It's not as great as you'd think, living in a tourist town that's known as "the most magical place in America." Same boring high school, just twice as many monsters under the bridges and rival Families killing each other for power.
I try to keep out of it. I've got my mom's bloodiron sword and my slightly illegal home in the basement of the municipal library. And a couple of Talents I try to keep quiet, including very light fingers and a way with a lock pick.
But then some nasty characters bring their Family feud into my friend's pawn shop, and I have to make a callget involved, or watch a cute guy die because I didn't. I guess I made the wrong choice, because now I'm stuck putting everything on the line for Devon Sinclair. My mom was murdered because of the Families, and it looks like I'm going to end up just like her. . .
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Cold Burn of Magic
By JENNIFER ESTEP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Estep
All rights reserved.
Bad things always come in threes.
Three strikes. Those three bears that Goldilocks ran into.
The three guards with swords who were chasing me right now.
"Come back here, you thief!" one of the guards bellowed, his voice booming across the dark rooftops.
I grinned and ran faster.
Thirty minutes ago, I had let myself into the lavishly furnished, but poorly protected, brownstone of a rich, Family-affiliated accountant who had bought a ruby necklace for his girlfriend—something his wife didn't exactly appreciate.
So I had been dispatched to swipe said necklace on the angry wife's orders and dime. It had been child's play to climb up the drainpipe to the second floor of the brownstone, pick open a balcony door, and slip inside. I hadn't even had to break into the office safe, because I discovered the necklace nestled in a black velvet box, the top open, sitting on the accountant's desk. I'd admired the sparkle of the rubies before closing the lid and tucking the box into my long, sapphire-blue trench coat.
Then I had rifled through the rest of the desk to see what else I could steal.
I'd been mildly surprised and rather pleased to come across a pair of diamond cuff links tucked away in another box in one of the drawers. The diamonds weren't as large and impressive as the rubies, but into my pockets they'd gone all the same, along with a gold fountain pen, a sterling silver letter opener, and a crystal paperweight.
Nothing that I hadn't swiped dozens of times before in my seventeen years. In fact, this job had been easier than most of the recent ones Mo had sent me on.
You might say that I was a sort of modern-day Robin Hood, merrily stealing from the rich. Only I never, ever gave my loot away for free. There were only three people in this world that I cared about—me, myself, and I. Well, maybe four, if you caught me on a good day and I felt like including Mo. Either way, Mo could fend for himself, and mine was quite enough of a mouth to feed, as far as I was concerned.
Once I made sure all the loot was securely tucked away in my coat pockets, I scanned the rest of the office. But the vases and other knickknacks were too awkward and oddly shaped for me to carry away, the furniture far too large and heavy.
Satisfied with my haul, I decided to leave—the exact moment one of the guards stepped into the room to fetch the necklace for his boss.
He had yelled for his two buddies, they'd come crashing into the office, swords drawn, and I had beat a hasty retreat through a side door, up some stairs, and out onto the top of the brownstone before leaping onto the roof of the next house over ... and the one after that ... and the one after that ...
Now, here I was, three minutes later, still racing across the rooftops of some of the nicer brownstones in Cloudburst Falls, West Virginia. The guards had been harder to shake than I'd expected, but I had a plan to take care of that.
I always had a plan.
I neared the edge of the roof and put on an extra burst of speed, preparing myself to leap onto the rooftop of the next house over. Lucky for me, the brownstones in this part of town were grouped closely together, with flat, square roofs, many of which featured gardens or even aviaries. This particular roof boasted both, and the roses fluttered as I raced past them, a few petals swirling up into the humid air, while the doves mournfully coo-coo-cooed about how I'd disturbed their sleep.
It was only a short gap between houses, maybe three feet, and I easily cleared it, my feet churning through the air before my sneakers scraped against solid stone again.
I staggered forward a few steps, my coat flapping around my legs. While I worked to regain my previous speed, I glanced over my shoulder. Even though it was after ten at night, and rain clouds cloaked the sky, I could see the three guards chasing me as clearly as if it were noon, thanks to my Talent for sight. They looked like normal humans, and I couldn't tell if they were boring old mortals or more interesting magicks like me.
The guards didn't seem to have any Talents, any obvious magic. Otherwise, lightning bolts, ice shards, or even balls of fire would have been streaking through the air towards me. Part of me sort of wished the guards were throwing magic at me. It would have made my escape easier.
Because I had another, rather unusual Talent of my own.
But it wasn't meant to be, and the men jumped onto the roof behind me as I leaped onto the next one over—the last on this block.
I raced over to the far side of the roof. This brownstone butted up against a street, which meant that the next building over was more than a hundred feet away, much too far to make the jump. And since this was a private home, there wasn't even a fire escape to climb down, just a rickety metal drainpipe loosely bolted onto the side of the brownstone.
But I already knew that from when I'd cased the neighborhood earlier this evening. In fact, it was the reason I'd run toward this building.
So I dipped my hands into my pockets, sorting through the items there—the necklace box, the other loot I'd swiped, my phone, several quarters, half of a dark chocolate candy bar that I'd been eating earlier while I was watching the accountant's house. Finally, my fingers closed over two pieces of soft, supple metal, and I yanked out a pair of dull silver mesh gloves, which I pulled onto my hands.
The guards easily made the leap. Well, really, for them, it was more like a hop, given their long legs. I turned to face them. The guards grinned and slowed down when they realized I'd run out of rooftops.
One of the guards stepped forward. His green eyes glittered like a tree troll's in the semidarkness, and his black hair was cropped so close to his head that it looked like he was wearing a shadow for a skull cap.
"Give us the necklace, and we'll let you live," he growled. "Otherwise ..."
He swung his sword in a vicious arc, right at my shoulder level.
"Off with my head?" I murmured. "How cliché."
My hand dropped to my waist and the sword that was belted there. I considered sliding the weapon free of its black leather scabbard, raising it into an attack position, and charging forward, but I decided not to. No way was I going to the extra trouble of fighting three guards, not for the pittance that Mo was paying me.
"Come on" he rumbled. "I don't like carving up little girls, but I've done it before."
I didn't think he was being overly insulting with the little girl crack, since he looked to be at least fifty.
So I sighed and slumped my shoulders, as though I were beaten. Then I reached into my coat pocket, drew out the black velvet box, and held it up where the leader could see it. His eyes weren't as good as mine—few people's eyes were—but he recognized the box.
He nodded, stepped forward, and held out his hand.
I grinned and tucked the box back into my pocket. "On second thought, I think I'll hang on to it. Later, fellas."
I hopped onto the ledge of the roof, took hold of the drainpipe, and stepped off into the night air.
The wet metal slid through my fingers like greased lightning. It would have laid the flesh of my palms open to the bone if I hadn't been wearing my gloves. The wind whipped through my black hair, pulling pieces of it free from my ponytail, and I let out a small, happy laugh at the sheer, thrilling rush of plummeting toward the earth. At the last moment, I gripped the drainpipe much tighter, until the screech-screech-screech of metal rang in my ears. But the motion slowed my descent and even caused a bit of smoke to waft up from my gloves.
Five seconds later, my sneakers touched the sidewalk.
I let go of the drainpipe, stepped back, and looked up.
The guards were hanging over the side of the roof, staring at me with gaping mouths. One of them lurched toward the drainpipe, as if to follow me, but in his rush, he ended up ripping the top part of the metal completely away from the brownstone. The rest of the drainpipe broke free from the wall and clattered to the ground, causing a few rusty sparks to shoot through the air. Looked like he was a magick after all, one with a Talent for strength. Chagrined, that guard turned to face the leader and held out the length of pipe.
The leader slapped him upside the head with the hilt of his sword. The second guard dropped out of sight, probably knocked unconscious by the hard blow. Apparently, the leader had also had a strength Talent. The third guard eyed the sidewalk, like he was thinking about leaping over the ledge, but the roof was more than sixty feet above the pavement. There was no way he could survive that high a fall, not unless he had some sort of healing Talent. Even then, it would be a big risk to take and not worth the pain of the broken bones. The guard knew it, too, and backed away from the ledge, which was exactly what I'd been counting on.
When he realized they weren't going to catch me, the leader screamed out his rage and brandished his sword in the air, but that was all he could do.
I gave him a mock salute, then slid my hands into my coat pockets and strolled down the sidewalk, whistling a soft, cheery tune.
Nothing that I hadn't done before.
Despite the late hour, the cobblestone streets of Cloudburst Falls were not deserted.
Far from it.
Lights blazed in the shops, hotels, and restaurants, the golden glows banishing the worst of the shadows in the surrounding alleys, if not the things that lived in them. Mortals and magicks of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities flowed up and down the sidewalks and into the storefronts, all of which were decorated with castles, swords, and other magic-themed art. In one diner, customers ate at a counter, while winged pixies barely six inches tall flitted through the air, steaming plates of meat loaf and mashed potatoes balanced on their tiny heads.
The customers all looked like normal humans, but it was still easy to tell the magicks from the mortals. The magicks were focused on their cheeseburgers, shakes, and fries, while the mortals let their food get cold, too busy gaping at the pixies zipping all around them to nosh on their tuna melts, grilled cheeses, and club sandwiches. Rubes, most magicks derisively called the mortals, and with good reason.
I stopped at a crosswalk, watching the traffic. Cars with out-of-state license plates and tour buses, mostly, with a few magicks on bicycles pedaling by, using their Talents for strength or speed to easily or quickly churn their legs and pull the cutesy carriages full of canoodling couples along behind them. A sign planted in a flowerbed in the median featured a carving of a white castle. Words in a fancy script on the sign claimed that Cloudburst Falls was "the most magical place in America" a tourist town where "fairy tales are real"
I snorted. Yeah, fairy tales were real here all right—including the monsters that went along with them. Monsters that were fe-fi-fo-fum hungry for all the blood and bones they could sink their teeth and claws into, mortal, magick, or otherwise.
While I waited for the light to change, I raised my gaze to Cloudburst Mountain, the rugged peak that loomed over the city. White clouds cloaked the top of the mountain, the thick fog made out of mist that continually drifted up from the dozens of waterfalls tumbling down the sides. The mist wrapped around the peak like whipped cream on top of a sundae, but the mountain, the falls, and the sweeping views from the top were what the tourists came here to see.
Along with the monsters.
Several different tour companies hauled folks into the surrounding forests and up the mountain so they could observe monsters in their natural habitats, sort of like the Southern version of an African safari. Those who were a little less outdoorsy and adventurous could stay in town, where they could safely ooh and ahh over monsters in parks, petting zoos, and the like, as well as enjoy Cloudburst Falls' overall kitschy, renaissance-faire theme.
Below the cloud line, mansions made out of white, gray, and black stone sprawled across the mountain ridges, the silver lights inside twinkling like stars. During the day, I would have been able to see the flags decorated with symbols that topped the towers in the lavish compounds, but the distant flags were only indistinct blobs in the night sky. The colors and crests represented the Families, or mobs, that made up the power structure here, at least among many of the magicks.
But there were two Families that stood above all the others—the Sinclairs and the Draconis. Their mansions were the biggest, the most impressive, and the highest ones up on the mountain, with the Sinclairs on the west side and the Draconis on the eastern slope. All the other Families were below them, literally.
And me too. Although I had as little respect for the Sinclairs and the Draconis, and their constant feuding, as I did for everything else. You couldn't do the sorts of jobs that I did and follow the rules, much less care about who you pissed off by breaking them.
But I preferred to keep a low profile, for all sorts of reasons, and that meant not stealing from the Families. At least, not from any of their more prominent members. Although their hired hands, like the accountant I'd robbed tonight, were fair game.
Steering clear of the Families was the only real rule I followed. Besides, there were plenty of rich people here in the city to rob, not to mention all the tourists who didn't even realize their wallets, cameras, and phones were missing until they got back to their hotels.
Mo went up the mountain sometimes, though, peddling his many ill-gotten goods to whatever Family would let him sidle in through their doors. My fingers curled around the box in my pocket. I wondered who he would sell the ruby necklace to. Probably some rich Family schmuck looking for a present for someone—or a bribe.
The light changed, and I crossed the street, putting all thoughts of the Sinclairs, Draconis, and other Families out of my mind.
The farther west I walked, the lighter the street and foot traffic got, and the less shiny, polished, and magical everything appeared to be. The bustling businesses disappeared, replaced by dilapidated row houses. Calling this the bad part of town would have been a kindness, since matchsticks glued together would have been more substantial than most of the buildings. Almost every home I passed featured broken concrete steps, sagging wooden porches, and roofs with gaping holes, like something had come along and taken bites out of the dull, weathered tin.
Maybe something had.
In addition to mortals and magicks, monsters made up the third, albeit smallest, part of the population, and they weren't uncommon in this part of town. All of the rundown homes, deserted businesses, and abandoned warehouses made great places for something to curl up and lie in wait for lost tourists to wander by.
I was the only person on the street, and I drew my sword, my blue eyes flicking left and right, peering into the shadows that had crept up to the edge of the sidewalk, thanks to the busted-out streetlights. The pools and patches of blackness didn't bother me, though, not with my Talent for sight. I could see everything around me as clear as day, no matter how dark it actually was.
Like everything else, magic mostly fell into three categories—strength, speed, and senses, which included sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. The majority of Talents were some variation on those three areas, whether it was the ability to lift a car with one hand, move faster than a snake striking, or hear a coin hit the ground from a hundred feet away. And, as if all that wasn't enough, some folks could even conjure up their magic and hold balls of fire, lightning bolts, or poisonous clouds in the palms of their hands so that everyone could see and feel their power—and potentially be hurt by it.
Excerpted from Cold Burn of Magic by JENNIFER ESTEP. Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Estep. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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