The End of Worlds (The Box book 5) By Christina G. Gaudet


The city really is quite beautiful from fifty stories up.

Forty stories.

Twenty.

Claws rip into my skin while the harpy diving after me catches up mid fall. She screeches as she struggles to lift me back up toward her nest on the top floor of the high-rise.

Rude.

I got enough ridiculous crap about my weight as a ballerina, I don’t need magical bird people grunting about it too.
The End of Worlds (The Box book 5)
The End of Worlds (The Box book 5) By Christina G. Gaudet


I twist around, swinging my sword blindly. The wretched sound of her scream is like a nail cutting glass when my blade hits skin. I gag as I’m hit with the stench of rotting meat and the sight of her blood stained pointed teeth before I once again drop at a speed which causes the little food I’ve managed to scrounge over the past few days to rise dangerously high in my throat.

Looking down doesn’t help my stomach but is necessary.

Ten stories.

And…

Now.

I gather the magical energy stored in my chest and force it through my arm and out my tingling fingertips to tug the broken pavement toward my feet. It stretches up a little like I’m using a blur tool on a photo. The ground meets my feet and pulls me back down to its natural height like an elevator, absorbing my impact so I don’t splatter like a bug on a windshield.

A whoosh of flapping wings warns me that the harpy is still coming. Without looking back, I harden the air between us to the strength of several panes of glass and shift my focus from my magic wall to the item in my hand.

The blue silk bag looks exactly the same as the others. Hand sewn by my gran, it holds the most disgusting and wonderful contents. My magic is inside, or part of it. Along with a bunch of my toenail clippings from when I was a kid. Yup, gross and awesome. When I was little, Gran took my magic from me and split it into five bags, one for each sense. She was trying to protect me from wizards who would steal my magic and leave me to die. Clearly, that didn’t work out so well.

The harpy smacks into my protective wall with a satisfying thud.

Really, Gran. I shake my head at the bag before shoving it into my bra, the safest place I can reach without wasting too much time and energy opening the magic air pocket at my hip. She could have used anything connected to me in order to lock my magic. A favorite teddy, or clothes I wore a lot. Even chopped off my hair, which would still be gross, but not to the same level as toenails.

Trying to figure out Gran’s strange sense of humor is pointless for me. My sister, Sin, probably understands. Those two always got each other in a way I never did.

The harpy smashes against the air wall again, scratching it with her unnecessarily sharp talons.

Despite Sin’s ego and skill of making me feel like a dumb kid even when she’s the one doing something wrong, she would be helpful right now. Her ability to deal with mythical creatures, turning them into allies, is something I can't do no matter how much magic I have.

“Worthless worm.”

I spin around to stare up at the harpy. “Wait, you can talk?” I guess it’s not particularly surprising. From the waist down she might look like big bird on crack, but bellybutton up she is all woman. One in desperate need of a shirt.

Except her arms. They’re wings. With an extra talon at the bend just to make her a little scarier.

“I will rip out your entrails and scatter them through the trees.”

“Pleasant.”

She may be able to talk, but so far it seems she isn’t very smart. The magic I used to stop her only protects the area directly between us. If she tried flying up or around, she could get at me in seconds. I would spread the protection, but doing this much is a strain on my magic. I’ve already used so much fighting off the dozen or so others who were guarding the nest, I don’t have the strength to do any more.

The harpies were a surprise. When my sister, Sin, told me the fourth bag of my magic was at the top of this building, I went in expecting abandoned computers and cubicles. Instead, I got a room full of screeching creatures trying to rip out my throat. Finding the small bag within the branches, eggs, feathers, and questionable looking old meat making up their nests was nearly impossible. Add in constantly dodging their wings and teeth while holding my breath to try not to inhale any of the tangy stench, it’s a miracle I was able to get the bag at all. Jumping out the window was the only option. My poor nose couldn’t take another second of the smell.

I touch my chest and the bag I’ve just shoved inside my clothes. Opening the bag now would give me more power, but it would also send a beacon to every wizard who happens to be paying attention. Since wizard’s sole purpose in life is to suck magic from sorceresses like me, leaving our bodies as empty shells, avoiding them is best.

Well, not all wizards, I suppose. Al wouldn’t hurt me. He and I are a couple. Sort of. I think. It’s complicated. Most of the time I’ve known him, he’s either been smaller than my thumb or his mind has been twisted by corrupted magic he absorbed after killing wizards. He’s also from a different world. It’s kind of like this one, except instead of technology, they have magic. Also, it’s completely controlled by wizards. Or it was before the two worlds were combined and now technology and magic are all stuffed into one. We haven’t really had time to talk about our boyfriend-girlfriend status since that happened. For now, we need to focus on fixing what the wizards have broken. We went separate ways to spread out our efforts and fix things faster. Maybe after we save the worlds we can talk about our relationship. I hope.

Screeches fill the air and when I look to the sky over my shoulder four more harpies drop from the tower at neck breaking speeds, their talons directed toward my face.

“I feel like I may have overstayed my welcome,” I say to the one who chased me during my leap out of the shattered window. “Thank you so much for keeping the bag safe, but I really should be off.”

I hate teleporting. Doing so while my magic is weak from dealing with the harpies in the tower and the drop and now this barrier makes the experience a hundred times worse. But it’s the fastest way to get rid of the harpies. They let out a scream that will no doubt damage my eardrums and leave me with a ringing in my ears for days. The sound is bad enough on its own. Since I opened the third bag of my power and can now hear magic, the sound from creatures like this one has become unbearable. Everything I could hear before is heightened and there is subtlety and range in sound I could never hear before. It’s like being able to hear a dog whistle, but finding out its not one note but a hundred being screeched into your ear at one.

I drop down to my knee to make myself as small as possible. I know it’s not a necessary step for the teleport spell, but it feels safer. The smaller I am, the less likely some part of me will end up in an area already occupied by another object. I’ve seen what happens when two objects try to exist in the same place. The world is full of the horrors of mismatched parts mashed together ever since the two worlds combined into one. Glass and metal melded into enormous trees so branches flow through structures in unnatural ways, just like the building I leaped out of. I don’t want to meld with a building.

The barrier between the birds and me cracks and I know I can’t hesitate any longer. Now or never.

I focus on the space I scouted before venturing into the old office building and the harpies nest. It’s an alley about two blocks from the car. It was one of the only places in the city where the ground was still relatively flat and untouched by debris from crumbled buildings.

It should be a safe place to materialize. So long as nothing has wandered into the area.

Sharp talons scrape my hair as the air around me shatters like a dropped cup. In a flash, the shattered pieces reform in a different order, shifting the light and color until it snaps into the shadowy alley. I stand up and check myself to make sure I arrived in one piece. No damage this time.

The sound of angry harpies echoes in the distance, but otherwise, there’s an eerie silence to the place. No traffic, no air conditioners humming despite the heat, no people shouting into cellphones or chatting with their friends on the sidewalks. There is only silence.

The same as every other city I’ve been to between here and Gran’s house.

Everyone is gone.

Not dead. I’ve seen a few bodies during the trip, but not nearly enough to count for even a small portion of the population, which should be even greater now the two worlds have combined. When a group of wizards who call themselves the Sword decided the world of magic and world of technology should be one and squished them together, they didn't care who died in the process. Their only concern was to gain control over whoever was left.

Telling people from my world what to do was all too easy. The stolen magic the wizards use can be manipulated to seem a lot like the technology my world is used to. It offers running water and communication when both got knocked out when the worlds merged. To people of Al's world who already know what magic is, they learned to fear the wizards power long before the worlds merged. They are the only ones who understand the organization of wizards known as the Sword isn't here to help. But they chose to allow the Sword to rule over them, and make no attempt to change things now.

At least, I assume people followed the Sword willingly. There’s no television or internet or phones to find out what happened in other parts of the world. All I know is what I’ve seen, which is not much, even after traveling the continent, first to try and find my mom and then to try and find my fourth bag of magic. I never did find Mom, though there was a wizard camp near her house. It was a horrible looking place made up of tents and shacks and possibly holding thousands of people who left their ruined homes in search of safety. There were dozens of wizards protecting the place. Everyone agreed it wasn’t safe to go anywhere near the camp, at least not until I have my full power. If Mom’s in there, I hope she can wait for me a little longer. If she isn’t…I can’t think about that.

Before the worlds were combined, I saw that the wizards controlled the police. They probably infiltrated government and military long ago as well. I’ve seen no helicopters whirling overhead or comforting flashing lights of cop cars since I started traveling. It’s like the world is empty except for a few camps I can’t go anywhere near.

The only reason wizards have magic is because they steal it from sorceresses like me. Otherwise, they can manipulate the power of the earth to create pretty cool spells like witches, but spells take effort to create and can't accomplish as much as sorceress’s magic can.

They used to stick to the world of magic, stealing from sorceresses and training young boys to join their ranks. Then they decided they wanted our world too. The easiest way to have both without stretching their resources too thin was to combine the worlds.

The magic used to do so was once again stolen from sorceresses. They kidnaped girls around the world and trapped one in each of the portals linking the worlds. By draining their magic into the portal, the wizards were able to close the bridges. They used me to close the last portal. I only survived because Al stepped into the trap with me and allowed the spell to drain all of his magic as well as mine.

It’s been a week since I’ve seen another human being in the flesh and a couple of months since the worlds combined. And countless empty roads and cities in between.

A vibration against my chest startles me back into a crouch. For a second, I’m sure the harpies have somehow found me while I thought about the Sword. Another beat of my overly speedy heart and I realize the truth. It’s my necklace. Or more specifically the magic coated charms I have attached to the chain.

I’m getting a call.

Sort of.





Chapter Two





The alley might have been a good place to teleport to because of its openness, but it isn’t safe for what I need to do now. I need some shelter and a place where I can start a fire without drawing attention to myself.

A tilted sign for a pizza place catches my eye on the crumbling remains of the street. It’s not a chain I recognize which is good. With any luck, they’ll have a proper wood burning oven instead of the usual electric ones.

I press my back against the wall of the alley and look in every direction, including up, to make sure there’s nothing around waiting to pounce the moment I step out of the shadows.

The vibration of my necklace grows more pronounced as though it’s annoyed at being kept waiting. I grip it in my hand and press my lips tightly together.

Something has gone wrong.

It’s the only reason why my sister Sin, my sort of boyfriend Al, or his sister and fellow sorceress Loraine would try to contact me before our scheduled call tonight. Something’s wrong and I have no way of helping them. Not without driving across an entire continent. Even without the stops I made on the way here, it will still take me at least three days to get to them. Who knows what will happen in that amount of time?

I race across the street, hoping I didn’t miss anything threatening that might be hidden in the shadows of broken windows and crumbled walls.

The door swings open causing the cardboard open sign to flutter in the breeze. Beads of sweat trickle down the back of my neck. I really am at my limit with my magic and the fear isn’t helping with my control. I hope I have enough to initiate the spell and make contact.

Inside, I’m instantly struck with the stench of moldy food and nearly walk right back out before the buzz of my necklace reminds me why I must press on. From the look of the pile of sludge and fruit flies on the middle of the counter, someone had been making a pizza when the cataclysm hit.

I try to give the pile a wide berth, only to step on something that might have once been a tomato, though it’s so black and oozing, it’s impossible to be sure.

Doing my best to ignore everything else, I focus on the stone pizza oven. At least that much of this place is untouched by disgusting, rotting food.

There is even half-burned wood still in the oven. Normally bringing back a flame to something already burned is a simple task. It wants to be on fire. The elements are waiting for me to spark it back to life with the tiniest bit of magic. It’s a sign of how tired I am it takes me a full minute of scattered thought and poor concentration to finally get a puff of smoke to rise.

I yank the necklace over my head and hold the charms attached in my hand while I wait for a proper flame to build. Sin developed the communication spell so she and Al could call just as easily as Loraine or me, though our sorceress magic makes it strong enough to work all of the way across the continent.

Like all spells created by witches, it uses the four elements. My thumb skims over each texture in turn. A cut of fabric from Loraine’s dress represents earth due to its natural materials, a feather from Sin’s phoenix represents air, the fire is of course fire and I provide the water, my spit, to activate the spell. The only item not representing an element, and my favorite charm is the top of a lipstick container. It was difficult to infuse the spell into the manmade material of the plastic cover, but there’s nothing else I’m willing to use in its place. Nothing connects me to Al as strongly as the tiny container I carried him around in after he first tumbled onto my lap. He was the size of a spider at the time. The magic of the box shrunk him when it pulled him from his world into mine. Only when I released the first bag of my magic was I able to make him normal size again.

Which one of the three is trying to contact me? Usually I can tell by which item vibrates strongest, but all three pulsate, which means they must all be connected already. I feel sick thinking they might be in trouble. Loraine should be able to handle herself. Unlike me, her magic hasn’t been splintered, so she able to take on just about anything, so long as a wizard hasn’t stolen her magic again.

Sin is traveling with Dray, who happens to be a very real and very scary dragon. Everything about him screams danger. My magic goes insane when I’m around him and takes on a life of its own. I have to fight to keep from exhausting myself by automatically creating a protective bubble around myself every time he’s near, even when he’s in his human form. He wants to eat me. I can see it in his glowing green eyes. I can’t imagine anything being able to hurt him or Sin who he happily protects. Unless of course the dragon is the one who is the problem. It’s a miracle he hasn’t killed us all before now.

And then there’s Al.

Ever since the world’s combined, he’s been a little distant. He’s always so careful around me as though he’s afraid he’s going to slip into the wizard the Sword trained him to be and rip my magic from me. I know he won’t. He would never hurt me, but I can see in the way his shoulders tense when I lean in too close, he’s worried.

Maybe that’s why he chose to go back to the University where Victor and the Sword trained him to be a wizard instead of coming with me. Or it could be as he said and he really does think he can help more while there than with me. Either way, I hope it’s not because he’s decided he doesn’t have feelings for me anymore. I know he chose my life over everyone else when my magic was being used to merge the two worlds, but I can’t help feeling a little nervous. Our relationship has never been exactly normal.

But I miss him. I wish he was here to tell me not to panic. He always knows what to say to calm me down or help me make the right decisions.

If it’s Al calling and he’s in trouble, I don’t know what I’ll do.

The fire crackles barely large enough for what I need. I touch my moist lips against the lipstick top and then set the necklace inside the flame. With the last two elements of the spell complete, an image forms inside the dancing blaze.

I lean in, desperate for the vision to become clear faster.

“Where the hell have you been?”

The voice might be broken and quiet because of the distance and magic, but it’s impossible to mistake it for anyone other than Sin. Plus, it’s hard to miss the purple hair. The worlds end and she still finds a way to color her hair. My chest clenches.

“Sin? What’s wrong? Where are you?”

And then I notice how relaxed she looks and a small wave of relief rolls over me.

“I’m waiting for you to get your lazy ass to a fire.” Sin strokes the head of the phoenix she found during an adventure in Al’s world she had without telling me. The same adventure where she became friends with a dragon and accidently gave Victor and the Sword the information needed to combine the worlds. Again, without telling me. She barely bothers to look at the fire or my image. She’s too focused on the bird. I don’t get her obsession. It’s pretty, sure, especially with its long orange and yellow tail feathers with one extra-long one at the tip that curls into a tiny flame only visible if you can see magic. However, it’s still just a bird. It doesn’t do much other than hop around on her arm and occasionally swoop around at people’s head. “We’ve been waiting forever. Let’s get this meeting over with already.”

The flame grows and slowly two other images appear on either side of my sister. On the right Loraine peers at me as though my image must be small on her end just as hers is here. She sees me and begins smiling and waving excitedly. Tristan on the left looks as unreadable as ever. Her brown hair is an awkward length as though she’s trying to grow it out from a pixie cut but doesn’t know what to do with it in the meantime. She keeps pushing it out of her eyes and shoving it behind her ears, but it tumbles back the second she moves her hand.

After Victor and the wizards he controls combined the worlds and we were just starting to deal with the aftermath, Tristan showed up claiming she was here to help. Even though she’s a witch and the Sword hates witches, she managed to sneak into their school and spy on them for years while pretending to be a boy. With the help of the friends she made while a student, she ended up taking over the University and now acts as a co-headmaster, along with Cole. I’m pretty sure they have something going on beyond working together, but they never talk about themselves, so it’s hard to know.

For a moment I panic, sure that if she’s talking, something must have happened to Al, but then I notice movement over Tristan’s shoulder. He’s sitting behind her. It’s the same as every other time we’ve spoken through the flame. I’m not sure why Tristan believes we want to speak to her and not Al, but I wish he’d tell her to back off.

“Wait.” The tension within me twitches into irritation. “Is everyone okay?”

“Of course we are.” Sin gives me a look as though I’ve gone completely insane. I’m quite familiar with the stare. Usually it’s accompanied with her saying 'Are you insane?' “You’re the one who said we should talk this evening, remember? It’s evening, so let’s talk.”

My legs go weak and I find myself struggling to stand. They’re safe. They’re all okay.

Except for Sin, who I am going to murder the next time I see her.

Unfortunately, I don’t even have the right to be mad. I did say evening. Since the time zones are all messed up, I forgot evening here isn’t the same as evening there.

All that really matters is no one is hurt. Relief floods through me, which turns out not to be a great thing right now. Only my adrenaline kept me moving, and now it’s gone, I find myself flopped onto the ground, too exhausted to stand for another second.





Chapter Three





“You know we can’t see you when you lie down like that, right?” Sin sounds bored.

“Lou-lou?” Loraine says in her usual sweet voice. What I wouldn’t do for a sister as amazing as her. She had her magic stolen from her by her brother’s best friend, was in a coma for years, woke up to become the same guy’s slave, and she still manages to always be happy and caring. Every time I see her, I just want to give her a big hug. “Are you hurt?”

“What’s going on?” Al. He’s actually speaking. Just hearing the sound of his voice again calms me. Who cares if Sin is being obnoxious, it’s not a new thing for her. Al is speaking to me and everything feels okay once more. “Lou? What’s wrong? Where are you? Have you been discovered?”

As nice as it is to hear him talk, it’s probably not fair of me to make him worry quite so much, just because I’m a little tired. Standing isn’t an option, but maybe I can kneel and still be high enough to both see the fire and be seen by them.

I give it a try, and even manage to pull the blue bag from my shirt to show it to them.

“I’m fine. Sorry.”

Sin’s still sitting comfortably, but the other two have leaned into their flames, blocking out everything in their rooms except for their faces. The rest of my words catch as I get my first good look at Al in too long. Dark circles envelop his eyes, emphasized by the strange glow of the fire. Two seconds of thinking I’m in trouble wouldn't cause him to look so drained. He must still be having trouble sleeping.

“I got the bag, see?” I show it to them before tucking it back into my shirt. I’m so glad to only have one bag left to hunt down. I know Gran took my magic away so wizards wouldn’t be able to rip it from me and leave me in a catatonic state, but in doing so, I feel like she took away bits of who I am. Memories are gone I will probably never get back and each time I open a bag I realize how dulled my senses really were.

I smile at Al, but while Loraine grins back and sighs with relief, he stares while a wash of conflicting emotions move across his face. Maybe if I could see him in real life, I’d be able to get a better sense of what he’s thinking. I know something was bothering him before I left, but this seems worse. He nods once, then stands up and walks away. Tristan watches him for a moment, and I’m sure she shows a touch of concern before switching back to her neutral, unreadable look.

“Was there trouble then?” Tristan asks. “You look a little worse for wear.”

“Yeah, actually.” I focus on Sin who seems to be having a private conversation with whom I can only assume is Dray, unless she’s made some insane new friends on her journey. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had. “Sin.” Her head snaps in my direction at the sound of her name. “You forgot to mention there might be harpies surrounding the bag.”

Loraine sucks in her breath while Tristan whistles in appreciation.

Sin dismisses me with a wave of her hand. “The book said nothing about harpies.” She pulls Gran’s old journal out of her satchel and flips it to the right page. After Sin took over Gran’s house, she discovered a bunch of her old journals. This one happens to have a magical map indicating where each of the bags filled with my magic is currently. It also shows pictures of the locations. One eyebrow rises. “Huh, would you look at that. Harpies.”

I let my head drop to the stone in front of me, not caring if it leaves a sooty smudge across my forehead.

“And how does your search go, Sin?” Tristan asks while rubbing two fingers against her temple. “Have you found the final piece of your sister’s magic?”

Sin frowns down at the book. “My target is a lot harder than Lou’s.” She ignores my snort, though I’m satisfied when Loraine rolls her eyes on my behalf. “Every time we think we’re close, its location shifts to the other side of the world. I don’t know what’s wrong with this stupid map.”

“Maybe it’s the reader, not the book,” I suggest.

“I will find it.” She’s using her overconfident tone. I hate when she talks like that. Everything always goes wrong when she does. “Loraine, you and Rose better be taking good care of my house while I’m gone. I want it cleaner than when I left it by the time I get back.”

I laugh. “That wouldn’t be hard.”

Even before Sin moved in, the house was never in the best shape. Gran had many collections, beyond the blue silk bags full of my old toenails and magic. Most were just as disgusting. Many I still don’t understand. There’s no reason to collect chocolate bar wrappers, is there? They aren’t magical. I think she just liked the shiny silver insides to the packaging.

Since Sin took over, it’s gone from slightly neglected to a disaster. Her pet chimera, Farah, likes to rip apart everything it can get it’s claws on and turn it into nests. Every room has at least one bed for the creature. And there are a bunch of scorch marks on the walls where the chimera’s hot breath nearly burned down the entire building.

The house needs a paint job now more than ever. Since the worlds merged, even the yard is a disaster. There’s a perfect circle of cracked earth and dirt surrounding the building that appeared during the cataclysm.

It’s pretty amazing the building still stands. The structure was built around a portal between the two worlds, so it was right at the heart of all of the turmoil when the worlds combined. The only reason it doesn’t have another building or tree or something merged with it is because standing in the same spot in both worlds was exactly the same house. It’s almost as though the original builders knew the worlds would be combined like this one day and so made sure to create identical buildings to prevent merging issues. The University is similar in some ways. The wizards made sure it wouldn’t be damaged by the combining, but instead of identical structures, they simply made sure there was nothing, not even trees or animals, in my world to cause trouble for the castle or the surrounding village.

“Rose and I have been taking good care of it, don’t worry. We hold meetings here once a week, and we’ve almost got everything settled when it comes to designating space for people from both worlds.” Tristan looks about ready to interrupt, but there’s no stopping Loraine once she starts talking. Her words come fast, giving me barely time to think about them before she’s moved on. “There’s still a bit of fighting but it usually doesn’t become anything bigger than a few words thrown. We’ve had one fist fight, but Rose slapped the two men involved and they’ve been good ever since. She’s not here right now because her family has a lot of orders for new clothes lately. Apparently people from the other world are used to owning a lot of different outfits.”

I don’t envy Loraine’s position. When the worlds combined, the people of two very different cultures were forced to suddenly inhabit the same space. There was a ton of fighting with the people from Al’s small village and those who live in the suburbs next to Gran’s house. The daily clash of those used to convenience and those used to space was a headache for the short time I stayed. It’s been Loraine’s job ever since to try and make sure both sides get along and no one gets treated unfairly.

Tristan closes her eyes to shift her temple rub to the bridge of her nose as though she’s fighting a headache. I guess it’s to be expected since she’s supposed to be spending all day researching how to fix the worlds. So much reading has to be hard on the eyes.

“Let us know if there’s any change.” Tristan focuses on each section of fire in turn. “Sin, continue your search. Our research at the University will mean nothing if we don’t have the magic available to use once we find a solution to our problems. Lou, will you be returning to the village?”

I’m not sure when Tristan became the leader of our little group of rebels, but I’m sure I don’t like it. I get that she’s the only one of us with a connection to the shadow coven, a circle of witches scattered all over the world collecting information on wizards, but does that really mean she’s our leader? So far they haven’t been able to get us much information. All they ever say is ‘the world is in chaos.’ You think? It’s nice to have allies, but not if it means we have to let them tell us what to do. Plus, she convinced Al to go with her rather than with me. I can’t forgive her for that.

“That’s the plan,” I say. “What about you? Find anything useful?”

Despite her faults, Tristan has learned some pretty amazing spells from the books at the University. She has even managed to cast a spell to override the magic the Sword used to trap the dragon, Dray, within the walls of the University. He's only able to travel with Sin because of the spell she cast. She hasn’t released him completely, though. He’s somehow connected to Tristan in order to keep him from running around eating people.

She might have some skills, but she’s never particularly forthcoming with how those spells work, or even what she’s spending time researching.

I can’t tell if she’s being extra guarded with her lack of expression, or if it’s the same as usual.

“Research is slow and tedious,” she says. “We have nothing to report at this time, though I hope when next we speak, the news will be different.”

Loraine and Sin don’t look the least bit bothered by her answer. To me it feels like she’s avoiding saying something important, though I have no idea what it could be. My biggest fear is she isn’t actually trying to figure out how to return the worlds back to how they were. I don’t know what they could be doing instead, but it definitely has a strange effect on Al.

I hope he’s all right.

“Is that all?” Tristan’s question receives nods from Sin and Loraine. She waits for me, though I don’t know if it’s out of politeness or if she actually cares if I have more to say. I would feel so much better if she would drop her guard and actually emote a little. I might hate her a little less if she did. I nod as well since I have nothing else to add. “Good,” she says. “Keep in touch.”

The others take this as a cue to pull their own items from the fire, ending the call. Before I gather the strength to grab my necklace, Tristan’s speaks again. This time, she sounds kinder, less like she’s trying to be in charge and more like a friend. It’s almost as though she heard my thoughts about her loosening up a bit. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it?

“Lou.” I look directly at her and once again I see the worry she showed when Al left. Maybe she’s not so horrible after all. “He’s happy you’re safe.”

She ends the call before I can think of anything to say in reply.

I don’t need her to tell me how Al feels. I never doubted Al was happy I’m safe.

So why do her words cause a ball of tension in my chest to release?





Aldric





Chapter Four





Fear. And anger. The emotions hit me in the gut, forcing me to take another drink. The feelings aren’t based on anything happening currently. It’s a memory causing me to sweat and shiver all at once.

A blurred image of a face. I don’t recognize him, but the red liquid pouring from his chest onto my sword is familiar enough.

Another gulp from my tankard and the memory slowly fades into a haze like all the rest.

How many did I kill? The question constantly floats through my mind. Get up. Choose a shirt. How many did I kill? Eat breakfast. Work out. How many did I kill? Research the two worlds. Talk to Tristan and Cole. How many?

It goes on all day.

I wish I could remember, and yet want nothing more than to forget the entire time I had sorceress magic running through my veins. When I graduated from the University, I never planned to take magic from anyone. My sister is a sorceress. How could I hurt her or anyone else like her? I thought Fitzroy was the same. It was the reason why we were such close friends while going to school. Then he took Loraine’s magic and left her in a state worse than death. I don’t know if taking her magic made him power hungry, or if he always was. Either way, once he had her magic he became a monster. He turned Loraine into his slave so he could syphon her magic constantly without a care to how it affected her. He actually seemed to enjoy her pain, as though somehow her suffering made him feel stronger. If it wasn’t for my childhood friend Rose and her unwavering faith in me, I might have lost myself to the pain of knowing I let Loraine down so spectacularly.

Then I met Lou. For the first time, I felt like I could smile again. All I wanted to do was protect her, and so I did. I killed the man who would have killed her, and in doing so, I absorbed all of the magic he stole from other sorceresses. I can still taste the bitterness of the twisted magic. It consumed me. I needed more. And the more I took, the cloudier my thoughts became. Some part of me remembered my need to protect Lou and Loraine, so I never took magic from a sorceress directly. Instead I focused my hatred and greed on wizards, killing them for their own stolen power.

I became a monster. Worse than anything I feared I’d become. I barely remember any of it, only the feelings of hunger for more magic and disgust for all living beings.

For a while I could ignore the flickers of memories and feelings that would surface and overwhelm me. I could focus on helping others and the nagging thoughts would stay at the back of my mind. Then they didn’t.

I try to research with Tristan and Cole, but my mind will no longer be distracted with books. Only drinking can push the thoughts aside, at least for a time.

I go to take another swig, but no liquid comes out. Empty. Wasn’t it refilled a moment ago?

Margaret, the barmaid at the Three Piglets, is nowhere to be seen. All that’s visible are the blurred faces of the men in my memories. They won’t go away. Not tonight. I might as well return to the University and lie awake in bed for a while. Maybe Tristan will help me out with another sleeping potion. I should really learn to make it on my own, but I can’t bring myself to bother.

As I stumble my way back to the castle, I try to think of how I can ask. She’s with Cole in the headmaster’s room. The same place where a few hours ago we were talking to the others. To Lou.

I can’t go there. Thinking about Lou now will only make things worse.

Because beyond the faces and the fear and anger and the lingering question, there is something worse burning through me.

Yearning.

Not just for her. Though there is that. Part of me wants to wrap myself around her and never let go. But touching her only brings about the other urge. The one I can never let myself give in to, and so nearly have too many times.

I want the magic back. I need it. More than I need air. Everything else would disappear if I only had the power of a sorceress.

There is one other person in the castle who has an idea of what I’m going through. No one is allowed to visit him without Headmaster Cole’s permission, but I know the guards won’t stop me. They are practically prisoners themselves, and only follow Cole’s rules as far as necessary to keep themselves out of the dungeon. After all, they are wizards, though few have taken the magic of a sorceress. They chose to follow Cole when he took over the University, but they aren’t actually loyal to him. All wizards are loyal only to the leader of the Sword, Victor.

Part of me knows this is a problem I should be helping Cole deal with. He’s a good kid. Smart. But right now, I don’t care anymore than the guards do about what happens to him.

As I suspected, the guards don’t say a word when I take the keys from the hook on the wall and unlock the thick steel reinforced door. I return the keys to the hook before heading down the stairs to the dungeon. Perhaps this time they’ll lock me inside. Maybe that’s exactly what I deserve. I know plenty of wizards, including ones in this building, who think I should get worse for what I’ve done. I’m one of them.

There’s a more important reason for me to leave the keys behind, however. I can’t allow the former headmaster, Hankin, to talk me into unlocking his cage. It would be too easy in my current state of mind. As dead as I’ve tried to make my emotions, I still understand I cannot let him out. He’s too dangerous to be free.

Although he was only a teacher while I attended the University, he took over as headmaster for a short time while Tristan and Cole were students. From their telling of what happened, the ruthlessness he showed as a teacher became even more cruel once he was in charge. He hurt students to teach lessons, and even killed one when Tristan and a few others decided to take a stand against him.

He’s the only other wizard besides me to ever kill one of his own kind, though I doubt many see it that way. The child he killed hadn’t graduated and so never completed the ritual allowing him to steal magic, turning him into a true wizard. What I did was murder my wizard brothers in cold blood. He may have killed a child, but many will spin it so he merely killed a male witch.

Twin torches are the only light at the bottom of the stairs. The wizards of the past must have decided it was a waste of magic to create the clean spells that illuminate most of the other rooms in the University. This means the space is filled with dark shadows and smoke. Beyond the wall of metal bars, there’s no telling what the prisoners are doing. Though the answer would be not much. On one of my more sober visits, I got a proper feel for the place. Damp dirt floors and the smell of must, rat droppings, and human waste are the only things to keep prisoners occupied.

Not that the school usually has prisoners. Anyone stupid enough to cross Victor during his time as headmaster was killed instantly. Why waste time and resources keeping an enemy alive?

Hankin wasn’t headmaster long enough to take any prisoners, though he had the position long enough to make plenty of enemies.

Cole’s decision to keep Hankin here when he took over is a sign of his weakness as a headmaster. Or maybe his strength. I honestly don’t know anymore.

I find an old bench made out of the most splinter-inducing wood I’ve ever touched, and sit on it with my back against the wall and my eyes on the dark cell before me. No matter how quiet I try to be, I know it won’t be enough. Hankin knows I’m here.

“You’re later than usual.” His dry voice filters through the opening between the bars. I guess the guards ‘forgot’ to bring him water again. They have even less respect for the previous headmaster than they do the current one. After all, he’s the first to have his position usurped by a boy who doesn’t even have the capacity to steal a sorceress’s power. The wizards have no respect for someone so weak. “Had a long night drinking away the cravings, did you?”

I don’t speak. I never do. I simply sit and listen and know I’m not alone. The only difference between us is Hankin hasn’t lost all of his magic. Not yet. It has been years since he last stole the power of a sorceress, ripping it from her body and leaving her empty shell to rot, so his supply is low. I have enough traces of the magic I used to possess within me to sense how drained he is. What he does have left is useless inside those bars. Every inch of metal, including the wide cuffs on his wrists, have spells engraved into them to keep prisoners from using magic to escape.

“How bad are they?” Hankin stifles a cough. “The cravings.” He waits for the response he knows I’ll never give. “Do they gnaw at your core? Make you hurt until you want to scream? Or is it an itch inside your chest so strong you wish you could shove your hand through your skin to scratch it?”

The descriptions are oddly calming. They give me something to visualize so I don’t have to focus on the real hunger inside me.

Nothing he says is quite accurate enough to describe what I feel. He must know this, and that’s why he keeps trying. Always looking to find the right words to send me over the edge.

Maybe one day he will. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise and to trust what Lou has told me, I know the truth. The madness is still inside me. Not even Lou’s pure magic can burn it from me entirely. It’s a part of me now, just like all of those things I did while consumed by the power.

I don’t know when Hankin stops speaking. Nor am I sure how long I sit half listening and half asleep. All I know is my morning headache has returned and I need a new distraction.

When I’m part way up the stairs, Hankin calls to me. I stop and listen because what else can I do?

“There will come a time, Aldric, when you’ll need to choose a side.” I know his words are supposed to fill me with fear, but I feel nothing. Nothing beyond the usual self-loathing. “Make sure you choose wisely.”

His laughter follows me up the long stone staircase to the door. Unlocked. Looks like I’ll have to spend another day pretending to research.

First, I need another drink.





Chapter Five





I wake up with a gasp, followed by a long moan. The gasp caused by a crazy dream I’ve already forgotten and the moan because of crick in my neck and numb arm from sleeping on a chilly tile floor.

It takes me a second to remember which floor I might be on. Pizzeria. I must have fallen asleep almost instantly after ending the call with the others. The sun filters through the front windows, but I don’t know if that means I’ve slept for a few minutes or until the next day.

Having a watch would be awesome. I never realized how much I relied on my phone until it stopped working.

As I sit up and try to massage out the knot in my neck, movement out of the corner of my eye catches my attention.

Before I fully turn my head I’ve already leaped to my feet with a yelp. A rat. There's a giant rat not one foot from where my head was seconds ago. Oh gross. I need a shower so badly.

The rat is gone the second I’m on my feet, but I can’t get its beady eyes and worm-like tail out of my head. No more. I can’t be in this disgusting, smelly, rodent infested building one more second. It’s time I get to Sin’s car which smells like rotting hamburger meal deals and old soda.

Okay, so it’s not that much better, but at least the car will get me back to a proper bed. If it doesn’t break down on the way.

I check to make sure my necklace is properly secured, my sword safely stored in the air pocket at my hip and the blue bag stuffed back into my shirt. I consider placing it into the second air pocket I have set up at my other hip but decide against it. Having it in my shirt gives me easier access. Besides, Gran’s small wooden box is in the pocket, and I don’t need to waste time trying to pick the right object out if I need the bag.

I created the spell ages ago, after my first adventure with Al when I realized I need to carry a sword all of the time to protect myself. Wearing a sword around town and in high school is frowned upon, so I needed a way to do so without anyone seeing. My solution was to hide the sword inside a layer of magic and air, making it invisible. Even Sin was impressed by my solution. The only problem is since even I can’t see inside the air pocket I can’t quickly grab one item over another. It’s easier to only hold one item per pocket.

I don’t know why I carry the box with me. Since the two worlds were smashed together, the portal in the box doesn’t spew random items out at me anymore when I open the lid, like petrification stones, bags of magic, or miniature Al’s. Still, it was Gran’s and I somehow feel better having it close. Plus, there is still a lot of magic ingrained in the wood. There seems to be no purpose to the spell anymore, but I’m not going to leave it around where wizards might find a way to use the power for evil.

With everything in order, I head into the street and the reddening sky. I guess I was only asleep for a few hours. Makes sense since my magic isn’t fully recharged as it would be if I slept eight hours or more.

It will be night soon. Driving in the dark isn’t ideal. The lights from the car might attract unwanted attention, but driving without them is impossible. Sections of the roads are washed away entirely and a few twenty-foot sinkholes have swallowed up the pavement in areas.

Even so, I’ll try to get as far from this city as I can tonight. For some reason the thought of staying overnight is making me feel uneasy.

I glance over my shoulder and up to the sky. No sign of the harpies. Hopefully they gave up on me hours ago when I stopped being a threat to their nests. No sign of any other flying creatures either, such as griffins with wizard passengers. Any wizards who have enough magic to control one of the creatures uses them to travel. Griffins are fast. One minute it looks as though the sky is empty, the next they’re swooping down and wizards are throwing harmful spells everywhere.

My steps slow as I get closer to the block where Sin’s car is parked. I have no idea why.

And then I hear it.

A cricket. No, a frog. Or maybe it’s rushing water in a stream.

It doesn’t matter, because it isn’t real. It’s magic. I’ve never heard anything quite like it before. I force myself to keep walking forward, though slowly and carefully so I don’t actually alert the person who’s using the magic.

I’m not close enough to know what they’re doing, but the spell doesn’t feel harmful. Maybe they’re casting some sort of light.

Keeping the building as close to my shoulder as I can while avoiding the rubble scattered over the sidewalk, I make my way to the corner and carefully peek around.

Sin’s powder blue, clunky old car she inherited from Gran is exactly where I left it; pulled to the side of the street, double parked behind a minivan with a huge dent on the bonnet and a slick silver corvette with flat tires.

Three people all in their early twenties wearing ripped jeans and tee-shirts surround Sin's car. One peers into the passenger side window while the other two stay a few feet away, as though they’re afraid it might actually be a bomb.

Not three people. Five. Two others lurk in the shadows created by the falling sun. I still don’t see the one with magic, so there’s at least one more hiding somewhere. Maybe more.

Normal humans, in the middle of the city. This isn’t right. Their interest in my car is unnerving. It’s as though they know it’s not supposed to be here, even though I parked it at the strange angle so it would blend in with all of the other abandoned cars filling the streets.

If I was paying any less attention, I wouldn’t have noticed the sound similar to a crow cawing, nor would I have realized it was not a bird at all, but the sound of magic. This time I know the magic’s purpose. They’re attacking me.

I pull back around the corner, barely getting out of the way of the spell in time. My adrenaline pumps and I fight back the panic threatening to shut down my thoughts. They know I’m here. I need to run.





Chapter Six





Where would I run? I have no idea. If I go for another car, there’s little to no chance I’ll be able to find one with gas, keys in the ignition, and no major damage to it or the road around it so I can escape before they catch me. Whoever they are.

I have to fight.

Slicing the air next to my hip with my finger, I open the magic pocket and draw my sword. The attacking magic feels powerful. More so than mine right now. Maybe even more so than Loraine’s. It’s also pure. There’s no oozing rotten bits to tell me it’s actually a wizard using the power. It must be a sorceress. Whether they’re working with the Sword or choosing to attack me on their own doesn’t matter right now. All I can worry about is the fact I’m outclassed physically and magically.

If I were Sin, I’d be grinning like an idiot and saying things like 'this will be fun,' but unlike her, I’m not insane. I like living. I like keeping all of my limbs…oh crap! More magic.

I drop into a summersault, ignoring the pain of falling on broken concrete rather than the mats I used to train on. There’s no time to worry about cuts or remind myself there are no hospitals or doctors anymore, so if I get an infection, I’m screwed.

Another attack. I try to zigzag as I run, but it’s no use. The spell smacks into the barrier I barely raise in time and dissolves my magic like salt in water. No, that’s not quite right. More like our spells cancel each other out.

Movement catches my attention just in time and I swing my sword up to block an attack from my left. The sharp edge of the blade bites deep into the swung bat, nearly slicing it in two. My attacker isn’t put off by how close I came to destroying his weapon. Instead he takes advantage of the fact my blade is now wedged into the bat. He twists, trying to use his strength to force the sword out of my hand. While he’s focused on the sword, I kick the side of his knee, then shove a palm full of magical light into his face, so bright it temporarily blinds him.

I’ve barely moved out of his reach when magic smashes against me from behind, slamming me onto the ground face first. I push back, forcing the spell to release me so I can stumble forward.

I run, my eyes darting everywhere for shelter. Blood pours from my nose and onto my lips and chin. Just as I think I’ve found a place to hide in the growing shadows of a group of cars and vans ahead, a figure steps onto one of the roofs. With his back to the dying sun, I can’t see his face, but from his silhouette, it’s a pretty good bet he’s a guy. A sorcerer. They aren’t supposed to exist anymore. They were supposed to be wiped out by wizards ages ago. But that’s not the magic of someone who’s been eliminated. It looks like roots of a giant tree, overflowing from his body and winding into the space around him.

I turn to escape. There must be another way.

Nothing. I’m entirely surrounded. There are even people on the rooftops. Fifteen. Twenty. Maybe up to forty people. All of them carry weapons, most are handmade or clumsily modified. They wear ripped, dark or tanned colored clothes as though they purposely try to blend in with the buildings and pavement.

I turn back to the sorcerer, the one direction with a single person blocking the path, and feel something slam into me.

My hand reaches down and touches a strange object on my stomach. Time seems to slow as I look down and realize the long, skinny strip I’m gripping is an arrow, and it’s not on my stomach, it’s inside me.

Without consciously raising a barrier, one forms around me as another arrow flies through the air toward my chest. It evaporates before it touches me. I’m working on instinct, and right now all I know is I can’t have any more holes in me.

It should hurt. Or, I think it should. I don’t feel anything. I try to tug it out and my body reacts with a scream. Darkness closes around my vision, warning me I’m about to pass out.

I can’t. I have to stay awake. Faint now and my barrier fails. Faint now and I’m dead. My defense is already weakening. The shooter wraps his arrows in magic to strengthen his attack.

The only thing I can worry about for now is getting the one in my stomach out. I can’t pull it without causing even more pain and damage, so I do the only thing I can think of. I teleport it. A jigsaw of energy moves the arrow over to clink onto the pavement a few feet in front of me. I wobble from the major use of power.

My barrier is almost broken. I’m bleeding out. The enemy has me surrounded. My magic is nearly gone.

I press one hand over the wound sealing it closed with a layer of fabric like magic. With my other hand I pull the bag from my shirt.

There’s a sudden shift to the magic bombarding me. When I look up, I see the sorcerer swiftly moving toward me. He’s no longer shooting arrows, but blasting me with straight magic. With every attack I’m forced to replace the dissolved bubble of defense with a new one. The pool of power within me is nearly empty. Blackness overwhelms me and every instinct tells me to give up. Embrace the dark.

“Stop her,” the man shouts. “Kill her before she does whatever she’s doing.”

The bag opens more easily than I expect. Like it’s waiting for me to pick at the threads holding it shut so it can unravel the moment I pull the right string.

My magic bursts out, smashing into me like a wave. It’s refreshing and exhilarating and terrifying all at once. This bag has more power than any of the others contained. Or maybe the way it connects to the magic I already control makes it feel stronger. Either way, it causes my entire body to glow, like my skin has become as bright as a spotlight.

Then the light fades and I’m left with the taste of melted chocolate and fresh strawberries in my mouth. Looks like the magic in this bag is connected to my sense of taste. At least I now know my magic really is yummy. No wonder everyone’s always trying to steal it.

No one around me moves for a moment, which gives me a chance to properly get a look at the man before me.

Except he’s not a man, or at least barely one. He can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen. His chin is lightly scattered in pimples and fuzz making me think he’s only recently hit puberty. The black and gold compound bow in his hand and the rage on his face reminds me youth doesn’t mean weak. After all, he’s probably only a couple of years younger than me, though I feel like I’ve aged years since the worlds combined.

I reinforce the barrier surrounding me, confident his magic will no longer cause it to dissolve, and ready my power in my hand. I might not be able to take them all out in one attack, but I’m pretty sure I can make at least half of them go down.

“Run!” The boy shouts the word so loud his voice cracks. No one moves. “Go. Hide. They’re coming.”

In an instant, every person ready to smash in my head has scattered back into the shadows.





Chapter Seven





The others might have gone, but the sorcerer has stayed. My fingers twitch and I’m about to hit him with a fresh blast of magic, but a tingling in my spine tells me to wait and follow his gaze to the sky.

Four griffins with riders. Maybe more. Our fight has caught the attention of nearby wizards and they’re coming for us.

And there’s the pain I’ve been avoiding. While I was fighting for my life, I was able to shift it out of my mind, but with this second of rest, it hits me like I was shot all over again.

My legs give and I drop to one knee. Clutching at the wound does nothing to ease the pain. Although I don’t know much about my insides, I know there is seriously something wrong. Even when my magic was stolen, I don’t remember feeling so weak. It’s as though I’m being burned from within. I briefly wonder which organs might have been in the way of the arrow, but shove the thought, and the pain, aside as the sorcerer does something incredibly stupid.

He lights up the area around the two of us like its midday and then fires several arrows covered in magic at the wizards. The flying lion-birds and their riders are still too far away for the arrows to reach, but it’s enough to get their attention, if we didn’t have it already.

“What are you doing?” I try to force myself to my feet, but gravity seems to have gotten a lot stronger. “They’re going to come right for us.”

“I thought you’d be happy.” He loads another arrow, but doesn’t shoot. “You were the one who called them here in the first place.”

“Wasn’t.” I’d say more, but even trying to speak hurts like liquid fire is being poured down my throat.

“Damn it.” He aims the bow. “Looks like whatever deal you’ve worked out with your friends doesn’t mean they’ll send more than two to your aid.”

I manage to twist my head to once again look to the sky and see he’s right. Two are headed straight at us, while the others, four now, sweep the area.

“They’re after your friends,” I say when I realize what they’re doing. The muscles in my legs tighten, ready to spring forward to run after the griffins. I don’t. Even with magic, I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Besides, I’m too injured to be chasing anyone.

He glares at me, the bow swinging to point at my forehead. I probably should be more terrified than I am, but all I can think is owwww. Also, those people need help.

Mostly ow.

The bow swings back toward the incoming wizard.

“This is your fault,” he says.

“You shot me.”

“You drew their attention with your overly showy magic.”

“You. Shot. Me.”

I don’t know why I’m trying to reason with him. Clearly he’s insane.

“And I’ll do it again if you so much as say one word to those… things… about where my people have gone.”

Great. He thinks I’m with the Sword. Not that I should be too shocked. After all, it explains why he attacked the moment he saw me. He probably thought I was scouting out their location to report back to my wizard overlords.

My god, the pain doesn’t stop. If anything it’s getting worse. I can feel my brain trying to shut down again to deal with the agony, but no way am I letting that happen.

The boy shoots and this time the griffin is close enough to reach. In fact, from the speed and strength the arrow flies, I’m sure he must have been holding back before.

Rather than waste magic putting up a barrier like I would have, the wizard tugs on the reins of his beast, forcing it to shift out of the way of the shot. I raise my hand and a twin to the boy’s arrow materializes from my palm and shoots straight for the space the wizard shifted in to. He doesn’t have a chance to dodge again. I miss the target, my eyes have gone blurry from the pain, but it skims the edge of his beast’s wing.

The griffin roars and drops, no longer following the command of its rider. I might not have taken it down for good, but at least this gives us time to focus on the other guy.

The remaining griffin flattens its wings back and dives. I don’t know if it’s attacking me or the sorcerer. It doesn’t matter. Instinct kicks in, forcing away any thoughts of my injury as I scoop up my dropped sword and ready it between us.

While the wizard focuses on me and draws his own blade, magic beside me swells and blasts forward like a flame thrower, scorching the sky and leaving my mouth tasting of roasted marshmallows. No time to watch if he hits his target, the hissing whine of corrupted wizard magic sneaks up behind us. I cancel out the dark shadow slithering toward both of us with a blast of light. The taste shifts to moldy bread the moment our magic clashes.

This new enhanced sense is more distracting than the first three. Feeling and sight were natural extension of my normal senses. Sound was a bit more difficult to get used to, but I can mostly tune it out now. Taste is going to take a while before it feels right. If I have a while.

Next to me I sense the sorcerer turn to see what I’m doing, but I ignore him. Instead, I toss out a thick dome around us both, protecting us from simultaneous attacks from the two wizards flanking us.

Tossing it up is one thing, holding it while the wizards double their efforts in trying to break me is another. I drop back down to a knee and this time I know I’m not going to be able to get back up.

Without looking, I can feel the boy’s slack jawed stare.

“You saved me.”

I’d love to say, ‘You’re going to die in a second regardless if you don’t do something.’ I manage a grunt.

“What’s wrong with you?” He leans toward me and if I had even an ounce of strength left, I would pull his head down to smack it against the pavement. He knows very well what’s wrong with me. “Why do you look like you're dying?”

“Shot.” It’s all I can force out my dry throat, but it’s enough.

His eyes widen as he looks at my stomach.

“It’s not bleeding.” He shakes his head to show his lack of understanding. “You healed it earlier.”

“Stopped…bleeding.” I sink a little closer to the pavement. “Didn’t heal.”

Without taking his eyes from me, he loads and shoots an arrow behind him. I hear a thud as though he actually hit something, though I have no idea how without looking.

“Why aren’t you healing it now? It’s just an arrow wound.”

If I survive this, I’m definitely hurting this kid in some way. Nothing as serious as a sword in the gut. A minor flesh wound only. Maybe a severed finger. Something like that.

I must be dying. I’m starting to think like Sin.

He presses a hand against the wound and for a second I’m sure his magic is going to rip apart the web I placed over the hole and cause me to bleed out. It doesn’t. In fact, it seems to mesh perfectly with mine, strengthening it before his magic pours into me like cool water run over a burned finger.

A handful of racing heartbeats later, the pain is gone and my strength has returned. Just in time. The wizards swoop for us, and they’ve brought a couple more friends.





Aldric





Chapter Eight





The line of bookshelves between myself and Tristan works as a barrier while I pull a flask out from inside my tunic and take a hurried swig. I’m about to put it away, but when I hold my breath to listen, I can hear her flip the page of the book she’s reading. She’d have to jump up and run around the shelves to catch me. I take another drink before twisting the top on and stuffing the flask back into my tunic.

There’s no reason for me to be in a rush. I’m supposed to be looking for another reference book for something-a-rather I’ve forgotten about. Since there’s no comprehensible order to the University library, it’ll take me a lot longer than a couple of sips to find the book. Even if I knew what I was looking for.

At least I don’t have to read for a few minutes. I don’t know how they do it. Hours. Tristan and Cole sit and flip through books for hours and never once complain about being bored or tired or needing to get up and move. It’s almost as though they actually like it.

Every day it’s the same thing. Come here, pick a book, read the book for information on how the two worlds were originally split thousands of years ago, find nothing, repeat the next day.

They should use this sort of work to torture criminals. Give them a room full of books and tell them there might be a few words in one of them about the jail. Not how to escape, just a vague mention of the structure. Maybe from those words they’ll find a hint of where they can find more information, none of which will ever lead to them actually escaping, but give them just enough hope so they keep looking. Then the jailors could sit back and laugh while the criminals drive themselves mad trying to find what they need.

The only difference is I chose to be here. I put myself into this prison.

I could leave, but that would be so much worse. At least here I can attempt to distract my mind with what I’m reading. Outside of this room, there are no distractions.

Once more I check to make sure Tristan is still in her seat and I’m protected by a wall of books before taking a final drink from my flask.

The familiar warm haze in my mind grows a little thicker and I feel my shoulders relax.

This work is good. It’s important. And it’s better than being out there.

I pull a dull looking book from the shelf and check the title to make sure it’s not about modern medicine or something else with no relevance to our search. Tristan has a sharp eye. I don’t want her to know I grabbed it at random. I can’t let her know I’m wasting everyone’s time.

Relevancy of Isotopic Particles in Physiological Magicks.

Sounds boring and vague enough to suit my needs. I bring it over to the table and drop it on the desk before flopping into my seat once more.

I hate this chair. It was obviously designed for someone who has no spine. Or feeling in their bottom. I twist around to try and find a more comfortable position. Nope. That’s worse. A little more shifting and a leg over the arm rest and I’ve finally found something tolerable.

Now for the book.

This is pointless.

We’re never going to find any information. It’s been months of research. Even before Victor and the Sword combined the two worlds, Tristan and Cole looked for details about how the worlds were split in the first place. The only difference was they were trying to figure out a way to stop Victor, while now the search is focused on reversing his actions.

I look over my book at the pair. They always sit leaning toward each other as though there’s a magnetic pull between them, but that’s the only sign they give of having a relationship beyond friendship. Other than Tristan's shaggy brown hair, they both keep themselves so tidy. They're clothes are always perfectly pressed and Cole's face is cleanly shaved, though maybe that's because he's too young to grow anything. How old are they? They look like babies to my eyes. They’re desperate to look more mature than they actually are so they try to hide everything about themselves, from their romance to their lack of experience as leaders. They’re children playing at being grownups, and I’m sure it will backfire soon.

The kids and wizards in this place only accept Cole as their leader because Victor made it clear when he ran the place he was grooming Cole to take over. He’s done so little to earn their respect otherwise. They can’t take magic even if they wanted to. Tristan works with a coven we were taught to believe are the enemy, and Cole has never even been outside of the city walls.

Whether people respect them or not, it doesn’t matter. There’s obviously no useful information in this building. If there ever was then Victor must have taken it when he left to oversee the combining of the two worlds.

Maybe I should sneak back down to visit Hankin. He might be insane and sadistic, but at least he understands the real world better than these two.

I have no idea how long I’ve been staring at the black ink on the page in front of me. My fingers drum along the book’s spine. I should have probably flipped the page by now.

The page flipped, I let my blurred vision skim over the words, taking in only the occasional “the” and “and” before I turn to the next page. And then the next. Ten pages in the time I took to look at the first. They are going to get suspicious.

I release a long sigh.

“You know,” Tristan says as she looks up at me with a tight smile, “it’s nearly lunch. Why don’t you take a break? Maybe spend the afternoon practicing with the boys?”

Food sounds good. A workout sounds less appealing. Both sound remarkably better than spending one more second here. Still, there's a reason I’m at the University and not elsewhere. Such as with Lou. I’m supposed to be helping with the research.

A wave of panic pushes through the haze of my mind. What if she’s been caught? Or injured? I should be there to protect her.

I slam the book on the table and pick up another. The action makes Cole twitch but I can’t bring myself to care.

“This needs to be done.” From the way she and Cole cringe, my voice must be louder than necessary, but I don’t lower it. “We need to find a solution. And as smart as you think you are, you can’t do it alone.”

They don’t say a word. They don’t have to. Their expressions say everything. They think I’m not clever enough to read these books. In their minds, the fact I’m here at all is a waste of everyone’s time. I’ll bet when I leave for the day, they'll go back over all of the books I’ve read because they think I’m too stupid to know when a passage is important or not.

I can’t do it. I can’t spend another second in the room with them watching me. Thinking they're better than me.

My chair skids, wobbles and then topples over as I stand. Good. I hope it's broken. I’d love to stomp on it a few times to make sure, but I don’t. My head’s just clear enough for me to know breaking furniture won’t help.

“You know what,” I shout. “I can’t stand spending another second in this room with you and your smug faces. We’re not all geniuses you know. If you’re even that smart.”

It’s obvious they think they are. How else could they possibly believe they could run the University when they never even graduated themselves? They’re overconfident, arrogant little children. It’s disgusting.





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