“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.
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 conclude 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 get 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. 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.
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.