Dirt Boy

In a faraway kingdom, there was a boy with a heart of gold and hair the sandy-brown color of dirt. He had eyes a hazel brown and green that mimicked the land. He was a beautiful boy, and many loved and adored him, but when his father suddenly died in a tragic accident, he was left to the care of his father’s apprentice and his two stooges.

They took advantage of the boy’s kindness and made him clean, cook, and care for the household while they lavished in the lap of luxury, living off the boy’s riches. His father had been the greatest blacksmith in all the land, and Phantom had apprenticed under the boy’s father for many years with stooges, Brone and Tristan.

They called the boy Dirt Boy for his dirty face, since caring for three men and the household alone left him little time to care for himself. At day’s end, he was so exhausted, he would fall into a heavy sleep in the basement where Phantom had moved the boy’s belongings. It was dark, cold, and dingy, and with all the cleaning he did daily, it left no time for him to make his own space more livable or clean.

At first, Dirt Boy didn’t mind caring for his father’s apprentices, young men his father had considered like sons of his own, but as they took over his home and did little work at the forge, Dirt Boy began to realize they were nothing more than poachers, and he, little more than their servant. The first time he refused to clean, Phantom had beaten him. He was strong from the years at the forge, and Dirt Boy much less so. Tending to the household had made him stronger than most, but nowhere near as strong as someone who could bend and shape metal like magic.

Dirt Boy didn’t refuse his chores again.

Soon, money became scarce from their lavish spending, and the apprentices were forced to work the forge again, bringing in coin for their lifestyle. It gave Dirt Boy no reprieve from chores, but it did give him solitude that he craved. It wasn’t until there were no bells summoning or mouths screaming his horrible nickname, demanding he do one thing or another for one of them, that he realized just how much he yearned for peace and quiet.

He came to crave the days the men were gone at the forge, even if their soot-covered clothes provided him more work in the form of washing and mending worn clothing.

Years passed with him living as nothing more than Dirt Boy, and even he struggled to remember his own name. But he held onto it, whispering it to himself in the moments before he drifted to sleep, wondering if he would ever escape the men who held him captive in his own home. Men who had spent every cent of the coin that had been meant for his future.

But as the days kept passing without an end in sight, the kernel of hope in his heart burned down to an ember.

“A ball?” Brone asked one day while Dirt Boy swept the lounge. “To marry off the princess? Are you sure?”

“Quite,” Phantom replied in a clipped tone. “All eligible men are invited to attend, and I will try my hand at marrying her. Think of the untold riches! We would never have to work a day at the forge ever again.”

“Why do you get to marry her?” Tristan asked. “Why not one of us?”

“Because you are both imbeciles.”

They glowered, and Dirt Boy tried to make himself small. He had no interest in the princess, but he hoped she would liberate him from these cruel men. Then, he instantly hated himself for the thought.

If they are cruel to me, how much worse would they be to the kingdom?

No, he decided. He hoped none of them could woo the unsuspecting princess. If it meant the kingdom wouldn’t befall his suffering, he would gladly be Dirt Boy for the rest of his cold existence.

“Well, even if you believe us so, three of us trying to win her hand increases the odds of one of us ending up on the throne.” Brone shrugged. “Or…we can keep the competition from reaching her to begin with.”

Phantom’s grin was wicked. “And this, my pet, is why you are the smart one.”

Tristan rolled his eyes. “Whatever. I could care less which of us it is. It only matters that we split the profits, just like with the forge.”

Dirt Boy stiffened, and he tried to disappear behind the elaborate drapes against the wall. That didn’t mean what he thought it meant, did it? It was merely a callous way of viewing his father’s death. Not…

“The Blacksmith was easy enough to do away with,” Phantom said dismissively, turning Dirt Boy’s blood to ice. “Such a trusting fool. Now, we have his house, his forge, and even his dutiful child as a servant.”

“What if he woos the princess?” Brone suddenly asked. “He’s rather kind, if not stupid and quiet.”

“And he’s not ugly either.”

“Worry not,” Phantom said. “I’ll be sure he doesn’t make it to the ball.”

Dirt Boy could hardly breathe, his whole world shattering to pieces at his feet. His father…his home…his life…his freedom. They had murdered his father and taken him hostage, and he’d stupidly gone along with everything the whole time. Were they going to kill him to keep him from meeting and possibly wooing the princess?

They wouldn’t need him if they lived at the palace.

Heart thundering in his chest, he didn’t dare breathe while the men continued their conversation about preparations for the event. It seemed to take hours before they left the lounge, and Dirt Boy finally slipped from behind the curtains, resolving to warn the princess. Before he could, Phantom blocked his path.

“There you are,” he said with a cold smile on his handsome face. No, this man would have no trouble wooing a princess if she cared only for looks. “We need your help preparing for an important party tonight.”

“O-Oh. A…party?” Dirt Boy tried to hide the fear in his chest, trying not to sound as if he’d just spent the afternoon eavesdropping on their conversation. “That should be fun.”

Icy blue eyes narrowed on him, but Phantom merely shrugged. “Indeed, it should. Come now, we have much to do and little time to prepare.”

Begrudgingly, Dirt Boy helped the men prepare, all the while trying not to flinch and tremble every time one of them came near him. These men had killed his father, and he was simultaneously filled with stirring rage and terror. Would they kill him, too?

By the time they were ready, it was full night, and Phantom stopped and turned to Dirt Boy while the other men loaded into the carriage. “You will clean every nook and cranny of the house while we’re gone. If there’s even a speck of dirt present when we return, you won’t like the result.” His eyes were daggers glaring at Dirt Boy. “Are we clear?”

“C-Crystal.”

With a curt nod, he climbed into the carriage, and it wheeled them toward the palace.

Every speck. Every. Speck. Even if he hadn’t spent the afternoon hiding and the evening preparing them for the ball, Dirt Boy would never be able to clean the house before they returned. Not to that level of cleanliness. He wouldn’t be able to rest tonight, let alone warn the princess.

I am useless, an utter failure to my kingdom and my father. I wish—

Before he could finish the thought, a bright flash of light filled the yard, and Dirt Boy raised his hands to shield his face. When the brightness was gone, he lowered his hands, staring in shock and awe at the strange but beautiful man standing before him, like a creature out of myth, his dark beauty was so enchanting.

“Well, don’t stand there looking at me stupidly. Make your wish. I’ve got places to be and people to annoy,” the man said, glaring at Dirt Boy.

“I-I…”

“Oh, for shit’s sake. Make the damn wish already.”

“A…wish?”

The man heaved a sigh, pulling at the sleeve of his black tunic. It was embroidered with delicate filigree that would’ve taken hours and great skill to stitch on. Eerily enough, Dirt Boy was certain there were skulls stitched onto the handsome suit. “Yes, your one wish. But what they don’t like me to tell you is that, if you word it just right, you can get a lot out of it.” He grinned, mischief twinkling in his brown eyes. “So word it carefully, kid. You only get one—oh, and it has to be within my power, yada, yada, yada.”

“What strange creature are you?”

With a flourish and a bow, the man said, “A dark mage and wish granter, at your service. Don’t call me a fairy godmother. I will cut you.”

Dirt Boy took a step back. “A Magical…”

“Yes, yes. Now, make a wish.” He looked at a contraption on his wrist. “Your keepers are getting rather close to the palace, and you’re running out of time.”

Dirt Boy’s eyes went wide, but he thought long and hard about his wish, trying to figure out just the right phrasing to get everything he needed from the magical man. “I wish that my chores were done and I, dressed fit for a ball, was on my way to the palace.”

“See, kid? Not hard at all.” The man clapped his hands, and there was suddenly blinding light engulfing everything, cleaning and dusting, cutting the lawn and repairing damaged things he hadn’t even considered while making the wish. “I don’t sing. So if you were expecting that service, then next time, don’t be brooding before making a wish.”

Dirt Boy side-eyed the magical man, not sure if there was something wrong with him. He didn’t think about it for long. He was suddenly wrapped in wisps of darkness, snaking around him and engulfing his rags and filthy face in tingling magic. When it was done with him, he felt no different, but he found his hands clean of dirt for the first time in years. Even his nails were clean and unbroken. When he rushed to the fountain, his reflection was that of a prince. Only, he wasn’t a prince. He was just a servant boy playing dress-up.

His tunic was a cream white, embroidered with gold filigree. The buttons were gold; the lapels and trim, too. His trousers were much the same, and he had the most curious shoes. They were black with rubber soles and string lacing them together. He’d never seen anything like it.

“Modern comforts,” the magical man said. “Can’t go wrong with good footwear.”

“You are a bizarre creature indeed.”

He grinned another playful smile. “You have no idea, kid. None at all. Now, if I remember correctly, you were already on your way…” Before he could finish the sentence, the two of them were whisked into a charcoal black carriage, the magical man inspecting his nails in the darkness of the cab. “While I hate to be a party pooper, I should probably warn you that the magic ends at midnight, which,” he paused to check his wrist again, “is in as little as an hour and a half.”

“That’s plenty of time to warn the princess.”

There was a secret in the man’s smile. “Indeed, it is. Good luck, Prince Charming.”

In a blinding flash of light, he was gone.

“I’m not a prince!” But there was no one to hear him.

Dirt Boy settled into his seat, wondering if he shouldn’t call himself by such a lofty name instead. It wouldn’t do to introduce himself to the princess as “Dirt Boy.” He could always use his true name, but what if Phantom discovered he’d attended the ball? No. He would use the name the Magical had given him.

When he arrived, a footman opened the door to his carriage, and he stepped onto a lush, red carpet. He followed the line of smartly dressed attendees into the palace, his expression full of awe as he took in the lavish structure and rich decorations. Jewels and gold covered all surfaces, including the walls, chandelier, and banister. The walls were even made of stone and marble.

When he descended into the ballroom, a man announced him as Prince Charming, and he hoped his appearance was so altered by his clothing and the lack of dirt on his face that Phantom wouldn’t recognize him after so many years. He hardly recognized himself. It was like taking off a mask and donning a person’s face for the first time in forever.

The princess was seated on a throne next to the king, and she was a sight to behold. Eyes like emeralds, hair a deep brunette, skin a gorgeous light-brown. She was resplendent in a dress of jade and gold, her hair and makeup emphasizing her delicate frame. She was the most beautiful woman Prince Charming had ever seen, and he hoped his warning would protect her from his captors.

Too late, Phantom stepped up, offering his hand, and the princess took it, a tight smile on her face.

Prince Charming’s heart crashed in his chest. How could he get her away from Phantom without being recognized? Maybe he could use a proxy? But what other man here would hear him and believe such a tale?

His eyes landed on a man with hair like homespun gold and eyes like sapphires, his smile pearly white teeth and a single dimple that was as heart-stopping as it was gorgeous. Swallowing, Prince Charming took a hesitant step toward the beautiful man, wondering if he would pass on the warning. If he was being honest with himself, he had ulterior motives for approaching the finely dressed man.

“Um, excuse—”

“Well, if it isn’t Prince Charming himself, come to speak to moi.”

There suddenly wasn’t any air in the room, and he struggled to breathe. “P-Pardon?”

“That’s what they called you when they announced you,” the golden man said with a flirty smile. “And I said to myself, ‘Yes, indeed, he is Charming.’”

Sweat slicked his hands now, and he felt color flushing his cheeks. “It’s…it’s just a title, I suppose. It’s not actually my name.”

“And what is your name, Charming? I’m Vincent of the Ravenhart, at your service.” He offered a hand, and Prince Charming took it. Vincent raised his hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to his knuckles.

Breathlessly, he responded, “It’s…E-Evander.”

“What a delightful name for a delightful man,” he said, still not releasing Evander’s fingers, which still tingled from the kiss the man had placed upon them. “You wouldn’t happen to be here because your overbearing father refuses to acknowledge you have no interest in the princess and have absolutely zero desire to court, woo, wed, or bed her, would you?”

“Um, what?”

Vincent’s smile grew, revealing that heart-stopping dimple again. “You’re just here for social niceties, yes? Or are you here for the princess like every other egotistical male in the room?”

“Oh, I—the princess! Yes, actually.”

“Pity.” He released Evander’s hand, and it left him feeling suddenly colder. “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, Charming.”

“That’s not—”

But Vincent excused himself, smile fading before his back was fully turned, weaving through the crowd.

There was a pit of despair unspooling in his stomach as he watched the blond walk away, but he had to warn the princess. He couldn’t let himself be distracted any longer. It was clear no one here would help him, so he would have to face off against Phantom himself.

He wove through the crowd, trying to make his way to the dance floor, but when he got there, he was surprised to find the princess dancing not with Phantom, but with a handsomely dressed man in black, a wicked grin on his face as his eyes remained locked on the princess’. She grinned up at him, something playful glimmering in her own green gaze.

The Magical! Evander smiled, watching the two feed off each other’s energy as they danced a flawless dance together. They were a perfect match, and he knew the princess was in no danger of marrying the wrong man, not with the adoring expression on her face as she stared up at the man leading her over the dance floor.

A warning bell rang, and Evander realized the magic would run out before long. He needed to get back to his home before he could be missed. He elbowed his way through the crowd, trying not to run, but knowing he had little time before his carriage would disappear and leave him stranded.

On his way out the door, he crashed into someone. “Oh, I’m sorr—”

“No problem at all,” Vincent said, holding him steady. Holding him against his chest.

His heartbeat picked up pace, and he wasn’t sure if it was from his quick escape or the man grinning down at him. “I—I need to go.”

“But the party has only just begun.”

“Yes, but I—” Evander shook his head. “The princess is safe, so I must be on my way or I will not be.”

The blond’s brow furrowed. “You’re in danger?”

“I didn’t mean to say that!” But with the man’s arms still around him, he was having difficulty thinking. “I really must be going.”

“A dance?” he asked hesitantly. “Can you spare time for one dance before you go?”

His lips parted in wonder, staring up at the man. “I wish I could.” And if he had wishes left, he wondered if this was what he would’ve wished for instead.

Heart breaking, he pulled out of Vincent’s arms, running down the stairs and into the courtyard. The man called after him, and he had to force himself not to hear his own name being hurled at him with a plea and longing. It had been so long since anyone had spoken his name but him, it was like a spell all on its own.

He made it to his carriage, tears streaming down his face as it took him back to his living nightmare. At midnight, the carriage turned into darkness and shadows before completely dissolving into the night. His garments followed suit, going from perfect white to dirt-stained rags. When he caught a glimpse of his reflection, he was Dirt Boy again.

“I will never be anything but this,” he whispered to his reflection before entering the still-clean house. At least that remained, if nothing else. He would live through the night.

Chest empty, he closed his eyes, imagining sapphire eyes and an inviting dimple asking him to dance, and he dreamed a beautiful dream.

In the morning, he was angrily roused from bed, and he awakened with a start.

“Get up!” Phantom snapped, dragging him from his bed and flinging him onto the floor. “You useless mongrel! I said, get up!”

Dirt Boy scrambled to his feet, afraid for his life, unsure what he’d done wrong. “S-S-Sorry, sir. What can I help you with?”

“Making breakfast, for one! It’s nearly the afternoon!”

He’d…overslept. He’d stayed out so late that he’d overslept, and now, his sovereign was angry. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll make it right away!”

“Yes, you will!”

Dirt Boy scrambled to the kitchen, making himself busy preparing the meals.

“What are you doing?”

He whirled around, heart pounding in his chest when his eyes landed on the Magical. The man was leaning against the counter, biting into one of Phantom’s prized pears.

Dirt Boy snatched it from him. “What am I doing? What are you doing? That’s not yours!”

He shrugged, grabbing an apple from Brone’s plate next and taking a large, juicy bite. Mouth full, he repeated, “What are you doing? I didn’t send you to the ball for this.”

“For—the princess is safe. That’s all that matters.” He quickly replaced the destroyed fruit with fresh ones on the plates. “And from what I saw, you should be with her, should you not?”

His lips kicked up into a grin. “Mmm, yes. Such a feisty spitfire, my princess. Such a precious little creature. She’ll be a wonderful queen. But you aren’t supposed to be here.”

“I live here. This is my house.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” he muttered, taking another bite, brow furrowing. “If not to meet your true love, why did you bother wishing at all? That was the point of going to the ball.”

“My—” His cheeks flushed, and he stared at the three plates in front of him, filled with fruits and cheese. “No. It was to warn the princess.”

“The noble ones are always so thick-headed,” he muttered. “I guess I have to do everything myself.”

“You, what?”

Instead of answering, the Magical snapped his fingers, grinning, and there was a knock on the door. “Don’t mess it up this time.” Then, in a dissolving blackness, he was gone.

“How does he do that?”

“Dirt Boy!” Phantom shouted. “Get the door!”

“Yes, your highness,” he muttered under his breath, stomping up the steps. He pulled the door open and nearly choked on air. “O-Oh.”

Vincent stood there, brow furrowed, looking around the room. “Hello, my name’s Vincent of the Ravenhart, and I was wondering if the lord of the house was home.”

Dirt Boy’s heart sank, and he realized the man didn’t recognize him. How could he? There were nothing but rags and dirt to indicate his status as a lowly servant now. He wouldn’t be looking for Evander the Prince Charming in a dirty servant opening his own door.

“Who is it?” Phantom demanded, shoving him out of the doorway. His expression bunched in confusion. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

“I’m Vincent of the Ravenhart, and I was just asking your doorman to speak to the lord of the house.”

“That’s me.”

Vincent’s brow furrowed. “No, there must be some mistake. This manor belongs to the young Lord Evander, does it not?”

“There is no one here by that name,” Phantom said crisply. “Your mistake. Now, leave.” He tried to slam the door shut, but a well-polished shoe blocked the door.

“That’s impossible. The manor is listed as belonging to Lord Evander of the Forge. I asked after the records myself. It’s belonged to him for many years, according to his late father’s will. So, again, I ask where the young lord is. Because you are not him, and I would hate to have to bring it to the attention of the authorities that someone is pretending to be the Lord when he most certainly isn’t.”

“You act as if you know the young lord,” Phantom said, smile brittle, eyes ice. Dirt Boy knew he would suffer greatly after Vincent left. “There’s no need to involve the authorities. I wasn’t trying to claim to be the Lord, I was merely meaning I’m head of the household in his stead. You see, he’s quite ill. Bedridden from a rare disease.”

Vincent snorted. “Indeed. Well, if he’s available, I would like a word with him.”

“At the risk of exposing yourself to illness? No, no. I recommend you be on your way. It’s for the best.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Dirt Boy took a chance, knowing he would likely be beaten the moment the door was closed anyway. “I’ll—I’ll go prepare the lord for a visit,” he said hastily. “Please, come inside and wait in the lounge.”

Phantom’s face was a wicked snarl, but he dared not do anything in front of a witness. “Yes, do come in.”

Vincent looked between the two of them, brow rising. “I believe I will.” He gestured to someone behind him, and the damn Magical stepped into view, grinning a secret grin. “This is my attendant and close friend, Lord Jeph. I hope he’s more than welcome to meet with the young lord as well.”

Phantom must’ve recognized the Magical from last night because his glare rerouted to Jeph. “Yes, welcome. Come take a seat.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” He pushed past Phantom like he owned the place. “Do you have any pears? I find I’m famished and have a craving for one. You, servant boy, go fetch me one.”

Dirt Boy glowered at him but dipped into a low bow. “As you wish, Lord Jeph.”

“And some cheese, too! I love cheese.”

Rolling his eyes, Dirt Boy headed for the kitchen, afraid Phantom would follow him. But he would likely keep an eye on the guests. How long would he hold the charade before they realized there was no Lord Evander? That was a title he had no hope of ever reclaiming, and yet…the Magical was here…with the beautiful Vincent.

What’s his game?

“Whew. That was close,” Jeph said, and Dirt Boy nearly dropped the plate of fruits and cheeses he’d gathered. “Careful. I like eating my food. Not wearing it.”

“What are—”

“Relax. It’s a simple spell, really. Your keeper thinks I’m still there, making small talk, but I’m here with you. So, let’s get you cleaned up, shall we?”

“Why are you doing this?” Dirt Boy couldn’t keep angry tears from leaking down his face. “You have no idea the cruelty that will befall me once you leave. Is it my death you crave? If it is, you’re doing a fine job of digging my grave!”

He rolled his eyes. “The drama. Yes, you and Vincent are a fine match indeed.”

“I—what?”

“If you stop fighting me, you’ll find I’m trying to help you. I can lead a man to true love, but I can’t make him accept it. Nor can I make them fall in love, but I don’t think either of you two morons will have any trouble in that department.”

“I…I don’t understand.”

“For the love of Vincent’s stars and every god to grace this earth, I am trying to save you. Now, stand there and stop talking. It’s giving me a headache.”

Dirt Boy glowered, but he stayed quiet while the Magical worked his power.

“Tibbity-tobbity-whatever-the-fuckity.”

Before he could question if there really was something seriously wrong with Jeph, the man’s magic swirled around him, turning his rags and dirt to fine clothing befitting a lord.

“There. That’s better.” He took the tray of food from him, giving him a shove toward the door. “Now, get out there and charm his pants off—just not literally. Wait until I’m out of the room for that.”

Dirt Boy’s cheeks flamed. “That’s crass!”

“I’m a crass person, and you’re wasting time.”

“No, I—he didn’t recognize me. I’m not sure I want to charm someone who can’t see past status. To even stop to consider that was me. I’m just Dirt Boy. He’s looking for a lord.”

Jeph rolled his eyes so hard, they might have passed through the back of his skull. “For starters, you really don’t understand how awful you look in the dirt and rags. Even I have trouble believing you’re the same person, but I watched you transform from one man to the other. If not, I wouldn’t give you a second glance, either. It’s hard to believe you a lord when you look like a homeless beggar.”

Dirt Boy flinched. “Then leave this beggar to his misery.”

“That wasn’t—I’m not—” He heaved a sigh, scratching his jaw. “I’m not trying to insult you. I’m merely saying you’re literally unrecognizable when you’re covered in dirt. I’m sorry if the truth hurts your feelings. He’s come all this way looking for you. Do you want a chance at happily ever after or not, kid? Cuz we can walk away right now, and you can go back to your basement for the rest of eternity. And I’ll be forced to console the whiniest human being this earth has to offer because you broke his heart.”

“That’s preposterous! I can’t break someone’s heart when they don’t even know me.”

“You made quite the impression.” Jeph grinned. “Going once.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Going twice.”

“He can’t possibly—”

“Last chance.”

“Fine! I want a happily ever after!”

“That, I can do.”

With a wink, he disappeared into the shadows, and the image of Lord Evander was left standing there, wondering what to expect. Slowly, he left the kitchen, self-conscious and aware that this could blow up in his face. What if Vincent realized he was a fraud? What if he realized the truth and changed his mind?

They barely knew each other, after all, but Jeph said they were…true loves.

Would his true love reject him because he was Dirt Boy, son of no one, owner of nothing but rags and filth?

There was only one way to find out.

He stepped into the lounge, heart hammering in his chest, and waited for Vincent to notice him. When the man did, he hastily got to his feet, stammering and tripping all over himself. It was charming, and before he knew it, he was smiling, warmth spreading through his chest.

“Good afternoon, Lord Ravenhart,” he said evenly. “My doorman tells me you came all this way to see me. What a surprise and a delight.”

“It is a delight, and I’m terribly sorry to intrude on you when you’re not feeling well.”

At this, he furrowed his brow in mock-surprise, turning questioning eyes to Phantom. “Not well? Phantom, are you telling tall tales again?”

Through gritted teeth, he said, “Of course not.”

“Of course not, my lord,” Jeph corrected, taking a bite of a pear that shouldn’t be in his hand, not that Phantom noticed the lack of tray in Evander’s hands. It was on the table, nonetheless. “That’s how you properly speak to the lord of a manor, is it not? What did you say your function here was again? Aren’t you a horse’s ass or something?”

Phantom’s cheeks turned red with rage. “Are you insinuating I’m a stable boy?”

“Oh, nothing like that. I meant that you were a jackass.”

“I am not a donkey!”

Jeph shrugged. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Evander couldn’t help himself, he laughed, knowing it would bring his death. “No, Phantom is nothing of the sort. He’s my father’s former apprentice at the forge. He died several years ago, you see. An unfortunate accident, I’m told, and I took in Phantom and his colleagues out of the kindness of my heart, did I not, Phantom?”

“Quite.”

“Well, I wish to speak with you in private, if that’s okay?” Vincent asked hopefully. “If it’s not too forward of me to presume you’d grant my request?”

“You may not!” Phantom snapped, jumping to his feet.

“I would be delighted to.” To Phantom, he said, “I’ll be entertaining my guest here in the lounge if you could see to breakfast. I’m afraid the cook is running behind.”

He was seething, fuming, and there was murder in his eyes. “As you wish, sir.”

He stormed off in a huff, and Jeph uncrossed his leg from his lap, tossing the core of his pear onto the tray. “Well, that’s my cue to cause some mischief. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He winked, disappearing into darkness again.

“He is a strange, strange man.”

Vincent grinned. “Indeed, he is. But he’ll keep them from bothering us.” He took Evander’s hands in his. “I believe you owe me a dance.”

“Here? Without music?”

“We can make our own music.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know how to dance.” His cheeks warmed. “Being the son of a blacksmith hasn’t afforded me many lessons in decorum. Not having a mother has helped little, as well.”

“No mother or father? That is much too sad.”

He shrugged helplessly. “It’s all I’ve ever known. Mother died in childbirth, and father worked hard to sustain our way of life. We had staff until he passed—” He stopped, realizing what he’d just said. “I mean, more staff. Now I’m afraid there’s little left without Father working.”

“That can’t be true. Are your father’s apprentices not in your employ? It’s your forge and manor. Why else would you house them if not to continue bringing in a profit?”

And there it was, the lie that required telling or for the truth to be lain bare.

“Truthfully?” he asked cautiously, carefully withdrawing his hands from Vincent’s and stepping back. “There is no money. Not for me. Not for a long time. I’m a prisoner here. These clothes are little more than magic conjured by your friend. I’m the footman who opened the door.”

The blond’s lips parted in horror, and he was Evander no longer. He was Dirt Boy. Always Dirt Boy. Except, the clothing didn’t return to rags. Nor did the dirt return. He felt like it was there, all the same.

“It’s okay,” Dirt Boy whispered, blinking back tears. “You can leave. I don’t blame you.”

“Why would I—” He cut himself off, shaking his head. He took the two steps required to close the distance between them, taking Dirt Boy in his arms and sealing their lips together with true love’s first kiss. “I’m not leaving you, Charming. I’m here to ask you if I may court you with the intent of marriage. I’m here to sweep you off your feet and pray you’ll agree to be mine.”

Stunned, he stared up at the two sapphire eyes beseeching him, naked and vulnerable. “Y-Yes. I would like that. Very much.”

“Good, because I think Jeph has dealt with the interlopers who’ve overstayed their welcome.”

And when Evander turned to look out the window, he saw Phantom, Brone, and Tristan, running for their lives as smoke and glittering shadow chased on their heels, never to be seen again.

Magic With the Magician

Life is a play, and the earth is my stage. Air is my voice, fire is my passion, water is my flow, and spirit is my persona, guiding me as I play my role.

~Owen Alexander

I’m looking for something.

That’s a lie.

I’m looking for someone, and he’s the reason I’m alive.

I can’t get into the details right now, but just know, he’s more precious to me than the air I breathe. I don’t know what he looks like, but he probably has green eyes like me. Perhaps he’s blond, too. But maybe not. I wonder if his skin is as pale as mine or if he’s my opposite in every way. It’s never happened before, of course, but sometimes, when I close my eyes, I see him.

Green eyes like emeralds, brunette hair with the slightest wave to it, and skin a light brown. He even kind of looks like me, but there are two things missing when I see him in my mind’s eye. He’s missing the birthmark that wraps around my bicep, a thin line that looks oddly reminiscent of a snake with its forked tongue sticking out and a mole dotting the eye. He’s also missing the small discoloration of a brown spot in his eye, as if, for a moment, our eyes tried to be something other than green, as if a stronger power tried to take over a magic as ancient as his bloodline.

But it doesn’t matter; I’ll know him the moment my eyes land on him. We’re destined to be together, he, my sovereign, and me, his sword and shield, if he so chooses to have me.

I’m sure the young man is who I’m looking for, but I haven’t found him yet.

But I think I know someone who can help me find him.

Have you ever heard the myths of the Sibyl of Legend and Time? I have, but I thought she was just that: a myth, a legend, a time witch belonging to stories of old. I should’ve known better.

All stories are true, at least partially.

Perception is easily clouded when magic is involved.

Fae? Dragons, mermaids, unicorns, and more? Myths generated out of Norms misconstruing the magic they saw performed before their very eyes. A strong glamour can go a long way in making people see something that isn’t there. Stronger ones can even fool the most powerful of Casters into believing what they’re seeing is real.

Vampires, zombies, ghouls, and ghosts? Oh, yeah, necromancers had their fun with Norms on those ones. Assholes.

The list of magical not-truths goes on and on, but one truth remains: a Norm saw it.

It just wasn’t real.

It took a few hundred years for the guilds to decide, “Hey, screwing with Norms probably isn’t a very good idea.” They finally banned the right to use magic in front of the non-magical humans of society.

But you want to know a secret?

The gods used to walk among us.

It’s true. They did. It’s where the mages and witches of today originate from.

The gods bred demigods, Casters with incredible magic. But that was eons ago, and mortal breeding has diluted that blood to the Spellcasters of today. They have magic, but they are far from gods. They aren’t even demigods, despite their lineage. They are magical mortals; nothing more, nothing less.

Sometimes, that magic dies out, and a child is born a Norm.

But that doesn’t mean the gods have abandoned us. They still watch over mortals from afar. They gift the strong, favor the tenacious, and whisper to the curious.

Those blessed by the gods are called “elementals,” people who can wield one of the elements.

You want to know another secret?

I wasn’t gifted with my affinities nor my tremendous power. I’m also not a Caster. I’m a Magician, the only one of my line still alive.

I was born with the power to wield all five of the elements, using them together to control more than just air, fire, water, earth, and spirit. I can overlap them and turn earth to stone, stone to steel or gemstones. I can turn air to steaming mist, steaming mist to a cloud, a cloud to a thunderstorm. But one must always be careful when they toy with the elements; they’re as sentient as you or I, and they don’t like to be played with.

Sometimes, they like to toy with you.

But not me. Never me. Never my bloodline, and to keep it alive, I need to find that man.

But I don’t know his name. I don’t even know where he is. But he’s out there.

I can feel him in my blood. It’s like a compass, pointing me in every direction at once. Until I find him, I won’t know which way to look. All I know is he’s not here.

But I know where the Sibyl is, if the rumors in the Magical Community are to be believed. And she may be good at staying hidden from the guilds hunting her, but I’m fairly certain I can find her if she’s real. Why hide from someone who isn’t a threat to her? Why hide from someone who can give her exactly what she needs? I can give her a place to hide that no one will ever find her, and in exchange, all I need is for her to use her prophetic powers to find the man I’m looking for.

She’ll never be safer, and I’ll have fulfilled my destiny.

Now all that’s left to do is pack and head for Seattle.

***


Seattle, Washington is nothing like home.

I’m used to trees and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. I’m used to fresh air, the scent of hay and livestock carrying on the wind. Barn animals, chickens, cows, horses, pigs, making their clucks and moos, neighs and squealing. Sights, smells, and the sounds of the country. Even the air has a taste, something between dirt and the bite of warm grass.

Here, there’s none of that. Here, there are buildings as far as the eye can see—gray on gray on gray. Buildings that touch the sky, buildings that reflect the muted sun, buildings that are impossible shapes—round or otherwise. They have signs and billboards. They have lights and more windows than one can possibly count.

There are cars at every intersection, the red signal light more of a suggestion than an insistence that a driver stop. And those white lines on the ground telling the driver not to pass? Well, those are apparently just as optional. There are actually so many tail lights blaring red, one would think the interstate that runs through the city is a parking lot.

With so much smog in the air, it’s a wonder these people aren’t dead, a wonder that they can breathe at all.

Then there’s the noise. Sirens blaring, people yelling, machinery running, cars honking, and those damn pedestrian crosswalks are always chirping. There’s no such thing as silence in the city. That’s the thing that I’ve come to miss the most.

I walk down the gray river sidewalk, following the blacktop road of yet another busy street. The rain is falling hard today, whispering sweetly as I let enough of it fall onto my blond hair that I look as drenched as anyone else walking the street. I repel it from my clothes, however, not fond of the idea of my clothing chafing me. As discreetly as I can, I channel air from the heavens to clear away the taste of oily exhaust, thick in the air. My fingers twitch to touch greenery, but the most there is around here are the trees planted into the sidewalk—the sidewalk! Whatever heathen thought that was a “good idea” deserves to be left in the wilderness to learn to appreciate the life of trees, of nature, of the elements.

Every tree I pass, I brush my fingers over the bark, a piece of my power channeling into and revitalizing the strong roots. Those, at least, are fighting back, tearing up the prison of their concrete encasings. I give them a push toward reclaiming the earth as theirs.

Everyone here is in a sweatshirt or something like a t-shirt and jeans, and if I wasn’t warming myself with fire, I would be shivering and bundled up in more than just my college sweatshirt and blue jeans. It has to be less than fifty degrees for Gaia’s sake! How these people aren’t shivering from the cold and the wet is beyond me.

Seattlites are insane.

After waiting a moment, I cross the street with a hoard of pedestrians…and am nearly hit by an impatient car making a left turn. I’m tempted to kick his car, but I realize no one else is fazed by him creeping and inching toward us. They look resolutely ahead, ever on their journey to their destinations. Except for one sane man; he flips the driver the bird as he strides past me, shoulder brushing against mine.

For a moment, I recognize the call of fire in him—he’s a Caster, blessed by the gods—but he’s gone before I’m able to catch a glimpse of anything more than his dark hair.

It’s probably for the best; I don’t want to draw attention to myself anyway.

When I cross the street, I stare up and up and up at the enormous glass building before me. It’s one of those buildings that is an impossible shape. It’s also entirely made up of steel beams and glass windows as far as I can tell. I’m certain there’s more to its craftsmanship than just those, but I’m not curious enough to look into it.

Seattle Public Library looms before me, and I take one more moment to appreciate the sheer size of it before I go in.

I instantly close to fire, using water to pull the rain from me. It was one thing to appear wet to other pedestrians—not that anyone pays attention to anything here—but it’s another to look damp when I can be dry inside. Not that anything in Washington is ever dry. Even the air is thick with humidity, making water more than happy to bash against my senses because it’s so dense.

But I don’t mind; the elements are the only thing familiar in this concrete forest.

I pull them close to me, feeling the push and pull of magic inside the glass library. Casters are here, but that’s nothing new. There are Casters all over this damn city—so many, I’m surprised no one has noticed my presence yet. But I don’t want to be found, so I suppress my energy further.

I’m here for a reason, and that reason is school.

I skim the layout and lightly jog toward the information desk, waiting for my turn to speak with a clerk. She smiles up at me, asking, “How can I help you today?”

“Um, yeah,” I look around and up before meeting her gaze again, “I’m looking for your Shakespeare section. I’ve gotta do a report for class, and wouldn’t you know, I left my copy back home.”

“Not a problem, which play are you looking for?”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

She nods, typing into her computer. “You’re in luck, it looks like we have a copy in the 800’s. It’s between the seventh and ninth floors as you spiral up the landings. Would you like me to have someone show you?”

“Nah,” I say, grabbing one of the pamphlets from her desk. “I’ll use the map.”

After she writes down the call number for me, I head off to find the stairs that lead up into the large building, and it doesn’t take long to discover the spiral she was referring to. The floor is literally on a slant, the shelving units and aisles held level by a sort of stepping pattern. It’s interesting, so I take my time, following the slanting floor around and around, through doorways as I round a corner on each end of the building, until I come to the level where the concrete floor is marked in giant black letters reading “800.”

I walk into that aisle, idly muttering, “Eight-twenty-two, eight-twenty-two,” to myself as I run my finger over the spines of each book.

When I reach that call number, I look back down to the paper, reminding myself of the numbers after the decimal. I find the section I’m looking for and am blown away to realize there are a shit-ton of books with the call number 822.33. I’m forced to glance from the paper to the spines again and again as I weave yet another shelving unit before finding the book I’m looking for.

“Fucking finally,” I whisper under my breath, and someone on the other side of the shelving unit snorts. I startle, grimacing at being heard. “Pardon my language, I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”

“Don’t get a stick up your ass now that you’ve been caught,” a man’s voice replies. It’s young but masculine, full of mirth and mischief. “Own that shit. It’s one of the few freedoms any of us have left in this hell hole world we live in.”

My brows rise. “That’s…grim.”

Another snort comes my way. “That’s reality.”

I open and close my mouth, not sure how to reply. Instead, I stare at the shelf where the play I need still sits. I place my index finger on top of the spine and ease it off the shelf.

“That’s not how you pull books off the shelf, dumbass,” the voice says, and my head whips up in shock. I didn’t even realize he could see me. “If you pull it off the shelf like that, you’ll damage the binding at the top of the book.”

“I-I didn’t know,” I protest, still looking over top and below the shelves, trying to get a glimpse of my verbal assailant. I had no idea how he could see me; I can’t find him. Well, not his face anyway. I can only see the dark black of his clothing through the gaps in the shelves.

“Well, now you do. The library weeds out perfectly good books when people do that shit. What a waste.” And before I can say anything, he completely derails me with, “That’s a good one, but I still think Romeo and Juliet takes the cake. There’s just something about tragic star crossed lovers that deserves its place in the light.”

“And what about Hamlet?” I counter, wondering if he’s going to come to my side of the shelving unit like a normal person. Then again, I’ve made no move to go find him. “That’s supposed to be the most tragic of all his plays.”

“Ahhh,” he says, approval in his tone. “Hamlet is a fine, fine prince of ignorant madness, and there is enough tragic death to appreciate, sure, but Romeo and Juliet? What’s more tragic than dying for your true love…who isn’t dead? Seconds—they miss each other by mere moments, and then they both end up taking their lives. It’s beautiful in the poetry of their deaths. It’s tragic in the truth that they were mere minutes away from their happily ever after. Some say love is worth dying for.”

The more the stranger talks, the more I find myself frowning. “You do know it was written as a warning against the folly of falling into blind love, right? A tragedy to show man’s stupidity in how blindly we let ourselves be led by our hearts instead of with logic?”

“Is it? Or is it a tale of two young people falling in love despite their family’s feuding? Despite that love didn’t factor into marriage in the Middle Ages? Maybe it was one poet’s plea to see love realized.”

“Or to show it leads to complete stupidity. Look how many people were hurt or died as a result of their misguided insta-love! They didn’t even know each other!”

“He’s a cynic,” the man says, approval in his tone. “You’re right, though. They were stark-raving mad, but for a moment, they achieved what so many of us crave like a drug.”

“And what’s that?”

“Happiness.”

I’m stunned silent at the longing in his voice, the bitterness in the one word.

Before I can reply, a different man shouts, “Jeph, you disgusting asshole! You said five minutes—that was half an hour ago! You and your perverse habits, I swear!”

“Drama queen,” the dude—Jeph—mutters. To me, he says, “I better go before the missus has a conniption fit. Nice not meeting you. Let’s not do this again.”

Fast as a wraith, he’s gone, leaving me standing there, baffled and confused.

***


Classes are in full swing, and I still haven’t found the Sibyl yet. It’s not for a lack of trying, that’s for damn sure. It’s little wonder the guilds around here haven’t found her, despite her power screaming all over the state. It’s all over the state! One second, I’m sure she’s right next to me, and the next, I feel her magic flare from hundreds of miles away.

It makes no Gaia-damn sense!

At this point, I’m on a wild goose chase, no closer to discovering the whereabouts of the man I’m looking for, nor the Sibyl who may be able to help me find him. But that’s okay, I suppose, because classes at the University of Washington are going well. I’m top of my class in the theater department, and I even got selected to play a lead role in our upcoming performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Last time I did that play, I was Puck, so I’m excited to try my hand at a new character.

As winter slowly, slowly, so Gaia-damn slowly, gives way to spring, the chill in the air is turning to rain. More. Rain. How do these people live like this?

They’re batshit crazy, that’s how. I learned that the other day when someone tried to mug me on campus—in daylight! Well, what counts for it in this gray, gray state. To say he didn’t appreciate the broken nose and wrist I gave him—or his knife so kindly shoved into his shoulder—would be an understatement. Reflexes were a bitch and so hard to break.

Campus police didn’t even bat an eye while collecting the man, so I got the feeling they were desensitized to crazy people?

Seattle is wild—wild people, wild clubs, wild parties, and I find myself quite charmed by all of it.

But not the traffic. Never the traffic. I don’t even drive—not that I don’t know how to. I didn’t see a need to drive cross-country when I could catch a plane and use public transportation.

Like now, which is just as tedious as it seems. I caught the wrong bus heading north, deeper into Seattle, when I needed to head south back to campus. Correction—I caught the right number bus…just going the wrong way. I mean, really, who makes the difference between north- and south-bound buses which side of the street you’re on? The issue isn’t even the fact that the damn thing is crowded, some smelly dude asleep on my arm. Hell, I don’t even care if he’s catching a few Z’s—he looks like he needs them. It’s the fact that I can’t ever seem to tell where the buses are going before boarding them. At least the link rail makes some semblance of sense—ya know, with, like, signs saying where the thing is going before you board it.

Now that I realize I’m going the wrong way, however, I wake the man up with an apologetic smile. “It’s my stop.”

He nods, letting me up, and promptly falls back asleep. Before I pull the wire to let the driver know I’m getting off, I grab a fifty dollar bill out of my wallet and slip it into the man’s hand. I hope he can put it to use, whether for food or a new pair of shoes is up to him.

“Thanks, man,” he murmurs, and I startle, not realizing he’s still awake.

“Yeah,” I say softly. “Take care of yourself.”

Then I get off when the bus stops, looking up and down the street. I’m lost, and I don’t know when the next bus heading south will come by. Soon, I’m sure, considering it’s rush hour. This is what I get for trying to chase after phantom surges of magical energy.

The Sibyl is nowhere to be found.

Suddenly, a huge spike of power splits the aether not far from me. I turn toward it and run.

I get to an alley right as there’s a clatter of metal trash bins.

“Ra, that girl is going to be the death of me,” a man’s deep, accented voice mutters, followed by a snort. “Already was.”

I see a pair of dark sandaled feet sticking out the other side of a dumpster, and my brow furrows as I look at how primitive and worn they look. Like a homemade job done well, but not like anything you would expect to see in modern day society. As I get closer, I’m greeted to the sight of bare calves and knees, and I stop short, not entirely sure this man isn’t naked behind the dumpster he’s sitting next to. It wouldn’t be the first case of nudity I’d see on the streets here.

“Are—are you okay?” I call, certain he was the source of magic just a minute ago…but now, it’s gone. This man is a Norm…or…something. He doesn’t quite feel right to my own probing magic.

What I can see of his body stiffens, and very coolly, he grumbles, “I’m fine. Now, go away.”

My mouth opens and closes in shock. Are all people here rude? “I heard you fall—”

“And I said I’m fine.”

“If…if you’re sure?”

“I swear to Ra,” he mutters, “I hate this crap.”

My brows rise at his preferred curse, not the swear word, but the god. Only Casters typically swear on the gods, and very few at that. “Are you…are you a Caster?” I hedge. He’s either a Caster, crazy, or possibly drunk. If he’s a Norm, and he remembers that I asked at all, it’s not like he’ll know what I’m talking about.

There’s a long pause where he doesn’t move or respond, and the lack of movement of air tells me he’s not breathing, which is impossible. He would have to be breathing. Even if he’s holding his breath, that’s…quite a long time to go without breathing.

Then, he heaves a sigh. “You’re not going away are you?”

“Well, I honestly mean you no harm. I just want to help.”

“If you won’t go, I will.”

And before I can make it around the dumpster to try to stop him, he’s…gone. As in, poof! He vanished before my very eyes, and it wasn’t magic. At least, I don’t think it was.

No, I’m certain it wasn’t.

“What the actual mother of fucks?” I hiss, staring at the vacant spot where a man had just been sitting. Or had there been a man at all? “You’re losing your ever-loving mind, Owen. Crazy—you’re going crazy, just like the rest of the people in Seattle.”

Perhaps there’s something in the water.

***

Any day now. Any day, I’m going to find the Sibyl. She’s going to magically appear right next me, and I’m going to say something clever like, “Hey there, I’m Owen, and boy do I have deal for you!” And she’s going to look at me with large, shining eyes and thank me for being her hero, her savior. Then, she’ll tell me where to find the man I’m looking for, and I’ll tell her the ultimate hiding place.

I snort at my own stupidity. Yeah, right. She’ll do thatright after pigs fly and dogs learn to dance! I muse over the dogs dancing, redacting that claim. Dogs are pretty clever.

Then, I roll my eyes at myself all over again. Focus, Owen! Stop being a moron. In my defense, I had seen a funny dog video this morning that could’ve passed for a dog dancing. It was a tan poodle wearing a tutu, walking on its two hind legs as it spun a few circles, chasing a treat in someone’s hand.

And yeah, I’m getting distracted again.

I heave a sigh, looking out over the square. I’m seated on the steps of Suzzallo Library, watching the masses of students as they hustle between classes. I could be inside, getting a coffee from the cafe. I could be in the HUB, getting a bite to eat. I could be a million other places on campus, but I’m sitting here, soaking in the fresh air. It’s the first day of blue skies we’ve had since I got here, and for once, the threat of rain isn’t hanging in the heavy gray clouds. Today, the clouds are fluffy and white, and the sun is even shining down.

For an elemental like me, it’s hard to be inside, especially with the gentle breeze playing with my hair, air giving me just a bit more attention than the Norms milling around. I’m okay with that, though. It’s refreshing, especially because the stench of smog from busses, cars, and transit doesn’t reach this far into campus.

But the thing I’m realizing about a nice day in Seattle is that I’m not the only one who wants to enjoy the blue skies. Nope. I’m sitting on a stair because the metal tables on the entrance floor are already claimed but students. The wall that creates a short balcony is a seat to many swinging legs. The stairs are even crowded with clusters of students, who lean out of the way as library-bound students pass by.

In other words, the entire square is crowded with bodies, more than usual. I can barely see faces, let alone get a head count as the students walk by like fish caught in a stream. I can barely hear my own thoughts, either, it’s so loud. Perhaps that’s why I’m having unproductive ones.

I’m tempted to put in my earbuds and drown out the chatter, the talk about classes and assignments, midterms and professors, papers due and projects still incomplete, but I don’t. This is the human element I crave. It’s part of why I love theater. It’s real, it’s emotional, and it’s live.

With the heat of Helios shining down on me and the wind of Uranus lifting my hair, I close my eyes and connect to spirit, letting the energy surrounding me fill me. As soon as I open to the element, it’s at once too much and not enough. I can feel those around me like a living thing—because they are alive. I can sense the cluster of girls to my right, their energy tearing through me and filling me with their excitement and trepidation, their irritation and their joy. I’m not sure what upsets them—probably classes or midterms—but I’m suddenly on edge, too. I also feel the couple a few steps up, drinking coffee and flirting. Their happiness flushes my cheeks, making my heart rate double. I feel the sea of students before me, anxious energy pelting me with concerns as they race to their next classes or worry through thoughts in their minds. I feel the students in the library, in the other buildings to my left and right, the ones in front of me and further, still, spirit sending my senses to touch every living soul within a mile.

The wind kicks up around me as I lose control, and I can’t do anything to calm it, to sooth it, to bring it back to myself. I can feel clouds rapidly approaching right before rain begins to pour from the sky. Even the ground gives a little shake, and I’m just thankful I haven’t set anything on fire yet.

Sweat slicks down my skin, and the bodies around me start shrieking or gasping in alarm as the weather continues to spiral out of control around us. Their panic consumes me, spirit dragging their raging emotions back to me in spades. I’m panting now, and air races to fill my lungs.

Then, I feel it. And suddenly, the air stops whipping, the rain stops pouring, the ground stops shaking.

My eyes snap open.

I’m on my feet and running before I’m conscious of the decision. I’m nearly shoving people out of the way—people still trying to climb back to their feet or move from the shock of the receding earthquake—as I bolt across the square. I’m not moving fast enough, and now that my connection to spirit is cut, I’m not sure where that feeling went, where that Caster went. Another spirit elemental, and their power had been incredible, damn incredible. Impossible.

All I can think is, Find him, find him, find him! as I continue ducking and weaving students, students who are now back into the flow of walking between buildings now that the strange weather has passed, now that the ground has stopped shaking, now that they have places to be. Not even freak weather storms rattle these people. I’m starting to think nothing will.

But I felt him, for a moment. It’s him, my blood screams at me. He’s here!

I’ve gotten turned around in the mass of bodies, and I’m not even sure which direction the feeling had come from anymore. Had it been in front of me? Behind me? My blood is pointing, pointing, pointing. Every. Single. Direction. I’ll never be able to find him like this.

He was why I lost control. He was why my power raged. The sheer number of people around me hadn’t helped, but I’d never lost touch like that before. Never became consumed by the elements.

“Where are you?” I whisper to myself, standing at the edge of the crowd on the other side of the square. I can see Suzzallo mocking me, towering over me, the stone structure aware of my failure. “Please, Gaia, tell me where he is.”

I wait. One heartbeat. Two.

I let out my breath, pressing my back against the building I’ve stopped next to. “Figures.”

The door next to me opens, but I don’t bother moving. If it hits me, then maybe it’ll smack some damn sense into me, maybe some luck for good measure, too.

“That was freaky,” a man in his early forties says, holding the door open. He’s much too old to be who I’m looking for, and I feel myself deflate further. “It’s been a while since the last earthquake.”

A young woman snorts, her back to me as they walk toward the square. “Please, Dad. We’ve seen crazier weather than that.”

“You’re right, pumpkin, but don’t think an earthquake is going to distract me from the topic at hand.”

“Daaad,” she drones in defeat. “You know this is a bad idea.”

“Everything’s a bad idea to you!”

“Yes, but school, Dad? C’mon. That’s just asking for trouble.”

“Damn it, Samantha, indulge your father…”

My lips twitch up as I watch them disappear into the crowd. Now there’s a drama that could be interesting to see unfold.

I look skyward, smiling up at the blue sky.

“Maybe next time,” I whisper to myself. “He’s closer than I ever imagined.”

***

Owen first appears in “Hunter’s Mark,” book 2 in the Light of Chaos series. Click “Buy on Amazon” below to read “King’s Chaos,” book 1 in the Light of Chaos series, free on KindleUnlimited. Follow this link to preorder “Hunter’s Mark,” available March 20, 2020.

Dinner For Two

“You’re buying,” Jeph said after the waitress seated us at a table.

“What! But you picked this place—and it looks expensive.”

He shrugged. “You’re the one that wants to wine and dine me. I said I was fine, but you insisted.”

I scowled, pulling my wallet from my pocket and leafing through the tips I’d made last night. It wasn’t much, but it would cover a meal. “Fine. But you get one thing. That’s it.”

Jeph flipped through the menu, his grin making my stomach curdle. It was his is that a challenge, precious? grin. “Hmm. I’m not sure which one I want.” He slid the menu toward me, tapping the milkshakes section. “Pick one for me.”

“You pick,” I snapped, getting sick of his shit. “You’re the one eating it.”

“Pick one. I’m indecisive. We’ll be here all day if I have to choose.”

I eyed him, knowing he was full of shit, but I was too exasperated to keep arguing. With a sigh, I read through the different shakes. They all sounded really good, but I was a sucker for cookie dough and dark chocolate myself. “This one,” I said, pointing to the menu.

“Mmm, that one does sound good,” he agreed, nodding and flipping through the menu again, looking at the burgers.

“Don’t. You. Dare,” I gritted out.

He didn’t look up from the menu, but his eyes glittered with mischief.

“Hello, folks,” the waitress said. “What drinks can I get you started with?”

“Water,” I said, still trying to glare holes in the top of Jeph’s head.

“I’ll also take a water,” he said, smiling broadly at the waitress. “But I’m ready to order now, if that’s okay?”

“O-Oh,” she stammered, aura turning pink with infatuation. I wanted to stab her. “Certainly,” she said, smiling shyly. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“I’d like this one,” Jeph pointed to something on the menu. “And this one as well. Also, can I get a bacon burger?”

I was going to kill him.

“Sure!”

“And bring two plates, please,” he said.

She jotted that down before running off to put in the order.

“Do you want to die?” I asked coolly. “Because that’s how you die.”

Jeph smirked. “Are you threatening me, precious?”

“You bet your ass, I am.”

“Keep talking dirty,” he whispered. “I like it when you’re feisty.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response, tapping my foot impatiently. The food was going to take a while, and we had places to be. A shake alone might’ve been quick, but a meal would make this take longer.

The waitress dropped off our waters, asking, “Do you want the shakes now or after your meal?”

“Now, please. Thank you.”

She beamed at him, and my scowl deepened.

Now, please. Thank you,” I mimicked when she left.

Jeph arched a brow. “You doing okay over there, precious? You look like you’re about to blow a gasket.”

“I’m just peachy.”

“You don’t look it.”

“Keep flirting with the waitress and she just might try to crawl into your lap. My eyes don’t want to be burned with the disgusting sight of you creeping her.”

His eyebrows shot up. “I’m not flirting with her.”

“Yeah? Then what’s all the smiling and the manners? You wouldn’t know how to be nice if your life depended on it.”

A slow smile spread across his face. “Are you…jealous?” Jeph asked slyly. “Because if you are, I think I like this side of you.”

I scoffed. “I am not jealous.”

“Hmm,” he hummed, eyes still twinkling with amusement.

“Here you are,” the waitress said, setting the milkshakes in the middle of the table. “Do you need anything else?”

“No, thanks,” Jeph said, eyes boring into mine. “We’re good for now.”

“Okay, just flag me down if you need me.” She looked from him to me, aura flaring puke green with jealousy.

“We won’t, but thanks,” I said sickly-sweet. “Your other tables look like they might be low on water, though.”

She glared at me before turning on her heel and stalking away. Perhaps I was being petty—I’d never been rude to a server before, considering my own job—but she really was neglecting her other customers just because she had goo-goo eyes for Jeph. Her unprofessionalism pissed me off.

Yeah, because that’s why you’re irritated.

Jeph whistled under his breath. “And I’m the one who doesn’t know how to be nice?” He tsked, swapping around the shakes and putting the cookie dough one in front of me. “Eat up.”

“I—what?”

“Food. You eat it.” He pulled the long spoon from my shake, scooping it up and holding it out to me. “Nom-nom.”

“I’m not eating something I didn’t even—”

My words cut off on a moan when the shake touched my tongue. Jeph, asshole that he was, had fed it to me mid-sentence. His self-satisfied grin annoyed me.

“Now, are you going to eat it by yourself, or am I going to have to feed it to you?” he asked.

“You’re such an ass.” I snatched the spoon from him, taking the next bite by myself.

“If you say so.” He grabbed his own spoon, eating his shake.

“I do say so—and why is this so good?

“Aren’t they? This place is my favorite—first time dining-in, though.”

I eyed his shake. “Which one did you get?”

“Fudge something or other,” he mumbled around a spoonful.

“Is it any good?”

He pushed the shake toward me, and I dipped my spoon in, stealing a bite.

“Mmm,” I moaned. “That one’s good too.”

“It’s not bad,” he agreed.

“Here’s your bacon burger,” the waitress said, interrupting us, her back to me. “Is there anything else you need?”

“Just that other plate.” Jeph said.

She put it down, smile forced. “Here you are.”

“And can we get the check?”

“Sure thing,” she said, walking away.

Jeph cut his burger in half, transferring half of it and the fries to the other plate before sliding it toward me. “Here.”

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“You need to eat.”

“I don’t!”

“Sam, please.”

“Fine,” I grumbled, pulling the plate to me and dunking a fry in my shake. Of course, it was delicious.

“Thank you,” he said before biting into his burger.

The waitress dropped off our check, not even bothering to say anything this time. I reached for it, and Jeph slapped my hand away, putting it in front of himself.

“You didn’t actually think I’d make you pay for it, did you?” He pulled his wallet out and slid a credit card into the little slot at the top. “I’m not a complete douchebag.”

“I didn’t say—”

“Oh, don’t give me that. You think I’m a dick, and I am.”

“You said it, not me,” I mumbled, taking another bite.

***

Excerpt originally from “Hunter’s Mark,” book two in the Light of Chaos series, by Alexandra Gardner. Full novel available March 20, 2020. Book 1, “King’s Chaos,” available now.

Magic With the Magician – Pt 4

Any day now. Any day, I’m going to find the Sibyl. She’s going to magically appear right next me, and I’m going to say something clever like, “Hey there, I’m Owen, and boy do I have deal for you!” And she’s going to look at me with large, shining eyes and thank me for being her hero, her savior. Then, she’ll tell me where to find the man I’m looking for, and I’ll tell her the ultimate hiding place.

I snort at my own stupidity. Yeah, right. She’ll do thatright after pigs fly and dogs learn to dance! I muse over the dogs dancing, redacting that claim. Dogs are pretty clever.

Then, I roll my eyes at myself all over again. Focus, Owen! Stop being a moron. In my defense, I had seen a funny dog video this morning that could’ve passed for a dog dancing. It was a tan poodle wearing a tutu, walking on its two hind legs as it spun a few circles, chasing a treat in someone’s hand.

And yeah, I’m getting distracted again.

I heave a sigh, looking out over the square. I’m seated on the steps of Suzzallo Library, watching the masses of students as they hustle between classes. I could be inside, getting a coffee from the cafe. I could be in the HUB, getting a bite to eat. I could be a million other places on campus, but I’m sitting here, soaking in the fresh air. It’s the first day of blue skies we’ve had since I got here, and for once, the threat of rain isn’t hanging in the heavy gray clouds. Today, the clouds are fluffy and white, and the sun is even shining down.

For an elemental like me, it’s hard to be inside, especially with the gentle breeze playing with my hair, air giving me just a bit more attention than the Norms milling around. I’m okay with that, though. It’s refreshing, especially because the stench of smog from busses, cars, and transit doesn’t reach this far into campus.

But the thing I’m realizing about a nice day in Seattle is that I’m not the only one who wants to enjoy the blue skies. Nope. I’m sitting on a stair because the metal tables on the entrance floor are already claimed but students. The wall that creates a short balcony is a seat to many swinging legs. The stairs are even crowded with clusters of students, who lean out of the way as library-bound students pass by.

In other words, the entire square is crowded with bodies, more than usual. I can barely see faces, let alone get a head count as the students walk by like fish caught in a stream. I can barely hear my own thoughts, either, it’s so loud. Perhaps that’s why I’m having unproductive ones.

I’m tempted to put in my earbuds and drown out the chatter, the talk about classes and assignments, midterms and professors, papers due and projects still incomplete, but I don’t. This is the human element I crave. It’s part of why I love theater. It’s real, it’s emotional, and it’s live.

With the heat of Helios shining down on me and the wind of Uranus lifting my hair, I close my eyes and connect to spirit, letting the energy surrounding me fill me. As soon as I open to the element, it’s at once too much and not enough. I can feel those around me like a living thing—because they are alive. I can sense the cluster of girls to my right, their energy tearing through me and filling me with their excitement and trepidation, their irritation and their joy. I’m not sure what upsets them—probably classes or midterms—but I’m suddenly on edge, too. I also feel the couple a few steps up, drinking coffee and flirting. Their happiness flushes my cheeks, making my heart rate double. I feel the sea of students before me, anxious energy pelting me with concerns as they race to their next classes or worry through thoughts in their minds. I feel the students in the library, in the other buildings to my left and right, the ones in front of me and further, still, spirit sending my senses to touch every living soul within a mile.

The wind kicks up around me as I lose control, and I can’t do anything to calm it, to sooth it, to bring it back to myself. I can feel clouds rapidly approaching right before rain begins to pour from the sky. Even the ground gives a little shake, and I’m just thankful I haven’t set anything on fire yet.

Sweat slicks down my skin, and the bodies around me start shrieking or gasping in alarm as the weather continues to spiral out of control around us. Their panic consumes me, spirit dragging their raging emotions back to me in spades. I’m panting now, and air races to fill my lungs.

Then, I feel it. And suddenly, the air stops whipping, the rain stops pouring, the ground stops shaking.

My eyes snap open.

I’m on my feet and running before I’m conscious of the decision. I’m nearly shoving people out of the way—people still trying to climb back to their feet or move from the shock of the receding earthquake—as I bolt across the square. I’m not moving fast enough, and now that my connection to spirit is cut, I’m not sure where that feeling went, where that Caster went. Another spirit elemental, and their power had been incredible, damn incredible. Impossible.

All I can think is, Find him, find him, find him! as I continue ducking and weaving students, students who are now back into the flow of walking between buildings now that the strange weather has passed, now that the ground has stopped shaking, now that they have places to be. Not even freak weather storms rattle these people. I’m starting to think nothing will.

But I felt him, for a moment. It’s him, my blood screams at me. He’s here!

I’ve gotten turned around in the mass of bodies, and I’m not even sure which direction the feeling had come from anymore. Had it been in front of me? Behind me? My blood is pointing, pointing, pointing. Every. Single. Direction. I’ll never be able to find him like this.

He was why I lost control. He was why my power raged. The sheer number of people around me hadn’t helped, but I’d never lost touch like that before. Never became consumed by the elements.

“Where are you?” I whisper to myself, standing at the edge of the crowd on the other side of the square. I can see Suzzallo mocking me, towering over me, the stone structure aware of my failure. “Please, Gaia, tell me where he is.”

I wait. One heartbeat. Two.

I let out my breath, pressing my back against the building I’ve stopped next to. “Figures.”

The door next to me opens, but I don’t bother moving. If it hits me, then maybe it’ll smack some damn sense into me, maybe some luck for good measure, too.

“That was freaky,” a man in his early forties says, holding the door open. He’s much too old to be who I’m looking for, and I feel myself deflate further. “It’s been a while since the last earthquake.”

A young woman snorts, her back to me as they walk toward the square. “Please, Dad. We’ve seen crazier weather than that.”

“You’re right, pumpkin, but don’t think an earthquake is going to distract me from the topic at hand.”

“Daaad,” she drones in defeat. “You know this is a bad idea.”

“Everything’s a bad idea to you!”

“Yes, but school, Dad? C’mon. That’s just asking for trouble.”

“Damn it, Samantha, indulge your father…”

My lips twitch up as I watch them disappear into the crowd. Now there’s a drama that could be interesting to see unfold.

I look skyward, smiling up at the blue sky.

“Maybe next time,” I whisper to myself. “He’s closer than I ever imagined.”

***

Owen first appears in “Hunter’s Mark,” book 2 in the Light of Chaos series. Click “Buy on Amazon” below to read “King’s Chaos,” book 1 in the Light of Chaos series, free on KindleUnlimited. Follow this link to preorder “Hunter’s Mark,” available March 20, 2020.

Magic With the Magician – Pt 3

Classes are in full swing, and I still haven’t found the Sibyl yet. It’s not for a lack of trying, that’s for damn sure. It’s little wonder the guilds around here haven’t found her, despite her power screaming all over the state. It’s all over the state! One second, I’m sure she’s right next to me, and the next, I feel her magic flare from hundreds of miles away.

It makes no Gaia-damn sense!

At this point, I’m on a wild goose chase, no closer to discovering the whereabouts of the man I’m looking for, nor the Sibyl who may be able to help me find him. But that’s okay, I suppose, because classes at the University of Washington are going well. I’m top of my class in the theater department, and I even got selected to play a lead role in our upcoming performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Last time I did that play, I was Puck, so I’m excited to try my hand at a new character.

As winter slowly, slowly, so Gaia-damn slowly, gives way to spring, the chill in the air is turning to rain. More. Rain. How do these people live like this?

They’re batshit crazy, that’s how. I learned that the other day when someone tried to mug me on campus—in daylight! Well, what counts for it in this gray, gray state. To say he didn’t appreciate the broken nose and wrist I gave him—or his knife so kindly shoved into his shoulder—would be an understatement. Reflexes were a bitch and so hard to break.

Campus police didn’t even bat an eye while collecting the man, so I got the feeling they were desensitized to crazy people?

Seattle is wild—wild people, wild clubs, wild parties, and I find myself quite charmed by all of it.

But not the traffic. Never the traffic. I don’t even drive—not that I don’t know how to. I didn’t see a need to drive cross-country when I could catch a plane and use public transportation.

Like now, which is just as tedious as it seems. I caught the wrong bus heading north, deeper into Seattle, when I needed to head south back to campus. Correction—I caught the right number bus…just going the wrong way. I mean, really, who makes the difference between north- and south-bound buses which side of the street you’re on? The issue isn’t even the fact that the damn thing is crowded, some smelly dude asleep on my arm. Hell, I don’t even care if he’s catching a few Z’s—he looks like he needs them. It’s the fact that I can’t ever seem to tell where the buses are going before boarding them. At least the link rail makes some semblance of sense—ya know, with, like, signs saying where the thing is going before you board it.

Now that I realize I’m going the wrong way, however, I wake the man up with an apologetic smile. “It’s my stop.”

He nods, letting me up, and promptly falls back asleep. Before I pull the wire to let the driver know I’m getting off, I grab a fifty dollar bill out of my wallet and slip it into the man’s hand. I hope he can put it to use, whether for food or a new pair of shoes is up to him.

“Thanks, man,” he murmurs, and I startle, not realizing he’s still awake.

“Yeah,” I say softly. “Take care of yourself.”

Then I get off when the bus stops, looking up and down the street. I’m lost, and I don’t know when the next bus heading south will come by. Soon, I’m sure, considering it’s rush hour. This is what I get for trying to chase after phantom surges of magical energy.

The Sibyl is nowhere to be found.

Suddenly, a huge spike of power splits the aether not far from me. I turn toward it and run.

I get to an alley right as there’s a clatter of metal trash bins.

“Ra, that girl is going to be the death of me,” a man’s deep, accented voice mutters, followed by a snort. “Already was.”

I see a pair of dark sandaled feet sticking out the other side of a dumpster, and my brow furrows as I look at how primitive and worn they look. Like a homemade job done well, but not like anything you would expect to see in modern day society. As I get closer, I’m greeted to the sight of bare calves and knees, and I stop short, not entirely sure this man isn’t naked behind the dumpster he’s sitting next to. It wouldn’t be the first case of nudity I’d see on the streets here.

“Are—are you okay?” I call, certain he was the source of magic just a minute ago…but now, it’s gone. This man is a Norm…or…something. He doesn’t quite feel right to my own probing magic.

What I can see of his body stiffens, and very coolly, he grumbles, “I’m fine. Now, go away.”

My mouth opens and closes in shock. Are all people here rude? “I heard you fall—”

“And I said I’m fine.”

“If…if you’re sure?”

“I swear to Ra,” he mutters, “I hate this crap.”

My brows rise at his preferred curse, not the swear word, but the god. Only Casters typically swear on the gods, and very few at that. “Are you…are you a Caster?” I hedge. He’s either a Caster, crazy, or possibly drunk. If he’s a Norm, and he remembers that I asked at all, it’s not like he’ll know what I’m talking about.

There’s a long pause where he doesn’t move or respond, and the lack of movement of air tells me he’s not breathing, which is impossible. He would have to be breathing. Even if he’s holding his breath, that’s…quite a long time to go without breathing.

Then, he heaves a sigh. “You’re not going away are you?”

“Well, I honestly mean you no harm. I just want to help.”

“If you won’t go, I will.”

And before I can make it around the dumpster to try to stop him, he’s…gone. As in, poof! He vanished before my very eyes, and it wasn’t magic. At least, I don’t think it was.

No, I’m certain it wasn’t.

“What the actual mother of fucks?” I hiss, staring at the vacant spot where a man had just been sitting. Or had there been a man at all? “You’re losing your ever-loving mind, Owen. Crazy—you’re going crazy, just like the rest of the people in Seattle.”

Perhaps there’s something in the water.

***

Owen first appears in “Hunter’s Mark,” book 2 in the Light of Chaos series. Click “Buy on Amazon” below to read “King’s Chaos,” book 1 in the Light of Chaos series, free on KindleUnlimited. Follow this link to preorder “Hunter’s Mark,” available March 20, 2020.

Magic With the Magician – Pt 2

Seattle, Washington is nothing like home.

I’m used to trees and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. I’m used to fresh air, the scent of hay and livestock carrying on the wind. Barn animals, chickens, cows, horses, pigs, making their clucks and moos, neighs and squealing. Sights, smells, and the sounds of the country. Even the air has a taste, something between dirt and the bite of warm grass.

Here, there’s none of that. Here, there are buildings as far as the eye can see—gray on gray on gray. Buildings that touch the sky, buildings that reflect the muted sun, buildings that are impossible shapes—round or otherwise. They have signs and billboards. They have lights and more windows than one can possibly count.

There are cars at every intersection, the red signal light more of a suggestion than an insistence that a driver stop. And those white lines on the ground telling the driver not to pass? Well, those are apparently just as optional. There are actually so many tail lights blaring red, one would think the interstate that runs through the city is a parking lot.

With so much smog in the air, it’s a wonder these people aren’t dead, a wonder that they can breathe at all.

Then there’s the noise. Sirens blaring, people yelling, machinery running, cars honking, and those damn pedestrian crosswalks are always chirping. There’s no such thing as silence in the city. That’s the thing that I’ve come to miss the most.

I walk down the gray river sidewalk, following the blacktop road of yet another busy street. The rain is falling hard today, whispering sweetly as I let enough of it fall onto my blond hair that I look as drenched as anyone else walking the street. I repel it from my clothes, however, not fond of the idea of my clothing chafing me. As discreetly as I can, I channel air from the heavens to clear away the taste of oily exhaust, thick in the air. My fingers twitch to touch greenery, but the most there is around here are the trees planted into the sidewalk—the sidewalk! Whatever heathen thought that was a “good idea” deserves to be left in the wilderness to learn to appreciate the life of trees, of nature, of the elements.

Every tree I pass, I brush my fingers over the bark, a piece of my power channeling into and revitalizing the strong roots. Those, at least, are fighting back, tearing up the prison of their concrete encasings. I give them a push toward reclaiming the earth as theirs.

Everyone here is in a sweatshirt or something like a t-shirt and jeans, and if I wasn’t warming myself with fire, I would be shivering and bundled up in more than just my college sweatshirt and blue jeans. It has to be less than fifty degrees for Gaia’s sake! How these people aren’t shivering from the cold and the wet is beyond me.

Seattlites are insane.

After waiting a moment, I cross the street with a hoard of pedestrians…and am nearly hit by an impatient car making a left turn. I’m tempted to kick his car, but I realize no one else is fazed by him creeping and inching toward us. They look resolutely ahead, ever on their journey to their destinations. Except for one sane man; he flips the driver the bird as he strides past me, shoulder brushing against mine.

For a moment, I recognize the call of fire in him—he’s a Caster, blessed by the gods—but he’s gone before I’m able to catch a glimpse of anything more than his dark hair.

It’s probably for the best; I don’t want to draw attention to myself anyway.

When I cross the street, I stare up and up and up at the enormous glass building before me. It’s one of those buildings that is an impossible shape. It’s also entirely made up of steel beams and glass windows as far as I can tell. I’m certain there’s more to its craftsmanship than just those, but I’m not curious enough to look into it.

Seattle Public Library looms before me, and I take one more moment to appreciate the sheer size of it before I go in.

I instantly close to fire, using water to pull the rain from me. It was one thing to appear wet to other pedestrians—not that anyone pays attention to anything here—but it’s another to look damp when I can be dry inside. Not that anything in Washington is ever dry. Even the air is thick with humidity, making water more than happy to bash against my senses because it’s so dense.

But I don’t mind; the elements are the only thing familiar in this concrete forest.

I pull them close to me, feeling the push and pull of magic inside the glass library. Casters are here, but that’s nothing new. There are Casters all over this damn city—so many, I’m surprised no one has noticed my presence yet. But I don’t want to be found, so I suppress my energy further.

I’m here for a reason, and that reason is school.

I skim the layout and lightly jog toward the information desk, waiting for my turn to speak with a clerk. She smiles up at me, asking, “How can I help you today?”

“Um, yeah,” I look around and up before meeting her gaze again, “I’m looking for your Shakespeare section. I’ve gotta do a report for class, and wouldn’t you know, I left my copy back home.”

“Not a problem, which play are you looking for?”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

She nods, typing into her computer. “You’re in luck, it looks like we have a copy in the 800’s. It’s between the seventh and ninth floors as you spiral up the landings. Would you like me to have someone show you?”

“Nah,” I say, grabbing one of the pamphlets from her desk. “I’ll use the map.”

After she writes down the call number for me, I head off to find the stairs that lead up into the large building, and it doesn’t take long to discover the spiral she was referring to. The floor is literally on a slant, the shelving units and aisles held level by a sort of stepping pattern. It’s interesting, so I take my time, following the slanting floor around and around, through doorways as I round a corner on each end of the building, until I come to the level where the concrete floor is marked in giant black letters reading “800.”

I walk into that aisle, idly muttering, “Eight-twenty-two, eight-twenty-two,” to myself as I run my finger over the spines of each book.

When I reach that call number, I look back down to the paper, reminding myself of the numbers after the decimal. I find the section I’m looking for and am blown away to realize there are a shit-ton of books with the call number 822.33. I’m forced to glance from the paper to the spines again and again as I weave yet another shelving unit before finding the book I’m looking for.

“Fucking finally,” I whisper under my breath, and someone on the other side of the shelving unit snorts. I startle, grimacing at being heard. “Pardon my language, I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”

“Don’t get a stick up your ass now that you’ve been caught,” a man’s voice replies. It’s young but masculine, full of mirth and mischief. “Own that shit. It’s one of the few freedoms any of us have left in this hell hole world we live in.”

My brows rise. “That’s…grim.”

Another snort comes my way. “That’s reality.”

I open and close my mouth, not sure how to reply. Instead, I stare at the shelf where the play I need still sits. I place my index finger on top of the spine and ease it off the shelf.

“That’s not how you pull books off the shelf, dumbass,” the voice says, and my head whips up in shock. I didn’t even realize he could see me. “If you pull it off the shelf like that, you’ll damage the binding at the top of the book.”

“I-I didn’t know,” I protest, still looking over top and below the shelves, trying to get a glimpse of my verbal assailant. I had no idea how he could see me; I can’t find him. Well, not his face anyway. I can only see the dark black of his clothing through the gaps in the shelves.

“Well, now you do. The library weeds out perfectly good books when people do that shit. What a waste.” And before I can say anything, he completely derails me with, “That’s a good one, but I still think Romeo and Juliet takes the cake. There’s just something about tragic star crossed lovers that deserves its place in the light.”

“And what about Hamlet?” I counter, wondering if he’s going to come to my side of the shelving unit like a normal person. Then again, I’ve made no move to go find him. “That’s supposed to be the most tragic of all his plays.”

“Ahhh,” he says, approval in his tone. “Hamlet is a fine, fine prince of ignorant madness, and there is enough tragic death to appreciate, sure, but Romeo and Juliet? What’s more tragic than dying for your true love…who isn’t dead? Seconds—they miss each other by mere moments, and then they both end up taking their lives. It’s beautiful in the poetry of their deaths. It’s tragic in the truth that they were mere minutes away from their happily ever after. Some say love is worth dying for.”

The more the stranger talks, the more I find myself frowning. “You do know it was written as a warning against the folly of falling into blind love, right? A tragedy to show man’s stupidity in how blindly we let ourselves be led by our hearts instead of with logic?”

“Is it? Or is it a tale of two young people falling in love despite their family’s feuding? Despite that love didn’t factor into marriage in the Middle Ages? Maybe it was one poet’s plea to see love realized.”

“Or to show it leads to complete stupidity. Look how many people were hurt or died as a result of their misguided insta-love! They didn’t even know each other!”

“He’s a cynic,” the man says, approval in his tone. “You’re right, though. They were stark-raving mad, but for a moment, they achieved what so many of us crave like a drug.”

“And what’s that?”

“Happiness.”

I’m stunned silent at the longing in his voice, the bitterness in the one word.

Before I can reply, a different man shouts, “Jeph, you disgusting asshole! You said five minutes—that was half an hour ago! You and your perverse habits, I swear!”

“Drama queen,” the dude—Jeph—mutters. To me, he says, “I better go before the missus has a conniption fit. Nice not meeting you. Let’s not do this again.”

Fast as a wraith, he’s gone, leaving me standing there, baffled and confused.

***

Owen first appears in “Hunter’s Mark,” book 2 in the Light of Chaos series. Click “Buy on Amazon” below to read “King’s Chaos,” book 1 in the Light of Chaos series, free on KindleUnlimited. Follow this link to preorder “Hunter’s Mark,” available March 20, 2020.

Magic With the Magician – Pt 1

Life is a play, and the earth is my stage. Air is my voice, fire is my passion, water is my flow, and spirit is my persona, guiding me as I play my role.

~Owen Alexander

I’m looking for something.

That’s a lie.

I’m looking for someone, and he’s the reason I’m alive.

I can’t get into the details right now, but just know, he’s more precious to me than the air I breathe. I don’t know what he looks like, but he probably has green eyes like me. Perhaps he’s blond, too. But maybe not. I wonder if his skin is as pale as mine or if he’s my opposite in every way. It’s never happened before, of course, but sometimes, when I close my eyes, I see him.

Green eyes like emeralds, brunette hair with the slightest wave to it, and skin a light brown. He even kind of looks like me, but there are two things missing when I see him in my mind’s eye. He’s missing the birthmark that wraps around my bicep, a thin line that looks oddly reminiscent of a snake with its forked tongue sticking out and a mole dotting the eye. He’s also missing the small discoloration of a brown spot in his eye, as if, for a moment, our eyes tried to be something other than green, as if a stronger power tried to take over a magic as ancient as his bloodline.

But it doesn’t matter; I’ll know him the moment my eyes land on him. We’re destined to be together, he, my sovereign, and me, his sword and shield, if he so chooses to have me.

I’m sure the young man is who I’m looking for, but I haven’t found him yet.

But I think I know someone who can help me find him.

Have you ever heard the myths of the Sibyl of Legend and Time? I have, but I thought she was just that: a myth, a legend, a time witch belonging to stories of old. I should’ve known better.

All stories are true, at least partially.

Perception is easily clouded when magic is involved.

Fae? Dragons, mermaids, unicorns, and more? Myths generated out of Norms misconstruing the magic they saw performed before their very eyes. A strong glamour can go a long way in making people see something that isn’t there. Stronger ones can even fool the most powerful of Casters into believing what they’re seeing is real.

Vampires, zombies, ghouls, and ghosts? Oh, yeah, necromancers had their fun with Norms on those ones. Assholes.

The list of magical not-truths goes on and on, but one truth remains: a Norm saw it.

It just wasn’t real.

It took a few hundred years for the guilds to decide, “Hey, screwing with Norms probably isn’t a very good idea.” They finally banned the right to use magic in front of the non-magical humans of society.

But you want to know a secret?

The gods used to walk among us.

It’s true. They did. It’s where the mages and witches of today originate from.

The gods bred demigods, Casters with incredible magic. But that was eons ago, and mortal breeding has diluted that blood to the Spellcasters of today. They have magic, but they are far from gods. They aren’t even demigods, despite their lineage. They are magical mortals; nothing more, nothing less.

Sometimes, that magic dies out, and a child is born a Norm.

But that doesn’t mean the gods have abandoned us. They still watch over mortals from afar. They gift the strong, favor the tenacious, and whisper to the curious.

Those blessed by the gods are called “elementals,” people who can wield one of the elements.

You want to know another secret?

I wasn’t gifted with my affinities nor my tremendous power. I’m also not a Caster. I’m a Magician, the only one of my line still alive.

I was born with the power to wield all five of the elements, using them together to control more than just air, fire, water, earth, and spirit. I can overlap them and turn earth to stone, stone to steel or gemstones. I can turn air to steaming mist, steaming mist to a cloud, a cloud to a thunderstorm. But one must always be careful when they toy with the elements; they’re as sentient as you or I, and they don’t like to be played with.

Sometimes, they like to toy with you.

But not me. Never me. Never my bloodline, and to keep it alive, I need to find that man.

But I don’t know his name. I don’t even know where he is. But he’s out there.

I can feel him in my blood. It’s like a compass, pointing me in every direction at once. Until I find him, I won’t know which way to look. All I know is he’s not here.

But I know where the Sibyl is, if the rumors in the Magical Community are to be believed. And she may be good at staying hidden from the guilds hunting her, but I’m fairly certain I can find her if she’s real. Why hide from someone who isn’t a threat to her? Why hide from someone who can give her exactly what she needs? I can give her a place to hide that no one will ever find her, and in exchange, all I need is for her to use her prophetic powers to find the man I’m looking for.

She’ll never be safer, and I’ll have fulfilled my destiny.

Now all that’s left to do is pack and head for Seattle.

***

Owen first appears in “Hunter’s Mark,” book 2 in the Light of Chaos series. Click “Buy on Amazon” below to read “King’s Chaos,” book 1 in the Light of Chaos series, free on KindleUnlimited. Follow this link to preorder “Hunter’s Mark,” available March 20, 2020.

Mischief With Jeph

What’s a bit of harmless fun?

~Jeph Michealson

Hey there! I’m Jeph, and I’m a guild mage. Not just a guild mage, I’m actually on the Council. I’m also kind of a dick.

What? Evander already told you about that? Figures.

He’s not wrong. I just can’t help but be…creative with the fun I have at the guild. I get so bored listening to the Guildmaster drone on and on about things that need to be done, rules that need to be enforced, so on and so forth. Even the paperwork is hell on Earth.

I also like stirring the shit-pot.

I have the most fun when I’m undermining Phantom, but he’s away on a mission today. Oh well. I grab the water gun I purchased last night in preparation for today’s shenanigans. Someone has to teach Evander it’s rude to slander his superior’s good name.

I wrap my shadows around myself, hiding within them as I leave my office and stalk the halls. Then I lock onto Evander’s energy signature and find him with ease. I glance in the window of the classroom and find him seated at a desk, head bent over the page of whatever he’s working on. He’s writing pretty quickly, so it must be something good. I’m curious, but I’m more interested in seeing him riled up. He’s just too entertaining—so quick to anger.

It’s time to strike.

I pump the pressure on the squirt gun. I only have one shot at this. As soon as I open the door, Evander will know I’m here, and I don’t want him running away before I can have my fun. He’s scarily fast, and while I could probably keep pace if it came down to a chase, it won’t be nearly as fun if he’s fending off my attacks. Well, maybe—I do get a thrill out of a good chase.

The pressure on the squirt gun is the strongest it’s going to get. I wrap my magic around the door handle and use magery to push it open as silently as possible—just a crack, one large enough to put the barrel of the gun through and…

I douse the front of his shirt, grinning from ear-to-ear as he jumps up in alarm, confusion on his face. The confusion is quickly replaced by irritation, settling into anger when he hears me laughing.

“Jeph! You asshat!”

I turn on my heel and run.

***

I’m bored—again. Nothing exciting ever happens at the guild anymore. Evander is still upset that I sprayed him down last month. I haven’t bothered to apologize, so it’s little wonder why. That’s okay; I don’t plan to say sorry.

It’s probably wrong of me, but I really feel like causing more trouble—and he presents the perfect target. I’ve already got an idea forming in my mind, and it’s going to drive him up a wall. Is it bad that I enjoy annoying him? His reactions are just so entertaining…

I hide in my shadows, stalking the halls of the guild. I pass Hunters and Elite Hunters, but they don’t know I’m here—the perks of having shadows at my beck and call. I may like mischief, but I hate talking to people. I’d sooner hunt rogues than make small talk with a colleague.

When I reach the classroom Evander is hiding in, I cast a glamour on the door so he doesn’t see it open. As far as he knows, it’s still closed. Grinning to myself, I stay hidden as I cross the room. Then, being the unholy terror that I am, I lay across the table he’s working on, only unraveling my shadows when my head lays on his notebook.

“Jesus!” he shouts, looking like he might stab me with his pen. It would be entertaining if he did.

I yawn, long and loud, putting my arms behind my head. “Whatcha doing?”

He’s forced to sit back in his chair now that my elbow is invading his space. “Working—unlike you.”

“I never work,” I tell him honestly. “Well, I hunt on occasion, but I seldom get assignments these days…not that I wouldn’t mind a good game of cat and mouse.” The thought of tracking down a powerful rogue gives me a thrill. They’re always so much more fun when they’re feisty.

“You’re demented,” he says, lip curling in disgust.

I grin. “How kind of you to notice.”

“Can I help you?” he snaps, pulling the notebook out from under my head.

“Knock-knock.”

He stares at me, jaw clenching. “I’m not playing this game again.”

“Knock-knock.”

He glares.

“I’m not going to go away,” I say.

“Who’s there?” he finally asks through gritted teeth.

“Jeph.”

“Jeph who?”

“No one knows.”

I smirk at my own bad sense of humor. When I was thirteen, I suffered some traumatic event—at least, that’s what we all assume because I don’t remember—that gave me amnesia. As in, nearly nine years later, I still don’t remember the first thirteen years of my life.

Evander blinks. “Is that supposed to be funny?”

“I thought it was.” I shrug. “Knock-knock.”

He heaves a sigh. “Who’s there?”

“Banana.”

No,” he growls. “I’m not listening to that one again.”

“But you let me get away with it for two minutes last time,” I pout.

“You tricked me!”

“It’s not my fault you didn’t know that one.” My grin is slow. “It was entertaining, though.”

“You’re sick,” he says, putting his notebook on his knee and writing something down.

I prop myself up on my elbow, trying to spy his notes. “What’re you writing?” 

“None of your business!” He snaps the notebook closed.

“Knock-knock.”

“Are you serious?” His tone is exasperated.

“As the grave.”

“Fine!” he shouts, hands balling into fists. “Who’s there?”

“Boo,” I say, adrenaline pumping in anticipation.

“Boo who?”

“Don’t cry, Evander, it’s just a joke.” Laughing, I’m up and across the room before his pen penetrates the desk—right where my arm had been. “Harsh,” I say, tutting. “Now, stop dallying and get to work.”

I feel his glare on my back as I exit the classroom.

***

I’m in the arena-sized gym at the guild, bored to tears. I’ve spent all afternoon working with various equipment, trying to kill time and burn energy, but neither seems to be happening. I hate when I don’t have an active assignment because I’m stuck at the guild, but there’s nothing to do. My mind is so restless, I had to leave the archives a while ago. I couldn’t focus on anything I read. Now, I’m sitting on this damn bench press, contemplating hanging myself from the ceiling by my toes, just to scare the piss out of the next poor sap unfortunate enough to come in here.

It would be funny for all of ten seconds…hardly worth the effort.

Heaving a sigh, I get up and grab my towel, dabbing at my sweat-slick forehead on my way to the door. I smell like a gym bag and need a shower. After that, I think I might be able to focus if I try the archives again. There’s a dark-magic spellbook calling my name…not that I would ever use any of those spells or rituals…I just like knowing how to counteract things since, in my line of work, it could mean the difference between life or death.

Rogue Casters don’t fight fair—but that’s okay; neither do I.

Before I can make it out the door, Evander nearly collides with me on his way in. He stops to apologize before he realizes he’s talking to me. Then his apology dies on his lips, his whole face falling.

I press my lips together to hide my smile. It pleases my dark little heart that I bother him so much. I should be ashamed.

He turns on his heel to walk away, but I grab the back of his shirt before he can speed away—and I mean that literally. Evander is crazy-fast…

“Where are you running off to?” I ask, his shirt straining against my grip. If he doesn’t stop, it’s going to rip. I’m almost curious to see if he’s really that desperate to not talk to me.

He stops, taking a deep breath before letting it out and turning to me. “Errands,” he mumbles, looking everywhere but at me.

Instead of calling him on the lie, I grin. “Well, while you’re here…” I glance at the vacant sparring mat in the far corner of the room. “It’s been a while since we’ve worked on your form.”

“No, thanks,” he says, looking ready to bolt.

“You mean…you don’t want a chance to slug me in the face?”

He purses his lips, looking from me to the mat, from the mat to the door, and then back at me again.

Caught your attention, did I? I muse to myself. We both know he wants to hit me.

“I’ve got a few minutes,” he says casually, shrugging.

Truth be told, Evander’s a skilled fighter. I taught him everything he knows, after all. He’s never actually taken me in a fight, but he’s gotten close. It’s been a while since we’ve sparred…I wonder if he’ll win.

Nah!

“That’s a good little Hunter,” I say, patting him on the back hard enough that he stumbles.

Evander catches his footing as I wrap an arm around his shoulders, giving him a noogie and messing up his perfect sandy-brown hair. He grits his teeth so loudly, I can hear them grinding together.

Before we step on the mat, we take off our shoes. Sparring is all fun and games…until someone takes the hard sole of a combat boot to the face. In a battle, that’s an asset; at the guild, it’s just cruelty. While I may enjoy terrorizing the poor kid, I don’t actually enjoy hurting him.

Once we reach the center of the mat, Evander asks, “What rules are we using today?”

“Three-second pin, no tap-outs.”

“Obviously.” He rolls his eyes. “Three seconds, though? You’re making this too easy.”

I like his attitude, but three seconds is a lot more time than he’s pretending it is. When magery allows us the ability to move two to three times our normal speed, three seconds is a lifetime to keep someone on the mat. Especially when they’re as fast as Evander. Especially when they’re as strong and as cunning as I am.

I lock eyes with his hazel ones. “Cocky today, are we?”

For the first time in a while, he grins at me. It’s feral, but it’s something. “Even if I don’t win, I still win. You did invite me to punch you in the face.”

I return his smile. “I’m so nice, I’ll even let you have the first hit.”

“You? Nice?” He snorts. “Hardly. But I won’t turn down the offer.”

“No crotch-shots.”

“What?”

“No crotch-shots.” I shrug. “I figure I might as well set limits.”

He nods and, without any warning, comes at me so fast, he’s practically a blur, his fist cracking against my jaw.

I fly backward, barely catching myself with my magic before my head smacks the mat. Damn, that boy’s right hook has only gotten better. Impressed, I get to my feet, rubbing my throbbing jaw, the taste of blood filling my mouth.

“Good one,” I say, cracking my knuckles. “Let the games begin.”

***

Panting, Evander and I lay sprawled on the sparring mat, drenched in sweat and covered in bruises and blood. Neither of us held back during our match, and it dragged on for what had to of been an hour or more. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to push myself this hard, and quite frankly, I’m exhausted. Not that I would ever tell him that.

I sit up, barely withholding a grunt. Evander hasn’t opened his eyes yet and laying there must be suffocating with the blood draining down his throat. I might have broken his nose. That’s fine; he broke one of my ribs.

I nudge his clave with the side of my foot. “Sit up before you drown.”

Shakily, he lifts his hand, flipping me the bird.

The corner of my lips twitch up, and I reach for him, hissing because I forget about my damn rib. That makes his eyes snap open, my right arm hovering in the air between us, my left hand wrapped around my rib cage to cradle my injury. His eyes roll from mine to my outstretched hand, to the arm wrapped around me. He blinks lazily, looking pretty out of it, and I finish reaching for him, grabbing his wrist and pulling him to a sitting position.

“What’s wrong with your ribs?” he asks, the words garbled from his busted face.

“Broken,” I admit, grinning.

His eyes go wide before his expression settles into a smirk. “Good.”

I’d roll my eyes at his obvious contempt, but it’s not as if I haven’t earned it. Besides, this is the side of him that I like best—the side that has a backbone; I still remember the tiny-tot he used to be. Ah, such naivety. Now, he’s just as bitter as the rest of us.

“Take care of that”—I jut out my chin, indicating his nose—“before you permanently mar your face. Wouldn’t want to disappoint all your fangirls.”

Evander blushes bright red. “I don’t have fangirls.”

“That’s not what I heard.” I grin. “You forget, your buddies liked to run their mouths.”

We fall silent.

I’ve scratched old wounds. Working for the guild is dangerous, to say the least.

Shakily, I get to my feet and go to the counter where I’d deposited my mages’ belt. I flip open the pocket holding my healing potions and grab three—two for him, one for me. Then I carry them back over to the mat where he’s staring into space, looking like I kicked his puppy. That would’ve been nicer than mentioning his fallen teammates.

Blowing out a breath, I squat down in front of him, shaking the vials in front of his face.

He blinks, his watery gaze adjusting to take in the sight of the sloshing, green liquid. His lips curl down as his gaze meets mine.

“Peace offering,” I say, wiggling them again.

He continues glowering as he reaches to take them. Once he does, I sit on the mat across from him, knee propped up, pressing my arm against it and balancing my weight. My rib is throbbing now, and it’s getting difficult to breathe. I uncork the potion and throw it back, the awful flavor like rotting meat sliding over my tongue.

I cough, pounding my fist against my sternum to encourage my lungs to overcome the shock of the taste. “You would think these geniuses could figure out how to make it taste better,” I mutter, flicking the glass vial across the mat. It clinks onto the cement floor.

“Don’t be a dick,” he wheezes, but I know he agrees.

“Can’t help it,” I retort, laying down on the mat and closing my eyes. “Just who I am.”

When the healing magic kicks in, I grit my teeth against the burn. My rib reattaches itself, the jarring sensation of bone growing and fusing together enough to make me see white for a minute. That sensation is so powerful I hardly feel the sting of my bruised skin healing itself.

Evander gasps, loud and harsh, and I grimace. My ribs hurt like a bitch, but at least it wasn’t my face. I really shouldn’t haven’t broken his nose…but it had been an accident. I hadn’t expected him to duck when I’d turned, and…well…he took the full impact of my knee to the face. I would apologize, but he wouldn’t believe me.

“Wuss,” I mutter.

“Screw you.”

“Awe, Evander. I’m flattered,” I joke, opening an eye to peek at him. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

His ears turn red and he gets to his feet, kicking me in my freshly healed rib on his way out.

I can’t help but laugh.

Guild Hunters 101

I hate my job.

~Evander Hunter

Hi, my name is Evander, and I’ll be your guide to learning everything there is to know about guild mages and the Magical Community as a whole. First things first, they’re all certified nut jobs. That’s right. Nut. Jobs. If you don’t believe me, try to have a conversation with Jeph and see how long it takes you to want to bash your brains in. No, no. I insist. I’ll wait.

How did it go? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

So back to guild mages. Let me break it down for you. In Washington State, we have three major guilds competing for dominance.

Why? I dunno. I don’t make the rules; I just follow them.

I kinda like being alive.

So first up, we’ve got my guild, the Cardinal Sun. We’re considered the cream of the crop or whatever. I think we’re a bunch of power-hungry asshats, but that’s just me. No, I’m not power-hungry. I actually got into this mess by some seriously messed up circumstances.

What? You want me to tell you about that?

Fine, but I’m giving you the short version; we’ve got a lot of ground to cover if I’m going to get you caught up on the ins and outs of magic.

Once upon a time, there was a little prince. He had the perfect mother and the most amazing father. Then he got an evil step-brother courtesy of adoption. Well, long story short, the step-brother pretended to be a saint and the whole family fell for it. But that’s beside the point. One day, the mother fell at the hands of an evil witch. A year later, the father died at the hands of rival guild mages. The evil step-brother, six years the prince’s elder, took him in and raised him like his very own—then tricked him into joining the guild.

Membership is for life.

The End.

So, back to guild mages.

In addition to the Cardinal Sun, there are the Sterling Moon and the Bronze Eclipse. All three are responsible for their own region of Washington, but it doesn’t stop them from stepping in on each other’s turfs—especially when it involves the Sibyl. She’s caused a lot of trouble for everyone over the last five years—but more on her later. She may incite trouble at the guilds, but she has nothing to do with the ins and outs of policy.

In general, the concept of guild mages is to have a police force within the Magical Community. What’s the Magical Community? It’s the name for the society of magical people at large. It’s kinda like saying, “the human race,” but only referring to the magical people of the human race. Magical humans—A.K.A. Spellcasters, or Casters, for short—are everywhere. No matter where you go, you will find someone who has magic, whether that be your average witch or mage (magical citizens, more or less), your guild mages or coven witches (your police force and practitioners of magic), or those who would do others harm (Casters deemed “rogues”).

It’s rogues whom the guilds are meant to police.

Because it was deemed that Norms—the non-magical humans of the world—absolutely cannot know about magic for fear of them starting a war with us (or starting up witch hunts again), we guild mages are meant to hunt and detain—and in some cases, execute—the rogue Casters who break guild laws.

Guild laws are fairly simple and straightforward:

  1. Don’t use your magic to harm anyone—mage, witch, or otherwise.
  2. Don’t expose your magic to Norms.
  3. No illegal magic (anything that harms others or is sinister in nature; i.e. hex and curse magic).

That’s basically it. So long as you’re not hurting someone or imposing on other’s rights, then you’re fine. The issue is, so many people don’t follow these rules. I dunno why not, but some people just think they are above the law. Or they are trying to make a profit. Or some other reason. But they always believe their misdeeds will go unnoticed. But they don’t. We always find out.

Always.

Now, not all mages are made the same, and not all guild mages are the same rank. Let’s start with mages and magic.

What’s A Mage?

A mage is typically male in gender, but it’s not unheard of to meet female mages—just like it’s not unheard of to meet male witches. The difference is the power they wield. For example, mages use their magic externally. They can lob magical energy blasts and often use their magic to learn offensive and defensive spells.

We’re essentially one-trick ponies, specializing in one type of magic and occasionally learning a secondary type of magic. This doesn’t happen too often, considering if one doesn’t have the magical ability or the aptitude for the magic, it can’t be learned. There are sometimes mages who specialize and have elemental magic, however.

What’s An Elemental?

Elemental magic is both common and rare. No one is born with elemental magic; it’s gifted to them by the gods—or so people say. I believe it though, but there’s a reason for that.

I, myself, have elemental air magic.

The memory is distant and hazy, but when I was a boy, a voice spoke to me. I don’t know who or what it was, but it spouted some nonsense to me and then I suddenly had the ability to feel the air. And I’m not talking like feeling a breeze on my skin. I mean I could sense it. I could tell when it was happy or sad, when it was ready to rage and storm or be calm and docile. When I finally came into my magic at age thirteen, I could control the air.

Anyways, since we suck at life—I mean, lack diversity in magic—mages supplement their shortcomings with spells, charms, and incantations.

What’s A Witch?

A witch is someone who uses magic internally. Often, witches use prayer magic to conduct spells and rituals. Any magic they give out, they cycle back into themselves by the end of their praying or ritual. They use conduits to channel their magic, such as prayer candles or specific crystals and stones. They use moon and sun magic and even the equinox and solstice to strengthen their spells and magic. Their magic is typically used for peace, luck, protection, healing, and other calm and friendly things.

Witches are amazing people in general, but I’ve met a few hex and curse witches in my time. They take that same beautiful magic and distort it, summoning negligent and malignant spirits and dark magic to harm others. It’s a shame to see such divine magic used in such cruel ways.

And—ack!

“Jeph! You asshat!”

Excuse me guys, I’ve got a mage to go throttle.

“Get back here!”

***

Welcome back to Guild Mages for Dummies—I mean 101.

Last time we talked about a brief intro to guilds and the differences between mages and witches. Today, we’ll look at guild structure. There’s a hierarchy within the guilds. I’d like to say I’m at the bottom—because in no way did I wish to move up the ladder—but I didn’t get a say in any of that.

The Council

The Council is made up of five top-ranked mages within the guild. These are the best of the best and usually the most ruthless in battle. They are usually chosen for their skills as a Hunter, for their magic, or for what they bring to the table. They operate under a voting system in order to make decisions.

Their ranking titles in order are:

  1. Guildmaster
  2. Second Seat Councilmember
  3. Third Seat Councilmember
  4. Fourth Seat Councilmember
  5. Fifth Seat Councilmember

Elite Hunters

After the Council, there are the Elite Hunters. I hate to say it, but this is where I’m ranked. Yup. I’m the top tier short of being on the Council. But you’re probably wondering why being an Elite bothers me.

Well, I’ll tell you why: Elites are assassins. That’s right, assassins.

Elites do what regular Hunters don’t: They are assigned a dangerous target and are sent to kill them—with or without proof of the crimes they are being accused of. Nine times out of ten, they’re guilty. It makes you wonder about the tenth.

Hunters

Underneath Elites, there are the regular Hunters. While Elites work individually on assignments, Hunters work in squads of four. Sometimes, they’re assigned to an Elite Hunter, although not all Elites are responsible for a squad—I’m not. When assigned to an Elite, they work as a team of five on middle-rank missions. They are tasked with general policing of the Magical Community and patrol certain parts of the city to look for anything suspicious. Sometimes, all it takes to deter rogues is the presence of guild mages.

Hunters are also employed in Norm government agencies and other such places—like actual police stations and fire departments. This is to stop information leaks as quickly as possible. Such as, say a Norm calls the police about a magical disturbance. The call would be handled by a Hunter, and they would be sure to discredit it as quickly as possible by contacting the guild, allowing us to tamper with the scene and catch the rogue as quickly as possible.

Hunter Instructors

Next down the chain are the Hunter Instructors. They are the teachers at the guild. Think of the guild as a sort of boarding school for young mages, barracks and everything. Boys ages thirteen to fifteen are given lodging if they choose to become guild mages. They train until they are fifteen before they are allowed to become Hunters.

When I was a boy, I used to live in the barracks myself. Most Hunters are required to live in the guild until they are eighteen. While I didn’t stick around, there are actually several Hunters who are much older than me who choose to live in the barracks as opposed to paying rent. I don’t blame them; Seattle is expensive. But those who have families often opt to live on their own terms.

Training Hunters

And that leaves the Training Hunters, the boys ages thirteen to fifteen who take classes about magical energy, potions, spells, charms, hexes, curses, and train in combat and weaponry. No, we don’t use guns—are you nuts? Magical energy and gunpowder don’t mix. Swords, daggers, axes, lances, on and on—that’s what we use.

Some Hunters choose to only classify in one weapon. Some choose to become proficient in many. Either way, we’re trained with each weapon and how to best deflect blows from various fighting styles and weapons types. I, myself, prefer my battleax to other weapons, but I’m trained to proficiency in all classes.

Anyway. That’s the guild hierarchy. Join me next time for more information about the Magical Community and guild mages.

***

It’s that time again—time to sit down, shut up, and listen. Or don’t. Whatever. It’s not like I care. I’m just here.

Anyway…

Last time, we covered the guild structure. Today, we’ll look at magic, spells, and rituals. As a bonus, I might even tell you about curses, hexes, potions, and wards—if I feel like it.

So the basic of all basics is that, in order to use any of the above, one must have magical energy. That’s right, genius, you would need to be a Caster to use magic. What’s magical energy? Come on guys, were you raised in a back alley in Seattle?

Let me break it down:

Magical Energy

Magical energy is the magical essence that Casters possess. Some believe magical ability depends on age, gender, and/or affinities held. Since no two humans are alike and elementals are created at random, we really haven’t been able to verify the legitimacy of those theories. Regardless, every Caster emits a distinct magical energy signature that is able to be sensed by other Casters.

Magic

Magic isn’t magical energy itself. The energy is the stored basis of magic. Magic happens when someone calls on that energy to either perform a spell or ritual—or any disbursement of magical energy outside the body. So gathering magical energy into one’s palm is one use of magic, even if it’s not used for anything. On a side note, mages will oftentimes do this and throw it at an assailant to blast or stun them—it really, really doesn’t feel good, in case you’re wondering.

Spells & Rituals

The key difference between spells and rituals is that a spell may or may not require an incantation but a ritual absolutely does. In addition to requiring an incantation, a ritual requires invocation tools, such as charms, crystals, candles, moonlight, sunlight, athame, or herbs, to name a few.

Spellwork is willing your magical energy to do a task, such as picking a lock or changing the size of an item to be larger or smaller. At first, you’ll need to speak an incantation to tell your magic what to do, but with practice, you’ll be able to speak the words in your mind instead of out loud. Silence and efficiency are important in a Hunter’s line of work.

For rituals, you serve as the magical energy source to power the tools, herbs, and materials gathered. Because rituals rely on your intention to carry out your spellwork, the incantation is important. The simplest thought, “I want to beat my opponent,” is so ambiguous, there’s no telling what mischief the magic might cause while completing the task. The less focused your intentions and directions, the more magical energy the ritual could steal from you—if it takes too much, you’ll die.

If you couldn’t tell, rituals are much bigger than daily spellwork and require more attention to detail on the Spellcaster’s part. Regardless, all magic should be taken seriously—it’s all dangerous if not used properly. Not just dangerous…a lack in focus or an inability to direct your intention could take an innocent spell or ritual and turn it into a dark, insidious disaster.

Curse vs Hex

Speaking of insidious, that brings us to rogue magical practices. Curses are jinx magic that requires either a spell or ritual but no dark magic. A hex is dark magic itself and requires the Caster to acquire dark objects and/or wield dark magic. Jinxes are wishing physical pain or emotional distress to ail someone. They’re considered torture magic and are forbidden by the guilds. There are other minor jinxes, such as wishing general misfortune on others, but they are still considered illegal and will be punished. Hexes are anything and everything that interferes either with a person’s free will or leads to chronic illness…or death. Oftentimes, hexes require blood rituals or sacrifices.

There are no trials for those practicing dark magic. Elite Hunters, like myself, are sent in to capture or kill on sight. In cases of capture, it’s in order to gain intel on their illegal practices—especially those working in cults. Because dark rogues are dangerous, we’re allowed to defend ourselves to the full extent of guild law. It’s rare that an Elite Hunter is able to retrieve a captive alive, although it does happen from time to time…

Potions

Potions are crafted out of everything from herbs to crystal dust and are imbued with magical essence, making them effective with or without a spell. Depending on what type of potion you’re using, they are effective without magical energy. In other words, a Norm could use something as mundane as a healing potion or as dangerous as an explosion potion. Even without magic, these potions are effective, but adding an incantation—or even just having magical energy—will make them even more powerful.

What’s a Ward?

While we’re on the subject of what magic can do, let’s review wards. Wards are magically created objects that serve a single purpose. We have everything from shielding wards to protection wards. They are, in essence, a charm-piece but on a grander scale. They can be as small as a pebble or as big as a mountain depending on their purpose. For example, my home is covered with protection wards to keep unregistered people from entering without my permission.

Wards are created using alchemy, a subset of magical ability that allows someone to build wards using chemistry, magic, and other components. I can’t say I fully understand it since I don’t have an aptitude for alchemy. We have several incredible alchemists at the guild, though, which has made the Cardinal Sun the leading guild in Washington State.

But you know what they say about power…it comes with a giant ego and a need to subjugate the opposition.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today.

See ya next time…

***

Today, we were going to go over some of the equipment in the guild’s training room, but I made the mistake of failing to sense Jeph’s presence. When I rounded the corner, I bumped into him. And now, here we are, standing on this mat, my fist throbbing from clocking him in the jaw. I don’t think I’ve felt something this satisfying in a long, long time.

The dick had it coming.

As always, he used his magic to keep himself on his feet, standing in front of me, his dark, brown eyes twinkling with his joy. One thing I can say about him: that dude is one cracked nut. He didn’t let me hit him because he was giving me a cheap shot, he did it because the sick S.O.B. likes pain.

“Good one,” he says, cracking his knuckles. “Let the games begin.”

My heart drops into my ass.

Why did I agree to this?

It’s too late now; I should’ve hit him and run. It’s what he would’ve done if he was me, but he isn’t me. I’m me…and I’m about to hate that I am.

Jeph never holds back in a fight.

His fist lands in my gut and I fall forward with the impact, wheezing. It hurts like a bitch, but I throw my head up, the back of my skull cracking against his jaw. His teeth click together, and my vision momentarily goes black from impact. We stumble away from each other, but it takes mere seconds before we’re flying at each other again, magery making our muscles move faster than humanly possible.

My fist sails past his head, but I spin out of the way when he tries the same. He grabs my shirt, pulling me forward. I duck at the last second, his fist flying over my head as he goes off balance. I ram my shoulder into his ribs and I think I hear something crack. I don’t have time to think about it. His foot crashes against my knee and I fall to the floor.

We stare at each other, chests heaving.

“Nice counter,” he breathes.

“Didn’t do…much good,” I return.

He grins, blood coating his teeth and a crazy gleam in his dark eyes.

I jump to my feet, barely getting my footing and my arms crossed in front of me before his fist makes contact. He pulls back and, thinking he’s gonna strike again, I duck, intending to sweep his feet. Instead, his knee comes up. Not only do I not knock him down, I hear my nose crunch long before I feel it.

My vision goes white, my body responding faster than my nerves. Then the agony of it sets in, and my eyes feel like they are about to pop. Blood drains down my throat, choking me.

“Jesus!” Jeph hisses, squatting down in front of me and grabbing my face. He tilts it from side to side as he examines the damage. It must be bad if he’s stopping. This is far from the worst injury he’s ever given me.

“Iam figne,” I attempt to say, pulling his hands away. He’s probably worried about the paperwork he’ll have to do to report my injury.

He raises an imperious brow. “Not sure I caught that. Did you say, ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m nine?’”

I glare, but it’s wasted on him. Irritated, I call on my element, blasting him away with air. Rather, I try to blast him away. All I seem to do is startle him. Besides magery, we’re not supposed to use magic in battle.

Tsk, tsk.” He wags his finger at me. “Evander’s being naughty, breaking the rules.”

Scowling, I pull more magic to me, feeling it tingle along my arm and hand. It’s like pins and needles, like sparks dancing over my flesh. It’s like reaching into a raging storm and wrapping my hand around a bolt of lightning. I grin when air caresses my palm, eagerly begging to be guided, directed, unleashed. I have no qualms giving air what it wants.

I blast Jeph again, and this time, he stumbles backward, but he’d been expecting it, having felt me gathering magical energy. Now he’s gathering his energy. It’s going to be a real fight. No pins to win. This is a battle. I just hope we don’t bring the guild down on our heads.

With a twinkle in his eyes, Jeph lobs a dense, black ball of magic at me. I dive for the ground, smacking my battered nose against the mat. Moron! my mind hisses as I choke on blood, pain, and air. I struggle to rise to my feet, white-hot agony blinding me. While I’m rising, Jeph’s foot catches me in the gut, and I flip, end over end, along the mat. I’d been short of breath before, but now I am actively channeling my element into my lungs. I’d be dying right now if I wasn’t an elemental.

Jeph helps me to my feet…my shirt firmly gripped in one first, the other aimed at my face. If he wants my nose to stay broken that bad, he’s going to have to work for it. Before he can land the blow, I use magery and my element to push my speed past the point of possibility, ducking and dodging around him, putting a roundhouse kick in the back of his head, catching his jaw ’cause the dumbass had been turning his head to track me. He flies forward, and it’s satisfying to watch his palms touch down on the mat.

He pushes himself to his feet and turns to face me, spitting and wiping his thumb along the blood dribbling down his lip. “That’s twice you’ve made me bleed.”

I don’t like the gleam in his eye; it’s menacing.

I’m about to regret my whole life.

A Ghost of a Tale

Testing? Testing? Is this thing working? What even is modern technology? Whatever.

Hey, Sam, can you help me with this? Sam? Sam? Sam! That damn girl.

Where did she get off to this time?

~Bennu (Phoenix) of Zau

So here’s the thing, I’m a ghost. Yup. You heard me right. Dead. Have been for…Ra, how long has it been? If I was born before Alexander the Great…Hmm. It’s really not that important. As Sam would say, I’m older than dirt.

Speaking of Sam…

That girl could make a ghost want to bash his own brains out. And she does—every day. The only thing about that? I have no brains to bash out!

Anyway, let me tell you a little bit about my life as Sam’s babysitter. Basically, I serve as the reverse of a battery. So, in a way, you could say Sam is my battery. Every other morning, depending on how much magical energy she regains during the day, I steal her energy.

No, not in a malicious way. It’s to keep her hidden from the Hunters. You see, the Hunters track her by her energy signature. If I take her energy, then they can’t find her. Even better, once I have her energy, I pop in and out of the ether, releasing the energy all around the Pacific Northwest, keeping them running all over the place.

So long as she’s safe, that’s all that matters.

What? You want to know why I help her? How a ghost from ancient times came to be in the twenty-first century instead of moving on?

That’s a long story. But the gist of it? Sam saved my father from slavery. Naturally, since I couldn’t pay her a life-debt—since she was a girl out of time—I took matters into my spectral hands after I’d been put to death.

Because Sam and I had had a language barrier, I was left to interpret everything she’d ever said when I’d been alive. Her wild hand gestures helped me learn her name, but that hadn’t been enough to find her. I didn’t know where she lived or where she came from.

Over the centuries, I scoured the world and learned new languages, but none of them matched hers. I learned them, hoping to hear the syllables she’d spoken, hoping I was getting closer to finding her. I had no idea just how far in the future she’d come from.

As time went on, I heard the tales and rumors told about her. They gained momentum, and I realized she was in danger. My search became more and more frantic. I needed to warn her. But she was nowhere to be found.

When it was the Middle Ages, I finally discovered an archaic language similar to hers, but it was still wrong. I was getting closer to finding her, and that gave me hope. I stayed with these people, far north of my own home in Egypt.

It was several hundred more years, but finally, I found the English language. And that was it! It was the closest I’d heard to Sam’s language, but the clothing was still wrong, the accent still wrong, the people wrong.

When they started voyaging across the ocean, I took a chance, following a group of guild mages. They offered me the safest route, considering I could leech their magic and not fade into the ether. But more than that, I was able to learn more about them and their beliefs.

It was no surprise to me that the Sibyl was now seen as nothing more than a myth. Over a thousand years had passed, but they still feared her. They wondered if her ghost would someday come back for them. They were morons.

Another two hundred years passed before I found her, but she was just a child. She couldn’t even see me. And as creepy as it may sound, I watched her grow up. Please don’t tell her I told you that. So far as she knows, I found her on her thirteenth birthday when she finally came into her powers.

It was a miracle I found her at all, and even that had been a fluke.

I saw Sarah—Sam’s mother—and had mistaken the woman for my friend. Albeit an older, more mature version of Sam, but she really had been an astonishing match for the girl I remembered. But then I heard someone say her name, and my hopes were crushed…until Sarah called to her daughter.

I knew it was Sam the second I saw her. She was a bubbly little eight-year-old. But she held the same light I’d seen in her over two thousand years before. But shortly thereafter…her mom died, stealing a great deal of her light. I couldn’t do anything for her, and I felt useless. I’d finally found my friend to try to repay the life-debt I owed her, and I was useless to her.

It was another five years before she could finally see and speak to me. Since then, it’s been almost another five years. She’s no little girl anymore. She’s an adult…one that acts like an obnoxious child, but I don’t mind—not that I’d ever tell her that. If that’s what makes her happy, then I’ll protect her light. Her light, and her.

I’ll do anything to keep her safe.

***

“Gather one, gather all—I’ve got a tale to tell,” I say, spreading my arms wide.

Sam rolls her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

There’s a storm outside, and we’re holed up in her apartment. It’s a rinky-dink studio on the eighth floor in the middle of the city. We’re having a seasonal storm, and while Sam loves thunder and lightning, she’s bored since the electricity went out an hour ago. Her cell phone apparently died, too, so now she’s being an annoying brat and demanding that I tell her a story.

“I’m not being dramatic,” I tell her, pursuing my lips. “I’m setting the mood.”

“Yeah, and what’s the ‘mood?’ Snide and sarcastic?”

“Just because you don’t know how to be serious, it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t be,” I say, grinning when she scoffs. “Now, pay attention.”

Sam straightens up, wrapping her comforter tighter around her as she sits on her bed. I’m not sure how cool the room is, but it can’t be too warm if she’s all bundled up. I’ve long since stopped feeling hot and cold—but that’s what happens when one dies.

“It’s night time, and thunder flashes and lightning shakes the skies,” I continue, hands moving as I try to paint a picture with my movements. “The rain pounds against the rooftop and the floorboards creak and groan.”

With a yawn, Sam sing-songs, “Bor-ing.”

I glare at her, crossing my arms over my chest. “Pay attention, or I’ll go find something else to do. Then you can figure out how to keep yourself entertained.”

She presses her lips together.

“That’s what I thought,” I mutter. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. The storm is raging outside, the wind howling through the trees. The thunder is so close, it shakes the house. Inside, there’s a little girl—and she’s all alone.”

“Where are her parents?”

“They went out into the storm when the power went out—but that was hours ago, and she hasn’t seen or heard from them since.” I pause, watching Sam shiver. “The girl is huddled on the couch, waiting for her parents to come inside. Suddenly, there’s a loud knock on the door. THUD! THUD! THUD!” I shout, making her jump. “The little girl stares at the door. Then, she gets to her feet, walking slowly, so slowly. ‘Mom?’ she calls. ‘Dad?’ Nobody responds.”

“Who’s at the door?” Sam asks meekly.

I stare her down, letting the seconds tick by.

“Well?” she prods, fidgeting with her blanket. “Who is it?”

I grin slyly, going back to my story. “The girl reaches for the doorknob, hand trembling. She grips it, heart pounding in her chest.” I draw out the moment, watching Sam shrink into her pillows and blankets. “She pulls the door open, and—”

Lightning flashes across the window, and Sam pulls her blanket tighter around her.

“—nobody’s there. She walks out onto the porch, and,” I drawl, before shouting, “SOMEBODY GRABS HER!

Boom! Thunder claps outside, and Sam screams, jumping into the air.

I laugh as she burrows under the blanket, hiding her face.

“It’s not funny!” she yells, pulling her pillows around her under the blanket. She curls into a ball until I’m not sure which round shape is her and which ones are the pillows. “What happens next?” she whispers.

“Nothing. It was her dad.”

Sam’s head pops out from under the blanket, a scowl on her face. “That’s the lamest story I’ve ever heard, Phoenix!”

I shrug. “Scared you, didn’t it?”

“No,” she lies.

The lights flicker before illuminating the small space. The refrigerator starts humming, the heater clicks on, and the microwave beeps in protest.

“Look at that,” I say. “Now you can keep yourself entertained.”

Sam gets up, dashes to the wall, and turns off the light before turning, running, and diving back under the covers. “Tell me another story.”

I smile.

***

“Hey, Phoenix?” Sam says, staring into the far distance. She’s sitting on the kitchen counter, legs crossed, her altar of candles lit. She must be done with her daily prayer.

“Hmm?” I hum, floating lazily on my back, watching her out of the corner of my eye.

She picks up one of her crystals—amber, I notice—twirling it between her fingers. “Remember when we met?”

How could I forget?

“What about it?” I ask.

“You told me a story that one time—when you drew in the sand. What was it about?” She looks at me then, her lips pursed to the side.

“It was the tale of the snake and the falcon.”

She cocks her head to the side. “Is that what those squiggles were?”

I scowl. “I’m sorry my drawing skills weren’t up to your standards.”

She waves a hand airily. “Tell me the story again.”

“Why? You’ve never asked before.”

“I dunno.” She shrugs, still playing with the piece of amber. “I just…I wanna hear it now that I’ll understand.”

“Okay,” I say, staring at the gemstone. It catches the light of the candle flames, sparking and glinting with each turn, reminding me of the sun. “But no interruptions this time.”

Sam’s gaze locks on mine, the start of a retort on her lips, but she catches herself, nodding.

I take a deep breath I don’t need, floating over to sit across from her on the other side of the candles. The silly girl had fussed over their alignment when she’d first placed them after she moved in, agonizing over the compass app on her phone and the cardinal directions, making sure they were “Perfect, Phoenix! They have to align perfectly!” Her yellow air candle is positioned to the east, red fire to the south, blue water to the west, green earth to the north, and silver spirit in the center. She uses them to invoke a spiritual connection to the goddess, but I’m not sure if Hecate ever hears Sam’s prayers.

I mirror her position, hovering just above the counter, my ghostly ass trying to sink through the laminate, and meet her eyes through the light plumes of smoke wafting off the candles. Like the dancing smog, I weave my tale.

“In the days of old,” I begin, recalling my father’s first telling of the story, “the days before we forgot the gods, forgot magic and wonders, in the days when the very gods roamed the earth, there were two kingdoms long at odds with each other.” I smile, seeing my home as I stared into the willowy candle flames. “It was on the outskirts of the desert where they met, hidden beneath the palm trees of Falcon’s private oasis. He was a warrior of his god, honing his skill with his weapon in order to defend his mighty sovereign from his enemies.

“Snake was an adventurer but no less a warrior for her goddess. On that fateful day, she came upon Falcon while he practiced with his spear. Snake couldn’t help but watch, enthralled by his grace. And when he paused to drink from the oasis’ waterhole, she revealed herself.

“Falcon, startled by the newcomer, attacked with all the deadly prowess he possessed. Before he could land a blow, Snake ducked beneath his arm, twirling in time with his movement, her hands easily transferring his weapon from his grasp to hers. She held the point to his throat, an excited grin on her face.

‘You have bested me,’ Falcon admitted in defeat. ‘Take my life, for it is rightfully yours.’

“Ohmigoddess!” Sam shouts, snapping me back into reality.

I blink, the images I’d seen in the candles vanishing as I’m brought to awareness. “What did I say about interrupting me?”

“Sorry…” She chews her lip. “What did Snake say?”

I glower at her before continuing. “Snake replied, ‘It is not your life I seek, young warrior, but your name.’

Sam’s lips part in excited-wonder, and I can’t help but smile and shake my head.

‘My name?’ Falcon asked, his gaze narrowing on Snake,” I continue. “‘Your name,’ Snake agreed, pulling the blade from his neck. She curtsied deep, looking up at Falcon from under lashes that he would remember as the longest and prettiest he’d ever seen, her dusty-rose irises holding his own amber gaze.”

“What odd colors,” Sam says.

“What did I just say?”

She mimes zipping her lips, but even I don’t know why I’ve picked those colors. The story I’m telling now is nothing like the one my father told me before. In his story, Snake and Falcon were the animals their names stood for, but in my mind, I always envisioned a heart-stoppingly beautiful woman and an incredibly muscular man, his looks equally as impressive as hers. I enjoy telling tall tales so that must be why.

“Snake smiled up at him,” I pick up where I left off, “and Falcon relented, telling the young woman his name.

‘Falcon?’ she demanded, rising to her feet in front of the warrior. ‘Son of he who rules these lands?’

‘Y-yes,’ Falcon stammered, surprised. There were few who knew his parentage. ‘I am he.’

‘Then I fear you are my bitterest enemy,’ she said, sorrow in her eyes. ‘For I am the daughter of she who poses a threat to your rule and reign, Highness.’

“No way!” Sam exclaims, leaning a little too close to the dancing flames. The window isn’t open, so I’m disturbed by their rampant flickering. “Keep going!”

I look from the candles to her shining, green eyes, and her excitement makes me forget all about the candles. “‘Are you Snake of the Land Beyond?’ Falcon asked, heart pounding with adrenaline.

‘I am she,’ Snake echoed, holding out Falcon’s weapon in peaceful offering. ‘I have spared your life this day, so may you spare mine as I leave your kingdom, Highness.’

“Falcon felt a pang in his heart at her formal words, accepting his weapon from her. He clenched it in both his fists, staring at it like it was the true threat. When he looked up again, Snake was already outside the safety of the oasis.

‘Wait!’ he called, and she stopped, keeping her back turned to him. Falcon walked to the edge of the trees that shielded him from the all-seeing sun. ‘Will I…will I see you again, princess of the Land Beyond?’

“Snake didn’t turn to face him, but her words were sad when she spoke. ‘It is on fields of death that you and I shall meet again. War is coming, Highness.’

“Before Falcon could protest, Snake vanished into the swirling sands.”

“Do they meet again?” Sam asks.

It takes me a minute to pull myself from the vision of Snake’s back, her long, dark tresses swinging with her steps, the sands devouring her in a ferocious gale. My eyes sting in a way they haven’t since I was alive, and I blink rapidly, the feeling fading into a distant memory, like the smell of hot sand and the sound of trickling pond water filling my senses.

“Well?” Sam prompts. “Do they?”

“They…” My chest aches and I smile sadly. “They do.”

“And?” She leans closer to the wild flames. “Do they fight or what?”

As I stare into Sam’s eyes, the flames dancing in the depths of her jade irises, they almost shine a dusty color, like rose petals in spring. But it’s a trick of the candlelight, which finally catches on her shirt when she leans too close. She screams, I shout, and we both start panicking as she rushes to the sink, dousing her sleeve. If I had a beating heart, it would’ve just given out at the fear assaulting my mind. The girl is clumsier than a rhino in a china shop, and one of these days, she’s going to get herself killed.

***

After the excitement of Sam lighting her shirt on fire, she hops back up on the counter, sitting, yet again, in front of the candles. “Okay. Don’t think you’re done telling me what happens.”

I purse my lips, taking my spot across from her. “Not until you put out the candles.”

“I’ll be careful this time.”

“Why do they have to be lit at all?”

“Cuz, Phoenix, they’re magical,” she says whimsically.

“What are you, twelve?”

She glares. “You’re such a jerk.”

“The candles?”

“Nope.”

“Then I’m not finishing the story.”

“Phoenix!” Sam shrieks, miming strangulation.

I raise a brow, looking at her curled fingers. “What are you gonna do? Kill me again?”

“Now who’s twelve?”

I roll my eyes. We could be here all day if she doesn’t get her way. While I could just disappear into the ether and leave her here by herself, her uncanny ability to find trouble keeps me from going. If I did, she’d likely take off in a huff, and with her luck, that means finding Hunters on her way to her destination.

“Sit there, shut your yap, and listen this time,” I tell her. “First peep you make, story time is over.”

Sam presses her lips together, but I know she won’t be able to resist. The first thing that excites her will have her asking me questions. I try to scowl to show I’m serious, but it’s difficult with her looking like the perfect picture of youth and innocence.

Yeah, right.

“Let’s see,” I mumble. “Where was I?”

“Snake just left the oasis!” Sam answers, and I put my hand over my eyes, slowly dragging it down my face. “Sorry…”

Shaking my head, I pick up the story where I left off. “Days passed where Falcon would train at his oasis, always quick to startle at the slightest breeze or rustle of the palm trees. Each time, there was no one there. His heart would sink, his desire to see Snake’s grinning face again more distracting than he cared to admit. His sisters had even begun to notice his aloofness, having confronted him several times. Even his father had summoned him to his chambers a time or two to ask if Falcon was ill.

‘No, Father. I am worried about the possibility of war,’ he lied, although it was also true.

‘It is wise to fear, son, but do not let it cloud your mind so.’

‘Yes, Father,’ Falcon replied, doing his best to appear more alert when he walked the palace.”

“What about Snake?” Sam asked, finally unable to keep her bubbling questions to herself. “Was she thinking about Falcon, too?”

I glare, but I can’t help but smile. “She was.”

“Tell me!”

“Shh. Don’t rush me.”

She chews her lip, nodding. She’s rolling the amber stone between her fingers again, and I’m not sure when she picked it back up. Every time she turns it, the rose quartz on the counter in front of me seems to pulse. If I could get goosebumps, I’d be shivering. I wonder if Sam is aware of the effect she’s having on the gems.

“Weeks passed, and Falcon finally stopped jumping at every small disturbance while at the oasis,” I continue. “For all his troublesome worries, Falcon’s father had even gifted him with a terrifying and deadly blade, a spear with a blade like a scorpion’s claw. He cherished it, and his sisters helped train him to wield it. The gift was enough to distract him from his wandering mind, and he sank back into his normal routine.

“On a day hotter than any other, Falcon visited his oasis for a swim. It was while he was swimming that Snake had finally caved to her own traitorous whims and had sought him again. She’d imagined watching him spar, seeing his beautiful grace and skill. She was curious about him, too, not that she would admit to herself why.

“Neither of them did.”

“But…but if Falcon is swimming…” Sam’s cheeks burn red. “Did he have swim trunks?”

I can’t help but grin at her. “Swim clothing is a modern invention, Sam.”

Her cheeks turn a brighter shade of red.

“No,” I tell her, chuckling now. “He did not.”

“Ohmigoddess.” She puts her face in her hands. “So?”

“So, when Snake arrived at the oasis, she was disappointed to find Falcon’s training spot abandoned. Heart sinking, she was about to return home, lecturing her own foolishness, when the shine of something golden caught her eye. Mischievous that she was, Snake weaved through the palm trees, not leaving the protection of their shade until she was next to the flat boulder that Falcon often meditated on.

“When she reached the boulder, her lips parted in wonder, appreciating the beauty of Falcon’s incredible weapon. Unable to help herself, she slowly reached a hand toward it, wanting to see if it soared through the air like she believed it would, but she was startled, fingers just shy of grazing its surface.

‘Stop!’ Falcon shouted, his head surfacing from the oasis, eyes wide in alarm, hand outstretched toward her as if he could ward her off. ‘Do not touch that, fair princess. It will harm you.’

“Believing him a liar, Snake snatched it in her hand, grinning at him…until a pain unlike anything she’d ever felt attacked her, a fire searing her flesh. She tried to drop the spear, but the weapon held fast to her, and she wailed as the heat of it threatened to consume her.”

“Oh no!” Sam gasps.

“Falcon reached the shore, leaping from the water and tearing the enchanted weapon from Snake’s hand. The burning finally ended its assault. But she’d collapsed to the ground, the agony shredding her nerves from her fingertips to her shoulder, and Falcon kneeled over her, trying to catch her attention. Her eyes wouldn’t focus, you see, because the pain was more than she could endure.

“Understanding the shock might stop her heart, Falcon carried her into the healing waters, blessed by his sister’s healing touch, just as the lush trees were a gift from his nephew. He pulled her deep into the pond, submerging them both beneath its surface and holding them there, his mouth pressed against hers to breathe air into her.”

“But they’re enemies!” Sam shouts although she looks pleased.

“That they are,” I say, my gaze a million miles away. “But he owed her his life, for she could’ve taken his on their last meeting, but she’d chosen to spare him.”

“But she invaded his land!”

“Boundaries were more…flexible back in those days.”

“Still…”

“So,” I continued, “because she spared his life, he saved hers. But if Falcon was being honest with himself, just as Snake hadn’t been honest with herself, his desire to save her was selfish. The truth was, the two had fallen into a reckless kind of love in those brief moments they had stared each other down, playing with their words, even as they played with each other’s hearts.”

“But they barely knew each other!” Sam protests, interrupting me yet again.

I meet her gaze, unsure how to explain the magnetism that comes with meeting someone your heart deems you can’t be without. The skepticism in her wide, jade eyes tells me she’s never met someone who draws her in that way.

“Someday…” I hesitate, not sure this is a conversation I want to be having. “Someday, you’ll…understand.”

“I’m not just gonna, bam, fall in love with a complete stranger.” Then she purses her lips. “Wait. You said I would understand. Does that mean you’ve been in love?”

I grimace. How did the conversation steer to this death trap? My ancient love life is the last thing I want to talk about.

“We’re not talking about me right now,” I say sternly. “And if you don’t stop interrupting, I’ll never tell you what happens to Snake and Falcon.”

“Okay, okay!” she concedes. “What happens?”

“It took a minute for the water to have an effect on Snake, but when it did, she awakened, sputtering, flailing, and choking on the water she’d now inhaled. Falcon took the abuse of her rampaging arms, dragging her up to the surface where she spat water in his face, gasping for air and clinging to him.”

“So romantic,” Sam mutters.

“Anyway,” I say really loudly, overtop her commentary, “when Snake calmed down enough to realize what happened, she locked gazes with Falcon and…” I grimace.

“And?”

“And-they-consummated-their-love-under-the-watchful-eye-of-the-sun—the end!”

“They what?”

“Okay, gotta go!” I shout, disappearing into the ether, hearing Sam’s shriek of horror when she finally realizes what I said.