When her father disappeared into limbo years ago, Tessa's world fell apart. It took her discovery of magic for her to begin to put things back together. But she hasn't been able to restore her father from his ghostly half-existence--and he is fading fast.
Magic has a price, and Tessa is learning that it is both steep and deadly. The phoenix wizard who could train her has deserted Tessa. She has friends among the Iron dwarves and harpies, even a lesser demon, and the mysterious Malender with his sinister whip of thorns and fire. But she is still faced with a delicate balancing act.
Then her mother incurs the wrath of the magical world when she writes a dissertation exposing its reality. That is the final straw, as Magic fights back and an assassin accepts a contract on their lives. Tessa must learn to master her new powers as a sorceress, or everyone and everything she loves is doomed.
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Having magic would be awesome, if only there weren't people willing to kill me for it.
There are, as far as I know-and my knowledge is like Swiss cheese with a number of holes in it-only three ways to naturally have magic. It can be studied and practiced for years on end to gain skill, or one can simply be born magical like an Iron Dwarf, harpy, or an elf. Don't ask me about vampires, I've been told they're extremely rare, and no one likes discussing them.
My friend the professor, wherever he is, has learned several lifetimes' worth of skill, being a phoenix wizard who can rejuvenate himself when time weighs too heavily. He has unlimited lifetimes to spend learning his spells. I can't pontificate about those born with it. I'm just learning about the different folk who exist in a world I never thought possible.
And then there's the third, reviled way-theft. Out-and-out stealing magic from those unsuspecting or unable to defend themselves. The professor wouldn't tell me how it's done, but I gather it's really something terrible, like stealing a soul.
There are articles which can store power in their core, but they are few and far between. Someone has to have charged them in the first place, so the magic in those items is simply transferred.
As for me, I've been possessed. A relic known as the maelstrom stone has decided to embed itself in the palm of my left hand and there it stays until I give it away or die, which is why I've been hunted. Now the stone itself has power which it lends to me when needed, and it also absorbs other relics, increasing its ability almost at will. I could easily be convinced that it is alive, somehow, and . . . well, hungry. One of those relics made a sorceress of me, but don't ask me what happens if I lose the stone. I don't know. I don't even have a good guess, unless I lose it in the most drastic way possible, over my dead body.
What I do have is a healthy respect for self-defense. I'm an enforcer for my college field hockey team, meaning I can run-and I can hit, jar, bump, trip, tackle (discreetly), and scramble at will. Off the field, the stone can help me throw up a defensive shield and so can the awesome bracers the Broadstone dwarven tribe gave me for my twentieth birthday. As a sorceress, my power lies in recognizing the magic sunk into other objects and calling that power into my usage. This is a little dicier than it sounds because I didn't used to have the Sight necessary to recognize and name the power so I can own it. I do now, thanks to shards of the Eye of Nimora which my stone absorbed. That's another magical object possessed by the Iron Dwarves and which they use in their judicial system. There was a slight accident when I retrieved the Eye for them (it had been stolen) and it broke when dropped. Not much damage, thank goodness, but two distinct splinters snapped off, and my maelstrom stone didn't hesitate to gobble them up. They reside in the stone and are a little temperamental about opening and viewing, but we've reached an agreement. I think. I would have given them back so the Eye could be whole again, but their loss doesn't seem to have weakened the original relic and my stone has never regurgitated anything it's swallowed. And my power grows.
No, I don't rest easy, even at night.
I wasn't surprised when something woke me. Nights are the worst, because things can creep in and out through the veil of dreams, the sort of things that nobody wants to deal with.
So when I rolled over in the dead of night, in that still, silent, and frozen week after Christmas and New Year's, an unwelcome presence took me right out of my sleep. It ran across the edge of my conscious thought like a tiny beast with razor-sharp and ice-cold toes.
I blinked up at the ceiling, and listened. Had something entered the house? It shouldn't have been possible, but the professor no longer lived here and his wards might be weakening. My overgrown pup, Scout, snored from the corner of the mattress. Whatever I'd heard, he hadn't. My bedroom felt cold outside the covers, and I didn't want to leave them. I pulled them up under my chin until I realized that I'd already passed the point of falling asleep again. I hate it when that happens. I slid out of bed quietly and found the bedroom floor as chilled as the air. It could have been the weather, with snow that comes and goes and icy rain following it in, and everything seems interrupted and left for dead.
My robe didn't hang on its usual hook by the closet. My mom must have taken it to wash, so I grabbed my favorite oversized T-shirt and pulled it on over my boy shorts and athletic bra. I don't sleep in cozy nightgowns or pj's in case I have to react. In the faint light from the hallway, my shirt proudly read: We Ar the Champi ns. I tend to wear my favorite shirts to smithereens.
In the hallway, I still heard nothing, but something hung in the air. It smelled moldy and musty and left a slimy feeling down the back of my throat. I'd never encountered anything like it before and wasn't happy about meeting up with it now.
Just past my doorway, there's a niche in the hallway wall. A vase and a bouquet of what looked to be budding red roses about to open, resided there. They're not flowers. They're tell-tales, a mostly reliable alarm system. As I approached them, I could see that every flower had opened wide, looking like daisies scared straight. I put a finger out and stroked a velvety petal. It shivered under my touch and then leaned into it. Something had definitely alarmed them.
They looked toward the street side of the house.
Turning, I made my way slowly down the hall, trying to avoid squeaky boards. Scout joined me, a little sheepishly, his golden tail hanging low in an apologetic wag for letting me explore the unknown alone. I put a hand on his head. "Quiet."
He gave a little snuff of understanding.
I opened the next bedroom door, which had been the professor's room, although it had been empty now for months. The bed stayed made and no dust lingered on the wardrobe or nightstand, but the area had that smell of being unoccupied. Or maybe the musty smell from the hall followed me in. I looked at the bed where his walking cane with the large quartz decorating its handle caught a bit of starlight through the curtained window. It glowed like the diamond it resembled. I smiled to see it so bright and clean. It had been through a lot, that crystal, turning dark and opaque, and we'd thought it would never recover. I guessed that's why the professor left it behind. It's one of those relics I mentioned.
I stepped around the single bed and headed to the window. The curtains were askew the tiniest bit, and if I were careful, I could look outside on the street without being caught spying. I positioned myself, Scout promptly sitting down on my left foot to anchor me.
Down below, a mist danced along the street and sidewalks, up and down the block, and I could see frosted patterns on the ground. Lampposts up and down the block seemed a little dimmed; the shadows they cast were barely decipherable in the overall gloom. I could see two porch lights on down the block but no lit windows in the houses. Everyone in the neighborhood but me seemed to be safely asleep, but it was the streetlight directly below that drew my attention. It cast shadows where none should be, shaped like nothing I'd ever seen before, and which didn't belong there. How can something cast backward silhouettes?
The curtains at the window wiggled a little as I pulled one aside, just a slit, to better look down at our street. It's odd, but our streetlights change intensity. They burn brighter once warmed up. On a winter night like tonight, with a heavy mist that might turn into a light snow by morning, the streetlights barely seemed to cut into the evening. Midsummer was like that, too, as though the day had been long and bright enough that we deserved a milder, gentler illumination. Tonight, every light seemed to be pitching a losing battle against the cloak of evening. I could see little more than outlines although many were longer and deeper than expected. That hair-tickling feeling didn't go away. Something was leaning against a lamppost out there. I saw it.
I leaned close enough that my breath fogged the window a little. I watched it for the briefest of moments, trying to separate true shadow from illusion, and then-it seemed as if I had caught its attention as it looked up at me.
If it hadn't moved, I wouldn't have seen it. Stretching and turning, it seemed, as if suddenly becoming aware of my study.
Instinct jumped me backward. I dropped the curtain, breath thudding out of my lungs for a brief moment as my heart did a skip and a thump, and I fought to inhale. But the thing I found watching . . . just the hasty glimpse before I retreated . . . had looked up with blazing red eyes.
I'd seen Steptoe like that once when he'd lost control over his demonic powers, and I'd hoped never to see such a sight again.
I stepped back two, three steps from the window, just in case my silhouette could somehow be visible. I didn't want to draw attention. I took a ragged breath or two. My hand remained in the air, and I stared at my palm, my left palm, where the Eye of Nimora often looked back at me, and it awoke.
Two, small red slits opened to observe my world. But these eyes, though supernatural, held absolutely no resemblance to what I'd just seen below. There was no malevolence, no sinister aspect, but on the street-I'd felt a wave of malignance turned upward, toward my window, toward me, as the thing below searched.
My foot took a step all by itself. The rest of my body wanted to follow. To go see what the hell was going on, to find out what sat on my street by my front door and driveway and glowered at the world. I knew that would not be smart. I could feel the icy presence of malice drifting outward from it, whatever it was. I stared at the curtains, transfixed, while my heart thumped heavily.
What had I just seen? Like watching a train wreck, I couldn't stay away from the vision.
What was it doing here?
Eyes narrowing, I looked for it, and then I spotted it among the spiked silhouettes. Something nearly impossible to see.
Not a wisp of the curtain moved. I hadn't given myself away, but it had caught me . . . or had it? If it was surveilling the house, it could be gazing all over, not just where I stood. I waited until my heartbeats steadied and Scout went from sitting on my foot to lying down on it, paw across his nose as if he could also smell the evil odor creeping through the upstairs. When I leaned close to look again, the shadows had scattered-splintered across the road and sidewalk as if they had never been out of the ordinary and grotesque. It had disappeared or melded into the evening. I couldn't detect it even though I felt it. Slimy. Rotten. Evil.
So I did that thing that one should never do-I went downstairs, determined to go outside in search of what might have been happening. Nearly every Gothic horror written or filmed tells you Do Not Go Out Wandering. It's deadly. It's exactly what the enemy wants. It is usually fatal. But this was my house. We'd been driven out of our other home by poverty and addiction and found refuge here, and I wasn't about to let it happen again.
So I went anyway, my dog tucked against the back of my leg as if knowing what I planned to do and hoping I'd change my mind. Scout is smarter than the average dog, being of exceptional bloodlines . . . half elven, half Labrador retriever . . . with a predicted longevity of thirty years or so. His devotion to me is endless, except now he took a corner of my droopy T-shirt in his jaw and didn't want to let go when I got to the door. He had no intention of going out the front door and worked to keep me from accomplishing it.
I pushed him aside with a stern "off," and he retreated with a whine, his eyes sad and his ears drooping. The moment my bare feet touched the porch, I nearly turned around and bolted back inside. Cold radiated upward as if attacking; my whole body went icy, setting my teeth to chattering. I'd explore, but I'd do it in a damned hurry, I decided. Something inside me, probably my common sense, tugged at me to go back.
The shadows had all shrunk to normal size and dimensions, with no sign of what had been there. Something wicked had been here . . . I could feel it in every tingling nerve . . . but it had passed, and I was no closer to knowing what it was.
I walked about the lamppost and watched the shadows dance as I did: all normal, no grotesque rendering. I peered at the iron structure itself, to see if anything had been left behind but hoarfrost and saw nothing. Even that smell had dissipated, or I had gotten used to it because it no longer hung on the evening air. Yet . . . when I looked at the ground, I saw one distinctive shoeprint outlined there. It seemed to be fading even as I studied it. I hadn't brought my phone with me, so I had no chance to take a shot. It looked like a boot print, long and narrow with a distinctive heel but definitely man-sized, and then . . . it disappeared into the mist.
I retreated back to the safety of the house and had trouble closing the front door because of Scout's relieved and exuberant welcome. My feet tingled in the warmer air. I tugged on his neck.
"Enough already. Back to bed. Let's not disturb anyone else. I don't want a lecture."