The second book in this contemporary fantasy series returns to the life of Tessa Andrews as she balances the magical and mundane worlds.
Tessa didn't believe in magic, but magic believed in her, and that started a fight for her life.
An ancient artifact known as a maelstrom stone has embedded itself in her left palm. It thrives on chaos, which describes her new life perfectly. She battles to find a balance between the ordinary world and the magical one, all while freeing her father from his ghostly state, helping a phoenix wizard restore his rejuvenation ritual, and retrieving the stolen Eye of Nimora for the Broadstone clan. Tessa must also help her mother navigate the rocky road of academia and single motherhood finances, fall in love herself, and steer her college teammates to a divisional championship. She needs friends, both ordinary and magical, by her side.
Then a strange and forbidding book of the Dark Arts strikes her with actual power...and Tessa realizes more than ever that there is no I in teamunless it's the one in new, improved sorceress.
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“DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT . . .”
I NEVER USED to believe in magic, but magic believed in me and that’s when the fight started.
If magic were graceful and elegant, it probably would reject me. But apparently it favors people who can barely walk and breathe at the same time, trip over shadows on the sidewalk, and fight off inconvenient face-plants wherever possible. I fall a lot, but I bounce back. Except on the hockey field where I hap- pen to excel…
Take a deep breath.
Maybe Dylan Thomas said it best. I fight my hardest struggles at night. Alone. And that is partly because I’m afraid for myself. I rage. The mystical relic that embedded itself in my left palm is to blame, although I didn’t have that much trouble with the maelstrom stone at first, not until it absorbed an equally magical 24-karat solid gold ring imbued with sheer evil. Now the two of them seem to be duking it out for my soul, and my dreams are a front in a no-holds-barred duel. I’m young. I can go without a few nights’ sleep once in a while, but sweet heavens, this is getting old. I can’t weaken. As much as I fear for myself, I am terrified for my family and friends. Nightmares are real.
Months ago, I signed up for community college, just your average kid whose father abandoned the family—oh, did I forget to mention that? Don’t worry, Mom and I found him eventually. He’s an interdimensional ghost living in our basement—but before that, a friend of the family died in a house fire. Now this is where it gets weird. The professor died, but didn’t, because he’s a phoenix wizard, and they’re generally reborn in fire if the proper rituals have been held. Only he did and they weren’t, so now we have a gorgeous and adorable-looking guy living with us who has two souls–his and the crusty old professor’s, but little of the professor’s wizardly knowledge—and we’re trying to help him get restored. It has to be done because something nasty is rising in the world.
Which means as soon as the professor is successful at getting his phoenix ritual straightened out and compiled, we get to set him on fire again.
I’d like to say that’s where the weirdness stops, but it’s only where it gets started. Along the way to get the professor’s ritual correct, I collected a motley crew of friends: a wrong- side-of-London–raised demon, an Iron Dwarf and his son, a French sorceress, and Richmond police’s finest, Lieutenant Carter Phillips, who happens to be my main crush with a war hero record, a crooked smile, and the power of a desert sun god backing him. Of course, that’s only one side of the equation. On the enemy side, I have an overly ambitious and therefore evil Kitsune (a Japanese fox deity that is normally good, but there’s my luck), a samurai sorcerer, a pack of shadow hounds, a vengeful squad of harpies, and Malender, who has to be the most beautiful-looking being I’ve ever met, even though he is surrounded by a murky cloud of pure nastiness and everyone else is scared spitless by him. He is masculine, not a doubt about that, but mortal? Probably not. No one has told me what he is, but I’ve my own ideas, something in the realm of a lost god from a long-ago past. He has yet to disabuse me of that. Not to mention I’ve been warned that the bad guys will be popping up out of the sidewalk because this Great Evil is awake and presumably coming after all of us. I have been told by friends and enemies that the stone possessing my left hand is of utmost importance in the fate of the world. Peachy.
Add to that the daily consuming guilt that I put my father into a losing situation and haven’t found a way out for him yet. I’m working on it!
I’d rather face the arch rivals of my college field hockey team any day than my nightmares, because I’d at least have shin guards for armor and a sturdy stick in my hands. When I’m on the field, surrounded by my teammates, I’m a striker and the one to be feared. Go Sky Hawks!
On the metaphysical side, I’ve learned to duck and run. It sounds easier than it is.
It’s bedtime and that means I woke up without actually waking and found myself with stick in hand, balanced on the balls of my feet, and heard a sound that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I stood my ground and looked at the mutated mastiff crossed with a rhino as it approached, head down, breathing a deep-throated rumble, glad for my hockey stick in this nightmare. Usually, I’m empty-handed. The thing’s eyes glowed ruby red, which seems to be universal in these critters. I wondered how much that affected their actual eyesight. Like, would I disappear if I stood in front of a crimson bed comforter or something? And if I was lucky enough, was it as nearsighted as an actual rhino, which could be a definite advantage to me?
I grasped my stick in a cross-body hold and dropped my chin a little, mirroring the beast’s stance. “You look like you put the ugly in monster.”
It let out a massive huff and pawed the ground. A tear-inducing stink rose around it. I sniffled a bit and waved it away. “If you think I’m afraid of you, you’re only a teensy bit right because you look like you could plow right through me. But I know that’s not the endgame here. Someone wants my stone, and they have to have fingers and thumbs and something of a hand to take it and for it to be useful—and you don’t. Meaning that you’re just a big, dumb stumbling block that someone else is throwing at me.”
Beastie threw its head up and charged across the grass, and I realized I might have been better off not telling it what I suspected. It cornered quicker than I figured, and its shoulder knocked me off my stride as I threw myself off to the right. I shoved my stick out and caught it between its thick and leathery front legs, sending it to its knees as it bellowed and nearly did a headstand as it stumbled to a rugged stop. Off-balance myself, I skidded to one knee and got up just a skoosh slower than Beastie did. I mean, it levitated to its feet. My jaw dropped. As it rushed me, I pointed to the right and rolled to the left, its reeking breath parting my hair.
In a full run, it had no chance of pivoting and hightailing it back to where I jumped to my feet. I took to my heels and did not look back, racing across the green field, which, in this dream state, might have been the local park or even the college campus athletic field, but held one singular and quite sturdy looking tree in its center. That tree had definite possibilities.
A straight line is the quickest route between two points, but a strategic zigzag seemed more effective with a few tons of dog-rhino on my heels. I could corner, it couldn’t. At the last minute, I readied to leap up the tree trunk and skitter out of the way when it hit me.
What the hell was a lone tree doing out here in the middle of nowhere?
I swerved sharply away. The tree rattled and shook as if hit by hurricane winds, and flailing branches stretched out to grab me. Stray leaves slapped me upside the face. I could hear rhino- dog galloping behind me as I raced out of the tree’s reach and then the thundering grew louder. I looked back over my shoulder and saw that it had multiplied into three. That brought hot anger up the back of my throat.
I slapped my hockey stick into the palm of my hand. “All right then. You won’t play fair, so I won’t.” In a quick breath, I called out: “Lisanne, Lisanne, Lisanne. Kristy, Kristy, Kristy.” And the last of my hockey teammates I would put on the field: “Jheri, Jheri, Jheri!”
In the twitch of an eyelid, four of us raced across the grass, in hockey skorts, jersey tops, and shin guards, with trusty sticks in our hands. I knew this wasn’t their real selves because they didn’t look stunned to be summoned, even though Jheri had on her padded goalie accessories and shook her head at me. The headshake I knew, her black curls bouncing about her shoulders, held back by a headband in our college colors. She flashed a smile at me.
I swung around, pointing at the enemy. “I need blockers.”
The other three spread out to be my wingmen, sticks readied, faces determined. I don’t think the rhino-dogs knew what hit them when we didn’t stand aside or dodge as they charged. We wheeled around on the right side runner, split him away from the herd, so to speak, fleeter on our heels than our prey, and none of my gals were shy on high-sticking when it counted. The rhino-dog gave a gusty bellow before dropping to its flank and going limp, as swelling shut its eyes and one horn dangled by mere hairs from its snout.
The other two beasties swung about, trumpeting noisily in hopes of scaring us, I suppose, but Kristy let out her own throaty “Whuuup,” as in about to get a southern whupping. She always has a sweet romance novel in her backpack, a pert nose, pretty golden-blond hair, and a murderous stare when she’s defending the playfield. No one messes with my teammates.
We ran around the field till it sucked the air out of our lungs and the stamina from our bodies—or at least mine, the other three still looked feisty—and I staggered to a halt.
“Gotta finish this.” I needed to be able to breathe and get a few hours of sleep.
“What’s the plan?”
“Turn around and run right at ’em. They’ll either dissipate or knock me over, and at this rate, I don’t care.”
My teammates had circled me and now they high-sticked each other, wood beating in a primitive rhythm. “Can’t give up, Tessa.”
“Not giving up. But they can’t have this unless I give it away, and I’ve no intentions of that. Got to stop them in their tracks.” I craned my head up to look at them. Or over my dead body, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. Odds were, I’d wake up. I had before.
The stone in my hand grew warmer, waking to the heat of my pulse. I curled my hand shut around it, straightened, and inhaled sharply. The line of rhino-dogs charged at us and my gals fanned out again as wingmen. I knew they couldn’t be hurt but had no assurances about myself. This was an ongoing assault, and whoever or whatever initiated it had to be getting tired of failing.
As if the critters could read my thoughts, they peeled away from me and, muzzles and horns lowered, went after my team- mates. Lisanne went down, rolled, and came up with an arm missing. I mean—just gone. No blood or gore, simply empty air. No harm, no foul? She looked at me, stricken, as a thin trail of blood leaked from her nose. Oh, no.
“Run! Just run! Get out of here!” Hollering, I bolted after the attackers, holding my stick like a baseball bat, ready to bash heads in. My gals took to their heels, disappearing into pink mist as they did, and I got a good swing in to cover their retreat. I hit, and hit hard, the impact singing all the way from my hands up into my shoulder. It felt like socking a brick wall. The beast didn’t react like a wall, though. It fell to its knees and did a slow somersault, heels over horns, to a halt. Then it turned to ash and crumbled away.
Before it had blown to nothing, I turned to chase down a second. My breath rattled in my lungs and I whistled as I exhaled, like a tea kettle running out of steam. My second swing barely grazed the nightmare, and it had begun to pivot in my direction, its shoulder grazing me.
I have had whole trees (don’t ask) fall on me with less impact. I went down, skidding across the grass, losing my hockey stick as I hit on a shoulder before splatting, arms and legs akimbo. The ground vibrated as the big boy lumbered to his feet, dug in, and charged, red eyes smoldering. I scrambled up, tripped over the lost stick, got it in both hands, and braced myself.
One solid strike between the eyes ought to slow it down, if nothing else. I bounced up on the balls of my feet, my whole body one solid ache and yelling at me what are you thinking???
As I struck, the rhino-dog or dog-rhino split in two instead of plowing me under and, unbelievably, my mother rose up and stood there. Dripping blood. Petite, blonde, blazing blue eyes looking up at me in bewilderment, the side of her head bashed and gashed. She put a shaking hand up to me. “Tessa . . .”
“No. No, no, no!” I pulled myself to a halt and stumbled back to her. I could feel hot tears stream down my face. “Mom, I didn’t—I couldn’t—”
But maybe I could, and had. I hadn’t seen her hidden inside the beast. Had she always been there? Had she really been chasing me? I scrubbed at my traitorous eyes and reached for her. The moment her hand touched mine… the left hand… the maelstrom went red hot. I yelped, but she didn’t flinch one bit. She wrapped both hands about mine in craving. She clawed at my palm, at my flesh, digging at the stone.
I twisted my arm out of her hold and shoved her away, not knowing if the thing was my mom or another nightmare or something possessed. I couldn’t tell. I backed away. “Go home. Go back to sleep. Be safe. Be my mom.”
The apparition took a zombie step after me, and I turned to flee, running right into the branch-arms of the tree that had been after me from the very first. It sprang up and around me like a trap, sticky limbs closing tight. I dropped and rolled to the ground, breaking free of some of the tendrils but not enough. I think I screamed in fury as I tried to tear my way loose. My throat ached as if I had.
Alone again, I fought in a green jungle that hugged me tighter and tighter with every movement. Like a python, it wrapped itself close and began to squeeze. I managed a squeak for help.
A hand reached down, grasped my wrist, and pulled me up. Up, up, and away from my captor and I looked into a stunningly beautiful face that I knew well. Masculine, perfect, and utterly ageless. Michelangelo could have sculpted him.
Malender smiled at me. He rarely smiled, and the effect of that expression washed over me, like welcome sunshine on a once rainy day.
“I didn’t call for you.”
“No, but how could I not come, Tessa of the Salt? I heard your distress and fear.” Mal’s full lips curved ever so slightly as his cheer expanded. He thought it amusing that I threw fistfuls of salt over him to protect myself nearly every time we met. Tonight, however, he didn’t seem to be wearing that dark and oily cloud of malevolence he usually had. And I didn’t seem to have any salt about me. Go figure. Next dream I’d have to come prepared.
He set me on my feet and began to dust me off, like some valet shedding lint from a suit, but mine were leaves and vines and angry branches that twitched and thrashed even as he brushed off the last of them. Every touch of his felt like a tiny, electric jolt, all the nerves in my body reacting. Did I like it or abhor it? I couldn’t tell, and my confusion rooted me to the ground. He took me by the hand again and walked me away from the trap as it keened and wailed in a high and windy voice before it withered down to nothing but a sooty spot in the field. His grasp was firm, warm, and unsettling.
“You can’t go on like this.”
“I know.” I hung my head a moment before looking up to meet the challenge in his eyes. “But I’m not quitting either.”
“Magic has a price. Do you know what you are paying?”
“Besides sleepless nights?”
He shook his head slowly. “Far beyond that, and you need to learn what you might be giving up. Magic exacts a terrible toll.”
“I don’t intend to lose.”
“Of course, you cannot. Because, Tessa dear—” And he took the unmovable stone gently from my palm, and beckoned with it across my field of vision. I felt a dizzying loss as he finished with, “This is the way the world ends.”
I suddenly realized I wasn’t fighting for myself—I was fighting for everyone.
I jumped to stop him.