and Tierra were never in her dreams, though, she realized as she awoke for the fourth time that night. Only Nadia appeared in brief flashes, fleeing from the scene of battle as if abandoning Kay.

 

 

Chapter 22: Infiltration

 

Despite being a fugitive, Nina Abendroth hadn’t bothered to change her face or aura. It was too much work for the current moment.

She paced the worn, dimly-lit room, the floorboards creaking under her feet. Renaya was supposed to have called three hours ago. Local news in Denver was reporting heavy police activity in Rocky Mountain National Park. Surely her delay in calling was no coincidence.

Maybe Dustin should’ve gone with Renaya after all, Nina thought as she stopped pacing. “Will you calm down, Boris?” she said over her shoulder. “If you don’t stop looking so freaky, I’ll have Dustin put you back in the basement.”

In the corner of the room sat a balding, red-faced man. Nina had tied him to his chair with rope instead of magic, and he seemed to be straining at his bonds. Sweat had broken out on his forehead, and his eyes were wide and moist.

“What, did we tie you too tight or something?” Nina said.

He couldn’t reply, since she had gagged him with a piece of cloth. Half of her wanted to go ahead and dispose of him, since she had gotten what she needed: the location of a certain key that had been passed down through his family for generations. Half of her, though, knew that he might come in handy.

She reached into her pocket and pulled out her buzzing phone. She read the message on the screen and snarled. “Dustin!” she yelled. “Get down here!”

There was a pattering of footsteps overhead, and a few seconds later, Dustin appeared at the bottom of a nearby staircase. “What’s up?”

“The body Renaya was possessing was killed, but Maywitch is proceeding as if she may have escaped back into her stone,” she said, shoving her phone back into her pocket.

He hesitated for a moment as he glanced at the man in the corner. “You should be careful what you say in front of Boris…” Dustin murmured.

“What? It doesn’t matter if he knows we have a mole, because he’s not leaving here without us wiping his memories,” she replied.

“I guess that’s fair, though I’d argue it doesn’t hurt to be careful. Do we know who killed her yet?”

“It sounds like Maywitch killed her. I told her it wouldn’t be that easy to pick them off one by one, but she just wouldn’t listen…”

He sighed. “What are we going to do about her, though? Should we try to get her stone back if our contact confirms that Maywitch has it?”

She turned on her heel and strode toward the window. Night had just fallen, and she hadn’t gotten used to how intensely dark it got at their new cabin on cloudy nights. She reached over to turn on a lamp, but stopped as her fingers brushed the amber-colored beads on the lampshade.

“Actually, I think our plans just got even easier,” she said, running her index finger over the smooth beads. “We’ll see how long it takes for things to fall into place.”

——————————————————————————

Sometime the next morning, Kay’s Maywitch-issued phone began buzzing incessantly, and she rolled over and answered it. Gardner wanted Kay to answer a full array of questions as soon as possible. Though she had slept a grand total of four hours, Kay complied, knowing that she would probably be considered suspicious if she tried to stall.

Two middle-aged mages escorted her from her room to an unfamiliar, white-walled interrogation room. She answered her questions to the best of her ability, providing a description of the demon, the camper Renaya had possessed, and the murdered detective. They peppered her with follow-up questions until her head pounded. It felt like they suspected her of something, she thought as she blearily rubbed her eyes.

Eventually, though, they let her go. She took breakfast back to her room and ate there, keeping a close eye on her phone in case someone needed anything else.

Wojtec came by her room with a fresh batch of readings, and she accepted them gratefully. It felt a little like college, she thought – though if she didn’t study hard here, she would end up dead, instead of merely unemployed. She told him she wanted to work on sensing auras next, and he agreed to work it in as soon as possible.

“Am I back on standby, more or less? Or is there something specific I’ll be doing soon?” Kay asked.

Wojtec shrugged. “I heard you all will be meeting with Gardner briefly tomorrow morning, but I don’t have a time yet. Nothing else for you to do before then, unless an emergency comes up. Get some rest, yeah?”

As he waved and walked away, Kay sent a text to Holly: Have you visited Nadia today? Maybe we should go see her and reassure her we’re alive.

The response was swift: Already tried. They’re questioning her about what happened last night.

Kay scowled at her phone as she typed: Why? She wasn’t there. She had nothing to do with it. She wouldn’t even know anything about the demon side of things because she didn’t know she was a _][_summoner _][_before!

Several minutes passed, and as Kay sat down to study, her phone finally buzzed with a response: I know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re talking to her just as a formality. She’s one of our brightest, so maybe Gardner is using this as a way to pick her brain for ideas. Let’s go see her this evening? _][_Maybe after dinner?

That was optimistic of Holly, Kay thought as she set her phone aside and got to studying. There was no guarantee that Maywitch wasn’t treating Nadia like a total pariah. Even if Nadia and Holly were dating, as Kay suspected, Nadia could hide how poorly Maywitch was treating her in an attempt to keep Holly from worrying.

Kay paused and looked up from her studying. She was more concerned about Nadia than she had ever been before, she realized as she stared at the wall in front of her.

She stared back down at her assignments again, struggling to focus, but eventually gave up. The blank wall in front of her desk was irritating her. In her apartment in Houston, she’d had photos of herself and her mother on the wall, in addition to the handful of photos she had of herself and her high-school friends. Those photos had made it more bearable to muddle through studying after a long day at her part-time job.

Now, though, she was at yet another home away from home. It was foreign and unfamiliar, like a hotel room, but she knew she couldn’t return to her apartment anytime soon. Gardner and Juan had assured her that they wouldn’t terminate the lease, and would give her the option of returning there as soon as she finished her duties, but it was starting to look like she wouldn’t be finished anytime soon.

Maybe it was time to make this room a little more home-like, she thought as she reached for her phone again. Yeah, let’s meet at 6 at the dining hall, eat dinner, and then go over, she typed.

Holly replied almost instantly: Cool! Sounds like a plan!

——————————————————————————

Just before 6 p.m., Kay strolled up to the cafeteria, and Holly met her a few minutes later. They ate quietly, not bothering to discuss the events of the previous day.

“Should we invite Tierra to come see Nadia?” Kay asked as they finished eating.

Holly shot her a look of dismay. “I dunno if that’s a good idea,” she murmured, shaking her head. “I mean, to be honest, it seems like… Maybe she…”

She trailed off, hesitating, and Kay jumped in: “I mean, if in doubt, let’s just hold off for now.”

“Yeah. Every time I even mentioned Nadia, Tierra looked at me funny. Whatever her deal is, she’s not very poker-faced,” Holly said, frowning.

“I hear you.” Kay stood and stretched. “Let’s go.”

The hall leading to the infirmary ward was lit in dulcet orange hues, and Kay felt her mind begin to calm as they walked. As they approached the hallway leading to Nadia’s room, though, they stopped short. Nadia herself had appeared in the hall, carrying a cardboard box of her possessions.

“Oh – you didn’t have to come and help!” she said, laughing. “I got it, I promise.”

Kay raised an eyebrow. “Huh? What’s going on?”

Nadia looked from Kay to Holly, her smile fading. “Nobody told you?” she said quietly. “I’m moving into your room, Kay. I mean, I guess they don’t want to leave me unattended outside of medical. It sounds like everyone will have a roommate at some point, but for now, I’m highest priority…”

She trailed off, and Kay and Holly looked at each other for a long moment. Holly’s expression was unreadable, but her worried brow line showed she might be disappointed. “Well, I’m glad you’re getting out of quarantine! Took them long enough!” Holly said, not bothering to keep her voice down.

Nadia smiled, and for the first time in a long while, Kay saw her eyes glimmer with happiness. “Sure did,” Nadia said, shrugging. “Oh well. Listen, let me take this box to our room, and then we can catch up, okay?”

“Surely you have more boxes than that.” Holly walked past Nadia, toward the room that the healer had been staying in. “Let me get one.”

“No, it’s fine—”

“If you end up overexerting yourself, Kay’s gonna have to move the rest of your stuff!”

Kay smiled sheepishly, waving a hand. “I mean, don’t worry about me. I’m happy to help,” she said. “Let us help, Nadia.”

Nadia opened her mouth to protest, but stopped, letting a smile reclaim her face. “Fine, but I got the bulk of it,” she said. “Most of my stuff didn’t even survive the fires and stuff at the old base.”

Kay’s heart sank. Nadia’s words were nonchalant, as if she was making a remark about the quality of their breakfast that morning. Her life had been completely, truly torn apart; the loss of her material possessions had to be trivial compared to the death of many of her colleagues, her sister’s betrayal, and her imprisonment in an unfamiliar base far from home.

“Is Maywitch—” Kay stopped and glanced around, concerned that her words could be viewed as suspicious. “Is Maywitch going to let you out more? Because we might kinda need you, y’know.”

Nadia’s laugh was sarcastic yet stifled, as if she had tried to suppress it at the last second. “No matter what you all need me for, I’m sure I’m too much of a liability to make it worth your while,” she said.

Holly’s face fell, and Kay decided to change the topic. “Well, if you’ll be just laying around our room a lot, keep it down, okay? I’m studying a lot, trying to be less clueless,” Kay said.

Nadia snorted. “Good luck. You’re probably years behind the rest of us.”

“Hey! You don’t have to phrase it like that!” Holly said, a smile creeping over her face.

Kay laughed, shaking her head. It was true. She would probably end up asking Nadia some really stupid questions over the course of her studies. There was definitely a silver lining to having Nadia as a roommate, she thought as they went to grab the rest of Nadia’s things.

 

 

Chapter 23: City of Brotherly Love

 

By the time they finished moving and organizing Nadia’s possessions, she was exhausted, and she went to bed early. Kay stayed up studying for a long time, occasionally texting Holly with questions. By the time she went to bed herself, her head hurt miserably, and she almost slept through her alarm the next morning.

Gardner had summoned Kay, Tierra and Holly to a debriefing in her office at 9 a.m., and when Kay entered, the relaxed expression on Gardner’s face put her own concerns at ease.

“Everything you three told us checks out, and overall, we consider the mission a success,” Gardner said as she stood and paced the tiny room. ”We managed to keep the local police from investigating the woman’s body, and the lower-level folks at the FBI only know that the murder is someone else’s jurisdiction. Local media is sniffing around, but we’ve kept them at bay, for the time being. Your identities are safe and sound.”

She paused and nodded to Tierra. “I’m sorry you ended up in that mess, Tierra. If Renaya had been in a stronger body, and her magical abilities hadn’t been so weak… I mean, I know you could’ve handled it, but it would’ve been a much uglier fight.”

“I don’t deserve any credit, considering how it all went down,” Tierra said, shrugging.

“No, you deserve credit for recognizing that it was likely Renaya, and knowing that her possession stone was dangerous. We’ve quarantined it appropriately, by the way. We’re trying to figure out a safe way to destroy it, but it’s more difficult than it sounds. We might have to bring in a specialist from outside the country.”

“And what about that demon? What about him?” Tierra said.

Gardner shook her head, a smile playing at the edges of her lips. “We’ll let you know when we know more, but we suspect it’s a creature known as Wyvern. You all gave us a pretty useful description, but the reality is that we don’t have much on him in our historical records. You’re dismissed, if there are no more questions.”

Tierra nodded and turned to leave. Kay hesitated to follow her, and after a moment, she asked: “Actually, do we know if Renaya was in contact with Dustin and Nina?”

“We don’t know yet, but someone at the FBI is looking into that for us.”

“And we don’t know why she drowned those men?”

“Correct. It seems she went to college with them, but we don’t know anything besides that. The college connection could possibly be a coincidence. We’re pretty sure they’re not mages.”

So there were still a lot of unknowns, Kay thought as she nodded. “Thanks,” she said as she followed Tierra out.

Holly followed them as well, and when the three of them were out in the hall, she said: “I’m glad you asked those questions, because I was wondering them myself.”

“Yeah, I thought she would’ve offered that info on her own. Tierra, are debriefs after assignments like that supposed to be so… bare-bones?” Kay asked.

“I don’t think they normally are, but I think Gardner also doesn’t like sharing things that aren’t certain unless someone specifically asks,” Tierra said.

That made sense, Kay thought as she nodded. No sense in having half-baked information going around if you could avoid it.

——————————————————————————

Two hours later, Kay was back in her room, studying hard again. Nadia had gone to the medical wing for some follow-up tests, and Kay knew it would be a while before she was back.

There was a knock at the door, and Kay rolled her chair backward and turned the knob. “What’s up?” she said as she saw Holly on the other side.

“Get your herbs and stuff. We’re on standby. Might be dispatched to Philadelphia to deal with some weird shit being sighted.” Holly’s face was strained, and she already had a vial of wormwood clutched in her hand.

Kay dropped her notes on her desk and opened one of her dresser drawers. “What’s going on?”

“Some civilian non-mages sighted a potential demon just outside the city, near the airport. There’s a video online already.”

Kay’s hand stopped short of a vial of wormwood rolling around in her drawer. “Shit,” she muttered. It wasn’t unheard of for Maywitch to have to quietly dispose of online videos and wipe memories, but it was rare – and they liked to keep it that way. “So, what, we’re going up there to keep an eye out for it, or what?”

“Yup. It’s all hands on deck. It doesn’t match the description of anything we’ve seen before, so Gardner is sending everyone she can in case it turns out to be nasty.” Holly sighed. “We’re being extra careful about it since it’s close to D.C.”

“Go figure,” Kay said as she threw bags and vials of herbs into her backpack. “Cool. But how are we getting there?”

“It’s less than three hours by helicopter, I’ve been told, so if the advance team can’t lock it down, we’re heading out in an hour at most. Gardner said to watch your phone for details. I was just instructed to check in with you since I was heading back to my room anyway.”

Kay nodded. “Thanks. Where should I wait?”

“You can stay here if you want, but I’ll be in the garage once I get my stuff.” Holly abruptly left, giving only a brief wave as a farewell.

Kay’s mind reeled as she finished loading her backpack. She picked up the two notes her mother had sent her and thrust them in the front pocket, knowing that the runes inscribed on them could come in handy. She wracked her brain for other things she should bring, or what else she could be doing to prepare.

She stared at her desk as her mind went blank. When her brain seemed to start working again, she suddenly knelt, her legs and knees growing weak.

The last time they had been sent on a sudden assignment in response to a demon problem, Juan had been killed.

She gritted her teeth and leaned on her desk as she stood. Now was not the time to think about what could happen next. Now was not the time to dwell on the fact that she still hadn’t been trained worth a damn. She blocked out as much of her brain as she could, threw her backpack over one shoulder, and barreled down the hallway, not even bothering to lock her bedroom door.

——————————————————————————

The garage was absolute chaos. Nearly two dozen staff milled about, and Kay recognized almost none of them. A short while later, Holly showed up, closely followed by Wojtec and a young, pale mage Kay recognized as Xavier. He was a senior investigator with Maywitch, and operated more as a liaison with law enforcement than as a combat mage. Since Kay had never worked with him before, his presence was slightly disquieting to her.

“We’re getting on a helicopter in ten minutes,” Holly said.

Tierra appeared, her face staring down at her phone. “Wojtec, Xavier, are one of you briefing us?” she said without looking up. “Cause I can’t make heads or tails of any of the shit they sent me.”

“I’ll tell you what we know, but I’m afraid we might not have a clear picture of what’s happening until after we get there,” Wojtec replied. “The video online has already been removed, but it got thousands of views, and we’re sure someone else has a copy of it by now. Our communications folks are trying to counter it with evidence that it was a hoax, but it’s not easy. A few non-combat mages are already tracking down the guy who posted the video. FBI’s involved, of course, but their intel isn’t much help. We’re worried the demon is heading toward more populated areas, but luckily, it doesn’t seem to be able to fly. It’s been…” He trailed off and looked at his phone. “Two hours since the thing was sighted.”

Tierra sighed. “And how long since it actually showed up on our radar?”

“The video slipped through Surveillance Ops’ radar at first, so we’ve only known about it for thirty minutes.”

Swearing under her breath, Tierra reached for her phone. “So it could be anywhere by now.”

“Sure could.” Wojtec glanced down at his phone. “The five of you are apparently getting into a chopper in less than two minutes. Hit the restroom if you haven’t already; it’s a long flight.”

Holly frowned and glanced at Kay. “The five of… us?” Kay murmured.

“I’m staying, but Nadia’s coming with you. We’re gonna see if she can be useful.”

Tierra’s eyes widened, and she looked up from her phone. Holly looked concerned, almost dismayed, but she forced a smile. “Gotcha,” she said. “Lead the way.”

The four of them ran outside and piled into a massive black helicopter waiting on the pavement, and Nadia joined them soon after. She was wearing her usual black slacks and tank top, but as she climbed into the helicopter, Kay spotted a chunky gray loop around her ankle.

That had to be a GPS tracker or something, Kay thought, her heart sinking. She and Holly waved a greeting, but Tierra pointedly ignored Nadia’s presence.

They settled in for the flight, and Kay realized she wasn’t as nervous about this helicopter ride as she had been about her last one. What worried her, though, was the number of unknowns on this assignment – and the memory of Juan’s death lurking in her subconscious. Maywitch still hadn’t proved to her that it was capable of handling sudden, urgent missions. There was no guarantee that this wouldn’t be another lethal mistake.

Xavier instructed them to turn off their phones; from here on out, their only updates would come via the pilot’s radio. As they took off, she tore her eyes away from her last glimpses of the white walls of the mansion that doubled as their base. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself, but nothing she did could calm her pounding heart.

Two hours passed, with little conversation other than Xavier and the pilot checking in with each other over their headset radios. Every time they spoke, Kay flinched, expecting bad news, but it was never anything important.

As they flew over a vast patch of farmland, the pilot spoke up again: “Got an update from base. A second demon has been spotted – they’re sure it’s not the same one.”

“Copy,” Xavier muttered. “We got a description and location?”

“Coordinates have been sent to me. It’s south of town. It’s apparently not very large; someone called it into animal control, describing it as a mutant dog.”

Kay saw a smile flicker on Holly’s face. “We sure it’s even a demon?” Xavier asked.

“The caller said it had a barbed tail, so yeah, we’re pretty sure.”

“How long ago was it spotted?”

“Nearly thirty minutes ago.”

Xavier turned and looked at Tierra, whose brow had furrowed. “I know, Ti. We’re gonna have to do something about our intel operations.”

“At this rate, today will be the day we get exposed to the world, all because our intel is coming in far too slow,” she replied, gritting her teeth.

“You know they’re understaffed, right? You got any friends you wanna recruit—”

“Our ground team might have spotted the first demon,” the pilot interrupted. “It’s in a train yard close to downtown.”

“Shit,” Xavier said. “Can you increase speed at all?”

“Negative. Base may reroute us to the south side of town to look for the second one, though.”

Xavier slumped back in his seat. “Copy,” he muttered.

Kay and Holly looked at each other for a long moment. Though they couldn’t see Nadia’s face, as she was seated in front of them, Kay suspected her expression would be similarly distraught. It was eerie to be hearing updates without any real idea of how bad things were on the ground. Were the police caught up in everything, or were Maywitch staff trying to do everything from crowd control to speeding through traffic without any support? Was the FBI helping? And just how many civilians had figured out that something majorly abnormal was happening?

“Forty-five minutes until we touch down near the second demon’s last known location,” the pilot said. “First one is close to being contained. Our job is to hunt for the second one. I’ll provide air support once you five are on the ground.”

There was a long pause. “What about Nadia?” Xavier asked.

“Didn’t receive guidance on her. It’s your call.”

“She should come with us. Safer than keeping her in the chopper.”

“Safer for who?” Kay wanted to ask. She stayed quiet, though, instead glancing at Holly, who had opened her mouth to protest but decided against it. Further to Kay’s left, Tierra’s eyes narrowed.

“I expect you to waive my restricted magic use, then,” Nadia said quietly.

“Of course,” Xavier replied.

Holly seemed to relax, and as they settled in for the last part of their flight, they fell silent. There was no sense in making small talk about possibilities and what-ifs. It would only serve to make their tension worse.

——————————————————————————

Forty minutes later, the pilot brought the helicopter closer to the ground. They flew low over the dense woods and suburbs of New Jersey, and Kay felt her heart rate rise sharply.

“We got law enforcement chatter saying they’ve spotted it near Broad and Pattison,” the pilot said as he tapped at a screen on his console. “Dark brown, short ears, long, barbed tail. They’re thinking the tail part could be a hoax, but it won’t be long before they find out it’s not.”

“How close can you bring us to that spot?” Xavier asked.

“I’m trying to figure that out. May have to land in one of the stadium parking lots, but that’ll raise some eyebrows.”

“Do it,” Xavier said, his voice low. “Listen up, everyone. I may have to split off to deal with law enforcement, but the rest of you should not split up under any circumstances. Understand?”

“Copy,” Tierra said as she reached to unbuckle her seatbelt.

“Landing in ninety seconds,” the pilot said.

Kay looked out her window to see a massive river below. Tiny spots of rain had started to appear on the window, and she sighed in relief; rainy weather would mean there would be fewer people outside.

“Play it cool, everyone,” Xavier said. “When we land, take off your headsets and follow me to the northwest, toward the nearby park. We’ll see if we can’t ferret out this thing.”

The helicopter descended rapidly, and Kay’s stomach turned over. In front of her, Nadia turned around, nodding to her and Holly. “Let’s do this,” Nadia said softly.

Several seconds later, they touched down outside a stadium, and could see several cars on a nearby street slow down to gawk at them. “Let’s go!” Xavier said, yanking the door of the helicopter open.

Too bad invisibility spells didn’t exist, Kay thought as they jogged across the parking lot. Those would be helpful if they wanted to make it through the day without all of humanity finding out about magic.

Xavier steered them toward a massive, lush park west of the stadium parking lot. He barely slowed before rushing them across an intersection just before the light changed.

As they reached the edge of the park, he glanced down at his phone. “I have to go deal with the locals,” he murmured, staring north. “Start looking for this thing, and tell me immediately if you find it. If anyone tries to talk to you, tell them you’re Penn students, okay? Let Tierra do the talking.”

“Got it,” Tierra said as he ran off. “Have everything you need at the ready, but avoid fire spells.”

“What else are we supposed to use?” Holly whispered.

Tierra opened her jacket slightly, revealing a gun strapped to her side. “Useless against larger demons, but for one this size, it’ll help,” she murmured. “And no, you’re not allowed to use it unless I’m dead. Maywitch doesn’t like having untrained people shooting at things.”

“Fair enough. I’d rather not get us all exposed today, so a gun is definitely a better option than magic, if we can help it,” Holly murmured. “Where should we—”

Nadia held up a hand. “Something’s here,” she said.

The others whirled around, scanning the nearby trees and ponds for signs of trouble. “What?” Tierra murmured.

“I can’t articulate what I feel,” she murmured. “Not yet, anyway. But it’s her, and at the same time not her.”

“Not – Nina, you mean?”

Nadia opened her mouth to reply, but before she could say a word, an echoing boom resounded through the air and ground.

Tierra whipped her head around to face north. “What the hell was that?”

A few seconds later, a plume of smoke appeared to the north, and Nadia nearly dropped her backpack as she dashed toward it. “Let’s go!” she said over her shoulder.

“You don’t have to tell us twice, but don’t get too far ahead of us!” Tierra yelled.

Kay and Holly followed, and the four women darted through traffic, barely making it through without getting hit. Many of the drives on the nearby streets pulled over to stop and stare at the plume of smoke.

“I can’t reach Xavier,” Tierra said as they ran up the sidewalk heading north. “I’m relaying this to base.”

“Tell them we might need backup,” Nadia replied. “This feeling I have gets worse and worse the closer we get.”

 

 

Chapter 24: Unleashed

 

Content Note: Character death and mild gore this chapter.

——————————————————————————

They sprinted nearly a quarter mile up the street, and encountered multiple people heading the opposite direction. “What happened?” Tierra asked one man running toward them.

“Some kind of explosion right by the highway. Cops and firefighters are there, luckily,” he said.

Kay swore under her breath. “Lumericite?” she said as soon as the man was out of earshot.

“Could be, but I don’t think we have any way to know for sure. Let me see if I can reach our pilot,” Tierra said, putting her phone to her ear as she kept running.

To her right, Nadia was visibly struggling, and Kay slowed down to watch her. “You okay?” she murmured.

“I’m fine,” Nadia said between heavy breaths. “Just out of shape, and the stitches were removed, but everything still hurts a little…”

“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Holly said. “We have to—”

There was a shriek up ahead, and a woman came running out of an office building, nearly tripping as she sprinted up the sidewalk. “What happened?” Tierra barked as she ran ahead.

“There’s someone in the bank – I don’t know what he is, but he’s slashing people!” the woman yelled. As she came closer, blood became visible on her orange jacket, and Kay’s heart sank.

“Are you okay?” Nadia asked.

“We need to call 911!” the woman said, shaking her head.

“But are you okay?” Nadia repeated, reaching for something in her pocket.

Tierra opened her mouth to say something, but Nadia shook her head to silence her. The woman in the orange jacket nodded. “We’ll call 911. You stay here, and if you see any cops, let them know, okay? What did this slasher look like?” Nadia asked.

“Dark hair, and he had something under his jacket, on his back!”

Holly and Kay looked at each other, then at Tierra, who had gone pale. “Let’s go,” Tierra growled, charging up the street. “Nadia, call the cops!”

“On it,” Nadia said as she and the others followed, “But what are we doing? Who is that?”

“I’d bet my next stipend check that it’s Wyvern,” Tierra said.

“Likewise,” Kay muttered, a hand closing around a vial of wormwood in her pocket. “Let’s go.”

As they reached the building the woman had run out of, they heard another scream inside. One of the front windows was broken, and through it, Kay could see a dark-haired, humanoid creature throw something – someone – across the room.

She murmured the words to a fire hex under her breath as she followed the others through the front door. When they entered the bank lobby, though, the only people present were strewn across the room, blood pooling around them. Her hands shook as her eyes darted about, searching for the culprit.

Nadia knelt next to the nearest person and felt for a pulse as she relayed the situation to a 911 operator. “Hold this,” she said, handing the phone to Holly.

“Nadia, we have to go,” Tierra said as she ran across the room, checking the corners for any sign of danger. “Wyvern must’ve run out the back—”

“Wyvern’s the one you all encountered in the national park, right? If he’s airborne by now, though, there’s nothing we can do. I can do something here,” Nadia said as she pulled a vial from her backpack.

“Don’t!” Holly hissed as she covered the receiver of her phone.

“I’m useless in combat anyway!”

“You can’t risk exposing…” Holly trailed off, shaking her head furiously. “The paramedics will be here soon!”

Nadia ignored her, rattling off the words to a healing spell. The man before her opened his eyes slightly. Holly whirled around, meeting Tierra’s gaze. “She can’t!” Holly said.

Tierra’s expression was unreadable, and she hesitated for a long moment before turning toward the back of the bank. “I don’t have time to deal with this,” she said as she darted down the next hallway.

Holly turned to Kay, her expression pleading. “We have to stop Wyvern, or this’ll only get worse,” Kay said.

“But if she exposes us—”

“Let the cleanup team deal with wiping his memories!” Nadia snapped as her hands glowed faintly.

“You can’t just leave it to them!” Holly yelled.

“And I can’t just let him die because of this demon bullshit, especially if it’s Nina’s fault!”

“I’ll report you!”

Nadia’s eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to reply, but turned her attention to the man in front of her instead.

Kay charged toward the back hallway. “We can’t keep arguing about this. Figure it out!” she yelled over her shoulder.

There was no reply as she rounded a corner and climbed through a doorway that had been busted halfway open. Up ahead, she could see Tierra’s slender form sprinting outside through another door, toward what looked like a half-completed parking garage. Concrete pillars rose up out of the ground, obscuring much of the view ahead. She suddenly regretted leaving Nadia and Holly behind, but knew she didn’t have much choice, either.

Tierra looked over her shoulder, but didn’t slow down when she made eye contact with Kay. She was likely hot on Wyvern’s trail, Kay knew.

A man ran into the parking garage ahead, and Kay’s heart stopped as he recognized him. He had burns over part of his face, but his tall frame and pale hair were too familiar to ignore.

“Tierra, watch out!” she yelled.

Tierra slowed just as the man noticed her presence. “Who are you?” Tierra shouted, raising a hand.

“I’m your ally, right now, because I think we have a better chance of defeating this guy if we team up,” the man said – and once Kay heard his voice, she knew without a doubt that it was Dustin Reyes.

“He’s with Nina!” Kay said as she caught up with Tierra.

“But I’m not about to attack you, because I know how strong your people are.” Dustin reached out a hand, and white powder fell from it.

“We don’t have time for this,” Kay muttered, glancing around.

“I’m serious about this, though. I can tell you’re just as scared as I am. Wyvern is no joke.” Dustin closed his eyes for a moment. “Can we propose a truce, for now? I know I can trust you.”

“Too bad that trust is one-sided, since neither of us are readers,” Tierra spat.

Something emerged from the shadows in front of them and lunged toward Dustin, and he dove to the left. Two German Shepherds emerged from the stairwell near him and leapt at the winged, shadowy figure that had appeared.

“Didn’t know Wyvern was this fast on the ground,” Tierra muttered as she pulled out her gun.

Kay cringed as one of the German Shepherds was swatted away by Wyvern, who had abandoned his bulky jacket and unfurled his wings halfway. His right wing was battered, though – possibly damaged and hindering his ability to fly, Kay thought. “Can I use my flames here?” she asked.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Tierra replied.

As Wyvern turned to deal with the other dog, Kay murmured a fresh fire spell, and she felt her fingers grow warm. Dustin scrambled to his feet as his lips began to move, and as Wyvern fought off the second German Shepherd, a massive blast of wind and dust roared through the parking garage.

Wyvern shut his eyes, and Kay seized her chance. Fire poured from her hands and flew toward Wyvern, who dodged the attack in the nick of time. The flames scorched the concrete and sent the smell of smoke wafting through the air.

Dustin pulled a knife from his backpack, but Tierra raised a hand. “Careful,” she said, “Let us handle this—”

Wyvern rose from his crouched position and lunged at Tierra, using his wings to boost his speed. She thrust out a hand, and just as he was about to reach her, vines burst through the concrete floor and knocked him backward in a shower of dust and stone.

He let out a hiss of rage – the first noise Kay had ever heard him make, she realized – and he collapsed against the floor. Tierra’s vines went limp as she took a few steps forward. “Finish him, Kay,” she murmured.

Wyvern sat up halfway, and Kay hurriedly prepared a stronger yet slower fire spell. Dustin’s lips moved as he took a few steps toward the demon, and Tierra yelled: “Wait, leave it to Kay—”

Wyvern’s undamaged left wing shot outward. Its barbed tip caught Dustin in the throat, sending blood spattering against the concrete with a sound like heavy hail.

Dustin grabbed at his throat, but the light was already leaving his eyes. Kay yelled the last few words of her spell, and an inferno rolled out from her palms, accelerating toward Wyvern with the power of a freight train.

He rolled to the right, dodging the bulk of her attack. He hissed again as his left wing caught fire, and Kay could tell from his slowed movements that she had done some damage.

She hesitated, though, unwilling to get within striking distance of his wings. Tierra was preparing her next attack, but Wyvern darted away before she could finish. Her vines shot after him, missing their mark by inches as he disappeared into the outside world.

“Check on him and save him if you can,” Tierra said before sprinting after Wyvern.

“But—” Kay glanced at Dustin, who was bleeding out, and clearly beyond hope.

“See what he knows, at least!” Tierra yelled over her shoulder.

Kay ran to Dustin, feeling for a pulse on his wrist as she knelt next to him. The left side of his throat was almost completely gone. There was no way he could speak, at this point, and there was little Nadia would be able to do for him now.

She had a sudden, vivid recollection of Meilan’s last moments as she bled to death inside the Salt Lake City base.

She shook her head and tried to form words, but Dustin’s emotionless face silenced her. He would pass any second. She felt for a pulse again, as if in denial of that basic fact, but it had grown weaker.

She sat there for nearly a minute, unsure of what to do next. Somehow, his death felt unfair – as if things could’ve been different; as if she could have prevented this.

Eventually, she heard footsteps behind her, and she whirled around, but it was only Tierra. “I lost it. I’m calling in backup, but I’m guessing it’ll be gone soon,” Tierra said. “We should probably try to get out of here and find Xavier.”

Kay nodded, only halfway comprehending her colleague’s words. She turned back to Dustin, fumbled for a pulse again, and felt tears well up when she realized it was gone.

“I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “I wish I could’ve figured you out. Did you change your mind at all? Did you want to do the right thing, in the end?”

There was no reply, other than the drops of rain falling into a puddle somewhere nearby. She laid her fingers gently on his eyelids, closed his eyes, and recited a few lines of a Wiccan prayer her mother had taught her when she was young.

“We should go check on the others. C’mon,” Tierra said, her voice echoing in the quiet.

Kay nodded and went to follow her out of the parking garage. As they reached the entrance they had come through, though, she heard something whimper quietly. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw one of the German Shepherds whining and nudging Dustin’s body. She turned back around and followed Tierra, struggling to blink back tears and calm her quivering heart.

 

 

Chapter 25: Recovery

 

As they moved from the parking garage to the bank, the volume of the sirens around them intensified. It looked like police had been slow to show up, with the explosion nearby taking up most of their resources, Kay thought. As they ran through the alley toward the bank, two cops waved them away, and they ran around the front of the building in search of Nadia and Holly.

For a long moment, it looked as if the only people around were firefighters, paramedics, and police officers. Most of the civilians had apparently fled.

But as Kay squinted through the crowd, she spotted Nadia sitting on the sidewalk, knees pulled to her chest. Holly stood several feet away, holding an umbrella.

“You two okay?” Kay asked.

Holly nodded. “I let the others know we’re okay, too. They’ll be here soon.”

“I’m getting a call from them now, so let me take it,” Tierra said, stepping away.

They were choosing their words carefully with so many non-mages around, Kay realized. “Nadia, you okay?” she murmured, stepping closer to the other girl.

Nadia didn’t look up. “I’m fine,” she said in a thin voice. “That man didn’t make it, though.”

Kay bit her lip as she knelt. “I’m sorry, Nadia.”

“He died, so it’s not like he could spill my secrets, anyway… Is it better that way? That’s what you think, right?”

There were footsteps behind Kay, and she turned to see Holly looming over them. “Nadia, what’s gotten into you?” Holly said, not bothering to keep her voice down.

“Shut up. It’s not like I’m going to get to stay here much longer, anyway—”

“Holly,” Kay said softly, “go walk it off. And don’t tell anyone.”

Holly’s brow furrowed. “But—”

“Please, trust me on this. Don’t tell our bosses right now, when you’re pissed and might regret it later.”

“Nina’s causing all this!” Nadia whispered, her hands balling into fists. “I can’t just look the other way and let people—”

“Nadia, we can’t tell you what to do. But is being reckless the best way to deal with Nina’s shit?” Kay’s voice was shaking, but she kept her gaze locked on Nadia. “Is it worth risking exposure? Our lives?”

Nadia only stared at the ground. Holly stormed off, her boots splashing in the shallow puddles that had formed.

A police officer approached Kay, but just as he started to introduce himself, a voice called out: “They’re with me, Officer.”

Kay looked over her shoulder to see Xavier approaching. His dark hair stuck to his forehead, and his t-shirt was drenched. He had clearly been in the rain for a while.

“You’re okay,” Nadia said, smiling. “What happened?”

“Let’s talk later,” he said as he waved a badge at the officer. “There’s a car coming for us any second. Where’s Holly?”

“I’ll get her,” Kay said.

She jogged in the general direction Holly had headed in, and was relieved when she found her a short distance away, staring past the crime scene tape and the shattered front lobby door. Holly came back to the group without protest, and a car pulled up soon after. They piled in, ignoring the fact that some of them were stained with blood and dirt.

Nadia sat on one side of Kay, and Holly sat on the other. Kay settled in, too exhausted to ask where they were going – and somewhat afraid that she wouldn’t get an answer.

——————————————————————————

Thirty minutes later, they had stopped at a gas station, cleaned up, and jumped back in the car to await further instructions. It soon became apparent that while the two demons they had initially sighted had been captured, Wyvern had gone back into hiding, and a backup team would have to wait around to see if he reemerged. Maywitch couldn’t afford to keep all of its people waiting around overnight and leave its base undefended, Xavier told them as he ended yet another call with the base.

They re-boarded their helicopter outside the stadium and took off a short while later. The airport had been shut down in response to what law enforcement apparently thought were terrorist attacks – and while they technically weren’t wrong, Kay wondered how many civilians in the area believed that it was a normal terrorist attack.

She wanted to sleep, but couldn’t calm her mind enough to – especially not on a helicopter shooting over the ground at 125 miles per hour. Instead, she stared straight ahead, not wanting to converse with her colleagues when they were in such bad shape.

The pilot gave them a few unimportant updates throughout the flight, but by the time they landed, no reliable new information had surfaced. The explosion by the highway had likely been caused by lumericite, and based on the chain of events Maywitch analysts had put together, Dustin may have set it off as some kind of trap for Wyvern. The death toll from the explosion and Wyvern’s assault on the bank was miraculously low, though, considering how populated the area was.

And they hadn’t really saved anyone, Kay thought as they touched down back at the base. Wyvern had retreated, sure, but not before he took out almost everyone he wanted to – including Dustin.

But what was really happening? Why were Nina’s people fighting one of her own demons? Had he rebelled against his own summoner – or had someone else summoned him to fight her?

Her mind reeled as she entered her room, dropped her backpack on the floor, and went to wash her hands again. She hadn’t managed to clean up properly in the gas station restroom. It looked like she had avoided getting blood on her clothes, though there could have been some hiding on her black shorts.

When she finished, Nadia had entered their room and began undressing. Her shirt and shorts had much more blood on them than Kay’s.

“Go shower,” Kay said, avoiding her roommate’s gaze. “I’ll take your clothes to the laundry room.”

Nadia nodded and crossed to the restroom, shutting the door behind her without another word. Kay retrieved a clean trash bag from the supply room down the hall, threw Nadia’s damp clothes into it, and went to soak them in the laundry room. She wasn’t sure if Nadia’s psyche could handle washing them herself.

When Kay returned to her room over an hour later, Nadia was gone, and Kay wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. She set Nadia’s clothes on the dresser and collapsed into bed, hoping her mind would let her sleep.

Sure enough, it didn’t take her long to fade into a bewildered, dreamful sleep.

——————————————————————————

Nadia hesitated outside Holly’s door, unsure of whether or not she should bother knocking. They were through; she was sure of it. The only question remaining was whether or not she was obligated to try to salvage it.

As she raised her hand to knock, she noticed there was still blood under her right thumbnail.

“What?” said a voice far to her left.

She didn’t even have to look up to know who it was. Holly, always graceful and quiet, had slipped around the nearby corner of the hallway without attracting Nadia’s attention. “We’re through,” Nadia said, without turning away from the door.

Holly didn’t reply, and Nadia turned to leave. “Wait,” Holly said, her voice low.

“You can’t talk me out of this. I can’t believe I even have to explain this.”

“Look, I don’t care that much about Maywitch. I care about our safety – your safety, and my mom’s, and Kay’s, for fuck’s sake. And you think most people won’t turn on us the way Maywitch turns on demon-summoners?”

“And you think we’re actually going to manage to keep this under wraps for much longer, anyway?” Nadia snapped, turning around. “You know how non-mages have their stories about ‘miracles’ and unexplainable shit, right? I could’ve saved that man, and no one would’ve believed him if—”

“There are goddamn cameras in a bank, Nadia!”

“So would you have been okay with it if there weren’t? Or would you have still threatened to narc on me?”

Holly fell silent, and Nadia stormed down the hallway, determined to not look back again.

——————————————————————————

The conspiracy theorists were already hard at work, Gardner thought with a sigh as she reached for her cup of coffee the next morning. She usually preferred the gentle taste of tea to bitter, strong coffee, but this morning, she needed all the caffeine she could get.

Police Still Seeking Leads in Terror Attacks, read one headline online. The comments section was filled with people yelling about a “false flag operation” or an “assassination” because a local activist had been killed. Any comment alleging literal demons or magical involvement had been quickly refuted with readers reminding everyone that the police had determined the weird creature sightings to be a hoax – and the explosions and stabbings later that day had merely coincidental timing.

It appeared that Maywitch’s cover-up operation had worked well, and very few readers had any evidence that real magic or demons were involved. Gardner intended to keep it that way at all costs. She couldn’t have cared less about what various U.S. authorities had to say or do to smooth things over, as long as her memory-wiping teams managed to get where they needed to go and slip potions into whatever drinks they needed to. It didn’t hurt to plant a fake pair of bat wings and a large drone close enough to each other to solidly suggest a hoax. The FBI had been more than accommodating of her requests, though they had been a little slow to respond at times, and more than one nosy nurse or cop had filed complaints or police reports about her teams.

Her phone buzzed, and she glared down at the screen, expecting it to be yet another minor detail about the events of the previous day. Her eyes widened as she read the first line of the message, and she felt her fingers shake slightly as she opened the text thread.

“Shit,” she muttered, reaching for her coffee as she finished reading. Her day was about to get a lot worse, if everything played out the way she thought it was about to.

 

 

Chapter 26: Quarantine

 

Kay finished her breakfast and headed down the hall toward the conference room, dreading her next round of training. As she rounded a corner, she almost collided with two people standing close to one wall. “Sorry!” she said, raising a hand in apology.

It was Wojtec and another, younger mage. They both looked at her in alarm, saying nothing for a moment. Kay hurried off, unsure of the reason for their silence, and not wanting to stop and chat if something was going on. As she rounded another corner, she glanced over her shoulder to see them still talking in hushed tones. Her heart sank. Were they talking about her? Had she done something wrong?

As she reached the conference room, she heard Wojtec’s voice behind her: “Kay, something came up, so we’ll have to postpone.”

She turned around. His expression was stormy, and he barely slowed down as he passed her. “Sure, no problem,” she said. “Can I help? Is something wrong?”

“No, just a scheduling snafu.”

His tone was tight and strained, and she wasn’t sure she believed him. After he ducked into an office down the hall, she turned and went back toward her room, her frown deepening as she realized her he had never canceled on her before.

Several seconds later, her phone buzzed, and she pulled it out to read:

MW EASTERN LOCKDOWN LEVEL 2

She stopped cold, her mind racing as she re-read the message. Gardner’s security briefing a few weeks prior had gone over the lockdown types; this one meant no one could enter or leave the base, and lower-level staff were supposed to stay in their rooms. What the hell was happening?

She jogged down the hall, not wanting to get in the way of whatever was going on. As she veered into the next hallway, she heard voices coming from the front security station:

“Sorry, but no one can go out right now. I know you got orders earlier, but once that notification goes out, we have to enforce it.”

She slowed as she reached the short hallway leading to the security checkpoint. The checkpoint was the last vetting point for anyone coming in or out of the base, which was built into and underneath an old mansion. The bulk of the base’s security was at the front gates, nearly a mile away from the base itself, but the lockdown had prompted the front desk to immediately double its staff from two to four. Most of them were recognizable to Kay as mages, but they all carried guns to add to their protection.

In the middle of the group of security guards stood Tierra, who sighed dramatically as she knelt and unshouldered her backpack. “I guess I’ll have to call someone for special permission, huh?” she said.

“Yeah, you can do that,” one of the guards said, “The Directors can override—”

In less than a second, the guard had stopped speaking and collapsed as blood gushed from his throat. The other guards reacted quickly, pulling out their guns, but Tierra leapt behind the security desk as she threw a knife at a second guard.

Kay didn’t move as one of the guards cast a shield to protect his wounded colleagues before slamming an emergency switch on the wall. Metal blast doors slammed down over the door to the outside world. “This is Entry Three; we’ve got an attack from the inside!” the remaining guard yelled into a walkie-talkie. “We need-”

He stopped as Tierra bolted from behind the desk and headed down the hall toward Kay. Kay muttered the spell to summon a shield, and Tierra stopped and summoned her own.

“Tierra, what the hell is this?” Kay snapped, her voice shaking.

“Move,” Tierra replied. “You don’t stand a chance against me and you know it.”

One of the guards behind Tierra aimed his gun at her, but she sensed his movement and pivoted her shield to deflect any bullets. She kept one hand toward Kay, making it clear that she would drop her shield and cast a spell if Kay tried to move. “I’m stronger than them and faster than you, honey,” Tierra said, a sinister grin sliding over her face.

Kay struggled to weigh her options. Dropping her shield to cast a spell would result in Tierra either striking back or moving her shield between herself and Kay. She could theoretically try to ram her shield against Tierra’s to push her backwards and hope the guards could take care of the rest, but Tierra could also drop her shield and attack Kay from up close, since shields couldn’t block living things.

It was clear that Kay’s combat training hadn’t been enough to prepare her for this. Two-on-one or three-on-one battles were one thing, but the guards behind Tierra were likely a lower combat class, and Kay had no idea how they could hold up in a fight. One-on-one with Tierra Martinez, of all people, could only end badly. Kay didn’t see any option but to stall until stronger mages arrived.

“Remember what you said to me on the plane? You took this shit so seriously. What changed?” she yelled as a siren began to blare.

“Stop talking and fucking move! This is your last warning!” Tierra yelled back.

Something was off. If Tierra wanted to, she could likely take out the remaining guards and blast her way through the doors with earth magic. She was stalling, too, Kay realized. Was she waiting on her own backup to arrive – or worse?

Kay began to murmur the words to a fire spell, even though she knew it would cause her shield to fade within seconds. Tierra’s eyes narrowed, and her lips began to move, as if she knew this was her last chance to beat Kay’s defenses before being on the receiving end of a fiery onslaught.

Just as Kay finished reciting her spell, Tierra stumbled backward, her eyes widening. “Wait,” she said as her shield faded away. “Wait, Kay—”

Kay, though, was determined to never fall for anything Tierra said ever again. She could hear her blood pounding in her ears as her fingers grew hot.

Behind Tierra, one of the guards raised a hand, eyes growing wide. Kay couldn’t fully read his expression, but she knew something was deeply wrong.

Tierra still hadn’t attacked, so Kay decided to launch a surprise of her own. She lunged toward her, feet pounding against the hard carpet, and tackled her.

There was a cry of alarm and a thunk as Tierra fell backward. Kay scrambled upright and pinned her to the ground, knees pressed into Tierra’s arms.

“Hey, that’s enough!” one of the guards yelled. “Holly got her!”

Kay stared at him, puzzled, before looking back down at Tierra. Her face had calmed, though she was clearly in pain. “Wait, what?” Kay said.

The guard rushed forward and waved for Kay to move away. She complied, but kept one shaking hand in front of her, fully prepared to incinerate Tierra if anything else happened.

Tierra, though, remained calm, and offered her hands to the guard. “Handcuffs, at a minimum. Tie me up if you can. I suspect that the body was possessed by Renaya and wasn’t in Tierra’s control, but there’s no way to know for sure,” she said quickly.

There was a commotion behind Kay, and she turned to see Holly’s limp body being tended to by Wojtec. She glanced back at Tierra, who was now safely handcuffed, and leaned back on her hands.

“Oh. That’s what happened?” she murmured. “Shit. That was close.”

Nadia and another mage charged past them toward the injured guards, and another half-dozen mages came to escort Tierra away. “Holly, you can come back,” Wojtec said. “We got it now.”

Tierra nodded, and a second later, Holly regained consciousness. Tierra’s expression barely changed as she was hoisted to her feet and led away into the base. “Holly, thank you!” she yelled over her shoulder. “You did good!”

Holly’s mouth was hanging open, as if she was just as confused as Kay. “So I either guessed right, or Tierra is a really good actress,” she said after a moment. “Sorry I didn’t warn you I was hiding around the corner, Kay. I just couldn’t risk tipping her off that I was here, and I didn’t have time to plan out my next move at all.”

Kay shook her head. “You did just fine, as far as I can tell. You kept things from getting any uglier. Thank you.”

The last two words sounded foreign, and Holly’s eyes widened for a moment, her gentle brown orbs glimmering with relief. “But… can you explain to me what just happened?” Kay continued, smiling sheepishly.

Holly smiled back. “When Wojtec and I were on the way down, we got word that Tierra had stabbed one of the guards. That didn’t sound like her usual tactics, and it occurred to me that Renaya or somebody else could be possessing her. Normally, if a possessed body is taken over by another possessor, then the original possessor is just booted back to their own body. But if your own body is dead, possessing another body comes with a risk: another possessor can boot you from that body and kill you instantly, if you don’t have sufficient warning to move back into your possession stone. That’s the theory, anyway.”

Kay frowned, trying to compute her explanation. “So, the whole reason why Renaya was able to re-possess her stone before being killed in the woods in Denver… was that she had a few seconds’ warning before the body she had possessed actually died, right? And this time, you got the jump on her?”

“Right. Here, I was able to basically boot her soul into oblivion. Good riddance,” Holly said dryly. “Wojtec confirmed to me that Renaya’s possession stone disappeared from quarantine this morning, so I’d be surprised if I’m wrong, at this point.”

That must have been why Wojtec needed to cancel their training, Kay thought. As the chatter around them increased, she seized the excuse not to respond. Despite how much she hated Renaya, the thought of her being killed in such a sudden, irreversible manner was unsettling.

Wojtec emerged from the crowd and escorted the two of them to Gardner’s office, and Kay was grateful to get away from the panic and stench of blood.

 

 

Chapter 27: Grimoire

 

The medical wing was chaos as nurses prepared to assist the two gravely injured guards. At the far end of the hallway, Gardner emerged from a room with her cell phone between her ear and her shoulder.

“Did we confirm Xavier’s whereabouts?” she growled as she pulled the phone away from her ear.

“Negative,” Wojtec replied. “It looks like he probably fled right before lockdown.”

Gardner’s brow furrowed, and she turned away to continue the conversation on her phone. Holly and Kay looked at each other, and after a moment, Holly asked: “Wait, Xavier?”

“Yeah, that’s part of why we need to talk to you two. We didn’t figure out he was the one who took Renaya’s stone out of quarantine until right after we secured Tierra,” Wojtec said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “Bloody hell.”

Kay’s mind reeled as she stared at the floor. “But yesterday, he…”

“We didn’t see him for a while, did we?” Holly murmured.

“Is he…” Kay paused, struggling to piece together words that made sense – and that didn’t undermine her faith in Maywitch further. “Did he betray us?”

Holly didn’t respond. Gardner ended her phone call and turned to face the other three, her face more grim than Kay had ever seen it. “Sure enough, they found Renaya’s pendant around Tierra’s neck,” she said. “I can’t believe this.”

Wojtec opened his mouth to say something, but Gardner continued: “I know we already talked to you two about what you saw yesterday, but now we need some specifics on everything you saw Xavier say or do. Wojtec, you and Dan need to get detailed answers from them and report anything significant to me as soon as possible.”

He nodded, and she headed down the hallway without any further remarks. He nudged the two of them into a spare room, and when one of his colleagues joined them a few minutes later, Kay and Holly began recounting everything Xavier had done the day before.

——————————————————————————

Nearly half an hour later, Wojtec seemed satisfied with their answers, and he released them to go back to their rooms. “We’re still on lockdown, for the time being, but we’ll hopefully lift it soon,” he said. “Don’t talk to anyone else on your way back, unless it’s Gardner or George DeMason.”

Kay and Holly knew better than to argue. They were silent on the walk back, their minds still struggling to compute everything that had happened in the past day. Kay felt a sick, sinking feeling settle into her stomach as she realized that if someone as senior as Xavier could betray them, anyone could.

She tried to push that thought aside as she arrived back in her room. Nadia was standing in the middle of the room, covered in blood for the second time in less than twenty-four hours.

“We lost both of them,” she whispered.

Kay closed the door behind her and leaned against it. “Goddamn Renaya,” she said, the words coming out barely louder than a hiss. “I’m sorry, Nadia.”

“I did the best I could.” There was a long pause as Nadia stared at her fingers. “God, Tierra’s gonna be torn up.”

“You do believe that it was Renaya’s doing, right?”

“Yeah. Tierra doesn’t know how to throw knives like that,” Nadia said, a ghost of a smile flitting across her lips. “Tried to learn once. She was terrible, even with the help of wind magic. Almost took Wojtec’s ear off.”

Kay tried to smile, but couldn’t. “If you wanna shower, I’ll go soak your clothes.”

“We’re still on lockdown, remember? I’ll just have to use this sink,” Nadia said as she headed toward the bathroom.

“Wait—” Kay stopped, struggling to choose her words carefully. “Did they tell you about Xavier? They’re gonna wanna talk to you soon.”

Nadia sighed. “I got the short version. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll make this quick.”

She closed the bathroom door behind her, and Kay sank onto her bed, fighting back tears. With Xavier’s betrayal, the list of people she could afford to trust was running short. She could feel her old unease creeping back, almost as if she was brand-new to Maywitch again, and she wondered how much more she could take.

As Nadia finished showering, Wojtec came by the room to take her away for questioning. Kay sat alone for nearly an hour, watching her phone for updates. She wanted to text Holly, but had no idea what to say.

Her phone eventually buzzed with a message:

MW EASTERN LOCKDOWN LEVEL 1

Relieved, she sighed and sent a message to Holly: Level 1 means we can move around the base, at least, right?

Before she could hit send, though, there was a knock at the door. “Hey, Gardner needs to see you again,” Wojtec’s voice said.

Kay stuck her head into the hall, where Holly and Wojtec were waiting with grim expressions. “Sure,” she said, closing the door behind her.

They walked down the halls in silence, ignoring the nervous glances of passers-by. When they reached Gardner’s office, the door opened before Wojtec could even knock.

“Come in,” Gardner said as she typed at her desk.

In front of the desk, Nadia shifted nervously, her hands fidgeting. As she walked up to the desk, Kay nodded to Gardner. “I’ll make this brief,” Gardner said. “The short version is, we know what Xavier and Renaya’s plan was – at least, the basics of it. They were trying to smuggle out the Grimoire. We’re assuming their plan was to deliver it to Nina.”

Holly sucked in a breath. It took Kay several seconds to remember where she had heard the word ‘Grimoire’ before. “You mean the thing in the basement of the Salt Lake City base?” she asked.

“Yes. It’s a powerful magical tome – that’s the basic explanation, anyway; the others can fill you in more later.” Gardner sighed. “We’re still piecing together the chain of events, but based on what Tierra told us, it appears that Xavier used his high security clearance to slip into quarantine, take Renaya’s possession stone, and tie it around Tierra’s door handle. When Tierra went to leave her room in the morning, she inadvertently touched the stone’s chain, which was enough for Renaya to possess her. You know the rest.”

“Hold on,” Nadia said. “If Xavier or Nina or whoever wanted it so badly, why didn’t he try to take it sooner? Like, when he was on errands or something?”

“The Grimoire is incredibly unstable, and can react to certain spells and herbs if not properly shielded. If it would’ve reacted to something and exposed itself while he was trying to sneak it out, he wouldn’t have stood a chance against more than one of our stronger mages. Though he can use possession and has tons of tactical and strategic knowledge, he’s weak in combat.” Gardner took a deep breath, and the fury on her face became more pronounced. “Renaya, Nina, or whoever the hell is behind this had probably been waiting for a better opportunity to smuggle it out. Xavier may have intended to provide Renaya with backup if she got caught, but it sounds like he slipped out early for unknown reasons. They may have had their reasons for having Renaya smuggle it instead of him, though, and that worries me.”

“And we unwittingly gave Renaya her chance by bringing that amulet in.” Nadia sighed. “Damn, that was way too close. Good work, Holly.”

Holly only nodded in response. There was still an icy chill between the two of them, Kay thought as Nadia continued: “Anything else we should know?”

“No. You’re clear to go, and if we find out anything else we think you should know, we’ll let you know,” Gardner said. “The full team will get a more thorough briefing later, but if you have any more ideas on Xavier’s behavior, or any other potential moles, reach out to myself or Wojtec.”

“Of course.” Nadia nodded and turned to leave, and Holly and Kay followed.

As they reached the door, though, Kay stopped short, her heart leaping into her throat. “Wait,” she said, turning around.

Gardner looked up at her. “Something wrong?”

“Did we ever… did we ever figure out why Perry turned on us?”

She heard Holly’s breath catch, and Gardner shook her head. “No, we didn’t,” Gardner murmured. “Why?”

“You said Xavier’s a possessor. Where was he when everything was going down in Denver?”

Gardner stared down at her desk. Kay could hear soft footsteps behind her, and she assumed Nadia and Holly had stepped back into the room. “We’ll see if we can’t investigate that,” Gardner said. “Because if I recall correctly, we kept him out of the field to handle an administrative role for that mission, but he fell ill shortly before Perry was sent out.”

“Wouldn’t there be medical records we can refer to?”

“Xavier may have only possessed her for a total of two, maybe three hours before turning her against us and getting her killed, and the medical staff could’ve written that off as him taking a nap,” Nadia said, her voice barely above a whisper. “If he killed Juan and then got her killed, I’ll fucking kill him.”

“Not if I beat you to it,” Kay murmured. Her hands had begun to shake, and she folded then together tightly.

“Xavier was a very unskilled possessor, and I don’t think he would’ve been capable of holding a body for that long,” Gardner said. “But we’ll look into it. Thanks for bringing that up.”

Nadia left, almost stumbling as she entered the hallway. Kay jogged after her, and when they were clear of Gardner’s office, she whispered: “Xavier could’ve faked being bad at possession, right?”

“To keep that trump card up his sleeve, sure,” Nadia murmured. “I can’t even think about it right now, though. My brain’s fried.”

“Yeah. No sense in speculating, I guess.”

“I’m gonna go down to the supply room and see if I can order some new clothes,” Nadia said as she rubbed her eyes. “I really don’t want to wear the ones that…”

Kay nodded in support. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Nadia so visibly exhausted. “I got you,” she said. “I might go get some food.”

Nadia offered a wan smile before heading for the stairs, and Kay stopped to wait for Holly to catch up. “If you want to go get food, I’m game,” Kay said. “I’m not very hungry, but we should try to eat something.”

“Yeah. I feel like shit, and it’s probably because I didn’t get breakfast,” Holly replied. “Let’s go—”

There was a loud, sickening thump in the stairwell, and Kay’s heart plummeted. “What the hell?” she groaned as she jogged toward the stairs. “Nadia, what—”

She stopped as she peered over the railing and saw Nadia’s dark-haired form sprawled out at the bottom of the stairs. “Call a medic over!” she yelled to Holly before darting down the stairs.

Nadia’s eyes were closed, and as Kay fumbled for a pulse, she silently prayed that it wasn’t as bad as it looked.

 

 

Chapter 28: Senses

 

Kay resisted the urge to try to shake Nadia awake; there was no sense in risking further neck or back injuries. To her surprise, though, Nadia’s eyes fluttered open a few seconds later.

“Nadia, you okay? I think you fell,” Kay said.

Nadia groaned and reached a hand up to her face. “Huh?”

“I mean, I didn’t see it, but I don’t know what else it could’ve been,” Kay said. “Are you feeling okay?”

Blinking heavily, Nadia reached her arm back down and started to sit upright, but Kay shook her head. “Don’t try to move. The medics are coming down,” Kay said. “Does your head hurt?”

“Sure does. Right arm hurts worse, though. Why did I fall, anyway?”

Kay sighed and turned at the sound of footsteps at the top of the stairs. “Watch your step. I have no idea what it is that made her fall,” she called.

“I brought Rika and Wojtec,” Holly said as she came into view on the landing. “Leo’s on his way with a wheelchair in the cargo elevator.”

Kay moved out of the way as Wojtec and a young, red-haired woman bounded down the stairs and began to attend to Nadia. Though Nadia’s speech seemed unimpaired, she was visibly in pain, and kept reaching for her head.

A few minutes later, a man came out of a side hallway with a wheelchair, and he and Wojtec carefully checked Nadia for neck and back injuries before helping her into it. She winced as she sat down, but nodded to Kay as they began to wheel her away. “I’m fine, I promise,” she said, her voice shaking. “It’s really just my arm that I landed on.”

“I’m not seeing any long-term injuries, but make sure Gardner gets a report, just in case,” Wojtec said to Holly.

Holly nodded and turned to leave, only hesitating for a moment to send Nadia a sympathetic glance. “Let us know if you need anything, Nadia,” Kay said as she turned to head up the stairs. “We’ll check on you in a bit, okay?”

“Thanks.” Nadia waved half-heartedly with her good arm as they disappeared back down the hallway.

——————————————————————————

Holly called Gardner and updated her in hushed tones, and when she got off the phone, she waved Kay up the stairs with a heavy sigh. “Gardner thinks Nadia fainted from exhaustion. It’s happened before, apparently,” she said. “She said to leave her alone and wait for the medics to either bring her back to her room or contact you for something.”

Kay nodded, but the urge to argue welled up inside her for a moment. Surely it couldn’t hurt to visit Nadia, but considering the state the base was in, disobeying Gardner was probably a bad idea. “Gotcha. That makes sense.”

“If you want, I’ll go get food and bring it to you so you can be on-call in case they need you to grab something from her room.”

Holly’s eyes were narrowed – almost nervous, Kay thought as she smiled in response. “I’d appreciate that. Something about this makes me a little worried, so I’d like to be available for anything she needs,” Kay murmured.

“It’s definitely unsettling.” Holly turned at the top of the stairs, but hesitated for a moment. “Any food preferences?”

“Nah. It’s Friday, right? So the menu’s all good. Thanks.”

Holly left without another word, and as Kay went back to her room, she started to wonder just how bad things still were between Nadia and Holly. She hadn’t seen the two of them speak more than a few words to each other in days.

Then there was the matter of Tierra, who was still in quarantine. Kay suppressed a shudder as she unlocked her room. Their unofficial little team was falling apart – and though she thought things shouldn’t get much worse, she realized she wouldn’t be too surprised if they did.

——————————————————————————

Holly brought dinner to Kay and left almost immediately; her exhaustion was visible in her eyes and the tight lines of her lips. After an hour of sitting around, Kay texted Wojtec and asked for an update on Nadia’s condition. There was a knock at her door just a few seconds later.

She yanked the door open and was greeted by the sight of Wojtec pushing Nadia in a wheelchair. “She’s fine,” Wojtec said as Kay opened her mouth. “There’s no reason for her to stay in the medical ward overnight. Make sure she rests, though.”

“She’s not my mom, you know,” Nadia mumbled. She had changed into a hospital gown, but had a cardigan wrapped around her shoulders. Her right arm rested in a white sling, and just above her gown’s neckline, pale bruises lined her collarbone.

Kay couldn’t help but cringe. Nadia was far from frail, but the sight of her in such a state was somehow alarming. “When you say there’s no reason for her to stay overnight…”

“She just needs rest, I promise. We’ve already healed the worst of the concussion,” Wojtec said as he wheeled Nadia inside. “Pull down the covers, will ya?”

Kay nodded and rushed to Nadia’s bed. Nadia rolled her eyes and swept her short hair behind her ear with her good hand. “Wojtec, I’m sure I can manage that much myself—”

“It’s fine! It’s not like I’m doing anything anyway,” Kay said as she pulled the covers back. “Better safe than sorry, right?”

Nadia sighed and stared off at the bookshelf above Kay’s head. “Thanks,” she mumbled as she scooted to the edge of her wheelchair’s seat.

Kay offered her a hand, and with a little help from Wojtec, Nadia was able to climb into bed. To Kay’s untrained eyes, Nadia’s legs seemed fine; it was her torso and shoulders that seemed to be in considerable pain.

It was also possible that Wojtec and the others had other reasons for keeping her out of the medical ward, though, Kay thought as she glanced at the bruises on Nadia’s collarbone again.

Nadia settled in against her pillows for a moment before grunting in pain. “Can I get another pillow or something? I think I’ll want to sit up and read for a bit.”

“Sure,” Kay said, grabbing a spare pillow from her own bed.

“You don’t have to give me one of yours,” Nadia mumbled. “Wojtec can go get one from—”

“Wojtec has a briefing to get to, so quit being stubborn and let her help,” Wojtec said, an uneasy half-smile flickering across his face. “Sorry about forgetting your phone. I’ll bring it in an hour or so, okay?”

Nadia sighed and leaned forward slightly as Kay put the pillow behind her back. “Thanks. Can you hand me the Italian phrasebook I put on the bookshelf?”

Kay reached up and pulled a thin book from the sparsely-populated bookshelf. “Do you need anything else? Do you want me to go get your phone?”

“I’m good for now, especially since I won’t need it for anything, anyway. And don’t hover over me, for real.”

Kay handed her the book, shrugged, and walked over to her desk. “If you say so,” she said.

Nadia smiled and turned her attention to her book. Kay took out her textbooks and began studying, hoping to get caught up after several hectic days. Her mind raced with thoughts of Xavier, Nina, and Tierra – and the blood that had been shed in front of her just a few hours prior – but she tried to push the memories aside and focus. With her limited knowledge of magic, it was only a matter of time before the fighting escalated to a point where she could no longer survive.

And if even Nadia was reaching her limits, there was a good chance that Kay wouldn’t be able to walk away unharmed from her next firefight.

——————————————————————————

An hour later, she looked up to see Nadia had laid down beneath her covers, her Italian book abandoned on the nightstand. Kay glanced at her phone; it was barely eight o’clock, and there was no way Nadia would be going to sleep right away.

“You look bored. Can I get you anything?” Kay asked after a moment.

Nadia frowned and rolled over halfway, wincing as she put weight on her right hip. “This is kinda an annoying request, but…” She hesitated for a moment before pointing to the bookshelf above her bed. “Is [_Requiem Garden _]up there? The big gray book?”

Kay squinted for a moment before crossing the room and grabbing a thick, heavy volume. “This one?”

“Yeah. Between my back being bruised and my whole right arm being a mess, I can’t get in a comfortable position to read,” she murmured, her brow furrowing. “I have less than two chapters left, and I had to end on a cliffhanger the other day. Could you maybe at least read past that cliffhanger for me?”

Kay nodded as she sat down on the edge of the bed. “Not an annoying request at all.”

“But it’ll spoil the ending for you, so if you don’t want to…”

“You didn’t figure out by now that I don’t read much?”

Nadia smiled, and her eyes shone despite the fatigue on her face. “Yeah, you never read at all growing up. I guess that hasn’t changed, huh?

Kay smiled back. “Too busy sneaking around getting into trouble. Is this bookmark where you were at?”

“Yeah,” Nadia said, taking the purple ribbon off of the page with bruised fingers. “Maybe start on the left-hand page for me?”

Kay began to read aloud, and for nearly twenty minutes, Nadia listened with wide eyes and pursed lips. It was almost funny how closely she was paying attention, Kay thought as she glanced up at Nadia toward the end of last chapter.

As the last few characters settled into their happy ending, Nadia carefully sat up and reached for the bottle of water on her nightstand. “You can stop. I suspected the author might try to end it this way,” she said, a smirk playing over her lips. “What a cop-out.”

Kay laughed, and she relaxed as she realized she had barely even smiled, let alone laughed, in days. “I guess I agree it’s a cop-out, but I didn’t want to say anything,” she said sheepishly.

“Bah. Speak your mind. I’ve fought so many people over the endings of books; I’m kinda used to it by now.”

“Really?”

“For a while, it was quiet around all of Maywitch’s bases and outposts, so we had a pretty good amount of time to read,” Nadia murmured, waving her good hand at the bookshelf again. “You should’ve seen the collection we’d built up at the old base. Even this base has bookshelves above every bed for a reason.”

Her smile faded, and Kay nodded sympathetically. “I should ask you for recommendations sometime,” Kay said as she shifted closer to the top of the bed, leaned toward the bookshelf, and began to push the book back into place.

She froze as she felt Nadia’s gaze on her face. When she looked down, she realized she and Nadia were very, very close to each other – close enough that the tiny lines of amber in Nadia’s eyes were visible, even in the dim light.

That was stupid, she thought. She hadn’t meant to lean so far. How did they end up so close?

Then she felt a tiny tickle of Nadia’s breath on her lips – or did she just imagine that?

The book was almost high enough to slide into place on the shelf, but she couldn’t decide whether to try to move from her seat on the bed, or simply reach a little higher and lean a little closer. Nadia didn’t lean back to move away, despite the reddish haze that had appeared on her cheeks.

A sharp rap at the door made her jump, and she nearly dropped the book on Nadia’s head. “Yes?” Nadia snapped, closing her eyes with a grimace.

“Gardner says to check your phone,” Holly’s voice said.

“Wojtec was supposed to bring it from the infirmary a half-hour ago!” Nadia replied.

There was a soft grunt of annoyance, and then silence. Holly must have left, Kay thought as she stood and slid the book back onto the shelf. “I can go get it, if needed,” she said softly.

“No, Wojtec is probably off God-knows-where with my phone in his pocket while dealing with some emergency. He’ll come by as soon as Holly or someone reminds him. If it was actually urgent, Gardner would’ve paged me by now,” Nadia said, shaking her head. Her expression had returned to its usual placid, unreadable state. “At any rate, thanks for that. I should probably go to sleep.”

“You sure? I can get you whatever you need. If you want, maybe they’ll let you go to the rec room and watch TV for a bit, at least?”

“And watch public-access channels and game shows like I’m in a geriatric ward? No thanks.”

Kay grinned, partly in reaction to the joke, and partly thanks to her residual nervousness. Her heart still felt aflutter – less like a pounding muscle, and more like a quivering mass of jelly. “I might step out, but I’ll come back in twenty minutes, okay?” she said.

“Don’t hover over me. I’m fine, for real,” Nadia said as she settled in under her blankets. “Just don’t flip on the lights when you come back in, okay?”

Kay nodded. “I’m a better roommate than that, I promise.”

Nadia didn’t even smile in response to the comment, as as Kay stepped into the hall, she felt her heart rate increase again.

Was that whole encounter weird? It had ended up a little weird, hadn’t it?

Just a little, she told herself as she headed down the hall. It was fine. She was reading too much into it.

——————————————————————————

When Nadia finally woke up hours later, she was certain she hadn’t moved an inch. There was a terrifying, disorienting feeling of fear in her bones, though – as if she had gone to sleep one place and awoken somewhere else.

Something was wrong; something had changed. Maybe it was just the lingering aftereffects of the fall, she tried to tell herself as she looked around the room for Kay.

When Kay was nowhere to be found, though, Nadia bolted upright, nearly falling out of bed as she tried to swing her legs onto the floor. As she stumbled to her feet with the sheets wrapped around her legs, the bedroom door opened with a sharp click.

She thrust out one arm, ready to cast a shield spell, but lowered it slightly as Kay’s face appeared in the backlit doorway. “Nadia?” Kay whispered, her voice seeming distant in the dark expanse of the room.

Nadia blinked, struggling to determine for certain whether or not she was actually awake. She wasn’t dreaming – was she?

“Nadia, you okay?” Kay didn’t move, and Nadia wished she would. The stillness was somehow terrifying.

“I’m fine.” The words left Nadia’s mouth sounding like an echo of themselves.

“Okay. Hey, I plugged your phone in over here. Do you want it?”

Nadia nodded and stepped toward the desk, but Kay waved a hand at her. “Lay back down,” she said, grabbing the phone and handing it to Nadia. “I put it on silent. We’re getting new numbers first thing tomorrow morning, though, so maybe leave it on so they can reach you if needed?”

“Thanks,” Nadia murmured as she laid down again. “I’m gonna try to sleep the rest of the night. Night.”

As Kay ducked into the bathroom, shower supplies in hand, Nadia glanced at the clock on the wall. She had slept for nearly three hours.

She thought for a long moment before leaving her phone on silent as she set it on her nightstand. She could rest for the night; if it was truly urgent, they could page her. It wasn’t like Maywitch was going to trust her with any assignments, anyway, when everything was so fraught with fear and mistrust.

Then she saw the missed voicemail notification from an unknown number. She played back the voicemail, and she suddenly realized why she had woken up in fear.

Her sister had been hard at work, it seemed.

 

 

Chapter 29: Cueste lo que Cueste

 

Kay yawned as she emerged from the bathroom and set her toiletries on her desk. Nadia was nowhere to be found, but Kay guessed she had ducked out for food or ibuprofen for her arm. Her wheelchair was still by the door, but that was likely just another testament to how stubborn and prideful she was.

Kay paused by her nightstand and glanced down at her phone, which had a voicemail and a text message from Gardner:

Report to my office as soon as you get this, and keep it quiet.

Her heart thudded to the floor. If it was an emergency, the whole base would have been alerted. What could possibly be so urgent that it required Kay’s attention and no one else’s in the middle of the night?

There was only one way to find out, Kay thought as she swore and plucked her phone from the charger.

——————————————————————————

When Kay arrived barely five minutes later, Gardner’s office was crowded with people. The presence of Wojtec and Gardner herself didn’t surprise Kay, but a gray-haired, tall man with glasses stood in the corner behind Gardner’s desk, a cell phone clutched to his ear.

It took Kay a moment to recognize him as George DeMason, the Director of the Eastern U.S. Regional Base. He ignored her as she entered, so she directed her attention to Gardner instead. “Nadia got a call from her sister. Nina kidnapped your mother, her assistant and the baby. We’re trying to figure out her exact demands now, but it appears she wants the Grimoire that Renaya and Xavier were trying to take,” Gardner said, her brow furrowing.

Kay froze. It took several seconds for Gardner’s curt words to sink in. “The… what?” she said, glancing from Gardner to Wojtec and back again. “She what?”

“You heard me. That’s literally all we know at this time, partly because the voicemail was full of static at the end.” Gardner closed her eyes, her hair falling in her face as she took a deep breath. “We’re informing the rest of the base on a need-to-know basis, but since you’re Bailey’s emergency contact, we’re obligated to tell you.”

“She revised her contract with us after the events at the Salt Lake base,” Wojtec said gently. “But we need to ask you to keep this to yourself.”

One of the chairs in front of Gardner’s desk rotated halfway to reveal Nadia. She stared off into space to Kay’s right, her eyes narrow and dim as if her mind was somewhere else. For a moment, her mouth opened, but she closed it again and returned to her previous, dazed state.

“What happened? How did Nina manage to get to them?” Kay said, half to Nadia and half to Gardner.

“We moved them after Xavier’s betrayal, but it may have been too late. He could have tailed them without us realizing it,” Gardner said. “Our protocol for handling leaks can only do so much.”

Once again, Kay thought, Maywitch was unprepared to handle betrayal – and protect its assets in the aftermath. She gritted her teeth and tried to stop herself from passing judgement right away. Maybe Nina and her team were exceptionally skilled, instead of exceptionally lucky.

“Okay,” Kay said. “One question: how the hell did Nina manage to contact—”

“That was probably thanks to Xavier as well,” Nadia said, finally meeting Kay’s eyes with a hardened glare. “Security changes after a breach take time, you know. Our phone numbers were lower priority than all the other high-level shit Xavier had access to.”

Kay felt her face redden, and she forced herself to nod. Nadia’s gaze was furious – though it was possible she was more angry at the situation than at anyone in Maywitch, Kay thought as she offered a thin smile. “I got you. That makes sense.”

Nadia’s expression remained tense as Gardner sighed and whipped out her phone. “Go back to your room and get some rest,” Gardner said as she put the phone to her ear. “This is officially way above your pay grades. Nadia’s phone stays with us as we figure this out, so Kay, stay close to her in case I need to contact her. We don’t have any secured spare phones right now.”

“Got it,” Nadia said, standing with a slight wobble. “We’ll check in first thing in the morning.”

Kay reached toward Nadia and offered her an arm, and Nadia hesitated for a long moment before accepting it. “I aggravated whatever muscle I pulled in my ribs,” Nadia said quietly before nodding to Gardner. “I’m assuming Kay and I are the only junior staff who know so far?”

Gardner, who was now in the middle of a phone call, turned away. “Yes. Keep it that way,” Wojtec said. “Tierra was scheduled to be released from quarantine tomorrow morning, but that may change if new information comes up. We will let you know if we loop Holly or any of the others in.”

“Roger. We’ll be in our room.” Nadia looked up at Kay and tugged lightly on her arm.

With sweating palms and a thudding heartbeat, Kay led Nadia out the door and into the dimly-lit hall. “Sorry,” Kay said as the door closed behind her. “I didn’t mean to sound like I was accusing—”

“I know,” Nadia said. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and for an instant, Kay wondered if she was about to cry. “I’m scared, too. Let’s talk about this after we’re back in the room, though.”

“Right,” Kay murmured. As she searched Nadia’s face for a long moment, her phone buzzed again, and she glanced down at it to see a one-line message from Gardner:

Keep an eye on her.

She gritted her teeth and shoved her phone back in her pocket. There was no way Nadia was actually involved in any of this – not after they had just begun to rebuild their friendship.

——————————————————————————

When they got back to their room, Nadia immediately sat down on her bed and grabbed her notepad from her nightstand. “I’m at a loss for what to do, but I guess this really is above our pay grade, huh? A hostage situation is different than our normal fights,” she said as she ran her good hand through her hair. “I don’t know why Gardner isn’t trying to move people out sooner. Surely they can trace that call, right?

“I’m okay with them taking it a little slow. If anyone can handle this situation, it’s my stubborn mother,” Kay said.

Nadia’s eyes widened, and for a moment, only the quiet growl of the air conditioning filled the air. “I mean, you’re not wrong,” she murmured. “I wish we would go after her right away, but Bailey can probably keep herself and the others alive for a bit. She can negotiate, that’s for sure.”

“The thing about the baby confuses me, though,” Kay said as she sat down across from Nadia. “I thought Nina wanted her back? Why is she letting her be a bargaining chip now?”

“There’s something else going on here. Maybe she’s pregnant again already. Or maybe there’s a reason she actually doesn’t mind us getting the baby back.”

“Any ideas?”

“Nina’s ruthless enough that she would totally throw out a baby with a disability.”

Kay cringed. Nadia wasn’t exaggerating. “Okay, it could be that. How sure are we that the baby is a demon-summoner?”

Nadia’s eyes grew wide. “You think it might not be? The evidence after the explosion in Illinois was pretty solid.”

“How solid? And how many other times has demon-summoning resulted in an explosion instead of an earthquake?”

“The baby was found at the center, completely unharmed,” Nadia said, shaking her head. “The research team’s analysis ruled out everything else.”

“But what if it’s something we’ve never seen before?”

Nadia turned and walked toward the far wall. “I mean, that’s always possible,” she said, beginning to pace. “And based on the bits of intel that have still been shared with me, we still haven’t determined a likely father.”

“Not to be crass, but…” Kay glanced away. “How likely is it that it’s biologically hers? Maybe she didn’t actually, y’know…”

“Have sex with someone? Please.” Nadia rolled her eyes.

“What?”

“I mean, I don’t judge people for how much sex they have, so I won’t comment on that. But she’s really, [_really _]straight.”

Kay grinned sheepishly. “Okay. So it wouldn’t have been hard for her to get knocked up, and it could’ve been with another mage.”

“You think it could’ve been Dustin or another crony?”

“Dustin was gay.”

“Kyle, too.”

“There could’ve been others, though.”

Nadia only sighed in response. Kay sank onto her own bed and exhaled with a heavy sigh. “Nadia, there’s no way we would actually give her the Grimoire, right? So why would Nina even ask for it?”

“And that’s another fair question. She could be attempting to aim high and then negotiate down to something else, for all I know, but I don’t think that’s her style.” She stared down at the floor, her oily hair falling in front of her eyes. “Shit. I feel like I should be able to read her like a book by now.”

“What? Why?”

“I mean, there’s something obvious I’m missing here, right? It’s not adding up!”

Kay shook her head. “I think there’s something we’re both missing here, and the folks above our pay grade might know what it is. Let’s give them a few hours to figure it out.”

For a long moment, Nadia sat eerily still. The hair falling in her face seemed frozen in place. Her back rose and fell such a tiny distance that Kay had to squint to be sure that her roommate was still breathing.

Then Nadia’s fingers, already entwined in her lap, drew closer together – as if tightening around an invisible neck. Kay sighed and crossed to the lightswitch at the front of the room. “Let’s get some sleep, okay?” she said, watching Nadia for acknowledgement. “At least lay down and rest for a bit.”

Cueste _][_lo que _][_cueste,” Nadia murmured.

Kay paused and tilted her head. “What?”

Cueste _][_lo que _][_cueste – no matter what the cost,” Nadia said. She raised her head but kept her hard gaze fixed on the wall in front of her. “Mom said it a lot. Nina started saying it a lot after Mom died, and I…”

She trailed off, and Kay nodded, hoping it would encourage her to continue. “Mom was relentless. Unfortunately, I think Nina inherited that side of her just as much as I did,” Nadia said softly. “So ever since that day at the Salt Lake base, when Nina showed up and revealed herself as our enemy, I… I haven’t just been trying to protect Maywitch and other mages, you know. I think we have to protect everyone now. The stakes went up. She has no moral qualms about exposing us to the world, and now, if she’s making such a desperate play for the Grimoire…”

The groan of the air conditioner ceased, and they were left in near-perfect silence. Nadia began to crawl into bed, and thought her movements were much less stiff than they had been earlier, Kay couldn’t help but watch nervously.

“Okay. Let’s try to sleep,” Nadia murmured as she pulled the covers up to her chin. “I got a sleeping poultice under my pillow already, so I’ll be okay, I think. Your phone’s on, right?”

“Sure is.” Kay hit the lightswitch and crossed to her bed with the light of her phone as a guide. In the soft blue glow, Nadia’s eyes shone gray before disappearing beneath her dark eyelashes.

“Night, Kay.”

Kay paused at the sound of her name. “Night,” she whispered before crawling into bed.

She grabbed a sleeping poultice from her nightstand and held it near her face as she rolled onto her side. Despite the enchanted herbal cocktail’s effects, though, her thoughts raced for a long time before finally calming down.

When she fell asleep, she saw her mother, Dustin, and the ruined hallways of the Salt Lake City base.

——————————————————————————

The glass of wine on Nina’s nightstand shimmered with ripples, but she ignored the vibrations nearby as she stared at her phone. It was only a matter of time until Kyle bothered her again with some useless update about her captives.

To her surprise, a yell reverberated across the house, followed by a dull thunk. This time, she looked up at her glass of wine, her eyes narrowing as she recognized the source of the noise.

Bailey – Kay’s mother. How the hell had the strong, reckless woman managed to raise such a useless daughter? It had taken six of Nina’s crew to restrain Bailey. Kay had been less than half the hassle the last time Nina encountered her.

But that was a question for another day, Nina thought as she scrolled through her contacts, hit a few buttons, and held the phone to her ear. After several rings, the recipient picked up, and an unfamiliar growl reverberated in Nina’s ears.

“Oh?” she murmured, her lips turning upward into a sneer. “This wasn’t who I expected to hear. Is this George?”

 

 

Chapter 30: Coup D’état

 

Tierra’s arms still hurt from being placed in restraints for over four hours. She didn’t blame Wojtec and the others for acting out of an abundance of caution. After all, she – or her body, at least – had killed two men.

And though the horror of being possessed still lingered in the back of her mind, she now had much bigger problems.

George’s office was perfectly silent; even the usual soft noise from upstairs or the hallway had faded. He leaned back in his chair with his arms behind his head, looking almost indifferent to the situation they faced, but she knew he was more worried than he let on. He was a tall, formidable man who rarely showed emotion to his superiors, let alone his subordinates. The act had served him well, up until now, but she had to wonder if this crisis would turn out to be too much for even him to manage.

“So if Bailey, Letty and the baby are at risk, and we can’t afford to turn over the Grimoire, what’s the game plan? Or do we even have one yet?” she said as she twirled a pen between her fingers.

“I’m pitching something to the Board in about an hour, but I’ll go ahead and explain, if you’re game for keeping a secret.” He raised an eyebrow, causing wrinkled lines to appear on his weathered forehead.

Tierra raised an eyebrow back. “Why trust me with it?”

“Because I value your input, believe it or not.”

“Ha!” It was a hollow laugh, but somehow, George’s sarcasm always worked wonders for Tierra’s mood. “Thanks. Alright, explain.”

“I just got a call from Nina again, through Nadia’s phone. She wants Nadia to be the one to bring the Grimoire to her.”

“Of course,” Tierra murmured. “Family reunion. But we’re not about to take that risk, right?”

“What’s the risk, really?”

Tierra tilted her head. That was [_not _]the response she had expected. “It’s clear that with Nina involved, Nadia’s either at risk of being targeted, or basically becoming a liability.”

“You mean she might betray us?”

“Yes. Do you disagree with that?”

“Not really,” he said, closing his eyes. “But we are too short-staffed for that kind of thinking, Tierra. Based on that logic, you’re a liability, too.”

She gritted her teeth and forced a smile. “Fair enough,” she murmured as she set the pen back on his desk. “So we send Nadia in with a fake Grimoire and spring a trap, or what?”

“We use the real one. We can’t risk using a fake and having Nina detect it. We don’t know how much she knows about it, so we have to err on the side of caution.”

Tierra let out a long breath. George’s face was perfectly, eerily calm, and she didn’t like it one bit. “Isn’t that risky? What if it backfires?”

“It won’t.” He stood and crossed to the wall to her left, turned on his heel, and crossed back to his desk. It was the first sign of nervousness he had shown all morning, she thought as she suppressed a smirk.

“Keep this to yourself for now, since the Board has to sign off on it,” he said as he continued pacing. “I don’t need Gardner trying to undermine me. If she has time to prepare her bullshit counter-arguments and pleas for caution, that’ll make my job that much harder. Do you have any questions or other ideas?”

She sighed and stared at the floor for a moment. His plan was reckless, but she didn’t have any better ideas. Time was of the essence, and if someone did come up with something better, it wouldn’t be that hard to hit the brakes on a plan that was already in motion.

Or would it?

She bit her lip, hesitant to offer her endorsement, but his gaze made it clear that he really didn’t want her to argue any further. “I will let you know if I think of anything,” she said. “I guess this is an option worth exploring, for now.”

“Then you’re dismissed,” he said, quickly sitting back down at his desk. “Please let me know if you hear any chatter about this around the base.”

“Of course.” She nodded and left, taking care to listen for the click of the door behind her before letting out an exasperated sigh.

There was clearly something he wasn’t telling her, but she pushed that to the back of her mind. The digital clock in the hallway read 3:05 a.m.; the Board would hold its emergency meeting in an hour, and likely reach a decision by 4:30. There was little time for anyone to find out what was really happening and run interference on his plans.

She sighed and swept her hair into a stubby ponytail before reaching for the barrettes she had stuffed in her pockets. She would follow his orders. If things went south, she would just have to clean it up – and if anyone could do that, it was her.

——————————————————————————

Kay’s phone buzzed violently six inches from her ear. She jerked awake and heard Nadia do the same several feet away.

After a few seconds of fumbling, she answered the call: “This is Kay.”

“I need you and Nadia in my office immediately, and keep it quiet.”

It was Gardner’s voice. Kay could feel Nadia’s gaze on her in the darkness, and she took a deep breath before answering: “Okay. Be there in a minute.”

She ended the call and swung her legs out of bed. “Gardner’s office. She wants us to keep it quiet.”

She crossed the room and hit the light switch, and once her vision returned to normal, she could see Nadia staring at the wall next to her bed. “I have the feeling shit’s about to get a little weird,” Nadia murmured as she climbed out of bed. “Throw me those pants, will ya?”

Barely five minutes later, they had made themselves presentable and rushed to Gardner’s office. The hallways were empty except for two maintenance people near the cafeteria. Kay looked at her phone again; it was barely 5:15 a.m. The vast majority of the base had to be asleep.

Their Director buzzed them into her office with no fanfare, and once the door had closed behind them, she announced: “I’ll get to the point, since we don’t have much time. Did anyone see you come here?”

Kay and Nadia glanced at each other before Nadia replied: “Two maintenance guys upstairs, possibly. That was it.”

Gardner sighed. “Good enough. George got the Board’s approval to try a dangerous bluff, basically. Instead of exchanging a fake Grimoire for the hostages, he’s arranging a meeting under the guise of exchanging the Grimoire, and then having our forces ambush Nina and free the hostages. The problem is that he’s bringing the real Grimoire, because there’s a chance that Nina’s crew would be able to sense a fake even from a distance. If his plan goes wrong, though, then Nina could end up with the Grimoire in hand.”

Nadia stared down at the desk. Kay still didn’t have a solid grasp on how important the Grimoire was, but if Nadia was visibly concerned about it, then it had to be important.

“It’s true that we don’t even know if Nina has the key for the Grimoire, but I’m guessing she’s keeping that card close to her chest for a reason. George is going to rush to make this plan happen within the next few hours. Take the Grimoire and hide until we can buy time and force the plan to change,” Gardner continued, her voice just above a whisper. “My grandmother’s old house. You’ll stay there while I buy time and get another plan in play. I’ll give you the keys and access codes, as well as written directions. Phones off ten minutes after you leave base. Batteries out. I’ll disable the GPS on one of the cars in the garage shortly.”

Kay and Nadia were silent for several seconds. As she stared at the floor, mind reeling, Kay felt one recurring thought float to the surface: Why her and Nadia? The recklessness of Gardner’s proposal was one thing, but how on earth did she even think that they, of all people, were ready for such a responsibility?

Especially considering that less than six hours ago, Gardner had expressed mistrust of Nadia, Kay thought as she glanced at her roommate. Whatever was happening, Gardner must have gotten some new information that made her trust Nadia again.

“Are you… sure about this?” Nadia said. “Isn’t there a better way? This sounds reckless.”

“Not as reckless as George,” Gardner said. “He’s in over his head on this. A reckless action with this much on the line would be catastrophic.”

“How come you trust me to not run off with it and exchange it for my mother?” Kay said.

Gardner smiled, but her expression was hollow. “Because that could be giving Nina the power to kill you both before you even have a chance to run. I’d love to give you a longer primer on the Grimoire, but I’ll have to leave that up to Nadia. It’s strictly need-to-know and confidential information, but obviously, we’re about to throw those chains of command out the window.”

Kay and Nadia exchanged glances. “And you trust me with the Grimoire?” Nadia said.

“I do. At least, I trust that Kay can kill you if you try anything funny.”

Kay grimaced. She didn’t like that thought. “Fair enough,” Nadia said, sighing. “But why us? Why wouldn’t you send someone else?”

“Tierra is too close to George for me to trust her, and Holly… well, we need her here in case things go south. She’s too valuable as a possessor for us to be sending her away from the potential battlefield. Same with almost everyone else.”

Nadia opened her mouth and closed it again. Her eyes shone with fear, and Kay could sense borderline insubordination simmering within. It was almost as if she was insulted – or was there something else going on?

“You’ll go in forty-five minutes,” Gardner said as she opened one of her desk drawers. “I’ll escort you out myself to handle any questions from others. Go pack a backpack apiece and make sure to include herbs and supplies. Kay, meet me at the Sanctum in thirty minutes to get the Grimoire.”

Nadia frowned, her brow furrowing deeply, and shook her head. “Is this worth it? What’ll happen to you if—”

“It may be excessive, but the worst-case scenario in this situation is far too grave for us to do anything else,” Gardner snapped. “So if you have a better idea, Abendroth, I’m all ears.”

Kay shuddered and hoped the others didn’t notice. Gardner’s voice had taken on an icy, desperate tone – something she had never heard before.

Without looking at Gardner, Nadia nodded. “We can do this, Nadia,” Kay said quietly. “Let’s go.”

 

 

Chapter 31: Flight Risk

 

Within thirty seconds, Gardner had thrust two sets of paperwork into Nadia’s hands and sent them scurrying back to their room. The two roommates packed in silence for several minutes, not wanting to broach the terrifying questions lingering in the quiet air.

Then Kay summoned the courage to ask: “Nadia, what’s really going on here? Why would George be willing to take such a risk?”

Nadia sighed, her frantic movements slowing for a moment. “It’s complicated.”

“Is there something I should know about the Grimoire?”

“There’s something you should know about George, first,” Nadia said as she shoved a shirt into her backpack. “Part of the reason we never see him in combat is because his lightning powers are super uncontrollable. He’s extremely powerful, and can take out large groups within a few minutes without much effort. The problem is that his lightning strikes indiscriminately.”

Kay’s brow furrowed as she watched her roommate closely. “So if his ambush plan went awry, he could still get the Grimoire back…”

“But he could take out literally everyone in the process. Your mother and the other hostages would be in danger, as would any other Maywitch staff involved in the handoff. If things go to shit, they may not be able to shelter themselves before George uses the nuclear option.”

Kay felt the shirt slip from her hand, but she did nothing to catch it as it fell to the floor. Nadia heard the soft crumpling noise and looked over her shoulder.

“To complicate things further, Nina almost certainly knows about his powers by now, but what powers is she still hiding? Or her demons, for that matter?” Nadia continued as she shoved shorts into her bag. “George may not have the upper hand that he seems to think he has with his ambush idea. Thus, Nina may be more likely to win against an ambush, and he may be forced to use his lightning to end a situation that could otherwise… go very poorly.”

“So Gardner’s not just worried about the Grimoire; she’s worried about the safety of her staff.”

“ I’d argue she’s not worried about the Grimoire at all. There’s probably a 99.9% likelihood that the situation would end with the Grimoire still in our hands, one way or another, but there's also a 99% chance of at least one Maywitch casualty – probably much more.”

“But he could end up salvaging his reputation and still score points if he takes out a lot of Nina’s crew while he’s at it.”

“And that’s why the risk is worth it to him in the first place… I think,” Nadia said, sighing again. “There are too many unknowns, and this is all speculation on my part.”

“So why did the Board approve this, anyway?”

“He probably didn’t disclose to them that he plans to use his lightning if things go to hell. He could’ve made up some other failsafe. If it was a reliable failsafe, though, Gardner wouldn’t be freaking out the way she is.”

Kay gritted her teeth. It was speculation, sure, but it all made sense in context. “You got a lot of explaining to do around this whole Grimoire thing,” she murmured.

“It’s a thirteenth-century magical tome loaded with forbidden hexes. Incredible power amplifier, too. Theoretically requires a key to open and use but the damn thing is unstable enough that it’s still bad news in Nina’s hands. The key has been supposedly passed down a mage family for generations, but I don’t think even Gardner knows who that family is.” Nadia reached under her bed, pulled out a flashlight, and shoved it in her backpack. “That’s literally all I know. Oh, and try to avoid using magic around it, because rumor has it that it reacts badly to certain magic. That’s why we kept it shielded in the Salt Lake City base.”

Kay tucked a chunk of auburn hair behind her ear and pinned it in place. “Great. This should be fun.”

“I guess I’m starting to understand the cynicism you’ve always viewed Maywitch with, Kay,” Nadia said as she strode to the door. “Let me get these herbs and supplies for us, okay? Be back in a few.”

Kay paused her packing and watched her roommate leave. The whole situation was surreal, and if she wasn’t so certain of the texture of the backpack beneath her fingers and the sturdy feeling of her feet on the floor, she would have thought she was dreaming.

It was a nightmare, though – and here she was, stuck working with Nadia, of all people. Somehow, though, her heart felt less heavy than it had a month ago when they had been preparing to infiltrate Nina’s operations.

It was almost as if she genuinely, voluntarily trusted Nadia again. That was a weird feeling.

She sucked in a breath and turned back to her packing. There would hopefully be plenty of time to think in the car.

Nadia returned a few minutes later and handed Kay a tiny bag of lavender. “Anything else you need, or do you wanna go meet Gardner at quarantine?” she asked softly.

Kay shook her head. “I think I’m good. Let’s do this.”

“Meet you upstairs, then.” Nadia shoved two more vials of herbs into her backpack and rushed out the door, her loose shirt flowing behind her as she disappeared.

Kay zipped up her backpack, threw it over her shoulder, and said a prayer before following. At the stairwell, she looked both ways down the hall before descending the stairs, taking care to keep her footsteps soft in the early morning silence.

——————————————————————————

She knew where Quarantine was, in theory, but had never been there before. The unfamiliar gray walls felt shadowed and haunted as she listened past the echoing squeaks of her footsteps, hoping to detect any signs of trouble and move to avoid them in time.

Eventually, she reached a sign that said East Ward – Restricted, and she knew she had come to the right place. The indicator light above the door was green, so Kay tapped the panel to her right, and the door slid open.

Beyond it, a wide, white-walled office sat unoccupied, and the security desk to one side held a sign that read: For access after-hours, contact George DeMason or another Level One team member.

Of course. With Tierra – no, Renaya, Kay reminded herself – taking out two security guards the other day, the team was more short-staffed than ever. To the left of the security desk, another metal door and green indicator light stood sentry against the wall, and Kay pressed the entry panel next to the door.

She was rewarded with a low hiss as the door opened, but this time, the sight on the other side wasn’t as benign. A body lay on the floor, silhouetted starkly in the harsh light from the three-foot-high glowing orb across the room. Lines of shelves and file cabinets flanked the scene, casting their own odd shadows across the tile floor.

In the middle of the room stood Gardner, who turned away from the glowing gold orb as she heard the door open. “Step inside,” she said. “It’s not what it looks like, I promise.”

Kay obeyed, but simultaneously raised a hand. “Who is that?” she said, nodding at the body on the floor.

“Wojtec. New security measures mean that two Level One officials have to be present to unlock this room. I lured him in here and then knocked him out so I could pull this off without asking him to bear responsibility. He’ll probably wake up within ten minutes” She knelt and faced the orb again. “There are cameras in here, but no mic, so we can talk somewhat freely as long as you stay facing me. We do have folks who can read lips, you know.”

As Gardner began to whisper something, the orb crackled and morphed, changing from golden yellow to stark white. Kay didn’t lower her hand. She wished she had kept a vial of something within easy reach; if she needed to use any magic other than fire, its impact would be reduced due to all her useful herbs being several inches away from her body.

The orb faded away, and Gardner quickly turned around with a small black bag in her hands. “The sheath we designed should help stabilize it, but I’d still avoid using offensive magic around it if at all possible. Now hold still,” she whispered as she stepped behind Kay. “I hope there’s room in your backpack for this.”

The hairs on the back of Kay’s neck stood on end as Gardner began to unzip the backpack. Kay watched Wojtec’s limp form, hoping he would stir, but he showed no signs of life.

“Before you leave, tell Nadia the password is Lux Pacifica,” Gardner said as she zipped up the backpack again. “That’s your word you’ll use to verify each other’s identities and safeguard against possession. Understand?”

“Right,” Kay said.

Gardner watched her for a moment, as if expecting more questions, but eventually waved a hand dismissively. “Go. Hurry to the garage. I’m going to leave a few minutes after you and go to my office. If anyone sees you on your way up, don’t mention me. Tell them you’ve been told to meet Wojtec in the garage for an assignment.”

“Right.” Kay turned and hurried to the door, her fingers shaking as she tapped the wall panel. The door opened, sending cool air rushing over her face, and she took a deep breath before rushing out into the hallway toward the garage.

——————————————————————————

Inside the garage, Nadia was standing next to a black car against the far wall. Kay froze for a moment when she saw a security guard also standing by the car, but as he walked away, she summoned her strength and walked over to Nadia.

“We good?” she murmured.

“Yup. Get in. I’m driving,” Nadia said as she opened the driver-side door.

Kay didn’t argue. She didn’t think her nerves could handle the stress of driving right now. Once she had climbed into the passenger seat and made sure that all the doors and windows were closed, she turned to Nadia, who had just inserted the keys into the ignition. “Hold up a second, Nadia.”

Nadia paused, and Kay launched into an explanation of everything she had seen in Quarantine. As Kay finished retelling the story, though, Nadia’s calm expression remained unchanged. “Typical Gardner – and Wojtec, to be honest,” Nadia said softly. “He’ll forgive her for that, and she knows it.”

“Are you sure about this, though?”

“What?”

“Are you sure we’re doing the right thing—”

“Would I have let us come this far if I wasn’t?” Nadia turned the keys, and the car’s dashboard lights blinked into life. “She doesn’t have time to explain everything to us. Speaking of which, how many minutes have passed since you left Quarantine?”

“Maybe three.”

“Then let’s hurry,” she said as she put the car into gear. “The directions to this island house thing are in Spanish, because most of George’s cronies can’t read it well enough to figure out up from down. Can you read it  at all?”

“Not really,” Kay murmured as she grabbed a sheet of paper from the folder sticking out of the glove box.

Nadia smiled, but the emotion faded as she winced in pain. “I hate to say this, but maybe you should take over driving once we have to stop,” she murmured. “Then I can navigate for us.”

She pulled the car toward the closed garage door, and the two women waited with baited breath as it slowly opened. Once they had enough clearance to pull through, Nadia slammed the gas and didn’t slow down again until the car had wound its way aboveground. A solitary guard post lay some distance ahead, and as Nadia pulled up to it, Kay thought she saw a glimmer of concern on the guard’s face as he stepped out of his shack.

“We just got some urgent orders. Confirmation code B69EV,” Nadia said as she rolled down her window.

“Whose orders?” the guard asked as he peered through the car at Kay.

“Gardner’s. You should have them in the system.”

The guard sighed and wandered back to his shack. Through the open door of the shack, Kay could see him fumbling with a touchscreen mounted to the wall, and she waited with baited breath as he scrolled through a list of some kind.

Nadia didn’t seem to move. A full minute later, as the guard came back to the car, she asked: “I’m assuming it came through?”

“Yeah, it did, but…” He trailed off, looking nervous. “There’s a bit of a discrepancy in the listing. I need to call George and verify something.”

“What kind of discrepancy?” Nadia asked calmly

“I can’t tell you that.”

“You realize he’s probably not awake right now, right? He’s been up all night,” Nadia said. “Gardner’s awake, though, so you should call her.”

“I can always send him an urgent page—”

“Yes, and he’ll be thrilled when you wake him up over a minor discrepancy that Gardner could’ve cleared up,” Nadia said. “Look, I haven’t seen you before, so I’m guessing you’re new here. If you must, call Gardner, but we’re really in a hurry here. If the discrepancy isn’t mission-critical, then just log it and let us through. You’re allowed to do that.”

The guard sighed and pulled a walkie-talkie from his utility belt. “West Entrance to Base, over,” he murmured.

“Go ahead,” was the immediate, static-filled response.

“Need confirmation from Director Gardner on a mission assignment.”

There was a long silence, and Kay realized with horror that Gardner may have already been caught – and her and Nadia’s mission was now in jeopardy. She saw Nadia’s shoulders stiffen, and for a moment, she wondered if Nadia would punch the gas pedal and try to get out of there.

“Gardner said she was stepping away from her desk and to make sure to clear any of her people who were being sent out. If it’s minor, then just log it,” a different voice said through the walkie-talkie.

Nadia let out a long, slow breath. The guard shrugged and nodded before walking back to his shack. “Safe travels,” he called before reaching for something on his desk.

The gate in front of them began to slide open, and Nadia offered him a brief wave before turning her attention to the road ahead. “That was not how I needed this to start,” she murmured as she pulled out onto the long driveway that stretched toward the main road. “The minute they catch onto Gardner, they’re gonna figure out that something was off about us, too. What the hell kind of discrepancy could there have been in the mission orders?”

Kay didn’t reply for a long moment. “I guess my job now is to keep an eye on our rearview mirrors, huh?” she murmured.

“Sure is.” Nadia flipped on the headlights as they pulled away from the glow of the base. “We can sleep once we get there. I just hope Jekyll Island is quiet enough for us to rest easy.”

——————————————————————————

A loud, muffled bang sent Holly lurching from her bed, right arm outstretched in desperate terror. George DeMason stood at the entrance to her room, flanked by two security guards with rifles aimed straight at her. Someone had apparently just flipped on the lights, too, and Holly had to squint for a moment to fully catch her bearings.

“Come with us. If you didn’t do anything wrong, then we’ll get this cleared right up,” George said calmly.

Holly didn’t move. The two guards stepped inside the room without lowering their weapons. “What the hell is happening?” she said, not taking her eyes from the guards.

“Do you really have no idea, Holly? Surely your friends said goodbye to you before they left.”

She stared at him, perplexed, until he said: “I mean it. Let’s go.”

The guards moved closer, and she shook her head and rose from her kneeling position. “I don’t need any help,” she said to them as she stepped toward George. “Something tells me I’ve been left in the dark about something, and I’m about to be really pissed off.”

 

 

Chapter 32: Jekyll Island

 

Thirty minutes of pointless questions later, Holly’s interrogation was finally over, and the senior mage questioning her finally explained why she had been brought in. The details flew right past her. All she heard was: “Director Gardner got Nadia and Kay to run off with the Grimoire. We don’t know where they went.”

She nodded at appropriate times and pledged her support to the recovery effort, but as soon as she stepped out of the interrogation room, she burst into tears. The confusion and anger in her heart almost felt melodramatic – why was she so furious at all three of them, when it was really all Gardner’s fault? – but once she calmed down a little, she realized it was justified. Nadia leaving was one thing. Kay, on the other hand, was her own half-sister. There was no reason for her to have left Holly without looping her in. Was there less trust there than Holly had thought?

No matter, Holly thought as she headed back to her room. She would calculate her next moves as more information arrived. It had only been two hours since the traitors had escaped, and since Gardner herself hadn’t fled, she might let some information slip over time.

Ultimately, though, there would probably be little Holly could do. George probably wouldn’t trust her with much.

As she reached the stairwell, she spotted Wojtec gingerly making his way down the steps. “Wojtec, are you okay?” she asked. “I heard the short version of what happened, but…”

He shrugged, his eyes glimmering with a hint of a smile. “I’m okay, thanks. I’m still trying to make sense of everything. Appreciate you checking on me.”

“You weren’t badly hurt, right?”

“It appears Gardner just hexed me. She’s skilled enough that knockout spells are no problem, if she has time to prepare. Dunno how I’m still this sore, though,” he said, a smile finally appearing at the corners of his lips. “Guess I’m getting old, huh?”

“Take it easy, and let me know if I can help with anything,” Holly said.

He nodded, and for a moment, Holly couldn’t read his expression. “Thanks. I’ll let you know,” he said as he turned toward George’s office. “I might come by your room and bounce something off of you later today, okay?”

——————————————————————————

Kay was so distracted that she forgot to tell Nadia Gardner’s password until they were nearly two hours down the road. Nadia didn’t seem to mind, though, as she continued to barrel down the highway. After they stopped for gas, she returned to her place behind the wheel, insisting that she was no longer sore despite her fall the day before. Kay didn’t believe her, but knew that the control freak side of Nadia was a force to be reckoned with.

Despite the bevy of topics for them to talk about, Nadia was eerily quiet for most of the ride to the safehouse. Kay tried to make conversation from time to time, but Nadia’s answers were always short, vague, and pointless.

It was discouraging, but Kay couldn’t blame her. As the more senior of the pair, Nadia implicitly bore much of the responsibility for whatever happened next. If they screwed up and the Grimoire fell into the wrong hands, it would reflect more on Nadia than it would on Kay, the undertrained rookie. Even though Gardner would bear official responsibility in Maywitch’s eyes, there was no way that Tierra, Holly and the others would forgive Nadia if things went to hell.

Then again, they probably wouldn’t forgive Kay either – but she tried not to think about that.

“Do you think Gardner will send us backup when possible?” Kay asked at one point.

“I sure as hell hope so,” Nadia murmured as she squinted at a road sign ahead of them. “We’re almost there. After this, there’s just one more turn, and then we’ll be where we’re supposed to park.”

Kay nodded, and they lapsed into silence again. The southern Georgia scenery around them had begun to morph from cornfields and two-lane roads to small towns and traffic lights, and soon enough, she thought she could see the glimmering ocean through the trees. A sign next to the road said “Welcome to Jekyll Island,” but there wasn’t much welcoming about the area. Massive trees lined each side of the road, and Kay couldn’t help but wonder what their escape route would be if everything went to hell.

Nadia glanced at her, seeming to notice her unease. “I don’t think Gardner would send us out to the middle of nowhere. Surely there’s enough of a tourist presence around that Maywitch will have to watch their step if they come after us.”

Sure enough, a few minutes later, Nadia turned onto a road lined with stores and hotels, and parked the car in the first open spot on the street. “Let’s go,” she said as she glanced at her sheet of directions and grabbed the folder from the glove box. “It’s less than a half-mile up the road.”

“Is the car gonna be okay here?” Kay asked as she reached for her backpack.

“Worst-case scenario, it gets towed, and that’s still better than having it parked in our driveway for all to see.”

Kay couldn’t argue with that. Nadia tucked the directions into the pocket of her shorts, locked the car doors, and began her walk up the road.

The sun beat down on them, despite it almost being fall. It was reminiscent of Houston, Kay thought as she glanced out at the beachfront gated communities and resorts. Within minutes, she was sweating buckets, and wondered if they would even stand a chance if Maywitch caught them right then and there.

Nadia glanced over her shoulder every twenty feet or so, and Kay knew she wasn’t just keeping an eye out for wayward rental cars full of tourists. Eventually, Nadia stopped at a long, barely-marked driveway just before a sharp turn in the road. “This is it,” she murmured as she squinted at the mailbox. “Act like we belong here.”

She walked up the driveway without looking over her shoulder again, and Kay followed carefully. “You don’t think there’s a chance they beat us here by helicopter, do you?” Kay said.

The idea seemed to give Nadia pause, and she slowed before reaching for something in her pocket. “There’s a chance, yeah.”

A tiny, wood-walled house came into view behind a row of trees, and Kay’s heart seemed to skip a beat. There was something off about the place. The building was clearly forty or fifty years old, but the storm door looked brand-new, and a bright white security camera perched on the outside wall near the southeast corner of the house.

“This is her grandma’s place?” Kay murmured.

Nadia didn’t reply. She glanced over her shoulder toward the ocean before pulling keys from her pocket and approaching the front door. She opened the storm door, fumbled with the keys for a moment, and unlocked the door.

Kay wished she would hurry up. Something about all the trees nearby made her nervous.

Nadia stepped into the house with one hand held out, but quickly lowered it. “Looks like things are just where Gardner left them,” she said as she pulled a piece of paper from the folder under her arm. “Remote controls for the TV and security feed… Security camera instructions on the table… Pen clipped on top of the instructions at a forty-five degree angle…”

Kay stepped inside and closed the door behind her, taking care to lock both the bottom knob and the deadbolt. “Gardner made sure we would know if someone else had been here, huh?”

“Unless that someone was very, very careful to leave things exactly as they found them,” Nadia said as she crossed the room and squinted at the papers on the table. “I think we can relax, though. She would’ve told us if someone else at Maywitch knew about this place.”

Kay nodded, but she still wasn’t convinced. There was a door ajar to her left, and she tiptoed toward it before peeking into a tiny, white-walled bedroom with a bathroom attached. Another bathroom sat next to the combined kitchen, living room and dining room space.

“Gardner has an emergency contact in town who we can go find if absolutely necessary. Nonperishables in the basement. She says to help ourselves to whatever we need,” Nadia said as she set her backpack down and flipped through the instructions on the table. “Then for security, there are four bracelets…”

“These?” Kay asked, pointing to a black cuff bracelet on the kitchen counter.

Nadia nodded. “I guess so. Once I turn on the system, the bracelets will vibrate if there’s movement at the edges of the property, or someone tries to open a door or window. Gardner’s notes don’t really specify, but I guess that’s designed to be more useful than an audio alarm in case a silence spell is cast. One of us should be awake and on guard at all times, though, just in case it fails. Sleep in shifts. Sound good?”

Kay picked up the bracelet and examined it before putting it on. “Sounds good to me. But we’re sure no one else at Maywitch knows about this place? This is pretty sophisticated, and if Gardner managed to hide this from her own colleagues…”

“The property is probably still in a relative’s name, if I had to guess. I’m sure she wouldn’t have sent us here if she didn’t think we could hide for at least a few days.” Nadia closed her eyes as she sat down hard on the couch. “Damn, that woman keeps a lot of secrets.”

“What do you want me to do with the Grimoire?” Kay asked softly, before realizing she didn’t have to be afraid of being overheard.

“Basement. The further underground we can keep it, the better. That sheath isn’t foolproof.”

“What if we need to leave in a hurry?”

“Honestly, if that situation arises, we’re probably screwed anyway,” Nadia murmured as she ran a hand through her sweaty hair. “Tuck it away somewhere safe and let me know where you put it. I’ll keep watch up top and work on the security system.”

Kay pulled the cloth sheath out of her backpack before tiptoeing toward the closed door across from the bedroom. Sure enough, it led to a dark stairwell, and she fumbled for the lightswitch before beginning her descent.

The basement smelled damp and musty, but the shelves full of food and wine to her right appeared intact and usable. As she reached up to tuck the Grimoire up behind a row of wine bottles, she felt her hand tingle slightly. Was that from the Grimoire – or something else?

After a moment, though, the feeling faded and was replaced by a sense of dread. She shuddered as she ran back up the stairs, and caught herself hoping that one way or another, their ordeal would end sooner rather than later.

——————————————————————————

An hour later, they had gotten situated and each taken a shower. Nadia had gone to the basement and brought up several cans of tuna and green beans, which she opened and began to turn into some kind of salad. “Since there’s no olive oil, I’ll just have to get creative with salt and spices,” she murmured as she pulled a bowl from the cabinet. “Gonna get a little sick of tuna, but we’re lucky there’s a week’s worth of food down there. We’re gonna get hungry after that.”

“We’ll see if we make it that long without being caught.”

Nadia smiled sadly. “That cynicism doesn’t sound like you.”

Kay glanced away. Something about Nadia’s demeanor was making her nervous. Was it because Nadia was being nicer than usual?

“At any rate, once we eat something, I’m gonna take a nap. We need to decide shifts. Do you want first night shift, or second?” Nadia asked.

“I don’t really care. What’s first shift, nine or so until… three?”

“And then second shift is the next six hours, and we can nap as needed during the day.” Nadia frowned and stared up at the ceiling. “It’ll be rough, and we can adjust as needed, but let’s keep it simple for now. I’ll nap now and then take first shift?”

“Sounds good.”

“Since there’s wine down there, I think I’ll have a glass to calm my nerves. There’s no sense in being so jittery we can’t sleep,” Nadia murmured as she stretched. “You should do the same later, but don’t get tipsy.”

Kay would’ve smiled if the situation wasn’t so dire. It was an odd situation to be in: straight-laced Nadia was proposing they self-medicate with alcohol while Maywitch was probably hunting for them. “You’re not worried about someone finding us and having to fight them?”

“If someone does find us, there’s a slim chance of it being anybody other than Maywitch. And if it’s Maywitch, our only option is to run.” Nadia shrugged, as if having to run from their employer was just another run-of-the-mill assignment.

“Fair enough.”

Nadia busied herself with finishing the salad and pouring a glass of wine while Kay checked the security monitor. They ate in silence, aside from Nadia’s blunt commentary on the sub-par quality of her culinary skills. Kay didn’t argue, but offered reassurances that the mediocre food was more due to the limited ingredients than Nadia’s skills.

The sound of the crashing waves outside filtered through the walls and windows much like the city sounds of Houston used to filter through their childhood apartment windows; like how classroom whispers would fade into audible range when the room was quiet enough; like how peace and pleasant nostalgia seeped in when the strain of working for Maywitch wasn’t too strong. It would have been idyllic if it weren’t for the threat of attack and imprisonment – or worse – hanging over their heads.

 

Nadia tossed and turned on the tiny twin-size bed until it was her turn to keep watch. At 9:15, after several hours of bored monitor-watching Kay went to bed, leaving the bedroom door slightly ajar in case Nadia needed something.

She slept fitfully; the sweat clinging to her only amplified her discomfort on the dusty sheets and stiff mattress. Every time she woke up, though, the moonlight outside had grown brighter as it filtered through the blinds, and it was oddly comforting. If they did get attacked, she would at least have an upper hand over any mages who drew more power from the sun than the moon.

Then, just as she had fallen asleep for the fourth time, there was a sudden and echoing crash. She bolted out of bed, then wondered if she should stay still and conceal herself for as long as possible.

There were footsteps outside the door a split second before it creaked open. She raised an arm, pulse pounding in her ears, and began to whisper a fire spell.

“Kay, it’s me! It’s just me!”

The only part of Kay that moved was her shaking fingers. As she squinted in the darkness, she could see Nadia’s petite frame in the doorway.

“Password?” Kay said, struggling to force the word through her dry throat.

“Lux pacifica. I dropped a glass.”

Kay relaxed, and Nadia let out an audible sigh of relief. “Sorry,” Nadia murmured. “That was bound to happen eventually.”

“Yeah, ‘cause you’re such a clutz.”

The words left Kay’s mouth before she could stop herself, but instead of being angry, Nadia burst into laughter. “Guilty as charged!” Nadia said as she leaned against the doorframe. “Shit. I’m sorry, though.”

“You’re the brains of this operation. You’re allowed to knock things over from time to time,” Kay said as she slumped back in bed.

“That’s part of the reason why I proposed we have a glass of wine from time to time. Take the edge off without making us stupid.”

“I dunno if that’s actually gonna do much for me.”

Nadia sighed, but a smile played at the edges of her lips. “That’s fair.”

“What time is it?”

“Sometime after 1:30. I can’t even see the clock anymore.”

“Do you wanna get some rest? I’m wide awake now.”

“So am I, though!”

Kay couldn’t help but laugh. Something about her fatigue and the absurdity of the situation kept her from taking anything seriously.

“Look, try to sleep another hour and a half, okay? Then you can take over,” Nadia said as she laid a hand on the doorknob. “I’ll close this, okay? I’ll be fine. Good night.”

She closed the door before Kay could even argue. There was no way Kay was getting back to sleep now, but she smiled as she stared up at the slate-shadowed ceiling.

She kinda liked it when Nadia was stubborn. Somehow, at a time when everything else was horribly unpredictable, her stubbornness was comforting.

 

 

Chapter 33: Heat Haze

 

Kay’s night shift went uneventfully, and her eyelids were drooping by the time Nadia woke up. Part of her wanted to make the case for letting both of them get some sleep the next night, but she knew that with each passing night, the likelihood of Maywitch finding them increased.

They each showered and ate breakfast before posting up with books in front of the security monitors. Occasionally, one of them would glance up as a bird or other creature would skitter through the air, sending shadows across a window or a dark spot across a grainy camera feed. The stress of their circumstances combined with inadequate sleep made Kay increasingly jumpy as the afternoon wore on, and she began to wonder how much more she could take.

Nadia spoke less than ten words the whole day, but Kay chalked it up to nerves and lack of sleep. As dinnertime approached, Kay set The Sun Also Rises to one side and crossed to the kitchen. “You should take a nap now, if you plan on taking first shift tonight,” she said. “What do you want for dinner?”

Nadia set her own book down and crossed to the basement door, keeping her face angled toward the floor. “I saw some black beans down there yesterday,” she said. “I’ll get them.”

Her tone was strained and she walked quickly, as if hurrying to get out of the heat of the first floor. Kay watched the basement door swing closed before pulling a bottle of water out of the fridge and taking a long drink.

The whole scenario had her on edge, but she could only hope it wasn’t having the same effect on cool, level-headed Nadia. When several minutes passed and Nadia still hadn’t emerged from the basement, Kay set the water bottle down and took several cautious steps toward the basement stairs.

The basement door swung open and Nadia stepped through, nearly colliding with Kay. Kay opened her mouth to say something, but stopped as Nadia stepped around her and set the can of beans on the counter.

“Um, everything okay?” Kay said after a moment.

Nadia paused, and her shoulders seemed to shake – or maybe it was just a trick of the light, Kay thought as Nadia turned halfway. “I’m just tired,” Nadia said over her shoulder.

“Eat something and then take a nap.”

“As if,” Nadia spat, shaking her head. “I could barely sleep last night because it’s so goddamn hot in this house even in the middle of the night, and with Gardner – I’m so fucking worried that I might as well just try to stay awake—”

Instinctively, Kay took a hesitant step closer and held out her arms. To her surprise, Nadia rushed into them before wrapping her own arms around Kay’s waist. “I hate this! I just hate not knowing what will happen next. I just want it to be over already,” Nadia yelled, her voice cracking.

“I know,” Kay said, not knowing how else to comfort her without lying. “I know. Eventually the Board will intervene and get things back the way they should be, right? And maybe they’ll keep George from making things worse.”

She could feel tears soaking into the strap of her tank top. Nadia sniffled loudly and pulled away, shaking her head. “I’m not holding my breath,” she said. “The Board has never thought very highly of Gardner. They’ll side with George any day. God, what have we gotten ourselves into?”

Kay sighed. Her frustration at the situation had been mounting; if Nadia was beginning to lose hope, then things were officially bad. Barely thirty-six hours earlier, Nadia had been worried but calm, and Kay could only guess that the quiet of the beachhouse had given Nadia ample time to mentally run through every possible scenario.

“C’mon, let’s watch the ocean or something,” Kay said. “Surely we can open one of the windows that faces the beach, right? That’ll give us something new to do.”

Nadia wiped her eyes with both hands. “I mean, we can, but that doesn’t mean we should.”

“It’ll help us feel a little less stir-crazy, I think. Besides, no one’s gonna be spying on us from the beach.”

“True,” Nadia said. “They’d be using the trees for cover. I like your thinking.”

Of course Nadia would still be focusing on safety, Kay thought as she walked toward the corner of the couch closest to a window. She bent over and peered through the blinds for a long moment, surveying the shrub-spotted sands for any signs of danger.

Then she raised the blinds about six inches and waved toward the blue-lined horizon before them. “Look okay?”

Nadia claimed the corner of the couch and squinted out the window for a long moment. “Looks safe to me,” she murmured. “I’m a little surprised that there’s literally no one out there.”

“I guess it’s kinda the off-season now that school has started, huh?”

“It’s still suspicious,” Nadia said. She sat back against the armrest and drew her knees to her chest, as if trying to minimize the space she occupied.

Kay waited a moment before sitting next to her. “How many people even live on this island, let alone visit it during the off-season?”

“Fair question.” Nadia sighed and tilted her head back, sending her sweat-soaked hair falling back behind her ears. “Sorry for being cranky. I’m PMSing a little.”

Kay sighed. “That explains it. I know how you get.”

“Well, thanks,” Nadia muttered as she crossed her legs. “I thought things would get better with being sterilized, but the docs said that it probably messed up my hormones in some other ways.”

“That makes sense.” Kay leaned sideways against the back of the couch, turning her head just far enough to watch out the window.

Nadia fell silent, her gaze fixed on the two feet of horizon visible out the window, and they sat quietly for a long time. The oppressive heat made Kay shift in her seat from time to time, trying to mitigate the discomfort from the sweat running down her back.

Eventually, Nadia shifted as well, rotating so that her legs and torso faced Kay. “Kay?”

“Hm?”

“I’m glad you didn’t quit.”

Kay turned to face her fully. “Huh?”

“I’m glad—” Nadia’s face broke into a smile as she tore her gaze from the window and looked at Kay instead. “I’m glad you didn’t try to defect or anything. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you did, considering what a mess everything has been, but…” She looked out the window and shrugged.

“I’m glad I stayed,” Kay said. “I haven’t felt this alive in a long time.”

“Really?”

“I mean—” Kay shrugged. “Everything’s a mess, and I don’t want it to be this way, but I’d rather be here than not here. I’m actually doing something here.”

“That’s exactly how I feel. I’d rather be here, even though it sucks. I – I mean, how would I feel if I was just sitting at home, innocently watching the world begin to burn?” Nadia stared at her toes as her hair fell into her face. “Especially – I mean, we’ve seen how evil and awful humans can be, right? I don’t want to sit there waiting for things to happen. I won’t wait quietly for things to happen to me.”

“You’d rather root out the problem,” Kay said.

“Exactly.”

Their eyes met, and in a fleeting instant, Kay saw herself mirrored in Nadia’s eyes. Two different people, thrown onto the same path – not just by their circumstances, but by past trauma and disillusionment. They had just chosen different paths and come to different conclusions for a while, Kay thought. She had fled the magical world. Nadia had faced it head-on.

More importantly, though, they were now looking at each other with the same wonder – and a hint of wide-eyed longing.

Kay felt her face flush as she turned to stare at the ocean again. That wasn’t good. It was as if all of the admiration she had for Nadia’s various traits had suddenly blossomed into… something else.

Maybe it wasn’t so sudden, though. After all, who drew the lines between love, trust, friendship and lust?

Scratch that last one, she thought as Nadia wiped her eyes again. “You got to go to Corpus Christi a few times when we were growing up, right?” Nadia said.

“Yeah, but the beaches there had nothing on this. Wish we could enjoy this properly, though,” Kay replied.

Nadia stared down at her toes again, and Kay could sense her distress. “Nadia,” she continued, leaning over to get a better look at Nadia. “Hey. This isn’t like you—”

“Sorry,” Nadia said, her voice choked with tears, “I know it’s not. It’s stupid, okay?”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is!”

“Do…” Kay trailed off. Seeing Nadia with tear-stained cheeks and red eyes wasn’t just baffling – it was outright alarming. “I dunno, do you want another hug?”

Nadia snorted as she wiped her eyes. “You sound so reluctant.”

“What?”

Nadia paused, her right hand hovering by her face before pressing over her lips. Her eyes slammed shut as she lowered her head, but Kay saw more tears trickle out and glimmer in the mid-evening sun.

Kay slid toward her and held out her arms, and Nadia choked back a sob as she rested her head on Kay’s shoulder. For a moment, Kay felt anger flare up inside her – not at Nadia, or even Nina, but at Gardner. Their Director had thrown them into a truly unpredictable mess, and the most likely outcomes seemed to end badly for both of the young mages.

Then again, Kay thought, maybe this was still the scenario with the highest likelihood of success, if ‘success’ was simply defined as keeping the Grimoire away from Nina.

She put that idea aside as she glanced down at Nadia, who was now trembling slightly. She felt the anger fade and be replaced by concern bordering on fear. “We’ll be fine. We’ve been through all sorts of stupid shit since we were kids, right? If anyone can handle this, it’s us,” she said.

Nadia nodded and sniffled, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand as she sat upright. “I know you’re right,” she murmured. “It’s just a lot of things on top of that, too, I guess. I’m pissed off at how you got roped into this – into everything with Maywitch! This isn’t how I wanted us to be reunited!”

“Reunited?”

“I didn’t really say this before, but I missed you after we moved. It was kinda awful that you got dragged into things at Maywitch, but selfishly, I was…” She trailed off and lowered her gaze.

“I guess I sorta get it,” Kay said. “Kinda how like… I’m sorry you got dragged into this, too, but it’s still better than being alone. And if Maywitch has been kinda shitty to me, it’s better to be reunited like this than not at all, right?”

“I don’t expect you to feel the same way as me…” Nadia trailed off and leaned back, and Kay could finally see that her cheeks had flushed scarlet.

“What, about being kinda glad that I’m at Maywitch?”

Nadia hesitated for a long moment, and Kay felt her heart skip several beats. “Forget it,” Nadia said, wiping her eyes. “I’m fine. I promise.”

“Go get a tissue and drink some water or something,” Kay said with a sigh. “I’m gonna go grab that copy of The Hobbit I saw in the closet, and then you should nap, for real – unless you wanna eat first.”

“I’m not hungry,” Nadia said, sniffling as she rose and walked toward the hallway bathroom. “Too nervous to eat, I guess.”

“Will you make sure to eat something during your guard shift, then?”

Nadia slowed, then stopped and glanced over her shoulder. “Don’t worry so much,” she murmured, the corners of her lips turning up only slightly.

Kay considered arguing, but changed her mind as Nadia disappeared into the bathroom. She wiped her forehead as she stood and went into the bedroom, rummaging in the closet for a moment before realizing that she had already grabbed the book and set it on the kitchen counter earlier in the day.

She sighed as she headed back to the living room. Apparently her recent interactions with Nadia had really scrambled her brain.

As she stepped into the doorframe, she collided with Nadia, who took a shuffling half-step backward. “Sorry,” Kay murmured as she glanced at the ground.

Nadia opened her mouth to reply, closed it again, and folded her hands in front of her. Kay waited for her to move, but she didn’t. Nadia’s eyes darted from Kay to the floor to the living room, her face flushing deep red.

Kay could feel her own pulse pounding in her ears. She fought back the urge to reach for Nadia again, but somehow, she couldn’t quite find the strength to move away, either. She opened her mouth to speak, but whatever she was going to say got stuck in her throat.

Nadia looked up, her deep brown eyes wide and full of deep amber reflections. It was as if she was surprised – or anticipating something.

Kay took a shallow breath, but even that felt unwise, in case it somehow disturbed the peace and outright bliss of the moment. It felt like the coursing waves of heat that used to flow from her fingertips had migrated to her chest instead. Sweat trickled down her back, and she realized that their proximity in such hot and humid weather was probably not a great idea.

So why had neither one of them moved away yet? Better yet, why did they keep drawing near to each other like this?

Nadia slowly reached a hand up to Kay’s face. There was a faint tremble in her fingertips, but she held firm, her eyes narrowing slightly as if certain of something.

In response, Kay closed her eyes.

She didn’t have to wait long. Warm lips touched hers, accompanied by a hint of hot breath tickling her nose. She opened her eyes for a split second to confirm that she wasn’t imagining things, and sure enough, Nadia’s damp eyelashes were inches from her own, laying in thin black lines above dark tan skin.

For a moment, Kay panicked. There was no undoing this. Everything – their childhood friendship, their fights, their time apart, their comradeship – had just been struck by yet another round of hurricane-force winds.

Before she could stop herself, her fingers rose and entwined themselves in the short hair at the nape of Nadia’s neck. Nadia let out a short, almost unnoticeable moan of surprise before leaning even closer.

The sensation was intoxicating and electrifying – and terrifying, in a way. After what felt like twenty minutes, they pulled apart for barely a second, scanning each other’s faces with half-lidded eyes. Nadia nudged Kay backward before planting another, deeper kiss on her lips.

“You’re shaking,” Nadia whispered when she pulled away again.

“So are you.”

“Why?”

Kay half-sighed, half-laughed as she glanced away. “What kind of question is that? Anticipation, maybe?”

Nadia ran a hand up Kay’s arm, ignoring the thin sheen of sweat present, and leaned in for another kiss. This time, though, her lips connected with Kay’s earlobe, and teeth scratched over sensitive skin for a split second before Kay let out a gasp.

“Anticipation for what?” Nadia whispered.

The nervousness Kay felt faded and was replaced by raw need. She laced her fingers through Nadia’s and gently pulled her toward the bed. “You, I guess,” she whispered before tilting Nadia’s head back to kiss her.

Boredom, desperation, lust – whatever was happening underneath the surface, she would worry about it later.

——————————————————————————

Holly could feel her hand shaking as she turned the key in her bedroom door. There was little point in locking it, she knew, but it was a small comfort nonetheless. She stuffed the key in her pocket and took off down the hall toward the garage.

It took every ounce of willpower to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As she passed by Tierra’s bedroom door, she paused and prayed for forgiveness. She watched the closed bedroom door for a minute, then turned away as tears welled up in her eyes.

She would never have a shot with Tierra after this. Maybe she was just rebounding and she’d be over it in a few days, but the aching, crushing pain in her heart was almost unbearable. She wanted to bang on Tierra’s door, explain the whole situation, and then run away with her – or just stay there at the base. Either one was better than this.

But that could backfire horribly. There was a crush there, sure, but there was no trust. Tierra could turn around and destroy Holly’s life, if she wanted to.

Holly took a step toward the garage, then another, and tried to tune out her emotions as she mentally reviewed the mission plan. She soon found herself in front of the plain black sedan she had been assigned, and she glanced around the silent garage before unlocking it with the keys she had been given. She pulled her orders from Wojtec out of her pocket and set them on the passenger seat, knowing she would need to show them to security when she got to the main gate.

She took a deep breath as she climbed in, shut the door, and shoved the keys into the ignition. There was no turning back once she got out of the main gate. The thought gave her pause, but she turned the car on and drove it toward the garage exit before she could dwell on it any further.

The chess board had been overturned – and though they would eventually get to pick up the pieces, there was no telling how many would be lost in the chaos. Sitting on the sidelines wouldn’t save anyone. She had no options left but to fight.  

 

 

Chapter 34: House of Cards

 

The pale blue light filtered through the blinds, sending blurry lines across the white walls. Kay had to stare into space for a minute before remembering where she was. She slowly rolled over and pulled the sheets up to her chin, despite the heat.

Sure enough, Nadia was sprawled out on the bed as well, lying on her stomach with her head turned away from Kay. She let her eyes wander down Nadia’s hair before looking away and suppressing a sigh.

They really, really shouldn’t have done that – and not just because they had both fallen asleep afterward instead of having someone stay on guard. It wasn’t a matter of regrets, but more of a matter of what the hell they should do next in such a perilous situation.

Before she could think about it any more, though, Nadia stirred and rolled over. Her eyes slowly opened, registering only a small amount of surprise when she saw Kay’s face.

“Morning,” she mumbled, closing her eyes again.

“Morning,” Kay replied.

Nadia’s eyes flew open and she sat up halfway, causing the sheets to fall from around her shoulders. Kay instinctively glanced away, though she had already seen it all anyway.

“Neither of us stayed on guard. That’s my fault,” Nadia murmured.

“No, it’s not,” Kay said, raising a hand in a half-wave. “All’s well that ends well, and we had the security bracelets on, anyway…”

She trailed off as Nadia met her eyes. Sighing, Nadia dropped her gaze and sat up fully before swinging her legs out out of bed. “I should shower. Wanna come with?”

Kay wanted to go, but she found herself shaking her head. “I need some food first,” she mumbled as she sat up. “I’m starving.”

Nadia’s face fell slightly, but her lips twitched back up into a smile as she strode into the bathroom. “If you change your mind, that’s fine,” she said as she disappeared from view.

When she heard the shower turn on a minute later, Kay rubbed her eyes and rolled out of bed, knowing that someone should check the security feed and make sure everything was still in working order. As much as she wanted to revel in the endorphins and everything that had happened the night before, their responsibilities weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

She reluctantly threw on a t-shirt and shorts before scurrying into the living room. Once she was satisfied that the cameras and security system settings hadn’t been tampered with or disabled overnight, she turned her attention to the cans of food that had been brought upstairs the previous days. She couldn’t focus well, though, and she nearly cut herself on the sharp edge of the lid when she opened a can of tuna.

She paused, set the can opened aside, and leaned against the counter. She had to get it together. There were feelings there, sure. But did those feelings really stem from Nadia, or were they really just feelings for a human source of comfort?

Then again, she admitted to herself, those feelings had been brewing for a while – maybe even years, if she took the time to think about it, but she pushed that thought away. There was way too much baggage, drama and outright trauma burying whatever feelings may have been there in the past.

If all else failed, at least last night had been fun, but it was hard to take any satisfaction in that when they were facing imprisonment, death, or simply losing their jobs. All three of those scenarios would likely result in separation from each other. Maybe it was best to not get attached – let alone try to play house in the midst of this.

She shuddered and shook her head. It was too late for that, she thought as she continued opening the can of tuna.

A few minutes later, as Kay leaned against the counter stabbing chunks of tuna with a fork, Nadia emerged from the bedroom. She had put on a camisole and boy shorts, to Kay’s mild disappointment.

“Tuna for breakfast? Aren’t you sick of it yet?” Nadia asked as she opened the cabinet across from Kay.

    “Kinda, but I think we need the protein,” Kay said between bites.

    Nadia popped open a can of fruit and reached for the utensil drawer, sending her wet hair falling into her face. “Y’know…” The word hung in the air for a long moment, and Kay heard Nadia take a deep breath. “About last night—”

She suddenly stopped, and before Kay could even react, there was a squeak of a floorboard and a soft thud as Nadia dropped to the floor. “Someone’s here!” Nadia hissed as Kay knelt. “I can sense them – get all the way down!”

Kay obeyed, sprawling out on the hardwood floor. “Is it someone from Maywitch?”

“I’m pretty sure it is, and if I’m right, I’m sure she’s not alone.” Nadia began to army-crawl across the floor toward the TV.

“Who is it?” Kay asked as she followed.

“No promises, but…” Nadia grabbed the remote from the coffee table and flipped through the camera feeds before settling on one. “Yeah, that looks like Holly.”

Kay’s heart dropped. A black-clad figure with short twist-outs hovered in the shadows at the side of the driveway, and though the camera feed was grainy, Holly’s tall frame was unmistakable.

“There’s no way she’s alone,” Nadia said as she continued flipping through the feeds. “Why isn’t she bothering to hide, though?”

“It’s probably a trap, right?”

“Probably. What else could it be? Better question, though, how the hell did she know to come here—”

Both girls flinched as there was a sharp knock on the front door. “That was fast,” Kay muttered.

Nadia flipped to the feed showing the front porch. Holly had apparently hurried to the door, and she glanced over her shoulder before looking up at the camera mounted to the side of the house.

“Gardner sent me,” Holly yelled. “Well, Wojtec did, anyway. Lux pacifica.”

“Are you shitting me?” Nadia hissed. “How would Wojtec have known about this place?”

Kay shook her head. “What’s the likelihood that Maywitch has access to someone with lie-detecting abilities? Maybe they pressured Gardner to spill.”

“Unlikely. She’s tougher than that. Even if they put a gun to one of her colleague’s heads, she wouldn’t give away our location – not with stakes this high.”

“They wanted you to move as soon as I got here,” Holly yelled from outside. “Come on, I know you’re in there. I’m not bugged or anything, either; Wojtec made sure of that.”

Kay and Nadia looked at each other. For the first time in a while, pure fear was visible on Nadia’s face, and she hesitated for a long moment before calling back: “How do we know you weren’t followed?”

“We don’t, but George’s team seems to be already catching onto you anyway. Wojtec has been looped in on George’s investigations and is monitoring the situation closely. He wouldn’t have sent me if he didn’t think you would be discovered soon.” Holly looked over her shoulder again. “Let’s go. I parked up the street.”

“Sounds like Wojtec managed to avoid suspicion despite being close to Gardner,” Kay murmured.

“I guess that little knockout punch Gardner gave him ended up working the way she hoped,” Nadia said. “Okay. Hear me out for a minute, Kay. Part of me wants to try to keep hiding here, because being out in the open is dangerous as hell with the Grimoire.”

Kay nodded in agreement, and Nadia continued: “But I have to wonder how much longer we can really keep hiding here. If Wojtec bothered to send Holly, then that’s a sign that we’re running out of time. If Holly’s lying, then the plan has gone to shit anyway. Either way, we have to come up with a new plan.”

“It sounds to me like the plan up til now has hinged on borrowed time, anyway.”

Nadia smiled. “Didn’t we know that from the beginning?”

“Well, at least we made the most of it—” Kay stopped, realizing her phrasing was ambiguous at best, and Nadia raised an eyebrow. “Let’s get out of here,” Kay murmured as her face turned red.

“Alright, Holly, we’re coming outside,” Nadia yelled toward the door. “I swear to every god that exists, though, if you’re betraying us, I’ll kick your ass.”

“That’s fair!” was the muffled response.

“Go get the Grimoire, will ya? I’ll carry it, though,” Nadia said to Kay as she scrambled to her feet. “I’ll get the backpacks.”

“We shouldn’t bother with our car, right?”

“Nope. Maywitch probably put out a notice to law enforcement about it already. Holly’s may not be tagged yet.”

Nadia disappeared into the bedroom, and Kay darted down the basement stairs. Within three minutes, they had grabbed the absolute necessities, thrown on their backpacks, and peeked out the front door where Holly stood waiting.

“I parked at the resort up the street – I didn’t want to risk leading them straight here, just in case I missed something.”

“Good call,” Nadia said. “GPS was disabled on the car?”

“Yup. I dunno how Wojtec pulled that off, but…” Holly smiled as she jogged toward the shoreline. “I walked down the road here, but we might blend in better on the beach, right?”

“And Maywitch will be less likely to pick a fight with a bunch of civilians present. Let’s go,” Nadia said as she turned to follow Holly.

There was a soft crack in the trees to their right, and Holly stopped and held out a hand. “You heard that?” she whispered.

Kay murmured a fire spell under her breath, and the vial of wormwood in her pocket began to grow hot. Nadia tensed, her eyes narrowing, but she sighed and waved a hand after a moment.

“Tierra, you can come out now,” she called. “If you didn’t even bother to cast a silence spell, then you must want something with us.”

Holly’s eyes grew wide. “You can’t be serious!”

A soft rustling sound answered her as a tall, dark-haired figure came into view through the foliage. Tierra wore a placid expression as she raised both hands and stepped over several low shrubs. “I’m not really sure what to do with y’all, but I mean no harm,” she said. “I decided to follow Holly of my own accord. I saw Wojtec tampering with the car and figured out something was up. I’m not here on anyone else’s behalf, though—”

“How?” Holly said, her voice shaking.

“I lost you for a minute, but to make a long story short, this place made it onto a list of potential hiding places that I was privy to. George looped me in on the list, but there were other places he thought you all were more likely to be at, so he was saving this spot for a little later.”

“Plus, you’re the best mage we have, when it comes to aura-tracking, so I’m sure that made it easier to catch up with Holly,” Nadia murmured. “So are you going to make yourself useful, or are we going to have to kill you?”

“I’m on your side… Though I want a say in what happens next.” Tierra shot Nadia a glare. “But we have to hurry and get away from here, since George will probably check here within six or eight hours. Let’s go to my car.”

“How do we know we can trust you?” Holly hissed, her hand hovering dangerously close to her pockets. “I can’t believe you—”

Tierra’s eyes grew wide, and she held up a hand. Kay watched as she turned halfway and stared beyond the resorts to the south

The roar of a helicopter could be heard faintly in the distance.

“Shit,” Kay said. “Tierra, did they follow you?”

Tierra sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “My phone has been turned off, car GPS disabled, and aura concealed to the best of my abilities, so I don’t know how—”

“Did it occur to you that they might have bugged you, in case you betrayed them, too?” Nadia said. “George was probably two steps ahead of you and bugged you anyway if you were privy to his plans.”

“Well how do you know Holly wasn’t bugged?”

“Because Wojtec had me take precautions to prevent that! Did you take any precautions, or did you just charge after me?” Holly snapped.

“This isn’t what I wanted. That bastard,” Tierra muttered, grinding her foot into the dust.

Holly let out a harsh laugh. “It isn’t, huh? Then what the hell were you—”

“Enough, Holly,” Nadia said, glancing toward the resorts. “I hear you, but let’s worry about her intentions later. We gotta go.”

“Go where, though?”

Nadia set off at a jog toward the main road. “West side of the island, hopefully cut down to the bridge and see if we can’t hitch a ride or just stay out of sight for a few hours,” she yelled over her shoulder.

“What about my car?” Holly asked as she began to follow.

“Not an option. For all we know, they’ve located it by now—” She froze and whirled around yet again. “What was that?”

The four stood in silence until a sharp yet distant pitter-patter reached Kay’s ears. “Please don’t tell me that’s gunshots,” she murmured.

“Let’s move! Whatever’s going on, we have to keep the Grimoire away from it!” Nadia yelled as she charged ahead.

The other three followed, stumbling over shrubs and rocks as they darted across the uneven terrain. When they reached the main road, Nadia slowed down for an instant to check for cars, then sprinted across into the woods.

Kay could feel leaves, twigs and spiderwebs grabbing at her face as she ran. The dense foliage left no room dodge any obstacles, and it was all she could do to follow the path Nadia forged for them. Behind her, she could hear Holly and Tierra panting and struggling to keep up.

She realized she had no idea how wide the island was, or if there was any real chance of them making it across without being caught, but it was worth a shot. Hiding was not an option – not with their lack of knowledge of the terrain. If Maywitch had already recruited local law enforcement to help hunt the four down, they could be kettled and captured within the hour.

Whatever happened, she would protect the back in front of her. Nadia, who had already sacrificed so much for Maywitch, deserved that much.

A shadow flickered overhead. The roar of her pulse pounding in her ears nearly drowned out Nadia’s cry of warning: “Something’s up there!”

A split second later, something slammed Kay against the ground, and she saw stars dancing against her eyelids as several cries of pain registered in her ears. As she struggled to sit up, she opened her eyes, and her blurred vision could only make out a tall, gray-skinned form standing a few short feet away.

 

 

Chapter 35: Divided

 

For a second, Kay was afraid that whatever had attacked them would kill her before she even had a chance to fight back. Her breathing came in shallow gasps for several seconds until she caught her bearings again. She pulled herself to a half-sitting position just as another sharp yell of pain reached her ears.

“Where is it?” asked a low, rasping voice.

Twenty feet in front of her, Wyvern faced east, his claw-tipped wings spread and a massive spear in his right hand. Kay couldn’t see who he was talking to at first, but soon saw a short-haired woman pinned to a tree some ten feet away.

Tierra struggled against the giant barbs that had skewered her left arm to the massive oak tree behind her. Her shredded backpack lay on the ground in front of her, its minimal contents strewn about. She grimaced as blood gushed from her forearm, but spoke loudly in response: “Where’s what?”

“The Grimoire. It’s somewhere near you, it seems,” Wyvern said as he took a step closer to her.

Kay’s heart dropped. The Grimoire was in Nadia’s backpack, but she willed herself to not turn around and see where it – and Nadia – were. Tierra stayed calm, raising an eyebrow and shrugging her uninjured right shoulder. “What makes you think that?”

“There’s something strange about your aura.”

Tierra’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“I can’t place it.” Wyvern stretched out his left hand, and Kay watched in horror as a dark gray barb protruded from his palm. “Did you have it changed? It’s either that, or—”

Tierra’s lips moved just before something dark shot out from the woods, impaling Wyvern’s right arm. He grunted in pain and tried to pull free of it, but couldn’t. It was one of Tierra’s vines – and it was clearly attached to something in the woods to the east, where they had just come from.

She grinned at him. “You’re pretty sharp. My aura changed a bit after I transitioned,” she said with a harsh laugh. “And I don’t even care that you know that I’m trans, ‘cause you’re about to die!”

He snarled as he finally tore the vine apart. Another vine rocketed out of the woods, even faster than the previous one, and Kay wondered how Tierra managed to cast such strong spells when she had no ingredients in her hands and her pockets looked empty.

She heard Holly chuckle nearby. “See those flower barrettes of hers? They contain petrified sage,” Holly said weakly as she wiped dirt from her face. “She designed them herself after getting caught without sage in a battle a couple months ago. Whatever just happened, I’m sure she prepared that vine trap even before she confronted us. She was ready for this. Let’s go.”

Kay didn’t have time to marvel at the technical feat, but she smiled as she struggled to her feet. She glanced over her shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief as she saw Nadia’s prone but relatively uninjured form. Her ribs twinged, and she felt dizzy as she straightened up, but she knew she could stand another round. “Cover Nadia and try to wake her up if she’s out,” she said.

Holly nodded. “She’s definitely out, but possession works a little like smelling salts. I’ll try that first.”

“Good,” Kay said, casting a shield as Wyvern turned toward them again.

Tierra was still launching vines at him, but he had gotten better at predicting their aim, and he was dodging them with relative ease. He rushed at Kay, and Tierra yelled: “I can’t keep attacking if you’re in the way!”

“I know, but I have to cover the others!” Kay yelled back.

Wyvern collided with her shield, and she dug her heels in to keep from being pushed backward. Behind her, she heard Nadia sit up with a grunt. “Give me a minute,” Holly said from her own body.

“Thanks for that,” Nadia replied, her voice just above a whisper. “Where’s Tierra?”

“Pinned to a tree about twenty feet in front of me! Focus on healing yourself and Holly first!” Kay said over her shoulder. “And hurry!”

She strained to keep her shield strong, leaning into it with her shoulder as Wyvern delivered another blow. The shield magic could only withstand so much physical strength, and it relied partly on the strength of the user to keep from being pushed around.

Just as she felt as if her shoulder would shatter under the pressure, Wyvern lurched backward and skittered away. The earth in front of Kay shot upward in a solid spike of rocks and dirt, and she stumbled backward as well, nearly falling into Holly and Nadia.

“We got your six!” a familiar voice yelled behind her.

She didn’t dare take her eyes off of Wyvern, who had already scrambled to his feet and turned his attention to Tierra. “Wojtec!” Holly yelled. “Kay, we got backup!”

“And trouble,” Nadia murmured. “Watch out. I see George back there too.”

Maywitch’s presence wasn’t much of a relief, but better imprisoned or fired than dead, Kay thought as Tierra finally freed herself from the tree. Wyvern raised an arm, but before he could attack again, the earth began to tremble.

Kay whirled around, but Nadia was sitting motionless, her energy clearly focused on healing herself and Holly.

Something bright orange shot up in the trees to the west, sending branches and debris flying through the air. The shaking intensified, and Kay caught sight of a massive dark silhouette in the eerie shadows among the trees.

Two human figures emerged barely one hundred feet away, just in front of the silhouette. They showed no desire to hide themselves, and instead charged toward Kay and the others, leaping over bushes and shrubs with little effort.

It took Kay less than a second to recognize the woman on the left. She glanced over her shoulder at Nadia, who met her gaze and grimaced. “Goddammit,” Nadia murmured, rising to a crouching position. “Cover me, Kay, until we can figure out what to do with the Grimoire.”

“Is that…” Holly trailed off before clamoring to her feet. “I’m covering Tierra.”

“Do that,” Kay said as she cast a shield.

Behind her, Wojtec yelled something, and the whirring of helicopter blades became audible again. Kay wanted to tell them to run away and leave the new enemy to her, but she also wondered if she would be outmatched again.

Thirty feet ahead, Nina Abendroth wore the same nonplussed expression she had when she had invaded and destroyed the Salt Lake City base. Her long, confident strides were the same, and judging by the monstrous silhouette in the woods behind her, her powers remained just as strong.

But the circular mark on her raised right hand was new. Kay caught a glimpse of a black snowflake-like pattern before it was drowned out by light and the trees surrounding them began to glow gold.

Nadia started to yell something to Holly, but before she could finish the first few words, the earth beneath them rocked forward and knocked them to the ground. Kay scrambled to her knees and looked up, searching for falling trees, helicopters, Wyvern, or any other sign of immediate danger.

An ear-splitting crack resounded through the woods, and Kay looked to her right to see a giant fissure appearing in the earth. She darted away from it, knowing that magic would be powerless against falling into such a massive chasm. Further to her right, trees began to tumble down in a shower of leaves, sending the few remaining birds skittering away.

A worm-like shadow emerged from the fissure, but Kay only caught a glimpse of it before something moved to her left, diverting her attention.

Wyvern had charged at her, raising his glimmering spear to her eye level. She barely had time to move her shield before the iron tip of the spear crashed into it, knocking her back a few inches. Behind her, Nadia struggled to her feet and began to murmured words to a spell.

Flames lit up the trees to Kay’s left, where Nina had once been, and she glanced over to see Holly and Tierra’s figures silhouetted against the fiery glow. She couldn’t stare for long, though, as Wyvern’s spear was pressing ever-harder against her shield and threatening to force her off-balance. He was horribly strong, and for once, she found herself regretting neglecting her physical fitness.

Wyvern glanced past her and darted backward, zigzagging among the trees until he was nearly fifty feet away. Two scarlet beams of light shot out from behind her, nearly missing Wyvern’s outstretched wings. In the same instant, a burst of wind howled from behind her, knocking her forward a few feet but sending Wyvern hurtling into a tree behind him. She could only guess that someone from the Maywitch contingent behind them had attempted to take him out from a distance.

She heard Nadia let out a satisfied sigh behind her, but the moment of calm ended when the earth lurched beneath their feet again. “We have to go toward Nina,” Kay yelled as she took several steps to the east. “The ground will be more stable there.”

“Let’s go,” Nadia said, rushing past her. “We have to keep an eye on Kyle, too—”

She stared at something over Kay’s shoulder and opened her mouth to yell, but Kay reacted faster than her, whirling around to face whatever was approaching. Wyvern had turned his attention back toward them, charging at an inhuman speed with some help from his massive wings.

Kay uttered the words to bring up her shield again, and was nearly too late. Wyvern collided with the emerald green aura and knocked her several feet backward. She fell hard, feeling the wind rush from her lungs as she hit the ground again. As he spread his claw-tipped wings, Nadia scrambled backward as she prepared a spell of her own.

“Go!” Kay yelled. “Go after Nina! If anyone can hold her off, it’s you!”

Nadia froze, her arms still held out toward Kay as she conjured a shield. “But you need me to cover you if you’re going to—”

“Go! I have a plan. I’ll catch up – please, just go!”

The last word seemed to echo through the trees as Nadia bit her lip and darted away. Kay grinned as she turned to Wyvern, who stepped closer and looked her up and down with a snarl.

For a moment, she felt her smile waver as she wondered if Nadia was really up to the task. She had no idea where Tierra and Holly had gone, which left her wondering if they were even still alive.

With no one else around, though, Kay could go all-out against her opponent – and burn down half the damn island if she had to.

 

 

Chapter 36: Hunter and Prey

 

Kay and Wyvern stared at each other, trying to guess the other’s next move – or, at least, that’s what she told herself they were doing. In reality, the adrenaline that had propelled her through the battle up until now had begun to waver, and she was too terrified to move.

The plan that she had told Nadia about hinged on being able to buy time. Kay knew that if she could lower her shield and dodge Wyvern long enough to cast a fire spell, she could have the upper hand. She knew she possessed the brute force necessary, but the speed was another issue entirely.

Plus, if he kept up the fight for too long, the spell ingredients she carried would run dry, their power emptied by the continuous use of fire and shield spells. Her options could diminish in a matter of minutes.

Smoke was filling the air, and the trees several feet behind Wyvern had begun to be consumed by flames, changing the usable landscape entirely. Kay could hear yelling far to the east and assumed that Kyle, Nina or another demon had targeted the main Maywitch forces.

Just as she thought she should run and dive for cover and drop her shield long enough to cast a fire spell, Wyvern pivoted and shot a flurry of barbs the size of her forearm into the bushes twenty feet to his left. There was a blood-curdling scream, and a figure fell forward, its body mangled and spotted with blood as it protruded halfway from the bushes. The shock of salt-and-pepper hair falling across its face was all Kay needed to see to know that it was Wojtec.

He must’ve been trying to back Kay up with an ambush, she thought as she skittered to the right and began to run through the woods. She had to use the opportunity to buy some time, or else she would be next. She willed herself to keep moving, despite the guilt that urged her to go check on him and try to keep him alive. Words to a fire spell fell through her lips between her gasps for breath, but she wasn’t sure if it would be enough.

The heavy snapping of twigs in her wake that Wyvern was hot on her tail. She uttered the last few words to the spell just as she heard a raspy snarl somewhere close behind her.

She turned halfway before realizing that he had launched himself into the air and was lunging straight at her. He was barely three feet away now and would be on her in less than a second. His orange eyes narrowed as he bared his fangs and swung a clawed hand at her.

A breeze whipped her hair into her face, and she panicked as she realized she couldn’t even see her opponent, let alone aim her flames at him. Before she could even lash out and attempt to defend herself, a massive gust of wind came from the same direction as the initial breeze. She was knocked sideways and slammed hard against the ground just as Wyvern let out a howl of rage far to her left.

Confused, she whipped her hair out of her face just in time to see Wyvern hit a tree root twenty feet away, sending leaves and dirt airborne. She looked around for the source of the attack, worried that it might have been Nina or Kyle taking advantage of Wyvern’s distraction to take him out before turning on Kay.

To her right, barely visible through the shadows and shrubs, stood a petite woman covered in sweat and grime. Her tattered tank top had dirt – or maybe burn marks – all over the front and sides. Her long hair clung to her back and shoulders in messy chunks, but it was unmistakably the same auburn as Kay’s.

The emerald green of her shield was the same, too.

“I haven’t slept in two days and now I have to deal with your shit?” the woman yelled. “If you’re one of Nina’s, lemme know where she is so I can kick her ass!”

Wyvern roared and fired a volley of barbs at the woman, who braced her shaking legs as they hit her shield. “Kay, get up! We have to finish this!” she yelled.

“Mom? Where did you come from?” Kay said, her voice shaking.

Bailey crouched as Wyvern spread his wings a few feet, hinting that he was about to move again. “Worry about him first!”

Though the arm she had fallen on throbbed angrily, Kay lurched to her feet and cast her fire spell toward Wyvern. He darted out of the way, but wasn’t quite fast enough to get his massive left wing clear of the river of fire. He hissed and ran through the shrubbery to another clearing fifty feet away.

Bailey backed away from the charred remains of the foliage Kay had burned. “You alright?” she asked as she took several shaky steps toward Kay.

Kay held up a hand. “How do I know it’s really you and that you’re not possessed?”

There was an echoing silence before Bailey raised her hands. “You’ve gotten good, Kay. Remember that time you were six and we were locked out of the house for over an hour? When you thought I wasn’t looking, you went to the neighbor’s garden and pulled your shorts down and—”

“Okay, okay!” Kay hissed. “Fine! It’s you!”

“There we go, then.” Bailey turned halfway, keeping an eye on the clearing Wyvern had run toward while she walked toward Kay. “Seriously, are you okay?”

“Mostly.” Kay could feel cuts and bruises from her ankles to her shoulders, and something had even managed to scratch her face. Sweat stung every scrape and scratch. Her left shoulder felt as if it had collided with a brick wall. She even suspected she had gotten dirt down the back of her tank top during her latest tumble.

Somehow, though, none of that mattered as much as the fact that her mother was standing in front of her. It certainly wasn’t much of a reunion, but after two years, it was far better than nothing.

“We don’t have much time until he finishes licking his wounds and circles back,” Bailey said softly. “I busted free of Nina’s posse and managed to get a message to Maywitch, but they’re being useless right now. I barely have any ingredients on me, so I’m running on fumes. Next round, my shield will probably fail. What are his powers?”

Kay bit her lip as she ran a hand over the vial of wormwood in her pocket.  She wanted to ask why Maywitch was being ‘useless,’ but knew that if she didn’t focus on the task at hand, the consequences could make the answer moot. “Those barbs, I guess, and his wings stretch really far, so be careful—”

“Elemental, Kay. What’s his element?”

“Wind, maybe?” Kay said, crossing her arms. “They still haven’t trained me worth shit – oops, sorry for swearing.”

Bailey laughed, but it quickly turned into a cough in the harsh smoke blowing through the woods. “Did he use wind at some point?”

“Earlier, yeah, but only briefly.”

“Ah. Is this the one they call Wyvern?”

Kay frowned. “How did you know that?”

“I did research for Maywitch. The stuff I know would make your head spin,” Bailey said, her last sentence laced with a smile. “How often has he used wind or those barbs?”

“The barbs fly out often – once every thirty seconds or so, maybe? He hardly uses the gusts of wind, though.”

Bailey met her eyes for a long moment before staring toward the clearing again. “Shield me while I work on a trap spell. It’s short-range, and I’ve never used it before, but I have the ingredients since there’s plenty of hydrangea in these woods.”

Kay shook her head. Trying to use a short-range spell on Wyvern could end badly – and her mother knew that. “But—”

“Don’t argue! Start running toward that clearing—”

Holly!

It was Nadia’s voice, distant and strained. Kay had no idea what that desperate cry meant, but she had to assume the worst. Nadia needed help. If the demons Nadia summoned were being defeated, then there was no way she could stand long against Nina.

“We better hurry up,” Bailey said, pulling a vial of something from her pocket. “Ready?”

“So I start running, and then when you’re ready, will you need me to lower the shield—”

“No, just hold stop and still. Get moving!”

Kay sucked in a breath before rattling off the words to her shield spell and darting into the woods, taking care to avoid the bits of smoldering debris among the foliage.

The shouting and the roar of helicopters to the east had died down; only the sound of their footsteps and Bailey’s muttered Latin phrases punctuated the sound of footsteps through the brush. Ahead of her, Kay saw a shadow flit across the clearing, and wondered if they were too late to catch Wyvern.

She slowed, and Bailey did as well, interrupting her Latin to say: “Don’t enter the clearing unless you have a visual on him.”

“Got it,” Kay said. She didn’t need an explanation. If he was already airborne, entering the clearing would give him an easy shot at them.

Something snapped several feet ahead, and she saw Wyvern rise from the brush, but he made no attempt to charge at them. Kay slowed, unsure of whether her mother needed more time to complete the spell. She felt a hand on her back, pushing her forward, and she gritted her teeth and obeyed.

Wyvern’s pale gray face contorted as he launched himself in the air, gaining considerable height despite his damaged wing. Kay’s heart leapt into her throat, and she stopped and angled her shield upward slightly, bracing her legs as well as she could.

After floating in the air for a second, though, Wyvern seemed to change his mind. He dropped back down to the ground and rushed at Kay, sending sharp pain surging through her arms as he collided with her shield. She could feel the intensity of the magic in her hands fading like waves at low tide. She was running out of power and time, and he knew it.

There was an intense surge of something – magic, she thought – behind her, making her hairs stand on end. She heard the soft crunch of leaves and twigs, and the power she felt began to move to her right. She knew it had to be her mother.

After hearing a few more rapid, crunching footsteps, Kay spotted her mother out of the corner of her right eye. There was an eerie yellow glow between Bailey’s fingers. As a few more words of Latin poured out of her lips, the glow intensified sharply, forcing Kay to squint.

Wyvern pivoted a few degrees to his right, but Kay didn’t react to his subtle motion before it was too late. His left wing shot out past the edge of her shield and hit Bailey with the force of a missile, sending her flying backward with a shriek and a spray of blood.

 

 

Chapter 37: Bailey

 

Content Note: Graphic violence in this chapter.

——————————————————————————

Kay could hear nothing but the sound of her pulse pounding in her ears. She watched as her mother hit a tree trunk, her head and shoulders snapping backward at an odd angle. Wyvern’s wingtip had punctured her left shoulder, but there was no way that the shallow wound was the worst of her injuries.

It took Kay a few seconds to realize that she had been yelling to try to get her mother’s attention – to make sure that she was alive – and had turned her full attention away from Wyvern. Something slammed into her shield, bringing her attention back to her opponent.

Beyond the green haze, Wyvern leered at her, his fangs starkly contrasted against his bloodied mouth. He leaned into her shield with both hands, as if testing the limits of her magic. She felt her resolve waver like smoke against a gust of wind. She had to check in her mother and get her help, and defeating Wyvern felt secondary to that.

Her shield flickered, his grin widened, and her heart dropped like a bird shot out of the sky.

An inch-thick rope of vines flew through the woods on Kay’s right and pierced Wyvern’s torso. Deep gray fluid splattered over the foliage, and his outstretched arms suddenly dropped as the vine began to go slack. It was followed by six or seven more vines, all reduced to blurs in the shadows of the woods and their impossibly high speed. She stumbled backward, watching him for any sign of countering, and waited with outstretched palms and a fresh spell on her lips.

She saw no signs of life, though – let alone a desire to strike back. Wyvern’s body slammed hard against the ground, and he let out two sputtering coughs before lying still.

She tore her eyes away for a split second and saw Tierra’s face pop over the top of a bush fifty feet away. One of Wyvern’s wings twitched, but after watching him for another moment, Kay spun around and called: “Mom!”

Bailey lay on her side under the massive oak tree she had collided with. Her eyes were open, but her lower back was arched and her legs twisted in a pose that looked unnatural, at best. Kay had to resist the urge to roll her onto her back, knowing that it could make her injuries worse.

Dirt and leaves littered Bailey’s arms, but she smiled and lifted a shaking hand toward Kay. “Did you get him?” Bailey murmured.

Kay yanked her backpack off her shoulder. “Tierra did. Don’t move. Where does it hurt?”

“Nothing really hurts. I’m fine.”

“No you’re not!” Kay snapped as she rummaged around in her backpack for a poultice.

Bailey’s smile broadened. “I’m serious. I could lay here all day. Go finish this, love.”

“But—”

“Otherwise Nina could waltz over here next. Go check on Tierra and then finish this.”

Kay still had dozens of questions. After two years of separation, all she wanted was a chance to talk uninterrupted by violence – and whatever grave injuries her mother now had. She wanted a reunion, and reconciliation, without having to sacrifice yet more time that they should have together.

It was too late for that, though. No resentment or bitterness would fix the situation. The only way for both of them to survive was to fight before Nina’s forces got the jump on them a second time.

“I’ll make sure Tierra gets help over here,” Kay murmured. She gingerly placed the poultice against her mother’s shoulder, knowing deep down that it would do little for the pain, let alone the injuries themselves.

“Thank you,” Bailey said, closing her eyes as she moved her hand to hold the poultice in place. “I hate to even ask you to do that, but… We don’t have a choice, love.”

“I know. I’ll be back soon, I promise.” Kay rose and peered at Wyvern’s body before jogging over to where she had last seen Tierra. “Ti! You okay?”

Tierra waved from behind the same bush she had been behind two minutes ago. She tried to smile as she met Kay’s eyes, but it quickly turned into a grimace. A bandage had been hastily wrapped around her leg just below the knee and was already soaked with blood and dirt. She wiped grime from her face, leaving a smear of blood in its place. Kay thought she looked much paler than usual, and she knelt to get a closer look.

“I told him he was gonna die,” Tierra said, her voice low.

“Thanks for that,” Kay said as she reached into her backpack again. “You’re bleeding pretty badly—”

“I’m fine. Poultice is working. Could use a second one, though.”

“Where’s Holly and Nadia? And Nina?”

“I don’t know for sure. It sounded like their fighting was further west.” Tierra grimaced and looked down at her bloodied legs as Kay handed her a poultice. “I got separated from them while fighting Xavier. Killed him, luckily, so that’s one less to worry about. Who from our side have you seen besides Bailey?”

“Wojtec is hurt badly – maybe dead. Back that way,” Kay said, pointing east. “Haven’t seen anyone else in a while, though.”

“I saw the rest of Maywitch over east, and I assumed they were headed here, but I guess I was wrong. I don’t know what they’re standing around for. If they weren’t headed toward Nadia, and they weren’t headed here…” Tierra trailed off before closing her eyes, her determined expression fading. “Shit. I know what’s happening.”

“What?”

“If Nadia manages to kill Nina, then it’s mission accomplished without risking any more Maywitch lives. You, me and Holly don’t count, of course. Don’t forget, all four of us are useless as soldiers after this.”

Kay shook her head. She didn’t want to believe Tierra, but had no evidence to refute her. “But what about Gardner—”

“Last I heard, Gardner’s locked in a basement cell six hours away!” Tierra’s eyes opened halfway, but she avoided Kay’s gaze. “No bosses, no backup. All we have now is ourselves.”

Kay opened her mouth to reply, but Tierra interrupted: “Go, Kay. Don’t think, just go help the others.”

Something roared in the distance, and Kay’s heart lurched. She hadn’t even been able to defeat Wyvern on her own. If Tierra couldn’t keep up with her and Holly and Nadia were out of commission too, Kay was as good as dead.

“Go!” Tierra yelled, her voice straining. “I’ll protect Bailey from any other dangers, but you’re the only one who’s in good enough shape to help Nadia and Holly!”

“I know,” Kay said quietly as she stood. “Get help for Wojtec and my mom. I’ll be back.”

Tierra smiled before closing her eyes. “I’ll be up and at ‘em in a second. Leave Bailey to me.”

There was a screeching roar somewhere to the west again, and Kay turned and began to run, fighting the urge to stay with Tierra and Bailey. She knew there was no way she could live with herself if something happened to the two of them. She also knew, though, that there was no way she ever get over the guilt if something happened to Nadia and Holly.

She ran even faster as she realized that she was at risk of losing all four of them if things kept going the way they had been.

 

The roar of demons always made Nadia’s head throb. The white-skinned creature Nina had summoned was particularly loud, and it had created an impressive clearing in the trees as it thrashed its wings and rugged legs about. Nadia’s half-lion, half-lizard chimera was having a hard time climbing over the felled trees, but they provided handy cover against the other demon’s attacks.

Nadia, however, was running out of cover. Her shield strength was about to deplete; she could feel it in the ever-weakening vibrations from the shield’s green aura. Behind her, the trees thinned dramatically, and she feared that she had almost reached the other side of the island. She was out of places to run. Her legs shook, partly from the physical exhaustion of running and fighting, and partly from the strain that all of the magic was putting on her body.

Ten feet away, on the other side of the shield, Nina laid her tattooed hand against her cheek as a bemused smile played at her lips. “I know you’re about to lose,” she said. “It’s okay to surrender. You don’t have to die defending the Grimoire.”

Nadia smiled back. Nina had been demanding the Grimoire for some time, and there was no denying that it was in Nadia’s possession; its aura was too strong to hide from this distance.

“Why are you fighting us, Nina?” Nadia said softly. “Why do you want to hurt our world like this?”

Nina tilted her head, her smile fading. Nadia flinched as her demon narrowly dodged another attack. Her summon was her last hope – if it could veer away from its opponent long enough to take Nina out, then Nadia could potentially escape.

Demons weren’t exactly obedient, though. It would make its way over to her and Nina whenever it felt like it, and no sooner. She could be dead by then.

She glanced to her right, where Holly and Kyle’s prone bodies lay twenty feet away. They had taken each other out barely two minutes prior. She could sense Holly’s aura, but it was faint, meaning that she could be on the verge of death. If she was, there was no way Nadia would let that spilled blood be for nothing. She would have to stall as long as she could, even if it meant dying to protect a damn book.

“It doesn’t matter to you that Maywitch tried to protect us?” Nadia said. “It doesn’t matter that they had Bailey watch over us while we were in foster care? I could forgive your lack of gratitude when we were younger, Nina, but isn’t this a bit childish?”

Nina scowled, and Nadia’s heart dropped. Her comments had probably gone a bit too far, she thought as Nina reached for something in her pocket.

“Goddamn goody two-shoes,” Nina murmured. “You really think Bailey wasn’t just out to get a paycheck, and Maywitch wasn’t just out to make sure we didn’t set any civilians on fire? You wanna give them credit for supposedly protecting us?”

Nadia shook her head. Nina was clearly too far gone for the conversation to be of any use – for anything other than buying time, anyway.

Before she could calculate her next move, though, Nadia was forced to dive to the side as Nina sprinted and lunged at her. She knew Nina would do that eventually, since shields couldn’t repel living beings, but thought that Nina would save that desperate move for later.

Nina grunted in pain and turned on her heel to charge again. Gritting her teeth, Nadia dropped her shield, knowing it was useless to maintain if Nina was done casting spells for the time being. Though Nadia couldn’t keep up hand-to-hand combat for long, she thought – no, hoped – that she could bluff her way to victory. She began to rattle off the last offensive spell she still had materials for, scrambled to her feet, and ran back east as Nina began to pursue her.

 

 

Chapter 38: Sisters

 

Content Note: Graphic violence in this chapter.

——————————————————————————

The brush grew thicker as Kay sprinted through the woods. She tried to ignore the sticks and thorns tearing at her bare skin, but she stumbled and nearly fell when something caught on her shorts. She scanned the trees ahead for any sign of Nadia, but saw nothing.

A screech reverberated through the woods, and she caught a glimmer of movement beyond the branches and bushes. Two figures darted into view, but at the distance Kay was at, she couldn’t tell which one was which.

She could tell, though, that a massive, ivory shape moved beyond them, and she could only hope that it was preoccupied with something else – or was on Nadia’s side to begin with.

The two figures wove and danced about each other, as if fighting hand-to-hand. It was possible they were out of spell ingredients. Kay ducked down in the bushes, trying to weigh her options, but not wanting to wait too long.

She had a tiny bit of strength left for a shield, and enough for another small burst of fire – if that. Even with her limited magic-sensing abilities, the vials in her pocket felt as dead as dry leaves.

Her best chance was to try to snipe Nina, if she was even there, and if she would hold still for long enough. Kay peeked through the bushes and saw Nadia’s shirt and shorts visible on the figure on the left. The figure she was fighting was likely Nina, but even if it wasn’t, it was someone worth sniping.

She waited several seconds, hoping they would draw closer and give her a better shot. When they didn’t, she sucked in a breath, raised her head and shoulders just above the top of the bush, and took aim with shaking fingers. A burst of fire, much smaller than usual, flew across the field, closing the distance between herself and the figures before they could even react.

Her heart dropped as the fireball drew far, far closer to Nadia than she had intended. Nadia shrieked and fell backward, her face and arm already a murderous, blistering shade of red. The woman on the right, Nina, leapt back as well, but turned her attention to Kay without missing a beat.

“Nadia? Nadia!” Kay yelled, running closer.

Nina’s face contorted as her eyes darted about the scene. For a moment, Kay wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but she soon remembered the demon lurking in the woods nearby. Nina broke into a sprint, her right arm drawn back to strike as she rushed at Kay.

She was clearly out of spell power – or was bluffing to draw Kay in close. Either way, Kay didn’t have a choice. She had never been trained in hand-to-hand combat, but the self-defense courses she took in high school could at least buy some time as she waited for a chance to pounce.

She stepped to the right and deflected Nina’s punch with a raised arm. Nina pivoted and brought up her left fist, but the uppercut was weak, and Kay blocked it as well.

At first glance, Nina appeared to have no knives or other weapons on her, but Kay knew she could easily be hiding another trick. She hesitated, and Nina seized the opportunity by bringing a knee up into Kay’s stomach.

The next thing Kay knew, her head was hitting the ground with a heavy thud. Stars burst before her eyes, but the pain in her head was nothing compared to the agony where Nina’s knee had hit her. Before she could struggle to her feet, she heard Nina growl somewhere above her.

There was a scream and a much softer thud, and when Kay looked up, Nina was rubbing the side of her head and cursing. Several feet away, Nadia sat upright, seeming oblivious to the burns covering her face and torso.

“Still here, bitch!” Nadia yelled.

Behind Kay, something let out an unearthly shriek, and Nina’s eyes widened. Kay resisted the urge to turn around. Whatever was happening, it was bad for Nina; it was obvious in the panic in her eyes.

It was the first time Kay had ever seen her scared.

And Nadia was smiling – though it didn’t quite seem to reach her eyes. Kay could only guess that something she summoned had done something good.

Nina turned her attention back to Nadia, and Kay began to quietly haul herself to her feet. She could see Nadia’s lips moving, but she doubted Nadia had any strength left. If she did, it wouldn’t be enough to hold off a murderous rampage by Nina.

Every muscle in Kay’s body seemed to fight her, but she forced herself to charge at Nina, praying that her momentum would be enough to do some damage. Nina seemed to sense the danger and turned around again, raising her arms as if prepared to simply block the force of Kay’s attack.

At the last possible moment, Kay ducked and brought her elbow up and into Nina’s ribs. There was a soft, sickening crunch as something gave way inside Nina. There was a cry of pain – or frustration, or fear; Kay couldn’t tell whether herself or Nina had made the noise – and the two fell to the ground with Kay sprawled on top of Nina.

Nina reached down and tried to grab a fistfull of Kay’s hair, but Kay shoved her hand away and scrambled halfway upright before planting her knees on top of Nina’s upper arms. For a moment, she thought she would lose her balance as Nina struggled beneath her, and she realized she had no time to spare. Their screams intermingled before Nadia’s cut through both of them: “Kay!”

Kay summoned the last of her strength; if she lost here, she and Nadia were both as good as dead. Nina bucked again, and the pain in Kay’s stomach almost overwhelmed her determination to stay upright.

She lurched forward and planted her hands around Nina’s throat. Nina’s fingernails clawed at the knees that held her to the ground, and Kay closed her eyes, wanting to shut out the things she was about to see and hear.

She wished Nadia would call out some sort of reassurance – some kind of affirmation for what Kay was doing – but it never came.

The woods grew quiet as Nina stopped moving. She could sense that the life in the body beneath her had vanished. A splinter of remorse pierced the fog of adrenaline clouding her mind, but it was quickly obscured by fear. Nina had dabbled in necromancy. Surely she had another trick up her sleeve.

She forced herself to open her eyes halfway and see if Nina was really dead. The face before her confirmed her suspicions. She pulled her hands away and scrambled away, wiping her hands on the grass as if to clean her fingers of the violence they had just incurred.

She jumped at a sudden voice behind her: “Kay. Kay!”

She looked over her shoulder as she realized it was Nadia, who had slumped back against the ground. “Nadia, you okay?” Kay asked, her voice shaking. “Is that demon gone?”

The burns on Nadia’s face were shiny and raw, but she nodded. “ Yeah, Nina’s is gone, so we’re safe for now. I’m exhausted, that’s all,” she said. “And I fell pretty hard, though that rock I landed on came in handy, huh?”

Kay struggled to her feet and limped over to Nadia. She had fallen hard on her left knee while tackling Nina, and she was intensely grateful there was no one else left to fight. She knew she couldn’t have held up any longer. Nadia was in even worse shape; while the burns on her face would heal, her right arm was charred from shoulder to elbow.

“Let’s get you some medical help,” she said as she sat down hard next to Nadia.

“I’m okay. Haven’t had time for healing, so I have ingredients left for that,” Nadia murmured, reaching her bloodied left hand up to Kay’s face. “You’re in bad shape too.”

Kay pulled away as she felt faint magic radiating from Nadia’s hand. Every inch of her body ached, but she shook her head. “Don’t,” she said, placing a hand over Nadia’s hand and lowering it.

“You’re bleeding, though, and you probably have a concussion.”

“And I burned you! You have to—”

“I was about to die. I thought I was about to die at her hands, or her demon’s, if mine would’ve lost.”

There were no tears in Nadia’s eyes, no pain in her face, and no tension in her body. She lay in the grass with a smile playing at her lips, despite the burns covering the right side of her body.

There was something wet on Kay’s face, but she had no idea whether it was blood or tears. “You have to heal yourself,” she mumbled. Her lips didn’t want to work; the adrenaline that had fueled her earlier was gone.

“Not right now. Please, Kay.”

“I’ll go get the rest of Maywitch—”

“Stay,” Nadia said, her tone bordering on pleading. “We don’t know who else is out there. Let Maywitch come here.”

There was no one else out there, Kay knew. The sound of fighting had faded completely, aside from a dull, distant helicopter or two. She wanted to run away – to get help – even if it meant running straight into the arms that would soon arrest and punish her. It was irrational, even if it partly came from a desire to help Nadia; after all, Nadia wasn’t that gravely wounded.

Kay just didn’t want to be anywhere near Nina’s body, she realized with a shudder.

Nadia’s eyes, though, were unwavering, and as Kay met her gaze again, she knew she had to stay. She nodded and gripped Nadia’s hand tightly. “Thank you,” she murmured as Nadia smiled.

“Holly is fifty feet or so back east,” Nadia said. “I can still sense her, so I’m sure she’s still alive. She took out Kyle with the last of her strength.”

“Good for her. And you’re sure Kyle’s dead?”

“Yes.” Nadia winced, and for a moment, Kay considered asking her to focus on healing herself again. “Make sure they help her first. If I could get over there myself…”

She trailed off, and Kay nodded. “Once I catch my breath, I’ll take you over there,” Kay said. “She needs it more than I do—”

“Don’t bother. Maywitch is almost here now, actually. Make sure to warn them that one of my demons is still lurking somewhere to the west, will you?”

Kay whipped her head around to face east. Dark-clad figures strode through the underbrush; their riot helmets obscured their identities, but Kay guessed they couldn’t be anyone other than Maywitch or cops. One of the figures flipped up his helmet visor, and Kay recognized him as one of the law enforcement liaisons she had seen around the North Carolina base. She heard a noise, and she glanced back to see an olive-colored truck plowing over a thinner patch of brush nearby.

The law enforcement liaison waved. “Adamis, who’s that with you?” he yelled.

“Nadia’s here. Nina’s dead. Holly should be over by you – check on her!” Kay replied.

Two more dark-clad men rushed toward a spot a short distance away, and she hoped that they had spotted Holly. Nadia sighed, her breath coming out ragged and pained, and reached for Kay’s arm. “Listen,” Nadia murmured, “seek Tierra’s advice on what to do next. She’ll figure out what’s best for the three of you—”

“What about you, though? What do I need to do to keep them from – from locking you up, or something? Do you think they’ll do that?” Kay said, glancing up at the approaching figures.

“There’s nothing you can do about that. They’re going to do what they’re going to do no matter what.”

“No they won’t!”

Nadia smiled, and Kay could feel her eyes welling up with tears. A soft crunch nearby alerted her to the presence of three armed men, all wearing the dark-clad fatigues of the rest of the group surrounding them. One of them lunged forward and grabbed Kay’s arm. “Let go!” Kay barked, twisting her arm and yanking herself away.

“Go with them, Kay. Trust me, okay?” Nadia said, running her hand up Kay’s other arm.

“If you resist, there will be consequences. Let’s move!” a voice boomed nearby.

A second man grabbed Kay’s other arm, and she stumbled to her feet. “Fine!” she hissed. “But where are you taking her?”

“You’re both going back to the base. Get in the truck.”

Kay whirled around, straining against the taller man’s grip. “But—”

“I’m fine, Kay,” Nadia said. “We’ll be safer at the base, anyway.”

“No you won’t!”

Nadia’s eyes widened, but before Kay could say anything else, the man yanked her away. She stumbled over a root as she tried to turn to catch a glimpse of Nadia again. The voices around her grew louder, but before she was pulled too far away, she heard Nadia say: “I won’t resist… unless you try to hurt me.”

The man holding Kay’s arm mumbled something to someone nearby and brought her to a sudden halt. George DeMason stood a few feet away, walkie-talkie in one hand and cell phone in the other. He looked Kay over and sighed.

“Don’t cause any more trouble for us, and you won’t get any more trouble,” he said, placing undue emphasis on the last phrase. “The Board is handling the situation. Your fate is up to them. If it were solely up to me…”

He trailed off, his eyes darkening. Kay twisted to catch sight of Nadia again, but she had disappeared into the growing crowd of people.

Her stomach somersaulted as she realized that he had probably come after them to take out Nina by any means necessary – including his lightning powers. Kay had killed her in the nick of time. She glared at him, struggling to keep her voice from shaking as she asked: “Where’s my mother and Wojtec?”

“They’re already being loaded into a helicopter. They’ll survive. Now get in the truck.”

She felt a tiny surge of pride well up inside her as she met his eyes. They had survived and managed to protect the Grimoire. They had accomplished more than he ever could have with his reckless plan.

She – and Nadia, and Holly, and even Tierra – had won.

But at what cost?

 

 

Chapter 39: Bounty Hunters

 

Ten days later

 

“I can’t guarantee what will happen to you if you stay here.”

Kay didn’t acknowledge George’s statement. She had been subjected to his obnoxious lecturing and pointed questions for ten minutes now, in addition to the nearly ten hours of interrogation she had undergone the previous weeks. His office was underground, like Gardner’s, which added to the feeling of claustrophobia eating at her.

All in all, the disciplinary investigation she was facing wasn’t as bad as she had expected, but she knew a large part of that was because of Gardner being honest with her superiors and taking the brunt of the blame. Though she felt guilty admitting it to herself, Kay was surprised by the woman’s sense of honor.

“I can’t comment on pending investigations outside of official hearings, but I can tell you this is your chance to cut your losses and leave,” George continued as he reached for a paper on his desk. “I’ve been authorized to accept your resignation and negotiate the terms of your departure.”

Her mother – who was officially out of the reach of healing magic, and would live with a broken spinal cord for the rest of her life – had warned her that this was the likely outcome. Maywitch had a tendency to try to push people out before their investigations were even complete. While major discipline inside Maywitch was rare, when it did happen, it was usually a fatal blow to the recipient’s reputation in the witching world. If they were allowed to stay in Maywitch, it would reflect poorly on the superiors involved – in this case, George, since Gardner was in hot water of her own, and wouldn’t be anyone’s superior ever again.

But while George had his priorities, Kay had her own orders: stand up for herself, and by extension, for her mother. While Kay didn’t feel a ton of loyalty after the disappearing act Bailey had pulled, she sure as hell wasn’t about to throw her own mother under the bus. Kay would side with her over Maywitch any day, especially since her mother’s interests and her own happened to match up in this case.

“Or else what?” Kay said softly.

George’s expression remained placid as he glanced down. “Best-case scenario, we assign you to kitchen duty for the rest of your days here. You are a liability, after all, with how much you know.”

“But I wouldn’t do anything to throw my own mother under the bus, you know.”

The low moan of the air conditioning gave the room an eerie feeling, and she had to fight back a shudder as he stared at her. “What are you trying to say?”

“I want some ongoing compensation. I need to be able to support my mom and myself. Make my silence a condition of receiving that compensation.” Her voice shook, and she fought to keep from fidgeting. She had argued with people, lost her temper, and made a few enemies before – but never when the stakes were so high. Not when it was more of a negotiation than a fight.

“We’re giving her a stipend and covering her medical care.”

“But that won’t be enough, and you know it. Not in the long term.”

George’s eyes narrowed for a split second before his poker face returned. “There is one more option, but it’s probably not what you’re looking for. You’re skilled enough that you’d make a decent bounty hunter. It’s a pilot program we’re doing, so we might end up phasing you out at some point. That’s our best offer, though.”

Kay sat back in her chair. That was what Bailey suspected they would offer, since Kay was nowhere near qualified to do research or law enforcement liaisons. “Pay and benefits?”

“Stipend plus commission. Minimal health insurance.”

“Details?”

George’s eyes narrowed again. “Watch your tone. I’m doing you a favor.”

She bit back a snort of laughter and tilted her head instead. He watched her for a long moment, as if unsure whether she would hold her tongue, and rested his hands on the arms of his chair. “Commissions vary, and the stipend is $800 a month – enough to cover rent if work is dry,” he continued.

“It’ll need to be a little more than that for—”

“Take it or leave it,” he said, rising and crossing the room. “Your choice, Adamis.”

Half-baked thoughts and pieces of scenarios whirled through her mind, but she knew she had few other options. She slowly blew out a sigh, not wanting him to sense her dismay. “How long is my contract, and am I allowed to take outside work?” she asked.

“Contract is one year to start. Outside work must be approved by us. Anything much more than freelance writing or waitressing a couple hours a week will be rejected.”

So they could starve her out if they wanted to, she thought as she watched him linger by the door. “I accept,” she said.

He raised an eyebrow. “I was afraid you’d say that. Congratulations,” he said as reached for a file cabinet near the door. “A few forms, then, before you leave.”

——————————————————————————

The forms took nearly an hour. Every time Kay filled in a box or signed her name, she felt a nagging grain of fear and anger push further into her brain, but she tempered it by thinking of her mother.

And, she realized as she signed the final line, at least she could indirectly help protect Nadia and the others. That brought her more comfort than she expected. She looked up and met George’s eyes with a smirk playing at her lips, and as he dismissed her, she stood and practically twirled toward the door.

She strode down the hallway but only made it twenty feet before a voice stopped her: “What did they offer you?”

Tierra was lurking in a vestibule next to George’s office door. She took a few hesitant steps toward Kay, who smiled. “Bounty hunter. It’s what Mom said they would offer—”

“Are you crazy? I told you, leaving is your best option! They’re going to give you the same responsibility with none of the protections!” Tierra hissed. “This way, they push all the risk onto you—”

“Protections? What fucking protections? We almost died back there because Maywitch left us in the lurch! You said it yourself!” Kay snapped.

Tierra scowled as her face flushed. “I really don’t want to see you end up dead, Kay, so hear me out,” she said as she glanced down the hall. “As messy as Maywitch has been in the past, this new bounty hunter thing that they’ve been planning in is a new low. It’s like when my dad’s companies subcontract out work. You farm out the work under worse conditions than before – no comms and research support, no safe base, no supplies paid for – but people will still do it because they don’t have options. But you do have options outside of magic, so just…”

She trailed off, and Kay shook her head again. “I didn’t even finish college yet, remember? And any kind of additional disability payment Mom might get through the government wouldn’t be enough for her, especially since it takes so much time for that paperwork to go through,” Kay murmured, smiling in a desperate attempt to convey confidence. “And I’d rather keep doing this, since I halfway know what I’m doing now. It’s hard to explain, but my mind is made up.”

Tierra sighed. “I hope you don’t regret it. You only signed for a year, right?”

“Yeah.”

“There are worse things you could’ve done. You’ll have a chance to reconsider, if you survive the year.”

Kay smiled grimly. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Anyway, take care of Holly, okay? Assuming you both stick around.”

“What about Nadia?”

Kay raised an eyebrow. Nadia was back under quarantine during the investigation, and the timeline for her release was fuzzy, at best. Though most Maywitch staff were permitted to visit her with supervision, Kay, Holly and Tierra were exempt from that while they awaited their punishment. “Her too, but, I mean… Isn’t that a little out of our hands?”

“Not as much as you think. I think they’ll release her sooner rather than later, especially since they went ahead and pressured her into getting sterlized, but her ass is gonna be out of Maywitch completely, and with some really ugly terms.” Tierra folded her arms, keeping her gaze fixed on Kay.

After a long silence, Kay glanced away, searching for words as she stared off at the opposite end of the hallway. “I’ll be there for her,” she murmured. “If they let me be there, anyway.”

“I mean…” Tierra paused, glancing away. “They are more likely to let you two be around each other if you’re still on their orders.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you’re a bounty hunter and your residence doubles as a safehouse, they might task you with keeping an eye on her. If you’re just a regular mage, they will likely make her whereabouts classified. Either way, they may try to keep you two away from each other if, but I think that first one has a decent chance of happening since Bailey will be staying with you too. Two sets of eyes on Nadia, then. This is all assuming the investigation shakes out in our favor, though.”

The uncertainty Kay had felt began to melt. She tried to temper the hope welling up in her heart as she fumbled with her obsidian pendant. “Why didn’t you tell me that sooner?”

“Because I just now figured out from the look on your face that there’s something going on between the two of you. You blushed a little, too.”

Kay raised a hand to her face. “Huh? No I didn’t—”

“I had my suspicions, but you two are pretty subtle, eh?”

“Wait, what are you—”

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell them. ‘Cause if they suspect fraternization, they won’t let you two anywhere near each other.”

Kay searched Tierra’s expression, but the senior mage’s smile was sincere. “She earned my trust back, in a weird way. You’ve earned it, too. That’s all. Don’t act so surprised,” Tierra murmured, waving a hand. “Go. George has a meeting in the big conference room in a few, and he’ll be pissed if he sees you standing around.”

“Right,” Kay said, glancing over her shoulder. “Thanks, Tierra. Take care of yourself, okay?”

“Same to you,” Tierra said, raising a hand in a half-hearted wave as she turned to leave. “Be careful out there.”

——————————————————————————

It took several minutes for the flush to fade from Kay’s face. She once again had to fight to keep happiness from overwhelming her; she knew the dangers of getting her hopes up. The process of packing her things seemed much less tedious than she had expected, though, and she made quick work of shoving her few possessions into a duffel bag and beat-up suitcase Maywitch had given her.

She glanced around the room one last time and spotted Nadia’s books on the shelf on the wall. Kay wondered if she could take one of them to Nadia’s quarantine ward, but then remembered that the guards were coming any minute. George had made it clear that she had to leave within thirty minutes of signing her resignation paperwork, and she was rapidly approaching that deadline.

Maybe – just maybe – she and Nadia could be reunited upon her release. Maybe if certain people pushed for it. Maybe if the right combination of Maywitch’s dysfunctional politics and understaffing resulted in a perfect set of circumstances. Maybe if the stars aligned.

If that was what Nadia even wanted, anyway. Kay pushed the thought aside as she shouldered the duffel bag. There was a knock at the door, and she turned and opened it without missing a beat.

“Coming.”

 

 

Epilogue

 

Ten weeks later

 

Wojtec and I had to fight to get George to let her stay with you. If the Board hadn’t voted to hold Gardner solely responsible for the Grimoire fiasco, George would’ve had the power to keep you and her from seeing each other ever again, period. But with us as short-staffed as we are, he didn’t have much of a choice but to utilize you. It also helped when I pointed out that your mother may use a wheelchair now, but she sure as fuck can still use magic.

You’re welcome. Don’t fuck this up, Adamis.

The message from Tierra’s burner phone was curt and emotionless, but Kay couldn’t keep from grinning as she read it over and over again. It had arrived three days prior, right before George had called to announce one of Kay’s new assignments: keeping an eye on Nadia as she readjusted to civilian life. Kay’s new cabin in the forests of southern Michigan wasn’t an ideal location, but apparently it was the best option Maywitch had. Maybe the absurd distance from civilization was a selling point.

She stared out the front window and sat up straighter when she saw movement at the edge of the clearing around the cabin. “Mom, I think it’s them,” she called, knowing that Bailey would probably sense the approach of other mages.

“I figured!” Bailey shouted from the other room. “And I meant what I said about tearing George apart if there’s a scratch on her!”

Kay sighed. Even with her mother’s newly-limited mobility, she was still more than capable of tearing someone’s limbs off. As a black sedan trundled into the sunlit clearing, Kay stepped over to the door and unlocked it, her fingers shaking slightly as they fumbled with the deadbolt.

Nervous, excited, worried – all the jumbled things going on inside her head would be over in a few minutes. She would get the answer to her question when Nadia walked in.

The car stopped, and after a few seconds, one of the rear doors opened. Nadia emerged, her silhouette unchanged, though her hair was uncharacteristically wet and limp. The burns over the right side of her face and neck had faded, but pale pink scar tissue lay in their place. Darker, almost spiderweb-like patterns lay against the scar tissue, their muted raspberry shades almost invisible from the distance Kay was at.

Well, Kay thought sullenly, the only scratches on her seem to be the ones I left. She folded her arms and stared out the door window, waiting for Nadia to make eye contact.

Nadia fetched her own luggage from the trunk; Kay was tempted to go help her, but she had been given clear instructions to not approach the car. Instead, she opened the front door and reached out a hand.

“I’ll help you get it up the steps,” she called.

“I got it,” Nadia replied as she swung her backpack over one shoulder.

Kay’s heart flip-flopped at the tepid response, but she reminded herself that Nadia would deliberately act as calm as possible as long as anyone from Maywitch was around. She was an actress and a diplomat to the core.

Nadia waved to the driver as she lugged her suitcase and duffel bag to the door. Kay reached for the duffel bag, and Nadia handed it over after a moment’s hesitation. When they were inside, Kay closed the door and opened her mouth to greet Nadia properly.

Nadia’s forehead furrowed before she threw her arms around Kay’s neck. “I’m here,” she murmured. “I thought they’d change their mind; they haven’t let me out of their sight for so long.”

“Are you okay?” Kay asked as she carefully wrapped her arms around Nadia’s waist.

“I’ll be fine.”

Kay’s prior tension faded and was replaced by rage. She couldn’t imagine the relief Nadia had to be feeling – as well as the pain at having been treated like a rabid animal for the past three months. Tierra hadn’t given her day-to-day updates on Nadia’s status, and for a long while, Kay was grateful she was being spared the details.

Now she was starting to wish she did know.

“Maybe I should’ve done more,” she murmured, resting her cheek against Nadia’s wet hair. “I’m sorry, Nadia. If I would’ve known it would be so long and terrible…”

“What the hell else were you supposed to do? If you fought them on it, they wouldn’t have let you be a bounty hunter, and they would’ve blacklisted you for good.”

“Yeah, but…”

“It’s – it was a nightmare, but it could’ve ended with me being sent somewhere random and having to check in with some jerkoff who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me. This is much better.” Nadia pulled away and took a deep breath, avoiding Kay’s gaze. “How’s Bailey?”

“Good. She’s resting at the moment. Wore herself out with physical therapy exercises earlier.”

Nadia grinned. “Typical.”

“Kay, bring her here, please,” her mother’s voice called from down the hall.

“Right. I’m taking her stuff upstairs so it’s out of your way,” Kay called back as she grabbed Nadia’s suitcase.

Nadia made a soft noise of protest and set a hand on Kay’s arm, and Kay grinned as she turned around again. “I got it. The stairs are a little narrow.”

“But, I wanted to—” Nadia stopped and pulled her hand away.

Kay stared back, her heart racing. “What?”

“Are you really okay with me being here?” Nadia had dropped her volume to a low whisper, and she searched Kay’s expression as if scouring a book for answers.

“Of course,” Kay said. She realized too late that her tone came out slightly exasperated, and she tried to counteract it by waving her free hand and smiling. “Of course I wanted you here—”

She fell silent as she noticed Nadia’s flushed cheeks. Nadia seemed to notice her gaze, closed her eyes, and moved in for a kiss, closing the space between them in an instant.

Kay leaned in and let her lips be claimed. The warmth was both reassuring and paralyzing. She let go of the suitcase and pulled Nadia close again, running clumsy fingers over the small of Nadia’s back. She felt hands slide up to rest on the slopes above her collarbones, a light, enticing touch almost lost behind the fabric of her turtleneck.

It was everything Kay had hoped for after three long months. She couldn’t help but smile, but the motion broke off the kiss. She heard a soft breath of laughter, and when she opened her eyes, Nadia had glanced away with a smile on her lips as well.

“Why do you keep doing that?” Kay asked, her voice low.

For several seconds, Nadia gaped like a fish out of water, her face slowly turning pink. “That – that? Sorry, I mean, if you don’t want me to, I—”

“Wait, wait,” Kay said, grinning and waving a hand. “I guess I phrased that kinda shitty.”

“Maybe you did!”

“I just…” Kay trailed off as she searched Nadia’s shocked expression. Nadia pulled her hands away and folded them in front of her, still refusing to meet Kay’s eyes.

Great, Kay thought. Now she had to be the first one to say it. “I like you a lot,” she mumbled, jamming her hands in her pockets. “And – I dunno.”

“Well, I like you a lot too. Does that answer your question?”

Nadia glanced up, her eyes shimmering in the pale yellow glow of the front room. Before Kay could even slow down and think, she rested a finger under Nadia’s chin and kissed her firmly, praying that they could stay like that for a long time – forever, if possible.

The floorboards down the hall squeaked in warning. It sounded like Bailey had hauled herself into her wheelchair and headed out to investigate what was taking so long.

Typical, Kay thought as she pulled away and rested her hand on Nadia’s suitcase again. “Lemme take these upstairs, okay? More room for Mom’s wheelchair that way.”

“Thanks. I should greet Bailey properly, but lemme get some water first,” Nadia mumbled as she took a deep breath. Her face was darker red than Kay had ever seen it, and she quickly crossed the room to the sink as Kay hauled the suitcase toward the stairs.

The scene was oddly serene: Nadia, her hair short yet messy, stood at the sink in a worn t-shirt and yoga pants with bangle bracelets clinking against each other as she poured a glass of water. It almost felt like they were playing house again, Kay thought.

Maybe the peace and quiet would actually last this time.

 

  1. # #

 

For more Maywitch stories, check out Hazeltown, a web serial on [+ Wattpad+] and Tablo!

Stay tuned for more works by following me on Twitter: @Ria_fritz

Or check my website: www.riafritz.com

 


Maywitch

When suspicious incidents begin rattling North America, it doesn't take long for the authorities to realize that something supernatural is happening. To solve the problem, though, they'll have to ask for help from Maywitch - the organization of mages tasked with keeping their peers in check. Kay Adamis, a young witch struggling through college, doesn't complain too much when Maywitch drafts her. She's a decent firecaster who's better at magic than studying, and since her parents aren't around, she could use some help paying her bills. But nobody warned her that the casualties were quietly mounting after months of magical unrest and resulting cover-ups. Demon-summoners and necromancers lurk in the shadows, and some of them seem to be banding together - with potentially dire consequences. With Maywitch's enemies growing stronger every day, Kay has to learn to trust her new companions and herself while rooting out the cause of the chaos unfolding around them. Content Note: Recommended for ages 15+ due to violence and profanity.

  • ISBN: 9781370958238
  • Author: Ria Fritz
  • Published: 2017-05-02 23:05:23
  • Words: 93814
Maywitch Maywitch