Magic Born Book One

Magic Born Book One

 

Monique is a broken witch on the run. Three years ago, she escaped being sacrificed at Vendex Academy for Magic.

She’s been running since. Until now. Chance draws her back into the magical world, and one man won't let her leave.

Monique is thrust into a world of violent intrigue, of old money and power, and of poisoned destinies.

She has one chance. One man. And one way out.

 

Chapter 1

“I can’t be back here. Goddammit, I can’t be back here,” I whispered to myself as I shifted through the moonlit lawns.

The Academy was right there in front of me, a disparate amalgamation of low buildings. From the outside, it looked like nothing more than some old Besser brick school from the seventies.

From the inside? It was a castle.

Oh yeah, and a prison. One I’d escaped three years ago. And yet one I was dragging my sorry ass back to.

As I shifted forward, always keeping low to the ground, my fingers pressing into the gravel as I stopped methodically every few seconds to check that the coast was clear, I tilted my head up and I stared at the sky. It was the dead of the night. I’d walked through the outskirts of town to get here, and there hadn’t been a soul around. I hadn’t even heard a barking dog. Everyone and everything had been quiet.

Here? There was a meeting going on. Slicing my gaze to the left, I kept a wary eye on the gymnasium building. A soft yellow glow was making it out from underneath the closed doors at the front.

From within, if I stilled my breath and importantly bolstered my senses, I heard voices. Low and muttering, here and there they were interspersed with worried fits of fear.

The parents of Vendex Academy for Magic were not happy.

They had every right to be furious. Their kids were going missing.

Wait, did I say missing? I meant used. Their children were being sacrificed in a secret ritual banned in the rest of the magical world. But a ritual that had nonetheless been brought back by the prestigious, rich, bastard boys of Vendex, as I called them.

The Elites. That’s what they called themselves. And they dedicated their time to reading through the forbidden annals of dark magic to bring back rituals long passed. Rituals that promised power unlike anything the current magical world had seen.

Me? I’d been one of their targets. But unlike everyone else, I’d gotten away.

“Come on. Drag your ass forward,” I spat to myself under my breath as I continued to push through the grounds.

The first thing I wanted to do was set a magical charge sparking between my fingers to cast a protection spell around myself, but I knew I couldn’t risk it.

Vendex might’ve been going to hell – literally – but the school was still protected by enchantments.

If someone was stupid enough to practice magic outside at night, they would be dealt with. Swiftly and brutally.

Once upon a time, I would never have been able to imagine a life without magic. I would never have been able to imagine doing even the simplest task without relying on a spell. From washing the dishes, to driving a car, to reading a frigging book, I’d relied on power since learning I was a witch.

Now, I’d learned how to live like a mortal. I’d had to. The more I practiced magic out in the real world, the more likely it would be that the bastard boys would find me.

“Come on,” I muttered under my breath. “Time’s ticking.”

That’s something else that had changed over the past several years. I’d started talking to myself. You would too if you’d been in my position. I had no one else. No one. No family, no friends. It was just me.

To wile away the lonely nights and to stop myself from going insane as I flitted through the city or eked out another week in my cabin in the woods, I had to keep myself company.

But now was not the time to advertise my position by chatting to myself.

Driving my fingers harder into my palm, I shifted past the gymnasium. With one last wary look at the glow filtering out from under the doors, I took a breath and pushed it hard into my stomach.

I made my way toward the primary school building. It looked old and bedraggled, unloved and barely used.

That was the point.

To the ordinary inhabitants of this city, Vendex Academy was a derelict building that, for reasons unknown to the Council, never seemed to be sold or demolished.

There were so many protection spells in place around it that witches and wizards could safely come and go without a mortal ever noticing.

The spells also protected the buildings’ true appearance. While on the outside they might look like ugly dumps, on the inside, they were palatial. If I was stupid enough to close my eyes, I could trace a perfect memory of the massive school hall, the huge, well-appointed magical classrooms, and the accommodation block. I wasn’t that stupid, though. Because if I closed my eyes too hard, shutting them like trapdoors, the memory of the day I was kidnapped would slam into me, front and center, as if someone had fired a bullet right into my cerebellum.

That memory would be stuck in my blood and bones for the rest of my damn life.

“Move,” I whispered to myself, ensuring my voice could not carry.

I shifted all the way past the gymnasium, not even turning over my shoulder to give that glowing light one last flickering look. I blocked out the sound of the parents and their worried, terrified tones.

I couldn’t help them.

I was just one witch.

If the magical world wanted help, it would have to wake up and see what was happening to it before it was too late.

I finally reached the main school building. The steps that led up to the old, cracked door that looked as if the paint had been sandpapered off it were all chipped. Hell, the entire façade looked as if somebody had sprayed it with bullets. Chunks of Besser brick littered the ground around it, and the whole façade was so darkened with mold and grit, it looked as if the building was centuries old.

Well, that was if you looked at it at face-value. If you looked at it with your mortal eyes, as we say in the magical world, it seemed as if you could kick down the door with nothing more than a tap of your foot.

As I pushed closer to the door, coming to a stop on the final step, I rounded my hands into fists, half closed my eyes, and concentrated, letting the first tiny spark of magic charge in my rib cage. It spread through my body, feeling like I’d swallowed electricity.

With my eyes still only half open, I stared at the door anew. And I saw what really lay beneath.

Vendex Academy was revealed to me in all its glory.

What lay beneath. I’d unconsciously used that phrase. As I realized that, I curled my hands into fists. They were even harder than before, and this wasn’t to help me reach into my magic. This was to stop the wave of vengeful hatred that pulsed through my stomach.

You see, what lay beneath was a phrase the Elites used.

It was one of their favorites, in fact. Those bastards lived to destroy things just to find out what they were made of. From animals to buildings to people – they didn’t care what they had to kill, all that mattered to them was breaking things down to use them as fuel for their dark spells.

“Get on with it,” I muttered to myself.

I had a finite amount of time before the school meeting ended and the teachers returned. I had to get into the Academy, find what I needed, and get out before anyone spotted me.

But to do that, I’d have to get through the door first.

I’d hoped that I wouldn’t have to use much magic to infiltrate the Academy. But as I reached a hand forward, placed my fingers tenderly on the apparently chipped paint of the door, and closed my eyes again, I realized that hope had been nothing but a foolish wish.

“Dammit. They’ve changed the locks,” I hissed.

Wincing one eye open, I reluctantly let a spark of magic charge through my chest.

It was like a drug. It honestly was. It took me back to a time far easier than the last three years of torture I’d been forced to endure.

When I joined Vendex Academy, a clueless foster kid who’d only found out she’d been magical at the age of 10, I’d thought the magical world was perfect. Like a fairytale. Like a goddamn movie. A place you could go to do the incredible. A place where nothing was hard. A place where every single problem had a magical solution.

Yeah, and a place that had quickly turned into a nightmare.

That wasn’t the point, though. This was. The way my heart raced, the way my limbs pulsed with energy – an energy that almost made me believe I could fly.

Practicing magic was like taking some kind of narcotic.

It was an easy way out of all your problems. It was an easy way into almost limitless power.

But just like a narcotic, it cost you dearly.

Rely too heavily on magic, use it as a crutch, and you’ll lose all your other life skills.

Push yourself too far into it, and the addiction will claim your goddamn soul.

“I’m in control,” I whispered as quietly as I could as I flattened my hand against the chipped paint.

I let that spark of magic spread through my chest, but I did not let it spread unchecked. I didn’t give in to the sensation of freedom, of blessed relief, and of limitless potential. I kept it contained, building a virtual wall around it as if it was a poison that, if left unchecked to spread through my body, would kill me in seconds.

“I command you to open. Argentum sum,” I muttered quietly when my first spell didn’t work.

Movies and books will tell you that magic is as easy as muttering some old Latin incantation under your breath. Or maybe it’s as easy as grabbing a few skinks, some sulfur, some hair, and a cauldron or two. Real magic is all about combination. Of forces, of myths, of thoughts.

That’s how the natural world is created. Everything is constituted out of novel combinations of matter. If you know enough about the chemical components, you can create virtually anything.

It’s the same with the magical world. Spells are combinations of forces.

While there are plenty of divisions within the magical world, and plenty of various forms of magic, all rely on some form of combination.

At the Academy, there were four different divisions of magical practice. There were those who combined thoughts, those who combined feelings, those who combined the living, and those who combined the dead.

I was the last of the divisions. But before you take that to mean that I was some necromancer, let me define exactly what is meant by the dead. It’s not corpses, though sometimes it can be. The dead is a concept that constitutes all matter that isn’t alive. From dirt, minus all the microbes, to air, to rock, to metal – dead witches combine the inanimate to form power.

While there were different groupings within dead witches, with some literally specializing in necromancy, I was a metal witch. Most of my spells – and certainly my most powerful – came from combining the properties of metal, just like a metallurgist in the mortal world.

By calling on the different properties of various elements and alloys, I managed to create enchantments.

And that’s precisely what I did now as I muttered my signature spell under my breath.

“Argentum sum.”

Silver I am.

As soon as the words struck the air, it vibrated. The energy didn’t shift out in a wave of power like a tsunami crashing against the shore. It pushed through me and my immediate surrounds, pulsing through my body, momentarily tricking my flesh into thinking it was as strong as silver.

Shoving my hand all the way into the door, I heard the wood start to crack.

Though the last thing I wanted to do was leave evidence of the fact I’d been here, time was rapidly ticking down.

Plus, I had an ace up my sleeve.

As strong as silver, as strong as damn silver – I pushed my mind into that enchantment until it pulsed through my body, until it tricked my flesh into thinking my hand was nothing more than an extension of a silver rod.

The door creaked, giving one final protestation until, with a crack, it broke.

Shards of wood fell forward, scattering over the floor beyond.

Instantly, my skin crawled as recognition flooded through me.

I peered down the massive, wide corridor into the huge atrium that usually welcomed students.

It hadn’t changed one bit. It was still as grand as ever. It looked as if it belonged in some massive, Gothic cathedral from Europe.

It had the same grand feel, too. It was also pregnant with magic. So much force had been practiced in these halls over the years, every single dust mote was imbued with it.

I shivered as I crossed the threshold. Memories slammed into me. The first day I’d come here. My first friends – my first enemies, too.

And as for those enemies, you shouldn’t have to stretch your mind far to appreciate they were from the Elite.

I’d always been an outcast. A kid who’d only come into her magic late in life, I was always going to be a target for those who’d come from the old, established magical families. More than that, I had no idea who my parents were. I’d been a foster kid since the age of five. Before that, one of my grandma’s friends had looked after me until she’d died in an accident.

One of the first lessons I’d learned about the magical world wasn’t its inherent power – it was its inherent class structure. The older your family, the more prestige that brought you. The further back you could trace your magical roots, the better. For a foster kid who’d only come into magic at 10, I was always going to be a target.

But my targeting had gone beyond my lack of prestige. The Elites had locked onto me like a hawk onto a mouse. They’d seen in my fragile, uneducated form a soft target.

“Yeah, well I’m not soft anymore,” I muttered, grinding my fingers into my palm. All the while, I tricked myself into thinking I was silver.

You might think there was little point to a silver spell. You’d be wrong. Silver is one of the best conductors of heat and electricity. Magic is a heck of a lot like electricity. By tricking myself into thinking I was silver, I was allowing my body to conduct magic more freely. I was smoothing out the pathways between my cells, pushing away any blockages in my bloodstream, and allowing force to pulse through me uninterrupted.

In another step, I turned around, spread a hand behind me, and I muttered a single word under my breath. “Resin.” As soon as the word hit the air, magic pulsed out, freely spreading through my form and shifting toward the broken shards of wood around me. “Rise again,” I muttered in a commanding voice. “You will heal like a tree wounded. Rise again. Rise again.”

There was a scattering sound like claws across marble as every single shard of wood dragged itself back toward the door.

One by one, they fixed themselves together, their inherent memory of what they had once been rising to the fore as, like an army of ants, they clambered over one another.

In several seconds as the air charged with my magic, the door reknit itself. With a pop and a scratching sound like claws down a blackboard, the last wood healed itself until the door looked as if it was brand-new.

I flicked my gaze toward it, appreciating that despite the fact I’d barely cast that much magic in the past several months, I hadn’t lost any of my power.

I was a natural, see. I might not have a prestigious family, but that hadn’t changed the fact that from the first day I’d come to the Academy, my skills had grown exponentially. Metal witches were rare, after all. Dead witches not so much, but witches who fundamentally understood how to combine properties and make the most out of the unnatural world – yeah, there was hardly any of us at Vendex. There’d been so few in fact, that despite the fact the Academy spanned 15 years of tutelage right up from primary school to graduate university, there’d only been five of us. There were at least a thousand witches studying at Vendex. It was the biggest Academy on the East Coast. And yet, out of those thousand, we five material witches were it.

If it weren’t for that class, and importantly, everything my teacher had taught me, I would never have been able to survive my kidnapping.

Right now, I’d be dead like the other witches who’d been taken from Vendex. Taken and sacrificed to the Elite like the choicest cuts of meat.

“Water, wash away like water. Flow like water. Clean. Remove. Dilute.” I muttered that spell under my breath as I brought my hands wide. Spreading my fingers until the webbing stretched, and half closing my eyes, I pushed that spell through me, still forcing my body to be as conductive of magic as it possibly could be.

It worked, and the spell flowed through the room.

Whilst casting magic outside was one thing, and it was safer to cast magic in the halls of the school, I still had to be careful not to leave any evidence.

And what better way to clean up after yourself than with water?

I didn’t send actual floods of water washing down the hallway. Instead, I simply concentrated on the essence of its properties. I let it flood through me, flowing like a torrential downpour until I was certain that even if a few traces of my spell remained, they would be so diluted, no one would be able to figure out who had cast them.

Once I was done, I wiped my hands on my pants, and I continued forward.

Walking through these halls felt like wandering back into a nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong, for several years, the Academy had been my refuge. Ignoring the fact the Elites had bullied me mercilessly, back in the early days, I’d still been so caught up by the sheer possibilities of magic. I’d been taken by the… magic of it, if you will. Back then, when I’d been learning about this world, and most importantly, when I’d been learning about my own incredible power, it had seemed as if there was nothing I couldn’t do.

Now? My life was so narrow, so trapped, it was generous to refer to it as a life and not as a living prison.

“But at least you’re alive, you idiot,” I muttered under my breath, nipping that thought in the bud before it could grow.

I might not be a thought witch, or a feeling witch, but I could appreciate that if you sought out too much negativity in your mind and allowed it to grow, it would overtake your psyche like weeds.

Shoving a hand in my pocket and pulling out a map I’d made, I meticulously unfolded it, caring for the paper as if it were my own child. And hey, it’d taken three whole years to produce not just nine months.

Whilst I might have spent my time since fleeing the Academy on the run, I hadn’t wasted a second.

Though it had been dangerous, I’d been seeking out certain magical tomes and items, all in aid of casting one of the hardest spells there was.

I wanted to disappear. Completely erase myself from the magical world. I wanted to end this nightmare. The only way to do that would be to erase all evidence of me. From Vendex, from the Elites – from everything I’d ever had to do with the magical world.

Suffice to say, it wasn’t the kind of spell they’d taught us at the Academy. Technically we’d learned of it, but only in history class, and only as a curiosity.

It was a theoretical spell no one had ever managed to cast before. It required too much power, and the risks associated with it were so severe, they were barely worth listing. Essentially, only someone with a death wish would attempt it. Well, I didn’t have a death wish, but I was a dead witch walking, and if I didn’t risk my life on this, I’d lose anyway.

There was a finite amount of time I could stay on the run. Sure, I’d managed it for three years – and that was three years longer than anyone would have been able to expect, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Because I knew what was after me.

The Elites would do anything to ensure their secret didn’t get out.

Navigating down the massive wide primary corridor that branched off to the various classrooms, I didn’t drop my map or fold it back up and place it neatly in my pocket.

It was a blueprint of this section of the school.

When I said I was strolling down one long, massive corridor, I’d failed to mention that it branched at random intervals. It was a magical building, after all. It was also a school that was designed to satisfy 15 different years of tutelage. The classrooms where the high school students studied magic were materially different to those where the graduate students studied and researched.

And yet, technically, they were all located in the same space, over the top of each other. When you graduated one grade and moved up to the next, you were given the spells required to access the new classrooms.

I’d never made it into graduate school, and I’d never technically been provided with the magical keys that would allow entrance into the classrooms. That didn’t mean I couldn’t force my way in.

With my eyes locked on my plan, I suddenly came to a stop. Magic sparked over the blueprint in front of me, a few tiny dots coalescing into a point right by my side.

I’d cast a location spell on this map, and it was one of the trickiest spells I’d ever managed.

I hadn’t been confident it would work until now. Now, I stifled the satisfied smile that threatened to swallow my lips as I shifted quickly to the side and placed a hand on the closed and locked classroom door to my left.

I half-closed my eyes. “I can see what is beneath. I am like an x-ray. I am like gamma radiation. I can penetrate matter. I can move between. Nothing is stopping me from seeing through this door. Nothing is stopping me from seeing through this door,” I spat louder, forcing more magic to conduct through my body and pushing it out through my hand.

I opened my eyes. Instantly sparks of magic spread through my vision. It looked as if I’d shoved my head into a bucket of glitter.

I squinted, trying to stare past those sparks until finally, I saw beyond to the classroom behind the door.

If my spell hadn’t worked, I’d be staring at one of the ordinary classrooms. If it had, I’d be staring at a research lab.

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Two classrooms seemed to be imposed over one another. They blurred together as if someone had taken two photos on a computer and overlaid them.

I resisted the urge to recast my spell, instead concentrating on reminding my body it was just like silver, and like silver it could conduct magic through me with no resistance, conducting it until my whole body bled force into the environment.

Just when I thought the spell would fail, I finally saw the research lab.

A shot of adrenaline blasted through me, but I didn’t dare remove my hand from the door. I just opened my eyes wider, fixing them on the lab.

It was wide and large, easily taking up 20-meters square. There were long lab tables in the middle, covered in complicated magical research materials from devices used to detect background force, to magical sterile compartments you could use to lock specimens away in overnight. There was a large window along one side of the room. It seemed to show nothing but blackness beyond. Though I knew from experience that it was dark outside, I doubted that window stared out onto the outside of the building.

No. Presumably it looked into some kind of experiment chamber.

My back crawled.

“I can see what is really there,” I said in a low but commanding tone. “This door has shown me what is within. And now it will open for me. It will open like a flower to sunshine. It will open like a hand. It will open. It will open,” I chanted.

I never lost track of my silver spell. It was the cornerstone of my entire magical practice. It’s what had set me apart, even in the material magic class. Though the other material practitioners had possessed the ability to combine elements, their primary spells had all been glitzier than mine.

They combined with things stronger and more powerful.

But strength is one thing. The ability to ensure your strength can translate into action another. The reason I had based my entire magical practice around a silver spell was that what it lacked in power, it made up for in application. Due to silver’s unparalleled conductivity, I could force more magic through my body into the environment.

And that’s precisely what I did now.

“You will open. I have seen what is truly behind you, door. And seeing is the first step to believing. You will open. There is no reason for you to remain locked.”

There was a click. It wasn’t loud, and yet I swear it echoed down the corridor.

The handle shifted under my grip, opening itself.

Expectation squirmed through my middle as the door swung open.

I walked into the lab.

The first thing I noted was the temperature. It was cold. The rest of the school was a habitable temperature, but in here, it felt as if there was a frost.

I didn’t bother to clamp my arms around my middle and try to lock my body heat in. I wasted no time in marching up to the first lab table.

I grabbed up the nearest specimen box, peering inside.

There was a talisman within, one made up of a knot of bones tied together with human hair.

Despite the fact the specimen box was keeping the talisman’s power at bay, my x-ray spell was still working, and I swore I could see the magic leaking off the thing. It looked like dark swathes of acrid smoke – smoke that wouldn’t just choke you, but smother you like a pillow to your mouth.

I shivered, placing the specimen box back down.

“Come on, where is it? I know it’s in this lab. It has to be in this lab,” I whispered to myself harshly, not wanting to face the prospect that after years of planning this heist, it could all go to hell.

If it did go to hell, I’d go with it.

I needed something called a bolster charm for the next stage of my disappearance spell. Not just any bolster charm, one capable of being melted.

Though magical talismans were inherently powerful objects, they lacked the transformative capabilities of the witches and wizards who made them.

While I could transform my very form with magic only to return safely to my flesh-and-blood body, few talismans could undergo complete material transformation without being destroyed.

The ones that could were highly sought-after.

Find yourself a talisman that could safely transform without being destroyed, and you could cast all sorts of forbidden spells. You could change your body and bring the talisman with you through the process, imprinting spells on it, or just using it to increase the force of your magic.

I needed a bolster charm specifically so that I could keep myself safe during the transformation spell I would have to cast in order to disappear once and for all.

“Come on, come on,” I muttered under my breath, sprinting around the room, checking every single magical box on the lab desks.

Beads of sweat started to slip over my brow as I appreciated my worst fears could be realized. My intel could’ve been wrong. Or maybe it was just out of date. Maybe this lab had held a transformable bolster charm, but it had already been removed and stored elsewhere. Or hell, maybe it had been taken out of the Academy altogether, rendering this entire trip completely useless.

But there was a difference between this trip being useless, and it being dangerous. And that difference came to the fore as, outside in the corridor, I heard footsteps.

My blood chilled. It felt as if I’d swallowed liquid nitrogen as my heart skipped a beat.

Slowly I turned my head over my shoulder, facing the door. It was still open. I hadn’t bothered to close it, because I hadn’t honestly thought the meeting in the gymnasium would come to an end for another 20 minutes or so.

But I couldn’t ignore the sound of those methodical footsteps. Nor could I ignore it when they suddenly stopped, only several meters back from the open door.

Dammit.

Goddammit.

If there’d been one constant over the last three years of being on the run, it had been fighting.

Other witches had found me, either sent by the Elites or by the Magic Enforcement Body. And every time they had, I’d been forced to fight for my life.

That fight was about to begin anew.

Chapter 2

Whoever was outside paused. They paused for all of three seconds until they threw themselves forward.

I brought my hands up and charged them with magic long before a faceless golem security guard streaked around through the open door.

“Dammit,” I spat viciously, the word cutting easily through the air like a sword.

The last time I’d been to the Academy three years ago, there had been security officers, sure, but they’d been relatively low-level golems. This guy looked as if he’d taken the whole teaching board to summon.

I didn’t need to see his two powerful fiery eyes to appreciate how much raw magic was trapped inside his fabricated body. All I had to do was stare at the ground beneath his feet. The floor was singeing beneath his shoes as excess force flooded off his body, pushed through his enchanted boots, and burnt the polished concrete.

The golem took one look at me, opened a mouth that hadn’t been there seconds before, and got ready to give off a warning scream.

“No, you don’t,” I stammered quickly as I shoved a hand forward toward the door behind him. “You are lead. Strong, impenetrable, no sound will make it through you. No sound will make it through you,” I spat so quickly, every word was nothing more than a spitting, continuous hiss.

I managed to cast my spell just in time, and the door slammed closed half a second before the golem could let out an earsplitting cry.

I watched magic surge over the door, and even from here, I could feel my spell taking hold.

Despite the fact the golem screamed with all its considerable magical might, the door was now too thick to even let a single sound through.

“Unregistered witches will be removed from school grounds. Piece by piece,” the golem added. Its voice – if you could call it a voice – was purely mechanical. It sounded like words that had been made by moving cogs and wheels.

There was no emotion behind it, and yet there was force. Specifically, the kind of force that burnt through the room as the security officer took another step toward me.

Singe marks scattered over the concrete, an unholy smell burning through the air. The golem wasted no time in bringing its hands up, its warning given and its attack about to begin.

I wasted no time in shifting backward, deliberately rounding my back, rolling onto the lab bench behind me, and flipping over the top of it. My move wasn’t graceful. I’d never been a particularly graceful girl. Most of the other witches in my grade had cared more about appearance spells – I’d cared about learning everything I could about being a powerful witch, and that training came to the fore now. The fact I’d spent the last three years doing nothing but training my physical body also helped. And that was an advantage no one else at this Academy had. They relied too much on magic to develop their inherent strength and stamina.

Planting my hands on the edge of the lab table, I flipped right over the back, pushed into a roll, and came up sharply behind it.

Before the golem could let out another roar, I charged my hands with magic and sunk them against the base of the lab table. “As dense as osmium, as heavy and unyielding. You will not yield. You are too heavy to be moved.”

Rather than jumping over the lab table to get to me, the golem roared and slammed into it. Its magic-encased body pounded into the table. But if it thought it could upend it to get to me, it was wrong. My spell sunk into the metal, holding it in place as I tricked it into thinking it was as immovable as a mountain.

I heard the golem jerk to the side, his shoes squeaking over the concrete floor as his attack was rebuffed. He fell over, slamming into the concrete and cracking it with ease.

Though it would be easy enough to hide behind this bench until my osmium spell gave way, I was skating on thin ice.

I had to defeat this golem, get out of here, and bury this chapter. I had to find another way to get a bolster charm.

But to do that I’d have to stay alive. A point that proved a little hard as the golem grabbed something up from his belt. I heard the sound, heard it as if someone had just cocked a gun by my ear.

“Shit,” I spluttered as I shoved hard to the left.

The next thing I knew, the golem chucked the grenade under the bench. The sound of it rolling over the floor was barely audible, but the sound of it arming shook me to the core.

I had seconds to throw myself out from behind the protection of the bench, and while it meant I managed to dodge the grenade before it could explode, taking a chunk of the floor with it, it put me right in the path of the golem.

The beast wasted no time in taking two swift steps toward me. Rather than reach down and try to get me in a headlock, he brought his leg up and tried to stomp on my arm.

I had half a second to remind myself I was silver. Goddammit, I was silver. I twisted my wrist around and brought my hand up, grabbing him by the heel. My force met his force.

I hadn’t been lying when I’d said it’d probably taken the entire board of teachers to summon this golem. The guy was so damn charged with magic, it was a surprise he hadn’t called down an accidental thunderstorm. Any ordinary student – even if they were a graduate – wouldn’t be able to take him on.

I wasn’t ordinary, and I sure as hell wasn’t a student anymore. So with a splitting scream that drove right up from my core and shook through my lungs, I goddamn held onto his foot before he could use it to crush my shoulder.

I could see up into his face, and I watched as his red, pitiless eyes widened, the magical fire that ran his body flickering with surprise – or at least as much surprise as an automaton could manage.

I didn’t pause and take the opportunity to let off a well-placed one-liner. I shrugged. Bolstering my shoulder, using not just magic, but the strength I’d been building for the past three years as I’d learned to control my real body, I goddamn pushed the golem over.

He tumbled to the side, smashing the back of his head against one of the benches behind him. It would’ve been a vicious blow, even to a witch or wizard. It didn’t affect the golem – just slowed him down. And that was all I needed. I pounced on top of his chest, flattening my hands either side of his temples.

I didn’t push. I’d managed to shove him over with my silver spell, but I knew for a fact that a golem’s skull was made of a reinforced magic lattice that could adapt to protect itself. There was a reason for that, see. If you wanted to deactivate a golem, you had to get into their skull and pull out the enchanted parchment that ran them.

There were two ways in – through the skull or through the eyes. The skull, as I’d already said, was practically impenetrable. The eyes? Yeah, though technically they were pretty large, and you might manage to fit a finger down there, said finger would be burnt off with all the ease of a volcano completely incinerating a paper flower.

The golem tried to block me off, shoving forward with all its considerable force. It felt like being rammed by a car.

I held on. More than anything, I held onto my silver spell as I continued to let it pulse through my body. I forced it to remind me that I was conductive. Any magic I produced would flow through me, unchecked, undiluted, pure and violent.

I believed that with all my freaking heart until I swore every single cell in my body wrote it into my goddamn DNA.

With a scream, I pushed. With all my might.

I didn’t care that this golem had a reinforced magical skull. I didn’t care that it was now attacking me with all its force. All I cared about was getting out of here.

Once upon a time, I hadn’t known this kind of grit and pure stamina had existed within me. I’d learned it three years ago. I’d learned it the day the Elites had come into my room, kidnapped me, and dragged me down to the bowels of the building. I’d learned it the day they’d tied me to a chair. I learned it the day they’d stuck a cannula in my neck and started to drain my blood right onto the floor by my feet. And I’d learned it the goddamn day they’d used that blood to feed a summoned.

Summoneds were precisely what they sounded like – creatures who had been brought forth with magic. Technically living beings that had been summoned onto the earth from another realm, be it Hell or one of the nether places. They were beings that were fundamentally against the natural order and had no place in the real world.

There was a reason demons didn’t exist in nature – they were completely anathema to it.

But with enough dark magic, there was little you couldn’t do. It might’ve been against multiple magical conventions to summon a demon, but the Elites didn’t give a shit about that. They also didn’t give a shit about the fact that most summoned demons demanded regular sacrifices. All the bastard boys wanted was power and prestige.

“You will break. Under my fingertips, you will be crushed. I am like stone. I am like stone, and you are like glass. You will crack. You will crack,” I roared.

Just when the golem forced into me with all its might, and just when it picked me up, threatening to slam me down against the already singed and pockmarked floor, I heard something start to crack underneath my fingers.

I almost couldn’t believe it as fissure lines appeared over the golem’s manufactured face.

It had a moment for its eyes to widen and pulse with power, then a massive crack blasted around its head.

It managed an unearthly scream, then it fell down to its knees.

I fell down with it, landing in its lap, never letting my hands loosen from around its temples.

I could barely catch my breath as I did the seemingly impossible and cracked right through the reinforced skull of a golem. As the top of its head fell off and clanged against the ground as if it were made out of mere tin, I saw the magical spinning parchment within that ran the beast.

I wasted no time in reaching in, snatching out the parchment, and snuffing out the fire encasing it, grinding it between my thumb and forefinger and not caring an iota as my skin scorched.

As soon as I removed the parchment from the golem’s skull, it lay still, flopping down like a doll that had never been capable of movement.

Gasping and struggling for air, I shoved back. I locked my hands on my knees and panted, my hair flopping in front of my face. Though I’d been in countless magical fights over the past three years, this had been by far one of the worst.

But I’d managed it, hadn’t I?

There was no time to let that thought settle. I shoved up, aiming for the door. Before I could reach it, I came to a screeching stop, turned, and realized just how damaged the lab was, not to mention the dirty great deactivated golem that was lying spreadeagled in the center of it. If I’d wanted to hide the fact I’d come here, this was like advertising it on a billboard outside the school.

“Dammit,” I spat quickly, locking a hand on my mouth and trying to breathe through my sweat-laced fingers. As my gaze darted around the room, I wondered just how much magic it would take to fix this mess up. “A water spell would at least get the traces of my magic out of the room,” I muttered to myself.

There was a light creak from behind me, but I took no heed of it. It sounded like nothing more than the walls protesting the onslaught they’d just received. A magical grenade had just gone off in this room, after all.

But there was one thing I could not ignore. Behind me, I heard a heavy breath. Before I could turn, jerk my hands up, and get ready for another fight, I heard someone give a frustrated chuckle. “Your magic is impregnated in the golem. You’re going to need more than a water spell to wash it out. You’ll need a fire spell. But you should know that, shouldn’t you? You’re the most promising student the school has ever had, Miss Monique Astra.”

Chapter 3

Terror engulfed me as I turned around, as I expected the worst.

I might’ve just been able to take on a sophisticated golem spell, but the teachers of this Academy were some of the best in the country. Even I had my limitations.

But as I turned, a spell readying on my lips, I paled.

“Professor Aventis?” I stuttered, my breath coming out in short, sharp pants.

Professor Aventis was one of the youngest teachers on the board of Vendex Academy. Only in his mid-forties while most of the rest of the teachers were in their sixties, Aventis had only made tenure at the prestigious Academy because of his pioneering work in material witchcraft. And that was precisely why I knew him. He’d taken my class.

Tall and wiry, with an open face, pale cheeks, and eyes that looked as if they’d seen more than his years, Aventis had been the only teacher who’d seen my worth. If it weren’t for him, I would never have learned to be the witch I was today. In other words, without his tutelage, I wouldn’t be alive.

But he was still a teacher at Vendex, and there was still a reward out on my head.

I hadn’t explained that bit yet, had I? I hated to think about it, let alone try to put the trauma into words. You see, being kidnapped and narrowly surviving the Elite and their ritual sacrifice had been one thing. A single step toward a cliff, if you will. The thing that had pushed me off that cliff was what had happened afterward.

I’d been framed for killing the late principal, Margaret Jacobs. It was a parting shot from the Elites. A way to ensure that even if they didn’t track me down, the magical enforcement squads would do it for them.

So I might’ve once liked Aventis, but that didn’t stop me from drawing up my magic-charged hands.

Aventis wasn’t in his academic robes. He was in jeans and a shirt. They framed his long form as, rather than drawing up his hands to begin the fight, he crossed his arms instead. He kicked one foot out and leaned against the doorway. He stared at me, his perpetually sad gaze flicking down my form. “The last three years haven’t been kind to you, have they, Monique?”

I didn’t reply to that with a spell. The only reason I didn’t was out of a misguided sense of loyalty to the one teacher who’d ever seen any worth in me. “Just let me go,” I said. “I don’t want to fight you.”

The smallest smile curled his lips. His gaze locked on my eyes and seemed to get stuck there as if he was searching my stare for something he hoped was still there.

“Just let me go, Aventis,” I whispered harshly. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

He flicked his gaze past me and locked it on the spreadeagled golem. The top of its skull was still smoking only several meters behind me.

Aventis was never a man of many words. The fundamental rule he taught us in class was that actions will always speak louder. Too much magic gets bogged down in thoughts and theorizing, when ultimately, the power of the material world is the only one that counts.

I didn’t need Aventis to say it to appreciate my point was moot. I hadn’t committed any crimes, ha? What about breaking into the school and destroying one of their security guards?

I let out a sharp sigh, clenching my teeth together and forcing the last of my breath through them until it came out in a continuous hiss. “Fine.” I selected a spell, getting ready to end this.

Before I could cast it, Aventis let his hands drop, and he took a step back. Slowly, he brought them up and spread them. He looked right into my eyes. “I don’t want to fight you either, Monique. Believe me when I say that.”

Though it could’ve been a ploy to waste my time, my hands froze in midair, just as magic started to spark across them.

“I know you didn’t kill the principal,” he said, his gaze so direct and unflinching, it was clear he believed what he was saying.

A chill raced across my cheeks, and my eyes widened. “What?”

“You didn’t kill the principal. She was found hung with magical rope. That’s not your style.” He nodded over my shoulder, indicating the destroyed golem. “That’s your style. If there was one thing I never managed to teach you, it was subtlety.”

Not knowing what to do, I kept my hands raised but took a step back. I knew my expression was conflicted, and if I was trying to hide my emotions from Aventis, I was failing abysmally. “What… what do you want?”

“To teach you one last lesson,” he said opaquely.

His expression and tone gave nothing away. I didn’t know if that was an insult, a threat, or an offer to help.

From behind us, out in the corridor, there was the sound of hurried footsteps.

Aventis had looked cool and in control. Until now. He backed out of the doorway, snapped his head to the left, and swore.

“What—” I began.

“Come on. It’s security. The golems must have remote sensors to alert them when one of their kind goes down. Must be yet another secret security provision the new principal’s brought in.”

I remained there, still and confused as I stared at Aventis, having no idea where I stood.

When I didn’t move, he snapped, “If you want to live, run.”

Live? I hadn’t lived properly in three years. But I sure as hell hadn’t died, either. So as Aventis snapped that statement, I finally kicked into gear. I shoved forward. All the while, I kept my hands charged with magic in case this was all a trap after all.

As I reached the door and shoved through it behind Aventis, he didn’t take the opportunity to whirl on his foot and cast a spell right in my face. He ushered me forward as he snapped his fingers to the left in a specific motion. He muttered something under his breath I couldn’t catch.

Around us, the wide corridor started to shift. There was the sound of moving cogs, and a vibration picked up through the floor, shaking hard into my ankles and knees.

Before me, the corridor shifted as if someone had mechanically pushed a whole new hallway beneath us. In a single step, the floor beneath my feet changed from well-trodden polished concrete to marble.

Instantly, the sound of golem footfall disappeared.

That didn’t stop Aventis from sprinting forward, his lanky form as fast as any athlete’s.

“Where is this hallway?” I spluttered. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“It’s the new administration wing. It leads up to the current principal’s office. Most of the school has been remodeled since your disappearance, Miss Astra.”

“How on earth did they get the magic to do this?” I spluttered.

Aventis let out a quick chuckle. “I see you haven’t forgotten your school history and still appreciate the intrinsic qualities of this building.”

I had no clue how to respond to that, so I didn’t. I just kept running by his side, even though I still had no idea if he was a friend or foe.

“Though much of this building is reprogrammable, some sections are not. The administrative wing used to be like that.”

I was in no mood for a lesson. I’d given up schooling three years ago. It had been hazardous to my health. But there was still something so memorable about Aventis’ tone, and I couldn’t help but be drawn in by his words. “So how the hell did they get enough money and magic to reprogram this place?”

“Neither money nor magic has been an issue for the past three years, Miss Astra. Vendex Academy has had both in spades.”

I opened my mouth to ask why, but I fancied I already knew. With disappearances of students on the rise, the school board would’ve had no trouble attracting funds from parents and the magic government. Chaos, after all, can be an exceptional fundraising tool.

“I don’t get it. Why build this wing in the first place? I thought that while rooms in the Academy can be reprogrammed, it was dangerous to change the foundations?”

“You do remember your history classes,” Aventis said, and I’d be a fool not to hear the pride in his voice. “And you’re correct. It is dangerous to make changes to the foundations of this building. It isn’t simply that it’s an old Academy and over the years it has soaked up more magic than can be reliably measured. This building is more than a place. It is sacred ground that was set aside for the tutelage of the next generations of practitioners. And in the pact the magic folk of yore made with this land, they agreed to make its roots stable.”

There would’ve been a time when I wouldn’t have been able to understand a word Aventis was saying. Sure, I would’ve been able to comprehend his words, but it took an appreciation of not just magic, but the history of practitioners across the world, to understand his true meaning.

Sites of historical power such as this Academy had to be rooted in their environment. They had to be balanced lest their considerable power start to leach out into the rest of the world around them. If you played with their roots, and you prevented their excess magic from discharging safely into the ground, you risked exposing them. At the very least, you risked excess magic making it out into the real world, changing people, animals, and places in unexpected ways.

If there was one cardinal rule that bound the disparate races of magic together, it was keeping its existence hidden from mortals.

“To answer your question, Miss Astra, you are correct – it is extremely dangerous to make lasting changes to the Academy. Especially those as large as the new principal has made. But I fear we are entering a time when danger is but a side note. All the current administrators care about is power.”

“That’s insane,” I muttered.

I’d tried to keep astride of magic news ever since I’d been forced to go into hiding. I’d thought I’d been doing a good enough job of it. I’d been frequenting the right places – in disguises, of course. I’d been tuning into the right radio stations and going to the right sites on the Internet. And yet, I hadn’t heard a word about this.

As he continued to run down the wide marble corridor, Aventis flicked his gaze toward me. “It seems you have been out of the loop these past three years. Where exactly have you been, and what have you been doing?”

I pressed my lips shut.

Aventis had always been a good judge of character, and though a man of few words, he knew how to read people like a book. He chuckled again, the move mirthless and nothing more than a quick, frustrated release. “I’m disappointed in you.”

“I didn’t kill the principal,” I snapped defensively, even though Aventis had already said he believed me.

“You were always my most promising pupil. You had something the rest of them didn’t have.”

I waited for him to say power.

He didn’t. “I thought you had a heart, Miss Astra.”

I blinked back my surprise. But then my jaw hardened. “Maybe I once had a heart, but this place kind of has the unparalleled ability to eat it right out of your chest,” I spat bitterly.

No more chuckles. Aventis looked right at me. “I see I was mistaken, then.”

I tried to stop myself from feeling ashamed at his comments, but I couldn’t. A wave of disappointment pushed through me, feeling like someone had wrapped chains around my chest and was trying to pull my heart from my torso. “I did what I had to to survive,” I snarled.

“I was wrong, Miss Astra, because I see you still have a heart.”

“What the hell makes you say that?”

“Remember, I’m a good judge of character.”

I opened my mouth. I didn’t get the chance to force my question out. From behind us, I heard the unmistakable sound of golem footsteps.

Aventis swore under his breath. “Dammit, I thought it would take more time for them to find us here. Quickly, this way.” He reached over, lightly grabbed my wrist, and pulled me to the side.

I could have stopped him in a snapped second. Hell, in a snapped second, I could have snapped his damn fingers. I didn’t. For whatever reason, I’d started to trust Aventis again. And maybe that trust was well placed. Because rather than run me right back into the arms of the golems, he took a sharp turn. Though at first it looked as if he was going to slam into the wall, he spread his fingers, cast a quick enchantment, and created a door.

He reached it and wrenched it open just before the golems could barrel around the corridor and spot us.

He pushed us both inside.

I knew where I was long before I staggered into the middle of one of the most opulent rooms I’d ever seen.

“This is the principal’s office,” I said with a ragged breath.

Aventis didn’t answer, keeping his hand locked around the door handle as he incanted under his breath to lock it.

His spell would take several seconds, so I took those seconds to take another unsteady step into the room.

I’d only been into this room – or at least the previous iteration of it – once. It had been the day I’d been kidnapped – and the day I’d been framed for the previous principal’s murder.

The room was now twice as large as it once had been. Photos of previous principals lined each wall, the portraits far more powerful than simple photographs and paintings of mortals. They had a presence behind them as if somehow each was concentrated moments in time as if the very power of previous principal’s had been distilled and locked behind each frame.

They could only hold so much of my attention, though, and just as Aventis finished his spell, I took a step toward the principal’s desk.

Sitting behind it on an arched section of high wall was the portrait of the current principal.

I’d never met the man. I’d heard of him, though.

“Chancellor Theodore Blackwood,” Aventis said from behind me as he walked into the middle of the room. “A relative unknown, he was given the primary stewardship role of the most important academy in the country out of nowhere.”

“I don’t know anything about him,” I admitted.

“He came out of private enterprise. He worked as a right-hand man for the Fairbrother Estate.”

Just hearing that word – Fairbrother – made my stomach pitch. I pressed my lips together, twisting them in tight as if they were a prison for the bitter emotion swelling in my throat. If I dared let it out, I’d start casting spells and trashing this office, ruining any hope I had of escape.

You see, I had a history with the Fairbrothers. Stanford Fairbrother was the head of the Elites. He was also a material practitioner just like me.

Out of all the Elites, Stanford was the one who’d locked onto me the most.

He had a reason. The boy despised practitioners without families. To him, you only counted in this magical world if you could trace your lineage back thousands of years. Any family with a more recent history was nothing but dirt to him.

At least the other witches and wizards at the Academy hadn’t been foster kids who’d come into their magic at 10 years old. As soon as he’d found out about my particular history, he’d zeroed in on me like a missile.

I couldn’t stop myself from grinding my nails hard against my palm, the jagged edges of them scratching easily over my skin.

It distracted me until Aventis walked up to me, hesitated, then placed a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I darted my head up and looked at him. For the first time since we’d met all of about two minutes ago, I used the very skills Aventis had taught me to judge his character. Knowing your enemy had always been one of Aventis’ primary tactical take-homes. It wasn’t enough to have power – especially not in this rapidly changing magical world where new spells were coming out of the woodwork every day and the very social structure was changing like sand underfoot. If you truly wanted to succeed, you had to understand how your enemy would think. It was only then that you would appreciate how much they would sacrifice and how far they would go.

Right now, I used those very same skills as I stared up into Aventis’ face. Was that the look of a man luring me into a trap?

Or was Aventis still the only teacher who’d ever cared about me?

He took a step back. He crossed his arms and gave me the same calculating look. “So?” he challenged after several more seconds. “Do I pass?”

I didn’t reply immediately. I narrowed my eyes, pressed my lips together, and ground my tongue against the top of my mouth. I wasn’t casting a spell so much as concentrating with all my human might. I called on the senses and skills I’d been forced to develop since leaving the magical world. Witches and wizards might think that stamina, strength, raw intelligence, common sense, and emotional understanding were useless tools for mortals who did not know better, but we practitioners often erroneously forgot we still had bodies too.

If you stripped away our magic, those bodies were the only things that would keep us alive.

Aventis cocked his head to the side. “Well? We don’t have all day. Do I pass the test, or are we going to have a fight in the principal’s office?”

“You pass,” I said slowly, allowing my arms to slacken and loosen by my sides. I took a step away from Aventis back toward the principal’s desk. I reached out a hand and rapped my knuckles against the old polished wood. There would’ve been a time when I would’ve been terrified to do so. At the Academy, you were taught that the principal was pretty much the most important person in your world. As the head of Vendex, they demanded your full respect. Now, I took quite a bit of pleasure in shifting forward, grabbing up an inkwell, staring at it curiously, and dumping it down so hard that a few splashes of ink scattered over the green leather insert of the antique desk.

Aventis raised an eyebrow. “If you’re going to take the opportunity to trash the principal’s office, need I remind you, there are golems right outside looking for us. It will not take them long to warn the teachers in the gymnasium that something is awry. We have minutes, Miss Astra, not hours.”

I locked my gaze on him. “Why are you helping me?”

“I already told you,” he let out a frustrated breath, “I believe you’re innocent. In fact,” his lips ticked up in a strange way, “I know you’re innocent.”

“Because hanging the late principal with magical rope over her desk wasn’t my style?” I challenged.

“Because you had nothing to gain from killing the principal. She was on your side. Your enemies,” he said, his voice checked and measured, “were not.”

My gut clenched, feeling like Aventis had shoved a hand down my throat and snatched hold of my intestines. Once upon a time, I’d been pretty free with my emotions. Though I could barely remember my grandmother, she’d always told me emotions were there to guide you, not to trap you. From love and sadness to hate and grief, emotions were guides along the path of life, not cages to trap you behind.

Yeah, then I’d come here, and I’d learned pretty damn quick that if you allowed your emotions to show, it was like painting a neon sign above your head that you were a soft target.

But there was only so much I could do to hide my true feelings from Aventis. I watched as his pupils locked on me, the skin around his eyelids tightening as he obviously didn’t miss a beat. “The Elites,” he said, each word like a bullet, “locked on you the day you got here.”

If I’d ever had a hope of holding onto my emotions, it was dashed now. I knew I became so pale, I would’ve resembled a freshly dug-up corpse. I was damn lucky I was close enough to the desk that I could round a hand into a knuckled fist and press it against the leather for support. I took a few seconds – a few bitter seconds as I tried to swallow three years’ worth of hatred before I finally allowed my lips to pull across my teeth. “What about those bastards?”

“You’re not the only person they ever targeted, Miss Astra.” A sad note twisted through his tone, and for a man who usually looked as blank as an empty book, I watched as anger mixed with grief and took to his face like paint to new canvas.

There was something about his genuine display of emotion that drew me in until I finally pulled my hand back from the desk. I locked it behind me, shifting my other hand over until I pushed up and sat right on the edge of the principal’s desk. There would’ve been a time when that would’ve been a punishable offense. Now this minor indiscretion could take a backseat to every other magical felony I’d committed over the past three years.

I knew we were running out of time, and I knew every second I just sat here staring at my shoes and not facing up to this situation was a second wasted.

I couldn’t exactly stop myself.

I shouldn’t have come back here. It was stirring up too much of the past.

“They haven’t stopped their targeting, Monique,” Aventis said, in a rare moment using my first name and dropping the formalities of the Academy.

“I guessed as much. I’m assuming that’s why the school had to call a last-minute meeting with all of the parents. I figure the magical community is getting pretty tetchy that their kids are going missing. Sorry, did I say missing?” I looked up at him, locking my gaze on his, determined not to miss a thing. “I meant they are dying, being sacrificed to the dark spells of the Elites.”

Aventis paled, and he looked sickened, but that news didn’t seem to be new to him.

“You knew that?” My voice shook.

Before I could say anything else, he brought up a hand. His long fingers were pale and trembling. The light might have only been dim in this office, provided by a few perpetually blue flickering flames that were locked in old-style lanterns arranged around the walls, but I’d sharpened my senses like a hunter’s, and I could see as Aventis started to lose control.

“Before you accuse me of knowing students were being sacrificed and not doing anything about it, there was nothing I could do. This school has changed. The world has changed,” he said, fear and anger poisoning his tone.

“Kids are dying,” I spat. “I could’ve died too.”

He wouldn’t look at me. He chose to stare at some patch of carpet on the ground, his eyes suddenly hooded, making his relatively young face look at least 10 years older. “Understand that the Elites are only an extension of the poisoned social order that exists in the rest of the magical world. They come from the most prestigious, richest, and most powerful families. They are taught this from birth. And the day they enter the Academy, they walk in the footsteps of their fathers and mothers. There is a reason the relatively unknown Theodore Blackwood managed to attain the vaunted position of Principal of Vendex Academy without anyone questioning. He wasn’t even a teacher. That didn’t matter. The Fairbrothers chose him, so he was accepted.”

I’d been picking at my nails in my lap, but as soon as that name was mentioned, I curled them hard against my palms.

Finally Aventis turned his gaze up and locked it on me, and though I could see the shame and grief, I could see the determination, too. “There is nothing any of us teachers can do against the elites of the magical world. Not now. They’ve poisoned everything. They control all finances, all commerce, and now, they’ve grabbed hold of the very roots of the school.” As he said that, he brought a hand up and stabbed a finger down, his knuckles white and stiff.

I got his meaning. He was referring to the fact that the school body had made the unprecedented decision to allow the foundations of Vendex to be changed, despite the risks.

But that didn’t change a thing. Not to me. Not to what had happened to me three years ago. I bared my teeth, my lips parting over them like whips. “Kids are dying,” I spat again, barely capable of pushing the words out.

“I know that,” Aventis spat back, and if I’d ever thought the guy couldn’t show emotion, I’d been wrong. It practically washed off him in waves.

“Then why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you help me?” My voice cracked.

A truly saddened look deepened his hazel eyes. “I did. From the moment I met you, Monique,” he said, dispensing with formalities again, “I knew you would be a target. But I also appreciated your power. I helped you learn what you would need to save yourself. Maybe I hadn’t appreciated at the time that the Elites would try to sacrifice you,” he couldn’t keep his tone controlled on the word sacrifice, and it twisted like vines trying to choke a tree. “But I appreciated with your unique history that you would never fit into this magical world.”

A tear or two touched my eyes, but they didn’t douse my anger. They simply mixed with it, making it more explosive. I jumped down from the desk, every muscle taut like springs. “So are you saying that from day one, you taught me to look after myself in a magical world that would rather see me dead?”

He didn’t answer with words. It didn’t seem he could. His lips had become so white, so tense, I imagined if I flicked them with a finger, they would crack.

He simply nodded.

“Why care about me? Why aren’t you like the rest of the students and teachers? Why don’t you care that I have no lineage?” I said, that word like poison as it spilled from my mouth.

“I come from a relatively new family myself. I can only trace back magic through my forefathers for 100 years.”

To me, that sounded like an eternity, but I appreciated to the elite bastards of this school it was a drop in the pond compared to their blood histories.

I reached up, clamping a sweaty hand over my mouth. I darted my gaze toward the corridor beyond, even though I couldn’t see through the door.

I hadn’t cast any spells since leaving that lab, but I wasn’t leaving anything up to chance, either, and as I stared at the wood, I allowed the last few traces of the x-ray spell I’d cast on myself earlier to glitter through my eyes. My eyebrows clamped down hard, and I didn’t blink once.

I couldn’t see any golems out there. Yet.

“We can’t afford to waste any more time,” Aventis warned.

“What exactly do you want to do, anyway? Did you bring me to the principal’s office to warn me of something?” I asked, even though I should’ve asked these questions earlier – the very second Aventis had given a wry chuckle in the research lab, in fact.

“You can do something I can’t,” Aventis said, his tone becoming quiet but hard.

A thrill of something chased up my back. Maybe it was fear, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was a reaction to the look in his eyes.

I’d always thought I’d been a trapped individual. Though I hadn’t been running from the magical law back when I’d been a student here, I’d hardly been free. Now as I looked into Aventis’ eyes, I realized he was far more trapped than I’d ever been.

“I do what I can at the Academy. I try to warn students when it is possible. I try to teach students,” his voice reverberated on that word, “when I know they will be targets. But that is all I can do.”

“You could’ve gone to the magical police – to the government,” I tried, yet even as I suggested it, my voice became weak.

“Please don’t tell me that you have completely forgotten how the magical world functions in the last three years. I have already told you that the elites have infiltrated everything. If I went to the police, I would be dead the next day. If I went to the government, they would kill me on the spot. There is only a semblance of democracy in our society now. We are controlled by those who have always thought they are better than us.”

Though I wanted to deny what he was saying, I knew it was true. That didn’t stop me from balling a hand into a fist and beating it harshly against my leg. It wasn’t enough to bruise me – just enough to release the tension welling in my body at this impossible situation.

I couldn’t help but remember how hopeful I’d been when I’d found out about magic. Back then when I’d been a foster kid handed from family to family, the sheer possibilities of magic had opened my mind in a way nothing else had. They’d given me the hope that anything was possible. If you dug deep enough, if you tried hard enough, you could solve any situation.

But with the possibilities of magic, all I had found was ever greater ways to become trapped.

I swallowed hard. “If you can’t do anything, why do you think I can?”

His cheeks slackened in the strangest way. The look in his eyes became deep, opening out as if they were leading me down to a man who’d always had to keep himself hidden. “You’re powerful, Monique – far more powerful than I’ll ever be. You have grit, stamina, determination. You rely on your body. You appreciate what it is to be a mortal and a witch. You know things and can do things no one else at the Academy can even dream of.”

It took me a moment, then I let out a rasping chuckle. “So what? You think just because I know what it is to live as a human I’ll have a chance of taking on the Elites? Is that what you’re suggesting? You already said that they completely control the magical world. In the past three years,” my voice shook, “I have been attacked too many times to count. It’s only been sheer—”

His gaze locked on me sharply. “Grit,” his voice bottomed out, “that has kept you alive. Replay that statement over in your head, Monique. The Elites have been going after you for three years. So has the magical enforcement squad. And yet you are still alive.” He slowed down each word, making them percussive until they practically beat into my head. “So how could you in good faith tell me right now that you have no chance against the Elites when you have taken every chance against them for three whole years?”

I shook my head vigorously, scraps of my fringe getting stuck in the sweat and muck that covered my brow from my fight with the golem. “That’s different. Keeping me alive I can manage. Taking on the Elites and trying to save the whole magical world?” My voice shot up with incredulity. “What you’re suggesting is plain mad.”

“Perhaps I was wrong,” he said out of the blue, disappointment marking his brow.

“Wrong about what?”

“You. I thought you had a heart.”

It was my turn for my face to drop with anger. “I can’t take on the entire magical community, Professor – it’s just not possible. I can barely keep myself alive. What you’re talking about would involve—” I brought my hands up wide and just stopped suddenly.

“A targeted attack on magical institutions. Evidence gathering. Systematic undermining. Oh yes, and grit,” he said again, his lips moving hard around that word.

“Listen to yourself. How the hell am I gonna go up against the Elites?”

“The same way you went up against Vendex Academy. Understand that what you did tonight is meant to be impossible. You infiltrated the Academy on your own. You took down a level III golem. On your own,” he added after a significant pause as if that could clinch his argument alone.

“Taking on the Academy is one thing. You’re talking about—” I shook my head again, not even wanting to go there. I couldn’t begin to comprehend just how complicated it would be to undermine the Elites and their control of the magical community. It would be a guerrilla war that would last for years, if not decades. It would certainly require more than my feeble shoulders to lift this burden.

“This building is meant to be one of the most protected in the state. Ever since the attacks on students at the school have increased, security has increased commensurately. And yet you still managed to get in here. And had I not run into you, presumably, you would’ve escaped already.”

“The Academy is one thing,” I said, practically chanting it as if Aventis would only understand if I repeated it 100 times. “The Elites will be another. How,” my jaw tightened as if someone had stuck a spring in it and wound it up to the point of snapping, “do you think I could take on the Fairbrothers? You already said they practically control everything. They’re so influential in the magical community that they can essentially pick a random man to control the Academy.”

“You will take them on the same way you took on that golem – the same way you took on this school.”

“What?” I spluttered with indignant frustration tinged with a little fear. “By the seat of my pants? With half a plan? Just reacting to whatever comes?”

He didn’t drop his gaze once. “Yes. That’s always been one of your greatest skills. You may not be so subtle, but you never give up.”

“Taking on the Elites will require more.”

“I’ll help you. When I can. If communication is safe. More than anything, I will continue to train the next generation of targets. And hopefully there’ll be more like you.”

His voice became immeasurably sad, reaching a twisted tone it hadn’t before. My eyes narrowed. “Has no one else survived? Am I… am I the only one who’s ever survived the sacrifice?”

Maybe that was a leap, and maybe I couldn’t read that much from his tone, but as soon as he looked away from me, too uncomfortable to face me directly, I realized I was right.

He nodded once. “To my knowledge, you are the only one who has survived. Others have managed to break free from the sacrificial ceremony, but they have been mopped up minutes or hours afterward. No one has survived three years.”

I went to shake my head, but I stopped. I faced the enormity of not just what had happened to me, but what was still happening to this world. Left unchecked, just how many witches and wizards would be sacrificed to the Elites? Just how much of a stranglehold would they get on the magical world, and by extension, on the mortal world, too?

I’d never been a hero. I’d always understood that heroes were usually just bullies from another point of view. Heroes only believed in violence when often diplomacy was the better route.

But there was another reason I chose not to believe in heroes. Often to be the hero is to choose to sacrifice the most.

I brought up that sweat-laced hand again and clamped it so hard over my mouth, it was like I was building a cage for my lips.

Perhaps Aventis could see that I was cracking, because relief touched his cheeks, allowing a little color to return as his lips spread into an uneven smile. “Someone has to rise up against them.”

“… If… If—” I shook my head. Before I could stop myself from finishing my sentence, I dug deep, and I damn well drew on the courage that had kept me alive until now. “If I agree to do this,” I managed, my voice even and free from even the slightest shake, “I’ll need a plan. I’ll also need resources. I came to the school today to—”

“Get a bolster charm,” Aventis finished for me.

My back stiffened. “How did you know that?”

“Because I know how you think. And I assumed you were wishing to cast a total disappearance spell. You would require a bolster charm to assist you with that.”

“Fine. I’ll still need one if we’re serious about me taking on the Fairbrothers and the rest of the Elites. Is there still a bolster charm on school grounds?”

Aventis reached a hand into his pocket. He pulled out a small metal disk.

My stomach clenched. It felt as if someone had poured concrete down my throat. My throat became parched, and I sucked in one ragged, wheezing breath as I took a staggering step toward him. I reached out my hand. “Is that a foundation charm?” I couldn’t control my voice. Heck, any witch in my position wouldn’t be able to.

Aventis nodded. “Yes, it is. It has taken my entire life to create this. I’ve done so in secret. Every night, I’ve gathered the knowledge and resources required to create this.” On the word this, he opened his fingers wide, allowing me an unchallenged view of that apparently simple, tiny metal disk.

If a mere mortal passed it on the street, they’d probably pick it up and put it in the trash. It looked like nothing more than a donut-shaped ring that had fallen out of some old engine unit.

It was so much more.

A foundation charm could allow you to cast lasting spells in your defense, spells that could bolster your magic, your body, your mind – whatever you saw fit.

I’d never seen a real foundation charm – just heard about them. Now I was several meters away from one.

With that foundation charm, I’d be able to cast my disappearance spell easily.

Perhaps Aventis appreciated what I was thinking, because he closed his fingers around the charm. “This is yours, if you choose to use it in everyone’s defense.”

“I….” This was where, if I was smart, I would put on a good show, act as if I’d cared, take the charm, and run away to cast my total disappearance spell. By the end of the night, I could be free. Free from magic, free from the Elites, free from the pressure Aventis was trying to put on my shoulders. Free….

Except I wouldn’t be free, would I? The magical world might forget me, but the magical world would remain. And if it was even half as poisonous as Aventis was making it out to be, then it would catch up to me one way or another. Because it would catch up to all humanity.

I understood how Stanford Fairbrother thought, and though I didn’t know the rest of the family, I could appreciate his violent logic was shared between his three other brothers and his father, Vincent Fairbrother the Third. They wouldn’t want to stop at just controlling the magical world. They would infiltrate and control the human world, too.

So even if I got free, it would be only for a matter of time. The same threat that had chased me out of the magical world would loom over my head like Damocles’ sword.

Aventis was keeping his wide-eyed gaze locked on me, and I could appreciate fully that he was following my every thought, despite the fact he couldn’t read minds. He was plenty adept at reading faces, and I was making no attempt whatsoever to hide my expression.

I took a step back, closed my eyes, and allowed my arms to flop by my sides, my hands opening until my fingers felt as weak as scraps of hair. Finally I blinked one eye open. “Fine,” I said in a shaking voice. “Say I agree to try to take on the Fairbrothers and the Elites – I think I’m gonna need more than a foundation charm.”

“You’ll find it. You’ll find whatever you need. Just as you found whatever you’ve needed over the past three years. There’s no one quite like you, Monique,” Aventis repeated once more.

No one quite like me, ha?

Aventis wasn’t suggesting I had some great family, some exceptional destiny, some prophesied power. No. All he believed was that I had the grit and determination to keep going where others would fail.

In the magical world, things only mattered if they had history behind them. My magical brothers and sisters looked for fate, for reasons that something was always destined to be.

In the human world, you quickly learned there was no destiny. There was only trying. If you wanted to save yourself, you had to dig deep, and you goddamn had to save yourself. You couldn’t rely on fate, for fate was always in your hands.

I closed my eyes one last time. I kept them squeezed shut for two seconds. Then I reached a hand out.

I wasn’t just accepting the foundation charm. I was accepting this impossible task, this wretched mission.

Three years ago, I’d wanted someone to save me from the Elites.

There’d been no one.

Now? Now I was going to be the witch who would save others.

And that was a promise.

Chapter 4

Though I wanted to get the opportunity to talk to Aventis, to plan this monumental task, we weren’t given the time.

Just as Aventis took a step toward me, picking up the foundation charm to place it reverentially in my hand, we heard a crack out from the corridor. It was low, it traveled fast, and it sounded like someone kicking down doors.

Aventis jerked his head over his shoulder, his eyes widening as tension rippled down the side of his cheeks. “Dammit,” he spat viciously. “That sounds like the principal.”

“I thought you said he was a pushover?” I stammered quickly.

“No, not a pushover. He works for the Elites, remember? And they have given him every expensive charm they can. If he finds us, we’re dead. Come on.” Aventis reached around, grabbed my arm, and pulled me toward the opposite wall.

I didn’t bother to point out that there was no door in front of us – just a section of carved, polished wood. All I had to do was wait for Aventis to mutter a few quick words under his breath as he spread his hand open.

A door appeared in front of us. It was a smooth, quick spell, and again I was reminded of how competent Aventis was. Which brought into sharp refrain the fact that he thought I’d always been more powerful than him.

He was right – I had no subtlety. His spells might slip through the environment, as silent and as undetectable as air – but mine destroyed everything in their path. I was like a bulldozer while he was like a feather.

But you’d need a bulldozer to take on the Elites.

As Aventis pulled me through the door and out into a new section of the marble corridor beyond, I let that thought sink in.

… I was really going to do this, wasn’t I? This hadn’t been a game to trick Aventis into giving me the foundation charm. I was going to take on the Elites.

Because I was going to be the person who should have stepped in to save me three years ago. That person didn’t currently exist, so I would goddamn make her exist.

As I thought that, it reacted to the silver spell still pushing through my veins. I swore I became even harder, even stronger, even more conductive, until my flesh was just as impenetrable as a silver wall and my will even stronger.

“There’s one more thing I have to show you,” Aventis breathed hard as he stared over his shoulder, assessing the empty corridor around us.

“What?”

“A clue.”

“To what?”

“I don’t know.”

This was where I should have stopped Aventis and pointed out that we had to flee. Me getting out of here was one thing, but if Aventis was seen with me, it wouldn’t just ruin his career – he would be dead by the end of the night.

But he tugged me with such force that I appreciated he thought this was important.

As we ran down the marble corridor, fear spiraled through my gut. It reactivated every single memory of being chased. It had happened so many times, every incident had kind of melded together in my head, forming a clump of adrenaline-inducing fear, even though I couldn’t distinctly remember every single incident.

“This way,” Aventis stammered as he reached a set of stairs. He still held my wrist with one hand, and with the other, he stretched his fingers out and traced them along the wall as we pelted down each step. The foundation charm was pressed against his palm with his thumb as his index finger and ring finger cast the spell against the wall. “Transform, shift away like a dream into the night.”

As soon as we reached the last step, the corridor around us disappeared, another reappearing seamlessly in its place.

We were at the base of the accommodation block. As soon as I saw it, recognizing the wide halls with their black-and-white-checkered floor and old arched wooden ceilings, it took me right back to the last time I was here. I could remember – goddammit, I could remember in perfect detail as I’d been dragged down this very same hall.

As fear catapulted through me, blasting into my heart like a shot from a cannon, Aventis came to a skidding stop in front of the boys’ bathroom. “In here.”

I didn’t have time to question. From behind, I could hear the thunderous cacophony of golem footfall. I swore I could detect something else, too – and even though I didn’t know Principal Blackwood, my gut instinct told me it was him.

Aventis brought up one of his lanky legs and kicked the door open. He wrenched me inside, and we both skidded on the polished porcelain floor. The door swung closed, and Aventis quickly brought up a hand, tracing a circular symbol and saying something unheard under his breath.

I felt as the door locked.

“What are we doing?” I began.

Aventis appeared to count down through the 10 bathroom stalls until he reached the seventh one. He yanked me over to it, kicked the door open, and pulled me inside. He shoved the door closed, reached around to the back of his robes, and pulled out his wand. At first, it was no larger than a human pinky finger. But with a muttered word and a flick of his wrist, it grew like a policeman opening a baton.

Aventis let me go. He pointed his wand at the back of the toilet door.

My mouth was open as I readied to demand once more what he was doing. My lips froze. There was a spell on the back of the door. An extremely well-hidden one. The only reason I could appreciate it was there was that my own silver charm was working on fast forward right now. I was conducting so much magic that without even reaching out a trembling hand and tracing it over the back of the toilet door, I could detect excess force coming from it.

Aventis had a moment to smile. “I told you you were the best student I ever had.”

I finally reached a hand forward, hesitated, then tapped a nail against the chipped wood. “What the hell kind of spell is that?”

“I found it four years ago. It was right after the disappearances started.” As Aventis spoke, I could tell that he was keeping half an ear for the corridor outside. He’d cast a quick but extremely effective locking spell on the door, and I appreciated it would keep us hidden from the golem army – for now.

“What does it say? What is it hiding?” I asked, forcing my words out of my mouth, my heart still pounding in my chest from the chase.

“I don’t know. No matter what I cast on it, I’ve never been able to force it to reveal itself. I think you need someone who can conduct magic properly.”

I stared at the side of his face, gob-smacked. “If you can’t force it to reveal itself, what chance do I have?”

“The very chance the last three years have given you. I felt your silver spell back there outside of the principal’s office, Monique – it’s become twice as powerful. Now, we don’t have much time,” he spat. “Take this. Force the spell to show itself.” He crammed his wand into my hand.

It had been a long damn time since I’d held a wand. Sure, they were great for casting spells, and they gave you at least a 10 percent increase in your power; there was a reason witches and wizards carried them. If I carried one, however, it would be a blaring advertisement of what I was. If any magical creature passed me in the street, they would be able to instantly recognize the wand. And that wasn’t even to mention the fact that wands could be traced with location spells. If you got together enough witches and wizards and enough charms, you could cast a detection net, and any wand in a set section of the environment would be located instantly.

So it had been a long damn time since I’d felt power like this, but that didn’t stop me from tightening my fingers around the wand, my hand knowing exactly how to lock into its power. I forced it forward, tapping it to the side of the spell, too cautious to stab it right into the center in case it had unintended consequences.

I had no idea what the spell on the back of the toilet door was, but I could tell through my senses alone that it was powerful. Powerful enough that not even Aventis had been able to force it to open.

“You will reveal yourself to me,” I said forcefully. “You will reveal yourself to me.”

“Your silver charm,” Aventis snapped over the top of me. “It is your strongest spell, Monique, and you must remember to always rely on it.”

I swallowed. I closed my eyes.

Flitting across my mind, I could recall the day I’d been taught that very spell. It had been in Aventis’ class, and he’d been trying to establish which form of metal magic his students were best matched for.

All my other four classmates had selected the strongest spells out there.

Me? As soon as Aventis had taught us the silver charm, I’d felt it in my heart. This sensation had spread through me as if I’d become a conductor in some electrical circuit. I’d felt from the very tips of my toes to the top of my head that this charm was mine.

As I closed my eyes now, as I tightened my grip on the wand, I remembered that moment. I sunk into it, and it allowed me to conduct even more magic as I forced my lips open. “Argentum sum. Argentum sum. Silver I am, silver I become, silver I will always be. And now, you will open for me. Let my magic pour into you, and let your revelation pour into me. Argentum sum,” I finished with a blast of breath.

Just when I heard a crack from the corridor outside, sparks scattered across the toilet door. In an instant, the wood went from being nothing more than chipped and plain, to revealing a spell.

Writing wrote itself across the old paint, one word after another, each character scrawling itself as if an invisible hand had reached past Aventis and me to scratch a pen against the paint.

I watched as Aventis’ eyes widened and his cheeks paled. “It’s a family spell,” he stammered.

“What?”

“A lineage spell. Only the longest lines of practitioners have them. They are spells that bolster family strength. They are also spells that allow one to access the secrets of their forefathers.”

I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of a family spell, but then again, I’d never had a family, had I? I could appreciate from how pale Aventis had become that this spell had rattled him to the core.

I clenched my teeth together and hissed. “Can it help us? Is it a clue?”

He turned to me. He looked as if someone had just chopped his legs out from underneath him. He brought up his hand to clamp it over his sweaty top lip, but suddenly realized he was still holding his foundation charm. Without a word, he pressed forward in the cramped bathroom stall, grabbed my hand, and locked the charm against my palm.

“What—” I began.

“You have a chance. You have a chance, Monique. Take it and take this and get out of here while you still can.”

“What are you talking about? Why are you suddenly giving me the foundation charm? What is this spell?”

“With this spell,” he pointed a shaking finger at the toilet door, “you can access every secret of that family. With this spell, you can get into every single one of their houses. With this spell, you can infiltrate every one of their businesses, every password, every locked file – it doesn’t matter.”

I paled with shock. “What?”

“Family spells like this are master keys. They are secrets that are shared only between members of the family and never revealed to anyone outside the clan.”

“I get that, but why is there one on this door? How did it get here?”

“That’s not the question you should be asking.”

I’d never heard his voice like this. He was having so much trouble speaking through his tumultuous emotion, I swore someone had wrapped chains around his neck.

“What question should I be asking?” I whispered.

“What family this comes from.”

Something took hold of me. Maybe it was expectation. Maybe it was a memory. Or maybe it was that elusive chance Aventis kept speaking of. The opportunity I had and I alone had to make a difference. I found myself standing straighter, found my grip tightening on the wand. “It’s not… it’s not the Fairbrothers, is it?”

In a move I would never forget, Aventis’ whole body stiffened, and he nodded.

I might have had the foundation charm pressed against my palm, but that didn’t stop me from drawing my hand up and locking it over my face. That cold metal disk pressed against my lips, tingles of power pushing out of it and tracing down my chin.

“I’d always known this hidden spell was important, a clue of some kind, but I had never thought it would be this. You must remember it. Do not write it down. Word-by-word, lock it into your mind. Do it now.” Aventis grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me around, and practically crammed my face against the toilet door.

I did as I was told. It was a long spell, and I knew I couldn’t afford to get a single word wrong. So I wrote them into my goddamn blood. You might think that sounds impossible. You’re not a witch, and nor have you sacrificed as much as I have.

I attached every single word of that spell to a memory of the things that had happened to me. And I locked it all inside, forcing it into my heart to ensure I would never let it go.

By the time I was done, the sounds out in the corridor were growing louder.

Aventis took a stammering breath. “You wanted a plan, and now you have one. Use the spell to infiltrate the Fairbrother family. Use the foundation charm to ensure that you cannot be detected.”

I didn’t bother to waste time or breath to ask what I would do when I was inside the Fairbrother clan. All I did was nod. “What if they’ve detected you, Aventis?” I stammered quickly as I forced the toilet door open and ran into the rest of the bathroom. “You should run with me.”

He shook his head. “I doubt they’ve detected me. I’ve been careful with my magic. I haven’t left a single clue that I met with you. Plus, I’m needed here. I’ll do what I can to protect and train the students.” He fixed me in a gaze I would never forget. It was as if his eyes had transformed into shaking hands, into shaking, clasped hands that were praying for me to do all I could. “And you do the rest. I doubt we’ll be able to communicate safely, but with that charm and with that spell,” his voice broke as if he couldn’t believe his luck, “you have—”

I reached forward and collegially clamped a hand on his shoulder. “A chance.” I would never have imagined grabbing Aventis’ shoulder like that to calm him down as a student. But I wasn’t a student anymore. I was an adult. I’d grown up, and it was time for me to show just how far I’d come.

Aventis nodded. He pointed at the wall beside us. “Cast a door spell. Run. I’ll clean up here and do the rest.”

I gave him back his wand.

“Keep it,” he began.

I shook my head. “If I’m ever found with your wand, people will ask questions about you. Wands are too easily detectable, anyway. Plus,” I added before he could question my reasoning, “I don’t need a wand to conduct my magic.”

For the first time since he’d found me in the research lab, he smiled properly.

I shared that smile, for all of a second. Then I turned. With the foundation charm tightly clasped in my grip, and the Fairbrothers’ family spell in my mind, I threw myself at the wall. I didn’t slow down, chanting an opening spell under my breath as I rounded my shoulder, reached the painted brick, and goddamn willed it to get out of my way in time.

The door charm opened just as I thrust through.

“Good luck,” Aventis said from behind me.

He didn’t add that I’d need it.

Because I wouldn’t need luck. I had my chance. All I needed to do was take it.

Chapter 5

I was back home. If you could call it home. It was a cabin way out of town, ensconced in thick woods. I’d found it totally abandoned and derelict. I’d used my hands to fix it, not magic.

It wasn’t much. Just a couple of rooms, just a bed, a kitchen, an old, threadbare couch, and a whole wall dedicated to books. Not magical books. I couldn’t risk that. Human ones. Everything from physiology, to mechanics, to geopolitics.

I was sitting on my veranda, watching dusk rise over the thick canopy of the knotted pine trees around the hut. I pushed my legs through the old, cracked veranda posts, and my feet dangled over the side of the porch, a drink in one hand as I carefully clasped the foundation charm in the other. Every few seconds, like clockwork, I’d open my fingers carefully, and stare down at it. Every time, my breath would become trapped in my throat and my heart would skip a beat.

Was I actually going to do this?

Could I even conceive of infiltrating the Fairbrothers? I imagined there’d been other disgruntled witches and wizards like me over the years – people with enough anger and gall to take the Fairbrothers on. But I imagined, considering the Fairbrothers were stronger than ever, every single one of their enemies had been swallowed whole.

“You’re different. You’ve got a chance,” I said, forcing the words out, trying to force myself to believe in every single one. “And Aventis is right. You’ve got something they don’t,” my voice became a spitting hiss on the word they. “You’ve got grit.” As I said that, I lifted my head up, watching the yellows and oranges of dawn scattering across the sky.

I pushed up. I dumped my drink against the warped boards of the porch, dragged my ass up, pushed the front door open with my shoulder, and walked in. All the while, I held onto my foundation charm, my fingers so tight around it, it would’ve taken a tiger to rip them off.

I walked right up to my library. After a few seconds of quickly scanning, I spied the book I wanted, and I reached over and grabbed it out.

I only had books. No Internet. No phone. I had a radio and a TV, but that was it. When I wanted to research something on the net, I always went to town.

Internet searches can be tracked, after all. And if I was serious about taking on the Fairbrothers, I had to cover my every track.

I shifted over to my threadbare chair, sat in it heavily, and opened the book in a neat move, going to the one page that mattered most. I smoothed my thumb down it, trying to get out the imperfections in the once glossy paper that had now become yellowed and aged.

It was a history book on the architecture of Vanguard City. I’d picked it up in a car boot sale for $0.50. Maybe a little of the history was out of date, but the bit I cared about would not be.

Instinctively tightening my grip on the foundation charm, I stabbed my other finger against the page, and though I’d been careful with the book seconds before, now it was like I wanted to tear the words out of it. Or maybe not all the words. Just one.

Fairbrother.

The Fairbrothers had started in Vanguard City. They might now be one of the most influential and important magical families not just in the country, but the world, but their roots were here. They’d grown in this town, and they had been strangling it for hundreds of years.

Influential property developers, they had a hand in most of the recent developments since the sixties. Their primary building was right downtown opposite the courts. A majestic old Art Deco tower, as a kid, I’d loved walking past its sandstone façade, tilting my head back to count the gargoyles. These days, I didn’t dare go near it.

“Building number one,” I muttered under my breath. I kept flicking through the pages, and on each page, there was a new section dedicated to the various architecturally distinct buildings the Fairbrothers had built over the past few hundred years.

I stopped when I reached their family home.

I simultaneously wanted to tear the page out and burn it, yet transport right there.

Unconsciously, my lips opened, and I said the first verse of the Fairbrothers’ family spell. As my lips muttered it, I swore I could feel its power shifting through the room.

With this spell, the Fairbrothers’ secrets would be mine.

I continued to flick through the book, memorizing every single building. Once I was sure I was done, I was ready for my first foundation charm.

I rose from my seat, hooking the book under one arm and never dropping the foundation charm.

I walked over to my kitchen table. I dumped the book down unceremoniously, but I placed the charm down as reverentially as someone delivering their first child.

I turned around, walked over to the tiny kitchen, rummaged under the kitchen sink, and brought out a rattling tin Inside were chunks of metal. Natures’ examples of strength – that’s what Aventis had always called them. Though most of the time as a material witch, I could get away with just drawing on the name of a metal, if I wanted to cast a complex spell, I needed an example.

I shoved my hand into the tin, and without even looking, I selected what I needed to. You see, my fingers had cast so much material magic over the years, they could recognize most alloys and metals on their own without any input from my eyes.

Smoothing out the pages of the book, I carefully placed a chunk of gold between them. Considering my predicament, you might question how I could afford gold. I’d stolen it.

I’d stolen other things, too, but I’d always been careful only to steal them from magical practitioners.

And hey, I was about to steal again, wasn’t I?

I took a step back from the table, brought up my hands, pressed my thumbs together, and pushed my fingers in until I formed a pyramid with them. I closed one eye and kept the other open. I concentrated on the gold. “Gold I will become. Flesh I will remain. Ausem ero, manseram corpos.” As I chanted, I believed in every single word. “Gold I will become, flesh I will remain,” I commanded the room one last time.

Finally, I started to feel the spell take hold as energy spread through me. It tingled over my chest, sunk deep into my torso, and spread over my back.

I knew better than to gasp or open my hands. If you truly wanted a spell to take hold, you had to carry it through without interruption.

“I am gold. The most valuable of all metals. I am gold, most valued by all. You will show me,” I commanded, directing my words to the book, “what it is that the Fairbrothers value most of all. Show me where their greatest secrets lie.”

As the spell took root, spreading through me, shifting through the air, and sinking easily into the open pages of the book, power filled the room. The gold chunk I’d placed on top of the book started to vibrate, shifting as if it were on a washing machine. Abruptly, it rose 30 centimeters into the air just as the pages of the book started to flutter. They sped up, shifting like fingers typing frantically until suddenly, they stopped. The book opened at a certain section, and that gold nugget fell down with such a heavy clunk, it could have been a small mountain.

Still keeping my fingers steepled together in the shape of a pyramid, I shifted forward, angling my head down.

Though it would’ve been easy enough to assume that the greatest secrets of the Fairbrothers lay at their family home or the prestigious tower downtown, that was not what the spell revealed to me.

I made a face – a confused one.

“Capital Publishing Company?” I shifted closer, only just keeping my grip on my pyramid. I frowned at the page, bringing my face as close as I dared. The spell was still operating, and unless I wanted to catch a face full of sparks, I had to be careful where I shoved my nose.

I read the brief blurb about the building. It was down on the waterfront, and it was one of the Fairbrothers’ most recent developments. Still, it was almost nothing compared to their other holdings. And being new, it meant it wouldn’t have had an opportunity to see all of the horrifying shit the Fairbrothers had done over the years. Surely their greatest secrets would be kept at home?

Though I allowed doubt to infiltrate my mind, I had to have some faith in my spell. I could still feel the gold charm pulsing through my veins.

“This makes no sense, but fine,” I conceded in a breath. “This building it is. Flesh I remain, manseram corpos,” I ended the spell with snapped words.

I allowed my fingers to release.

That nugget of gold vibrated once, twice, then lay still, a few wisps of steam escaping around it.

I licked my fingers before reaching in and grabbing it up. It was hot. It had done a lot of work. I cast it back into its tin, reached forward, grabbed the book, and read about Capital Publishing Company once more.

It had to be one of the least important holdings the Fairbrothers had, and yet, according to this spell, it held the most important secrets.

I had to trust my power and trust it was right.

Because I would probably only get one chance at this.

Shoving the lid back on my tin of minerals and putting it back under the sink, I memorized everything about the Capital building and headed into my room to get dressed. I didn’t have a great range of clothes. Most of the time I wore a sturdy pair of brown pants, an old, scuffed pair of leather shoes, and whatever top had seen the least wear.

That wouldn’t work for me today.

I reached into the trunk of clothes behind my old, sagging single bed. I rummaged around. “I will blend, blend like camouflage in a forest. Blend like an insect against wood. Blend like paint into paint. Show me what to wear.” As soon as that sentence pushed from my lips, my fingers snagged hold of an outfit, and I pulled it out.

It was an old suit-skirt and a blouse. I frowned at them. They were stained, ripped at the collar, and exactly not the kinds of things I would wear if I didn’t want to stand out.

I had no option, though – the spell had directed me to them. Wasting no more time, I threw the clothes on. I walked up to the small broken mirror by my door and frowned at my reflection.

I looked frumpy. Oh yeah, I also looked like me. And I sure as hell couldn’t afford to look like me. I might not be going to the most important holding of the Fairbrothers, but I could guarantee there would still be practitioners at Capital building.

It was time to scrub my face, as it were.

I shifted back into the kitchen. I grabbed up the foundation charm from where I’d left it on the table. I walked back into my library, selected a few books, and started flicking through them until I found random pictures of women.

I chose a selection, arranged the open books around me, then ground my hand into the foundation charm. “Mix me up. Paint over the top of me. Place a mask on my face, a mask that cannot be seen through. Hide me. Hide me in plain sight. Allow no one to see me and allow no one to suspect.”

The foundation charm started to get hot, feeling as if I’d just scooped up a burning coal and pressed it between my fingers. I didn’t drop it. I allowed its magic to spread through me, as fast as torrential rain.

Sparks scattered over my skin, rushing up my cheeks, coalescing around my eyes and diving through my hairline. It felt like shoving my head into lightning.

As soon as the magic plowed down my back and reached my toes, I opened my eyes hard. I allowed the last few crackles to spark over me, then I walked back into my bedroom. I picked up my broken mirror and stared at it.

I didn’t look like myself. I looked like an amalgamation of the women whose photos I’d picked out in my various books. My height hadn’t changed, and my body build was roughly the same, but no one would be able to recognize me. I now had short, cropped blonde hair that hugged my neck, brown eyes, and a pleasant smile. It was a face that wouldn’t stand out anywhere. A face almost perfectly designed to blend into the background.

I spent a few seconds staring at myself from various angles, deciding I needed one final finishing touch. I went back to the trunk behind my bed, rummaged around, and pulled out a pair of glasses. I stuck them on, looked at my reflection one last time, and nodded.

“This will do.”

I stared down at my outfit. It was still as old and frumpy as ever, but I had to trust my spell knew what it was doing.

I took a step out of my bedroom and into the rest of my house. I turned around on the spot, staring at it.

I had no idea if I would return. Because I had no idea if I could pull this off.

I brought up a hand, pressing the tips of my nails across my cheek, feeling how different my face was. I could appreciate that my disguise spell would hold. The foundation charm would ensure it did. And I was certain even the strongest magical practitioner would not be able to detect me beneath. But did that really matter? I was about to infiltrate the Fairbrothers, for the love of God.

I pressed a hand into my brow. “You can do this. Because there’s no one else, Monique. Now move.”

My pep talk was all I needed. I headed for the door. Before I did, I grabbed something from an old bowl on an upturned crate. It was a chain with a simple pendant. The pendant was a lucky charm – one I’d taken at least a year to create. I usually never left the house without it. Now, I pulled the charm off and dumped it back in the bowl. I grabbed the foundation charm and looped it through the chain.

Feeling its power as if it were an extension of my own body, I placed the necklace over my neck, pressing my hand against the charm for a few seconds before I slipped it under my clothes. “You will not come out. No one will see you. You will remain hidden like the insides of my body, like the deepest cave, like the center of the earth. No one will see you.”

As I removed my hand, I felt the charm lock against my body as if it was magnetic and I was the largest chunk of iron ore in the world.

Once that was done, I finally headed out the door. I closed it, scratching a locking charm into the wood with the tip of my nail.

I tilted my head up and stared at the sun.

It had been a long night. It was going to be a longer day.

For the fight had begun.

Chapter 6

I headed into town. Whenever I came here, it was only for quick, preplanned missions. To gather information, to buy resources for more magical charms – to stay alive.

Now? I found myself strolling along the waterfront, both my hands clutched over the old, bedraggled straps of my bag. My knuckles were white, so full of tension, they looked like links in a chain. If I didn’t latch them onto the straps of my bag, I’d lock them around my middle or simply round them into fists.

I kept telling myself I had to be casual, I had to rein in my fear, and I had to look like I belonged here.

Except there was a problem with that – I really didn’t belong here. It had been a long time since I’d walked along this particular section of the docks. It had been built up, every single section of land reclaimed and made into some new fancy development. Suffice to say, the people I passed were not in old, slightly stained clothes they’d pulled out of a trunk in an old hut in the woods. There was so much money on display, in comparison, I looked as cheap as dirt.

I had a few spells in my repertoire that would help me update my clothes, at least fixing the various tears in the collar, sprucing up the color, and changing the design. Enough that I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

I hadn’t used them, because I had to trust that when I’d selected these clothes, there’d been a reason behind it.

Other witches wouldn’t think twice about trusting magic like that. Other witches didn’t have my history. I’d been relying so much on my human skills, the thought of throwing caution to the wind and accepting a spell wholeheartedly was making my nerves itch.

As I walked along the new promenade section of the docks, my head swiveling to the side as I appreciated there was now a huge statue park that trailed right down to the lapping waters of the dock beyond, I tried to remind myself why I was here. More than that, I reminded myself what I was capable of.

Aventis hadn’t been able to force that family spell to reveal itself. He’d been trying for four damn years. It had taken me four seconds.

“You can do this,” I whispered quietly under my breath.

“You can do anything,” someone said from behind me. They had a deep voice, a rumbling tone that felt as if it could reach into my stomach and crawl slowly up my back. It reminded me of fingers, of a hard, determined grip. More than anything, it reminded me of some unimaginable force that lay just under the surface.

I had a second for a thrill to chase up my back as I realized someone had overheard my pep talk. I stopped abruptly and turned.

That’s when a large man walked right into my shoulder. He was striding along at a clipping pace, and as he barreled into me, he dropped the coffee he was holding all over me.

It splashed over my off-white blouse, completely ruining it. It instantly soaked through, scalding heat reaching my skin. It didn’t burn me – even though it was hot enough to try. I still had residual magic pumping through me from the foundation charm around my neck.

The magic could protect me from the scalding coffee – it couldn’t protect me from the sight of the man who took a surprised step back, his empty coffee cup held loosely in his large hand.

Winston Fairbrother. The oldest of the Fairbrother sons. Large, tall, built like a quarterback, and with a face that wouldn’t be amiss in any modeling magazine, he was by far more attractive than Spencer, though they both had the same superior look about them. It seemed to match Winston better, because there was something about his deep hazel-green eyes that made you wonder if he really was better than you.

I blinked in shock, whitening to the color of snow.

“I’m so sorry,” Winston said quickly, his voice clipped. “Are you okay?” He had a phone to his ear. “Harvey, I’ll get back to you,” he snapped as he ended the call and shoved the phone in his pocket.

I waited for the gig to be up. Winston Fairbrother wasn’t just the oldest of the Fairbrothers – if the rumors in the witching community were anything to go by, he was the most powerful of the Fairbrother sons, too.

If there was anyone who could detect my foundation charm simply by proximity and contact, it was him.

“Jesus, you must be burnt. Let me get you some water—” he began.

I stared at him. My eyes narrowed under my blunt fringe, and I peered out from behind my glasses. I waited for any hint of recognition to climb his brow or harden his cheeks.

There was nothing. He seemed to search around for help. “I’m sorry,” he muttered quickly again, that deep reverberating voice like a far-off rumble of thunder by my ear. If his magic was even half as powerful as that penetrating tone, he could easily be the most powerful wizard I’d ever come across.

“I’ll take you to a clinic,” he decided as he shoved a hand back into his pocket and retrieved his phone.

I finally found my voice. “I’m okay; it’s not that bad. I’ve got a thick top on under this blouse.” With every word, I watched him, though hopefully not overtly.

… Either I’d turned into a bad judge of character overnight, or Winston Fairbrother had no idea I was magical.

His phone was halfway up to his ear. He paused. He settled those deep hazel eyes on me, and his gaze flicked unashamedly down my outfit, though I could tell there was no lecherous quality behind his stare. On the contrary, it was about as calculating as I’d ever seen.

If he was ever going to discover what I was, it was now.

My stomach tightened, and if my hands hadn’t been clutched around my bag, they would have clenched into the tightest of fists.

But Winston Fairbrother simply nodded. “You sure? I’ve completely ruined your outfit.”

I looked down at it. To be honest, the massive coffee stain across the front of my hardly white top only served to match the stains along my collar and down my skirt. I shrugged. “It’s fine.”

“You look like you’re headed to work. You can’t go in looking like that. Where do you work, anyway?”

“I’m… headed to a job interview, actually,” I lied quickly. I don’t know why that particular lie jumped into my head, but once it was out, it was out.

“Whereabouts?”

I turned over my shoulder. I made a show of looking as if I was lost. I eventually shrugged. “I’m from out of town. I guess I must be lost.”

“Do you know what the name of the building you’re going to is?”

“It was just for a café somewhere. It doesn’t matter. I’m probably too late for it now anyway.” I kept gripping my bag. I hid the tension in my knuckles by transferring most of it into my thumb. It locked against the old leather strap with so much force, I could have cracked steel.

This was Winston damn Fairbrother. I couldn’t forget that. I’d smoothed a friendly smile on my face and tried to hide my fear, but within, it raged like an unholy storm.

I might not know Winston personally, but judging by his power and the fact he was the eldest of the brothers, I appreciated he’d be 10 times worse than Stanford.

As I stood there, trying to hold my shit together, memories of what Stanford had done to me at the Academy blasted into my mind. From his cruel smile, to the particular mask he always wore when he headed up the Elites – all of it swirled around my psyche, poisoning every thought and memory, threatening to undermine me and make me crumble right here in front of a man who could potentially be my greatest enemy yet.

“Damn, I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you,” he said quickly.

“What?”

“My company is hiring today. Do you have any experience as a PA?”

I stood there and blinked.

“The interviews aren’t for half an hour. It should give you time to head home and change,” Winston said. His gaze flicked across my outfit once more, settling on my scuffed shoes and barely-held-together bag. “But if you don’t have time to change, I’m sure I can find you something. Please, I could have burned you badly – let me help you out.”

Two concepts warred in my mind. I simultaneously wanted to run away from Winston, and yet accept his offer wholeheartedly.

Because this was it – my chance to infiltrate the Capital Publishing building. Even if I didn’t get this job as a PA, legitimately getting my foot in past the front door would be the first step. But I could not deny the specific fear that coiled around my gut like vines threatening to crush my insides.

Though Winston was doing a perfect job of hiding his magic, I could feel his force – feel it like I was standing next to a nuclear reactor. If I stepped foot in his building and made a single mistake – revealing even a scrap of my power – he would know.

And yet I couldn’t afford to pass up an opportunity like this. Aventis’ words rang in my head. There was no one else who could do this.

No one else….

I swallowed. “I’ve never been a secretary, but I’m pretty good at organizing things…” I tried.

He smiled. It was two parts enigmatic charm, to three parts sheer power. And yet, it wasn’t the force I was used to with Stanford. It wasn’t like a gun to my head. It was a heck of a lot subtler than that. It was force that lay under the surface – a promise of power to come. “Well then, I’ll set you up an interview. What’s your name?”

Though I’d only decided to infiltrate Capital Publishing this morning, I’d already created a cast-iron identity for myself. You see, I hadn’t just lied to Winston – I was good at organizing things. Because without organizational skills, I wouldn’t be alive.

I had all the correct legal papers in place. Even if someone did a thorough job of attempting to track down my identity, they wouldn’t find holes in it. So I didn’t even hesitate as I nodded politely. “Carrie Janeway.”

“Nice to meet you, Carrie.” Winston pushed his hand toward me.

I hesitated. You would too. His hand was like a bolt of lightning. That wasn’t to say I knew it would electrocute me the second I accepted it. It was to say it seemed like the most powerful force in nature. Accept that hand, and I had no doubt it would drag me down to hell.

But if it took going through hell to save the kids at the Academy, I’d do it.

I hesitated no longer. I opened my hand, reached out, and let him do all the shaking.

He smiled. “My name’s Winston Fairbrother.”

“… Nice to meet you, Winston.”

Behind us, the city moved. People rushed to work, cars drove down the clogged main streets, and Vanguard continued. But right here in this moment, I swear something stopped. Or maybe it started.

I’d run for three years. Running was over.

From this point on, I would make a difference. And I would do it through this man. He might be the most powerful of the Fairbrothers, but I would take him on, and I would not lose.

Chapter 7

I was in one of the fanciest boutiques downtown, ensconced in a practically palatial changing room as I frowned at myself in the mirror.

I wasn’t frowning at my reflection. The $2000 skirt I was in and the $3000 top looked suitably incredible. I was frowning because of the turn my day had taken. If you’d asked me this morning when I’d sat there on my balcony staring glumly at the dawn if I could imagine being here only several hours later, I would have laughed in your face. But here I was, trying on clothes Winston had promised to buy me as he sat out on one of the couches in the massive boutique.

If this was some cheap romance movie, this was where I should be falling for my rich boss. Instead, this was where I brought a hand up, fished my foundation charm out from under my blouse, and clutched it as if it were the only thing that could keep me safe.

I would never forget who Winston was. Even if the bastard was being strangely polite now.

I understood how his family worked.

As I cast my gaze behind me, staring at the collection of clothes one of the trim sales assistants had picked out for me, I jammed my teeth into my bottom lip, dragging them harshly over the flesh.

If I could do this – if I could somehow secure a PA position at Capital Publishing, it would set me up to do precisely what Aventis wanted. I’d have a reason to not just investigate Capital, but if I was lucky, I could look at the other Fairbrother holdings, too. All it would take was grit, a chance, and crucially, nerves. But it was precisely those nerves that were departing me now as I crammed a hand on my stomach and willed it to stop churning.

Fighting when I was attacked was one thing. Reacting to someone else’s violence and punching, kicking and casting my way out of danger I could manage. After three years, it was seared into every single muscle. I knew how to react. Holding my nerve and waiting was different.

“Come on,” I whispered under my breath, moving my lips but not letting the words out. “Pick a damn dress and get out there. You can do this. You can do this,” I whispered.

Instantly, it reminded me of Winston’s words before we met on the promenade. “You can do anything.” As I replayed them, a specific shiver traced down my back as if someone had reached out to me and ran their hand all the way down to my coccyx.

I could appreciate now that Winston hadn’t been talking to me. He’d been speaking to Harvey – whoever that was – on his phone.

That didn’t change the power of this memory.

For some reason, though I academically understood his words hadn’t been directed at me, I couldn’t deny how they’d affected me. There was something about Winston’s voice that felt far more powerful than any spell.

“Get a grip,” I said, moving my lips but not saying a word.

I turned around, reaching for one of the other outfits the obsequious sales assistant had picked out for me. It was exactly the kind of thing I wouldn’t wear in my ordinary life – not, of course, that I had any reason to wear office skirts as I ran for my life. That wasn’t the point. It was too tightly fitting, too flattering. And in other words, too hard to fight in. It was tight around the hips, and it hugged my thighs too much. If I tried to run in it, I’d only do myself an injury. I still reached for it, my fingers flattening the smooth fabric.

I cast my gaze back to Winston through the door.

I had to make a good impression, didn’t I? Though it tied my stomach into knots just thinking about it, becoming a PA at his company could solve all my problems.

All I needed was a couple of days of unrestricted access to Capital Publishing. My foundation charm and pure desire to crush the Fairbrothers would do the rest.

I clutched up the outfit. I unzipped the skirt I was in and kicked it away, despite the fact it was worth more money than I’d seen in a long time, and threw on the formfitting black skirt.

It fit me just perfectly, as if someone had taken the exact measurements of my body. I turned, looking at myself in the mirror, appreciating that for the first time in a long time, I actually looked good.

“Come on – just do this. You’re running out of time.” I went to walk out but stopped. There was a persistent ringing as someone’s mobile went off.

Instinct alone told me to pause. It could have been any number of the shop assistants or other patrons in the boutique, but something told me the phone belonged to Winston. I was right. He picked it up, and I heard his deep, memorable rumbling tones shift through the shop. I swore his voice could go anywhere. You could be standing between him and a thick lead wall, and that penetrating rumble would still make it through.

“Harvey, what is it?” Winston said.

There was a pause as Winston listened to Harvey. Though I couldn’t see Winston and we were separated by a thick door, I swore for some reason that I could see his expression. An impression of it became painted over my mind as my intuition ran wild.

Something told me that Winston stiffened, that large, defined back of his becoming as rigid as the knuckles of a tensed hand. I think I heard a creak as he sat forward on his seat, as his expensive shoes shifted hard over the polished floor.

But that was all guesswork. What happened next was far from a guess. I felt a sudden and un-ignorable blast of tingles escape up my back. It was like someone had shoved an electrode into the base of my spine. I instantly stood taller, brought a hand up, secured it over my foundation charm, and flattened my tongue against the top of my mouth.

Winston Fairbrother was practicing magic. It was subtle, but with the help of my foundation charm, I knew it was there.

He didn’t say another word. Or at least he didn’t appear to.

Half closing my eyes, I appreciated that the only reason he’d be casting magic right now was if he wanted his conversation to be hidden.

“I can hear anything,” I whispered. “My ears can reach any distance. Nothing can be blocked from me. I can hear anything. No magic, no force can hide words from me. What is said will reach my ears,” I muttered so quietly, nothing and no one would be able to hear me.

As my spell took hold and raced through my body, I suddenly heard his voice as sharp and as loud as if it were by my ear. I flattened a hand forward, placing it on the floor-to-ceiling mirror in the changing room.

“When did this happen?” Winston demanded, his voice hard.

It was the first time I’d heard him angry. So far, he’d been nothing more than sweetness and light to me. Now as his tone twisted with rage, I appreciated the true Winston Fairbrother was shining through.

My fingers dragged over the mirror, tightening into a fist.

I was finally meeting the bastard beneath the act, ha?

I imagined Winston had learned over the years how to be a good pretend mortal, how to be polite and nice, and how to say thank you and please. But beneath was the same elite bastard as Stanford.

There was a pause. I couldn’t hear what Harvey was saying. Even if I strained my hearing, my spell couldn’t reach that far – not without me putting too much magic into it and potentially revealing myself. I had to settle simply for listening to Winston’s side of the conversation.

There was another long pause, then Winston took a ragged, pissed-off breath. “How the hell did we let this happen? I thought there were measures in place to stop this now?”

I shifted, forcing myself to take a step back. I couldn’t just stand here listening in to Winston’s conversation. I had to move around, at least rustling my clothes and pretending to get dressed. Though by the sound of Winston’s tone he was too involved in the conversation to remember I was here, I had to keep up appearances. So I forced myself to shift back. I grabbed up one of the outfits, and I started to unzip it. All the while, I could barely breathe.

“What was her name?” Winston suddenly demanded.

Terror engulfed me, grabbing hold of my back and punching up until it reached my jaw and tightened it like a vice.

There was another long pause. Winston let out a hissing breath. “We need to see to this before anyone finds out about her. We can’t afford another missing student.” With that, he appeared to hang up. A second later, I heard a slight crackle and felt a rush of energy as the spell he’d used to hide his words ended.

I just stood there. Cold. Immovable. Even if someone had grabbed me from behind and suddenly shaken my shoulders, I wouldn’t have been able to shift a muscle.

Winston had just spoken of a disappearing student. The bastard had just talked of some innocent girl just like me. Some kid had been plucked up and handed to the Elites like livestock – just like me. Some kid was having their life ruined – just like me.

I could barely breathe.

I heard someone clear their throat close to the changing room doors, and I almost screamed in surprise. I managed to cram a hand over my mouth and stifle it.

“Is everything okay in there, Miss?” one of the shop assistants asked.

I gritted my teeth, I forced a breath through them, and I willed myself to calm down. I rounded my hands into such hard fists, they threatened to cut my palms.

I finally found my voice. “I’m okay. Just trying on the last outfit. I’ll be out in a couple of minutes.”

“Okay, Miss,” the woman said, and I heard her shift off.

I pretended to try on the other outfit, shifting its zip up and down as I stared at my horrified reflection in the mirror.

Another kid had gone missing.

If it was anything like my own disappearance, she had 24 hours until the Elites sacrificed her to one of their summonds.

24 damn hours.

I took a step back from the mirror. I closed my eyes. I told myself to get a grip.

I couldn’t just stand here staring at myself in horror, allowing that awful realization to drag me further down to hell. I had to get out there, get into Capital Publishing, and find something to take down the Fairbrothers. But was that all I could do?

If the Elites hadn’t changed their mode of operation, surely that meant I had 24 hours to save whatever kid Winston had spoken of?

I brought up a hand, clamped it over my mouth, breathed through my fingers, and wondered what the hell I was thinking.

Taking on the Fairbrothers slowly was one thing. Using a combination of the foundation charm and sheer luck might eventually allow me to use their family spell to blast open their secrets. But that did not mean that I could turn around and save the missing student. Even trying could threaten to jeopardize my current mission. But I couldn’t not help.

Because not helping would turn me slowly but surely into the bastards who’d condemned my life.

I took a step back. My hands naturally clenched into fists again, but this time, it didn’t feel as if my knuckles would thrust right through my flesh. This time, they were hands that were ready to fight.

Steeling my nerves, I finally grabbed up the outfits, hooked them over my arm, somehow smoothed a smile onto my face, and walked out into the shop.

Winston didn’t look up, even as I came to a stop in front of him.

He had one elbow on his knee, his head turned to the side, his gaze lost in anger. He was clutching his phone so tightly, it was a surprise his rigid fingers hadn’t cracked through the glass and steel.

The sales assistant darted toward me. “You look incredible,” she said, not glancing at my figure but presumably the price ticket popping out of the back of my collar – I had picked the most expensive outfit, after all.

“Thanks,” I muttered. All the while, I didn’t take my gaze off Winston. I took in every detail of his stiff form, from the way his feet were locked against the floor as if he was ready to spring up, to the way his defined shoulders rounded forward. For some reason, it reminded me of the statue of Atlas shouldering the world. But Winston wasn’t carrying all of humanity’s problems – he was creating them.

Though I hadn’t heard Harvey’s end of the conversation, it was clear that Winston was involved in the female student’s kidnapping. Why else would he be so angry that it had been revealed?

I used every single trick in the book not to launch myself forward and try to strangle the bastard now.

Eventually, he flicked his gaze toward me. He didn’t look at my outfit – not once. He simply glanced at my eyes briefly. “Sorry for ruining your day.” He reached into his pocket, grabbed out his wallet, plucked out a credit card, and handed it to the shop assistant.

She scurried off with it.

I stood there awkwardly as I stared at him. The awkwardness was an act. As I shuffled from one foot to the other, trying not to be obvious as I made eye contact, I maintained my ploy of being just a ditzy girl down on her luck. I stopped short of letting a blush warm my cheeks. Perhaps it should. After all, an apparently charming, rich, handsome man had just bought me a stupendously expensive outfit.

I wouldn’t blush for Winston Fairbrother, though. Not once, not ever.

I somehow controlled the natural aggression that welled in my stomach every time I clapped eyes on him, and I forced another meek smiled to curl my lips. “Thank you so much. And you haven’t ruined my day.” I nodded politely.

He pushed up and took his credit card back from the sales assistant as she reached him. “I’ve managed to get you an interview in an hour. Do you know your way to Capital Publishing?”

I nodded. “I can figure it out.”

“Good, I’ll see you in an hour.” With that, he turned and walked out of the store.

I didn’t have time to question why he would see me in an hour personally. Presumably, he’d only said it distractedly. I doubted Winston Fairbrother would bother attending an interview for a random PA at one of his family’s many companies.

Or hey, maybe he was just being prophetic – because I would see him in an hour. As soon as I got into Capital Publishing, I would scour that damn building for any clue I could find.

I was now more determined than ever to save that student.

I would make a difference when no one had made a difference for me.

I watched Winston until he was out of sight.

The shop assistant was still standing politely a meter back from me. She cleared her throat. “You can go now,” she said, all semblance of politeness dropping as her voice soured. Presumably she’d seen every single second of my interaction with Winston and appreciated that considering he hadn’t glanced at my outfit once, we had no relationship.

“I get the picture,” I muttered under my breath as I shifted away. “Thank you for your help,” I forced myself to be polite. I reached the door, opened it, and pushed out onto the street. Instantly, I sharpened my senses, scanning every car and every pedestrian.

Winston was already out of sight.

My gut clenched. On the premise of scratching my neck and neatening my blouse, I shifted my thumb down the front of my top, driving it hard over the smooth surface of my foundation charm. A few sparks of magic scattered across my skin. I concentrated on them, using them to tune into the environment to figure out if magic had just been cast on the street.

Just before I could conclude that Winston had simply been quick and walked away without the assistance of any spell, I detected something. It was faint – goddammit was it faint. It felt as if it had been diluted into the environment with hundreds of water spells. But by tuning in to my foundation charm, and most importantly my silver spell, I detected it. The next thing I knew, I jerked my head up, and my eyes settled on the roof of a tall building across the street.

I didn’t have the eyes of a hawk. Unless I wanted to. Bringing up a hand and surreptitiously fixing my glasses against my nose as if they were bothering me, I pressed my lips open just a fraction. “I see as sharply as a knife, as clear as glass, as far as an eagle. I see you,” I concluded the spell with a powerful hiss of breath.

The figure standing up on the roof came into sharp refrain. I could only see the top of their head from this angle, but that didn’t matter. I could sense their magic coming off them in waves.

Though I could only see the top of their head, I quickly concluded it wasn’t Winston. It was a woman standing up there, not a man.

I quickly tucked my head down, shifting my glasses around again and fixing my hair as if I were neatening my appearance. I turned and started heading down the street. All the while, I kept my attention locked on that witch and most importantly her magic. I zeroed in on it as if I were a targeting missile.

My heart started to thunder in my chest, my throat becoming as parched as the Sahara. Was she after me? Had she been watching me? Did she know what I was?

There was only one way to find out.

I had an interview in an hour. Before then, I had a fight to get to.

Chapter 8

I didn’t head straight to the building. I wasn’t that stupid. If that witch really was after me, she’d be watching me like a hawk. Instead, I swung around the block. I knew enough about this section of town to appreciate that there was a subway station only half a block away. It had an exit point that brought it underneath the building that witch was on. It should allow me to circumnavigate it safely. I could pick an entrance on the other side of the witch, and head up to the roof.

What I’d do when I got there, I didn’t know. I usually wasn’t proactive in my fights. They came to me – I didn’t come to them. But there was a quickness about my step I couldn’t deny. It was brought on by one fact and one fact alone. For the first time in three years, I had a purpose. I would save that student – no matter the costs. And if that witch was watching me, she could jeopardize my chance of infiltrating Capital Publishing.

I didn’t run – just walked with purpose. I quickly made it to the subway station as fast as I could, my bag hooked over my shoulder. It didn’t fit my outfit, but nobody gave me a second look. It was a busy time of the morning, and people were too ensconced on their phones to give a hoot about me. It meant I could be more open with my magic – not that I allowed myself to advertise it like a blaring alarm, though. You never knew when other witches were around.

Barely moving my lips, making it look as if I was chewing gum and not chanting words, I started to add spells to my foundation charm. The true power of a foundation charm didn’t just come in the fact it could be transformed. It was like a spell bank, if you will. Like RAM on a computer. You could set it to run background spells, allowing you to free up your concentration to use on other things.

I had no idea what I’d face when I made it to that witch, but I had to be prepared for the worst. I added every protection charm I knew, every security spell, too. By the time I walked through the subway station and made it out to one of the alternative exits, I was ready.

I quickly made my way to the right building. All the while, I hadn’t lost track of that witch’s magic. I locked my concentration on it, making an impression of it in my mind just like someone casting a mask out of metal.

It allowed me to appreciate she was still up on that roof.

I reached the right building, made it in the front, and walked into a large atrium. Fortunately it was busy enough that no one noticed me. My new ultra-expensive outfit came in handy, too. This place looked expensive, and for the first time in my life, I looked like I belonged.

I made my way over to a bank of lifts. The place was so busy, the lifts were coming and going all the time. If I wanted to get up to the roof, I needed an empty elevator. So as several workers lined up behind me, waiting for one of the lifts to arrive, I parted my lips quietly. “Distracted. Distracted like a fly flitting through the room. You have forgotten your keys, your phones, your jackets. You will return to find them one-by-one.”

Though it was pretty dangerous to cast a manipulation spell like this, I was confident there were no other practitioners in the atrium.

I had to be quick, too. I couldn’t miss my interview. It was a godsend, and I wouldn’t get another opportunity like this to infiltrate the Fairbrothers.

My spell took hold with no resistance. One-by-one, the three people who’d lined up behind me shifted away as if they’d forgotten something. It meant that when the lift arrived 10 seconds later, there was no one to walk in with me. As soon as the last patrons shuffled out, I shoved in, jamming my finger against the close button.

When the doors shut, I hardly let myself relax. Instead, reaching a hand back and locking it on the wall behind me, I accessed my foundation charm. I pushed my attention into it as I half closed my eyes. I selected an unseen spell and directed it through the metal right to the camera lodged above the door.

I really didn’t need any security footage of this, thank you very much.

My spell took barely a few seconds to take root.

As soon as I was sure the security footage would loop, I took a step back. I angled my head quickly up to the top of the elevator. This building wasn’t that tall – especially compared to some of the mega structures along the dock. I’d almost reached the top floor.

I brought my hands up, steepling my fingers as I locked my attention on the access hatch that would lead up to the top of the lift. I tuned into my signature silver spell, instantly letting it flush through my system, charging through every cell like electricity. I swore it was stronger somehow, and it wasn’t just the fact I was wearing a bona fide foundation charm. It felt… it felt like it finally had a purpose. And what was a purpose but a clear pathway? That clear pathway seemed to allow the silver within me to conduct yet more magic until it felt as if my very form would explode with it. “Open,” I commanded the hatch above me. At the same time, the lift reached the top floor.

I shifted a hand up and circled a single finger in the air. It locked the lift.

As the hatch above swung open, I wasted no time in leaping up to it. Though it was a fair distance, I only had to use a small charge of magic to help me reach up to it. I was athletic, and I trained every damn day, and that fact came to the fore now as I easily latched hold of the edge of the hatch and dragged myself up with a grunt.

I faced the inside of the elevator shaft. It smelt like lubricant and hot gears.

I was close to the top of the shaft, and I had to keep low lest my head banged up against one of the lift breaks.

I narrowed my eyes in the darkness and saw a small ventilation shaft to my side. A metal grating was covering it. I yanked the grading off, my human strength more than enough to see it loosen from its screws and fall into my grip easily.

The ventilation shaft was small, but my form was hardly large. I pulled myself into it and started to crawl. It was full of dust and unidentified muck. It instantly transferred over my once perfect skirt and blouse. No matter – I could clean them with magic before I fronted up to the interview. I let nothing stop me as I clambered through the shaft as quickly as I could. I tried to tune into the building, tried to assess where its energies flowed. I was hardly a feeling witch, but I understood the principles that kind of magic was based on. And before you tell me a building can’t have feelings, think about it this way – buildings are places for people. Places of security, places of work, places to make money, to make a difference, to make people’s lives have meaning. In other words, buildings were places of concentrated emotion. I tried to tune in to that emotion as best as I could now, letting it help me figure out how this building was organized. All I needed was a route that would take me up to the roof.

Relying on my feeble emotion magic and, more than anything, plain luck, I found a section of the vent shaft that exited into a storage room. I lowered myself into it, landing easily on my heels. It was some kind of maintenance room, and cleaning equipment was stacked up neatly on both sides. I shifted past the shelf of methodically stacked chemicals and made it up to a door. It was locked, a fact my hand confirmed as I secured my fingers over it, my body instantly tuning in to the metal. It might be hard for me to follow emotion, but metal was another thing. Metal, in all its various alloys and forms sung to me. It bolstered me. It made me. And now as my fingers secured around the handle, they told me it was dead bolted.

No matter.

Drawing on the same open spell I’d used to get through the shaft in the elevator, I unlocked the door with nothing more than a squeeze of my fingers. Concentrating on the hallway outside, when I didn’t hear anyone, I pushed the door open a crack.

I was in some kind of unused corridor that appeared to lead to other maintenance rooms. As I tilted my head to the side, I saw a short set of steps that seemed to lead up to the roof. Smiling in satisfaction, I shifted forward.

I didn’t have time for that smile to set. The door up to the roof was suddenly flung open, and a woman rushed down the steps. She stopped midway down as she darted her head up and stared at me.

There was an electric moment as we both looked at each other.

I hardly appeared as if I belonged here, but neither did she. She wasn’t in maintenance gear. She was just in casual clothes.

When I didn’t say anything to her, she slowly strode down the last few steps. Her eyes locked on me, and I watched as she opened her lips a fraction, her lipstick as bright as rubies. “You saw nothing. Your eyes are closed, your ears are shut. You will stand here alone until I am gone.”

Magic rushed around her and shifted toward me. It did nothing. It hit the various protection charms I’d cast and came to a grinding halt like water trying to get through a dam.

She walked past me, as casual and in control as someone who knew they owned the world.

“Dumb fucking human,” she chuckled to herself under her breath as, walking past my shoulder, she brought up a hand and flicked me right in the center of my head.

I didn’t move. I stood there like a robot that had been switched off.

She laughed to herself as she strode past.

If she thought for a second that I was a witch, this was where she would attack. Instead, I heard her slide a hand into her pocket as she pulled out her phone. She dialed someone quickly. “It’s me,” she said, then without pausing added, “spell’s in place. I watched him like you said.”

She paused.

Nerves traced up my back, slow like ice melt dribbling from a melting glacier.

Had this witch been tracking Winston?

The woman chuckled again. She had a horrible laugh. It was the laugh of someone who would happily pluck the wings off ladybirds and crush a butterfly if it dared look more startling than her. “The kid’s not going anywhere. Meek as a mouse, this one. Good choice. Baal will enjoy her.”

I almost moved. I almost gave away the fact I wasn’t under her enchantment as a gasp took a strangling grip of my throat.

She had to be talking about the missing student. For two reasons. She’d referred to a kid, but more than that, she’d spoken of Baal.

Baal was a demon. A dark summoned. One of the more powerful demons, you needed hundreds of sacrifices to keep him corporeal and in the human realm. My blood chilled at the fact anyone could have summoned him.

Back when I’d been attacked, the demon my paltry blood had been fed to had been nothing more than a nameless apparition – just practice for the Elites and nothing more.

Things had obviously moved on from my time. If fed correctly, a demon like Baal could bring the Elites untold power.

I didn’t move until long after the woman was out of sight.

Slowly, I turned as if my muscles didn’t work properly anymore. All of me felt cold, dead, frozen to the spot as if someone had thrust me into deep outer space.

I brought up a hand, but I didn’t clutch my sweat-laced fingers against my mouth and breathe through the horror of what I’d just learned. I shifted my hand until it was at right angles with my body. I ensured my palm faced downward. Slowly, I curled my fingers together as if I was grabbing up something. I concentrated, ensuring my knuckles shifted evenly, ensuring my fingers pulled through the air like I was clutching up invisible strings. “You have left a trace,” I commanded the air. “A path. Eddies of air, movements of gas and oxygen. You have displaced the natural world as you have shifted through it. And you will show me that path now.” My voice punched out with so much authority, I sounded like a new woman. Maybe it was the traces of my silver spell – maybe it was the foundation charm. Or, more likely, maybe it was the prospect of what I’d just faced. The fact the Elites had moved on to summoning demons like Baal was terrifying on every level.

“You will show me her path,” I practically screamed.

Finally, my spell took root, and I felt charges of magic lap off me and shift into the air. Slowly, I started to see silver tendrils winding their way down the corridor. It was the patterns of air the woman had displaced as she’d walked forward.

I started to follow them, carefully at first, then pushing into a run until my heels clicked loudly over the floor. I threw myself forward. I had to find out where the woman was going.

But as I rounded a corner and faced a locked door that appeared to take me back into the main section of the building, I stopped. The air displacement she’d left ended abruptly.

I didn’t need to shift down to one knee and trace a finger over the floor to appreciate what had happened. She’d used a transport spell. They were extremely expensive magical charms to cast. You only did it when you needed to. That, or when you were so confident of your power that you arrogantly thought no one could challenge you.

“Shit,” I spat through my lips as they jerked hard over my teeth. I brought a hand up, balled it into a fist, and punched the wall beside me. It didn’t reveal where the woman had gone, but it measured my anger – by a fraction. I hit the wall one last time, then took a frustrated step back.

I peered at those silver tendrils through the air, wondering if I could interrogate them to find out anything useful about the woman.

I couldn’t. I’d seen her face, felt her magic, and heard her conversation – but that was it.

“Dammit,” I screamed one last time, letting my voice echo out like a blast, and yet one that was measured enough that it wouldn’t travel through the door.

Knowing I couldn’t very well stand here in this corridor all day, I pulled myself away. I waited until I couldn’t hear anyone on the other side of the door, unlocked it, and walked through.

I made my way back to Capital Publishing. And with every step, my mind churned like a ferocious storm.

The stakes had gotten higher. I wouldn’t just be taking on the Elites to get back the missing student – I’d have to take on Baal, too.

As horrendous as that thought was, it couldn’t distract from one question.

When the woman had walked casually past me and spoken on her phone, she’d confirmed to somebody that she’d been watching a man. Was it too much of a leap to assume that man had been Winston? But how could that make sense? Winston was clearly working with the Elites, so didn’t it make more sense to assume she’d been talking about some other hapless wizard who’d been walking down the street at the same time?

As I strode through the building, heading back to Capital Publishing, I told myself one thing. It was all well and good to demand answers in my mind. If I truly wanted to find out what was happening, I would have to reach out and take them.

Chapter 9

I made it back to Capital Publishing just in time. I’d already cast a quick spell on my perfect new outfit to ensure I didn’t rock up to the meeting covered in dust and unidentifiable muck from a ventilation shaft. When I walked up to the reception counter, I didn’t even have to explain myself before the lady told me to head to the top floor.

Thanking her, I walked over to the lifts, questioning why an interview for a simple PA would be held up at the penthouse. I got my answer as soon as I arrived. Walking out of the lifts onto an opulent marble floor that led up to a modern polished counter, I saw an array of model-like women sitting primly on seats along one wall. Some of them had resumes clasped in their perfectly manicured hands. All of them looked as if they were showing up to the job interview of their lives.

Again I didn’t need to announce myself to the receptionist behind the desk. She nodded at me as if she knew me and gestured over to one of the seats.

I sat down. All the while, I stared out at the building. Grand didn’t really do it justice. Architecturally distinct and yet livable, for some reason, it reminded me of Winston himself.

I didn’t have long to appreciate how nice this penthouse was. I darted my head up as, from an opulent looking room beside me, a woman walked out. Tall, blonde, and about as stunning as any celebrity I’d ever seen, I appreciated my niggling suspicions had to be correct. When Winston had asked me to head to this interview, he’d kind of failed to mention that it wouldn’t be as a PA for some random person in this building – it would be for him.

My gut clenched. It was a solid, strong sensation as if someone had forced wire down my throat and was now busy entwining my intestines.

I stopped myself from clenching my teeth. It would be too obvious and would leave too much tension visible wrapping around my throat like springs.

I had to get a handle on myself. Especially if Winston was going to be in that interview. Right now, all I wanted to do was push the bastard into a corner, wrap a hand around his throat, and ask him what the hell was happening to that student.

I was now convinced that when I’d overheard that witch talking about following a man, she hadn’t been talking about Winston. It made no damn sense. He was the oldest and most powerful of the Fairbrothers, for the love of God, and his little brother headed up the Elites at the Academy.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” one of the receptionists raised her voice and leaned over the polished counter, “you’re next.”

“Thank you,” I muttered as I rose to my feet. As the model-like applicant who’d just been interviewed shifted past me, arching an eyebrow and shooting me a look that clearly said “really?” I turned in time to see a trim man in his fifties walk up to me.

“Miss Janeway, I assume?”

I didn’t miss a beat, pushing out a hand to shake his. “That’s me.” I’d already completely taken on board my new name. If someone called it, I would respond. If I didn’t, it would be a clear indication I was lying.

“I’m Harvey Goldstein. Nice to meet you,” he said as he whirled around and indicated the interview room with a shrug of his broad shoulders.

As he walked in front of me, I flicked my gaze over to him, locking it on the back of his neck. I judged everything from his gait to his stance as I appreciated this was the Harvey Winston had been speaking to.

The guy had to be a wizard. Winston had spoken to him about the kidnapped student, after all. It was illegal to share magic with mortals. And yet, in the few steps I had to completely assess this Harvey character, I couldn’t pick up even a hint of magic. The guy had to be a complete pro to hide it.

We walked into the interview room. My gut clenched in anticipation long before I saw Winston sitting at the head of the table.

For some reason, he had this rugged quality to him, as if in the intervening hour since we’d met he’d been scaling a mountain or running a marathon. It was the quality of someone who’d been engaged in true hard work. But my intuition had to be mistaken, because the hardest thing Winston Fairbrother would have done this morning was condemn some poor girl to be sacrificed to a demon.

I pressed an awkward smile over my lips, ensuring my cheeks wobbled in just the right way. It was that, or reveal I wanted to pluck Winston’s damn spine from his back.

Winston rose, flattening a hand down his tie and nodding politely as he gestured for me to take a seat.

“I don’t have a resume on me, sorry,” I muttered, thinking back to the women outside of reception.

“That’s okay,” Winston said just as Harvey opened his mouth to presumably point out that without a resume, I could hardly front up to a job interview.

I sat awkwardly, my bag still hooked over my shoulder.

Winston cast his gaze over me, and either he was looking for something down my arms, or for the first time, he was actually noting how I looked in this expensive top.

I had to catch myself. This wasn’t me, after all. This was a disguise spell he was looking at. Winston had no idea who I was, and he never would.

That thought gave me the strength I needed as I put more effort into my smile, hoping not even a trained magical psychologist would be able to see through it.

“Do you have any experience as a PA?” Harvey asked, his voice doing this thing that told me he legitimately thought I had absolutely no reason to be here.

I bit my lip.

Winston chuckled. “I guess it depends what skills we think are important,” he said.

Though he didn’t add anything to his comment, I could only guess this was a veiled dig at the other applicants out in the corridor. They didn’t look as if they had any PA experience, either. Unless they’d all worked for modeling agencies in between doing photo shoots.

Harvey arched an eyebrow and didn’t say anything as he sat. “What jobs have you had in the past three years?” He got down to business.

Unemployed witch fighting for her life, I commented in my mind, obviously not saying a word. But I could appreciate the irony. You see, I’d never been employed. Not once. I hadn’t made an honest day’s wage in my life. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have experience working.

Though I could have played this any number of ways, I had to remember that while I’d crafted the identity of Carrie Janeway, an identity was easier to fake than a job history. I could see that Harvey was precisely the kind of man who would demand contact details from my previous job. He would take the first opportunity to call them up and expose my lie. So I shrugged. I purposely dropped my gaze and looked at the table. “I’ve been unemployed,” I said quietly.

I could see Harvey out of the corner of my eye. He rolled his eyes and shot Winston a look. For some reason, it reminded me of the look of someone who was sick of their friend dragging lost puppies in off the street. In other words, a look that did not fit the bastard Winston Fairbrother.

Winston cleared his throat. “That’s okay. You said you have good organizational skills.”

I didn’t make eye contact with him. It wasn’t because I was ashamed or embarrassed in any way. It was because I didn’t want to see that particular quiet, hopeful smile spreading Winston’s lips. It was almost kind. It was obviously an act in every way, and the mere thought he could get away with it turned my stomach.

I continued to stare at my hands in my lap. “Yeah, I do.”

“Do you have any evidence of that?” Harvey said in a long-suffering, only barely patient voice.

“What kind of evidence do you want?” I asked.

“A CV,” Harvey said pointedly as he looked at Winston.

“She already told us she can’t provide one, Harv.” Winston’s tone was almost patient. His expression was kindly, and nothing in his body language gave away the fact that this asshole was nothing more than an arrogant, rageful bastard.

Harvey let out a frustrated breath. “You do appreciate how complicated this job will be, don’t you, Miss Janeway? Complicated, and demanding. You’ll be the PA to the head of Capital Publishing. You will be responsible for Winston’s calendar. You will have to be contactable at any hour. You’ll need to prioritize tasks. You’ll also have to liaise with me as the general manager.”

I looked right up into Harvey’s eyes, again wondering how this man was so good at hiding his magic. “If you don’t think I’m appropriate, that’s okay. I can just leave.” I rose to do just that, itching to get the chance to explore this building. If I had any hope of tracking down where the Elites were keeping Baal and that student, I had to start now.

Winston rose faster, flattening down his tie again. It seemed to be a signature move of his, as if any sign of messiness would be a sign of weakness. Then again, it was far more likely that the gold and diamond tie pin clasping it in place was a charm. “Harvey is not suggesting that.”

Harvey shot Winston the kind of obvious challenging look that told everyone that yes, he was thinking precisely that. He clearly wanted me to leave so they could get back to interviewing the real candidates.

I looked straight at Harvey. “With all due respect, sir,” I said, hating myself for being deferential to frigging Winston Fairbrother, “but that is precisely what he’s thinking. He doesn’t believe I should be at this interview. And he thinks I’m wasting both your time.”

Harvey paled a little, but Winston paused then let out a genuine chuckle. “Well that’s refreshing,” he muttered. “You’re the first interviewee who’s stood up to Harvey. I should just hire you now.”

“Winston,” Harvey growled.

I blinked over at Winston in confusion.

He ignored Harvey’s protestations as a wider smile framed his handsome face. “You see, Harvey might think long legs and a killer smile are the most important features for this job, but the most important quality is to be able to stand up to him to get my diary clear of unnecessary meetings,” Winston said without measuring himself.

Harvey looked at his boss darkly, but it was still clear that they had to have more than a good working relationship, because Harvey didn’t look too livid, just put-out.

I was still standing, and I swiveled my gaze toward the door.

“Sit down,” Winston suggested.

“I’m really not the best person for this job,” I conceded. “Thank you for allowing me to apply, but I have no experience as a PA.” With that, I walked to the door.

I had to stop wasting time, get out there, and get this case solved. It took me a few seconds to appreciate I’d thought about it as a case, but I didn’t take it back. It felt right. It felt like I actually had a chance at solving this if only I was methodical and direct.

“I don’t want to be any trouble,” I said dismissively, my heart not in the statement.

“Harvey, tell her to sit down,” Winston said, a measure of force infiltrating his tone.

I heard Harvey give a huff. “Please, Miss Janeway, take a seat. I’m sorry if we got off on the wrong foot.”

“We didn’t get off on the wrong foot. You’ve just been very clear about your desires. I respect that. Good luck in employing your PA model,” I said, momentarily becoming distracted as I slipped that dig in at the end.

Winston chuckled. Harvey reddened.

“They aren’t models,” he began.

Realizing I’d spoken out of turn, I appreciated I had a chance to backtrack. I didn’t. There was only so long I could play meek and mild, after all. I shifted my gaze toward him, one eyebrow arching up. “They look like models. I might not have a CV, but I have a functioning set of eyes.”

Winston continued to chuckle to himself.

Harvey just got redder. “If you’re accusing me of unfair hiring practices, please understand that this has nothing to do with Capital Publishing. It’s a directive from the Fairbrother Group. As heir to the group, Winston is expected to keep up a certain image.”

I didn’t pause. “That’s an unfair hiring practice,” I said plainly. “You just accused yourself.”

Winston couldn’t contain it anymore, and he laughed obviously.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying this,” Harvey grumbled. “Now, Miss Janeway, if you’ve got the wrong impression, I apologize. If you would like some clarification as to Capital Publishing’s hiring practices, I can book an appointment with our legal team.”

“That’s enough, Harvey – stop bullying her. And, Miss Janeway, you’re hired. You’ve proven you have the qualities I require.”

Sorry, I was hired? What the hell?

My expression said it all, and it was a look that was more than reflected on Harvey’s crumpled scowl as he faced his boss. “But she’s unemployed.”

“Was unemployed. I think you’ll find she’s the newest employee of the Fairbrother Group now.”

Winston didn’t seem to care one iota about either my surprise or his general manager’s. He just fixed a harder smile over his expressive lips. “When can you start? I was kind of hoping you could start today.”

When I’d come into this meeting, I hadn’t thought for a second I would actually secure the job. Now, on fast forward, I had to calculate if this was an opportunity, or a curse.

“She doesn’t have what it takes,” Harvey tried. “You’re talking about taking an unemployed woman and making her your PA. She won’t just manage me,” he said distractedly, “she’ll have to be a go-between between the rest of your family. Have you actually thought this through?”

Inside, I stiffened. A single memory of a single man flashed in front of my mind’s eye.

Stanford. I could see him, see him like he’d suddenly appeared right in front of me, see him as if Winston’s handsome face had twisted to take on Stanford’s vicious sneer.

“You don’t need to remind me what my PA does,” Winston said patiently. “I’m happy to give her a try. She managed to deal with you.” He offered Harvey an unreadable look.

Though I had no idea what that look meant, Harvey clearly did.

I didn’t have the luxury of thinking this through forever. With Harvey practically breathing down Winston’s neck, I appreciated that if I looked as if I didn’t want this job, Winston would give up.

The question was, could I handle it? Not just dealing with Winston, but potentially meeting the rest of his family?

I honestly didn’t know. I knew the answer should be yes. If Aventis were here, he’d shove me in the back and force me to accept the job with open arms. I would never ever come across an opportunity like this again. As long as I was careful enough to keep my magic hidden, who knew what kind of secrets I could come across? It would all depend on me, though. Because if I freaked out and showed my magic at the wrong moment, all of this would be for naught. The last three years of barely surviving would have been nothing but a useless prelude to death.

Harvey cleared his throat. “I think we have our answer. She clearly doesn’t want the job.”

He moved to get up and walk away, presumably to invite another interviewee in. Winston didn’t shift. He looked at me, and there was something in that look I could not deny. It was more than the intensity he’d faced me with earlier. It was more than the strange rugged charm that made him seem as if he worked hard every day of his life, despite his privilege and job.

It was… for the first time in my life, I had to admit, I had no idea. I’d always thought I was a good judge of character. Right now, I appreciated that no matter how good I was at reading people’s minds and morals, I would never be able to scratch under the surface of Winston Fairbrother. At that realization, I should have walked away. And yet, for some reason, I shoved my hand forward. I didn’t think it through. Either my body or my magic overrode me until the next thing I knew, I shook Winston’s hand.

It was warm, large, and felt appropriately like the powerful hand of a wizard. It had a grip that told me he very rarely let go of something if he wanted it enough.

My stomach kicked with tingling nerves. It was the kind of kick it should very much not give for a bastard like Winston.

Before I could reprimand myself too harshly – before I could remind myself that Winston would likely turn out to be an enemy that would eclipse Stanford by far – a grin spread his lips and he nodded pointedly at Harvey. “Please let the rest of the applicants know that we’ve already found a suitable candidate.”

I expected Harvey to challenge Winston again, but with one more heavy sigh, he simply shrugged. “You’ll be the one explaining it to your father,” he muttered under his breath as he shifted around, walked out the door, and cleared his throat.

“He’s really not that bad,” Winston said.

“He seems manageable enough,” I commented, forcing the words out. You see, the second Harvey had left us alone, my natural despair at the fact I was with a Fairbrother came to the fore. It rose through me with all the choking force of someone’s hands around my throat.

Winston’s eyes narrowed.

“There’s no need to be nervous, Miss Janeway. I’m really not that bad.”

I pressed my hands in front of myself as I nodded. “Ah… what exactly do you want me to begin to do?”

“The receptionist will set you up with your office, hand you your phone, get you your computer, and give you all the passwords you’ll need.”

“Right. So… what then?” I knew I sounded awkward, and to be fair, I was. I would have to at least pretend to be a competent PA for the rest of the day, and I had no idea where to start.

“I’m going to a meeting in half an hour. You can come, and I’ll explain everything along the way. For now, familiarize yourself with the building.”

With that, Winston walked out.

I blinked at his back as he left.

… Had I just been handed the exact thing I was looking for? The perfect excuse to trawl through Capital Publishing to find every secret I could? It was almost too good to believe, and for a few seconds, my stomach clenched, telling me this all had to be some trap.

… But Winston had no clue I was a witch. I’d been more than careful. Plus, if he knew I was magical, there would be no reason to pretend to trust me like this. With his power, he would be able to take me on immediately.

No… this was luck, wasn’t it? I was getting the one thing I needed most.

But here’s the thing about luck – if you don’t use it, you won’t just lose it – sometimes, you’ll lose your head too.

Chapter 10

I wasted no time in heading out of the interview room, setting up with the receptionist, then doing just as my boss had told me to – and exploring the building.

I headed down from the penthouse level, knowing full well that if I started to sniff around up there, Winston and Harvey wouldn’t just sack me – they’d start to suspect something was wrong.

As I rode the elevator down, picking a random floor and jamming my thumb into the stop button, I brought my hand up, clasped it against my chin, and let my fingers grate into the side of my face. My eyes were wide open, and they fixed on the closed doors in front of me.

Was I actually here? Was I actually doing this?

It hadn’t really hit me until now. I was investigating the goddamn Fairbrothers.

The charm I’d cast in my house this morning had been clear. Out of every single holding that the Fairbrother’s head, this building was the one that supposedly held their greatest secrets. I would find out what that was. Though my priority right now was finding and saving that kidnapped student, I couldn’t forget my larger plan.

“Come on. This floor seems good enough,” I muttered to myself as I jammed my thumb against the button that would open the door.

I strode out into a wide corridor that led to various offices.

I tried to look like I belonged as I walked past, only a few other workers noticing me as the rest seemed to rush around, too busy to care.

I hadn’t familiarized myself with everything Capital Publishing did, but I appreciated it had several arms, from a local newspaper, to a syndicated magazine, to a book publishing business. In reality, it would be yet another tool the Fairbrothers used to not just control their image amongst the mortals, but the magical community, too.

I expected to see magical practitioners. I didn’t.

Once I was done exploring that floor, I went to another, then another. I was running out of time. Though I wasn’t wearing a watch, I’d set a mental clock, tracing a countdown on my wrist that could only be seen by me. As I entered the elevator again, flicking my sleeve down and checking how much time was left, I ground my teeth together. 15 minutes to find something important before I had to meet up with Winston to head to whatever meeting we had scheduled.

“Come on, there’s some secret in this building. Show me. Goddammit,” I ground my eyes closed, bringing a hand up and flattening it over my face, “there’s meant to be something in this building that counts.” I slowed down each word, pushing magic out of them until it felt as if my mouth had become filled with electricity. “I am silver, conductive like silver, powerful like silver. Power flows through me unobstructed. It feeds my every spell. It keeps me strong, protected, safe, and more than anything, unstoppable. So show me. Tell me which floor the secret lies on.” I shoved a hand out, my wrist loose as I let my fingers hover near the various buttons that led to each floor.

At first my hand shifted toward the penthouse, but I stopped myself. There was no point investigating up there. Of course one could only assume that there were fiendish secrets in Winston’s office, let alone in his head, but I could hardly investigate those now. “Show me something else. Show me something—” I began, casting the spell under my breath until suddenly my wrist darted down of its own accord. My thumb slammed into a button so hard, I could have broken my nail.

I opened my eyes to see that I was headed to the thirteenth floor. Though there were nameplates against each of the numbers letting you know what level they led to, that floor simply said miscellaneous.

I frowned, waiting for the new sleek elevator to travel down. A few seconds later, it pinged, and with a knot forming in my stomach, I walked out.

On the face of it, this level looked like any other. There was a long, wide corridor, the occasional potted plant, and various closed doors that seemed to lead to people’s offices. There was one thing missing, however – people.

The place was empty.

“Maybe it’s spare space,” I muttered under my breath, not knowing who exactly I was trying to convince.

I brought up a hand, unconsciously pressing my palm against my pendant under my top. I wasn’t stupid enough to draw it out. With the number of protection charms I’d cast into it, I was damn certain that no one would be able to detect it. But if I started grabbing it out and rubbing my thumb against it, even if no one was around, I would run the risk of starting a bad habit. Yes, the thing brought me comfort, but if I dared rely on it at the wrong moment, drawing it out in front of Winston himself, I’d be as good as dead.

Still, pressing up against it was enough, and it calmed my nerve sufficiently that I felt a renewed sense of purpose pulsing through me as I walked down the corridor. My back straightened, the sound of my high heels clicking against the polished concrete floor becoming methodical and precise.

A cascade of adrenaline shifted through my belly, jumping high into my chest and darting down my arms. It sent tingles shifting over my skin until they coalesced in my fingertips.

I could feel magic. Magic that had been recently cast.

Perhaps this was where the Fairbrothers ran their magical publishing arm. Or perhaps it was where they kept magical items. There was a heck of a lot of power in the air, so this place had to be important.

Though I’d only been to this building this morning, I was starting to get an internal sense of its size, and I appreciated that I was going to the end of the corridor. On either side of me, rooms branched off, leading to a veritable warren of offices. As I shifted around a corner, the corridor ended. Except there was a problem. It ended on a red door. A red painted door with a number on it. The number zero, to be precise. It was neither the color of the door nor the fact it had the number zero on it that bothered me. It was the fact that this door seemingly led to the outside of the building.

We were only thirteen floors up, but we were still thirteen frigging floors up. Having a door that led outside made sense on the ground level, but not up the side of the damn building.

“What the hell?” I muttered as I shifted to the side, angling my gaze through a glass window that looked into an office to my left. Taking a step back until I could see through it, I appreciated I was right. The window showed a plate glass wall that looked out to the city beyond. That wall cut right across one side of the building. And this door would lead right through it.

I instantly reached a hand forward, muttering a quick spell under my breath, reminding myself of how conductive I was as I spread my fingers forward and locked them against the red paint. Instantly sparks shot through me, force practically igniting in my stomach as if I’d swallowed fire. My mouth became dry, my heart became quick, and it quickly became too much. Before I knew what I was doing, I had to yank my hand back and shake my wrist so my skin didn’t burn.

I took a staggering step back. “What the hell is this door?”

Though I hadn’t been able to make contact with it long, I appreciated it definitely did lead to the outside of the building.

I also appreciated one very important thing. It was my first clue.

This was where, if I was an ordinary witch or mortal, I would reach into my pocket and take a photo with my phone. I didn’t have a mobile. Such things could be tracked. I also didn’t need one to take a picture.

I brought my finger up, licked my nail, and muttered something into the flesh with a quick tongue until magic darted down my hand.

“You will remember what is traced with this fingertip. Like a pen to paper, like a knife against wood, like a brush against canvas – you will leave a permanent mark unseen by all but me.” As the spell took root and I saw just a faint crackle of yellow-white magic flicker under the nail bed, I brought my nail down and started to draw on my palm.

I didn’t free draw or anything. I couldn’t add an artistic eye to my already impressive skills set. But the spell I’d cast would help me take a perfect, permanent magical record of this sight exactly like a photo. When I was home, when I was safe, I’d be able to cast a spell to help me figure out exactly where this door led to.

When I finished up, I took a nervous step forward. I brought up a hand, ready to try the door handle, no matter how stupid that might be.

Wait. It wouldn’t be stupid. You see, it would be stupid if I weren’t armed with the most important weapon a girl could have. I knew the Fairbrother family spell, and I was about to use it for the first time. But just as I opened my lips, I heard hurried footsteps from behind me.

Dammit.

I’d kept a magical ear out, and I hadn’t heard anyone exiting the elevator onto this level. Which meant they’d already been in one of the apparently abandoned rooms.

Nerves pulsed through my stomach, exploding like a bomb that had been shoved into my intestines. I looked around me frantically, wondering if I could dart forward and hide in one of the offices.

I didn’t have time.

So I did something desperate.

The traces of the drawing spell were still tingling through my hand. Wasting no time, I reached down, grabbed my foot, and brushed my hand all the way up my body until I reached the top of my head. I allowed cascades of magic to shift through me, and most importantly, I connected to my foundation charm until my spell became strong enough that it covered my whole form. “I look like the ceiling, like the walls, like the environment around me. No one will notice me. No one will see,” I spat just in time.

I shifted to the side, whirling as I threw myself against the wall.

I stood still, as still as a mountain as someone came into view.

The last few crackles of my picture spell took hold.

A woman hurried forward, then stopped. She had something in her arms – a box of some description, and a Manila folder pressed tightly under one folded elbow.

She frowned, her nose crinkling as she sniffed the air.

I didn’t dare move. I didn’t breathe. I just stood there, willing my spell not to reveal me.

The woman shook her head, her shoulder-length blond hair scattering over her shoulders. “I told them not to leave so much obvious magic in this damn corridor. Idiots.” She shoved forward. She reached the door. Muscling the box into one arm, she pushed a hand forward. She half closed her eyes, let the hand hover just a centimeter above the door handle, and muttered something under her breath.

I peeled my ears to hear it.

“You will unlock for the Elites. For no door can stand in our way.”

It wasn’t a spell. It was a code. And the door accepted it. I heard the handle creak as it opened itself.

She took a step back as the door swung outward.

Dammit, I was on the wrong side, and rather than be able to see through the door to what lay beyond, the door opened toward me, obscuring my view.

I flattened myself harder against the door, willing myself to take up less space lest the door slam into me and reveal I was there.

The woman wasted no more time in shifting through. I caught sight of the side of her face as she walked past me. She had a specific smile. The kind of smile that told me she thought she was unstoppable.

If I needed any more evidence that she was in the Elites, that smile was it.

I got the urge to kick the door closed, allow magic to surge over my form, and attack her.

I didn’t. I narrowed all my attention on the Manila folder she was holding.

I could just make out some words scrawled over the front. Vendetta charm.

My stomach coiled. It might’ve been three years since I’d been at school, but some lessons you didn’t forget. Vendetta charms were one of those things. Nasty, dark magic, we’d learned about them, but not how to cast them.

As the woman walked through, the door creaked, slamming closed behind her.

I didn’t move. Not for 20 seconds. Not until I’d confirmed with several quick muttered spells that she’d left no charms behind that could detect my presence.

When I was sure, I staggered forward, planted a hand on my chest, and breathed hard.

I took several steps back, turned, and faced the door. “Vendetta charm? What the hell are the Elites doing with a vendetta charm? And what the heck was in that box?”

There was no one to answer me.

My wrist suddenly crawled as if spiders were dancing across it. I jerked it up, pulling the sleeve back to appreciate I had exactly 2 minutes to get back to Wilson. “Dammit,” I spat under my breath. I teetered on the spot. One foot stepped forward, and the other foot stepped back. Now I knew the spell to get through that door, I appreciated it would open for me without protest. I could go through, follow that woman, and ask every single one of those questions myself. Preferably with a charged fist to her head.

… Or I could go back to Wilson.

Suddenly, Aventis’ words slammed into my head. The one thing he’d never been able to teach me was how to be subtle. I was a bulldozer. But if I wanted to take on the magical world, I had to learn when and how to pick my fights.

Reluctantly, I turned. I shot forward, my heels clicking hard and fast until they sounded like someone clapping.

I made it back to the elevator and up to the penthouse just in time.

As the elevator opened, Wilson was already striding toward me, a box under his arm. As soon as he saw me, a wide smile spread his lips.

… That smile was starting to do something to me. I might have just met the man, but every single time he cast that charming smile my way, my stomach kicked with evermore tingles.

The important thing about what I’d just said was cast. It was manipulation magic; it had to be. It couldn’t simply be his face, his kindness, his personality shining through. It had to be some form of magic he used on the people around him to fool them into thinking he was a good man.

I lengthened my back and just stopped a sneer from crumpling my lips. I pressed my hands in front of myself and nodded instead. “Thank you again for this opportunity, sir.”

He chuckled as he reached a hand out and kept the elevator open before I could walk through. “You don’t need to call me sir. Wilson is fine.”

“Okay, Wilson, thank you for this offer.”

He joined me in the elevator, quickly pressing one of his large fingers into the ground-floor button. “There’s no need to thank me. I think you’ll be a great fit for this job. Here’s your phone, by the way.”

I made a face. One that looked as if I’d just swallowed a lemon.

He laughed before I could control myself. “Not exactly the expression I was expecting. That’s about the most expensive phone on the market.”

“Sorry.” I brought a hand up and waved quickly, feeling genuinely awkward before I could remind myself once more just how much of a bastard this man was. “I just… I don’t particularly like mobiles, that’s all.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Are you a good 50 years older than you look?”

I shook my head.

“Then you’re just smart, ha? See, I told you you would be a good fit for the job.”

I gave him the kind of frown that told him I had no idea what he was implying.

He brought the phone out of the box and gestured with it. “Great way to get nothing useful done, these. Still, it’s part of company policy. Sorry to have to burden you with it,” he said, and there wasn’t a hint of irony in his voice as he handed it over.

I accepted it, holding onto it as if I didn’t know what to do with it.

As the elevator descended, silence descended with it. It was awkward and uncomfortable.

The very last thing I would ever have expected to feel around the heir of the Fairbrother Group was awkwardness. But you tell that to the back of my neck as it itched with nerves.

He cleared his throat. “You haven’t asked where we’re headed.”

“Where are we headed?” I took his prompt.

“My primary family holding—”

“March Estate,” I said quickly.

He looked impressed. “How do you know that?”

I backtracked quickly. “Isn’t it well-known in this town?”

He shot me a specific look. “I thought you said you were from out of town?”

It felt as if someone had balled up a hand and punched me in the stomach. Dammit, I had said that.

I controlled my expression, practically wrapping my hands around it so it didn’t fall. “I am, but,” I made an awkward movement with my lips, “your family’s kind of famous.”

He conceded my point with a shrug. He also brought a hand up, scratched his chin, and darted his gaze forward. There was a… lost quality to it. “Yes, we are. Now, what kind of questions do you have about this job?”

For a second, I didn’t answer. Because for a second, I wanted to use the residual magic of my painting spell to take a picture of his expression so I never forgot it.

It was… I had no idea. The one thing it wasn’t, was understandable. It wasn’t full of arrogance, hatred, elitism. It was… deadened, if anything. If I didn’t know who he was, I would suddenly suspect that Winston Fairbrother had family issues.

“… Carrie?” he prompted.

Though I’d already reminded myself I was now Carrie Janeway, I didn’t respond.

He cleared his throat.

I shook my head. “Sorry, I guess I’m just trying to think of a good enough response. I don’t exactly know what questions to ask. Like I said, I’ve never been a PA.”

He chuckled. He had an engaging chuckle. Though the first thing my cynical mind wanted to point out to me was that of course he did – as he was a wizard versed in manipulation magic – it felt like it was more than that. It was the light laughter of someone who’d been forced to see the funny side of things to get through in life.

He brought up a hand and scratched the back of his head. Before he could answer, the elevator arrived, and we walked out onto the ground floor.

I watched everyone change their demeanor as he strode through.

I wouldn’t exactly say it was as if a god had suddenly descended to Earth, but the way people’s faces lit up obviously indicated they cared deeply for the man.

As I scanned them, I tried to detect any witches or wizards – any magic at all. I pressed my tongue flat against the roof of my mouth and brought my left hand in, patting it hard against my leg, drawing my nail up and pressing it against the fabric of my skirt as if I wanted to cut through to get to my thigh beneath. I was forming a loop, one that would concentrate my natural magic, but not leave it exposed.

The great thing about being a silver magician was it wasn’t just that I could conduct magic – I could detect it better than most.

But right now, I detected nothing.

Winston said hello to a few people as we strode through the atrium, only turning to me once he reached an alternative entrance on the other side. “The car’s waiting for us through here. Now, what’s a good question to ask about being a PA?” He returned to our original conversation. “I guess it depends who you are a PA for,” he said philosophically.

I locked my eyes on the back of his head as he reached forward, opened the door, and gestured me through.

I started to break him down, looking for the man beneath. Where was the arrogance? Why didn’t it follow him in the same way it followed his brother, Stanford? Why couldn’t I smell it a mile off? Why wasn’t he grinning sycophantically like every other elite bastard I’d ever met?

Why didn’t he look like the man I knew he really was?

“The most important thing to know about me, Carrie Janeway, is that I am only one part of the Fairbrothers. A seemingly insignificant part,” he added quietly, so quietly I wasn’t entirely sure if that comment was meant for me.

He strode forward.

There were various cars parked up along the street. I shifted my gaze, looking for the most expensive one. I began to walk toward it.

Wilson stopped and gestured with his head, indicating a relatively ordinary SUV. “This is my car.”

I blinked and looked at him, making my confusion obvious.

He laughed. Again, it seemed like a genuine laugh. It was a chuckle of a man who had to see the funny side, because if he didn’t, reality would crush him whole. “Not exactly the kind of car you’d think the heir to a multibillion-dollar group would own, ha? Has better suspension than most of those fancy cars my brothers drive.”

I forced myself not to twitch on the word brothers.

Winston unlocked the door, opened the passenger-side for me, and gestured me in.

I walked over, tentatively jumped inside, and did my seatbelt up.

He got in the front, shoved the keys in the ignition, and pulled out quickly.

This was his car; he hadn’t been lying. It smelt like the particular cologne he wore. His impression went beyond that, though. It was like a sense of him had become locked in the leather, the dash, the tires, the metal.

It was so intense, especially for a metal magician like me, I instantly became uncomfortable, my neck itching.

“Sorry it’s not that comfortable,” Wilson muttered under his breath. “Before you ask, I drive it because I like it.”

“I don’t mind what you drive,” I said honestly.

He pressed his tongue across his teeth. “I’m just mentioning it because it was a point of some contention with my previous PA. As the current heir of the Fairbrother Group, I should attempt to keep up appearances more.”

I looked at him. Really looked at him. This didn’t fit. A man like Winston ought to be driving a new car every day, not some beaten up old SUV that looked like it belonged out of a middle-class family’s garage. More than that, why had he just said he was the current heir as if that could change?

Why did so few things about this man fit?

“What’s with the look?” he asked as he slid his gaze from the rear vision mirror to me. “Starting to regret accepting the job?”

“Just trying to figure out why you’re not like your brother,” I said in a completely unguarded moment.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, my cheeks paled as if someone had just cut my throat.

Winston made a face. “Which brother? You know one of my brothers?”

I shook my head so frantically, I could give my hair knots. “Know of them. Doesn’t the whole country?”

“I guess you’re right. Which one of my dear brothers were you talking about, though?”

This is where I had to shut up. Every single moment of vulnerability I shared with him was a moment that could come back to bite me in the ass. So why did my lips open? “Stanford,” I answered before I could stop myself.

I might not have been looking at Winston directly, but that didn’t stop me from seeing his expression. One of his cheeks twitched as the other became slack. It was as if someone had just slapped him. “Yeah, Stanford is… he’s what Stanford is,” he answered without answering at all. “I imagine he’s never sat down in a car that’s worth less than half a million. Wait, forget I said that. I really shouldn’t tattle on my brothers. Not when you’re going to have so much to do with them.”

If I hadn’t been sitting down, I would have fallen down. As tension wound through my stomach at that particular promise, I tried not to let it show. “… I am?”

“What Harvey was trying to ineloquently tell you back there was that one of the important parts of this job is going between the rest of the family and me. There’ll be a lot of driving back and forth through the city, checking out our holdings, fixing up meetings, collecting things – that kind of stuff.”

I paused, then I nodded. “I see. Just…how many holdings do your family have?” I asked, ensuring my tone was neutral.

“I can’t remember off the top of my head. 20 active buildings, and too many to count that we rent out.”

“I guess I’ll have to make a list,” I managed.

He chuckled. “It’s really not that daunting. Wait, that’s a lie – it is.”

Winston’s personality didn’t just jar with his role. Winston’s personality was hard to pin down. It changed like the seasons. At one moment, he looked rugged and in control as if he could scale a mountain by day’s end. The next, he was awkwardly chuckling and misspeaking.

And all the while, I never felt his magic. A crackle here and there, but nothing overt.

Most wizards and witches, when they were out amongst mortals, didn’t bother to hide their inherent power. They’d be running background spells without a care in the world. Heck, sometimes they overtly practiced magic in front of ordinary people and simply wiped their minds afterward.

Winston, apart from back in the boutique, hadn’t cast a single spell I was aware of. What the hell was the heir to the Fairbrother Group doing not practicing magic every second of the day to keep up his skills and assure his dominance?

The rest of the drive out to the Fairbrother family estate was relatively quiet. Winston seemed to become lost in thought. I did my best to not just analyze his expression and his car, but to force my mind over the day’s events. I couldn’t allow Winston’s offputting personality to distract me from the fact that I knew somewhere and somehow, he had something to do with the missing student’s disappearance.

He might seem like a complicated man who preferred to drive a beaten-up SUV than a Bentley, but I knew he was still the kind of man who would bleed a witch dry just to feed a summoned.

By the time we made it to his family estate, I’d washed away any possible hint of confusion I had about the man. In my head, I once more knew precisely who he was and where I stood.

Except, where I stood right now was the one place I never thought I’d come. As his car passed the armed guards at the gate of his family estate and traveled up the sealed driveway to the massive manor beyond, I arrived in one of the most sacred sections of ground in all of Vanguard City. I could feel it – every single part of me could feel it. Magic lapped off the place as if the house was nothing more than concentrated thunderbolts. By the time Winston stopped the car and we jumped out, I felt like I was on fire.

Though my natural inclination was to grab up my pendant to try to ground myself, I satisfied my nerves by grinding my teeth instead.

Winston cleared his throat and angled his head toward Fairbrother Manor. “It’s a bit of a warren in there. Stick with me. The meeting shouldn’t take long. I should warn you, however,” he said as he took several steps and turned over his shoulder to fix me with a specific look, “they may not be kind to you. Do you have a problem with confrontation? Understand I’ll have your back, but you need to tell me now if you’re not the kind of person who can stand on her own.”

I might’ve been playing meek and mild until now. Now, I faced Winston as if he was Stanford. I faced him as if he was the figurehead for everything that had gone wrong in the magical community. I nodded once. My jaw was stiff, my eyes were bright, and though my hands weren’t rounded into fists, my body would look as if it was ready for a fight – any fight.

Winston looked quietly impressed. His gaze flicked over me as if he’d never quite seen anything like me before. “A good answer. Come on.” He continued forward to a massive, stately set of doors that led into the manor.

I felt guards. I didn’t see them, but I didn’t have to to know that they were there. As I casually ticked my head back, pretending to neaten the back of my hair, I appreciated there were gargoyles stationed at the four corners of the house. Sure, they looked like nothing more than statues for now, but any witch worth her mettle would be able to feel their magic. With a second’s notice, and with nothing more than a click of their master’s fingers, they would come to life, and any sorry bastard stupid enough to get in their way would be ripped up like a hand being thrust into a shredder.

We walked in through the main door, and instantly we were met by a butler.

Though the guy deferentially looked at his feet when Winston strode past, he locked his gaze on me, and I didn’t need to be a genius to appreciate he stared at me like scum someone had scraped off their shoe.

“Is this your new PA?” the butler said with a sarcastic drawl.

“Don’t be rude, Henderson. Harvey would have already called ahead. Yes, this is my new PA, but you would already know her name, so please use it.” Winston’s tone wasn’t dismissive, but it was hard, suggesting he wouldn’t repeat himself.

Henderson fixed me with a certain look, then nodded once in the least deferential move I’d ever seen. It was as if he was simply trying to eke out some tension in his neck – tension presumably that I had put there by bothering to sully his perfect floor and manor with my presence. “Good day to you, Miss Janeway.”

“Ah, hello,” I said.

Henderson shot Winston the kind of look that told anyone my response of ah, hello, was the equivalent of spitting on the Queen.

“Where’s father?” Winston asked. His tone changed measurably on the word father. It shifted, somehow giving me the impression of something shuddering to the side as if Winston were vocally trying to avoid that word, as if, with his mere voice, he wanted to remove himself from the concept of his father by deleting the very thought from his vocabulary.

… It had to be an act, I told myself. I was more forceful than ever. I drilled that conclusion into my mind as if I were going to chop out a chunk of my brain and sear it right onto the flesh.

Winston Fairbrother wouldn’t have any problems with Vincent. The Fairbrothers were a tightknit family. They could trace their roots back 2000 years, for the love of God. They were one of the oldest magical families in the world. And each new heir to the throne, as it were, ran the family with an iron fist. There was no disloyalty. There was no room for it.

Winston led me through the manor. He was right – it was a warren. A magical one. As I strode several steps behind him, I nervously ran my fingers up and down my thigh, trying to eke out the unholy itch that cascaded down my back at the amount of magic I was having to face. It wasn’t pleasant magic, either. It was dark stuff. If I was stupid enough to close my eyes for too long, impressions of caves, unlit spaces, darkened corridors, and dank basements filled my mind. More than that, skeletons. Blood and bone lining the darkest secrets of the Fairbrother’s family line. They would be all of the countless mortals and magical practitioners the Fairbrothers had crushed over the years to continue their violent legacy.

By the time we finally made it to an opulent door that looked as if it led into the Palace of Versailles, I was ready to puke.

Wilson shot a worried glance my way, obviously appreciating the pale hue to my cheeks. He opened his mouth, but before he could ask if I was ready, I forced a smile. My teeth were clenched, and I guess my expression was halfway between determination and total surrender, but I managed, “It’s okay.”

He didn’t say anything. He appeared to assess me, then came to his conclusion as he knocked on the door. He rapped his knuckles against it three times.

The sound they let out was hollow.

It didn’t come from the door. I swore he was casting some kind of spell. It wasn’t one he was muttering under his breath – I was paying so much attention to his body, I would hear it. It wasn’t one he was carving into his free hand with his nail, either.

Which left one possibility. Either he had a powerful charm on him just like I did, and it was running an unseen background spell, or it was a spell that had been engraved into his flesh and bone.

They were sickening things. Certainly not the kind of magic I’d ever use. But if you were after power – and didn’t particularly care what it did to your mortal soul – you could cast magic into your body, swallowing charms or undergoing surgical procedures to actually carve magical symbols across your skeletal system.

Disgusting, dark magic, but clearly disgusting, dark magic Winston practiced.

It brought me back to the here and now, reminded me of the stakes, and allowed a good dose of anger at the fact the Fairbrothers existed in the first place to rush through my heart.

It pushed out any sense of niggling fear until I swear my body hardened just like setting silver.

I wasn’t stupid enough to repeat my signature spell in my mind. From this point on, I could not afford to cast any magic. I had to seal away any background spells running in my foundation charm, locking them within that metal disk until later. I was about to face up against Vincent damn Fairbrother. He was legendary for his ability to sniff out magic.

This would be one of the most dangerous things I’d ever done. But as the door swung open and I walked in behind Wilson, I appreciated the danger was only beginning.

Chapter 11

The office was exactly what you would expect. It felt as if the most monumental decisions that had ever been made in magic over the past hundred years had been made right here. The amount of importance that flooded off the carpet, that rushed from the walls, that pushed down from the ceiling like a storm was enough to choke me.

The room was one thing. The man seated behind a massive, exorbitantly expensive antique pedestal desk was another.

I’d seen pictures of Vincent. I’d even seen him from afar. But I’d never felt the man up close.

Images flooded into my mind. I wasn’t a feeling witch, but that didn’t matter as impressions flashed through my psyche. Dark spells, dark places, dark words, dark minds.

If Stanford was a monster, then this was the monster who’d created him.

Vincent didn’t look up from something he was signing until he was done. And when he was done, he slammed his pen down in his inkwell, shifted back, crossed his arms, and looked right at me.

He didn’t say a word. I felt his gaze practically pushing through me. It was less like an x-ray, and more like a samurai sword.

If I hadn’t taught myself to survive anything, I would have crumpled.

Wilson’s gaze was on me, but he didn’t step between his father and me. He waited until finally Vincent cleared his throat. “Your general manager has already told me that you selected this woman to be your PA.” He didn’t add anything. No comments, no protestations – just that penetrating look that made me feel as if he was a surgeon and I was a cancer that was just about to be resected from his son.

I almost took a step toward Wilson, wanting to hide behind his broad form.

I stopped myself.

Back at the Academy, back before the mess with the Elites had begun, I would have been honored and humbled to be in Vincent Fairbrother’s presence. He was one of the strongest wizards in the goddamn world. He’d invented spells that changed the face of modern magic.

Now I understood him for the vicious monster he was, I appreciated I wasn’t standing in a visionary’s presence – but a devil’s.

Though sweat slicked my shoulders, traveling down my back and pooling against my coccyx, I showed nothing. I was neither to meek, too deferential, or too fearful. I stared back at Vincent with a neutral expression.

I could feel that Winston’s gaze was on me. I could also tell that he hadn’t blinked once. “Yes,” he finally seemed to find his own voice, “this is my new PA. Her name is—”

“Carrie Janeway.” Vincent didn’t add that it was nice to meet me. He continued to stare at me as if he really was a surgeon deciding precisely which part of me to cut off. “I’ve seen her. Now she can wait outside while we finish our meeting, son.”

I blinked. It sounded – and felt – as if I was some new prize livestock that had just been paraded in front of the farmer.

For some reason, despite the fact it was stupid, a part of me expected Winston to stand up for me. He didn’t. He looked at me and inclined his head toward the door.

Perhaps this was where I should say that it was nice to meet Vincent.

I didn’t. Without a word, without a nod, without anything, I turned and I did as I was told. I walked out. I opened the door, ignoring the cascade of magic that plunged through my body as I did. I walked out, and I closed the door.

As soon as the door was closed and I was on my own in the corridor, tears stung my eyes. They appeared to come from nowhere. They surged through me, coalesced behind my eyelids, and felt like they would break them like a damn. Emotion plunged into my heart, promising me it would tear me in two.

It brought back all the horror, all the trauma. And all of it – all of it – because of that man.

I let my hands drop. They curled into fists. I let my lips open, and I pushed out a breath.

My head turned as if it were attached to some mechanical mechanism, as if I had no control over it.

My tear-struck gaze locked on the door.

For a fleeting second, I wondered if I’d have a chance against Vincent. If I thrust through the door, and took him head-on, pumping everything I had into my foundation charm, could I kill the bastard?

It took agonizingly long for my reason to step in and tell me there was no way that could happen. If I charged in there, only one thing would occur. I would die, and all of this would be for naught.

As I stood there, coming to terms with that and finally drying my eyes, I heard footsteps.

They were coming from behind me, from further down the corridor.

I turned over my shoulder. A woman had her back to me and was walking toward the end of the corridor and a large, black painted door.

Instantly my gut clenched as I recognized her.

She was the woman – the witch, rather – I’d spied outside that boutique. The same one who’d cast those spells on me – or at least tried to.

She suddenly stopped, perhaps feeling someone’s gaze on the back of her neck, and she turned.

Instantly, I turned around, clamped my arms around my middle, shifted toward the wall, and took up a casual stance as if I were just waiting.

Goddammit. Goddammit.

I’d been stupid. There was something I’d forgotten.

When I’d spied that woman – when she’d cast that spell on me – I’d been wearing this exact outfit, and most importantly, this exact face.

If she saw me and realized I was Winston’s new PA, she would have legitimate questions as to why I’d been in the maintenance section of a building that apparently had nothing to do with me.

I heard her pause – practically felt her muscles tightening – until the next thing I knew, she turned and started to shift toward me. “Excuse me,” she said.

Dammit.

If she clapped eyes on me, it was over. Worse than anything, it would be over in the Fairbrother Manor. There would be nowhere to run.

My heart raced, but my mind raced faster.

“Excuse me,” her voice rose, becoming imperious as if she was the general of an entire army. “Turn around.”

Dammit.

“I said turn around,” she snarled.

I had one option. It was the same option I’d faced the day I’d escaped the Academy and the ritual.

Fight. Fight for my life and never stop fighting.

I reached a hand up and shoved it down my top, scooping out my foundation charm. I didn’t reveal it to the woman, and instead tuned into the various magical protection spells I’d ingrained in it this morning before I’d hunted this witch. They were still there. I could still turn them on with nothing more than a single word.

Right now, I tuned in to a magical detection charm. It would allow me to figure out if there were any magical sensors in this section of the corridor.

There weren’t. There were no security cameras, no magical cameras, and no guards. No one but the woman and me.

She reached me, latched a hand on my shoulder, and tried to pull me around.

I had one chance. Fight her. Wipe her memory. And get back here before the meeting was done.

My life depended on it.

And I had not failed my life yet.

Chapter 12

As the woman turned me around, I brought my hand up, I built a charge of magic in it, and I slapped her across the face. It was a hard enough move that her head jolted to the side. More than that, as my fingers impacted her skin, I sent magic spiraling through it. It blasted across her cheeks, shot into her eyes, and blinded her momentarily.

She spluttered, twisting to the side as she fell against the wall.

Before she could scream, I reached down, latched a hand on her collar, and wrenched her to the side. I threw her hard onto the floor, hard enough that her body rolled like a tenpin that had been hit by a bat.

She scrambled to get to her feet. I launched down to my knees, skidded behind her sharply, and wrapped a hand over her mouth. “No words, no sounds, no eyes. Mute and blind, mute and blind – you will not see, you will not hear, and no one will see or hear you.”

She struggled in my grip, latching a hand on my wrist and trying to pull it off her. Magic surged through her body. It was powerful stuff, heady, zippy, full of inherent force. And yet, it could not match my own.

I simply ground my palm hard against her mouth until I was sure the spell took hold. “No words. No sound. No one will hear you. No one will see you. And no help will come,” I added with a growl under my breath.

I released my hand from around her mouth just as she fought back, bringing her elbow up and slamming it against my rib cage.

I wasn’t expecting the move, and she shoved with such force, casting a quick fire spell over her arm, that I was forced to let her go as I was thrust back. I didn’t fall hard, and rather twisted to the side, quickly jumping to my feet. I was ready for her just as she slashed toward me with an open hand. I might have cast a mute blind spell on her, but the woman still had her own magical senses. She would be able to detect me with something other than her eyes.

She also had a lot of magic on board.

I might’ve surprised her earlier, but now she appreciated she was fighting for her life, the claws were out, as it were.

She body slammed me, trying to wrap an arm around my middle. She felt like fire. And yet, at the same time, she felt like ice. Both sensations slammed into me, threatening to burn the flesh from my bones and yet freeze it in place at the same time. It was excruciating. If I were an ordinary witch, it would cripple me. Instead, I met that pain head-on.

I parted my lips, allowing them to form around my signature spell, “Silver I am,” but not letting it hit the air. Though I hadn’t detected any magical sensors, I couldn’t leave any trace of the kind of spells I was casting. There were too few witches in this world that relied on silver magic, after all.

I felt as she tried to grunt, but the sound could make it nowhere. It was as if a dam had been erected around her body. She could scream until her throat became parched, but no sound would ever make it through.

I pushed back, twisting to the side, bringing my hands up, selecting the right spell as I cast my gaze back toward Vincent’s door.

I might’ve put spells in place to ensure that no magic would make it through, but at any moment, that monster’s meeting with his son could end.

Time was against me.

The woman barreled into me again, securing a hand around my throat.

Without a movement or a word, she began to cast a spell.

The woman was a feeling witch. They relied less on vocal and written commands than we material witches. As long as she had a functioning heart, and importantly, functioning rage, she would be a threat. And a threat she was as her hand tightened around my throat. She cast the spell, and instantly I felt the air being pulled from my lungs. It was as if someone had shoved a vacuum cleaner down my throat.

I gasped and gurgled, struggling for air.

Stars began to explode over my vision, and it started to blacken as if someone was painting out the corners of my eyes.

Just as true fear grabbed hold of me, I shoved into her. I pushed my mind down into my foundation charm and accessed one of the spells I’d locked into it.

It was a wall spell. As I rounded against her, shoving my body into hers with all my might, I convinced every single muscle that we were a wall. The strongest, thickest wall in existence, like a concentrated mountain, we could not be broken. And if we moved, everything moved with us.

I blasted into the woman, and she tried to scream as I wrenched her off me. She struck the ground by my feet.

I pushed toward her, intending to wrap my hands around her throat this time and end it, but she got to her feet quickly.

I might have blinded her, but that didn’t stop her from running down the hallway, back in the direction she’d come.

I thrust to my feet. I pushed off after her.

She was fast, and it was no accident. I could sense her feeling magic from here as she cast a spell on her feet, one that would make her far quicker than an Olympic sprinter.

I cast a similar spell on my own heels until I was practically nothing more than a flickering image as I flitted down the corridor.

She reached the door at the end of the corridor, wrapped a hand around it, and began to wrench it open. I reached her. I wrapped an arm around her middle, but it wasn’t in time. The door began to open on its own, and it pushed into the both of us, knocking us to the side.

Terror engulfed me.

I had no idea what was behind the door, but considering this was the Fairbrother Manor, it could very well be a Fairbrother himself.

But just as the door swung all the way open and my fear reached a crescendo, it petered out.

There was no one inside. It appeared to be some kind of magical storeroom.

The woman managed to wriggle out of my grip, and she pushed into the room. She shoved a hand behind her, and as she spread her fingers, I appreciated she was taking control of the door. Before she could slam it into my face, I rolled through.

It crashed shut behind us.

She threw herself as hard as she could through the room, angling toward a window on the opposite side.

I was done with this fight.

I brought my hand around.

I thought she’d been going for a window, but she darted harshly to the side, and I appreciated she was aiming for an old antique desk. On top of it was a sacred knife.

If she clutched hold of it, this fight could be over.

I threw myself forward. I didn’t let the distance between us count. I didn’t let anything count.

She barreled into the desk, clutching up the dagger by feel alone. She swept it forward.

I reached her.

Silver I am.

Silver I am. Silver I have always been. Silver in my blood, silver in my bones, silver in my mind. There is none like me.

None like me.

She slashed the dagger across my arm.

If I were flesh and blood, it would have run so deep, I could have lost the limb.

But in that moment as I threw myself into my silver spell like I never had before, I was no longer flesh and blood.

The dagger, despite the fact it was a rare magical object, and despite the fact this witch was a competent practitioner, did nothing. It clanged off my arm as if someone had stabbed it into stone.

The woman might have been blinded, but I could still see her eyes, and I appreciated as they opened wide with fear.

I thrust forward, grabbed her wrist, twisted it, shoved my elbow into her stomach, and brought the knife right up against her throat.

… It could have been tempting to drive it into the flesh, tempting to end this just as the Elites ended all of their sacrifices. But just at the last moment, Aventis’ voice rose in my mind. I was different. You see, I had a heart. And I had every intention of keeping it.

“Pinned, pinned like paper against a board, like a nail through wood, like a stake through the ground. You cannot move, you will not move.” As soon as my spell hit the air, it thrust into the woman, plowing down my hand and into the knife, terminating from the tip like a jolt of electricity departing a live wire.

The woman suddenly became as still as stone.

I kept my hand tightened around hers until I was sure that the spell had fully run its course and this woman would not move again until I released her.

I took a step back. I let out a breath, brought up a hand, and placed it on my stomach. I looked down my arm. That blow – a blow that would have harmed even the strongest witch – hadn’t even cut my outfit.

I could hardly believe it myself.

I’d produced some strong magic, especially over the last couple of days, but that sacred knife should have sliced me through.

My mute spell was still working, and the witch could say nothing. Her eyes couldn’t work, either, no matter how wide she pressed them open.

I could see her struggling, her lips darting up and down.

I didn’t exactly have any skills at lip breeding, but she was so expressive, I appreciated exactly what she was trying to say. “What are you?”

… What was I?

I twisted my fingers in the air until I was sure she would be able to hear me as I momentarily cut through the silence spell I’d cast on her. “I am the uprising against the Elites,” I said, each word clear. And importantly, each word a promise.

I watched her stiffen, and even though I shouldn’t take pleasure in it, I enjoyed the fear that marched up her face, contracted every muscle, and seemed to sink into her cheeks like knives until the capillary beds beneath were drained dry. Though I’d cast a pinning spell on the rest of her body, I let it loosen around her face as I watched just how pale and sickly she became.

Three years ago, if I’d managed to get my hands on the people who kidnapped me and tried to kill me, what would I have done to them? Would I have sought revenge? If I’d had a knife in my hand and the opportunity to press it against Stanford Fairbrother’s throat, would I have cut his throat or let him go?

My heart went to war with itself. It didn’t feel so much as if it would tear itself out of my chest, so much as if it would fall out the back of my shoulders and disappear forever.

I tried to hold onto Aventis’ words.

I was different – different to every other material witch. Different from everyone else at the Academy. I had a heart.

I had a heart, goddammit.

I took another step back. I discarded the sacred knife onto the table.

The woman’s eyes darted toward it, recognizing the sound, and obviously appreciating I’d dumped something onto the table beside her.

I watched her lips move expressly again as she begged for me not to kill her.

I wasn’t gonna kill her.

Dammit, I wouldn’t go that far. The Elites had taken everything from me, and they would not take my heart.

I took another step back and crossed my arms.

It wasn’t a defensive move. It was preparation for a spell. As I clamped my fingers beside my chest, I pressed my forefingers into my thumbs and started to press circular patterns over the nailbeds. In my mind, I began to trace circles, too.

Circles concentrate magic. The more circles you can create in your body, the more magic you can concentrate. And I’d need a lot of magic for what I was about to do.

“You are the answer to every one of my questions. You will tell the truth. The truth will spill from your lips like blood from a cut vein,” I said, lips becoming twisted on the word blood as if someone had dug sewing needles into the flesh and suddenly sewn my mouth shut.

She paled, but there was nothing she could do. The spell I’d cast on her stopped her from practicing magic. All she could do was react in fear. Blind and deaf, she wouldn’t even be able to hear my spell unless I wanted her to.

I kept it hidden from her as I continued to cast it, finally drawing my hands out from around myself and thrusting them wide as magic crackled along my fingers, darted over my wrists, and sunk into my shoulder blades. “Truth will flow through you like water. You will keep nothing hidden. You will tell me everything. Everything,” I repeated, voice like a beating drum. My tone was as strong as steel, the sentiment behind it as forceful as a knife.

She began to shiver, but it wasn’t voluntary control returning to her frozen body. It was my magic sinking into every muscle and bypassing her every defense.

“You will tell me everything you know. And you will tell me now. What is your name?” As I finished my spell, I ticked my finger to the side as if I was pulling tape off someone’s mouth.

She gasped, but it was an empty move – just someone struggling for air. It wasn’t relief at the fact she’d gotten control of her body again; she hadn’t.

I watched a vacant, glassy quality smear over her gaze as if someone had just covered her eyes in paint.

“Melissa Brown.”

My lips tightened, and I ticked my jaw to the side. “From the Brown family? Magic pharmacists for hundreds of years?”

“Yes,” she answered, her voice still vacant as if she was nothing more than a computerized text-to-speech program.

“You’re part of the Elites?”

“Yes.”

“Who—” I began.

I stiffened. I jolted my head backward, swearing I heard something in the corridor. The door had already slammed closed, and I knew no one would be able to hear or see what I was doing. But that didn’t stop a bolt of fear from slicing hard down my back.

I thought I heard footsteps, but it could have been the wind. It reminded me that I could not afford to take my time here.

Though I had a member of the Elites in my hands, and could use her to answer every one of my questions, I had to prioritize one thing.

“You kidnapped a student from Vendex Academy, didn’t you?” I spat as fast as I possibly could, pushing the words out of my lips with such speed, it was a surprise they didn’t form bullets and spray over the woman’s face.

“Yes. Lilly Woods.”

“You’re going to sacrifice her to a demon, Baal, aren’t you?” I said, voice dropping down, becoming low and hard.

“Yes. He needs her blood for a vendetta charm.”

“Where is she? Where the hell are you keeping her?”

“We stopped keeping students at Vendex Academy years ago. We keep them around the city now,” she volunteered with no resistance. “Lilly is in Westpark Conservatory.”

Confusion gripped me. That wasn’t even a Fairbrother holding. It was, however, one of the most opulent function facilities in the city. Located right smack bang in the middle of the beautiful botanical gardens, it was a stately building around 150 years old. A large conservatory built on four levels, the main function room could open out onto a stunning rhododendron garden.

A lot of balls and charity functions were held there. And if I wasn’t mistaken, there was an annual charity function to be held there tonight.

I shoved forward just as I swore I heard a door opening out in the corridor. Beads of sweat trailed down my skin. “Where is she in the building? Where are you keeping her?”

“Basement—” Melissa managed.

“Carrie?” I heard someone calling my name.

Terror engulfed me. It snagged hold of my stomach, plowed up my back, and gripped my hindbrain as if it could access my primordial fear like nothing else could.

I took a jerked step back, swinging my head toward the open door. I was now 100 percent certain that someone was walking down the corridor. Worse, they were headed this way.

I panicked. I pushed forward, grabbed up the sacred knife, ran my hand along the hilt, removing any trace of my magic, then dumped it down again. Just when I was certain Winston was only a few meters away from the closed door, I shoved forward and ground the base of my palm against Melissa’s head. “You’ll forget everything. You will forget what I said. You will forget revealing this to me. You will forget ever seeing me, both here and back this morning. You will forget everything about me,” I said, forcing the words to drill into her head one last time.

As magic shifted over her brow, sparking across her cheeks as if it were a fire that was about to consume her, I thrust backward.

The footsteps had almost reached the door.

I could cast a painted spell on myself, but it would take too much time. I could throw an unseen spell around me, but I knew Winston would be too powerful a practitioner not to be able to see through it.

It was over. I’d—

“Maybe she went to the bathroom,” I heard Winston’s memorable voice mutter from just outside. He turned. He walked away.

I remained there, frozen on the spot, breath locked halfway up my chest.

I jolted forward, bringing my face right beside Melissa’s. “Where’s the bathroom?” I whispered.

A few traces of my control spell were still engulfing her. She brought up a hand and pointed it limply toward the door. “Third door on the left past Vincent’s office.”

“Thank you,” I bothered to mutter as if she’d answered voluntarily. “You will continue to do whatever you are doing. You will never recognize me. If I need a distraction, you will provide one.” With that, I pushed away from her. I inched toward the door, tilting my head to the side, keeping an ear out, trying to figure out where Winston had gotten to.

I reached the door, clamped a hand on the handle, closed my eyes, and used nothing but my human senses to detect him.

I couldn’t hear him.

My whole body itching with nerves, my heart pounding until I thought it would tear a hole in my chest wall, I opened the door as slowly as I could. I pushed it open a crack and peered out.

The corridor was empty. For now.

I pushed out of the door, sweat slicking my back, pushing over my shoulders and tracing down my arms. I closed the door and pushed forward, heading toward the door Melissa had told me led to the bathroom.

That’s when I heard footsteps heading up the stately stairs on the opposite side of the corridor.

Adrenaline blasted through me.

I pushed into a sprint.

I reached the door, clamping a hand on it just as someone crested the stairs.

I froze.

Winston cleared his throat. “You were in the bathroom, then?” His tone was unreadable.

I forced myself to plaster a smile over my face as I turned. I willed every single muscle to relax. “Sorry, I know you told me to stay put, but I really needed to go. I figured out this room was the bathroom.” I pointed to the brass plate that conveniently read bathroom. “Is that a problem?”

Winston stopped several steps away from me, one hand in his pocket, the other held loosely by his side. “Of course it isn’t. Plus, I didn’t tell you to stay put – my father did. We’re ready to go, by the way. Meeting’s over,” he said, his lips strangely stiff.

My heart still beat so frantically, I was certain the muscle was going to tear itself in two. That didn’t stop me from smiling awkwardly.

Winston was about to turn away, but he stopped as if reacting to that particular smile. One corner of his lips tilted into an unsure frown. “Am I that transparent?”

I blinked quickly. “I don’t know—” I began, about to pretend I didn’t know what he was talking about. I stopped. Something told me not to play awkward and ditzy. Perhaps it was the recollection of what Winston had said when we’d arrived here. He needed a PA who could stand on her own two feet.

I sighed. “You’re meeting didn’t go particularly well with your father. You want to leave as soon as possible. I’ve got it. Let’s go.”

I could feel Winston’s gaze on me, locked right on the back of my neck as I shifted past him.

“What’s your next meeting today, Winston?” I said, not bothering to say sir, considering he’d already told me not to.

It took him several seconds – several seconds to fall into step behind me, and several seconds to let out a low, soft chuckle. “Harvey owes me $50.”

I looked at him over my shoulder, arching an eyebrow. “That’s the next meeting? You want me to collect your debts?”

A genuine grin spread across his face. “Maybe later. Harvey owes me $50 because he was relatively certain that after meeting my father, you would run away. When I couldn’t find you, I was worried he was right.”

“Well then, I guess we have to get him to pay up. If he doesn’t, let me know, and I’ll break his legs,” I joked.

… It took me too long to appreciate who I was joking with. For a moment, I’d forgotten Winston’s history. I’d forgotten everything but his light chuckle and our easy banter.

Tension climbed my neck, and maybe Winston saw it, because his expression changed, becoming a little wincing. “He’s actually not that bad. I appreciate he might have come across as a bit of an asshole during that meeting, but he is a good guy. He’s just in a hard place. Trust me when I say it’s not him who wants my PA to be…” Winston trailed off.

“More image than substance?” I offered.

“Nicely put,” he conceded. “Trust me, it’s not coming from Harvey.”

“Who’s it coming from, then?” I asked as we began to descend the stairs.

Winston didn’t answer – with words, at least. He shrugged to the walls as if this manor was controlling his every move.

I could see something telling – even though I had to turn my head over my shoulder and could only see a slice of Winston’s face. I watched as it crumpled with a familiar emotion, and I appreciated the emotion that engulfed him seemed… real.

Winston looked as if his family – the goddamn Fairbrothers – was a burden, not a boon. A burden that dictated his every move, that controlled his life, and a burden he could not remove from his shoulders, no matter how hard he tried.

But before I could be drawn in by that saddened expression, I reminded myself it was only the act of a man versed in manipulation.

We descended into silence, and it finally gave me a chance to digest what had just happened. Though my mind ticked back to how damn close that had been, and my body still tingled with the adrenaline of almost being caught, the majority of my attention fixed on what Melissa had said.

The missing student, Lilly Woods, was being kept in the Westpark Conservatory.

I would head there, and I would goddamn save her tonight.

As we reached the front door, Winston’s phone rang. He shoved a hand into his pocket, paused, pulled it out, and pressed it against his ear. “What is it, Harv?”

I stood patiently by Winston’s side, trying to control my emotions, trying to stop myself from running away and heading straight to the conservatory now.

I knew for a fact there was a charity function tonight. It would be easier to slip in unnoticed then – as long as I was wearing an appropriate disguise. I might have used a lot of magic today, but that didn’t matter – I had a hell of a lot more to give.

I would save Lilly. She would not be sacrificed to create a vendetta charm.

I rued the fact that I hadn’t had more time to question Melissa. I had no idea who the vendetta charm would be cast against.

Vendetta charms were ugly, brutal things – hence the name. They also required a heckuva lot of dark magic to produce. It made sense that the Elites were only managing to do it through sacrificing practitioners to Baal. It would be too costly to create the magic required for the charm on their own.

But that still didn’t answer the question of who the vendetta charm would be cast against.

The charm would act like a beacon. One that would allow every single dark creature in range to flock toward the assigned target. Said target wouldn’t live through the night. They would die horribly and violently.

For the Elites to bother to cast a vendetta charm, for them to bother to waste the kind of magic required to create one rather than reassign that magic for other dark purposes, it meant they had to have a significant enemy.

Who?

As Winston continued to chat to Harvey on the phone, I folded myself into that question.

Who the hell could be risky enough that the Elites would waste this much magic on them?

My stomach suddenly kicked as if I’d swallowed a horse.

… It couldn’t be me, could it?

As soon as I thought that, I almost shook my head. To cast a vendetta charm, you would need to know where someone was. And as far as I knew, the Elites had no clue that I was even still in the city.

So it had to be someone they could locate.

My stomach twisted again as I wondered if it was Aventis. My cheeks became cold, sweat touched my brow, and my hands wanted to curl into fists. What if the Elites had found out about what he’d done back at the Academy?

Fear flooded through me as I wondered what I should do. Could I afford to head back to the Academy to warn Aventis? Did I even know for sure if it was him?

Suddenly, I tuned back into Winston’s conversation. He gave a low cough. “I wasn’t planning to head to my brother’s charity function,” he said, tone becoming unreadable on the word brother, “but if you insist, I guess I have to. Where is it again? The conservatory? You mean the one in Westpark Gardens?”

I froze. My gaze darted up and locked on the back of Winston’s head.

This couldn’t be a coincidence.

“Fine. Fine. I’ll be there. Anything else? No? I’ll see you back at the office.” Winston ended the call and shoved the phone back into his pocket. He turned to me. There was a smile on his face, but it froze. “Are you okay?”

I hadn’t controlled my expression, and I appreciated I must have looked as wild as a storm. I took a breath, and I shook my head. “Just… hungry,” I said.

Hungry? Really? I would have looked as mad as a woman possessed.

If Winston didn’t believe my excuse, he didn’t show it. He made a show of looking at the time on his expensive Rolex. “I guess it’s time we head back to the office. Come on, let’s go.”

He walked away.

I followed in his wake.

I’d work for Winston for the rest of the day, using my position to find out what I could. Tonight? I’d blast apart the Elites, save Lilly, and destroy the bastard for good.

Chapter 13

We made it back to the office.

Winston went straight into a meeting, and he told me to go get lunch.

I wasn’t particularly hungry. I had too much to do. Rather than make a beeline for the conservatory to sniff it out, I headed back down to the thirteenth floor of the building.

I was careful. I cast certain charms on myself to ensure that if I encountered that same witch I had earlier, my charms would warn me before she saw me.

As soon as the elevator opened, I pushed out, warily staring from left-to-right.

There was no one here. As I brought up a hand and spread it up and down my thigh as if I was neatening the fabric of my expensive skirt, I opened myself up to my silver spell and allowed my body to conduct magic.

… There was nothing here.

Last time when I’d gotten out of the elevator and walked down the thirteenth floor, I’d instantly appreciated it had been full of magic – now, I could detect nothing.

My lips pressed together in a sour expression that engulfed my features as I pushed into a run.

I reached the turn of the corridor that led to the last few branching offices, and importantly, that red painted door.

I came to a skidding stop.

The door was gone.

My eyes opened wide, I looked over my shoulder, I looked to the side, then I stared dead ahead.

Nothing.

The door was completely gone. Worse? There was no trace of magic to suggest it had ever been there in the first place.

“What the hell?” I muttered under my breath. I went to push forward. I stopped abruptly. Despite the fact I hadn’t detected any magical sensors or recording spells until now, I picked up just the faintest charge of something smeared over where the door had once been.

It was booby-trapped. If I so much as flattened a hand on that wall, it would activate.

I shifted backward, clamping my hands into hard fists, driving the nails in as if I was trapping them so they wouldn’t dare get a centimeter closer to that spell.

“Where the hell did it go?” I asked, voice quiet, nothing more than a whisper.

The kind of magic required to remove a door like that would’ve been the kind of magic that would have left a definite, permanent trace.

I’d felt the amount of magic rushing off it when I’d encountered it early this morning.

And yet now it was gone as if it had never been.

I shook my head again. Bringing up a hand, I clamped it on my mouth and breathed through my sweaty fingers.

I went to shift away from the door, knowing there was nothing I could do.

I heard footsteps.

Dammit.

I’d already prepared a painted spell, and immediately, I kneeled down, latched both hands onto my shoes, and rushed my fingers up my body. The spell took hold, and instantly, I melded into my surroundings.

It was just in time as I saw a woman turning around the corner that led to this section.

It was Melissa Brown.

She was on her own. She had a box under her arm. It was the same box I’d seen that woman walk through the door with this morning.

My gaze locked on it, and I felt the magic wafting off it.

Melissa looked distracted. She was also on her phone. It was pressed against her ear. “I got it.”

The person on the other end spoke so loudly, I heard him clearly. “You better have the right one now,” someone snarled. It was a male voice. “Nancy made a mistake this morning, and it almost cost us the charm.”

The guy had to be talking about the vendetta charm, and Nancy had to be the woman I’d seen earlier.

“Have you reached the location of the door?” the guy demanded.

Melissa winced and nodded. Then she shook her head, obviously realizing that she was on the phone. “Yeah, I have.”

“You sound distracted,” the guy snarled.

“Sorry, I’ve got a headache.”

“Bring me the doll. Do it now. Transport. Though the door is gone, the residual magic should be able to hide your transportation spell. All evidence of the door will be gone in the next two hours. I’ll ask you one more time – are you sure you’ve got the right doll?” The guy’s voice was vicious. It was hard like a slap, sharp like a knife, and just as destructive as any gun.

My stomach clenched. A cold wave of realization struck me. It started at the back of my head, plunged down my back, and escaped over my legs, finally discharging into the ground as if I’d just been struck by lightning.

I knew that voice. My whole body knew that voice. It was written into my damn bones.

My lips cracked open, and they trembled as I mouthed a single word, “Stanford.”

Melissa appeared to react to my movement, and she cast her gaze toward me, a confused expression muddling her brow.

“Melissa? Melissa?” Stanford snapped. “Do I have your full attention? I’d better. If we fail to generate enough magic for this vendetta charm, it will leave us exposed. Do you understand the stakes?”

Melissa looked my way, still as confused as ever. “… Yes, I understand. And… I’ve got the right doll. I’m certain of it.”

“Good girl,” Stanford said condescendingly. “Now bring it to me.”

“Okay.” Melissa ended the call. She pulled the phone away from her ear and paused. Her head was still angled my way, her eyes still narrowed in confusion.

I pushed forward. It broke my painting spell, but that didn’t matter, did it? Because I’d already done a real number on Melissa Brown.

She saw me move, and she jolted. She went to bring up her hand in defense, but I brought my own hand up. I spread my fingers wide. “You don’t see me, you don’t hear me, and you don’t remember me,” I said, each world lilting as if I was reading her a lullaby.

“… I… don’t see you, I don’t hear you, and I don’t remember you.”

Satisfaction spread my lips as I appreciated my control spell was still in effect. I nodded down at the box. “What’s in that box?”

“A voodoo doll.”

“Of—” I didn’t get the chance to finish my question.

Her phone rang again.

“You will not answer it,” I commanded.

Her phone was still in her hand, and she didn’t move a muscle.

But after several rings, it simply answered itself. It was no ordinary phone, after all.

I heard Stanford take a hissing breath. “Why haven’t you arrived already?”

I brought up a finger and pressed it against my lips.

Melissa didn’t say anything.

“Melissa?” Stanford demanded. “Don’t make me come there myself.”

My heart practically exploded on that threat. Though all I wanted to do was get the chance to complete my interrogation of Melissa, I appreciated I couldn’t risk it. I opened my mouth clearly and looked right in her eyes as I mouthed, “Sorry, I thought I heard someone coming down the corridor.”

Faithfully, Melissa repeated my statement down the line to Stanford.

“I’m initiating the transport spell now. Don’t waste any more time.” His voice was just as hard and domineering as I remembered.

Dammit. Melissa was about to be whisked away. I wouldn’t have the chance to question her further.

But at least I’d have the chance to do one thing.

Just as I felt a transport spell begin to initiate where door zero had once been, I shifted forward. I shoved a hand out, grabbed the box out from under Melissa’s arm, and opened it.

Inside was a voodoo doll as promised.

I could instantly feel its power. An extraordinarily powerful practitioner must have created it.

Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t tell who it was a voodoo doll of – it didn’t have a face. The only thing it had was a body and, most importantly, a heart. It had been drawn onto the otherwise plain hessian, and had been drawn in dried human blood.

As the transport spell started to open, I panicked. With only seconds to go, I shoved the voodoo doll into my pocket. I closed the box it had come in, shoved it under Melissa’s arm, and pushed her in the back, directing her toward the transport spell, just as it opened like a gaping maw. I watched as she shifted through. I tried to take a memory of the distinct magical eddies shifting around the transport spell. It reminded me 150 percent of Stanford. In other words, strong, violent, almost unstoppable magic that nonetheless had a weakness. It came from the heart of a man who thought he could not be defeated.

Still staring at the spell as it swallowed Melissa whole, I took a step backward, then another. I had no idea why Stanford wanted this doll. No idea who this doll depicted. No idea what was going on. But I could appreciate that by taking it, I’d be putting a spanner in his plans.

Knowing I couldn’t waste any more time, I turned around and ran all the way back to the lifts.

By the time I reached them, I swear I felt a wave of magic. I didn’t have to creep back to the end of the corridor to appreciate it would come from one man. Stanford. He would have ripped the box open the second Melissa had arrived, and the second he’d realized the voodoo doll hadn’t been in it, he would have come here himself to find it.

As I jammed my finger into the button that would close the elevator doors, I heard his footsteps powering toward me.

My body clenched, my every breath willing the doors to close faster, faster.

I pressed my body up against the wall of the lift, out of sight of the closing doors.

“Come on,” I begged.

Just as I swore I heard his footsteps skidding to a stop outside the elevator, it closed.

Collapsing against the back of the elevator, I closed my eyes. Just as leftover adrenaline swirled through me like chaos itself, I forced a smile.

This was only the beginning.

I straightened, bringing a hand down and patting my pocket, feeling the voodoo doll within.

“I don’t know who you are,” I said softly, “but I’ll keep your heart safe. Trust me,” I added.

The doors opened to the penthouse, and I walked out.

There were only several hours left in the working day, and I had a lot to do.

Chapter 13

The day was over. I’d worked my first full day in my life. I was hardly going to hang around to get my first paycheck, though.

I had a finite amount of time to cast as many protection spells as I could on my foundation charm, come up with a suitable disguise, and make it to Westpark Conservatory.

I was back home. I’d been so damn careful, only changing my disguise when I was sure no one was around. I’d changed my disguise another two times before I’d made it back into the forest. Now as I unlocked the door into my hut with several hastily cast charms, I felt the weight being pulled from my shoulders.

It didn’t last. It couldn’t. I had half an hour before I had to turn around and head straight back to the function.

I’d make it count.

As soon as I got in the door, I pulled off the expensive clothes Winston had bought for me. First, I flattened a hand down the front, removing the disguise spell I’d cast on them. As I took them off, rather than dump them on the old, dusty floor like I did with all my other clothes, I folded them and placed them neatly on one of my chipped kitchen chairs.

I cast them several glances, as if checking that they would be all right there.

It took me several seconds to pull myself together and for a snarl to part my lips. “Who cares that they’re the most expensive things you own. They come from the wallet of the devil. You won’t be wearing them past tonight,” I promised myself.

I shoved a hand into the pocket of my trim jacket and pulled out the voodoo doll. It was the first time I’d had a chance to really look at it, and as I sat down on my other kitchen chair, I pulled myself into the table and placed the voodoo doll carefully down on the chipped Laminex.

I crossed my arms, and I frowned. There was any number of spells I could cast on this thing, but none of them would reveal who the target of the voodoo doll was. Someone had gone to great lengths to remove any identifying information from it.

“Who the hell created you?” I muttered under my breath. “More to the point, why was Stanford trying so hard to get you?”

I couldn’t put the pieces together by sitting at my kitchen table. I had to get to the function. First, there were two things I had to do.

I rummaged under my kitchen sink, brought out my materials box, and instantly selected several chunks of lead.

I placed the voodoo doll down in the middle of my table and arranged the lead around it. I brought my hands up, pressed them into steeples, closed my eyes, and chanted under my breath. “You are walled off, protected from any damage. Nothing will reach you – no pins, no knives, no fire, no frost. You are safe. As long as your heart is in my possession, no one will touch it but me.” As soon as the spell was consecrated and magic spilled out of me, down my hands, across the table, and into the three chunks of lead surrounding the doll, a faint circle appeared on the Laminex.

It might not look like much on the surface, but it would protect the target of this doll. Even though Stanford hadn’t managed to get his hands on this doll, I could guarantee that whoever it represented would hardly be safe. Bastards like Stanford always found a way.

I pushed up from the table, gaze centering on the hastily drawn heart on the hessian voodoo doll’s chest. My eyes got locked there for some reason, as if warning me that I was missing something.

I didn’t have time to investigate this voodoo doll, as much as I wanted to.

I walked over to my library. I started to select fashion books. You should know by now that fashion was the least of my concerns, but tonight, I’d have to make it count.

I began to pull out books on various Parisian fashion designers until I finally found an amalgamation of various dresses that could work. I set the books around myself.

I’d cast so much magic today, it was a surprise my skin wasn’t glowing. I had my foundation charm to thank for that. I’d really put it through its paces in the past 24 hours, and I was now more than happy to report that it was the strongest foundation charm I’d ever heard of. Aventis had obviously been right when he’d said it had taken him his entire life to create.

With it I really had a chance, didn’t I? A chance to save Lilly and a chance to finally put a spanner in the Elite’s plans.

I spread my hands out, concentrating on the pictures around me. “Make me a dress, make me a mask, make me a disguise. I will meld in, I will not stand out, but I will belong. One of many, I will be just another face in the crowd. Just another face in the crowd.”

Magic began to build, pushing out of me and starting to crackle down into the open pages of the books. They fluttered back and forth as if a violent wind pushed in through the cracks in the floorboards. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, and felt magic begin to coalesce around me.

I started to feel the simple clothes I’d shoved on – the T-shirt, running pants, and top – morph. It felt as if they transformed into wriggling worms as more and more force built along my skin.

The spell spun around me with such power, I was practically lifted from my feet until, with a rush of sparks, I felt it take hold.

I landed on my heels, opened my eyes, and stared in surprise – not at my perfect outfit, but at how strong my spell had been.

I stared down at my foundation charm, then brought my hands up and looked at the palms in turn. “Where is all this magic coming from?”

There was no one to answer.

I couldn’t deny I felt invigorated, though, and as my mind took me back to the events of the day, I wondered if it was, for the first time in years, that I had a purpose.

I walked out of the circle of books, made it into my room, and looked at my reflection. I was in a long, svelte black dress that made it down to my ankles, slim silver heels, a pearl necklace, and a small bolero. I had silver-flecked black hair tied up at the base of my neck in a bun.

I looked like a distinguished woman in her fifties.

I smiled at my reflection. Perfect. I was elegant enough that I would look as if I belonged, and yet I doubted I would stand out enough to garner anyone’s attention.

As soon as I was done, I walked back into the main room. I went to head for the door, but stopped. I found my attention inexorably being pulled back toward the table, and importantly, the faceless doll atop.

I got the strangest urge to bring it with me. Not because it would be easier to protect it while it was on me, but because… God, it sounded stupid, but the reason I wanted to bring it with me was that it reminded me of myself – a lost, lonely heart with no one else to keep it safe.

Ignoring that urge, I finally pushed out of the door.

I had a party to get to. And though my mortal side hated to believe in destiny, I couldn’t deny that something about it felt like fate.

Chapter 14

I made it to the conservatory just as the other guests were arriving. As they flocked in through the gardens, I appreciated my disguise was perfect. I didn’t stand out.

It had been a long time since I’d been to Westpark Conservatory. I liked it – or at least, once upon a time, when I’d been able to freely move through the city, I’d liked it. It was such a stately old place. There was a round, massive, domed glass conservatory that sat on one side, leading down to the botanical gardens, and a four-story building at its backbone. The conservatory had pressed copper plates over the roof, and they’d weathered over the years until they were a beautiful green patina. They made the conservatory blend almost seamlessly in with the rolling camellia and rhododendron gardens. They were in full bloom, and were a treat for the eyes.

So too, however, were the wealthy partygoers I passed. A number were ordinary mortals. A few, however, were not. I recognized some practitioners by their feel – others by their faces. The elites of the Vanguard City magical scene were arrayed around me.

If I wasn’t in a cast-iron magical disguise, I’d be running for my life. As it was, I kept my hateful gaze to myself as I finally made it up to the conservatory. The glass doors that led out onto the rhododendron garden were open, and people were milling back and forth.

I slipped into the crowd in the main function hall, gaze sliding over people as I recognized yet more faces. It wasn’t until I picked out a particular familiar face that I started moving again. Melissa.

She was on the opposite side of the room, close to a door. She was in a stunning red dress that hugged her figure and sashayed around her long legs.

She looked nervous as if she was keeping an eye out for someone. As I shifted several steps closer to her, grabbing a drink off a waiter, I updated my assessment. She didn’t look as if she was waiting for someone – she looked as if she was keeping guard for someone.

I went to walk up to her. Even though I was in disguise, I’d done such a good job of casting that forgetting spell on her earlier today that I appreciated my mere presence would reactivate it. Just after I’d cast that spell on her, I’d cast another. I’d told her that if I ever needed a distraction, she’d be it. At the time, I thought I would require it to get out of Fairbrother Manor safely. Now I smiled at myself as I realized it would offer me a unique opportunity to get past her.

I took another step toward her.

At that exact moment, someone brushed past me, jolting my shoulder. It was hard enough that I splashed my drink over my front.

I looked up into none other than Winston’s face. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said politely.

I got stuck staring up into his gaze. My stomach somersaulted as his eyes narrowed slightly. It didn’t last, they opened as he realized I’d spilled my drink over my dress. “I apologize. Have I damaged your outfit?”

Some way distant part of me could see the funny side. This was the second time in one day that Winston had shoved into me and a drink had spilled down my front.

I quickly came to my senses. I looked down at my dress and shook my head. “It’s not damaged. The fabric is resilient. I just need to dry it off.”

“Please, take this,” Winston said as he reached a hand into the lapel pocket of his jacket and pulled out a monogrammed handkerchief. He handed it over to me.

I accepted it.

Winston bowed low, turned, and walked away.

I shifted around just in time to see him walk past Melissa.

She locked her attention on him, her eyes widening as if she’d just located a target. She reached a hand into her pocket and pulled out her phone. I watched as she clearly didn’t dial anyone, but still pressed the phone against her ear. “He’s here,” she muttered low and quick.

I felt a wave of magic shift through the door beside Melissa. I knew what it was – a transport spell.

The next thing I knew, the door opened, and someone walked through.

Someone I would never forget. Someone who, at the mere sight of him, threatened to undermine every single scrap of strength I’d built over the past three years. It was Stanford. Stanford in the flesh.

He’d always been handsome, if you considered sharp, intense features handsome. Back when I’d been at the Academy, most of my class had gone gaga over his eyes. You see, his eyes were some of the palest blue I’d ever seen.

Now they swept right past me, scanning the crowd until they located his brother. He said something to Melissa, something I couldn’t catch. For it was something in a language I did not know. He walked past her, locked eyes on his brother, and shifted through the crowd to get to Winston.

My heart was pounding in my chest. I felt sick and yet exhilarated – terrified at the fact I’d seen Stanford, and yet empowered by the fact he hadn’t recognized me.

He soon disappeared through the crowd with his brother.

I watched him until he was well out of sight.

I took a step forward, walking up to Melissa.

She darted her head toward me, a peeved expression crossing her features until suddenly, it stopped as if she were a recording and someone had paused her.

“What did he just tell you?” I asked, voice controlled, tone quiet yet powerful.

“He told me to guard the door. He told me to ensure no one goes through. He said Baal is ready.”

My gut kicked. “Is Baal through the door?”

“He’s in the basement.”

Though all I wanted to do was continue to ask Melissa questions, I had to stop myself quickly as a wizard I recognized walked past.

Taking a sip of my drink, I shifted to the side, pretending I was interested in a painting hung on the wall.

When that wizard passed, I scanned the crowd around me.

There were wizards and witches everywhere, a number of them too close for me to safely walk through the door.

If I wanted to get through it, I would need a distraction.

Still standing close to Melissa, I brought my glass up and hid my lips with it as I muttered, “You will make a distraction. You will buy me the chance I need to get through this door quietly. And you will do it now.”

Melissa jolted forward as if she’d been shot from a cannon. She barreled right into the side of a waiter with a tray of drinks, knocking him forward into a man. Glass went everywhere, shattering over the ground as the floor slicked with wine and several more people fell over.

I took the opportunity to quietly slip through the door.

As soon as I locked my hand on it, under my breath, I muttered the same unlocking spell I’d heard that witch use on the thirteenth floor of Capital Publishing. No door will remain unlocked for the Elites.

The door took my passcode, opened, and allowed me through.

As it closed behind me, I kept a hand locked on the handle and my breath locked in my chest. I waited, waited until I was certain no one was following.

I let out a breath and walked forward.

I’d been into the main building of the conservatory before, but I’d never felt like this.

Once it had been a pleasure to walk through. Now it felt like a prison.

Though I didn’t know where the basement was, I pressed my lips together and forced a specific breath through them. I allowed it to linger around me as I pressed my lips open. “Find your lowest point. You will flow like water running downhill, like water building in a valley. You will fall with gravity, fall until you have found what lies beneath. Flow and fall, flow and fall,” I whispered, finally pushing the last of my breath out. As it departed my lips, I shoved forward.

Silver threads only visible to me began to wend through the room. At first, they appeared to be chaotic, like bees trying to find a new source of nectar. Within several seconds, they all began to gather into a point. A point that led me forward. I shifted down the corridor, then down another until I finally encountered a door.

It was under the stairwell of a large set of stairs that led up to the other levels of the conservatory.

As I shifted toward it, I heard footsteps headed down the stairs.

Spying a nook in the wall, I pressed myself into it.

“The ceremony is about to begin. That bastard will finally get what’s coming to him. Baal is ready and waiting,” a deep male voice reverberated out.

Another male voice chuckled. It was dark, arrogant, violent. It was the kind of laugh that made me want to rush out, find the mouth that had produced it, and slam my fist into it. I settled for balling that same hand into a fist and waiting until the voices were out of earshot.

When the coast was clear, I carefully pushed out of hiding. I warily made my way toward the door that led down to the basement.

Though all I wanted to do was rush down there to save Lilly, I couldn’t afford to be too hasty.

By the sounds of it, Baal was already in the building, waiting to be fed. Taking on Melissa was one thing. Hiding from the Elites was another. Taking on one of the named demons of Hell? I’d managed to achieve a lot over the past few years, but I knew that was beyond my reach. But I also hadn’t come this far to leave empty-handed.

I settled my nerves. I tuned into my foundation charm. I reached a hand forward. I almost locked it on the door handle that would open the door down to the basement, but I stopped. For some strange reason, I brought up a hand and pressed it to my chest. That’s when I realized I was still holding it – not my drink, I’d abandoned that back in the main conservatory hall. Nope. All this time, I’d been carrying around Winston Fairbrother’s monogrammed handkerchief.

I blinked down at it as I pressed it against my sternum.

I went to throw it to the side but stopped. It would place me here. Winston would remember who he’d given it to. And even though I was in disguise, I didn’t want to blow it if I didn’t have to. Plus, this was an item of clothing that belonged to Winston Fairbrother. It could be useful for spell work. I balled up a hand and shoved it down my top.

Finally I was ready. I reached forward, locked my hand on the handle, and opened it. Under my breath, I chanted the Elite’s spell. In my heart, I chanted my own.

Silver I am. Silver I will become, but flesh I will yet remain. There is none stronger than me, for there is none who flows like me.

Silver I am.

The door creaked open.

I walked down a dark set of stairs, and I faced Baal.

Chapter 15

 

I’d said it before, but it bared repeating – I hated the word destiny. As a human, I’d learned that the only fate that mattered was the one you made for yourself. If you wanted to live, you fought. If you wanted to succeed, you never stopped. And yet, I couldn’t deny that something seemed to swell around me as I walked down a dark, old, creaking set of stairs into the basement.

You wouldn’t need magic to appreciate something truly evil was waiting down here. Any human would be able to appreciate something wasn’t right. It was in every soft creak, every apparently innocuous hiss. It was in the way the old wooden steps yielded to my moves, groaning like trees that were about to split their trunks.

By the time I reached the end of the stairs and faced off against a completely pitch-black room, so many nerves were washing over me, they might as well have drowned me.

But if there was one thing I’d learned over the past three years, it was that fear was your fuel, not your enemy. By tuning into every nervous prickle that ran up and down my spine and plunged into my hindbrain, I could assess my environment, I could predict danger, and I could stay alive.

I took a step forward. I must’ve hit a loose floorboard, because a god-awful creak echoed through the room. It reminded me exactly of an old crypt door being forced open.

I clenched my teeth together. I spread my lips, about to chant an all-seeing spell to throw some much-needed light on this eerie darkness. I paused. Something told me the darkness was more than a lack of illumination. It was a locked door just like the one I’d had to force myself through to get past Melissa.

Ignoring the fear prickling over the back of my neck, I brought my arms up wide. I turned my palms to the ceiling. “You will unlock for the Elites. For no door can stand in our way.” My voice echoed out, ringing with power.

I felt something clicking around me, unfurling as if a massive unseen hand was unwrapping itself from the basement.

The next thing I knew, a rush of air flattened my hair over my brow, sending a truly dank, disgusting smell breaking against me. It instantly reminded me of dead bodies, of old, dried bones, of powdered blood. Of death in all its forms. But more than anything, of a creature that lived for that death. A being that existed solely to revel in the demise of others.

I wasn’t standing in the basement of the conservatory anymore. Not unless the basement was as grand as the bowels of some old cathedral. As that air rushed past me, all around me, I saw fire lanterns illuminating themselves. Suddenly, I was in a truly massive subterranean basement that looked and felt as if it was as deep as some undiscovered cave forever buried in the depths of the earth.

Though the flickering lanterns lit my way forward, their light could only reach so far, and I could not see beyond to the walls of the room. Here and there I caught flickers – just enough to appreciate the god-awful images carved over the stone dripping with real blood.

This was a demon’s nest. Even thinking that sent horrified tingles escaping up my back. We’d learned about them in various classes.

Demon’s nests were places unfixed. That was to say, they had no permanent physical location, and rather, with enough spells, could be moved anywhere.

Not all demons had them – just the strong ones. They were places of power and protection for the demon. When inside, the demon would be 10 times stronger. The nests could also be completely blocked off, meaning any fool stupid enough to wander inside would not be able to leave, for all doors to the outside world would be severed like strings to a puppet’s back.

You would think, armed with that knowledge, I would turn the hell around and run away. I kept walking forward.

I didn’t draw a hand up and clutch my foundation charm, even though the desire was there. As I strode right into the middle of that barely lit, blood-caked room, I thought only of one thing. How far I’d come in three years. When the Elites had captured me at the Academy, they hadn’t taken me to a demon’s nest – they wouldn’t have had one at that time. But it didn’t matter. Where they’d taken me had been bad enough, because back then, I hadn’t known how to fight. I hadn’t known how to keep myself safe. I might now technically be facing off against a greater target, but I was better prepared. And I would not back down.

I walked into the middle of the room, even though it was hard to judge distance considering I could see only up to the flickering lanterns and no further.

I couldn’t see the demon. I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t feel him. If I was any judge, he hadn’t been called up from the netherworlds yet.

There was one reliable way to bring a demon to you.

I brought up my thumbnail, jammed it into my mouth, bit off an edge, then ran it hard over the back of my wrist. The move was just enough to see a few trembling droplets of blood slide down my flesh and splatter onto the floor. As soon as they did, a great hissing gasp traveled through the room. It sounded as if it had been pumped through some audio system, for at once, it was everywhere, and it was the loudest thing I’d ever heard.

I clenched my teeth against it as I pressed my thumb against my wrist to stem the bleeding.

It wasn’t a great cut, but I would not give this demon bastard one more drop of blood than I had to.

Suddenly, that gasping hiss gave out, and for a few seconds, there was nothing but silence. It was silence that was soon broken by the sound of claws.

They were right behind me.

I stiffened.

I felt something reach up and brush my shoulder. I didn’t move. Something brushed my other shoulder, then my knee, then the tip of my heel.

I remained exactly where I was until finally, I heard something take a deep, long breath behind me. “You are no Elite,” it said. Though I couldn’t exactly use the word said to describe what its voice did. If anything, the noises it made were so sharp, they appeared to carve a place for themselves right out of the air. It would be the same space the demon would carve for itself in human hearts if it were allowed to get any stronger.

I stared dead ahead. “I’m new,” I claimed.

There was another hissing gasp, the movement of claws, then I felt something brush down the side of my shoulder.

I didn’t move. Not a single damn muscle. My fear was my friend. It would flow through me, flow through me just like magic.

I dug deep, holding onto my silver spell with all my might.

“You are not marked,” the demon said. It sounded like its tongue was slicing its words out of its very mouth.

I stopped my gut from clenching. Though it would have been easier to pretend to Baal that I was one of the Elites, ultimately, I’d come down here to fight.

Though it wasn’t recommended to move in front of a demon, let alone turn to face them, I took one solid step forward, then whirled on my foot.

In the dark magical arts, it was meant to take years of initiation before you had the strength to face a demon in the flesh. Think of the most grotesque image you can, and shove it aside, for images are ultimately irrelevant. Light striking off an object and entering your eye is but a quirk of the physical world. True horror comes from within. And that was precisely what a demon did. Grand practitioners of feeling magic, they managed to push all the way into your heart, gather up your greatest fear, and send it surging through your body like an unstoppable wave.

As I faced Baal, I felt my every horror try to engulf me.

Memories broke against me like tsunamis threatening to swallow my psyche whole.

I didn’t just see the day I’d been kidnapped, the moment they’d stuck a cannula in my neck and started to drain my blood. I saw every single fight I’d had since then, all smashed together, forming an unstoppable, immovable lump that descended into my throat and threatened to choke me.

At first, Baal’s face was amorphous, this swirling mass of dark energy that appeared not to have made its mind up yet about what it should be. It took on one grotesque form after another as if it were waiting to see what image would scare me the most. Just as my fearful recollections reached a crescendo, I saw a smile forming in Baal’s face. It twisted up until its lips opened, and I saw a set of pearly white teeth.

“I found your greatest fear, human,” it snarled.

The next thing I knew, I watched all of that dark, swirling, poisonous energy squash together until it formed a familiar face.

You shouldn’t have to question whose face that was.

Stanford.

My every horror had begun with him, and it looked as if they would end with him, too.

From the little I knew about demon magic, when a demon found your greatest fear and formed in front of you, you were meant to virtually collapse. Your psyche was meant to shut down, incapable of functioning under such strain. You should become nothing more than a pile of whimpering fear.

But I was prepared for this.

Just before horror could engulf me, I pushed into my heart. I held onto one spell, one promise.

Silver. Silver flowing through me, silver rising high, silver from my feet to my head.

Silver with all its strength, with all its light, with all its flow.

I’d been born for this fight. I didn’t believe in destiny, just the fate you created every time you closed your hand into a fist and fought for your life.

Chapter 16

I wasted no more time. I shoved backward, twisting to the side and rolling hard. It broke a measure of Baal’s fear spell, and I swore I heard something cracking around me as if glass chains had just been shattered by a hammer. Baal took a hissing, spluttering gasp that sounded like someone had just shot an engine.

He was still forming Stanford’s face, but the rest of Baal was nothing but swirling energy that occasionally hinted at a dark, extended demon’s body. His long, pointed tail whipped high in the air, and as I rolled out of the way, it smashed down beside me. It cracked the stone. Massive fissure lines sprang through it like someone shooting glass. But they didn’t last. Blood oozed up from the ground as if it were a body. As it flowed through the cracks, it seemed to heal them.

I pushed to my feet, leaped instinctively to the side, and dodged Baal’s tail once more. I kept a scrap of my attention for those healing cracks.

They had to be important.

At the Academy, I hadn’t bothered to study much about dark magic. It hadn’t interested me. It had only been an aspect of history class, anyway – one I hadn't paid a great deal of attention to. Now I rued that fact. For if I’d paid more attention, perhaps I would understand what was going on here now.

“Your blood will be drained to feed me, witch. Every drop,” Baal’s words whipped into the air just as his tail almost collected the side of my face, “will sustain my magic.”

I didn’t waste my breath. I kept dodging, but all the while, more than anything, I kept reconnecting to my silver spell whenever my grip of it slipped.

“I sense in your blood a far mightier power than that pathetic offering that awaits me,” Baal spat.

It was the first time he’d made mention of Lilly.

I flipped to the side, relying on nothing more than my own flexibility and strength as I cartwheeled out of the way of his tail.

“Where is she?” I spat, forcing my words out like a blow.

“She awaits as those who call themselves the Elites prepare her,” Baal promised.

Something struck me, twisting through my gut like a knife to my stomach. “She’s not here?” I ran through everything I’d learned, and I was certain that Melissa had said Lilly was being kept in the basement of the conservatory.

It took a single second for realization to strike me. This wasn’t the basement of the conservatory. I’d initiated a hidden transport spell into Baal’s demon nest too early. Rather than explore the actual basement, I’d wandered in here instead, inadvertently leaving Lilly behind.

“Dammit,” I spat bitterly.

Baal laughed. There was no real way to describe that laugh other than as fingernails trying to tear up the very fabric of reality. It was the powerful, twisted, sycophantic mirth of something that lived to watch others die. “Did you come to save her? Instead, you have offered yourself to me. For there is no escape. You cannot leave, for there are no doors that exit this chamber. You will weaken. And when you do, I will drink every drop of your blood.”

“There’s another option,” I growled, again competently flipping out of the way. For a flicker of a second, I saw another crack heal itself as the chamber acted more like a living biological entity reacting to a scratch, and less like simple inanimate stone.

“And what is that?”

“I defeat you, tear up your demon form, and cast you away like the mistake you are,” I growled.

There was a pause, then Baal laughed again, and this time, it was more destructive than ever. It seemed as if that laugh could wend its way into anything and eat out whatever heart that lay within. “I sense power within you, but you do not have nearly enough to defeat me. The Elites have fed me well. They seek forbidden spells only I can give them, and they have given me everything I seek in return.”

“And what spells are those?” Again I dodged, not even out of breath yet.

“Spells of chaos,” Baal hissed.

I searched my mind, but I came up with nothing. If it was a distinct category of spells, it wasn’t one I’d learned about.

“You are already tiring, witch. Submit.”

“First, tell me one more thing.”

“I owe you nothing. It is you who will owe me your life.”

“Tell me the name of every Elite?”

Baal laughed. “I know not their names, child, just their blood.”

“Fine.” Suddenly, I stopped dodging. I came to a stop 10 meters away.

I watched as Baal’s eyes widened, far beyond Stanford’s face. They look like two fires ready to eclipse all matter – like twin suns that would swallow whole worlds. Baal whipped his tail around, using it like a sword as it plunged right toward my heart.

I’d just defended myself so far. Now, it was time to fight.

I shoved a hand up, clutched my pendant, and pushed my mind into it.

All day, I swear I’d been getting more powerful as all day, I swear I’d been connecting to my silver spell in a way I’d never even known was possible.

Though I’d practiced my signature spell ever since becoming a witch, I’d never truly let it become me and I had never truly become it.

There was a level of magic available to material witches that was not available to the other three classes. For transformation was at the very heart of our power. The truly powerful practitioners over the ages had been able to reach a state where they had been in complete flux with their magic. Whatever spell they had cast, they had become. They had transmuted their body, allowing it to become two perpetual states in the exact same moment.

It was a dangerous level of magic, for one mistake would leave you turning your entire body into metal.

It was a level of magic I’d never thought I would achieve.

And yet right now as that tail slammed toward my heart, something rose up from within me. It was a power that had always been there, a power that was only unlocked now as a surge of what could only be termed fate rushed through me, reaching up from the doorway to my soul and coming to my defense when I needed it most.

I screamed as I thrust a hand forward. I opened my fingers. I closed them. And I caught a full demon’s tail.

Demon’s bodies burn humans. If you were foolish enough to brush your fingers up and down the amorphous, black, poisonous smoke of a demon’s face, you would lose your fingers in a matter of seconds. The flesh would be burnt from your bones, and the bones would crumble to your feet.

Demon’s bodies were so hot and chaotic that they burnt metal, too.

But in this moment, my body was neither metal nor flesh. It was a state beyond both. And as my fingers wrapped around Baal’s tail, they held it in place.

I swear there was a moment in time – one I would never forget. One that felt as if I’d gone up to a door that had always been closed and thrust it open.

Baal spluttered in shock. “How—” he began.

I wasted no time. I shoved forward, yanking at Baal’s tail with all my strength. And it was a strength I’d never had before. Still in that state of flux, my body had all the force of the strongest metal in existence.

There was nothing Baal could do as I forced him off his feet. He fell to the floor several meters away.

I didn’t let my gaze track him as his face struck against the rock and it shattered for a meter-square.

Instead, I locked my stare on the point where he’d been standing.

The rock was shifting up and down, moving like a breathing chest.

Baal shot to his feet and came at me, extending out his smoking hands and reaching for my throat.

I didn’t shift. I let the bastard wrap his fingers around my neck. I could have dodged, but a part of me… a part of me wanted to know just how far this transformation spell could go. Had I honestly achieved one of the top levels of material magic with no instruction whatsoever – with nothing more than a desire to keep living, no matter the costs?

The answer was yes, for as Baal’s fingers locked around my throat, I remained.

He was close enough that I saw his eyes – or at least what remained of Stanford’s eyes. They might have been two pin-prick, burning dots of fiery hatred, but they still retained enough of Stanford’s arrogance that I recognized him.

I looked right into his gaze. “You ruined my life, bastard,” I whispered, somehow hoping those words would make it back to the real Stanford. “So it’s time I ruin yours.”

I brought my hands up and locked them around Baal’s throat.

The demon suddenly dropped the act, and any semblance of Stanford’s visage broke like someone driving over paintings. “You can practice transformation magic just like a demon,” he hissed. “Your blood will sustain me for centuries.”

“That’s not going to happen.” I could’ve squeezed and squeezed, trying to pit my transformation magic against Baal’s, but I didn’t bother.

It wouldn’t defeat him.

One thing would.

I’d finally appreciated the importance of a demon’s nest.

There was a reason it looked like the floor was breathing. It was.

There was a reason it looked as if the floor was healing every single time it was wounded – it was.

In other words, this room was alive. And critically, it was alive because it sustained Baal.

I thrust Baal to the side, discarding him on the ground the same way I knew he’d discarded his countless victims over the centuries.

I pulsed forward. I brought a hand up. I made a fist. I paused, allowing it to become as still as a statue as I sliced my gaze over to Baal. Realization – horrified and complete – split across his face like a continent tearing itself in two. He thrust a hand toward me. He couldn’t stop me. I pounded my fist into the point on the floor that was breathing. Over and over again, I pounded it to crush it, to shatter it so it could never take a breath again.

Behind me Baal spluttered. He choked. He fell to his knees. And with one last punch, he broke, for the room around him shattered.

The floor cracked to smithereens, turning to dust beneath me. The blood that sustained it bubbled out of the cracks, but there was nothing left for it to heal.

I turned, just in time to see every single one of those flickering lanterns extinguish and die.

I thought Baal was dead, but somehow the bastard managed to take one last breath. “With all transformation, there is a cost. You too one day will pay the price.” His words echoed around me, then there was nothing. Nothing but an eerie silence as darkness swept in.

At first I fell as the floor gave way, but then my feet reoriented as if I’d always been standing on solid ground.

I jolted back, blinked my eyes, took a stuttering breath, and twisted my head around.

Flaring my nostrils, I appreciated I had to be back in the conservatory. I swore I could smell the heady scent of wet dirt just beyond the floor and walls around me.

Immediately, I brought a hand up, twisting it to the side as I cast a light spell. A slow glow spread out from me.

The first thing I noticed was a body with its back to me. There was a woman, her hair knotted and twisted to the side.

I jolted down to one knee. “Lilly? Lilly?” I reached the woman, locked a hand on her shoulder, and turned her around.

It wasn’t Lilly. It was Melissa. And before I could worry that someone had killed her, she was clearly simply knocked out as I felt her slow breath against my hand.

I shifted backward, engulfed with confusion. My illumination spell continued to slowly push out like a floating tortoise until it lit up the whole basement. There were several other witches and wizards knocked out, laying spreadeagled around me.

I knew several of them, and all of them were arrogant rich bastards from old families. They had to be part of the Elites.

… There were two possibilities. Somehow when I’d attacked Baal and defeated him, it had caused some kind of ripple effect on the Elites, and it had knocked them out. Or?

I jolted my head to the side, hearing quick footsteps as someone ascended the stairs.

I turned, not even bothering to survey the floor once more, knowing Lilly wasn’t there.

I threw myself up the stairs.

It wasn’t until I reached the top of the stairs that I bothered to finish off that thought.

The only other possibility was that whilst I’d been battling Baal, someone else had saved Lilly.

But that meant that out there there was someone else who cared. Out there was someone else with the gall and balls to take on the Elites.

In other words, out there, there was someone like me.

I didn’t reach the top of the stairs fast enough. Though I twisted my head hard to the side, I could only hear footsteps but not see anyone. I could hear several muttered words, though. “It’s all right. You’re alive. We’ve got you.” The voice belonged to a man, but it was too muttered for me to recognize, even if I knew who was speaking.

I heard a young girl take a shuddering gasp. “They’ll come for me. They know where I am. They’ll find me again.”

“They won’t dare,” that voice rang out harder. “You’ll be under my protection. And trust me, they won’t be stupid enough to take me on again.”

I threw myself forward, right toward the voices, but I wasn’t quick enough. Somebody cast a transportation charm. By the time I reached it, it was already closing. All I faced was excess discharging magic that crackled over a wall and down across patterned carpet.

I stood there, staring at it. My mind ran wild. But I could not stand there questioning all day. As I turned my head hard over my shoulder, I heard footsteps. More than that, I heard a scream that could only come from one man.

“What the hell happened?” Stanford spat. “Baal can’t be dead. No one is strong enough to take him on.”

Before Stanford could reach me, I shoved a hand up, creating my own transportation spell. I very rarely relied on them. They usually took up too much magic, and I was too frugal to waste that kind of power. But right now, there was no other way.

I opened a transport door and shoved through just before Stanford could reach me.

I fled. For now. Today, I’d fired my first volley at the Elites. It wouldn’t be my last. Tomorrow, I’d fire another. And that was a promise.

The end of Magic Born Book One. This series is complete, and all four books are currently available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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