Chapter 1: Summons
The rattle of the front door cut through Kay's sleep like a knife. Someone might have knocked, but since the door sat loosely in its frame, the rattle was much more audible than the knock itself. In her half-asleep state, she couldn't decide if she had heard the wind or a potential intruder.
She sat upright and fumbled around for the obsidian pendant around her neck. She would rather not kill an intruder with magic, since the cops would ask too many questions, but it was better than getting shot or stabbed herself.
There was another knock, this time louder, and she calmed slightly. Whoever was at her door in the dead of night wasn't trying to sneak up on her.
She stepped into her apartment living room just in time to hear a muffled voice say: "Kay? Open up; I'm from Maywitch."
That was the last thing she wanted to hear at any time, let alone at 3 a.m. the first day of summer semester finals.
She strode to the door and opened it, squinting in the light of the hallway outside. "You trying to wake the neighbors?" she hissed.
The man in front of her was a few inches taller than her, with broad, sloping shoulders. His expression was gentle, though, and he waved a hand over his shoulder dismissively. "I strategically placed some silence sigils around the hall. Don't worry, no one can hear me but you."
And no one can hear any screams of protest, Kay thought as she bit her lip. She had heard rumors about Maywitch, the de facto governing force of the witching world, having to step up their activities in recent weeks, but this was unexpected.
"I, Juan Fredricks, am here to inform you that your presence is needed at Maywitch Western Base, and failure to comply will result in heavy sanctions under the Magical Unification Code," he said, his tone practiced and level.
She started to roll her eyes, stopped herself, and tried to disguise her emotion by sweeping brown strands of hair out of her face. She had known all along that Maywitch could come for her eventually; mage children were always taught to honor any request from them, for the good of their magical community. But she knew she wouldn't be much use to them, since she had stopped using magic except in self-defense. Plus, any sanctions levied against her wouldn't accomplish much. She could survive any attacks on her thin ties to the witching world.
"I decline," she said. "No offense, just not--"
"One of those sanctions will be the termination of your lease," he said.
She stared at him for a long moment. "What? You can't do that."
He offered a nervous half-smile. "Sorry, but we have an agreement with the landlord. I think you were under the impression some funds from your father's estate were paying for it, through an arrangement your mother's lawyer made. It's actually been us. It was part of your mom's agreement with us. We will revoke your access to the trust and make sure your lease is--"
"What agreement?" Kay stopped and folded her arms. "Back up. Where's my mom? I want some proof for what you just said."
He nodded. "Let's get in the car and talk there, before any neighbors spot us," he said. "No obligation. Just a talk."
She stared down at the floor as she considered his offer. Part of her was terrified at the prospect of having to get in a car with some random man claiming to be from Maywitch. Her heart, though, pounded faster at the thought of getting some answers regarding her mother's whereabouts. She had been missing for nearly two years - and if Maywitch had some kind of agreement with her, then surely they had some kind of clue as to where she was.
"How do I know you're really from Maywitch?" she asked.
"Because I know the date of your father's death, as well as the manner in which you found out, as well as the exact day and time you last saw your mother. We keep these on file as security questions, of sorts, and your mother left them with us--"
"Answer the last one, then," she said.
He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, clearly deep in thought. "August 8, 2014, shortly after 8 p.m. outside this apartment."
She sighed. That was exactly it. While his answer didn't technically prove he was from Maywitch, it at least proved he knew something about her mother - and that was enough of a reason for her to follow him.
"Let's go. You can explain the rest in the car," she said.
"Pack a bag, first, in case you decide not to come back."
She stared at him. "I mean it," he said. "We can't just sit in the car in the parking lot; it'll look like a drug deal. We have get moving."
Before the sun began to rise over Maywitch's base in Salt Lake City, Felicity Gardner was already reviewing Juan's notes from the night's recruitment.
Follow-up: Samantha Clark. Scouts determined at 0245 that she was spending the night at a friend's house. No safe course of recovery determined at that time.
Contact: Michaela "Kay" Adamis. Target was taken in at 0415 with no resistance. Briefing will occur after I complete more urgent matters.
Gardner sighed and rubbed her eyes. She would have much preferred to have contacted Clark. Kay Adamis was almost twenty years old, but she was currently far less useful than many of her peers. In the Houston Metro area alone, there were some 200 mages who had been identified by Maywitch - and there was a slim chance that any had been overlooked. Adamis was likely one of the least skilled mages in the area, since Maywitch's surveillance suggested that she hadn't used her magic in a long time.
But she was easy pickings. Most of the world's mages were either too old to fight effectively, or were too politically powerful to be drafted. Though Maywitch didn't grant exemptions in writing, it was well-understood that certain families simply weren't good choices for being roped in for emergencies.
Gardner's cell phone rang, making her jump, and she whipped it out of her pocket and answered it. "What?" she snapped.
"Director, we got seismic activity near Denver."
"Weak, but growing. It also seems to be spreading south. There's a weird line it seems to be radiating from. I'm sending real-time data to your pad—"
The small tablet on her desk lit up, and Gardner swiped her mahogany fingers across its screen. She sighed and set her phone on the desk before putting it on speakerphone.
"Casey, tell Juan's group to veer south. I don't care if it takes them an entire week longer, just keep them away from that," she barked as she stood up. "I'm grabbing my things and coming upstairs-"
"Um - actually, if you look at the data now..." Casey's voice trailed off, and Gardner's tablet suddenly showed a map, with multiple spidery lines of red spreading out.
Gardner stopped with one of her desk drawers open. She watched as the thickest red line inched outward, across deserts, roads, and several highways hundreds of miles apart. "Shit," she muttered. "That was fast."
"What are your orders?"
She sat back down as fear gnawed its way into her stomach. She hadn't been prepared for this. Logistically, most of the pieces were falling into place, and defending against this new and unknown enemy shouldn't be horribly difficult. But every decision she made would always be a gamble. There were too many variables, and the chessboard was always shifting - and in danger of being overturned completely. Her predecessors had never dealt with anything this bizarre, so there was no protocol or precedent to utilize.
"Dispatch Dia's team, if they're still in Austin," she said. "Let the Feds know. And if Dia can't handle it, reroute Juan to do it, since he's the only other one with a good grip on the trap spells."
There was a faint grunt of surprise from Casey. "Er, roger that," he said.
Gardner ended the call and rubbed her temples. Magical accidents and occasional cover-ups were all that she thought she was signing up for when she accepted the job as Director of the Western Region. It was just her luck that the world would throw her such a dangerous curveball.
As they barreled down Interstate 10 away from Houston, Juan hadn't gotten off his phone long enough to answer Kay's questions. Judging by his frustrated tone and occasional swearing, it was something important.
The driver, a middle-aged man, politely declined to answer any of Kay's questions. When Juan ended his next call, Kay snapped: "Hey, you wanna explain why we've been driving away from my house for the past hour?"
"We can drive you back, but we didn't want to drive in circles," Juan said. "Someone would eventually notice if we did that. Also, Marcus, take the next exit south, will you?"
The driver nodded, and Kay felt the last of her patience slip away. "Wait, I've been trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but now I want answers," Kay said. "Start from the beginning. Where is my mom?"
"We don't know," Juan said. "She's off the grid, and we're more than a little worried. We don't have any reason to think she's dead, though."
She stared at the floor of the car. If even Maywitch didn't know where her mother was, then that was a serious problem. Her mother was a talented mage who had shied away from the witching world as she focused on raising Kay, her only daughter. She had vanished soon after Kay turned 18, but had unlocked a sizable trust fund - left by Kay's father, supposedly - that could've lasted her through college.
"So as soon as she left me, she went with you guys?" Kay said.
"Exactly. We needed her help on a top-secret research program. About seven months ago, we sent her on a mission to investigate something, and she vanished." Juan turned around and met her eyes. "How much do you know about Maywitch in general? It seems you've never been very plugged in to our world, so maybe I should start with the basics."
"Y'all basically keep the magical world from mashing up against the non-magical folks. Cover-ups when needed."
Juan shrugged and turned back around. "I mean, we also do research and education. Plus, when previously non-magical folks start dabbling in Wicca or something else and inadvertently discover they have more abilities than the average human, we have to do some damage control."
Kay couldn't suppress a smirk. "So, cover-ups."
"Yeah, and luckily that doesn't happen that often. But our other purpose..." He trailed off for a moment as he glanced at his phone. "We are also responsible for assembling a militia in times of war or other crises. And a crisis has come. You know that explosion in Illinois all those Congress folks were fussing about eight months ago?"
Kay nodded. It had barely registered in her mind through the haze of work and studying, but it was hard to ignore when every politician in the country had been shouting about it. "I do. Was that Maywitch?"
"Not exactly. It was the precursor to the current mess, though. There's been a huge uptick in low-grade earthquakes across the western half of North America, mostly in the U.S. and Mexico, since that explosion. To make a long story short, we suspect demon-summoners have reemerged."
She tilted her head in an attempt to read his expression, but the pre-dawn darkness obscured it. "I thought they didn't exist anymore," she murmured.
"That's what we thought, too, but it's not like there's a DNA test for this shit. Just gotta wait til someone's powers emerge." He glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. "And that's where--"
His phone rang, and he sighed and flipped it open. "Fredricks."
She scowled out the window, trying to conceal her annoyance. A few seconds later, Juan barked: "Marcus, head back north, past the highway. We might have trouble."
The driver nodded and flicked on his turn signal. "Are we heading into it, or running away from it?"
Juan waited, apparently listening to something. "Shit. Got it." He ended the call and tossed the phone onto the dashboard. "Heading into it. Dia's squad fucked up, so we're Plan B."
Kay suddenly felt her heart rate increase. She tried to get a glimpse of her escorts' expressions as they careened down the two-lane road, but they seemed stoically focused on the task at hand. "Kay, can you shoot some fire for long enough for me to trap this thing?" Juan said. "It should take about fifteen seconds. Marcus will do whatever it takes to shield you, so just shoot when he tells you to."
"I haven't used magic in at least six months," Kay said, running a finger over her pendant. "Can't y'all do it?"
"Marcus' main skill is possession, but possessors can't take over demons, so our options with two people are--" He sighed loudly. "Dammit, I didn't mean for you to get involved, but I need you to trust me!"
Kay watched out the window as the car rushed through a stop sign and past a gas station, the only building visible in the vicinity. Her situation was dire. There was no shelter - at least, nothing that wasn't a major explosive hazard - and it was too dark for her to run anywhere without risking major injury. She had little choice but to fight.
"If I die, I'm gonna haunt y'all long enough to make sure my mom kills you," she said without thinking.
Juan glanced up to the rearview mirror and laughed. "You're just like her, too!" he said. "And Bailey could totally kill me, too. Don't worry, just give me fifteen seconds of fire and we'll be fine."
Easy for him to say, she thought as he continued giving directions to Marcus. Several minutes later, the car crunched to a halt on a gravel road. They were pulling off the main road into sandy plains, with the last remnants of starlight providing the only natural source of light. It was a foreign, surreal landscape that only made her more nervous; her home was in the city where her mother had raised her, with metal and brick drowning out the natural world that now surrounded and exposed her.
"There's one of those really rare tunnel-type demons heading southeast in our general direction, and we're gonna see if we can draw it out," Juan said over his shoulder as he opened his door. "Kay, stay here a minute."
Marcus followed him outside. Kay sat back in her seat, wondering just what the hell he was hoping to accomplish.
Something in Juan's hand lit up in a blue glow, casting jagged shadows on the plains around him. The scene outside the van remained quiet and still for several minutes. Just as Kay was starting to wonder if they could leave, she felt something tremble beneath her feet.
"Get out, Kay," Juan yelled over his shoulder.
Kay's arms felt like lead as she pushed the car door open. He handed a vial of something to her – wormwood, she realized after a moment – and ran a hand through his sweaty hair.
"Whatever the fuck it is, blast it with fire and move however I tell you to," he said. "I have no idea how agile this thing is."
He turned back around and held his right hand away from his body, almost as if motioning for someone to join him. The earth stopped trembling, then started again, the magnitude of the quake seeming to grow every second.
Somewhere behind the car, there was a furious roar.
Chapter 2: The Magical World
Kay turned around just as something massive and scarlet appeared over the top of the car. It was easily fifteen feet tall, with inch-wide scales covering the shining mass that seemed to be its chest. Tan-flecked arms - at least, that's what Kay thought they were - emerged from at least four points on the sides of its torso.
Even with part of its bulk obscured by the car, it was formidable, and unlike anything Kay had seen or heard of. She heard Juan yell something behind her, but her racing thoughts seemed to be crowding out all ability to sort through silly things like directions.
Something grabbed her arm and dragged her to the right, and at the same time, some kind of bright green light erupted in front of her. "Marcus, shield her," Juan said somewhere to her right. "Kay, I need fire from you, too, until I get in the line of fire."
Kay tore her eyes from the creature and stared at Juan, who was clutching several vials in his hand. "Got it?" he said as he handed another vial to her.
"Launch a bunch of fireballs until you're in the way. Got it," she said. "What are you—"
He was gone before she could finish her sentence. As the green light before them faded, she fumbled with the vial's cap and muttered the shortest fire incantation she knew.
The vial in her right hand began to grow hot. She hadn't gotten as rusty as she thought, but it would still take her a minute to build power. Tendrils of flame curled around the fingers on her left hand, and she hastily stuck her palm outward, away from her body.
The creature had begun to climb over the top of the van, but Juan hit it with some sort of spell, and it stumbled back several feet. Marcus moved around the left side of the car, and green translucent appeared in front of him and Kay. She followed, her eyes darting between the creature and the fire beginning to grow in her hands.
Juan was a little to her right, crouching and trying to do something with the dirt and grass at his feet. He was probably trying to draw a magic circle, she knew, but why wouldn't he have one already on his person somewhere - a pendant, a tattoo, or even just a piece of paper? Maybe this was the 'trap' he had been referring to.
The creature lunged toward him, and Kay panicked, unleashing the full might of her flames.
The sky flashed as bright as the noontime sun. Fire sprinted forth from her palms, seeming to paint the air in front of her with opaque yellow waves, and Marcus' shield disappeared. The crab-like creature recoiled as flames spread over every spindly limb, and another wild shriek pierced the air. Something hot flew past her face as the flames themselves lashed out at the world around them, out of control and indiscriminate in their rage.
Something glowed green, and she could see Juan casting some kind of spell. Darkness danced before her eyes in inky spots, but before she could fully realize what was happening, she had fallen to her knees, gasping for breath.
Her head pounded miserably. The creature's shrieks were the only thing her senses could process. Other noises boomed around her, but she couldn't make out what they were. Her heart seemed to bang against her ribcage, chopping her breaths into shallow gasps.
She could feel someone - something - draw near her, to her left, and she pulled away. The creature's cries were fading, but she sensed some other danger.
Her vision finally faded, and she blacked out, crumpling into the dirt.
The chatter around Felicity Gardner had grown obnoxiously loud, and had she been any more sleep-deprived, she probably would've barked at her colleagues to shut up. The tiny communications room at Maywitch's Salt Lake City base was busier than usual. The morning's chaos had drawn many mages from their bunks in a hurry, and there were people in the room whom Gardner knew didn't really need to be there.
Someone's cup of coffee fell and splashed on the floor, its fall apparently unimpaired by any last-ditch attempts to catch it. That was the last straw. "Listen up!" Gardner barked.
The twenty or so mages all stopped what they were doing and looked at her. "All non-essential personnel need to leave. I don't care if you think this is relevant to your side project or whatever. You can get your updates via phone or email, like everyone else," she said.
Almost a dozen people headed for the door behind her, and she didn't hear a single muttered complaint from any of them. Most of those who stayed were seated at computers, phones or ancient tomes of witch history, doing research or checking in on various Maywitch employees.
The only two still standing were Gardner and a petite, dark-haired mage standing quietly to her right. "You did want to see me, right?" the young woman said.
Gardner smiled half-heartedly. "Yes. Thanks, Nadia. Any updates?"
"They texted about five minutes ago. Said there haven't been quakes in town."
"Good." Gardner held back a sigh of relief and let her smile grow. Nadia's charges were far too important to lose sight or sound of, especially in the current situation. "They're not leaving the safe house, right?"
Nadia nodded. Gardner noticed that the younger woman hadn't returned her smile. "I can keep checking on them every half-hour, if you want," Nadia said.
"Please do. Thanks. I'm sure it's been hard doing double-duty like this..."
Nadia shook her head, still not offering a smile or any other hint of emotion. Gardner had to suppress a grimace. The girl was like a robot. "Go get some rest in your bunk, but keep doing those thirty-minute checks," Gardner said, waving a hand to dismiss her.
One of the communications staff handed her a phone, and she took it as Nadia left. The work was never done, Gardner thought. Hopefully, the new girl, Kay Adamis, would survive her ordeal and manage to make herself useful.
Kay's entire body felt hot, and she tried to shed the sheets on top of her, but couldn't find the strength. She slowly opened her eyes and stared out at the white room in front of her. It took her a long moment to realize that she had no idea where she was.
A petite woman in a gray uniform was wiping down a countertop nearby. Kay tried to get a look at her face, but couldn't see under the long black bangs. She spoke up to get the woman's attention, but could only manage a hoarse grunt.
The woman turned around and grinned. "Oh, good!" she said. "You weren't even out that long. How are you?"
Kay coughed in response. The woman - a nurse, Kay assumed, based on her pale green tunic and pants - sighed and busied herself with something nearby before bringing a cup of water to Kay's bedside. "Let's get you upright," she said.
Kay tried to wriggle upright on her own, but found to her chagrin that she needed the woman's help. Cool water slipped out of her mouth and spilled onto the sheets, but she couldn't have cared less.
"Your vitals are better, but you should stay here a bit longer and then go straight to bed," the woman said. "Does anything hurt?"
The back of Kay's head hurt, but not like it was bruised - more like she was severely dehydrated and her brain was about to fry. She gulped the last of her water and shook her head. "Head hurts a little, but I'm guessing water helps," she said. "Where am I?"
"You're at Maywitch's Salt Lake City base. I'm Meilan Wang. I'm the head nurse here, so let me know if you need anything else," the woman said as she refilled the cup.
"Is Juan okay? And Marcus?"
Meilan nodded as she handed back the water. "Yup. You all made it out just fine. Juan said you bought him enough time to destroy it—"
A hydraulic hiss to Kay's left startled her. Meilan turned toward the noise and nodded politely at something out of Kay's range of view, behind some kind of tan curtain.
"She's awake," Meilan said. "Take it easy, though; she's exhausted."
A young woman came into view from behind the curtain. She looked eerily like Kay - the same sloping eyebrows and long, dark lashes framing gentle eyes. This woman's skin was darker, though, and she had thick, curly black hair pulled back into a bun. She clasped her hands in front of her and offered a shaky smile.
"Kay?" she asked.
Kay nodded, and the woman continued: "I'm Holly. Well - I don't know if you've been told about me, but I'm your half-sister. Mark Grayes was my father."
Kay's hands seemed to lose their strength, and her cup slipped into her lap, sending water soaking into her pants. She quickly set the cup on the table beside her bed. "Wait, what?" she said, turning to Meilan.
Meilan nodded and smiled, but her eyes betrayed her, revealing tense concern. "Based on our records, anyway," she said.
"I'm eighteen," Holly said quickly, "and I've lived in Carson City my whole life. My mom's too frail to fight, but I can help..." She trailed off, seeming to notice that Kay wasn't looking at her. "Um, when dad was about to pass on, he told me to keep an eye out for you. He said you could use magic, too. So I'm glad I get to meet you, even in these circumstances."
Kay's heart sank. Her mother had told her some three years prior that her father had died from injuries sustained in an accident. She hadn't heard much at all before then - certainly not enough to know if he'd had another daughter after leaving Kay two months after her birth. If Holly was eighteen, he must've moved pretty fast, she thought sullenly.
"I see," Kay said, faking a smile. "Nice to meet you. This is quite a surprise."
"We figured we should clear that up as soon as possible if you two are going to be working together," Meilan said. "You two are about the same age and have similar abilities. You'll probably be fighting and training together."
"I have possession abilities, though," Holly added. "Gardner already told me a bit about you, and it sounds like you're a firecaster, and I can do a little—"
Kay held a hand up, more forcefully than she intended to, and Holly fell quiet. "Wait, who's Gardner?" Kay said. "Sorry, I just woke up here."
"Sorry! Felicity Gardner is the Field Director for Maywitch's Western U.S. Region," Holly said. "She's in charge of this base. She's our boss. I guess you haven't met her yet. I should let you rest before you get everything explained..."
"Kay should be mentally fine," Meilan said. "Give her an overview of things, will you, Holly? Juan said his little info session got interrupted."
Holly took a deep breath. "I've been here for six months. Volunteered in place of my mom since she's not well. We don't really know what's going on, other than earthquakes where there shouldn't really be earthquakes. That thing you and Juan fought, though, was something we hadn't seen before. We thought demon-summoners were involved, and had prepared for that possibility, but we didn't have confirmation."
Kay felt her blood start to chill as she remembered their fight with the demon. Her adrenaline had been running full-force then, but now, as she stared out past Holly's thin frame, she somehow felt more vulnerable than she ever had in her life.
"So this is what I've been roped into?" she said.
Holly smiled, but the expression didn't seem to reach her eyes. "We thought demon-summoners were extinct, so it throws a wrench in things. I thought I was only signing up for accidents and the occasional rogue nutjob. There's been a lot of wild stuff happening, though, and we aren't getting to the bottom of it like we'd hoped."
Somewhere near Meilan, something beeped loudly, and she sighed and pulled a phone from her front pocket. "Alright, the Director wants you to get some rest before you make your decision," Meilan said. "If you want to go home tomorrow morning, you can."
Holly frowned. "Decision? Aren't you officially in?"
"Not yet." Kay stretched and turned to swing her legs out of bed, hoping to convince the others that she was well enough to be left alone. She had no visible wounds, though her pajamas were slightly singed. Either they had done an incredible job healing her, or she had escaped harm thanks to whatever Juan and Marcus had done. She felt like she had a serious hangover, but she suspected that was just dehydration.
More importantly, though, she wanted to figure out what happened to her mother, and not be homeless. If Maywitch took away her financial aid, she was basically screwed. "Where's Juan? I have a few more questions for him," she said.
"He's in meetings and doing damage control, probably for the rest of the day. Get some rest and you can talk to him tomorrow," Meilan said. "Holly, take her to her room, will you? I think Juan already dropped her stuff off."
"Sure. I was told she's in Claire's old room?"
Kay decided against asking who Claire was. Her knees and shoulders creaked in protest as she slowly stood and nodded to Holly. "Ready."
Meilan thrust a canvas tote bag into her hands. "Work phone, keys, and ibuprofen. The rest of your stuff is in your room."
"Thanks for your help," Kay said.
Holly traipsed toward the sliding door, and it opened with a hydraulic hiss, revealing a brightly-lit hallway. Kay followed her as she turned right, then left, then left again - Kay knew this would take some getting used to - and walked quickly down a long, narrow hall. Holly waved cheerfully to a man talking on his phone, who shot Kay a concerned glance.
"That's George DeMason," Holly said softly. "He's not usually here. He's in charge of the North Carolina base for the Eastern U.S. Region. We have six bases in North and Central America, plus smaller outposts."
Kay feigned interest, but she wasn't really listening as Holly rambled on about Maywitch. "First of all, just so you know, we're pretty well-hidden in these woods outside of Salt Lake City, so don't worry about us ever being found," Holly said with a smile. "We're solidly underground, and any regular folks who stumble upon this place are told it's government property. It's pretty cool. Anyway, these guys are at the cutting edge of everything. Juan is one of the best at socio-emotional spells, and has a weird knack for these demon-trapping spells we're developing. Gardner is the only hydrokinetic in the country. I've already gotten some great pointers on possession and firecasting—"
Firecasting - of course, Kay thought to herself. Their father had been incredible at it. Holly's possession skills must have come from her mother's side, though.
"And there's this really incredible healer named Nadia - I don't know where she gets it from, but I saw her at work in the long-term wing and—"
It took Kay's mind a moment to react. "Wait," she said, "Nadia? What's her last name?"
Holly glanced up at the ceiling and frowned. "It starts with an A," she said. "We don't really use last names much around here, especially if it's a long one like hers. Why? You know her?"
"Dunno," Kay said, shrugging. It actually sounded very familiar - too familiar - but she didn't want to explain that to this girl she had just met.
Holly shrugged and went on listing off a bunch of names that Kay knew she would never remember. They rounded another corner, and as Holly started to explain whatever wing of the base they had just entered, she suddenly stopped. A woman stood in the hallway ahead, her dark brown hair falling in front of her face as she fiddled with a keypad on the wall.
"Oh, Nadia," Holly said, "the new girl's awake. This is Kay."
The woman looked up, and as her long hair fell away from her eyes, Kay feigned a smile. It was her, alright - exactly who Kay didn't want to be working with in an unfamiliar place on a potentially dangerous assignment. They had been well-acquainted throughout middle school, though things had grown complicated, to say the least.
To Kay's surprise, Nadia made no indication of recognizing her, and casually extended a hand. "Nadia Abendroth. Good to have you on board, though I'm sorry it was so sudden," she said. "And it sounds like you had a pretty harrowing first day."
Kay felt the urge to grimace as she shook Nadia's hand. They hadn't seen each other in three years - no, four years - but she felt almost insulted by Nadia's coldness. Then again, she mused, she really didn't want to explain to Holly how they already knew each other.
As Holly started chatting away again, Kay stretched, wincing as something popped in her shoulder. "You must be exhausted," Nadia said. "One of us can bring you some dinner in a bit."
"I'm fine, thanks. I feel like I could sleep for days." And, Kay thought sullenly, she didn't want help from Nadia.
Holly's lips tightened into a pout. "You'll wake up feeling worse if you don't eat..."
"I'm fine. I still feel a bit nauseous," Kay lied.
"Fine. Give me your work phone, though, so I can put my number in it."
Kay handed over her phone, and as Holly typed her number in, Nadia turned back to the keypad on the wall. "Gardner needs me to grab something, so I gotta go," Nadia said. "Take it easy, okay?"
"Sure," Kay said.
Holly seemed to notice her furrowed brow as Nadia disappeared. "Nadia's the best healer we got, and she's a pretty good brain to pick if you need something" Holly said as she handed the smartphone back to Kay. "Anyway, you share a bathroom with me. There are some clothes in the closet, but we can get you some better ones tomorrow. Call if you need anything."
"Thanks," Kay said. "This is all a little messy, but I appreciate your help."
"Yeah. It's always like this. New people don't always get attacked on their first day, though."
Kay smiled weakly as she turned the key in the knob. She felt ready to collapse with exhaustion as she dropped her bag on the floor inside. "Night," she said over her shoulder.
"Night. And... welcome."
The orange moon stared down at Kay, giving the entire world a warm glow as it cut through the air. She glanced around, suddenly unsure of where she was.
Then she looked down. She was shorter, thinner, and wearing her old school uniform in hues of blue.
Shit, she thought. What am I doing here?
Somewhere to her right, someone laughed, and someone else responded in a low whisper. Kay turned and saw two figures, their shadows sharp in the darkness.
One of them was Nadia, though she was younger and shorter, with long hair pulled back into a ponytail. The other, taller figure looked eerily like Nadia, but with shorter hair and glittering light brown eyes.
Kay wanted to run.
The tall one waved, and the moonlight glinted off of something on her hand. "Kay, come here," she said. "I told you, I'm getting you a present!"
But Kay already knew what it was. She turned to run, but her dress shoes slipped in the mud - the cemetery mud, she knew, though she couldn't even see the headstones in the darkness - and she fell hard.
The tall girl was on her in a heartbeat, pulling her to her feet. "This isn't optional. I fucking need you," the girl hissed, her grip tight on Kay's wrist.
Kay wanted to say something, but her lips moved in vain, the sound swept away by wind, or magic, or both. She turned to Nadia, who stood stone-faced in the moonlight, eyes reflecting yellow fire.
She knew she was being dragged into serious trouble. She remembered it all too well - the attempted necromancy on the grave of Kay's grandmother, and the experimental hex that had been placed on Kay in an indiscriminate rage, all while Nadia watched.
It had been Nadia's sister doing the hexing, after all, so of course the bitch had stood by and watched.
Kay woke up drenched in sweat and lay awake for what felt like hours. Four years ago, that incident caused her to flee the magical world, and now, she was faced with the prospect of having to work with Nadia. The girl had no morals and would probably end up being a threat to Kay's safety, in one way or another. Plus, Maywitch itself seemed disorganized at best, if they were throwing nineteen-year-olds into the fray before they had even agreed to join.
And worst of all, she wouldn't even have a home to return to if she refused to join. She found herself thinking back to something else Nadia's sister had said that night: "Fate dealt you a shitty hand of cards this time, huh?"
So be it, Kay thought. The choice was clear and indisputable. Joining Maywitch was still better than being homeless, motherless, and powerless.
Chapter 3: Contracts
At the sound of the siren, Renaya's gray eyes glanced up to her rearview mirror, where blue and red lights flickered into life. Dustin, who had been sleeping in the passenger seat, abruptly sat up and swore.
"What? Were you speeding?" he asked.
She only shrugged in response as she pulled the car to the shoulder, navigating the dark road carefully. Denver's streets were not as bad as some others she'd driven before, but she had still spent several minutes earlier swerving around potholes on one section of road.
Dustin rubbed his pale forehead, and she could sense that he was biting back some criticism of her driving. "You think we're okay?" he whispered as he turned around.
"Relax. You know what I'm gonna do, right?"
A grin slowly spread across her face as he frowned. "Don't," he said.
"But I will." The coolness of her tone seemed to whistle over her teeth. They had only been working together for two weeks, but she had already figured out that he didn't require much persuading. He was sensible, yet pliable. She reminded herself to thank her boss for recruiting such a perfect partner for her.
"Are you sure this is—"
"You don't even have to do anything. Just stay put."
He opened his mouth to argue more, but was cut off by a knock at Renaya's window. She rolled it down, a sharp grin still cutting across her features, and turned to face the tall, barrel-chested officer.
Before the officer could even say a word, Renaya's hands twitched in a quick, spider-like motion, and her body went limp. Dustin barely remembered to break her fall before her head could hit the steering wheel. He leaned her back against her seat, and the officer laughed, breaking the silence of the night outside with a harsh roar. "Well, I'm going to go see what I can make of this," the officer said.
Dustin felt his legs grow weak, as if urging him to sit still. "Ren - your possession can't last that long, right?" he hissed, though there was no need to whisper.
"I don't need long. Be back in ten or so." With that, the officer strode back to his car, jumped inside, and sped down Route 83 in the direction they had been heading.
As the night grew quiet again, Dustin rubbed his hands together for a solid minute. It was a nervous habit he had developed in elementary school. He had no idea what to do with himself while he waited, and the sight of Renaya's still body in the driver's seat was only making him more anxious. He shuddered and rolled up her window, since she hadn't bothered to do so herself, but it made him feel even more claustrophobic.
Nearly fifteen minutes passed. He reached over to check her pulse - if the officer died before her consciousness returned, she would die too - and to his relief, she was still alive. He glanced around outside, wondering if someone passing by on the sidewalk might notice the girl slumped over next to him.
There was a soft grunt beside him, and he whirled back around to see Renaya sitting up. "Shit," he muttered, rubbing his hands together. "Ren, you okay?"
She let out a croaking laugh. "Did you hear that? Could you hear it from here?" she asked, her voice more high-pitched and strained than before.
His stomach tightened into a knot. "Hear what?"
"I drove the fucker into a gas tank. Got out just in time. It had to have blown. Whew!" She grinned, and for a moment, Dustin thought he saw fangs in the shifting light of the city. "Sorry I made you wait. Let's go."
He nodded, and she turned the car back on and jerked it away from the curb. He could only hope that this new gig didn't get any more bizarre.
When Kay woke up the next morning, there was numbness in her fingers that hadn't been there before - possibly from the strain of casting so much fire in a short amount of time, she thought as she showered and dressed.
She suspected that she had lost control of her powers because she was missing some of the catalysts that helped control the flames. Flamecasting, her specialization, was considered a less-refined version of pyrokinesis, and required fewer raw materials to make it happen. Like a cheaply-made firework, though, any use of flamecasting could be complicated by the user's poor planning and lack of safety precautions. One of those basic precautions was to keep control materials on hand at all times, instead of just relying on your willpower to control whatever was brought forth from the other materials. No matter how skilled the firecaster, though, pyrokinesis was always more precise and easier to extinguish when needed.
Kay ran a finger over her obsidian pendant. Her mother had given it to her some four years prior, knowing that obsidian was the most effective raw ingredient any pyrokinetic or flamecaster could have. It was a convenient and oddly stylish way for Kay to be able to defend herself, and she never took it off.
Control materials, like charcoal, were another matter entirely. Kay always kept some in her backpack and her dresser drawer at home, but in the heat of the moment when they were fighting the demon, she hadn't insisted that Juan give her some in addition to the wormwood. She had paid the price for that.
There was a knock at her door. She glanced down to make sure she was presentable before walking over to the door. "Who is it?"
"It's Juan. Check your phone."
She glanced down at her personal phone before remembering the one Maywitch had given her yesterday. She had left it on silent mode.
She opened the door and tried to offer a sympathetic smile. "Sorry. I fell fast asleep last night—"
She stopped as she saw a shiny, red burn and several stitches on Juan's forehead. He waved a hand dismissively when he noticed her gaze. "It'd be nice if you were a pyrokinetic instead of a flamecaster," he said, "but we knew what we were getting into when we brought you on board. Good job getting that thing, by the way."
It took Kay a moment to realize that the 'thing' he was referring to was the demon. She glanced away and shrugged. "Bet you wish you had someone more precise," she said. "A sniper rifle instead of a nuke."
"Yeah, that's you, alright." He smiled. "I heard you had more questions."
"A clarifying one. That money in the trust fund – that was actually from you guys? And if I refuse to join, are you gonna take all of it?"
"Correct. It's nothing personal, but it's technically the sort of thing covered under the—"
She held up a hand. "So I really don't have a choice unless I wanna end up broke and homeless, right?"
He sighed and glanced down the hall. "It's shitty, I know. It's not my call, and it's not even really Gardner's. She has her pressures from above to keep us staffed, and with how many folks we have seriously injured right now..." He shrugged.
"How long would I be stuck here?"
"The contract is year-to-year, but until we downgrade our state of emergency, the same sanctions would apply if you don't renew."
"So I can't just leave when the state of emergency is over?"
"We'd consider releasing you, but there's no guarantee. We also need you more than we need most other mages. About half of the mages out there are considered non-combat – at least, as far as we know about their abilities. Another twenty percent or so are what we call Class D. They have some basic shield and offensive magic, but not much, so we utilize them mostly in research and investigative capacities. Now we need folks with more raw power. And that includes you."
Kay raised an eyebrow at him. "What, are you saying I'm stronger than other mages?"
"Well, not stronger than your mother," he said, smiling. "She's Class B. You're Class C, as far as we've guessed with what she told us about your abilities in the past, and based on what we saw yesterday. Holly and I are also Class C. Gardner's one of five Class A mages in the country, and she earned it, with all the shit she can do."
She ground her teeth and stared at the floor. She didn't want to care about how strong she was, but she did. If she was stronger than average, that could mean she was less likely to die, she thought as she looked up at him again.
"If you don't want in, is it possible for you to stay with someone else?" he asked.
"It is, but it'd be too far from school and work," she said. "Besides, being here means I could potentially find Mom."
He smiled gently. "I hear you. I'm sure you're worried--"
"Don't get it twisted. I just want answers from her." She held out her hand. "I'm guessing there's a contract or something?"
His smile faded as he reached into a briefcase at his side and rifled through a folder. "Don't rush into this. Gardner told me you can stay for another twenty-four hours while you decide. We did just throw you into a battle before you'd even signed on."
He placed a stapled packet of papers on top of the folder and handed it to her. She glanced over the tiny print, but didn't bother to read it carefully. "Who's this 'Board of Trustees' on here? Are they elected?" she asked.
"Yeah. The last time we held elections, you were too young to vote. They're the ones who can enforce sanctions and stuff, but as you've probably guessed, most of the contract is..." He hesitated. "Kinda unenforceable, at least in a legal sense. The sanctions can be harsh, but the U.S. government doesn't back us up in any way."
Kay sighed. "So most people have the option to just refuse to sign and live their lives outside of the magical world, but since y'all are paying my rent, I'm fucked."
"You could say that."
She fumbled with the pendant around her neck, as she often did when she was nervous. She opened her mouth to ask for a pen, but stopped suddenly. She could be literally signing away her life, she knew, but it somehow didn't seem to matter. The idea of never knowing what happened to her mother – as well as the anxiety of facing homelessness – seemed to be suffocating her sense of reason.
Was it really worth plunging back into the brutal world she had left behind?
She noticed Juan watching her carefully. "Got a pen?"
He visibly relaxed and nodded down the hall. "We have to get a second witness. Meilan's around; let's go ask her."
Ten minutes later, the contract had been signed in a blur of signatures and amiable chatter. Meilan seemed completely unconcerned with the gravity of the occasion. Juan, however, offered Kay a sympathetic smile as they left.
"I hate to bring you along on something so soon, but we need your help on an assignment tonight," he said. "Just babysitting, though. Pretty easy."
She frowned. "Babysitting?"
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and stared at it for a moment, dark eyebrows furrowing in annoyance. "Holly's gotta possess someone, so someone has to watch her body. We actually need you in the conference room upstairs in thirty minutes. Sorry for the short notice. I was gonna bring Marcus, but you're a better option."
"Gotcha. What am I supposed to bring?"
He glanced down at her tank top and slacks before turning on his heel. "Your clothes are fine, so just bring your keys and phone. See you soon. And--" He stopped. "Congratulations on signing."
Kay, of course, got lost on her way to the conference room. Fortunately, she ran into Holly in another hallway, and they walked together to their destination. "This is where we usually brief and plan for stuff," Holly said as she held the door for Kay.
Inside, Juan stood before a giant projector screen, with Nadia seated facing him. He looked up from his phone when Kay entered. "Good timing," he said. "I'm giving you guys the short version and then you'll get the rest on the way there. We had to move up the timeline."
Holly raised an eyebrow. "Where are we going?"
"Outskirts of Vegas. There's been some weird-ass tremors and we think we've located the source, but we're pretty sure the guy who lives there isn't a mage. We'll wait until infrared shows he's alone, then you'll possess him while we search the house. Then we'll drug him, so he doesn't remember any of it."
Kay could hear Holly suck in a breath. "It's a little risky," Nadia said, as if affirming Holly's fear, "but we did it a couple months ago, right before you got here. We have it down to a science."
"I barely remember how to make a memory potion," Holly said.
Nadia offered her a kind smile. "One of us can re-train you on the way, if needed. Don't worry, the team's been planning this for a while."
Juan looked at his phone again and pointed at the door Kay had just come through. "Let's go. Van's outside and it's already loaded. It's a five-hour drive, so we have plenty of time to talk on the way." He stopped and thrust a stack of paper at Kay. "We need you to fill these out, since you're new. Work on them in the car."
Kay sighed. At least she'd have something to do to entertain herself for the next few hours.