Sharp pine needles pricked my skin. The forest around us was wet and damp; my legs were shaking, but it wasn’t from the icy wind blowing through the forest. I sheathed my sword and gaped upwards at Reverie, the floating kingdom we’d fallen from. We shouldn’t still be alive. Without Lucian, we wouldn’t have been. The scent of mold and leaf-litter tingled my nose. Bright green buds were poking through the carpet of dead leaves, but it was too early for spring.
The muscles in my back shifted. I winced in discomfort as the black wings between my shoulder blades, Lucian’s creation, folded away.
I felt the demon shifting around in my thoughts. I’m so tired, he murmured. I think I’m going to hide in the sword for a bit. I nodded, still too stunned to answer.
A hand seized my wrist. I tore my gaze from Reverie and looked instead at Alexander. He held me so tightly that I wondered if he could feel my pulse racing beneath his slender fingers. The intensity in his blue eyes took my breath away. It was as if he could strip me bare and see everything I was thinking. Light dappled through the forest canopy, casting spots of light and shadow over Alexander’s golden hair and fair skin. As I looked at him, time seemed to stand still for just an instant. He really was beautiful. Then he spoke and ruined the moment.
“What just happened?” Alexander asked, his voice shaking. “There’s no way way could’ve…”
He looked at me with a mixture of awe and fear, as if were a powerful mage, instead of a fraud from the Scraps. Which, I guess, he still thought I was. When I arrived in Reverie, I’d been a fraud, just pretending to have magic and cheating my way into the magic academy. I didn’t know what I was now. But as far was Alexander was concerned, I was a rich girl from Argent, the gated citadel in the middle of the Lower Realms. One who could talk to demons. A useful talent for a prince like him, even if it was forbidden.
I wasn’t ready for Alexander’s questions. Not after fighting against one of my possessed classmates, not after falling from Reverie, and not after all the magic it’d taken to free Lucian. I was too tired to lie, so I kept my mouth shut, averting my gaze towards the forest floor. It was so dark and green. I crouched, running my fingertips over the moss and studying a trail of ants.
“Wynter,” Alexander said, kneeling beside me. He brushed his fingers across my upper lip, and they came away sticky with blood. It reminded me of our kiss in the library.
“No one has ever survived a fall from Reverie,” he said, wiping his hands on a white handkerchief he pulled from the inside jacket of his dark gray coat. It was lined with silver trim that glittered when he moved.
“We did,” I replied absently.
“Yes, but how?” He handed me the handkerchief, now stained with blood, and I used it to clean up the rest of my nosebleed. Alexander’s rapier was drawn but held down at his side. I supposed that was a good sign. He hadn’t resolved to stab me yet.
I bit my lip. “I didn’t save us,” I said slowly.
I don’t think you should tell him, Lucian murmured.
Maybe not. But I was so tired of keeping secrets from everyone. And would it be so bad if Alexander did know what I’d done? If anyone in Reverie would accept me releasing a demon, it would be Alexander. Probably.
When I snapped my gaze back to him, Alexander’s eyes searched my face. Whatever he saw there didn’t please him.
“You actually freed it?” he asked, sounding hoarse. “But why isn’t it attacking? Wynter, you can’t—can you control it? Or did you just—”
It? Lucian asked indignantly. Remind your princeling that I just saved his life!
“No,” I said, “I can’t control him, and he’d like me to remind you that he just saved your life.”
He dropped my wrist and backed away with a sharp suddenness. My heart sank. Alexander had been the one to warn me against listening to the voices. Like all mages, he thought the demons were evil creatures, whispering evil temptations and destroying minds.
Hundreds of excuses flitted through my head, like butterflies trapped in a glass jar. But I was too tired to deal with Alexander’s disappointment. Maybe I should’ve lied, even though no lie would’ve been good enough to satisfy him. We were both about to die. Freeing Lucian was the only option, and I didn’t regret it.
Alexander’s face lost all its color, and yet his eyes seemed to brighten and sharpen. Beneath the wariness and the alarm, there was a spark of fascinated curiosity.
“He can…hear me?” Alexander asked.
I nodded. “Lucian hears everything I do.”
Alexander laughed, the noise edged with something brittle and hysterical, and sank to the ground. After a few seconds, he fell silent. I let the quiet stretch between us, glancing over his shoulder into the dark woods. I’d never been this deep in the forest before, and I had no idea how to survive in one. I wondered how far we were from the Scraps. With a sinking feeling, I realized that Alexander probably hadn’t been in a real forest, either. He’d grown up in luxury, surrounded by sculpted gardens, and thought a visit to Argent was slumming it. For a moment I felt a stab of fear. Just because we’d survived the fall from Reverie, didn’t mean we were safe.
“This is too much,” Alexander said suddenly. “You—you weren’t—you weren’t supposed to release a demon! Wynter, what if he tries to kill us?”
“If he wanted to kill us, he’d have let us fall,” I said.
“What if it’s something…I mean…” Alexander trailed off. “How do we know we can trust him?”
“Lucian didn’t control our classmate and make her attack us,” I said. “And he didn’t tear apart the Academy floor and make us fall from Reverie. All he has done is save our lives, and I think if we’re going to talk about people we trust, Lucian is a safe bet.”
Alexander buried his face between his hands and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. I felt a pang of sympathy. He must’ve been so confused, but at least, he wasn’t angry. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be angry at all. I didn’t think I had the strength to fight him.
I looked back to Reverie, nestled in the fluffy clouds and draped in the colors of sunset. It looked as beautiful as it always had, only I knew now it was full of dangerous mages and backstabbing politics. The earthquakes, the demon attacks. I took a deep breath and realized the air was thicker here, full of oxygen. I let it clear my head. For a moment, I wondered if I could just go home and leave this all behind me. I belonged on the ground with Briar and Sterling. I could just find a direction, head to the Scraps, and never think of Reverie again. Maybe I could even get Alexander to tell everyone I was dead, so no one would come looking for me.
But then I remembered Tatiana in the hospital, and the wild look in Viviane’s eyes when she attacked me. Someone in Reverie was behind the demon attacks, and the same person had possessed Viviane and nearly torn the Academy apart. Whatever they were looking for, I knew it wasn’t over. Could I really turn my back and let more people get hurt?
I looked back at Alexander and met his sharp eyes.
“I hope Viviane is all right,” I said.
“Me, too,” he sighed.
Viviane was awful to me, but I still wouldn’t have wished any harm on her. It must’ve been terrifying, to be controlled by someone else and forced to hurt people. After I’d burned through the glowing sigils in her arm, she’d collapsed and stammered in confusion. I wondered how much she even remembered.
“I wonder who the target was,” Alexander said. “Was someone trying to hurt Viviane, or someone else? Because she was being controlled with sigils, it had to have been a mage. Probably one that was nearby, too.”
“Like one of our professors?” I asked.
Alexander nodded slowly. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said.
Neither did I. But whatever happened to Viviane was connected to something much larger—something involving demon attacks, earthquakes and potentially a magical charm. I thought of all the girls I’d met at the Academy, the girls who’d had classes with me and slept in the same dormitories with me. I thought of Celeste and Professor Gareth, who had both been so kind to me. Whatever was going on up in Reverie, it was unlikely to stop now, which meant everyone in Reverie was in danger.
I followed Dorian’s nod, my gaze landing on a slender woman. Her thick, brown hair fell in waves over her pale, round shoulders and tumbled over the bodice of her black, satin dress. Somehow, I’d expected something more predatory from Dorian’s alleged nemesis, something like my uncle Gabriel’s story about the monstrous mage-lady who ate children, but Eleanor was beautiful.
“I see you have similar taste in dyes,” I said.
For a few seconds, Dorian looked utterly bewildered. Then, he laughed. “It’s not that. In Reverie, when a parent dies, it’s proper to observe a year-long mourning period. You wear black for the first ten months, and for the last two, you’re allowed to add gray and lilac. My mother isn’t worth nearly that level of devotion, but unfortunately, I have a reputation to uphold.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Or something like that.”
He said it as casually as if he’d been discussing the weather.
“You don’t believe she fell?” I asked.
He didn’t sound especially bothered with the possibility that someone might have killed his mother. Maybe he’d done the deed himself. I looked nervously towards Eleanor and wondered how she felt about her mom’s death.
“Should I be worried about Eleanor?” I asked.
“She’s a very dangerous woman.”
“You’re dangerous, too,” I pointed out.
“So I am. But Eleanor is always looking to stab someone in the back. I’d at least do you the courtesy of stabbing you from the front,” Dorian replied.
As if she’d heard him from across the room, Eleanor headed straight to us.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Wynter?” Dorian asked.
He was right, so I headed away, drifting into the crowd. Viviane or Alexander. Where were they? There were so many people that it was impossible to find anyone. I’d never stolen jewelry off a person before, but I had an idea of how I wanted to do it. Distraction was key. All I had to do was spill a drink down the front of Viviane’s dress, draw attention to her reaction and steal the necklace right under everyone’s nose. Or if I got lucky, Viviane would go to clean herself up and take it off. But it was still a huge risk. What was so special about this necklace? Why did Dorian even want it, and why risk everything just a game to him.
I drifted to the wall and stood there, scanning the crowd. Finally, I found Alexander and headed towards him. My heart raced. Just ask him to dance. It wouldn’t be that difficult. Alexander saw me and ended his conversation with a blonde woman wearing a purple gown. I took a deep breath.
“Good evening,” I said.
Now that I knew he was a prince, it made talking to him much more awkward.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Would you like to—”
“Dance?” he asked. “With you?”
Maybe Dorian had been wrong. Maybe Alexander would humiliate me in front of all these people.
“Yes,” I replied.
He put an arm around the small of my back and drew me in closer. “Can I tell you a secret?” he whispered. “I hate dancing.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Why don’t we talk instead?”
“Um…sure,” I said.
Without warning, Alexander grabbed my wrist and pulled me along behind him. I stumbled at first, but then followed him out of the ballroom and down a long, dark corridor. This was a trap of some kind, but I didn’t know how to avoid it.
We reached the end. I pulled my wrist away, but Alexander’s hand shot out, corning me against the wall. He was even more handsome from close up, and his blue eyes were staring directly into mine with an intensity that took my breath away. I tried to say something, but all my thoughts scattered and fell apart.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he murmured.
“What are you talking about?” I asked nervously.
“You get all dressed up, attend a fancy ball, and hope to seduce a prince into a dark corner. Don’t think you’re the first to try.”
I sucked in a quick breath. I looked at his broad shoulders and then away.
“Why would I want to seduce you?”
“Why wouldn’t you? Unless you honestly think you’ve got what it takes to become a mage.”
“I passed the test, didn’t I?”
“Did you?” he asked. My breath hitched. Did he know I’d cheated? Had he seen the device?
“Besides, you’re not that plain looking, even if you do come from the Lower Realms. I’m surprised, however, you don’t smell like trash.” He leaned in close, sniffing slowly at my neck.
Asshole! I pushed him off, shaking, but he caught my wrist and spun me into his arms.
“Relax,” he whispered, “I’m just using you to rile up Viviane. It takes her down a peg, I don’t like her getting too sure of herself. It’s a little game we play. Ah, there she is, right on schedule.”
I broke free of his embrace, just in time to see Vivian come around the corner. I stepped away quickly from Alexander, leaning against the far wall.
“There you are,” Viviane’s voice drifted to us. My gaze dropped to her throat; there was the necklace. I was furious with the way Alexander had treated me, and I wanted nothing more than to run back to the safety of the main gala. But I’d come for the necklace, and it was right in front of me. It would be easier to steal away from the party.
“Whatever are you two whispering about?”
“I was just telling Wynter how dangerous magic is,” Alexander replied.
Viviane’s green eyes widened. “Why, that reminds me! I never finished telling you what happened to the last mage from Argent. I think it’s terribly tragic.”
Something bad was coming. I just knew this was going to be some terrible, morbid story. But I played along anyway.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well,” Viviane said, “He was a prodigy at the Academy, until the day he went mad. Couldn’t handle the pressure. He started hearing voices, talking to himself. Finally, he slit a noblewoman’s throat. I heard he tossed pieces of her dismembered body off the edge, before leaping to his death. People say you can still hear them calling to each other at night on the outskirts of Reverie.”
“That’s not true,” I said uncertainly.
Viviane sighed and shook her head. “You really don’t know anything, do you?” she asked. “You’re hopeless.”
“It doesn’t matter how much I know,” I said. “It matters only what I’m willing to learn.”
“That was almost profound,” Viviane replied. “Did you steal it from my uncle? He likes to make people think he’s profound.”
Hisses struck my ears. At first I thought I’d triggered the device accidentally, but the noise was coming from down the hall.
“We should head back,” Alexander said.
“You might be right,” Viviane said. “Mother is so overprotective sometimes. Just a moment, I need to finish my drink first.”
She stepped closer to me, until we were face to face, and then she slowly emptied her champagne glass down my dress. I gasped as the cold, sparkling liquid dripped beneath my corset.
“There,” she smirked. “All done.”
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The rusty blue hatchback ahead of me slows to a stop. Three cars in front of it, a cop waves his arms, directing traffic around the blackened husk of a truck and several emergency vehicles. Smoke wafts into the early morning sky, but neither of the ambulances have their lights on. Here I thought my Monday sucked. Hopefully, the driver was able to get out in time.
I tap the steering wheel. Damn it. I hate accidents. “Siri, start my scanner app.” The screen on my phone flashes to life.
“Code 16 on Broadway and Fifth. Single vehicle accident, no—” the voice crackles. I know that dispatcher, and that code. I’ve got to get out of here. I turn my phone off and toss it on the passenger seat. I can’t be around dead people; it never ends well. If I get too close, I’ll have more problems than missing my 9:00 a.m. card reading.
The car in front of me inches forward, and a narrow side street barely wide enough for my compact car appears on the right. Veering sharply, I stomp on the gas and zip down the street, a chorus of horns honking behind me. One block. Two blocks, and we’re past the accident. Phew. I’m safe.
Five minutes later, I pull behind my tea and tarot shop, Make Like a Tree and Leaf, and kill the engine. The peeling yellow paint and boarded up back windows probably don’t add much appeal for my customers, but it’s mine, and I love every inch of it. Besides, the front isn’t that bad. I remind myself to wash the bay window and sweep the steps, but that’s about as far as I go for aesthetics.
A gleaming black motorcycle with flames on the side roars down my street and pulls to a stop in front of my shop, parking on the grass. Granted, it’s dead grass, but still… I have a driveway for a reason. I tamp down my annoyance. Don’t piss off the client, Max.
Clad in black leather and faded blue jeans, the guy that gets off of his bike is about twenty years past his prime, with a scraggly gray beard trailing down to his copious stomach, and a black and white skull and crossbones bandana wrapped around his head.
“You the psychic?” he asks, looming over me. The low rumble of his voice matches the sound of his engine.
“Are you my nine o’clock appointment?” It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, especially in my line of work.
“Yup. My old lady said you was legit. I, uh, got a question I need answered.” He rolls something around in his mouth and spits a wad of chew into the grass. Eww. This day just keeps getting better and better.
“Great. Follow me.” I unlock the door and hold it open for him, pressing my fingers against the opal and jet amulet around my neck. Intuition and protection, my most essential bedfellows. The stones don’t heat up against my touch, so the guy’s not a demon. I have to check; those bastards are pretty crafty.
The guy limps to the little round table I use for readings and sits, the ratty wicker chair creaking beneath his weight. His beard spills out onto the velvet tablecloth, and he tucks it away. Interesting. Most people at least glance at all of the carvings on the walls, the books, the Hand of Glory trapped under a glass dome to stop idiotic kids from trying to pick it up.
I clear my throat. “I’m Max. What’s your name?”
“Bud,” he says. Okay, then. A man of few words. Let’s get started.
I grab the deck of cards stacked next to me and shuffle them without thinking, trying to ignore the energy pulsing from the man across from me. It’s dark, and now that we’re this close to each other, I can’t stop the images that spill from the cards into my head.
A balding man in a business suit kneels on the floor, his hands clasped in front of him. “I just need more time, please.” A gun appears, pressing against the man’s forehead. “You have twenty-four hours.”
With a start, I shake off the vision. Who is this guy? I don’t want to see anymore because I know, without a doubt, that the next image I see will be of my client pulling the trigger. That’s what this man does. That’s the kind of man he is. Hands shaking, I separate the cards into two stacks and then shuffle them together again. I have to keep this professional. I’ve read for murderers before, so this shouldn’t be any different.
“I’m going to do a three card spread for your past, present, and future. While I’m shuffling, try to think about your question.” I fan the cards out before him. “Now pick one.”
He gingerly plucks one from the spread and I lay it on the table. Then I have him pick two more and I place them on either side of the first.
“You don’t have to tell me, but it helps if I know what your question is.”
His eyes, a light brown, meet mine. “The question.” I nod. “I, uh, have a job opportunity, and I was wondering if I should take it or not.” His words are weighted. Whatever Bud’s problem is, it’s not about a new job. There’s something else, something deeper, but I sure as hell am not going to ask him.
I turn over the first card. An old man sits at the edge of a rocky cliff, contemplating the cosmos. Waves crash against its base and the moon shines overhead. He holds a lantern in one hand and a gnarled wooden staff in the other. It’s upside down. “This is the Hermit, the card that defines your present circumstances. It’s inverted, which means upside down, and stands for isolation or loneliness, often to the point of harmfulness. Like you’ve lost your way.”
“That don’t make any sense.” Bud shakes his head. “I’m not lonely. I have lots of friends.”
He’s right. I don’t feel any loneliness from him. There’s a discord here, a disconnect between the cards and the client. A haziness that tells me that the card is correct, but maybe Bud’s not asking the right question. I could also be accidentally reading someone else, another client I have booked for today, or someone I’ve read recently. No, that doesn’t feel right, either. I bet the cards relate to his real dilemma, the one he won’t talk about.
I flip over the next card. A middle-aged woman in a black cloak stands with her head bowed before a stream. Five golden chalices are clustered around her feet. Three of them lay on their sides, their contents spilled, while the other two remain standing.
“This the Five of Cups, and it’s your past card. It shows what’s influencing your life today and the decisions you make. It often represents loss and despair, dwelling in the past and an inability to look toward the future.” God, what a depressing card. This guy must have had a lovely childhood. “Have you lost someone close to you, such as your parents or a sibling?”
Bud shakes his head. “Nope. You must be doing it wrong. I ain’t lost nobody.”
“I never read them wrong.” I may embellish the truth a little, especially when I see glimpses of a client’s impending death, but I never read them wrong.
My fingers hover over the last card as it hits me. This isn’t about him, at all. This is about me. Crap. As if directed by some higher power outside of myself, I turn over the last card. In the middle of the image is a stone tower. A jagged bolt of lightning strikes the top, and flames burst from two little windows. In the back of my mind, I can almost hear the tiny figures scream for help and the fire crackle as it consumes everything in its path. The Tower. Like the last time I read my own cards by mistake, I have a feeling this isn’t going to end well for me.
“What’s it mean?” Bud taps the card with one oil-stained finger.
“This is the future card. The Tower,” I say, my voice hushed. “It represents destruction and change. Turmoil. The annihilation of everything you’ve held deeply in the past so that something new can come. It doesn’t have to be terrible.” But it usually is, at least for me. “It embodies change, sometimes difficult and challenging. Out with the old, in with the new.” I take a deep breath. Come on, Max, you can do this. Don’t let Bud see how rattled you are. “I, uh, I don’t think you should take this job, whatever it is. It doesn’t look it’s a good idea.”
“Huh.” Bud leans back. His hand disappears under the table. The gun from the reading flashes in my mind. “I don’t know about that. Seems like a pretty easy decision to me.”
“Who did you say your girlfriend was again?” My question rings in my ears. Danger. Run. Get out of here while you still can.
“I didn’t.” Bud pushes up from his chair, using the table for leverage. He touches a lump in his pocket and my heart leaps into my throat. This is it. This is how I’m going to die. In a shady tarot and tea parlor on the wrong side of town, surrounded by stuffy books and the hand of a murderer.
“Tell you what,” I say, forcing cheeriness into my voice. Maybe if I pretend everything’s fine and I don’t know what’s happening, I’ll walk out of this one alive. “My readings usually aren’t this wrong, so why don’t I let this one be on the house. Free of charge. And you can come back and we’ll do another reading later.” Please, don’t come back. “How does that sound?”
Bud stares at me for several seconds, as if trying to make a decision. Then he scans the room, his eyes taking the sigils carved into the walls and the floor and painted on the ceiling, the shelves lined with books and tea cups and oddities from around the world. The old armoire that he can’t possibly know is filled with hundreds of little glass jars, each containing something more precious than life itself. Then his eyes widen, filling with something that looks an awful lot like fear. Maybe he does know. Not everything of course, no one does, but enough to freak him out.
“Yeah, sure. That sounds good.” He pulls out a crumbled bill from his pocket and drops it on the table. After he hurries out of the door, I stare out the front window, pressing my hands to my chest as if that might slow my racing heart.
“You know that guy was here to kill you, right?”
I leap away from the table, whirling around. An auburn-haired man leans against the fireplace, his arms crossed. If it weren’t for the arrogant smirk on his face, he’d be pretty hot. A little like Robert Pattinson, except that this guy’s dead.
“Who are you and what are you doing here? I have some of the strongest wards available on this place.”
The man shrugs and joins me at the window, watching as the motorcycle thunders down the street. “Your pal there was a low–level henchman. What’d you expect? You told his boss’s girl to leave him, and he couldn’t have that. Bud was sent to take care of you.” He turns to me, assessing me with his pale blue, cloudy eyes. “But you knew that, didn’t you? Just like you know he’ll be back.”
I swallow the sudden lump in my throat. “I can take care of myself.”
The ghost barks out a laugh. “Yeah, sure you can. Why didn’t you summon a demon or something? Isn’t that what your permit is for?”
I bristle at his snide tone. I summoned a demon on my sixteenth birthday as a dare, and apparently that’s all anyone remembers about me. It’s safer that way.“Who are you?” I ask again.
“My name is Luke Madrid,” he says, executing a deep bow. “Newly retired from the PD, and this life, I guess you could say. I used to be one hell of a detective, until I got stuck with the SCU.” He must be talking about the Supernatural Cases Unit. It has one of the worst solvable rates there is because suspects can, quite literally, make evidence disappear. “My death, well, has kinda put a damper on things.” He frowns, and his gaze turns inward, like he’s trying to remember something. I almost feel sorry for him. That gradual losing of one’s self must suck, but he’s haunting me without my permission, and it’s starting to piss me off.
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