A Wild Epidemic
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Jasper
Cover art by Ron Chapple Studios
Published by UnWrecked Press
Also by Michael Jasper:
Gunning for the Buddha (stories)
The Wannoshay Cycle
A Gathering of Doorways
The Prodigal Sons
The All Nations Team
In Maps & Legends (a digital comic)
The Contagious Magic series:
A Sudden Outbreak of Magic
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
A Lasting Cure for Magic (coming soon)
Excerpted from Words of Magic, page 915:
In a village tucked into a rain-soaked valley in chill Snowdonia, I
stood inside the shell of an old church and watched a dozen ragged
children stumble through the early morning darkness. I'd been watching
them for the past three mornings as I recovered from my exhausting
activities of half a week earlier. Watching the barefoot boys and girls
push through the mud and gather in front of the baker's shack, their
breath steaming in the cold, I felt a glimmer of hope that this journey to
the soggy north lands of Wales would prove fruitful after all.
Because one of the children had caught my eye as a potential
And I knew better than any of my cohorts that we needed fresh
conscripts. He always needed more apprentices to swell his ranks, while
I needed to prove my loyalty to him again after I'd foolishly voiced
aloud my concerns about his methods.
But that was neither here nor there.
The baker cracked open the door to his wooden shack, and the smell
of bread and sweets reached me inside the musty, darkened church. My
own empty belly rumbled, making me stand up straight and wince at the
pain in my side. I couldn't let my injuries distract me, however. The
boy's final audition was about to commence.
With a hearty laugh, the red-faced baker emerged from his shack
with a pail in each hairy hand. Soon the gathered children were fighting
for position to catch the moldy bread and dry crusts from the previous
days of baking. The boy I'd been watching caught an entire loaf in one
hand, and then spun to catch a crumbling pastry without crushing it. He
had both stuffed into his shirt before the baker turned back to his kitchen
with his now-empty pails.
"Eat hastily," I whispered as the crowd of orphans and urchins
dispersed with curses and tears from the less-fortunate. "You will need
your strength where we are bound, my boy."
I gathered my dark green robes around me and slipped from the
shadows of the church into the stable next door. I knew the boy slept in
the loft above the animals most days, safe from the rains and the cold.
I noticed with a wince that the sun had at last forced its way through
the gray-black clouds above, poking like a fist through the mist-
shrouded mountains surrounding us. The rest of the village would soon
be waking. My time here was growing short, and—injuries or not—I
could tarry here no longer.
I paused as I felt a sudden pain in the side of my neck, sharp as a
bite. I plucked a fat tick from the spot and squeezed it until it popped
with a tiny burst of dark red on my thumb and forefinger. I gazed at my
stolen blood with disgust.
Always, there was blood.
I took a deep breath that made me groan, exhaled a quick and simple
Word to cleanse my fingers, and waited for the boy to come to me.
Patience, I reminded myself. Our work was slow and secret to the
outside world, but it would be rewarded one day by the man I knew only
as the Druid.
The flood of last week had been yet another reminder to me that our
mystic leader required additional assistance—someone hand-picked and
trained by me. The rains had come down hard on these northern lands
for nearly a month, and a majority of the crops had been soaked past
saving for this fall's harvest. The Druid had sent me, along with one of
my more experienced young apprentices, here to Wales to reroute a
branch of the flooded River Conwy and siphon off the overflow from the
Having labored over the Words for thirty hours straight, the Druid
had then taught us those Words to enable us to move water and earth to
save the north lands. He had never attempted such a large undertaking
before. Maria, my apprentice, had stared wide-eyed from under her wet
purple hood at the churning landscape as we finished speaking the harsh,
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unfamiliar syllables. The Druid's Words had shifted both earth and water
before our very eyes.
But despite the potency of his Words, the Druid hadn't planned for
the angry reactions of the farmers who found their old, familiar river
either moved onto their neighbor's land or now cutting through their own
after we'd completed the rerouting of the waterway.
I pushed down my own hood for a moment to run a hand over my
hair, trying not to think about how thin it had gotten in recent years.
Other than the lost hair, which had dropped into my hood like silk from
an ear of corn as we worked on the swollen river, I had mostly recovered
from using the Words.
But the damage from the beating I took at the hands of the farmers
still lingered. I didn’t dare whisper a single Word of Healing on my
wounds for fear of weakening myself more. Or raising the wrong sort of
attention here in this remote village.
"No appreciation for all that we do," I muttered, fingering the cut on
my cheek, breathing shallowly to keep from irritating my broken ribs
again. "There is so much you common people do not know."
When I'd seen the angry farmers approach, shouting at me about
what I'd done to their river, I'd immediately sent away Maria. I'd pushed
her halfway back home with a series of Words that had left me drained
and almost defenseless against the men armed with clubs and pitchforks.
I'd finally been forced to dive into the still-swollen river and swim away,
without coming up for air for nearly fifteen endless minutes. Magic
sustained me underwater, but the damage to my body had already been
I shook my head as I tightened the leather string for my ponytail and
pulled up my hood again. I had to convince the boy to join me. Or else.
Short seconds later, I heard two pairs of bare feet thumping on the
dirt road in front of the stable.
" Give us some," a whining voice said. "You took that biscuit right
from me hand, Johnny."
"Did not," the voice of the taller boy responded, without heat. "But
I'll share with you, if you keep your mouth shut."
"Will do, will do! Haven't eaten in two whole days, you see."
Both boys moved into sight, the taller boy with his blue eyes
squinting against the morning light. He walked in front of a thin, dirty-
faced boy whose back looked permanently hunched, as if he'd been
cringing away from a harsh hand all his life.
You should save that food for yourself, my little friend, I thought
from my hiding spot. Your friend will not be long for this world if he
already cannot fend for himself.
The boys sat down no more than than five strides from where I stood
in the shadows, leaning heavily against the rough wooden wall. They
had no inkling that I was there.
"I'll give you half," the boy named Johnny said. He held out a chunk
of his loaf to the smaller boy, one dirty hand to another. "But never
again. Instead, I'll teach you how to work your way to the front of the
line, and I'll show you how to dodge the elbows of the others. You've got
to give 'em a little shove, like this, see, when they're off-balance."
The taller boy demonstrated to the other. The smaller boy did not
I gave them a few more seconds to savor their meal before I could
stand still no longer. My injuries dogged me like bad memories, and my
patience was wearing thin. The Druid would be waiting.
"I see you have a bit of the teacher in you," I said, my loud voice
shocking both boys to their feet. "Though I'm sorry to say you shall not
finish your lesson today."
"Warlock!" the smaller boy screamed, pivoting on his heel and
running headlong out of the stables into the dirt road. The boy named
Johnny sprinted off in the opposite direction, toward the fields,
splattering mud and horse droppings as he ran. Neither boy was foolish
enough to drop his precious bread as he ran.
Ignoring the smaller boy, I pointed a pair of fingers at young master
Johnny, my ribs complaining at the movement. The stable blurred
around me in the instant before I spoke.
The boy froze above a mud puddle, his right leg cocked in mid-air
and his left foot planted on the dirt. A glob of mud dangled from his
suspended right foot, and then fell with a loud plop.
I strode in front of Johnny. He was beginning to shake, nearly losing
his balance as the effect of the Word already began to wear off. At the
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same time, I felt a wave of dizziness hit me, followed by a bout of
nausea in my belly.
I made a fist in frustration. My powers were still weak—normally
this Word would hold a person motionless for half an hour, and I would
barely feel the impact of channeling magic through my blood.
The boy's bottom lip quivered, but his sharp blue eyes followed me
as I paced back and forth in front of him. I did my best to not think about
the acid filling my insides like increasingly hot lava.
"First lesson," I said, throwing back my hood for theatrical effect.
" Never run from an elder, no matter what the consequences may appear
to be. Shows a marked lack of respect, my young Johnny."
"Whhhh—" he said, trying to make his lips work.
I held up a hand, fighting the urge to smile at the boy's spirit. His
eyes remained clear and focused on me, instead of clouded by panic and
fear. I'd chosen well.
"Second lesson: never interrupt. I've been looking for a young
person like you for quite some time now."
As lines of power swirled toward me, forming out of the air inside
and around the stable, igniting my blood, I touched the boy on the
forehead with the palm of my hand.
"You are released."
With a sudden inhalation, the boy regained control of his body. He
wobbled for a half-second on one foot, and then he tumbled to the dirt
floor. He managed to catch himself with his hands before falling into the
mud puddle, but he crushed his hard-earned food in the process.
With a frustrated shout, the boy threw his muddy piece of bread at
me. The bread stopped in mid-air after I muttered another Word, almost
without thinking. His mouth hanging open, Johnny looked from me to
the bread floating above him. I had to smile at that.
"Who are you?" he whispered. With an effort he stood and began
wiping the mud from his clothes with shaking hands. "You're not from
around here, I can tell by your accent. Are you the one who flooded the
northern half of town?"
My smile disappeared at that. No appreciation at all, I thought,
resting a hand on my roiling stomach.
"I know you have many questions. But first—"
With another Word, I gestured at Johnny's clothes. An instant later,
the mud and horse manure were removed from the boy's pants, shirt, and
skin. I bit back a gasp at the sharp pain in my ribs and in my innards.
Johnny grinned wide-eyed at his suddenly-clean hands and clothes.
"How did you—?" He blinked twice and nodded, as if answering his
own question. "Of course. You're a Warlock. One of the Druid's men."
"Please," I said, shaking my head with a short, almost bitter laugh.
"Warlocks are... simpletons and amateurs. We prefer the term Sorcerer."
"Sorcerer," Johnny repeated. "Is that why you came for me today?
To put a curse on me? Or," he said, eyes blazing with the sudden
realization, "did you come to take me with you?"
I nodded and laughed, proud of my future apprentice.
"The latter, of course."
One of the horses in the stall behind us nickered, as if in agreement.
The boy looked at the horse with a hint of longing on his face before
turning back to me. A tear shimmered in one of his blue eyes, and then
he wiped it away with the heel of his newly clean hand. He nodded, as if
he had made some sort of decision with himself.
"What's your name, Sorcerer?" Johnny said.
I smiled and bowed low in front of the boy. A flood of hope
extinguished the flaring of my injuries. I looked up at the boy from the
bottom of my bow with a smile.
"Michael Severson Azure. At your service, Johnny."
The boy grinned at my overly grand manner. "Jonathan Archibald
Masterson Brightwell, back to you, my lord. But please, don't call me
"But of course, Johnny," I said. I straightened up with a bit of effort
and plucked a piece of mud off of my otherwise spotless green robes.
"Now we must leave. You need not bring anything but the clothes you
are wearing. I know you have no family to say farewell to, so that
simplifies the situation immensely."
I clapped him on the back and inhaled sharply at the stab of pain in
my ribs. He had to be the one, or I was surely doomed.
"Come along, son," I said with what I hoped was a convincing grin.
"The Druid will be waiting. And believe me, he is not a patient man."
And, I added silently to myself as I led young master Brightwell out
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into the bright late-morning light, the Druid will never suspect either of
us of plotting his downfall.
Before coming here, Jeroan Strickland had never read a book
voluntarily in his life.
That was his sister's area of expertise. He considered himself more
of a street-smart kind of guy, not a book-smart geek like his twin sister
Kelley. Even if most of his street smarts were faked in a constant
attempt to impress others.
But here at the Center, all of that was behind him. Another life.
He kept finding the most amazing books to read at the Center. But
he never had the time to devour them all because he was constantly
getting pulled from his reading and his self-propelled education—one
book from the Center's three-story library at a time—by York, Mexico,
Today it was looking like a sneak attack at noon.
With a sigh, Jeroan closed the impossibly small white book with the
blank cover and the squiggly symbol on its spine. He'd been sitting on
the hard floor all morning, reading the book in one of the many empty
office cubicles of the first floor, all of which were made up of three
beige walls five feet high and nothing else. No desks, and not even a
chair to sit in.
He had been focusing all his reading in this book (and countless
others) on stories about the man responsible for his arrival here: Dr.
The trick was figuring out which stories were Azure's, because for
some reason all the stories in the History section of this book were in
first person. So Jeroan had to read closely—but not too closely, because
each of the book's stories held a strange power over him. He'd glance at
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the first sentence or two to see who or what it was about, and then he'd
get sucked in. He'd lose hours reading. That had never happened to him
This morning he'd ended up reading about some crazy dude from the
Ukraine, explaining the ins and outs of Blood Sorcery, and then a
woman from the Revolutionary War who'd been apprenticing with the
renegade magic-user Ben Franklin. He'd finally hit upon this latest story
featuring the absent Dr. Azure in some place called Snowdonia,
recruiting a new apprentice. The hints about the Druid had fascinated
Jeroan, and he had to learn more.
Something shifted on the other side of the long, twisty hallway lined
with dozens of cubicles. Jeroan slipped the book into his back pocket
without a sound, and he saw to his surprise that the sun was now high in
the sky. He'd started reading when it was barely light out that morning.
On the other side of the floor-to-ceiling window of one-way glass next
to him, the gently rocking waters of the Cape Fear River reflected the
bright sunlight onto a dozen boats as well as the tall buildings built right
up to the water's edge.
That was totally a footstep, Jeroan thought, moving from a sitting
position to a crouch in a flash.
His pulse quickened, and his vision went unfocused for a moment,
just like in the books. In the air around him he could vaguely see the
shimmering lines of power that the book was always talking about, the
lines blurring the walls of the tiny cubicle where he'd been hiding out,
Reading, and avoiding the daily lesson from Azure's operatives.
Sometimes it was just one operative, occasionally two (usually greasy-
haired York and big-afroed Mexico), but sometimes he had to take on all
three of them. Orleans was a particularly nasty piece of work who never
smiled and didn't take kindly to having to train newbies.
"In the wrong career path," Jeroan muttered as he tiptoed out of the
cube, holding his breath. Mom had always been talking to him about
career paths, he realized, nearly tripping on the industrial green-gray
carpet at the memory. A wave of homesickness hit him then, so strong
he could barely breathe or swallow.
They haven't even tried to get in touch with me, he thought. And I've
been gone over two months now.
At first, Kelley had been constantly trying to text or call or email,
but he'd let his eGadget's battery go dead weeks ago and never bothered
recharging it. There was no place for gadget magic here in any of the
thirteen stories of Dr. Azure's International Center for Magical Study
And Azure himself still hadn't shown up here to teach Jeroan all
about magic. It had just been Jeroan and the Three Big Stooges, ever
since he'd agreed to join Azure's team last November.
So Jeroan had been reading and learning all he could on his own.
Azure's operatives seemed to like it better that way, instead of actually
having to teach or train him. They were only responsible for Jeroan's
daily "review" sessions. Azure must've worked some magic to force
them to do that much in his absence.
Hunched low, Jeroan crept down the zigzagging maze of drab,
colorless cubicle walls, checking each cube he passed to make sure it
was completely empty. He heard no more furtive sounds.
He wiped sweat from his forehead and grimaced. That had to be
Orleans' handiwork—he liked to crank up the heat in the building during
a lesson to get Jeroan all off-balance. Orleans was a real pain in the butt
about stuff like that.
Jeroan made it to the Fishbowl, the big rectangular conference room
with glass walls just outside the elevators, without anyone dropping
down on him from the ceiling tiles or sneaking up behind him. The
henchmen couldn't actually use magic, not in the way Jeroan had been
doing since that day in November in Dubuque with the old guy Archie
and his former friend Polly. But all three of these dudes were big as
houses and knew their way around the huge Center, while he still got
lost about every other day.
And all three operatives could pull out their dampeners if Jeroan got
too cocky with the latest Words he'd learned.
Jeroan patted the book in his back pocket, reassured a bit by its
warmth. The office had grown warm as well, uncomfortably so, even
with the cold and rainy winter weather outside. He lifted a sweaty hand
to punch the Up button for the elevator, but then he remembered Mexico
ambushing him inside the elevator last week. He thought better of it and
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tiptoed back from the elevator doors. He couldn't believe that he'd made
it to lunchtime today without a lesson.
Maybe they're tired of getting kicked around by the new kid, he
And then the lights went out.
Jeroan's first instinct was to speak the Word for light, but he quickly
thought better of it. No sense announcing where he was. Instead he kept
on inching backwards in the dark, slowly, slowly, until he touched the
glass door to the Fishbowl. The big one-way windows looking out onto
the river and the rest of downtown Wilmington had gone opaque at the
same time the lights had gone out.
Three questions, Jeroan told himself as he slipped inside the
Fishbowl in complete darkness. I just have to answer three questions.
The only sound was the tiny creak of the glass door as he closed it
He forced himself to relax, even though his heart was hammering.
His gaze flickered all over the place, trying to detect movement as his
eyes adjusted. He held his breath and listened. He'd originally thought
that guys as big as York, Mexico, and Orleans would be loud as bulls,
but somehow Azure had trained them to move as silently as
musclebound ninjas. Jeroan's best defense had been smelling them—
Orleans smelled like sweat, York like fried food, and Mexico like the
old-fashioned cologne Dad always wore.
Thinking about Dad made Jeroan tighten up again inside, just for a
moment. Even though he and Kelley barely used to see Mom and Dad—
the parentals were always busy working at their law firm downtown—
Jeroan still missed them. They should've contacted me by now, he
thought, the tightness in his chest spreading through his body.
Pull it together, he told himself, but then it was too late. He smelled
sweat and fried food. His heartbeat quickened and his blood turned hot
as he let the power flow into him in an instant.
" Quarzinck! " Jeroan shouted, and the Fishbowl filled with a brilliant
Mispronounced it, he thought, and then he dove under the
conference table as two huge men in black suits punched their way
through the thick glass walls of the Fishbowl. The room exploded with
fist-sized shards of glass that rained on top of the table and fell to the
floor next to Jeroan.
"Light's supposed to white, not red, my friend," said the big white
guy with the slicked-back hair and droopy mustache. That would be
"Who's been teaching you, newbie?" laughed an equally big man
with light brown skin, a long black ponytail, and no hint of a smile on
his round face. Orleans.
The men split up and circled the table, heading right for Jeroan.
"Is that your first question?" Jeroan said, getting to his feet on the far
side of the conference table.
He crunched on bits of glowing red glass with each move he made.
His face was slick with sweat, and he felt a little light-headed from the
blood-rush of speaking his Word.
"Easy. The answer is nobody. Nobody's been teaching me."
"Good one, Orleans," York said, just a few feet away on Jeroan's
left. "Way to waste a question—"
"Yeaarggh!" Orleans interrupted, charging at Jeroan in frustration.
Jeroan slid a rolling chair in the big man's way and headed to the
corner of the big conference room, away from York and the busted glass
"Rasputin," York called out, coming fast toward Jeroan as Orleans
pushed the chair out of his way and then tripped over another chair.
They could only take a swing at Jeroan after a question was asked, but
York liked to get in position ahead of time, while he was doing the
"What are the Words Rasputin created to animate the dead?"
Jeroan had his hand on the cold metal knob to the second glass door
leading out of the Fishbowl. The red light from his Word was starting to
fade, so he had to hurry. With a swirl of energy blurring his vision, he
did what always worked best for him in the past: he said the first thing
that popped into his head.
" Grozinga Morcalzt!"
A pair of roaches a few feet from Jeroan flipped from their backs to
their tiny feet and skittered through the bits of glass that still reflected
the fading red light next to the table.
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"Yes!" Jeroan exclaimed, now gasping for breath from this second
set of Words. He thought he saw a nod of approval from York at his
correct answer, even as the big man threw a punch. Jeroan ducked, just
One more question to go.
But Orleans wasn't asking anything. He let York do all the work
while he pushed chairs out of his way and crunched toward Jeroan. At
some point he'd pulled out his black, tablet-sized dampener, and he was
brandishing it in one big hand. The conference room was stifling hot
now, and sweat dripped into Jeroan's eyes.
Can't use the Words on Orleans directly, Jeroan knew, flipping
through his mental list of Words like shuffling playing cards. His
dampener will just cancel it out.
"Who was," York asked from just a foot away, exasperated by his
partner's actions, "the rogue magic-user responsible for—"
Jeroan ducked again as Orleans took a swing at him, breaking the
rules of their so-called training. Jeroan didn't want to run out the door
just yet, not when he was so close to finishing his daily questions. Plus,
Mexico might be out there waiting in one of his patented ambushes.
So he focused his energy on the two roaches trying to escape under
the table. The room went all blurry and grew even hotter as he pointed
two shaking fingers at the brown bugs. Filled with the rush of magic,
Jeroan's vision cleared, and his hands were no longer shaking. The Word
came to him in a flash, and this time he didn't mispronounce it.
" Fyorotufall!" he shouted as his two fingers changed targets, moving
in an arc from the bugs to Orleans.
The pair of cockroaches flew through the air right at Orleans' wide-
eyed face. If the big henchman hadn't shut his mouth, they would've shot
right into his mouth. Instead, they went for his eyes. With a yell and a
crunch of glass under his shiny black shoes, Orleans slapped at his face,
slipped on the debris, and fell back onto the big black conference table
with a heavy thud.
Jeroan let out the breath he'd been holding and nearly fell over from
exhaustion. He'd never used so many Words this quickly before, and he
felt a bit like throwing up. His stomach kept doing flips.
On his left, York cleared his throat with a sound that almost sounded
like a laugh.
"Final question, once again. Who was the rogue magic-user
responsible for the San Francisco earthquake of 1906?"
As soon as he finished asking the question, York tried to distract
Jeroan by launching the big speakerphone from the conference table at
him, but Jeroan had seen it coming. Tired as he was, he still managed to
block it with his right hand, but the force of the throw knocked him
backwards and nearly broke his wrist.
And he couldn't think of the name of the rogue York had been
"I don't study terrorists," he yelled in frustration. He gripped his
sore right wrist with his left hand and backed up until he hit the warm
glass of the door behind him. Orleans had finally crushed the unlucky
pair of reanimated cockroaches and gotten back to his feet. The
Fishbowl was like a sauna now, and Jeroan couldn't concentrate.
"Let's hear your answer," York said, just a few feet away and
"He don't know it," Orleans said. "He ain't got a—"
A loud buzzing interrupted him, a sound louder than any alarm
clock, just as the dampener in Orleans' hand suddenly burst into bright
green light. Despite the buzzing, Jeroan heard tiny skittering sounds as
the two reanimated roaches peeled themselves up off the floor and fled.
"What is that?" Jeroan said, pointing at the glowing dampener and
leaning away from Orleans and his sweaty odor. His legs still felt
wobbly. "Can you turn off that alarm already?"
Loud footsteps approached from the hallway. The buzzing must
have masked the sound of the elevator doors opening.
Orleans was looking at his dampener, his wide face green and
"Is this what I think it is?" he muttered.
The footsteps stopped outside the Fishbowl. The fading red light
from Jeroan's mispronounced word—mixed with the unhealthy green
light from Orleans' dampener—illuminated a big puff of curly black hair
atop a six-foot-five frame decked out in a black suit. Jeroan got a whiff
of cheap cologne.
"It's his distress code," said operative Mexico in his deep, rasping
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He poked his dark brown face into one of the holes in the glass walls
that York and Orleans had made earlier and glared at Jeroan and the
other two operatives. Mexico shook his head and glared at the three of
"Kindly clean up this mess and get yourselves upstairs, jokers. Dr.
Azure has returned. "
Kelley Strickland held her phone to her ear and crossed her fingers
This would make call number twelve; if it didn't work this time, she
wasn't going to try again. Waiting for the connection, she rubbed her
arms through her thick sweater in the chill air of her hotel room. It
would be a huge loss to never talk to him again, but she couldn't keep
doing this or she'd go crazy.
After three buzzes, a tentative "Hello?" tickled her ear from the
other end of the line.
"Jimbo, " Kelley said, in as calm a voice as she could muster. "It's
me, Kelley. How's Gran?"
"I'm sorry," he said. It was becoming his favorite phrase. "I can't
"That's fine. Just listen, then. I know you've been through a lot, and
this is pretty overwhelming and all."
A sudden hiss of air came from the other end, but nothing else.
Kelley forged ahead, determined to get through to him at last.
"But you're not alone. And you've been given an incredible gift. You
can't just let that slip away. We could do so much—"
"A gift? My grandmother can barely get up out of her bed anymore.
Her hair turned white after that night on the boat. Completely white. And
the way your brother broke her music box, and, and..."
"I know," Kelley said, fighting the urge to apologize once more for
what Jeroan had done. She'd vowed never to do that, ever again. And
now she was losing Jimbo, too. "But this is something bigger than all
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After a pause, Jimbo finally spoke.
"Some of us don't want to be a part of something bigger, Kelley."
And then he hung up on her.
After five seconds of shocked silence, Kelley hit the End Call button
on the eGadget gripped tight in her hand and bit back the urge to scream.
Instead of screaming, though, she hooked her phone up to its charger
and paced around the tiny confines of her hotel room, glaring at its
chipped beige walls and nasty brown carpet and crooked, fake art on the
walls. With each step she ran through a series of dagger-sharp thoughts,
first about Jimbo, and then her twin brother Jeroan.
It always came back to Jeroan, and the stupid, reckless, dangerous
decision he'd made.
Nothing, Jeroan had said to her that night, his last words to her in
two months. Nothing's happened to me, and everything's happened to
Despite the cold in her room, she could feel the heat building inside
her, and she had to remind herself to let it out before she exploded.
She exhaled, and saw a hint of her own breath cloud the cold air.
She could almost sympathize with Jimbo's attitude about all that had
happened. His grandmother had been hurt badly by Dr. Azure's magic
during that wild fight up on top of the Diamond Jo riverboat back in
November. For a while there it looked like she wasn't going to make it to
see Christmas. And the way Jeroan had betrayed her by taking that
ancient music box from her hands and crushing it...
Kelly couldn't really blame Jimbo for not wanting to have anything
to do with magic—or her—these days.
She cringed, thinking about how, near the end of the call, Jimbo had
sounded petrified. As if he was afraid she'd try to pull him through the
phone and into her hotel room.
I'd actually considered doing just that, Kelley realized with a
surprised grin. She turned and began pacing the length of the cold hotel
room. But I know that Jimbo has to do this on his own accord. If I just
pull people here and there with magic, then I'm no better than that
madman Dr. Azure.
She would never forgive Jeroan for volunteering to join Azure's
team. Like a kid running off to join the circus. Those two goons who
lifted him off the roof of the runaway riverboat back in November most
likely just dropped him into the Mississippi from a hundred feet up after
listening to his trash-talking for a couple of miles. He was probably dead
"No," she whispered. The sound of her thin voice gave her the
goosebumps. "I can't think that. Ever. Plus, he's not gone gone. I'd know
if anything like that happened to him."
She sat down on the edge of her unmade, unbouncy hotel bed and
picked up the tiny white book from Maria's shop. More than anything
else, she felt trapped and helpless in her hotel-room prison.
After I helped save all those folks on the boat, too. But do Jimbo or
his grandmother remember that? Does anyone remember that?
It was as if everyone in Dubuque, Iowa, has selective amnesia about
that night. Even the news and the local paper had neglected to cover the
huge story about the Diamond Jo riverboat busting loose and taking a
night-time cruise down the Mississippi, much less the magic battle that
took place on the roof of the boat. Kelley had done all sorts of searches
on the Internet with her smart phone, and not even a single conspiracy
theory had reared its ugly head. The event had been swept under the rug,
most likely by Azure or his flunkies.
Nobody wanted to remember the magic.
Kelley shook her head and touched the elaborate, dark blue symbol
on the spine of her white book. Each blue curlicue made the tip of her
finger tingle, like a tiny shock of static.
To be honest, she'd been having trouble remembering that night out
on the freezing Mississippi River herself.
Running her finger once more over the strange, twisted symbol on
the spine of the small white book, she remembered the riverboat, full of
gamblers on the three floors below them, breaking loose from its dock.
How it had drifted downstream, picking up speed. And how it almost
crashed into the cement columns holding up the bridge to Highway 20.
But a lot of the details had grown fuzzy in the two months since
then. Had it been Jimbo or Polly at her side at the end, stopping the
runaway steamboat at the last second, and then hauling it back to the
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dock? Kelley truly couldn't remember.
As she skimmed through her copy of Words of Magic, she wished
once more for a tiny dragon to silently flutter down onto her shoulder.
She'd even welcome the clattering gears and strangely heavy weight of
Alexander the dragon's original version, with his metallic green and blue
scales and gray wings. Back before he became a living, breathing dragon
all in white, measuring thirty feet from wing to wing, with a Sorcerer
snatched up in each front paw.
A memory popped into her head, something she'd forgotten for
weeks. Maybe thinking of her dragon had snapped it back into her brain.
It was something Maria had said, two months ago, back in her shop.
"Not everyone can be a Sorcerer, you know. Everyone has the
ability for it, but not everyone has the knack to maintain it and use it."
That would explain Jimbo, Kelley thought. And if he doesn't keep
practicing, it'll probably just go away. For the past few months, Kelley
had made sure to channel magic through her phone at least once a day,
even if it was for something silly like getting her wild black hair to stay
in place, or making the bus run a few minutes later so she could catch it.
She wondered if Jeroan was learning all sorts of good tricks at the place
Azure had called "the Center."
Maybe, she thought, he was learning more than I'll ever learn.
Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe...
Kelley closed the book after running her tired eyes over sentence
after sentence that looked like so much gibberish to her. She set the book
down and pulled herself up into a sitting position.
It was time to try the door again.
Rubbing her cold hands together to generate some heat, she grabbed
her coat and walked up to the scuffed metal door. If I were my parents,
she thought, and I knew all that had happened back when Jeroan skipped
town, I'd use some gadget magic to keep this door from ever opening.
But Mom and Dad were the most un-magical people Kelley knew. They
were both lawyers, for crying out loud.
"Ah crap," Kelley said with her hand on the icy doorknob. She
turned and headed back to the dresser, where her eGadget sat connected
to its charger. "How could I forget that?"
She unhooked her smart phone from the charger, and then snagged
two instachargers from the top drawer. She made a face at the loud
squawk the drawer made as she pushed it back in. After tucking the
phone, the chargers, and the book into the various pockets of her big
leather coat, Kelley tiptoed to the door again.
When she touched the cold doorknob this time, she realized who it
was she needed to see. Not Maria, who had been so busy at her used
book shop since November that she never had time for Kelley, but Polly.
The skinny white girl had started out as Jeroan's friend, possibly even a
potential girlfriend, but she now hated him with a passion because of the
way he'd bailed on them.
Polly gets it, Kelley thought. She not only has magic in her blood,
but she's not afraid to use it the way Jimbo is.
Plus I need to see if she's forgetting stuff, too. If I can just remember
to ask her...
Kelley tapped on Polly's cell number and glared at the closed door as
she listened to the phone ring four, five, six times before Polly's
voicemail kicked in. Just a computer voice, announcing that Polly was
"No kidding," Kelley whispered. She ended the call without leaving
yet another message. " Nobody's available these days."
Sucking in a deep breath, she grabbed the doorknob tightly. Turning
it all the way to the right without making any sound took at least a
minute. Opening the door a crack took twice as long. But when she
peeked outside, the coast was clear.
She squinted into the bright noon-time sunlight stabbing at her eyes.
She'd forgotten it was daytime out there. After missing the last few days
of school and spending most of her time nose-down in her little white
book, she couldn't even recall what day it was. Probably Saturday.
Whatever day it was, it was way past time for her to get out and find
some answers. She closed the door behind her without a sound.
Outside in the cold, walking fast across the empty parking lot,
Kelley made it two dozen steps before a sharp voice stopped her.
"Miss Strickland! Just where do you think you are going, ma'am?"
Kelley groaned and turned. A tall, thin, white woman with a puffy
blue winter jacket and a black Iowa Hawkeyes baseball cap pulled low
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over her eyes was striding across the parking lot toward her. If it weren't
for the serious look in her eyes and the determined way she carried
herself, the woman could have been someone on her way to tailgate at a
football game. Instead, she looked like a plain-clothes cop on a stakeout.
She also looked familiar, but Kelley couldn't place the woman's
name. All she could think of was Harvey's, the name of the fast-food
restaurant where Jimbo used to work. Her stomach rumbled with the
thought of a roast beef sandwich and some curly fries.
"Going for a stroll," Kelley said as the woman power-walked up to
her and stopped a few inches away. The woman's blonde ponytail
wagged like a dog's tail under her cap. "Is that against the law?"
"You're supposed to be in your hotel room, ma'am."
Kelley took a step back. She wished she could remember the lady's
name. She never forgot a face.
So she just asked: "Who are you?"
"Your parents asked me to help keep an eye on you, Miss
Strickland. Ever since your brother went missing, they've been
understandably very concerned for your safety."
Kelley touched the eGadget in her jeans pocket.
Looks like it's about time for my daily dose of magic, she thought.
Maybe I'll see how far I can transport myself with one quick burst of
magic. Or maybe see how far I can toss this woman into the air.
"So I can't even leave that nasty hotel room and get some fresh air?"
"This is one of the finest establishments in Dubuque, ma'am. My
cousin is the manager. And to answer your question, yes, you may leave
your room. But not without a chaperone. I'm Nanci Beyers, by the way."
You've got to be kidding me, Kelley thought, staring at the woman's
unsmiling face and feeling the cold January wind cut through her coat
and sweater. I sent away a Sorcerer who was hundreds of years old from
Mercy Hospital and helped stop a humongous riverboat from crashing
into a bridge. I don't think I need a babysitter.
"I'm going to meet a friend," Kelley said. "And she, um, she's
expecting me. So I'll be seeing you, Miz, um, Beyers—"
Without waiting for a response, Kelley turned and started walking
into the cold January wind.
The woman fell in step next to Kelley without missing a beat. She
sniffed in a deep, noisy breath and let it out in a big plume of air that the
cold wind dispersed in an instant.
"Good day for a walk," Beyers said, with the hint of a grin on her
"I don't believe this," Kelley muttered. She gave up on heading over
to Polly's place. This woman would certainly not be welcome there.
Instead she turned and headed east toward the river, her boots crunching
on the gray snow at the edge of the sidewalk. She heard a distant train
whistle and hurried after it.
Maybe I can jump aboard that train, she thought, just like old Archie
did with Polly's pink phone in his gnarled hand, and lose her that way.
"Strange times here in Dubuque," Beyers said as they walked.
Kelley glanced over at her and the memory clicked into place—this
was the female cop that Jeroan somehow knew first-hand. Beyers and
her cop partner had been at the scene of Jimbo's accidental "triggering"
at Archie's hands, when the old guy knocked Jimbo out while eating a
late, greasy breakfast. Boom. Just like that, the old guy had infected
Jimbo with magic.
The same old guy who was now completely out of her life, along
with just about everyone else Kelley cared about (outside of her parents,
of course, who were rarely around anyway).
They passed under Highway 151, cars and trucks thundering
overhead, and then stepped over the rows of train tracks breaking up the
sidewalk. Up ahead, the ancient tan and brown shot tower loomed over
the river and the black railroad bridge stretching over the water.
After walking another block, Kelley's curiosity got the best of her.
She put on her most neutral face and looked over at Beyers.
"What do you mean, 'strange times'?"
Beyers gave Kelley a curious glance before turning back to the road.
"Well, other than your brother going missing, that is, there have
been reports of weird behavior and dangerous activities. Did you know
that Mercy Hospital has been treating people for a rash of fall-related
activities? Nearly three dozen such cases since Thanksgiving. And we're
talking big falls here, like people thinking they could fly or something.
Gravity told 'em otherwise."
"Wha—?" Kelley nearly coughed as she sucked in a cold breath of
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air. "Did you say 'fly' ?"
"I know, it's weird. And most of them had trouble remembering the
circumstances related to their accident. Like they'd just blanked out or
something." Beyers pulled her cap down a bit lower over her eyes.
"Funny how none of this ever got on the news or the Net. You never
hear or read anything about stuff like this. Strange."
Kelley flinched as a shadow shot across the road to her right. She
recovered and gave Beyers a nervous look, hoping the lady cop hadn't
seen her jump.
It was just a plane, she thought. I'm jumping at shadows, like a
nervous old lady who was afraid to ever leave her home.
"Listen, your parents care about you," Beyers said after they'd
crossed another deserted street and came up on a gray warehouse as
wide as a city block. "You know that, right? They're not doing this to
punish you, but to keep you safe. We'll find your brother soon, don't
" Safe," Kelley said, suddenly short of breath.
If Mom and Dad ever knew what Kelly had done—what she was
able to do now, with just a burst of energy through her eGadget and a
keyword—they'd never let her back into the house. She'd be as gone as
Jeroan was. There was no such thing as magic in their world.
Another plane passed over, and this time both Kelley and Beyers
looked up at it. This plane and the other one were too close together,
Kelley realized. And going in opposite directions. They could've crashed
up there. Unless...
Was that a high-pitched screech I just heard? Kelley squinted into
the late-morning sunlight, which seemed even brighter now that she was
out in the empty no-man's-land here between the river and the
warehouse district. Just parking lots, train tracks, and the shot tower up
A flapping sound from high above got Kelley moving again. She
had to smile when she saw Beyers stumble trying to catch up.
"More strange stuff," Beyers muttered, just as Kelley jogged ahead
of her down the gravel road leading to the tower. "Wait up, Kelley!"
They both were nearly running when they came around the corner of
the old cinderblock warehouse, and Kelley got her best view yet of the
fifty-foot-high shot tower left over from the Civil War.
Behind her, Beyers sucked in her breath in shock at what was
perched on top of the tower: a white dragon, easily thirty feet long from
his flared nostrils to the pointy tip of his tail.
The huge beast puffed black smoke from those nostrils as he smiled
down at them, making Beyers pivot in the road and run off in the
opposite direction with a loud splutter of gravel.
"Alexander!" Kelley called, looking up at the dragon with both of
her arms raised up in the air like an Olympic gold medal winner. "You
really do have a flair for dramatic entrances, don't you?"
The office at the top of the Center took up the entire thirteenth floor
of the building, and the building itself took up most of a city block in
downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. Unlike the empty cubes of the
first floor, this space was jam-packed as full as the library that ran from
floors six to eight of the Center.
But instead of stacks and stacks of books, maps, and periodicals, this
huge room held humming black servers lined up like soldiers all around
its perimeter, with thirty-inch flat-panel monitors set above them at
stand-up workstations. Keyboards, mice, smart phones, tablets, laptops,
and MP3 recorders filled the high black desktops, along with other less-
familiar gadgets that nobody had bothered teaching Jeroan how to use.
The office had no chairs. But long before Jeroan had ever arrived
here, Mexico had smuggled in half a dozen four-foot-wide bean bags
that now sat in the far corner of the office, right in front of a sixty-inch
flatscreen and a pair of big black speakers where the operatives had set
up a variety of gaming consoles, just a few feet away from the soda
coolers and the cappuccino maker.
Jeroan loved this room. He could live in this room.
Only about half of the fifty or so monitors ringing the room were
showing anything on them. The rest usually remained dark, though the
computers attached to them were most likely running some obscure
program that operative York—the computer genius—had launched to
track magic use or to gather data on some natural disaster or other
suspicious activity in a region.
There was always a buzz of activity up here at the top of the
building, and Jeroan liked looking out of the three floor-to-ceiling
windows next to all the high-tech equipment, taking in the calm city and
the quiet riverfront a hundred and fifty feet below them. Nobody down
there had a clue what went on up here in the Center's office.
And right now, the office was in utter chaos.
An alarm beeped angrily, coming from one of the servers half a
room away. All the server fans had kicked in, loudly, while the AC had
dropped the temperature in the office down to what felt like forty
degrees. Three of the printers close to the windows were overflowing,
spitting paper onto the floor. An old-fashioned phone rang somewhere,
and the five flat-screen TVs mounted from the ceiling in the middle of
the room blared updates from five different news channels. The acrid
stink of melting plastic filled the air.
Orleans stomped in front of Jeroan without even acknowledging
him, growling something about emergencies and always being the last to
Mexico jogged past Orleans, on his way to pick up the ringing
phone on the other side of the room.
"Jeroan," he called, slipping on the paper piled up on the floor. The
big black man caught himself with a movement so fast Jeroan could
barely follow it. His afro bobbed and wobbled like a huge hat. "Go give
York a hand, if you could."
Jeroan looked around, trying to find York and his droopy mustache
in the middle of all this mess.
Every one of the monitors set against the black walls had flickered
to life since his arrival. He saw the aftermath of a factory explosion in
one, a wildfire in another, a train wreck in yet another, and a bank
robbery taking place in a fourth. He shook his head, trying to clear the
violent images from his brain.
Sixty feet from the alcove for the elevators, Orleans stood at what
looked like an illuminated whiteboard that was taller than him and wider
than all three operatives put together. Orleans called it his smart wall.
Jeroan found York next to the smart wall, typing into two tiny laptops at
once. The screens of York's laptops swam with line after line of
indecipherable white-on-black code, with the occasional flash of green
zipping across each screen.
Jeroan looked from York—coding old-school on his laptops—to
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Orleans—zooming in on the various digital maps displayed on his smart
wall, tapping and pinching and dragging his big fingers all over the
wall's smooth surface. Soon the maps on the wall were covered with
green lines, connecting cities and crossing rivers and lakes and even
crisscrossing the Atlantic at one point.
And I'm supposed to help these guys how? Jeroan wondered.
"Hey," Orleans yelled over the roar of the machines and York's
frenetic tapping. "Where did the distress call originate?"
"Not sure," York said in a distracted voice, still typing away. "It was
all... jumbled. My dampener said somewhere close to London, but
Mexico's said southern Russia. And yours said... what did yours say
Orleans had left his dampener on the desk next to his smart wall.
He'd always complained about the size of the gadget—too big to fit in
his pocket, too small to carry in a bag by itself.
Duh, Jeroan thought. It was the size of a hardcover book. Just the
right size, he figured as he peeked at the dampener's green-glowing
screen, for reading.
"Newfoundland," Jeroan said out loud, and then paused. "Where the
Orleans and York both stopped what they were doing to stare at him.
"What is he doing up here?" Orleans shouted, as if noticing Jeroan
for the first time. "We're in crisis mode here, York. This is no place for a
Jeroan took a quick step back as he set down Orleans' gadget. He
gave the two operatives what he hoped was his most charming smile.
"Don't worry, guys. I won't get in the way. So... how can Azure be in
so many places at once, do you think?"
Orleans went back to his wall, grumbling something about not being
paid to be a babysitter. With an angry swipe of his hand, he erased all
the electronic maps and the green crisscrossing lines from his wall and
started over. Meanwhile, York tapped one last line of code onto each
keyboard, pressed two different Enter buttons, and then stepped away
from his laptops.
"He's traveling fast," York said to Jeroan, pointing at the maps
taking shape on Orleans' wall again. He buttoned his black suit coat and
stretched, once again giving off the scent of fried food. It was better than
the stink of burnt plastic Jeroan had smelled when he walked in here
"So fast we can't get a reading," York added.
"Could be," said Mexico in his deep voice, making Jeroan jump. He
hadn't even heard the big dude with the killer 'fro come walking up. "Or
it's possible that he's gone to ground."
Mexico handed York a colossal green mug of coffee and set another
mug on the high desk next to Orleans. Both mugs had the same funky,
squiggly symbol engraved on them as the one on the spine of Jeroan's
little white book.
Mexico passed Jeroan an energy drink in a black and green can, and
he held his own big white mug that said "Magic's in My Blood" in
dripping red letters in his other hand. Jeroan didn't know how he'd
managed to carry them all across the room without spilling them or
making any noise, but he knew better than to ask how-did-you questions
with these dudes.
Instead, he popped the top of his drink and watched Orleans add
green dots to his smart wall for southern Russia, London, and someplace
way up at the top of Canada that must've been Newfoundland.
"Gone to ground, huh?" Jeroan risked asking Mexico. "That, um,
can't be good, can it?"
"It depends," Mexico said. He was intently watching Orleans work
his smart-wall maps, seemingly too distracted to be bothered by the
questions. "After two months of complete silence from him, it's certainly
a good sign that he was able to get in touch with those distress calls." He
looked over at York. "We'd better get ready to hit the road in case we
need to do a retrieval—"
"Hold on!" York boomed. He was looking up and pointing at the
TVs in the middle of the room. Coffee sloshed from his big green mug
onto his shiny black shoes. "Look at this!"
One of the five TV screens in the middle of the room now showed a
mountain covered in fiery lava. Jeroan hurried closer until he could read
the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
"Mount Etna lights up with its strongest recorded eruption," he read
out loud. He turned back to York. "I don't see what the big deal—"
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And then he heard the voice.
This was a voice that had haunted his every thought for his first few
weeks of self-education and daily attacks by York, Mexico, or Orleans.
A deep and clear voice, sharp with confidence.
"I simply happened to be in the area, Pam—may I call you Pam?
And I knew I had to get just a little bit closer. Something like this doesn't
happen but once in one's lifetime. Wouldn't you agree?"
"What the...?" Jeroan began. The voice was right, but when he
looked up at the TV screen, he wondered if the camera had
Because even though the guy talking certainly looked like Dr.
Azure, his clothes were all wrong. Azure was a guy who wore suits. He
wouldn't get caught dead in this outfit: bright yellow and green plaid
shorts, a faded green shirt with a cartoony map of Italy on it, and—
Jeroan couldn't believe this—a big floppy tan hat that nearly obscured
Azure's evil tourist twin was standing about half a mile from an
erupting volcano that was now dripping orange and red lava down its
side like a black cone of melting ice cream, sending plumes of smoke
into the air.
"Eyewitness to the Mount Etna eruption" the caption said at the
bottom of the screen.
"Maybe it's someone else," York said as he walked closer to Jeroan,
staring up at the TV and rubbing the handlebars to his mustache. "Has to
be, with those clothes..."
Azure's voice, meanwhile, droned on and on to the reporter, saying
something about how he'd seen the volcano light up an hour ago while
he was hiking up a nearby mountain.
"Maybe," Mexico said, slurping down a big gulp of coffee without
ever taking his eyes off the screen. "Maybe not."
At that moment, the man with Azure's voice took off his floppy hat
and wiped his head—his utterly bald head—with the palm of his hand.
He looked right into the camera and smiled. As the distant volcano
behind him shot another puff of smoke into the air with a low rumble,
Jeroan swore he saw a glint of green in the bald man's eyes.
"I find myself in awe of such uncontained power, Pam. So very...
out of control."
"Dudes," Jeroan said, snapping his fingers. "That's Azure all right."
Orleans was suddenly right next to him. "Is he sending us some sort
Mexico finished off his coffee. "Or perhaps he's just letting certain
people know he's still alive and kicking."
"Like us?" Orleans asked, but nobody bothered answering him.
After swallowing the last of his energy drink, Jeroan focused on
Azure's eyes. There seemed to be something missing there. First off, the
guy had actually smiled at the lady interviewing him, and meant it. And
second, he really did look like a tourist who was having the time of his
life despite the natural disaster taking place behind him.
Jeroan exhaled, feeling disappointed in Azure, somehow. This is
what the all-powerful Sorcerer had been doing the past two months?
"Well, crap," Orleans said as he spun on his heel and turned back to
his smart wall, "it's time we got him back and straightened him out. This
"Agreed," York said, grabbing Mexico on his way back to the smart
wall. "Let me show you some of the field data, Mexico."
Their angry footsteps pounded across the uncarpeted floor like a trio
"Wait..." Jeroan began, but the operatives had already started
working again at their various stations. The smell of something burning
quickly filled the air once more.
Alone again, Jeroan stared up at the footage of the volcano in Italy
that had replaced the interview with the vacationing Dr. Azure. As he
watched, he learned that this volcano was active a lot. Like ten times a
year active, if not more. So active that people had webcams aimed at it,
and the first bit of blurry footage had come from one of them.
Jeroan watched the replay of today's eruption. It was a doozy,
sending blackened bits of mountain into the sky in a cloud of dust and
smoke. They showed the explosion from a couple different angles, each
one blurrier and shakier than the previous one.
Jeroan was about to turn away when he saw something in a blurry
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webcam video that froze him in his tracks.
A person was flying through the air next to the volcano, right after it
The footage had already changed to a live shot of the volcano and
the still-dripping lava as it reached for the mountains around it. But
Jeroan knew what he'd seen.
Ignoring the stink coming from Orleans' corner of the office, he ran
to the closest computer and got on the Internet. As he tried to figure out
the best search terms, he had a sudden wish for Kelley to be there with
him. She was a mad googler, and she could always find stuff online ten
times faster than he ever could.
"Too bad her search skills come with all her other baggage," Jeroan
muttered as he typed in the name of the volcano and the words "web
cam." He could never remember if that was one word or two.
Kelley would know, he thought. And she'd never let me forget it,
Twenty feet away, Azure's operatives swore and slammed their
equipment around. They weren't having any luck getting in touch with
their fearless leader.
I got this, guys, Jeroan wanted to call out to them.
He'd never seen the three of them this serious before, except for
maybe that time York and Mexico had chased him and Kelley, along
with Polly and Jimbo, up the Fourth Street Elevator in Dubuque, and
they'd hit him with their Pincers, and—
Best not to think about that, Jeroan thought, pressing Enter and
holding his breath.
In less than a second, he had a list of over a dozen websites
dedicated to the volcano in Sicily, Italy. He started flipping through the
sites as fast as he could, looking for more footage of that flying man.
"Come on," he muttered, feeling a sudden wave of heat enter him as
the images on his computer screen blurred, just for an instant. " Show
His screen flashed, and when he clicked the Refresh button, Jeroan
hit the jackpot. He felt a sudden lurching sensation in his stomach.
"Guys," he said, staring at the impossible scene in front of him, but
his voice was just a squeak. His gut was now burning, as if a tiny
volcano was going off inside him. He swallowed hard and tried again.
" Guys! Come look at this!"
Jeroan had watched the short loop of archived webcam footage four
times before Mexico and York were able to pull themselves away from
their work to join him. Still at his smart wall, Orleans was pretending he
hadn't heard Jeroan.
"This better be good, bro," Mexico said, stomping up to him and
loosening his dark green tie. "I thought I had a lead on him. Maybe."
"Oh, it is good," Jeroan said, touching the screen in front of him.
On the screen right next to his finger was a tiny man in a bright
green shirt and shorts who appeared to be suspended in front of the
volcano. In the webcam image, Etna hadn't exploded yet.
"Whoa," York said, running a hand through his slicked-back hair,
messing it up even more. " Azure."
Jeroan glanced back at him and nodded. He saw that Orleans was
still frantically working at his smart wall, which was now glowing green
and giving off small tendrils of smoke. That was where the smell was
coming from. His wall was probably shorting out.
"And those," Mexico said, tapping a long brown finger on the three
shapes surrounding Azure, "look like rogue users. Or more likely, Blood
Jeroan flinched at the sound of both labels. Neither option sounded
any good to him, after all the reading he'd been doing.
"Let me run those images through one of my filtering programs,"
York said, smacking Jeroan in the shoulder hard enough to knock Jeroan
back a few steps. His voice had grown sharp at the mention of rogues,
and the sound of it made Jeroan felt like sneaking away. A rain of blue
and green sparks shot out from Orleans' smart wall along with a big puff
of black smoke, followed by more cursing from Orleans.
"Got it," York said from one workstation over. "Putting it on-
Mexico gave Jeroan a knowing look as they walked over to where
York stood in front of a big flat-panel monitor.
"You were probably wondering why we never had time to properly
train you," Mexico said over the sizzling sounds coming from Orleans'
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wall. "We've been working in here non-stop, trying to keep up with
Azure's work without him. And on top of that, we've been working
twenty-four-seven to locate him as well."
Jeroan just nodded at Mexico, afraid to say anything, painfully
aware that not too long ago, he and his sister were the ones being tracked
by York and Mexico.
"Here are the culprits," York said, slicking back his hair once more.
He nodded at the screen, where he'd cleaned up the images of not just
one, but four human shapes floating in the air in front of still-dormant
Mount Etna. He'd also zoomed in close enough to make out faces. That
was a good filtering program, Jeroan thought.
Azure hovered in mid-air in his bright T-shirt and plaid shorts, his
face red with rage as he shouted his Words and sent bolts of green
energy out of his open hands. Maybe twenty feet above him was a dark-
skinned man in white robes and a black turban, arms spread wide as he
looked down at Azure. On Azure's left was a pale woman in torn jeans, a
flowery shirt, and black boots, and on his right was a tall white man with
a red beret, blue T-shirt, and black jeans.
The three attackers floated in the air close to the volcano, and Jeroan
could see the tell-tale blurry signs of magical energy building in the air
around them, connecting all three of them as they channeled it through
one another before attacking Azure. They must've caused the volcano to
blow during the battle that came after this webcam image was taken.
"Blood Sorcerers," Mexico spat. "No doubt about it. That's Rashad,
Yu, and Dominic. Why am I not surprised? They've turned traitor."
"Who? What?" Jeroan said, a million questions shooting into his
But neither York nor Mexico had time to answer, because at that
moment something exploded inside Azure's office. Everything went gray
as the blast sent Jeroan flying through the air. He landed, gasping for
breath, on one of the oversized bean bags on the far end of the room.
When his ears stopped ringing, he pulled himself out of the bean bag
and headed on unsteady legs toward where the smoke was thickest. York
and Mexico were a few steps ahead of him. They all staggered over to
Orleans and his smart wall.
Orleans' face was coated in black soot, and his dark hair had broken
loose of his ponytail, but he was cackling happily as Jeroan approached.
The stink of burnt plastic was quickly being dispersed thanks to the three
now-broken windows in the middle of the office. Cool air blew away the
smoke to reveal another person sitting in front of the smart wall, wearing
a floppy gray hat and glowing in a mystical green light.
"I found him," Orleans said, still laughing. "And I was able to pull
him back here with my wall!"
"You never told me that thing could do that," York said in a shocked
"I've added some, ah, enhancements," Orleans said, exchanging a
fist bump with York.
Jeroan and Mexico walked up to the man they'd been trying to find
for the past few weeks. The green light had faded from the man's body
after his sudden teleportation here via Orleans' amped-up smart wall.
Jeroan could tell something was wrong even before the man looked
up at them and his floppy hat rolled off his head.
A shock of white hair sprang loose from under the hat, hair that
perfectly matched the snowy white beard that reached to the old man's
chest. Definitely not Azure's bald, beardless self.
"Ah, Orleans," Mexico said as he slapped his own forehead. "You
Jeroan groaned when he saw that the bearded man's eyes were
actually glowing a brilliant shade of light blue. It was a blue that Jeroan
had hoped never to see again. Seeing it made him think of a cold
morning in November when everything that could've gone wrong had
done just that.
" Lovely to see you fellows again," the old man said as he slowly got
to his feet without any helping hands from Mexico or Jeroan. He bowed
his hairy white head at the three operatives now gathered around him,
and then he tipped a wink at Jeroan, along with a smile. "Jonathan
Archibald Masterson Brightwell, at your service."
One second, Alexander the dragon was perched at the top of the shot
tower, smiling down at Kelley with his wings wrapped around him like a
white robe. And the next second, he had unfurled those wings, leaped off
the tower, and swooped down to snatch Kelley right off the ground.
Kelley could scarcely suck in a breath as she shot into the air in his
clutches. She thought she heard a woman shout, somewhere far below
her, and then the world spun away from her.
I never should've left my hotel room today, she thought.
She couldn't have broken free of Alexander's grip if she tried. Which
was a good thing, she realized as she looked down past her feet dangling
free in the wind. The shot tower and the rest of the city of Dubuque were
now easily two hundred feet below them.
"Alexander!" she cried as soon as she was able to get her breath.
"What are you doing?"
The dragon answered with a screech that sounded like a combination
of the harsh wind in Kelley's ears and fingernails running down a
Kelley's ears popped from the change in pressure as they continued
to fly higher. She couldn't see the dragon's face—he held her close to his
body, so all she could see was the world growing smaller and smaller
below them. She had no idea what he might have been thinking. His
smooth belly was hot against her skin, and she got a whiff of something
metallic in her nose before the rushing wind blew the stink away. She
could almost feel Alexander's gears grinding together again.
The dragon slowed, just a tiny bit, in his mad ascent.
Even though she could barely feel her fingers or her nose from the
bitter cold up here, Kelley tried to relax and think about a way to use
some Words to get the dragon from carrying her right out into space.
Or I could just order him to stop, she thought, like I ordered him to
leave the steamboat last November, even though we were surrounded by
Blood Sorcerers determined to cook us all alive. But would that cause
him to stop flying altogether, and we'd fall like rocks to the ground
With the frigid air now growing thin, Kelly couldn't wait any longer.
"Alexander!" she cried, her head spinning. "I order you to slow
Kelley felt the big dragon twitch, and to her relief, he began to slow
even more. When they hit about two thousand feet, give or take a
hundred feet, he stopped climbing. With a graceful arching of his
smooth, muscled body, he unfurled his wings. They began to glide, high
over the Mississippi River, with the state of Iowa on Kelley's left, and
Illinois and then Wisconsin on her right.
"Oh wow," she whispered, but the cold wind ate her words. She
didn't care, now that she could breathe again. This was incredible.
Far below to the left, she could see the railroad bridge and the shot
tower, which from this height was no bigger than a pinkie finger
pointing upwards, and then the warehouse district and even the Fourth
Street Elevator climbing slowly up its tiny track surrounded by snow.
She caught a tantalizing glimpse of the construction site at the top of the
bluffs where Mom and Dad's builder had started putting together their
new house. The foundation was laid, and half a dozen workers swarmed
like ants over the wooden framework of the first story.
Kelley had hoped to get a glimpse of her new bedroom, but
Alexander was moving too fast for that. They were heading north, away
from downtown, when Kelley suddenly felt exposed up there in the sky.
"Alexander," she called out, her voice sounding way too loud after
the last few peaceful seconds of dragon-gliding. "What if someone sees
us? It'll be all over the Net and in all the papers."
"Urm?" Alexander rumbled, though Kelley wasn't sure if that was
his stomach or his mouth talking. Then he twitched, and his scaly skin
went hot for a second. Kelley flinched, expecting the worst, and when
she opened her eyes, the dragon had disappeared.
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Gasping and inhaling the smell of hot metal again, Kelley reached
up to try and touch the dragon. He was still there, solid as ever as he
caught an updraft and swayed side to side. He was just invisible. With
another shock, Kelley realized that her own hand was invisible, too.
"Holy crap," she said, and let out a convulsive giggle.
Maybe, she thought, I didn't choose such a bad day to leave the old
hotel room after all. Hope I remember this feeling and don't lose it to my
They did a slow sweep of the outskirts of the city, and then
Alexander aimed for the tree-lined bluffs overlooking Dubuque. Kelley
smiled when she figured out where he was headed—it had to be Eagle
Point Park, a cute little spot high above the Mississippi, where the
parentals had taken her and Jeroan twice last fall to check out the
changing leaves and to watch the barges float through the lock and dam
Kelley blinked away a sudden fullness in her eyes that came with a
tightness in her chest. Those had been fun times, with the whole family.
Even Jeroan had behaved, not even complaining about having to spend
time away from his new friends in town to look at trees and boats. And
Mom and Dad had only spent some of the day at the park on the phones,
talking to clients and their fellow lawyers. Kelley had almost felt like
she was part of a normal family on those visits to Eagle Point.
As the park drew closer, she patted the dragon's belly to show her
appreciation for his wise choice of landing spots. The snow-lined
parking lot and roads leading through the trees were empty, except for a
rusted and abandoned-looking scooter parked at the far edge of the
deserted campground. A perfect place to hang out with an invisible
dragon for a few hours, at least until the cold got the best of them.
Just as Alexander was coming in for a landing on top of a log cabin
restroom, he twitched again. A heartbeat later, a small figure streaked
through the air in front of them, shooting up from the ground and into
the sky with a squeal. The person would've smashed right into the
dragon's snout, but Alexander pulled up with a sharp lurch and a sudden
flapping of his wings, sending snow and dirt flying.
Touching the eGadget in her jeans pocket, Kelley looked around for
the figure—was it some sort of attacker?—until she located the flying
person high in the air above them.
It was a young white girl, surely no older than seven or eight, clad in
bright pink boots, oversized jeans, and a purple sweatshirt. She wore a
red bicycle helmet over a mop of unruly dishwater-blonde hair.
And she was no longer flying.
The young girl was now falling out of the sky, heading right for the
"Alexander!" Kelley shouted, trying to think of a Word to use. But
her mind was a complete blank. She couldn't think of anything to say
other than two regular words: "Catch her!"
The dragon was already moving for the girl as Kelley barked out her
orders, and he snagged the screaming girl out of the air twenty feet
before she splatted into the asphalt next to the log cabin.
The girl was panting from fear, and her dirty face was beet-red as
she looked all around.
"What the—what the—How did I...?"
We're still invisible, Kelley realized. The girl—who looked vaguely
familiar—had no idea who or what had just grabbed her. The girl
dangled in the air, two stories above the ground, all by herself.
"Alexander," Kelley whispered. "Can you just make me visible, but
don't make yourself—"
"Mags!" an older girl's voice shouted, interrupting Kelley. The
sound of footsteps crunching through snow grew louder and louder. "Oh
God, Maggie! Where are you?"
I know that voice, Kelley thought as her hands and the rest of her
became visible again.
"Polly?" she called out.
At the same time, the young girl started muttering a surprising series
of obscenities as she tried to break free of Alexander's iron grip. The
footsteps in the snow twenty feet below them stopped.
"Dudes," Polly Erdman said, looking up at the young girl and
Kelley, who were both floating in thin air above the parking lot. "What
the freak is going on up there?"
* * * * *
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"So you're not mad at me," Polly asked ten minutes later, for the
third time. "Really?"
The three girls stood around a small but hot fire that Kelley and
Alexander had built inside one of the grills in the picnic area of the park.
Kelley hadn't realized how numb Alexander's flight over the city had left
her ears. And her fingers and toes and nose. The fire felt good.
"No," she told Polly again. "I tried calling you, but you never picked
up. Same for texts and email and Friendbook updates." Kelley gave
Polly a sheepish look. "I actually thought you didn't want to hang out
with me, after all that happened. But I was heading to your place today,
honest, right before our old friend here scooped me up."
"Frickin' dragon!" Polly's younger sister Mags shouted, glaring up at
Alexander. The white dragon had shrunk down to the size of a Great
Dane, and he was now sitting on a picnic table, fastidiously cleaning his
wings with a purple tongue.
"Hey," Polly said. "That dragon saved your life, sis."
Polly looked over at Kelley, rolling her eyes as her little sister stuck
out her tongue at Alexander.
"I was giving her flying lessons. It was only our third try. She picked
up the flying-up part pretty good. It's just the landing part that she sucks
"I woulda been able to land if stupid invisible dragon hadn't got in
Alexander snorted at that, and it sounded like an annoyed snort.
"Easy, big guy," Kelley said, and the dragon went back to his bath
after a puff of black smoke from his flared nostrils.
Kelley threw a few more sticks onto the fire.
"So," she began, "you triggered your little sister?"
"Accidentally," Polly said, rapping her knuckles on Mags' helmet.
"It was the day after Christmas, and she was ragging on me about how I
didn't get any presents 'cept for a couple sweaters, and she kept tossing
her new football at me. So I froze her with that Gholt word your buddy
Archie liked to use. Just for a few seconds. Next thing I knew, she was
doing it back to me. Then she jumped off the roof of our apartment
building. Little maniac thinks she can fly."
Kelley nodded at that, hoping Polly didn't see her shuddering at the
thought of this eight-year-old leaping off tall buildings. Magic wasn't for
beginners, she thought. But that's what we all are, really.
"Don't judge, dude," Polly said, watching Kelley closely. "It was an
Kelley patted Polly's shoulder. "I know. And I'm sorry we didn't get
in touch sooner. I could've used someone to talk to myself."
"Don't get me started. My mom refused to get me a new phone, said
my lucky pink phone was the last one she'd ever buy me."
"That sucks," Kelley said, fighting the urge to touch the expensive
smart phone in her own pocket. "I'm just glad you're still practicing,
using the Words and stuff. I have a feeling if you don't keep using it, it
just sort of goes away."
"You may be right. That would explain why all those people on the
boat we triggered never really did anything impossible again. They just
let their new power leave their bodies. Like getting over a cold, y'know?
It gets out of your system after a while. Me, I try to practice a little every
"Well, crap, then. I gotta go practice!" Mags shouted, backing away
from the fire and turning to Alexander. "Come on, you frickin' dragon.
We gotta practice! Don't wanna lose my magic!"
As Polly's sister and Kelley's dragon raced each other through the air
and across the parking lot to the edge of the snow-filled park, Kelley
caught herself grinning.
You don't see that kind of thing every day, she thought. Makes me
glad to be part of a world where dragons and incredible powers existed.
"Polly," she said. "Have you ever felt any weird, um, side effects?
Since that day?"
A shadow passed over Polly's face.
"I dunno," she said. "Maybe. But I always get headaches anyway."
"Headaches?" Kelley felt a bit disappointed. She sometimes got
headaches too, but the forgetfulness and missing memories bothered her
"Yeah, and sometimes I, well... Never mind."
" Tell me," Kelley said, inching closer.
"This is kind of embarrassing, but sometimes I forget what I'm about
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to do. And I have trouble remembering stuff that happened yesterday or
a week ago. Or months ago. It's like those memories are just fading
away, if not erased altogether."
Kelley suddenly needed to sit down. She left the warmth of the fire
and crunched across the gray snow to the picnic table. Away from the
fire, the cold was a welcome blast in the face. It helped clear her head.
"Crap," she said. "You know what this means, Polly?"
Polly followed her over to the picnic table, hugging herself. Kelley
realized how thin the other girl's coat was, and how frayed and worn her
jeans and boots were.
"Yeah," Polly said, her breath clouding around her red face.
"Magic's bad for us. Just like everything else good that's ever happened
to me. There's always a downside."
Kelley watched Mags and Alexander at the far end of the park,
stopping to catch their breath near the overlook high above the river.
Was Mags having headaches and forgetting stuff, too?
"I wonder," she said as Mags ducked under Alexander's wing and
hopped on his back. "Maybe that's why your sister fell—she forgot the
Words for flying or..." Kelley gulped, and then inhaled a cold lungful of
air that matched the chill that had just entered her blood. "Or maybe,
while she was flying, magic just... ran out on her."
"Not cool," Polly said, watching Mags trying to ride Alexander like
a pony. "How can it just run out, though? It never happened to us that
night on the riverboat. Luckily."
"I dunno," Kelley shrugged. She looked away from the dragon and
the little girl and gazed at the orange and red flames of the fire in the
grill. At the same time, gray clouds moved in front of the bright wintry
sun above them.
Polly picked up some rocks poking up out of where the snow had
melted and tossed them at the log cabin restroom twenty yards away.
With each throw, she hit the side of the building with a dull thunk.
"So-o-o," she said cautiously after tossing the last of her rocks.
"Speaking of the bad side effects of magic... Have you heard from your
Kelley exhaled a plume of warm air that clouded her vision for a
few seconds before breaking apart.
"He won't talk to me. Too busy learning Azure's style of magic, I
guess. He's okay, though, I think."
"I didn't ask that," Polly said, not smiling. "I could care less about
how you're brother's doing, that traitor. So how about that Jimbo guy?
What's he up to?"
"I called him for like the thousandth time today. He's a lost cause. A
total... lost cause..."
Polly peered closer at Kelley when Kelley trailed off. Something
was trying to shake itself loose from the fog in Kelley's head that kept
trying to hide the events of the recent past. Something...
"What?" Polly said, a hint of panic in her voice. Mags' laughing
voice floated over to Kelley, along with the distant hum of a car engine.
A memory. Why were they so hard to call up these days?
At last, Kelley snapped her fingers. It was something she'd heard in
the back room of a little book and gift shop. Not a "lost cause," but a
I do keep a lookout for lost souls, like you, Kelley.
Maria Haze had told her that. But in the past two months, the white
woman with the intense blue eyes had been way too busy at her store to
give Kelley the time of day. Kelley had stopped in three times back in
late November and early December, hoping to chat more about all that
had happened, but the surprisingly large crowd of people filling the shop
had kept Maria too preoccupied to say more than hello to Kelley, much
less give her any tips about using magic.
And just like she'd done with everyone else she'd met here in
Dubuque, Kelley had withdrawn from her. Gave up on her.
"I gotta stop doing that," she said, thinking out loud.
"What's that?" Polly said, distracted once again by her little sister
and the dragon at the far end of the park. The sound of the car engine
was getting louder.
"I think we need to take a trip down to the Haze Books and Gifts
store and see if Ms. Haze has time to sit down and chat with us and her
former windup dragon."
"Ah, the old lady from the boat, right?"
Kelley nodded, smiling at last. She'd missed Maria and her stories
and her wise blue eyes, not to mention her cozy little store. With luck,
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the crowd wouldn't be too thick in there today.
Her smile lasted only a few seconds, though.
"Polly!" Mags shouted, her voice sounding like she was half a mile
away. "Someone's coming!"
Kelley turned and saw Alexander ten feet off the ground, with Mags
on his back. He seemed to grow larger with each flap of his wings, and
he zipped across the parking lot like a small jet. Off to her left, Kelley
saw a big green car roar up the entrance road, heading right for them.
"Go invisible," Polly called, and the dragon and his tiny rider
Slightly freaked out by that as well as the approaching car, Kelley
turned back to the entrance and the car with its extremely loud engine.
Her vision blurred for an instant, and she touched her freshly charged
eGadget in her pocket.
But before she could channel the energy growing inside her to
attack, Kelley stopped herself.
I can't just blast someone for coming to the park, she thought. I can't
get paranoid like that. Or I'll be just as bad as Azure and his cronies.
With Alexander at her back, invisible but panting loudly, and Polly
at her side, Kelley watched the car approach. It was an old two-door, the
kind Dad would've called a muscle car. It was about a football field
away from them now, and slowing down. She squinted through the
windshield until she could make out the pinched, unsmiling face of the
driver under a black baseball cap.
"Beyers," Kelley spat. The off-duty cop had somehow tracked them
here. "Alexander, get us outta here!"
The invisible dragon didn't need to be told twice. The big green car
spun out of Kelley's vision as the dragon plucked her off the ground
along with Polly. He set Kelley on his back behind Mags, and then he
put Polly in front of her little sister. Just as the car was a few feet away,
and Beyers was hitting the brakes, they shot into the air. Mags and Polly
both screamed with what sounded like a weird mix of fear, surprise, and
This time Kelley had an even better view of the city passing by far
below them, because she could see right through Alexander. But her
flight was also much, much scarier this time around because she not only
had to hold on for dear life for herself, but keep Polly and Mags from
slipping off the dragon's invisible back. With each flap of the dragon's
huge wings, Kelley felt his back muscles rippling underneath her as his
whole body lurched up and down. She would've killed for a dragon seat
She finally closed her eyes and let the cold wind turn her face numb
again. But as soon as she did that, she saw Beyers' contorted face again
from behind the wheel of her big green muscle car. The woman that
Mom and Dad had hired to keep her safe had looked mad and somehow
betrayed. As if Kelley had let her down, somehow.
Or maybe the woman was just freaked out, watching Kelley leap
into the air and disappear.
With Mags cackling like a maniac and enjoying every second of the
flight, and Polly silently reaching back to hold onto both Mags and
Kelley, they soon dropped smoothly down into the heart of Dubuque.
Alexander deposited them right in front of Maria's book store. By the
time she turned to thank the dragon, he had shrunk to the size of a small
And none of them was invisible anymore. Kelley felt strangely glad
" Mree?" Alexander said. He looked exhausted in his newly shrunken
"Nice work, little buddy," Kelley said. She scooped him up and slid
him into her coat pocket, where he curled up and went right to sleep.
Polly and Mags stood at the door of Haze Books and Gifts. Polly
fiddled with the door, and Mags started swearing like a sailor when it
refused to open.
Kelley looked up for the faded wooden sign above the door, but it
was gone. She couldn't see anything through the tiny, opaque window
where the Open sign usually hung. There was just the heavy wooden
door with a small white sticker on it.
Maria never left her shop, unless it was some sort of emergency.
Kelley moved next to Polly, who'd given up on trying to get the door
open. Kelley's sense of confidence after finally deciding to see Maria
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Haze fizzled away when she read the delicate handwriting on the white
"Closed Until Further Notice."
As the smoke in the office cleared, Jeroan took a good look at the
old man standing in front of Orleans' shorted-out wall. Wearing a new
pair of khaki pants and a long-sleeved blue shirt—both of which lacked
the countless rips, holes, and tears of his previous clothes—Archie had
the look of a healthy old guy enjoying his retirement.
It was something about his eyes, Jeroan decided as he crept closer to
Archie and the three operatives. His bright blue eyes looked super-happy
and full of life, even with all three operatives in his face, barking
questions at him.
"Where's Azure?" York shouted. "What did you do with him?
"Talk to us, man," Mexico said. "We've got ways to make you talk.
Why did you show up instead of the doctor?"
"Let me get some answers out of him," Orleans said, cracking his
knuckles with a series of nasty pops. "It's been a long time since I made
a grown man cry."
The old man just smiled at the barrage of questions and threats.
Jeroan shuddered from the cool air streaming in from the broken
windows and stepped closer to Archie, kicking pieces of glass and small
chunks of Orleans' smart wall out of his way.
"All in good time, my large friends," Archie said, standing up
straight and smoothing down his beard. "I came here to speak to young
Master Jeroan here. Could you three gentlemen—" Archie snapped his
fingers with a sharp, cracking sound, and the operatives skidded back
away from him with an outburst of shouts and curses "—give us a
moment? Thank you kindly, sirs."
Jeroan fought the urge to scuffle backwards away from the
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
approaching old man as well. He felt like he was trapped in the alley
with him all over again.
"What do you want?" he croaked as Archie led him past the broken
windows and onto the big bean bags. Archie dropped into one and gave
a relieved sigh.
"Please join me," the old man said with a smile, eyes still glowing.
Jeroan tried fighting off the impulse to sit in the bean bag across from
Archie, but when the old man tipped his head slightly to one side,
nothing could've prevented Jeroan from taking a seat.
"That's more like it," Archie said. His calm demeanor was starting to
seriously weird Jeroan out. "Best to remain civilized in trying times like
these. I am not in favor of simply ripping a person from their present
location to someplace else, just to meet the whims of the curious."
Archie shot a dark look across the big room at the operatives, and
Jeroan followed his gaze. While Orleans had gone back to his beloved—
and still smoking—smart wall, Mexico and York had both armed
themselves with dampeners, and York also held a set of crackling
Pincers. They stood guard about twenty feet away.
"But now I am here, and from the state of the world—at least based
on what I see reported here on the news and the other systems that
survived my explosive arrival—it appears that my brief vacation is at an
end. Ah, well. I was getting tired of the travel, anyway. I miss my own
"You have your own bed?" Jeroan blurted out, thinking of
alleyways, dumpsters, and cardboard boxes.
Archie laughed at that, which caused York to step closer with his
Pincers raised. Jeroan caught a whiff of ozone coming from the nasty
"A bed is more like a state of mind," the old man said. "It's what you
take with you when you lie down on it that truly matters."
"Um, right," Jeroan said. He risked a glance over at Mexico, who
kept mouthing the words "Where is Azure?" at him over and over.
"So were you on vacation all by yourself," Jeroan asked, "or did you
have some, ah, friends with you?"
As he spoke, something tugged at Jeroan's memory. Something from
a book he'd been reading recently, though he'd been reading so much it
was hard to keep it all straight in his head. It was something about the
old man in the bean bag next to him, but ancient history. Maybe. Jeroan
only half-listened to Archie's answer to his question as he tried to
"My boy, I am used to being alone. Been that way for at least two
centuries, after my old friends either disappeared against their will or
were separated from me by distance. I have always been quite self-
sufficient, even in my actual youth hundreds of years ago. Why, I was
younger even than you, I might add, when I was first on my own, back
His youth, Jeroan thought. It was something that he did when he was
younger. Why am I having such a hard time remembering? This hadn't
happened before. Had it?
"But I digress," Archie continued. "I found myself with traveling
companions recently, and to my surprise, I had been quite enjoying their
company. Until we had a sudden parting of ways, and our traveling trio
became a one-man band once more. Pity, really."
From across the room, Orleans let loose with a serious of profanities
as he worked on his damaged smart wall. Mexico had crept closer to
them, and he'd stowed his dampener inside his jacket. York still hung
back with his Pincers and dampener held at the ready.
"You know," Archie continued, momentarily distracted from his
reminiscing by the henchmen, "it takes quite a bit of energy and know-
how to pull someone anywhere against their will. Unless you have some
powerful gadget magic at your side, as your sister did, Jeroan. Our large
friend over there with the ponytail was lucky he didn't blow up the entire
building when he dragged me here with his wall-sized gadget."
Archie leaned closer, so Mexico couldn't hear.
"I recognized all three of Azure's men, you know, as soon as I
arrived. I know what they're capable of. Cold-hearted killers, all of
Jeroan sat back, away from Archie, as if the old guy still smelled
like dirty alleyways. He couldn't help but shake his head at Archie's
"No," he whispered. "They've just got impossible jobs, that's all. If
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they were killers, I'd be dead already. Azure would've ordered them to
do it back in November." Jeroan tried not to think about the more violent
stories he'd read in that little white book earlier this week. "They're
protecting the world from magic terrorists. You of all people should
know what I'm talking about, Archie."
Archie gave Jeroan a knowing look, his right eyebrow arched high,
and then he simply shrugged.
Jeroan felt his anger stir at that. What did this old guy know? Not
that long ago, he'd just been a clueless old bum, without any memories
or a home or even a bed to sleep in. Someone who couldn't even
remember his own name.
"All right then," Jeroan said. "Let's stop beating around the bush
here. Where the heck is Azure? What did you do to him so you could
come here instead of him?"
"Michael Azure," Archie said, leaning back in his bean bag with a
soft sploosh. "An old friend and a fine traveling companion, for he
knows all the best places to eat and the coziest places to sleep. He and I
finally buried the hatchet, you might say. Before he went off on his own,
"Do tell," a deep voice whispered next to Jeroan, making him jump.
Mexico had somehow slipped into the bean bag between Jeroan and
Archie without a sound, and he was now sitting comfortably, patting
down his big afro and gingerly picking at a couple of singed patches in it
from the recent explosion.
The operative grinned intently at Archie.
"This is a story I simply must hear."
Archie's eyes glinted with a flash of blue at Mexico, just for an
instant. Then the old man ran a hand down his snow-white beard and
took a deep breath.
"We left the fine city of Dubuque aboard a dragon," he began,
talking only to Jeroan. "And we arrived on the other side of the world an
unknowable period of time later. My friend Michael and I hadn't yet
called our truce, and the amount of magic we had been bouncing off one
another, coupled with the near-frenzy of the white dragon carrying us
higher into our planet's atmosphere, caused some sort of, ah... let's call it
a small rip in time and space."
"Get outta here," Jeroan blurted out. "That's—"
He was about to say it was impossible, but by this point, after all that
he'd seen and all he'd done, he knew better. He cleared his throat and
gave Archie a sheepish smile.
"Sorry," he said. "Keep talking."
The old man gave him a bemused wink before continuing on.
"So we landed in the mountains of southern Russia. Not a friendly
place to be during the winter. I thought it was cold on the streets of
Dubuque and Chicago. Try spending a week in a cave in the Caucasus
Mountains, trying to regain your strength while also trying not to freeze
to death. But Michael and I—not to mention the dragon, who was at that
point no larger than my hand—lacked the strength to go any further in
those long, bitterly cold days. We hid from the world, let the dragon's
breath heat our cave, and talked. And we made our peace, despite all that
Michael Azure had done to my fellow Sorcerers and to me in the last
Archie paused and gazed off toward the windows, rubbing his long
white beard. Jeroan remembered the old guy's hair being salt-and-pepper
gray, not this all-over white color. Maybe all that magic fighting had
sucked the color from his hair. Jeroan looked down at his own brown
hand as it instinctively went up to touch his hair. Hope my hair—or my
skin—doesn't go all white on me like that.
"Azure claims to have been misunderstood, his work unappreciated
as he kept the world safe from misguided and poorly trained magic-
users. I claim that he kept the world free of magic—both good and bad
magic, true—but a world utterly devoid of magic is not one in which I
prefer to live. Because once you learn of all the constructive and
beneficial things you can do with magic, you don't ever want to go
Jeroan flinched as he suddenly recalled the popping sensation of his
shoe crushing a delicate music box, and then grinding the pieces into the
roof of the riverboat. Definitely a memory he didn't want to recall at that
moment. But the real memory he wanted to bring up and discuss with
Archie was still eluding him.
" Anyway," Mexico said, fighting to keep the impatience from his
deep voice. "You and Dr. Azure and that dragon were in a cave in
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Russia... Sounds like the beginning to an incredibly bad joke."
"Ah yes, you wanted to know about the current state of your fearless
leader. Or should I say, former leader. He handed over all his various
gadgets and accoutrements of his office to me, you see. Said he'd seen
and done enough. It was time for him to retire."
Jeroan jumped when he heard York stomping over to them from
across the room.
"I've had it with your lies, old man!"
Before York could reach him with his Pincers, however, Archie
simply leaned back in his bean bag as if he were stretching, and then he
nodded at York. Jeroan heard a clatter of metal, a rush of air, and then a
splooshing sound. He looked over and saw that York was now sitting in
the bean bag next to Mexico, and his Pincers were on the floor ten feet
away. The only thing moving on the big white guy were his eyes, which
remained locked angrily on Archie.
"And that is why I came to be carrying Michael's various gadgets,
one of which began sending out a distress code. It let out a series of
them, apparently, as I was traveling back to America on the sturdy back
of Alexander the dragon. I felt it pulse as we departed our cave, and then
over London, and a third time as we passed over northern Canada, where
I was planning on visiting my old friend Mazwell in Newfoundland, if
he was still alive. I may never know of Maz's situation, however,
because at about that point, when I was nearing Newfoundland, your
colleague over there grabbed me with his wall device."
Archie paused to look over at Orleans. Jeroan saw that Orleans had
pieced together all the chunks of his smart wall, but the whole thing
looked ready to fall apart at the slightest movement.
Mexico cleared his throat noisily. Some of the world maps on the
flat screens spread around the room now had small red dots on them, and
when Jeroan looked over at Mexico, he could see the operative's
growing agitation. There was other work—Azure's work—to be done
here, as potential rogue magic-users continued to pop up around the
"So Azure didn't want us to be able to find him," Mexico began,
talking to himself as well as the others. "But then he goes off to see this
volcano erupting, and the Blood Sorcerers attack him. You don't know
anything about that, old man?"
"Blood Sorcerers?" Archie repeated. "I thought they had all gone
into retirement or died off. Most of them thanks to Michael, no doubt."
"No," Jeroan said, remembering Azure's recruitment speech back in
his other, temporary office aboard the riverboat. "He was always looking
for new Blood Sorcerers. I'm not sure how many he had working for him
already, but it sounded like it wasn't enough."
"Over... three dozen," York said, his voice straining with the effort
of speaking through the Words Archie had used on him. "Most of 'em
loyal... to the death."
" Most of 'em?" Jeroan said. "What about the ones who weren't?"
Archie was nodding. "I do recall some young Sorcerers dropping in
on us that night in Dubuque. Good thing I sent Alexander on to that fair
city by the river right before you gentlemen pulled me here. There could
be a few Blood Sorcerers still lingering there, looking for ways to earn
Jeroan grabbed the beanbag under him and squeezed, fighting the
urge to leap to his feet and try to get in touch with the parentals. They
wouldn't stand a chance against a Blood Sorcerer if one of them came
sniffing around town. He inhaled a shaky breath and forced himself to
Kelley, he thought. I should probably let the Beast know, too. Tell
her to be on the lookout, and to not try anything stupid.
"This new wrinkle could prove problematic in light of recent
events," Archie said.
"No kidding," Mexico said. "The Blood Sorcerers were loyal to
Azure, but as soon as they find out he's retired, no longer fighting the
good fight, what will they do?"
Archie was shaking his head.
"Their ultimate allegiance is to an older, higher power," he said.
"That creature—I do not think I can call him a man—is the one who first
unlocked the secrets of magic."
"Except," Mexico said. "He's dead."
Who? Jeroan wanted to ask, but his jolt of fear for his parents and
even his sister had apparently made his tongue forget how to work.
"Death is a relative concept when magic is involved. Just think of
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my old friends Moammar and Yishi. I was under the impression that
Michael had slain them both at Stonehenge many decades ago. But then
they both turned up, alive and healthy—well, more or less healthy, in the
case of Moammar—back in Dubuque."
"So you think," Mexico said, "the Blood Sorcerers will drop their
allegiance to Azure after all these years and go back to him? Even
though he—or it, or whatever—is dead?"
"They need a leader," Archie said. "They are a chaotic lot, quite
lacking in moral grounding. His agenda would be quite appealing to—"
Jeroan couldn't stand it any longer. "Who the heck are we talking
Archie and Mexico shared a look before Archie answered his
Jeroan nodded at that, not sure why that name sounded so ominous,
and then something clicked in his head. He snapped his fingers and
pushed his way up out of his bean bag with some effort.
" That's what I wanted to ask you. I read about you and Azure, how
you met, in this little white book I found. And the book said that you and
Azure were going to cause the Druid's downfall. So I'm guessing your
plan worked, right? Except now you think he might be back? The Druid,
I mean, not Azure."
"He never said that!" York said, his voice less tight as the effect of
Archie's hold on him faded. "You never said that the Druid was back,
"He didn't," Mexico said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "But if he
did, that would explain some of the strange readings we've been getting
up here." He chuckled at Jeroan's stressed-out expression. "Strange
disturbances in the Force and all that, you might say. I've been picking
up weird readings on some of our instruments. Unfamiliar signatures,
ancient patterns, and spikes of magic the kind of which we haven't
tracked, ever. The flow of magic has been distorted lately. Like
something—or someone—is disrupting it."
Jeroan thought of the waves of nausea that came over him lately
whenever he used magic here in the Center, and wondered if that was all
part of this magical disruption. Or maybe it was just his nervous belly.
"Possibly," Archie said. "And here I thought we'd managed to banish
him permanently in the Great Split. All that effort, for just a couple of
centuries of relative peace."
York pushed himself clumsily to his feet. "Enough of all this talking.
Orleans and I are gonna get Azure back here and talk him out of this
foolish retirement idea of his." He swayed a bit, and for a bad few
seconds Jeroan thought the big guy was going to fall on top of him.
"That is, if he survived that attack at Mount Etna by those traitors."
York stomped off across the office floor without waiting for Archie
or anyone else. A second later, Jeroan heard a loud clatter, and then
Orleans let loose a string of obscenities. York's heavy footsteps had
caused most of the pieces of Orleans' rebuilt smart wall to come loose
and fall to the floor.
As Mexico asked more questions about how Archie and Azure had
banished the Druid centuries ago—something about soldiers and
Australia and a new kind of magic—Jeroan got up and walked away
from the bean bags. He couldn't sit and listen any longer. For the first
time in a long time, he felt the need to get in touch with his family.
Just a quick check-in with them, he thought, heading toward Azure's
now-vacant black desk next to the windows. I've got to at least warn
He pulled on the top drawer on the left-hand side of the tall, stand-
up desk, and the drawer slid out smoothly, without a sound. Inside,
among the various other battered cell phones and broken dampeners,
Jeroan found his eGadget.
The phone's battery was so dead it wouldn't even turn on. He dug
through the junk in the drawer until he found one of those instant
chargers he'd heard Kelley going on about back in Dubuque. He snapped
the charger on his phone and gazed around at the messy office as he
waited for his phone to juice up.
Mexico and Archie were still talking together in low voices on the
bean bags at one end of the office, while Orleans kicked at the pieces of
his smart wall in complete dejection in the other. York was back at his
laptops, banging away at both sets of keys as if sending a pair of
messages in Morse code.
Something flashed outside the broken window nearest to Jeroan. At
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first he thought it was lightning, but the late-afternoon sky through the
empty window frames was blue and cloudless. He left his phone
charging and walked across the room, feeling a strange tickling
sensation on his scalp. By the time he got to the glassless windows, he'd
seen two more flashes of light, which seemed almost green in color.
Five feet from the first window, Jeroan stopped. His heart was
suddenly pounding and his head felt light, but he didn't know why.
A hot sweat broke out all over his body. It was almost as if someone
had reached through the air and set his blood on fire. His vision went
"Hey," he began, about to call out to Archie and the operatives.
But he never got to finish his sentence.
With a sudden rush of air, a silver-haired woman dressed in black
and covered in bright green light shot through the open window and
tackled him. The office blurred around Jeroan as he flew into the air,
unable to suck in enough air to say a single Word. Then his head hit the
floor twenty feet away from the windows, and everything went black.
Polly and Mags sat huddled together inside the tiny alcove in front
of Maria's locked store, kicking at the snow piled up on the sidewalk in
front of them and waiting for Kelley to get the door open.
Meanwhile, Kelley had tried all the keywords she could think of to
get inside, using up half the battery on her eGadget in the process. She'd
even asked Polly to start flipping through her copy of Words of Magic to
try to find some Word that might make the door pop open. With every
passing second, Kelley grew more desperate, imagining Maria inside the
shop, injured or worse.
She rattled the doorknob again, unable to believe the woman had
just up and left. Maria hadn't so much as poked her nose out of her shop
in years before Moammar had chased her outside last November with his
dusty threats. The idea of Maria going out of town on vacation was
When her last, desperate shout of "Open, sesame!" didn't do the
trick—her eGadget didn't even pulse or give off a hint of light at those
keywords—Kelley tucked her phone away and leaned down to pat Polly
on the shoulder. Polly flinched, and Kelley knew the other girl was just
as keyed up as she was.
"You two stay here," Kelley said, slightly out of breath from
shouting at the door. "I'm going 'round back to try the other door. Just
keep an eye out for any unwelcome visitors, okay? Especially off-duty
Neither Polly nor Mags said a word, which Kelley took to mean they
She jogged away from the alcove, and the icy wind knocked the
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breath out of her before she made it two steps toward the alley. She
passed a dumpster and took an involuntary glance at both sides of the
alley walls, half-expecting to see Maria or maybe Jeroan dangling up
there again, twenty feet up. Shaking her head at such oddball thoughts,
she slipped and scuffed her way down the frozen alley until she came to
the big metal door behind the shop.
She reached for the doorknob, but then stopped herself with a quick
intake of breath.
Stupid, she thought. Maria left a Word of Binding on that door, back
in November. Who knows what that would've done to me if I would've
grabbed the door?
"So how does this work?" she muttered to herself, shivering now as
the weak stream of daylight that slipped into the alley turned gray,
thanks to the gathering clouds overhead. "Maybe I can just..." She took a
deep breath, let her eyes unfocus a bit, and felt the phone in her jeans
pocket grow hot. "... Cancel out her Word?"
With a tiny pop and a flash of white light, the back door to Maria's
shop slowly swung open.
"Yes!" Kelley whispered as she scurried inside, letting the door
swing shut behind her.
Her sense of victory, however, lasted only long enough for her eyes
to adjust to the gloom of Maria's small home next to her shop. All of the
furniture was gone, along with the rugs from the floor and the walls. The
place was cold as a freezer. Kelley's footsteps echoed off the emptiness,
and her breath sounded ragged in her ears as she tiptoed over to the
entrance to the shop itself. The heavy velvet curtain that once hung there
had also been removed.
Kelley squinted into the gloom of the shop, which still seemed much
bigger on the inside than it did from the outside. Her worst fears were
quickly confirmed. All of the books, trinkets, figurines, jewelry, orbs
and—worst of all—the wind-up toys, were gone. Only the two dozen
black tables and the tall bookshelves lining every spare inch of the walls
remained. And they were completely wiped free of all objects. The shop
She hurried around the empty, dust-less tables and—holding her
breath for fear of some sort of magical or electrical shock—unlocked the
deadbolt on the front door. She didn't get any sort of zap, though, so she
turned the doorknob with a good bit of effort and pulled hard.
The tiny bell above the door let out a tiny tinkle as Kelley finally
managed to get the door open. She jumped at the sound and bit back a
When she stepped back out into the gray coldness of the early
afternoon, Polly and Mags were gone.
"What?" Kelley blurted out. "Not them, too? What's going on here?"
Her hand slipped into her coat pocket, expecting the tiny dragon
resting there to have disappeared, too, or maybe even shrunk away into
nothingness. But Alexander was still there, nuzzling her hand with one
scaly cheek before curling back into a ball.
They couldn't have gone far, she thought as she looked from side to
side, up and down the quiet street. Just a few cars were parked on either
side of the road, and she couldn't see anyone walking on the snow-
She turned left and jogged down the block, checking every alcove
and storefront. All the other stores were either empty or had Closed
signs in their windows. All of them, that was, except for the shoe repair
store across the street. Kelley took one last look up and down the street,
and then she went inside.
The shoe store smelled like old leather and feet. Kelley nodded at
the dumpy-looking white guy with messy brown hair perched at the
front counter, which was piled high with used shoes of all types—boots,
sandals, dress shoes, high heels, and more. He grunted and nodded his
fuzzy head at the two rows filled with boxes of shoes on the other half of
Kelley passed one row of shoes, then the next, and found Polly and
Mags sitting on a pair of plastic blue chairs in front of the little stool the
shoe guy must've used to help customers try on shoes. Polly was patting
her sister's head, and Mags' face was beet red. The younger girl had a
wad of tissue shoved into one nostril, and a pile of bloodied tissues on
"What happened?" Kelley asked as soon as she saw all that blood.
"Did you two get into a fight?"
Mags made a frustrated sound in response.
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Polly let go of her sister and straightened up, motioning for Kelley
to sit down on the stool in front of her.
"We were waiting out there for you," Polly said as Kelley sat on the
stool, "trying out different ways to unlock that door and freezing our
butts off, when Mags sneezed. That's when her nose started bleeding.
Like crazy. It hasn't stopped or even slowed down since." Polly leaned
forward and whispered, "I'm getting a little freaked out by it."
"Yeah," Mags said in a thick voice. She shoved more tissue into her
right nostril. "Me doo."
Kelley felt pulled between the two girls here and the empty store
across the street. She had a sense that time was running out on her, that
Maria and all the answers she needed were getting further away from
them with each passing minute.
"Maybe," Kelley said, "I could just, you know, use a Word to make
"Uh uh!" Mags grunted. "Tha' stuff's wha' made my nose bleed in
the firs' place!"
"We've been arguing about that ever since the nosebleed started,"
Polly explained, and then turned to look at her sister. "It's just a
coincidence. I mean, you only just started learning to fly, Mags."
"Don' ever wanna do id again," Mags mumbled. "And now I'm all
oud of dissues. Gread."
Without a word, the small man from the front counter shuffled up
with a new box of tissues. He handed it to Mags and stood there
awkwardly instead of heading back to his piles of broken shoes.
"You came here from the bookstore, huh," he said in a low voice. It
wasn't a question, just a statement.
Kelley nodded, wondering how much of their conversation the guy
had overheard. Probably all of it, including the bit about flying.
"Been slow 'round here without her store open," he continued. "I
usually get some good walk-ins from her funky little shop lately.
Popular place ever since Thanksgiving, really. But it looks like she and
her friends won't be coming back any time soon."
Kelley and Polly exchanged wide-eyed looks.
"Her friends?" Polly said.
The shoe guy nodded eagerly and crossed his arms over his barrel
"Saw 'em pull up about a week and a half ago in a red SUV with
Minnesota license plates. I checked the plates with my binoculars." He
handed Kelley a crinkled white receipt with a mix of numbers and letters
scribbled on the back. "Wrote the plate number down on that, just in
case. So they chased all the customers out of her store, helped her move
a couple boxes into the back of the SUV, and then they took off. None of
those folks from her shop came into my store, either."
"Was she—" Kelley began, tucking the receipt into her jeans pocket,
next to her warm phone. "Was she okay? Miss Haze, that is."
"I dunno," the shoe guy said. He looked a bit troubled himself, as if
he wasn't used to long conversations with people that weren't about
shoes. "She, um, sorta looked like people do when they get laid off and
have to pack up everything in their desks. Sorta shell-shocked."
"Who were they? What did they look like?"
"Two of 'em were pretty normal-looking, just a white guy with long
dark hair and a white lady with brownish-gray hair, both wearing jeans
and black coats. But the third one was wearing a dark suit and he was—"
he gave Kelley a sheepish look "—um, black, really black, and he kind
of had a funny limp. Dust seemed puff out of him, every step he took."
Kelley fought the urge to bolt out the door as he described the third
man. Moammar. He'd come back, somehow. And he still wanted to take
"Ugh," Mags groaned. She held a fresh handful of tissues to her
nose, and the tissues were quickly turning red. "Won't stop."
The shoe guy was now rocking from foot to foot, checking his
watch. The air in the store felt thick, heavy with the smell of leather and
too many feet.
"Um," the shoe guy said, "I'd better get back to work. All those
shoes won't fix themselves. Keep the box of tissues, 'kay?"
"Wait—" Kelley began. "What about..."
But the shoe guy had already slipped back to his counter full of
broken shoes. And time was running out with every second they spent
"Kelley," Polly whispered as Mags shoved another tissue up her
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nose. "Do you know those three people?"
"I know one of them, at least," Kelley said, zipping up her coat. "He
worked for Azure."
Polly made a face at the name. Kelley took a deep breath, inhaling
the reek of stale shoe, and let it out.
"Look, I need to get back to her store and see if she left some kind of
note, or something. Polly, you two should probably go home. Let me
find Ms. Haze. This isn't a good situation," Kelley nodded her head at
Polly's little sister and whispered, "especially for Mags."
Polly stood up and put her hand in her coat pocket. She gave Kelley
a withering look, and then turned her back on Kelley.
"Here, Mags. I'm tired of this." Polly pulled out her camera. Mags
shouted as the camera flashed. " Stop bleeding."
Mags touched her right nostril, which was completely free of fresh
"Yep," Polly said with a vicious grin. "No need to thank me, sis."
"You stink," Mags hissed, her voice now clear instead of clogged
and distorted. "I didn't want you to do that. Stupid magic crap
"Um, guys," Kelley said, sensing a colossal big-sister-little-sister
fight any second now, "We should get out of here."
Polly and Kelley got to their feet, and Mags balled up all her bloody
tissues with more muttered curses. She wiped her nose one last time and
tossed the tissues into a wastebasket as she followed Kelley and Polly
"We're coming with you, Kelley," Polly said, elbowing her on their
way across the street. "Can't get rid of us that easily."
"But," Kelley began. "Mags is so young. It could be dangerous."
"We're coming with you," Polly said again. Her face lost some of its
toughness, just for a few seconds. "Look. She's safer with us than back
home alone with Mom and our baby sister, okay?"
Kelley grabbed the open door to Maria's shop and turned back to
Polly, feeling a strange heat covering her face.
It was that bad at home for them, she realized. Bad enough that
facing Sorcerer kidnappers was a better option.
"Okay," Kelley said to Polly with a grateful smile. "So get your butts
Back inside Maria's store again, Mags flopped onto one of the empty
tables with a loud sigh. Polly walked around the barren store, her boots
clomping loudly and echoing off the empty bookshelves.
"Whoa. What happened here?" Polly called to Kelley, who was on
her way back to the sales counter near Maria's empty apartment.
Polly scratched at the black scorch marks covering the wooden front
door. Kelley hadn't even noticed them before in her rush to get back to
the other girls.
"Long story," Kelley said. "Maria was tossing fireballs at me one
day. Not her best day."
"Another crazy wizard," Mags said from her table top, and Polly
gave a sharp laugh at that.
Walking deeper into the empty store, Kelley saw that Maria had left
her big, ancient cash register sitting on the counter. The brown register
was easily three feet wide and three feet tall, and Kelley had been
surprised the petite woman had been strong enough to push any of the
thumb-sized keys down to make it work.
She looked over the oval-shaped buttons of the big bronze cash
register. Just for the heck of it, she pressed the Open button. Nothing
happened. No big surprise there.
Touching her eGadget in her jeans pocket, she muttered, "Come on
and open." With her phone buzzing in her pocket, Kelly pressed the
button again with confidence. This time the register gave a loud click
deep inside its innards, and the cash drawer obediently popped out with
a loud clack-and-ding.
"Wuzzat?" Mags said, rolling off the table and hitting the floor with
a thump. "Ow."
"Relax," Kelley said with a laugh. "Just me."
The drawer had no money in it, but when she lifted the metal tray
and peeked beneath it, she saw a torn piece of parchment paper. She
snagged the paper, which was no bigger than the slip of paper in a
fortune cookie, and as soon as she touched it, she felt the world drop
away from her.
"No way," she muttered, squinting at the scribbled handwriting on
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the paper in the gloomy store. In Kelley's own handwriting was a ten-
digit phone number below a name. She knew the name even before she
pulled out her eGadget and tapped it to use as a light: Cynthia Floodgate.
"How'd Maria get this?" she whispered. She'd written down that
name and phone number just after returning to the Dubuque harbor with
a boat full of silenced Blood Sorcerers. While most of the Sorcerers had
taken off the instant they'd gotten their power back, a few had stayed
behind. Cynthia Floodgate had been one of them, ans she'd given Kelley
Kelley thought she'd lost the paper—if she didn't add someone's info
to her eGadget's Contacts app right away, she'd forget all about it—but
now here it was again.
And, Kelley thought, that makes it my fault that Maria called this
Face hot with guilt, Kelley tapped Cynthia's name into the browser
on her smart phone. She glanced around the store as her eGadget
searched—the connection was always bad here in the store. Probably too
many weird magical vibes competing with her smart phone's signal.
Mags was now underneath one of the tables, looking up at the
underside of it, while Polly crawled around on the floor four tables away
from her, looking for any other possible clues. Kelley shook her head
and grinned, glad to have the two sisters along for the ride in spite of the
possible risks to them.
Her phone spit out info on over a dozen people from around the
country with the Floodgate name, including one person with an address
in some place called Minerva, Minnesota. Kelley tapped in the phone
number and then the license plate number from the shoe guy's receipt,
and they both matched up with the Minnesota listing as well.
Easy, she thought. Now I just have to get to Nowheresville,
Minnesota, and ask Moammar and his friends if I can please take Maria
back to Dubuque with me. Piece of cake.
Mags got up from under her table, yawning and stretching. "Can we
go get some food now? I'm starving."
Polly shook her head. "We'll get something to eat soon. First, we've
gotta find Kelley's friend."
Kelley felt her throat tighten up at that, as if she was about to start
crying. She never could've expected this kind of loyalty from anyone,
least of all from this bony white girl who she'd once suspected of being
Jeroan's girlfriend. She nodded at Polly.
"Thanks. Now we just need to get to Minerva, Minnesota," she
began. She definitely didn't want to risk just zapping themselves there,
not with all the negative side effects they'd all been experiencing lately.
They'd probably end up in Antarctica, or worse. Kelley began pacing
around the store, thinking out loud.
"Maybe," she said as she turned on one heel, nearly bumping into an
empty table, "we should just call this Cynthia lady."
While Polly and Mags gave Kelley identical doubtful looks from the
other side of the store, the sudden roar of a big engine coming up the
street outside stopped Kelley cold. The engine roar grew louder and
louder, and then abruptly softened to a low gurgling sound.
Beyers. Somehow the lady cop had found them. Again.
Kelley was about to run over and pull Polly and Mags out the back
door when the little bell above the front door gave another tinkle.
With her eGadget in hand, Kelley turned toward the front door,
expecting the worst. But it wasn't Beyers or another cop or even a Blood
Sorcerer standing in the doorway.
It was actually two people—a thin Chinese boy wearing a brown
baseball cap that said Harvey's, standing next to a tiny woman with thick
glasses and completely white hair.
As the wooden door swung shut, Kelley caught sight of a big green
muscle car idling outside, kicking out a growing cloud of gray exhaust.
"Jimbo!" Polly shouted, her voice echoing around the empty store.
"You big coward! Thanks for leaving us hanging back there on the
riverboat, dude! So did you finally come to your senses?"
Jimbo gave a nervous laugh, and then he looked Kelley in the eye.
He nodded at her, solemnly, and Kelley felt herself relax, just the tiniest
"Yep," Jimbo said. "Gran and Kelley showed me the errors of my
ways. Plus the lady in the kick-butt car outside was pretty convincing,
too. So what do you say we hit the road and find Gran's old buddy Maria
before it's too late?"
All a bad dream, Jeroan thought, flat on his back with his eyes
closed tight. This is all just a bad dream.
Except in his dreams, his head had never hurt this bad. And he
couldn't ever remember feeling so much like puking in a dream, or even
in a nightmare.
He would've slept longer, but the explosions pounding his ears and
shaking his body on the cold, uncarpeted floor knocked him awake. And
when he opened his eyes, Azure's office was in the process of getting
Four—no, make that five—flying figures shot around the inside of
the cavernous office, trailing energy behind them in wavy lines that
seemed to connect them with one another. Bursts of green energy shot
from their hands as they shouted strange Words of power. Servers
exploded, flatscreens popped, and fluorescent lights sizzled and went
And spread out around the office, with their dampeners held up in
front of them like little shields, York, Mexico, and Orleans stood their
ground against the attackers, despite being cut off from one another and
outnumbered. The operatives' gadgets stopped any bursts of energy from
actually hitting them—the dampeners seemed to soak up the green
magic, canceling it out—but there was no way any of them could keep
the intruders from destroying the office around them.
Jeroan pushed himself up on one elbow as he looked around. The
movement made the back of his head nearly explode with pain.
The attacking magic-users had to be Blood Sorcerers, he thought,
and his assumptions were confirmed when he spotted the guy in the
white robes and turban kicking a bean bag and melting all their gaming
consoles with one malicious Word.
"Come on," Jeroan said under his breath, thinking of the hours he'd
spent blasting aliens and slaying dragons on those consoles when he
wasn't learning about magic.
The attackers weren't paying any attention to him, at least for now,
so Jeroan got gingerly to his feet and crept back behind Azure's tall
black desk. He winced at another explosion and rubbed the back of his
head where he'd smacked it hard against the floor. He couldn't think of a
single set of Words to use to attack or defend himself anyway.
Worthless, he thought as he blinked hard to clear his vision in the
chaos of the office. I'm worthless as a Sorcerer.
Jeroan peeked out and saw Mexico swing at and miss the woman
with silver hair who'd tackled Jeroan earlier. Archie was nowhere to be
His anger overtook his fear. There's no truce between Archie and
Azure, he decided. The old guy had led them right to us. It was way of
getting revenge on Azure.
Jeroan stood up, head swimming for a second. He knew the Blood
Sorcerers would soon wear down the three operatives with the magic
that York, Mexico, and Orleans didn't know how to use. He could
already smell smoke, and not just from Orleans' smart wall.
"Cold-hearted killers," Jeroan muttered, remembering Archie's
words. All lies.
He also remembered something else—a few, well-chosen Words.
They were coming back to him. Just when he needed them, like
Jumping away from another explosion that felt much too close for
comfort, Jeroan looked down at Azure's desk and saw his phone with the
charger still attached. As three of the five TVs in the middle of the office
exploded from a stray burst of green energy, Jeroan grabbed his phone,
peeled off the charger, and turned to the closest Blood Sorcerer.
He felt the phone go hot as he focused all his energy on the man, a
long-haired white guy in jeans and a black jacket who was now hovering
near the fifteen-foot ceiling. The attacker was trying to get a better angle
at Orleans and his ruined smart wall.
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The wild energy of magic shot through Jeroan as he spoke his once-
Blue-white light shot out of his phone like lightning, pegging the
male Sorcerer with long blond hair square in the back. The blast dropped
him with a thud to the floor next to Orleans.
Orleans whirled around to look at Jeroan with surprise. Jeroan
thought the big man was going to charge him like a bull next, but after a
moment Orleans simply gave him a grudging nod before binding the
hands of the long-haired Sorcerer and slapping duct tape over the man's
mouth. It was as close to a thanks as he was ever going to get from the
Smoke now filled the office, and Jeroan was having trouble seeing.
He'd lost York, while Orleans had hurried over to Mexico's side. The
two of them snagged a passing Blood Sorcerer and pulled him to the
floor with a loud slam. In a flash, Orleans slapped duct tape on the
mouth of the tall, black-haired Sorcerer and Mexico tied the guy's hands
with a frayed electrical cord. Jeroan scrambled over the wreckage to get
to them, trying his best to ignore the glare from the captured man's dark
"Where's Archie?" he shouted, and then immediately began to cough
from the smoke.
"Old man took off," Mexico said, wheezing for air. "He's on his
own, the coward."
The man in the black turban shot past, destroying the last of the TVs
hung in the middle of the office as he went by.
"That did it," Mexico said, scrambling up onto Azure's desk.
Mexico leaped up—dampener clutched tight in his big hand in front
of him—and used his long arms to snag the Blood Sorcerer's white
robes. He yanked the man hard to the floor, and Orleans dog-piled on
top of them. For a few seconds, all Jeroan could see were arms and legs,
kicking and punching.
The smoke was getting too thick to breathe even this close to the
open windows. A majority of the office was on fire, and all the
sprinklers in the ceiling had been melted into black lumps, most likely
done in the first wave of the Blood Sorcerers' sneak attack. There had to
be at least two more of them still flying around the office, including the
woman in black with the silver hair.
"Where is he?" Mexico yelled at the nearly unconscious man in the
turban under him. "What did you blood traitors do with Dr. Azure?"
"I'll find the others," Orleans said as he got to his feet, reeling a bit,
his bloodied nose looking crooked somehow. He looked at Jeroan with
what appeared to be respect. "Stay here and guard the windows. Don't let
any of these blood freaks get away, newbie."
And then Orleans charged off, disappearing into the smoke.
Except for the crackle of flames and the harsh sound of Mexico
trying to get the man in the turban to talk, the ruined office had gone
strangely silent. No more shouted Words or bursts of green energy
sizzling through the air. Jeroan looked away from Mexico and his
captive and saw the other two downed Blood Sorcerers now starting to
stir on the floor a dozen feet away.
Mexico looked up at Jeroan from the floor. He was now sitting on
the guy with the turban, holding him in place. Mexico's afro had caught
fire at some point, and it was smoking and looked to be a few inches
"Why are you still here?" Mexico shouted.
Jeroan looked at him, uncomprehending.
Mexico pointed at the far end of the office, where Orleans had
charged a few moments earlier. A series of sharp crashes and loud
thumps came from that general direction.
"Go help York and Orleans. I can take care of these three jokers and
guard the windows for you. Just go! They need you, Jeroan."
Jimbo hurried after Orleans, feeling his face growing hot, and not
just from the fires burning all around him. It was like he'd passed some
sort of test just now, a real test instead of an operative-led sneak attack.
He felt like he was actually part of the team, instead of some dopey kid
from the outside. He'd never felt more proud in his life.
He coughed, wishing he could think up some sort of Words to clear
the smoke in the air. He hadn't ever been able to understand why there
had to be these weird Words to do a specific job, when sometimes—like
when he played Horse with Polly and Jimbo and Kelley—all he had to
do was think of something and he could do it. That day seemed like
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forever ago, when he'd gotten infected by magic by the old guy Archie.
The old guy who was now conveniently missing.
After stumbling over broken and charred pieces of the floor and
ceiling, along with ruined chunks of metal from the servers, Jeroan had
had enough of the smoke blocking his vision.
With a sudden blurring of his vision that wasn't caused by the
smoke, Jeroan held up his flashing phone and muttered, " Clear the air."
The black smoke everywhere in the office immediately swirled like
a tornado, with Jeroan at the eye of it. The smoke whipped around his
ears with an almost physical presence, and then it just disappeared.
In the suddenly clear air, Jeroan could see the entire office. Near the
doors leading to the elevator stood the silver-haired woman. She and
another woman, also dressed in black, were standing over Orleans and
York. Both operatives were bleeding, battered, and unconscious.
Unaware of the sudden clearing of the smoke, the two women were
intent on completing the glowing green ring of energy they had wrapped
around Orleans and York. The two operatives were immobilized.
Rubbing the back of his still-sore head, Jeroan thought of how hard
the woman had hit him earlier, and his confidence left him. He ducked
down behind an overturned workstation and wished he could just
disappear. Run, and then run some more. It was a strategy that had
always worked well in the past for him.
As Jeroan hid, all the while beating himself up for being a coward,
he felt something skitter across his foot. He nearly swore out loud in
surprise, but managed to keep his mouth clamped shut. Acrid black
smoke had already started to fill the office again—Jeroan's clearing-the-
air spell had worked to get rid of the existing smoke, but it also fanned
the flames burning all around the office.
I just made it worse, he thought, as something else skittered across
his other shoe.
Stifling a cough, Jeroan looked down and saw two roaches perched
on his left shoe. They almost seemed to be looking up at him, as if
waiting for him to tell them what to do. Jeroan was about to shake them
loose and squish them on the floor when he remembered his lesson for
"No way," he whispered, scooping up the two roaches. They seemed
to be nuzzling his hand as he brought them closer to his face. "I thought
Orleans killed you two."
One of the roaches, the bigger one, with a streak of black on his
dusty brown belly, gave Jeroan a look as if to say, "Duh. We already
The smaller roach just rubbed against Jeroan's palm again, like a tiny
Fighting off an initial wave of disgust, Jeroan shook his head in
disbelief. And then he snapped the fingers of his other hand.
"Maybe you two can help me here," he whispered as he turned back
to the two female Blood Sorcerers still standing. "Want to take down
another human or two?"
The roaches nearly jumped out of his hand in their enthusiasm.
Jeroan peeked around the side of the workstation and immediately
pulled back. The two Sorcerers were now standing with their backs to
the elevators, gazing out at the office.
Two on one, Jeroan thought, hands shaking so much the roaches
nearly fell out of his grasp. Not fair. Unless I can even the odds
As if reading his mind, the two Sorcerers muttered a few words in
another language that sounded either Russian or German, and then they
split up. The younger, dark-skinned woman, who was wearing dark
jeans and a black sweater, flew off toward Mexico and the open
windows. Jeroan wanted to shout a warning to the last operative still
standing, but didn't dare this close to the silver-haired Blood Sorcerer.
She was slowly walking through the office, checking behind
workstations and toppled servers. Looking for someone.
Probably me, Jeroan thought, and then reconsidered.
Archie. They'd come here for him. Either to capture him, or more
likely, work with him to destroy the office. Jeroan knew now that the old
man couldn't be trusted.
"Jeroan!" Mexico called. "I could use a little backup over here.
People are waking up."
For an awful moment, Jeroan couldn't move. He heard the shouted
Words and the bursts of energy coming from the other side of the office,
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but he couldn't see anything for the debris and the renewed smoke. He
felt the heat of the burning office increase. He sensed the silver-haired
Blood Sorcerer coming closer, checking out every nook and cranny.
The pair of roaches bumped into each other and tried to escape his
cupped hands, hungry for action with a courage Jeroan wished he could
I can't do this, Jeroan thought, closing his eyes.
The instant his eyes closed, he caught a glimpse of his sister. She
was in a dark place like this one, except smaller. Someone had just taken
her by surprise as well. He could feel it.
What is the Beast up to? Jeroan wondered as he opened his eyes.
He'd just touched her mind for a heartbeat, but what amazed him was
that she hadn't been full of fear like he always seemed to be. He felt her
I can be that way, too, Jeroan thought. If Kelley can, so can I, for
He rose to his feet and faced the silver-haired woman creeping
toward him. She was almost ten feet away, looking off to the right. The
room and his vision blurred for an instant as magic flowed into him.
"Fyorotufall!" he screamed with all his might, and he launched his
two cockroach sidekicks at the woman's face.
Teach you to sneak-attack me, Jeroan thought as the roaches flew
through the smoke-filled air and landed on the older woman's face. The
surprise insect attack knocked her off her feet. Jeroan scurried past the
woman, who was now busy slapping at the possessed roaches trying to
get into her eyes.
Freeing Orleans and York from their magical green bonds took a
couple Words, and waking them up took a few more. Jeroan's belly was
starting to flip-flop on him from all this magical activity, though using
his phone to channel the magical energy truly seemed to help. He only
felt partially nauseated for a change, instead of feeling like puking right
"Strange disturbances in the Force," he muttered, checking to make
sure his phone still had plenty of juice.
He was about to follow the two groggy operatives back into the
heart of the office, but he paused when he heard the low hum of the
elevator. His blood went cold.
Stepping off to one side, he listened to the elevator climb closer. If it
was Blood Sorcerer backup, he was going to yell like crazy for York and
Orleans. And then run.
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened, rattling and wheezing a
bit from the damage caused by the magical fight on this floor. Standing
in the middle of the car was the old white-bearded Sorcerer, Archie.
"Where'd you go, old man?" Jeroan shouted at him. He ran over to
the old guy, but pulled up short when he saw the weird blue light once
again coming out of his eyes.
Not again, Jeroan thought, backpedaling fast. The old guy really did
sell us out. And now he's come back to finish us off.
The female Blood Sorcerer behind him had managed to shake off
the rabid roaches at last, and she charged at Archie, half-running and
half-flying across the office floor. Archie just looked at her and she froze
in mid-air. Even her hair was motionless.
Jeroan smiled with pride as the two re-animated roaches dropped off
her shoulder and fluttered to the ground. They seemed to have a bit of a
strut to their tiny strides as they hurried over to him.
Archie, meanwhile, walked right by the roaches, just a few inches
away from squishing them both.
"Hey!" Jeroan shouted, and the old man didn't even flinch. He just
lifted a hand to Jeroan, cool as you can be, as if waving at an old friend.
Jeroan dropped down to the floor, expecting the worst. But Archie didn't
use any of his magic on him. For now.
"Just fulfilling a promise to an old friend," Archie said, and muttered
something under his breath. A bright blue light flashed in Jeroan's eyes,
temporarily blinding him. Then the wind was sucked from his lungs.
When Jeroan opened his eyes, he was panting for air outside in the
cold, a hundred and fifty feet below—and two blocks away from—the
Center. He squinted up at the top story of Azure's black concrete- and-
glass building. Gray smoke poured out of the broken windows on the top
"I've got to get back there," he told himself. He took a deep breath,
preparing to fling himself back there with magic, if he could, even
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
though nobody had bothered teaching him those Words. Kelley had done
it back in the hospital, he figured. Why can't I?
But before Jeroan could go anywhere, the top floor of Dr. Azure's
International Center for Magical Study and Containment exploded.
The drafty little hotel room that had been Kelley's low-security jail
cell for the past two months was starting to look really good to her right
now. At least she'd had some room to stretch out in there. Even if she
wasn't ever supposed to leave, except to go to school or visit the
parentals' room next door.
Instead of her hotel room, though, Kelley currently found herself
squished into the back seat of Beyers' loud green car, with Jimbo on her
right and Polly and Mags on her left.
She tried to straighten out her legs a bit more as they sat idling at a
red light. The heater in the front seat kicked a dusty stream of warm air
into the crowded back seat, which smelled like wet dogs. Kelley could
tell Jimbo next to her was even more uncomfortable, though—he
couldn't stop squirming and then whispering an apology every time his
leg or arm or shoulder touched her.
"Don't this piece of crap have a muffler?" Mags shouted as they
roared away from the stoplight on the northern edge of Dubuque. They'd
been driving for barely ten minutes, and Kelley's ears were already
In the driver's seat, Beyers just shook her head as she gunned the
engine, and the two-lane road opened up into a highway line with dirty
gray snow. Kelley could just see a tuft of Gran's white hair poking out at
the top of the passenger seat. Next to her, Polly stared glumly out the
window, while Mags—with a spot of dried blood apparently
permanently attached to her right nostril—had closed her eyes and
pretended to be asleep already.
As they roared down the highway, heading north with the
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Mississippi on their right, Kelley took a deep breath, let it out slowly,
and then turned at last to Jimbo.
"So, Jimbo," she began.
"Sorry!" he said automatically, leaning away from her. His face was
tight and nervous.
"Don't worry 'bout it. So why the sudden change of heart today?
After all my phone calls where you said I was crazy. Now, here you are,
on the bandwagon, helping us out."
Jimbo picked at a hole in the knee of his jeans.
"Well," he said, "I've been skipping school a bit lately, and Gran
finally caught on and told my folks."
Gran's tiny fist rose up from the passenger seat, and she shook it in
Jimbo's general direction.
"So Mom and Dad put Beyers on the case. She and Gran tracked me
down today. I was at Harvey's starting the lunch shift when Beyers here
pulled me outta there."
"Wait," Kelley said, exchanging a look of disbelief with Polly, who
was listening closely now. Kelley spoke loud enough for the lady cop
driving them to hear over the thunder of her car's engine. "You mean to
tell me that Beyers does work for your parents, too, Jimbo?"
"When do you do your real police work, Beyers?" Kelley called
over the seats.
"Hey, you don't know how little us cops get paid." Beyers caught
Kelley's eye in the rearview mirror, and there was a glint of anger in her
watery blue eyes. "I've got to pick up work where I can get it, Miss
Strickland. I have bills to pay too, you know. Lots of old debts..."
"Right," Polly whispered, glaring at the back of Beyers' head. Mags
let out a tiny snore when the car hit a pothole, and Jimbo squeaked out
another apology after his elbow bumped Kelley's side.
"So anyway," Kelley said. "You got busted skipping school so you
could go to work, of all places, and then—out of the blue—Beyers
decides to go visit Ms. Haze's shop?"
"We were just passing by," Jimbo said. "On our way to my house,
honest. But then Gran saw the open door to the shop. Beyers pulled over
Kelley chewed on her bottom lip, remembering the weird feeling
that had come over her right after Jimbo and Gran showed up in the
shop. It was something she used to get all the time, back when she and
Jeroan were younger. It almost felt like her brother had been looking for
her, trying to talk to her with that voice only she could hear inside her
head. He'd seemed almost desperate.
And then he was gone. Snap.
Kelley sucked in a sudden breath, feeling a wave of sadness break
over her. Jimbo was saying something to her, but for the moment all she
could think about was her brother, and how close they used to be. Before
they started middle school, really, when they would do things together
instead of fighting with or ignoring one another. Before Jeroan started
acting like an idiot full-time.
"Kelley?" Jimbo asked next to her. "You okay?"
She rubbed her face and blinked her sore eyes.
"You sorta spaced off there for a second. Guess my story was pretty
"No," Polly answered for Kelley with a quick elbow to Kelley's side.
"Quit acting like a low-self-esteem case, Jimbo."
Kelley sat up straighter and nodded along with Polly. They couldn't
afford to lose Jimbo now. Not with Maria in danger, and all the other
people that Kelley and Polly had triggered also facing some sort of
Our responsibility, Kelley reminded herself. Plus, we need all the
help we can get.
"So," she whispered, moving closer to Jimbo to avoid anyone in the
front seat overhearing, "has your Gran taught you any new magic
Jimbo's dark brown eyes went wide for a second, and he pulled the
brim of his brown cap down low.
"Shhh!" he hissed. "I don't dare talk about that stuff with Gran. She
doesn't want me to get involved."
"Really?" Kelley jumped as she felt Alexander wake up from his
power nap in her pocket. "But she's a Sorcerer from way, way back," she
said as she tried to extricate the fist-sized dragon from her right coat
pocket. The little guy was stuck in there. "You'd think she'd want you to
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learn all about magic, so you could at least protect yourself and have a
fighting chance in the world."
Jimbo just stared at her as if she were crazy while she tugged at the
dragon stuck in her pocket. At last she pulled the tiny white dragon out
and balanced him on the palm of her hand. Alexander unfurled his four-
inch-wide wings and glared down at Jimbo, teeth bared.
"N-no," Jimbo whispered. "She never taught me anything. Sorry."
" Jimbo," Polly said from the other side of Kelley. "So disappointing,
Mags snorted in her sleep next Polly.
"What?" Jimbo said. "I'm here on this road trip, ain't I? I promised
Gran I'd help her get her friend back. And then I'm done. I've got a good
job I like, and friends at school I want to hang out with. I can't do this
Sorcerer thing. I'm... I'm just not tough enough."
The car roared and shuddered as Beyers got stuck behind a pair of
semis clogging up both lanes of the highway. Everyone in the back seat
leaned forward suddenly when she hit the brakes.
Outside, the daylight was starting to fade, and they hadn't even made
it out into the countryside yet. Kelley glanced at the woman driving. She
knew Beyers was trying to listen in by the way the woman kept her head
cocked just the tiniest bit to the right. But there was no way the lady cop
could hear their whispers over the muscle car's noisy engine.
Kelley leaned forward, reaching out a hand for Gran's shoulder. She
could barely see the tiny woman in the front passenger seat.
Maybe I can get some answers from her, Kelley thought.
But before she could ask Gran anything, a small, confident voice
said, "He's lying."
Kelley immediately pulled her hand from the seat in front of her.
She turned toward the source of the voice: Mags, who sat tucked in the
corner of the back seat, eyes still closed.
"Um, excuse me?" Jimbo said, leaning forward so far in his seat to
look at Mags that he hit the back of the passenger seat and knocked off
"Mags!" Polly said. "Ru-ude!"
"Wait," Kelley said in a low voice. "What are you talking about
Mags? Why do you think he's lying?"
Mags opened her eyes slowly, as if she'd actually been deep asleep
instead of faking it. They all held on as Beyers floored it. They roared
past the slow semis at last and shot down the darkened left lane of the
highway. Alexander tumbled out of Kelley's hand and flew unsteadily
"It's the way he says it," Mags said. She held a small plastic phone in
her hand, a cheap one from the looks of it. As Kelley looked at it, the
phone flashed, just for an instant, and Alexander landed in Mags' other
hand. "He ain't good at lying. If you listen close, you can tell."
Jimbo dropped back into his seat with a loud squishing noise.
"I don't believe this," he said. "Do I have a permanent Kick Me sign
on my back?"
"Nah," Polly said. "You're just making it way too easy to wanna kick
you dude." She turned to look down at her sister. "And where the freak
did you get a phone, little sis? Don't tell me Dad bought you one last
Mags closed the little gray flip phone and set Alexander on her knee.
She got busy petting Alexander so she wouldn't have to meet her big
sister's jealous-angry gaze.
"Can't say," Mags said, tickling Alexander behind his wings.
Kelley gave Mags and her phone one last look, wondering if Mags
was somehow channeling magic through that thing to help her see
through Jimbo's story. Then, with Polly huddling in tight next to her, she
turned on Jimbo.
"Your grandmother's okay," she said in a soft voice. She didn't like
the angry flush of red now covering Jimbo's thin face. He literally was
backed into a corner here in the back seat, so she had to proceed with
caution. "No need to worry on her account. But we're all in the same
boat here—" Kelley gestured at the interior of the muscle car and gave a
laugh at how accurate the comparison was, but Jimbo didn't crack the
hint of a smile "—so you don't need to beat around the bush. I know this
isn't what you wanted to do. But somehow, for some reason, magic
Jimbo put a hand over his eyes, just for a moment. When he looked
at Kelley, she recognized the look he gave her. He'd looked the same
way—exposed, humiliated, and desperate—back aboard the steamboat
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last November. Right after Azure had take him apart in just a few short
Consider those kids, Azure had said, now giving you the respect you
deserve, just because they know the power you hold inside you.
The bald guy had a point, Kelley had to admit. Who didn't want
some respect, for crying out loud?
"I don't want to be a hero," Jimbo whispered. "I don't want people to
notice me. I just want to be. I already stick out like a sore thumb, 'cause
I'm not white with blond hair and blue eyes."
Kelley nodded at that. She ran a hand over her kinked black hair that
she could never get to cooperate.
"I think I know what you mean there," she murmured. "At least the
sticking out like a sore thumb part."
Jimbo almost smiled at that, and Kelley had to move in fast. She
thought about her brother, about Maria, and Polly and Mags next to her.
They were all in this for different reasons. She didn't want Jimbo
thinking he was being picked on here, but he needed to grow some
backbone if he was going to ride with them. And he had to figure out
what his reason for being here was.
"Now as for the rest of what you're saying," Kelley said, "about you
not being a hero and all that, well, I'm not quite convinced of that."
Jimbo's face lit up, just for a second, and then Beyers hit the brakes
again. They all had to catch themselves to keep from slamming into the
backs of the front seats. They'd left the highway at some point while
Kelley was whispering intently with Jimbo.
"Pit stop," Beyers said, killing the engine and letting in a flood of
cold air as she bolted out of the car. "The ol' Monte Carlo's about on E."
Kelley looked outside to her right and saw an empty patch of asphalt
and two banged-up gas pumps surrounded by melting snow. To her left
was a pathetic excuse for a convenience store, with two of its windows
replaced by moldy-looking pieces of plywood with sloppy gang symbols
spray-painted all over them. Kelley felt like they were back in the junky
part of Chicago, but they had to be getting close to the Iowa-Minnesota
border by now.
She drummed her fingers on the seat in front of her and waited for
Beyers to bend the front seat forward so they could evacuate the back
seat of this two-door monstrosity. But the lady cop slash chauffeur was
already gassing up the car outside. The stink of unleaded quickly filled
Gran managed to get the big passenger door open after a couple
tries. After she'd pulled herself outside, she peeked into the back seat.
"You kids coming in or not?" she asked.
Kelley could barely see the woman's dark eyes behind her thick
glasses, but the little white-haired lady seemed to have a flicker of light
in those eyes, like she was trying hard not to smile at the four kids
packed so tightly into the back seat.
She winked at Kelley, and the passenger seat bent forward. Kelley
and the Erdman girls followed Jimbo out of the car. She stretched, glad
to feel the cold air in her face and feel the blood flow back into her legs.
Jimbo held his grandmother's arm and led her into the convenience store,
both of them walking slow, like she was a hundred years old. Which she
was, of course. At least a hundred.
As she followed them toward the store, Kelley wondered how long it
would take to get to Cynthia Floodgate's place in Minnesota. She
wondered, too, when Mom and Dad would realize she was gone again.
Probably around ten or so, when they got done working at their usual
"Food!" Mags said as she pushed past Kelley and charged toward
the convenience store. Alexander flapped his wings in the young girl's
hand, but didn't even try to fly away.
"Don't let anyone—" Kelley began, but Mags was already inside.
"...see him," Kelley finished as the glass door slammed in her face.
"They'll just think it's a toy dragon," Polly said, watching Beyers put
the nozzle to the gas pump back in its place. "Which it is, right? Kind of.
Kelley shrugged as Beyers walked up and opened the door for them.
"Come on in and get some snacks for the road," the cop said. She held
the smudged glass door open for Kelley and Polly, waiting. "My treat."
Polly caught Kelley's eye, just for an instant, and Kelley saw how
angry Polly was getting. She probably hated being told what to do,
especially by this woman. She and Jeroan most likely had some kind of
history with Beyers and the Dubuque police force.
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
As she followed a grumbling Polly into the stale-smelling, smoky
Quick Stop, Kelley noticed that Beyers' hand on the door was shaking in
a weird way, like she was buzzing from way too much caffeine.
"Thanks," Kelley said to her on her way inside.
Beyers' mouth twitched at that, twice, but the woman didn't say
anything back to Kelley.
The little shop only had three aisles in it, but fortunately for Kelley
and her traveling companions, they were filled with the best junk food
money could buy. Mags had gathered an armful of chips, candy bars,
and cookies, along with three cans of soda that she was on the verge of
dropping. The girl had Alexander perched on her shoulder, Kelley
noticed with a pang of jealousy.
Jimbo and Gran were microwaving burritos, and Beyers now stood
at the counter, watching everyone with a forced smile on her pale face.
Kelley considered going the healthy route with her Quick Stop
supper, but the odds were stacked against her in this place. She snagged
some chips, some Slim Jims, and a pair of sports drinks to balance out
her meal. Polly had done more or less the same, but with the wise
addition of Twinkies.
They were about to head to the counter when Mags starting shouting
from two aisles over.
"No no no," she cried. "Just try one chip! Not the whole—"
A loud whooshing sound interrupted the girl. An angry orange spout
of flame shot up from the floor and hit the ceiling right above where
Jimbo was about to take a bite of his nuked burrito.
"... bag," Mags finished.
Within seconds, the ceiling was coated in flames, and they were
spreading fast. The big woman who'd been sitting behind the counter
began shouting at Mags to put it out, while Kelley dropped her junk food
and covered her mouth from the nasty smoke quickly filling the store.
Her mind went blank on her as she stared at the smoke and the
flames, and for what felt like two hours—but was probably closer to two
seconds—she could do nothing but stare as the fire quickly spread across
the thin tiles of the ceiling and reached for her and her friends.
I can put this out, she told herself. But she couldn't think of a single
word to make it happen.
She blinked her eyes, and in the flash of blackness, she saw the top
of a building explode, glass and metal flying through the smoky air of a
city she couldn't recognize.
Feeling like she was going to be sick, she blinked again to make sure
the image of the explosion was gone. The smoke and the heat from the
fire grew, and still Kelley couldn't do anything.
Fortunately, she didn't have to.
With a tiny tinkle of music and a flash of blue light, Gran stepped up
to the flames and whispered a word that sounded like " Yasdaquar."
The orange flames and black smoke somehow reversed themselves,
spinning back into the ceiling. The flames then dropped from the now-
untouched ceiling back down to the far aisle of the store. Kelley ran over
to the aisle just in time to see the fire shoot back into Alexander's tiny
The little dragon absorbed the reverted fire and then fell over on his
side, his tiny white feet kicking in the air.
Kelley rushed to his side and scooped up the quivering dragon. He
smelled once more of hot metal, and he felt heavier than usual.
"Mags," Polly said, storming up the aisle behind Kelley as everyone
else slowly converged on them as well. "What did you do, you stinky
little ball of trouble?"
"How the heck?" The woman running the store said, staring up at the
unburnt ceiling. "The place was just on fire. Wasn't it?"
"I gave him some extra-spicy chips," Mags was saying, but Kelley
was watching Gran step up to the convenience store clerk. "He kept
eating and eating them, 'til he burped, Boom: fire."
"Just a little trick of the eye," Gran said to the clerk. The other
woman had a hundred pounds and eighteen inches on Gran, but she
backed away from the little old lady like a scared animal. Kelley heard
the soft music again, and this time she knew it was coming from Gran.
"My young friends like to play jokes like this. I know, they are not so
funny to us."
"A little trick of the eye," the woman said, nodding at Gran and then
at Jimbo, who was squeezing his burrito so tightly it was coming to
pieces in his hand and dripping onto the floor. "Oh yeah," the clerk said,
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
her voice rising as if she'd finally figured out something. "I get it.
The woman chuckled as she walked back to the front counter,
muttering to herself about funny kids and jokes.
"O- kay," Polly whispered to Kelley. "Now I'm freaking out a bit."
Even the stink of smoke had left the Quick Stop, with just the smell
of stale cigarettes lingering in the air.
That was a handy little Word, Kelley thought.
"Hey," Jimbo asked. "Where's Beyers?"
Gran moved so fast to the front that Kelley thought her eyes had
played yet another trick on her. The little old woman was out the door
and at the driver's side door of the Monte Carlo in a flash. Kelley heard
the engine of the big car rumbling. A few seconds later, the engine
stopped, and then backfired.
That got the rest of them moving at last. They gathered up all the
junk food and dropped soda cans from the floor, Mags gave Alexander
some water to make sure his fire was completely out, and Kelley signed
the receipt for Beyers' credit card to pay for the gas and the junk food.
By the time they all got back to the car, the sun was setting, and it
was starting to snow. Gran waited patiently by the open passenger door
with the seat bent forward.
Beyers sat once more behind the wheel, smiling up at them.
"Freaking," Polly whispered as they climbed into the back seat.
Kelley glanced over the seat and saw that Gran held in her hand a
slim white object the size of Kelley's little finger. The object had three
buttons on it, and it was attached to a long cord that hung around Gran's
neck like the string for a pair of reading glasses. It was a cheapie MP3
"I got her that for Christmas," Jimbo whispered when Kelley sat
back. "Back when we all thought she wouldn't make it. But once I got
some of her favorite music loaded onto it, she came around. Like she
missed her old music box, I guess."
Kelley nodded at him, thinking the words gadget magic over and
"Let's get back on the road," Gran said to Beyers, accompanied once
again by a soft tinkle of music.
Beyers looked over at Gran. In the rearview mirror, Kelley could see
the strained wideness of the woman's eyes as she fired up the Monte
Carlo's big engine again.
Beyers' voice never showed the tension, though, when she said,
"You betcha. Let's go."
They roared away from the Quick Stop and charged off into the
Excerpted from Words of Magic, page 1011:
He knew about our plans already. Barely a decade into my training
of Johnny, and the Druid knew. Already.
I realized this when I saw the men in black cloaks. The men kept
their distance in the blockaded town the past few days, but today I saw
them everywhere I turned. Or, to be precise, I smelled them.
They did not have the same odor as the other soldiers surrounding us
here inside the rough-hewn stone walls of the village keep. Instead of
sweat, mud, and steel, the three men under their black hoods reeked of
fire and smoke. The defenders of the keep seemed not to notice the
movements of this dark trio, but my young apprentice could not take his
eyes from them.
"They are gathered outside the door where the duke has been
residing," Johnny said. His face was tight with worry, his brow
glistening with sweat from the unseasonably warm weather of early
autumn. "None of the soldiers pay them any mind. Don't they suspect
them of anything?"
We'd been here almost four days, claiming to be a father and son
from distant lands in search of a new life in these northern climes. When
I told our story, I said it was an incredible stroke of luck that my boy and
I had managed to slip through the army encampment surrounding the
keep. What I didn't tell them was that you tend to have quite a bit of luck
when you have Words at your disposal.
Our true goal—given us by the Druid—was to prevent the
seemingly inevitable attack and slaughter of the innocents in this small
keep and the surrounding town by the invaders outside. The Druid had
learned that reinforcements and supplies for the army currently
blockading the keep were marching from the south, and those
reinforcements included a bevy of well-trained knights with a strong
taste for land and blood. Not to mention gold and silver.
From the relative safety of our small room, I whispered a Word loud
enough for only my ears to perceive. And then I understood.
"The people of the keep do not even know those men are here," I
whispered. "The black-cloaked men are invisible to their eyes."
Johnny's thin body shuddered as he stared a moment longer through
the cracked door. At last he wiped the sweat from his forehead and
stepped back out of view. But he did not close the door. Smart boy.
"How is that poss—"
I had to smile at the recognition dawning on his young face.
"They do it with magic," Johnny said, just as a clamor rose from
outside the walls of the keep. Men cried out in anger and fear,
accompanied by the pounding of booted feet. The other knights had
"Correct," I told him as I gathered our meager belongings—his blue
robes, my green robes, a bag of food that had become painfully light in
the past few days, a pair of daggers, and over forty coins of gold and
silver that we had yet to deliver to the leader of the army outside. I may
have waited too long...
I filled my pack as the horns of battle added to the shouting voices.
Johnny, meanwhile, bent down and pulled a loose rock from the wall. A
loud crashing sound came from close to our room, and I rushed to the
door, fearing the worst. But it was only a young farmhand, still not
grown into his man's body, gathering up his dropped shield and sword.
The defenders of the keep were planning a counter-attack, and they were
gathering every able-bodied man they could. I closed the door on him
and silently wished him luck in the battle ahead, a conflict most likely
By the time I'd turned around, Johnny had found a home inside his
long-sleeved shirt for the object he'd kept secreted away inside the wall.
I felt a surge of anger at him for hiding this from me—after all I'd done
for him, he dared deceive me?—but before I could turn the moment into
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
yet another lesson, the door was kicked in. Johnny nearly caught the
edge of the door with his head.
The stink of smoke and fire filled the air, and the three men in black
cloaks stood pressed into the doorway, their hoods drawn.
"We would like a word," the first man said in a deep, low voice,
inching ahead of the other two. I caught sight of dark skin and bloodshot
eyes underneath his hood.
"Behind me, Johnny," I said to the boy. He'd been standing just a
few feet from the first man, defiant in his naiveté. These men were
killers, no doubt. I'd heard of the Druid's dark crew before.
"The master senses you are discouraged with the slow pace of
change. Listen to the battle outside. Do you think it can be stopped now?
Everything in its own time, he told me to tell you. Your impatience will
undermine you. "
I felt Johnny wince with every shout he heard outside the walls of
the keep. He couldn't stand the thought of anyone else suffering, and
he'd been livid with anger and frustration when I told him we couldn't
deliver our coins as a bribe to the knights outside the walls until the time
Now, it was time. The Druid had blinked first, not I.
"That was more than a word," I said to the hooded men. Acrid
smoke filled my nose, along with the harsh scent of freshly spilled
blood. "Here is my response."
Before the Druid's trained killers could come any closer, my blood
grew hot as I muttered two Words of my own devising. A portion of the
stone wall behind Johnny exploded outward. I pushed the boy through it
before I used another Word to fill the room with toxic, red-tinged
With the caustic smoke covering my retreat—and making my
innards cramp—I pushed my way out of the rubble from my improvised
When I made it to the hall, I looked for my apprentice. But Johnny
I searched for him for almost an hour, constantly smelling smoke
and fire from every direction as the battle raged around us. I cursed at
myself, first for not acting sooner, and then for not following the Druid's
orders, and then finally for not being loyal to the man who'd taught me
magic and changed my life. I left the castle and passed soldiers and
farmers and villagers battling the invading knights with an unnatural
fervor. I ignored them when I could and repelled them with a Word
when they turned their weapons on me. My time for assisting in this
battle had passed.
When I came to the moat, I understood why the defenders of the
keep had been so inspired in their impossible battle.
Johnny, who still looked as young as the day I'd met him ten years
ago, was now up to his waist in the turgid brown water of the moat,
healing the injured and dying as fast as people could bring them to him.
He confidently spoke the Words of Healing I'd taught him, and each
Word generated a tiny flash of blue-white light from his left hand. He
stopped his work only to direct a blast of energy at an approaching
knight who dared get too close. Within minutes, the knights had
The tide of battle had turned against the invaders, and my apprentice
was the source.
I smiled with pride at his actions—foolish though they were, for he
would soon exhaust himself into helplessness. I wondered if the strange
little object in his left hand was somehow aiding his efforts. The bursts
of blue-white energy seemed to come from the object, which looked like
a tiny, cleverly built contraption made of bits of rock, rope, and iron.
I went to join him, laughing with relief at our escape from the
Druid's black cloaks, and also laughing at the way the boy had flouted
one of the Druid's many decrees: never let anyone but other Sorcerers
witness us performing magic.
Today, I thought as I pulled Johnny out of the foul-smelling moat,
the Druid's decree was nothing but hollow words.
"No!" Johnny cried out, fighting to break free of my grip. More
injured and dying were lining up, many of them dragged to the moat by
their comrades. "I am not done here, Michael!"
"Yes, you are," I whispered, touching the boy's head and letting the
world blur around me. With a quick surge of power—followed by a
matching surge of nausea—I whispered a trio of Words into the smoke-
filled air, and Jonathan and I vanished from the battle site and the
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Our lives were no longer tied to the will of the Druid. We were now
free at last.
Little did I know that this day would also mark the beginning of our
* * * * *
Jeroan shut the book, shivering from the cold and the weight of that
Reading the book was like escaping into another world, and after all
that had happened today—and after spending the past two hours in a
cold alcove across the street from the ruined Center—an escape was just
what the doctor ordered. But now he wanted to erase what he'd read
from his mind, because it was only adding to his feeling of hopelessness.
Our centuries-long nightmare...
As always, after pulling the small white book from his back pocket
earlier, Jeroan had read just a few words of a new chapter, and he was
there. The world from inside the book replaced the ugly reality of the
fire trucks and police cars crowded around the still-smoking Center.
Nobody would let him through the police lines to the Center, and his
mind had been in such a jumble that he couldn't remember the Words to
make himself invisible or otherwise get himself inside.
So he sat down in the alcove with his book, thinking he'd read for
just a minute or two until he'd pulled himself together and the crowds
Two hours and fifty-five pages later, the sun had set, and the fires
from the explosion that Archie had caused at the top of the building were
out. The air still stank of smoke and burnt plastic, along with the ever-
present fishy scent of the Cape Fear River running behind the Center.
The smoke made Jeroan think of the passage he'd just read in the book,
and he caught himself scanning the crowd around the Center for men in
"Stupid," he told himself as he tucked the book into the back pocket
of his jeans. "Mexico, York, and Orleans are pretty much the 21st
Century version of those guys. I got nothing to fear. Right?"
He stood up inside the alcove, rubbing his arms for warmth in the
fifty-degree weather. He couldn't believe it was January and he didn't
need to wear five layers of clothes here in Wilmington. It was probably
snowing back in Dubuque and Chicago right now.
But it was chilly enough here, especially now that the heat of the
burning building had receded. At the same time, the number of people
running in and out of the ruined Center had dwindled, until it was just a
dozen or so firemen and cops lingering around the cop cars and fire
engines, talking and taking pictures and writing in their little notebooks.
Jeroan felt like his mind had cleared up enough to try to get in there
again. He felt annoyed with himself for reading that little white book for
so long, but at least his stomach wasn't doing its usual—and nasty—flip-
flopping anymore. Surely Mexico, York, and Orleans had managed to
get out before the building exploded, but he had to go inside to make
sure. He began walking toward the entrance, a confident smile on his
Just act like you belong here, he thought. Which I do, of course.
To his shock, nobody called out for him to stop as he strolled right
through the battered entrance to the Center while the rest of the firemen
and the cops were busy wrapping things up.
Finally allowing himself to exhale, Jeroan hurried through the still-
smoky lobby, avoided a trio of firemen and a Wilmington cop with
flashlights aimed at the blackened walls, and tiptoed to the darkened
stairwell off to his left. This felt like yet another one of the operatives'
daily tests, and he half-expected Mexico to pop out of a ruined cubicle
or office to ask him a piece of magic trivia or make him recite a set of
520 steps, he told himself once he'd made it to the surprisingly cool
concrete stairs. He'd been up and down these steps a couple dozen times
in the past two months, either getting exercise or avoiding the
operatives. One more time won't kill me, he figured. So long as the
Center doesn't come crashing down around my ears.
A fierce scrabbling sound hit his ears before he'd made it to the
second floor landing. Jeroan turned and saw a pair of determined
cockroaches making their way down the steps toward him.
"No way," Jeroan whispered. "It can't be you two again, can it? Just
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
give it up and live your cockroach lives already. You don't need to keep
following me around."
When they ignored his suggestions, Jeroan showed mercy on them
and reached down to pick them up. He winced as their tiny feet tickled
the palm of his hand.
"That's what Mom and Dad would call supreme persistence," he said
as he set them both on his right shoulder. The roaches settled in
immediately, and their presence made Jeroan feel strangely at peace.
He couldn't help but start panting as he got to the fourth floor
landing and continued upward in the murky darkness. As he climbed
higher, some light from the city outside started slipping in through
various holes punched into the wall that connected the stairs with the
rest of the building, places where the explosion on the top floor had sent
the various contents of the Center through the walls. The steps were
getting treacherous as Jeroan encountered more and more rubble. He
nearly tripped over what looked like one of the pair of laptops that York
had been busy banging keys on just a few hours ago.
The stink of fire and burnt plastic grew worse the higher he went,
and the walls of the stairwell glistened with water from the fire hoses.
Wind whistled through broken windows.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, Jeroan thought, coming back in
here. This place isn't safe.
He paused on the landing of the sixth floor, breathing hard but
unable to go any higher until he checked out his second-favorite place in
The library. Safe or not, he had to see. This place had been his home
for two months, and as far as he knew, it was the only home he had left.
The roaches wriggled back to life on his shoulders, as if they could
sense something with their tiny antennae that Jeroan couldn't with his
own ears. They stood up and started dancing around on his shoulder.
Jeroan grimaced every time their feet brushed against his neck. It felt
like tiny, greasy hairs against his skin. Nasty.
At the side entrance to the bottom floor of the Center's library,
Jeroan put a hand on top of the excited roaches and held his breath. He
listened and heard voices. Angry ones, too.
Slowly, carefully, he pushed on the dented metal door leading into
the library. The door didn't fit in the frame the right way any more, and it
gave an ugly squeal. Jeroan bit his lip, hard. But the voices never
stopped shouting, so he didn't think they'd heard him. He stood in the
doorway for a moment, catching his breath, and he soon realized he was
hearing just one shouting voice, echoing through the library.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the library—the place only
had windows on the top section, which would've been the eighth floor of
a normal building—Jeroan bit back a groan at the devastation.
The magical fire from the attack had greedily devoured all the books
in this section of the library, leaving just ash soaked black by the water
from the fire hoses. Even the shelves were gone, leaving just bare walls
and scorch marks. Jeroan didn't have time to mourn all the lost
knowledge here, however, because the shouting voice had grown louder,
and he recognized that voice.
Mexico. And he sounded like he was interrogating one of the Blood
Sorcerers. In as loud and angry a voice as possible.
"How did you...?" Mexico's raspy voice shouted and echoed. "What
did you...? Why...?"
He almost felt sorry for whoever it was Mexico was yelling at, even
if it was the woman with the silver hair who'd knocked him out earlier.
He followed the sound of Mexico's shouting, past the charred tables
and piles of ash in the library. Most of the stairs and sub-levels that had
made up the labyrinth that was the upper levels of the library had also
come crashing down. The place had held two or three million books,
York had claimed the other week, while Orleans bragged that he'd never
even stepped foot inside the place. Jeroan had lost himself many times in
the stacks that reached nearly twenty-five feet up, and he'd loved
climbing onto the platforms built on top of the stacks, where he found
reading areas with couches and desks. It was one of the few places in the
Center where Jeroan could actually sit down. And he had read, and read,
Now, no more. Thanks to Archie.
When he came around one of the few bookshelves still standing,
Jeroan saw the green glow of Mexico's dampener ahead of him.
Suddenly fearful, remembering how Archie had described the operatives
as heartless killers, Jeroan hid behind one of the downed landings that
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
had dropped from twenty feet up.
He peeked around the edge of the debris just as the roaches on his
shoulders shook themselves into life again. He tried to grab them, but
they were already shooting down the side of his body toward the ruined
hardwood floor. They shot toward Mexico and his prisoner.
Something crackled in the air ahead of them, in the direction of
So much for the element of surprise, he thought as he followed the
charging roaches into the circle of weak green light. In the middle of the
circle stood Mexico, with his back to Jeroan, still pelting the other
person with questions. Because of Mexico's size, Jeroan couldn't see
who the operative was towering over. Jeroan slipped closer just as the
roaches reached Mexico.
The big man's bellowing left off, and he spun around. Jeroan
dropped to the ground and froze. He couldn't speak when he saw the
crackling Pincers in Mexico's hands. Mexico yelped as the roaches
crawled up his pants leg, and he began dancing up and down in surprise.
Jeroan looked around the juking operative and saw at last who the
big man had been interrogating. It was the old bum, Archie, sitting on a
broken table and looking a bit less peaceful and calm than he did the last
time Jeroan saw him. Actually, the old guy looked pale and bloodless,
like he was about to keel over.
Good, Jeroan thought. Hope he does, the traitor.
"Hello over there," the old man croaked, looking right at Jeroan.
Jeroan's face burned in embarrassment. Busted.
Mexico stopped dancing around. He now held a pair of roaches in
one hand and the Pincers in the other. His dark brown eyes were
bloodshot and wide. He had revenge written all over his face.
Cold-hearted killers, all of them. Jeroan could see that now.
"Jeroan?" Mexico growled. "Is that you, kid?"
Here we go, Jeroan thought as he got to his feet. He sucked in a
"Howdy, Mexico," he said as confidently as he could. "Archie," he
He looked back at the ticked-off operative and gave him his best
charming smile, feeling glad he'd finally gotten a chance to use it
"Guess we have some catching up to do, again, huh?"
Kelley never would've thought it possible, but Minnesota was even
less exciting than Iowa. Just flat and dull and windy, with hardly any
cities to break up the miles and miles of snow-covered farmland. There
were lots of lakes in this state, according to all the signs on the highway,
but Kelley couldn't tell the frozen lakes from the fields of snow. The
land zipping by outside Beyers' car gave off a weird white glow as the
light from the crescent moon bounced off the never-ending snow.
Kelley wondered how people lived way out here without going
In spite of the unexciting view out her window, she wished she
could've grabbed a window seat after they'd gotten back into the car. But
Mags had beaten her to one side, and Jimbo had taken his sweet time
getting back in, pretending to help Gran to the car before they all
climbed aboard again after the Quick Stop incident. But Kelley knew he
was just stalling so he could get the other window seat.
The uncomfortable middle—with its big hump in the floor and
people snugged up next to her on either side—was for losers who were
too slow to react.
That's me lately, Kelley thought, picturing the fire in the
convenience store as it ate up the ceiling like something from a
nightmare. And I couldn't do a thing to stop it. Total brain lock.
As they rolled through the dark toward Minerva, Minnesota, Kelley
peeked at Gran up in the front seat. The old lady was really starting to
creep her out with her strange power over Beyers. The off-duty cop did
whatever Gran told her to do, without complaining.
Kelly could've sworn she saw Gran looking back at her in the
reflected blue light of the windshield, so she dropped her gaze to her
phone. She tapped on a couple applications and toyed with the idea of
But, she thought, what would I say?
Something like, "Hey Mom, gonna be gone for the night with
Jeroan's former almost-girlfriend and a car full of other misfits. We're on
a mercy mission to rescue a female Sorcerer who's probably five or six
hundred years old. Give or take a few hundred years. TTYL. Maybe.
Love U, bye! "
Yawning, she glanced outside again. Nothing but darkness and
distant farm spotlights every half-mile or so. They were about seven
hours from home now, bumping down the interstate in Beyers' loud car.
Kelley felt more and more tired with each passing minute. To keep
her mind occupied, she tried to remember the last time she'd practiced a
tiny bit of magic to keep it flowing through her, even if it was making
her lose her memories and maybe even her mind.
Was it this morning, she thought, or yesterday morning? And what
did I do to keep it flowing?
From the passenger seat, just as Kelley was about to close her eyes
and give in to her fatigue, Gran started talking.
"I remember a night much like this one, when we traveled with the
Druid to the mountains of my homeland," Gran said. The old woman
spoke slowly, but clearly.
Kelley was immediately awake.
"We were with the monks, and the monks did not like the Druid at
all. Never did. Never would. They had a, ah, history, with him, you
Kelley tucked her phone inside her coat and rubbed her forehead,
which was starting to ache. She figured if she rubbed hard enough, she'd
be able to remember why that name—the Druid—had set off all sorts of
warning bells in her mind and made her heart start pounding so fast. But
her brain was too foggy to know why.
Jimbo began waving his hands in the air as if he were swatting at
"No stories, Gran," he said. "You promised."
Kelley couldn't see the little old Chinese lady, but Gran's voice
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
remained clear as a bell despite the constant roar of the car.
"They called me Yishi in those days," Gran said.
Jeroan gave up and put his head in his skinny hands with a groan.
"I was an apprentice to Michael Azure, his newest student. He was
determined to teach me and the others—there were so few of us in those
early years—all about the history of magic. To keep the knowledge from
being lost, forever. So Michael took Maria and Jonathan and me to meet
the monks of Nèi Jìn. And the Druid came with us."
Kelley snapped her fingers. Maria. She was the one who'd first told
her about the Druid. He was the first, and he was a genius...
"Ninja?" Mags said, leaning forward and paying attention now.
"You talkin' 'bout ninjas? For real?"
Gran grumbled something in her native language before continuing.
Kelley heard a half-second of classical music and felt a rush of heat pass
her. When she looked over at Mags, the eight-year-old was asleep again.
Note to self, Kelley thought, relaxing a bit now that she could
remember more. Don't interrupt Gran while she's telling a story.
" Nèi Jìn, " Beyers muttered, as if agreeing with Gran, and then she
gunned the engine. The former cop hadn't said a thing since leaving the
convenience store. Gran gave her a quick warning look before returning
to her story.
"The Nèi Jìn helped teach the Druid long before I ever heard of
magic. The monks had given up their teachings of non-violence. These
monks believed in a good fight when it was needed. But of course, as he
always did, the Druid stole their secrets and taught them to us. Which is
why we had a battle on our hands when he returned to their monastery
Gran paused as the Monte Carlo hit a big bump and everyone got
knocked around in their seats. Kelley felt another bit of memory about
the Druid return, as if hitting the pothole had knocked something loose
in her brain.
He fused the magic, the stories, and the languages from various
cultures around the globe to create his Words of Power.
The Druid might have been a genius, she thought, but he was also a
thief. A criminal just like Jeroan and his old buddies back home in
Chicago. Kelley's headache grew worse at the thought of her delinquent
"However," Gran said from the front seat, "I do think he kept some
of their best magic for himself. It was his little secret from us, his
followers. Just like the monks kept the Druid's nose as payment for his
"Ew," Polly said. Kelley glanced over at Mags for her reaction, too,
but she was still asleep, snoring hard, with her head bouncing against the
window with each bump.
As Gran described in way too much detail about the nasty swap this
Druid guy had made with the monks, Kelley watched Alexander crawl
out of Mags' coat pocket like a mouse leaving its hole. He was no bigger
than a Matchbox car now, thanks to his fiery outburst of energy back in
the Quick Stop.
He gave Kelley a tired but guilty smile, as if to say, "Sorry for
abandoning you for another girl."
Kelley accepted his silent apology and scooped the white dragon up
off of Mags' lap. Polly patted his head as he passed in front of her, and
then they settled in for the rest of Gran's story. But when the old lady
stopped for breath after describing the nasty things the monks did after
they had removed the Druid's nose, Jimbo interrupted.
" Gran," he said with a heavy, exasperated sigh. "Might as well start
at the beginning. You're just confusing everything. Here," he said, "let
me tell it for you."
"Oh no you don't—" Gran began, and Kelley heard the tinkle of
Gran's MP3 player. The classical music was answered, however, by
Jimbo's confident voice.
"I got this, Gran," he said. He was covered in the bluish light from
his cell phone.
Everyone in the car benefited from the warm rush of magic now
swirling through the vehicle, coming from both Gran and Jimbo as they
channeled magic through their electronics. Jimbo's phone and his
willpower appeared to have won this battle, as the music went silent.
Good for you, Jimbo, Kelley thought. It's about time.
She peeked at him just for a second longer, not wanting to mess with
his newfound courage. His shiny black phone—a replacement for the
one that the bald guy's henchman had crushed like a bug in his
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
humongous hand back in November—was no eGadget, but it was way
better than that solar calculator he'd been trying to use during the fight
on the riverboat.
When he was sure Gran wasn't going to try to start again, Jimbo
cleared his throat and put away his phone.
"She used to tell me horror stories about those monks and this Druid
guy, usually right before I went to bed. No wonder I never got any sleep
as a kid. Nightmares like crazy."
Polly squirmed impatiently next to Kelley. "Okay, we get it, dude.
Your childhood was rough, etcetera etcetera. So tell us the story of the
ninja monks and the Druid already."
"The monks," Jimbo began, "used their brain's powers for
everything they did, instead of using their fists and feet like most other
Nèi Jìn. They could do the old kung fu action, too—" Jimbo did a
clumsy couple of karate chops, nearly slicing the edge of his hand into
Kelley's leg in the process "—don't get me wrong, but their real skills
were in distorting reality and, using um... mind control."
Beyers gave a soft snort at that.
Jimbo ignored it, gazing right at Kelley as if daring her to look away
or crack a joke. Kelley stared back, unable to blink, her skin tingling.
She'd seen him put his cell phone away, but his dark brown eyes still
seemed to glow in the shadows of the back seat.
There's a reason magic found you, Kelley wanted to say to him.
You're a natural. But you've been wasting all your energy fighting it.
"The monks gave up sleep and spent all their time fine-tuning their
mental powers. I don't know why they worked so hard. It's not like they
were at risk, way up in the mountains far from civilization. They had
plenty of food and water, and most of them never left the monastery.
They spent most of their time either using their brain magic, or filling
scroll after scroll with every little detail about their mad skills. You can
bet the Druid found all their scrolls quite helpful when he finally found
them almost a thousand years ago."
Kelley risked a glance at the front of the car, where Gran was extra
quiet in her seat, as if she'd fallen asleep.
Mind control, she thought, her skin filling with more goosebumps at
each new detail. That's messed up.
"It was almost like," Jimbo said, "they were doing all this work to
get ready for his arrival. The Druid, I mean. Using magic on one
another, causing all sorts of trouble inside the monkish ranks, testing and
writing down all the best ways to get inside someone else's head. As
soon as the Druid had settled everything down with the monks on his
first visit, he started pretty much inhaling all their hard work and
knowledge, one monk at a time. By the time he left, he knew all about
mind control, and the monks were pretty much zombified. Like he'd
sucked their memories out with a big ol' straw. I doubt they could even
remember their own names."
"Dude," Polly whispered, elbowing Kelley in the ribs.
Just like me, she thought with a chill. And Polly, too.
"He got so crazy he got a tattoo carved into his right arm just for the
Beyers barked out a coughing laugh at that.
"A tattoo," she said in an oddly strained voice. "That's so crazy, isn't
Jimbo glared at her, and in that moment, Kelley could see his
tentative courage drain out of him. He adjusted his Harvey's cap and
glanced around at his audience in the back seat, looking a bit lost.
"Go on already," Mags said in an irritated voice.
Kelley bit back a smile, glad the kid had finally woken up from the
nap Gran had enforced on her.
"Right," Jimbo said. "So the knowledge made the Druid just a bit
more crazy, and his tattoo was this constant reminder of it. Gran says it
looked just like the main building of the monastery, in front of a big
circle like the sun. Some people say it looked like a glowing brain,
surrounded by green light. Other people claim it was just one huge red
eye, like the Eye of Sauron, but scarier. And bloodier."
"Ugh," Polly muttered. "Nasty."
"Yeah!" Mags agreed, grinning and bouncing in her seat. "Totally!"
"Maybe he thought he could control the monks' minds all over again
when he took Gran and the other apprentices there with our buddy Dr.
Azure about a hundred or so years later. He probably wanted to pick the
new monks' brains for more magical tricks. All he'd have to do is show
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Jimbo held up his right arm and pushed up his jacket to show a bare,
bony wrist and forearm. He looked at Kelley, smiled, and actually
winked at her.
"'Cause if you looked at that tattoo for more than a second... Bam!"
Kelley jumped at that, along with Polly and Mags.
"He's got your mind in his control."
As Jimbo finished his story, cackling softly to himself at the way
he'd surprised everyone, Mags called him every swear word under the
sun, and Kelley sunk back into the back seat and exhaled.
Mind control. Lost memories. Zombified.
It felt way too familiar to just be a bedtime story.
She listened to the bump of the wheels on the road and tried to lose
herself in the dull roar of the muffler behind her. But all she could see in
her imagination was a staring eyeball, turning to look in her direction.
"Check it out," Beyers said at last from the front seat, pointing at a
road sign flashing past, "only 52 miles to the Minnesota border."
Kelley felt a sudden wave of fatigue pass over her. If this was a bed-
time story for Jimbo when he was little, it was working its magic on her
now. Her eyelids were suddenly impossible to keep open.
She dozed off thinking of how much she liked her nose, right where
it was, and how she wished she could remember all of Gran and Jimbo's
But like everything else lately, the details of her memories were
melting away from her like snow on a warm spring day.
* * * * *
She fell right into a dream.
She was strolling through a rainy mountain village where everything
was grainy and fuzzy. Bald monks in bright orange robes hurried here
and there all around here, shouting and talking loudly, but the sound in
her dream was uneven and poorly synced-up to their mouths, just like
one of the kung fu movies Jeroan loved watching in his room late at
night. All the monks were in a panic.
Someone was coming, Kelley realized, and they had to get ready.
And then one of the monks noticed her where she had paused next to
the hundred-foot trees of the nearby forest. The monk leaped into the air
with joy and charged toward her, robes flying, calling out to his monk
buddies. The monks were all talking to her at the same time, with their
mouths moving too fast or too slow for their actual words, and Kelley
couldn't understand any of them.
Not until Gran slipped out of the trees without a sound and sidled up
next to her to translate.
"New blood," Gran said. "At last, they are saying, we have found
In the dream, it took Kelley a long, awkward moment of staring at
Gran's lips before she realized the woman hadn't spoken those words out
Gran was inside Kelley's head, talking to her.
And the little old lady was now reaching for Kelley's nose with a
determined, almost hungry look on her round face...
* * * * *
Kelley woke with a start, almost knocking Alexander off her lap. He
was bigger now, about as big as Kelley's fist, as if hanging onto her leg
was working for him like one of her instachargers did for her eGadget.
Tiny puffs of smoke slipped out of his nostrils as he slept.
It was almost midnight. A chill ran up Kelley's back.
Something was coming closer. At first, still in the muddy world
between sleep and wakefulness, Kelly was convinced that something or
someone was chasing them. But after blinking a few more times and
looking at the sleeping kids on either side of her, she realized that it was
something ahead of them. Somebody was waiting for them.
She hoped that somebody was Maria. And she hoped the woman
was okay. She didn't like thinking that Maria had been abducted against
her will, or possibly taken away under some sort of spell.
She slipped her phone out of her coat pocket, careful not to wake the
dragon snoring on her knee. She squinted in the too-bright light of her
phone's rectangular screen until her eyes stopped stinging. She'd missed
a dozen calls from Mom and two dozen texts from Dad.
With a sigh, she tapped the email icon and let the emails from her
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
parents fill up her Inbox.
"Okay," she whispered. "Just a quick email."
She typed a quick message to Mom's email address, making it sound
like she was over at Polly's. She concocted a story about Polly's parents
fighting, and then deleted that. She tried a couple other lies, but then
finally decided on a couple of "I'm really sorry"s and leaving it as a last-
minute sleepover at Polly's, whose mom unfortunately didn't have a
phone or computer handy for a late-night parental check-in.
Kelley had just tapped the Send button when the big car slowed with
a loud blat of the exhaust pipe right under her. They had left the
interstate far behind, and they now crossed over a frozen river on a
narrow bridge. Beyers turned right and then left, and each turn was
accompanied by a soft tinkling of music from Gran's direction.
"We're here," Beyers said.
They pulled to a stop in front of a small, light-blue house tucked
away behind a square yard filled with snow and enclosed by a chain link
fence. The four or five other houses on the street were distant and dark,
with all their lights out, but this one was lit up by a single light on its
front porch. A snow-filled driveway led to a closed and darkened shack
of a garage to the left of the house. There was no red SUV anywhere,
That shoe guy better not have been making all this up, Kelley
thought. And then she saw the people on the porch.
Despite the cold, two women and a man sat on white rocking chairs
there, bundled in blankets. The woman in the middle stood up to wave as
soon as she saw the car. The porch light caught her pale face, and Kelley
sighed in relief. It was Maria Haze.
As soon as Gran opened her car door, Alexander shot off Kelley's
knee and flew across the yard and landed on Maria's outstretched hand.
Kelley followed, but not as quickly. She didn't recognize the long-
haired white guy on Maria's left, but the brown-haired woman on
Maria's right definitely looked a lot like Cynthia Floodgate. If Kelley
was remembering Cynthia correctly, which like everything else about
her memories lately, she was starting to doubt.
She felt like everyone in the tiny neighborhood was peeking out
their windows at them as they crunched through the snow and walked up
the front sidewalk. On her way to the porch, Kelley did her best to
ignore the two other adults in their black clothes now standing next to
Maria. These two just stared at all of them in a sort of creepy way,
without saying a word to her or anyone else.
"New blood," Kelley muttered, and then she was hugging Maria
Haze after far too much time away from her favorite retired Sorcerer.
"Where did you slip off to, Jeroan?" Mexico growled from where he
stood towering over Archie, Pincers in one hand, roaches in the other. "I
figured you had gotten blown up like the rest of them."
Jeroan stepped over the rubble of wooden beams, broken drywall,
ruined shelves, and burnt books in the library. He didn't want to know
what the big guy meant when he said "blown up like the rest of them."
"I got dismissed," Jeroan said with a dirty look at Archie, who sat on
a ruined chair that used to be Jeroan's favorite place to read on the
highest platform built over the stacks. " You know how that happened,
don't you, Archie?"
The old man just tugged on his white beard and looked at Jeroan
without any expression. As he glared back at Archie, Jeroan could've
sworn he heard the building settle in a not-normal way high above him.
"So what about you two?" Jeroan asked. "Have you both been here
the whole time?"
Mexico clicked his Pincers together once with a loud crackle, and
then slid them inside his dusty black jacket. He looked like he wanted to
backhand Archie as he spoke.
"This joker tried sending me away, but I had this handy." He picked
up the green-glowing dampener from where it had fallen to the rubble-
strewn floor, keeping a wary eye on the old man. "I always have it set to
maximum blockage." He paused and squinted at the cracked screen of
his dampener and shook his head. "The others did not. Idiots."
"I did not want any lives to be lost, even if this was Michael's plan,"
"Stop saying it was Dr. Azure's idea to blow this place," Mexico
hissed. "You came here for revenge, old man. Plain and simple."
"In the world of magic," Archie said, getting up out of the chair with
a loud popping sound in both his knees. "Ow. Ouch. In the world of
magic, as I was saying, nothing is plain and simple."
Archie plucked the roaches out of Mexico's hand.
Jeroan moved as close to Archie and the roaches as he dared. He
definitely didn't want any of them—human or roach—jumping on him
again. Even with the smell of fire and burnt things hanging heavy over
the library, he could still smell Mexico's cologne along with Archie's
sour old-man scent.
The roaches were making some kind of noise with their legs and
antennae. Jeroan didn't think they technically had vocal cords, but he
was no cockroach expert. Still, it certainly felt sounded like the roaches
were trying to talk to them.
"Notice anything familiar about them?" Archie said, just as
something crashed from high above them.
"They're all worked up?" Mexico said in an exasperated voice.
"They're roaches in a ruined building, man. It's like a buffet for them.
What do you expect?"
Jeroan almost had his ear touching Archie's hand when he turned his
head to sniff the two critters.
Yes. He knew those smells. Sweat and fried food.
He stood up straight and pointed at the cockroaches with a shaky
"That's... That's York and Orleans," he whispered to Archie. "You
turned them into roaches."
Next to him, Mexico cursed in shock, and then he slapped his
"No," the big operative said. "It was Azure."
Mexico fooled with his big halo of singed black hair, picking at it
with his fingers as he spoke.
"It's a failsafe, a last-ditch effort to keep his men alive. If you want
to call it that. When he hired each of us, Azure put a set of permanent
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Words on us that were designed to transfer us from our bodies into the
closest living, non-human entity in case of a near-death experience. At
least until he could put our damaged bodies back together again for us.
You may remember that fellow Moammar? He's an old friend of
Archie's here, and he lived in the body of a fly at Stonehenge while
Azure rebuilt the man's disintegrated body for him."
" Nasty," Jeroan said with a shudder. The roaches had stopped
chittering, and they seemed to be listening to their colleague bragging
about his intact human body.
Mexico straightened up and brushed off his jacket, as if just talking
about Moammar had made him feel dusty.
"Now you see why I keep my dampener set on High at all times?" he
said. "I happen to like this body I was born with."
"All part of Michael Azure's plan," Archie murmured.
Mexico threw his hands in the air.
"I don't want to hear that anymore. Why would he want this place
"For our own safety," Archie said, setting the roaches on his left
shoulder. "Because of what's happening to magic these days."
The old man reached over to one of the wet, blackened shelves and
plucked a dripping, blackened book from it.
" Hm," he grunted, and the book gradually, almost leisurely, changed
from a waterlogged sheaf of charred paper into a small book with a
blank white cover and a strange symbol on its spine.
Panicking for a moment, Jeroan touched the matching book in his
own back pocket, and then exhaled in relief. His copy of Words of
Magic was still there.
"Many of the clues are in here," Archie continued, holding up the
book. "But we don't have time to read all the entries. By the time we
make it to the final one, we'd have dozens more new ones to read. Allow
me to give you the abridged version of what Michael shared with me
during our week in the mountains."
Something creaked high above them, but nobody seemed to notice
or care except Jeroan. Mexico was tapping some buttons on a different
gadget he'd pulled out of his suit coat—some sort of recorder, it looked
like—and Archie was brushing the last bit of debris from the now-
pristine cover of his copy of Words of Magic.
Fine, Jeroan thought with one last, nervous look upwards. Be that
"So," Archie began. "There's been an outbreak of magic recently.
And just like it is with any highly infectious disease, that sudden
outbreak could turn into a wild epidemic."
"Not if we can help it," Mexico said with a surge of pride in his
"But you've been a bit distracted, haven't you?" Archie said. "The
search for the good doctor Azure has taken up more resources and time
than you and your two now-six-legged colleagues would like to admit,
I'm sure. However, all the signs point to the Midwest of America, where
the first triggerings in many, many years recently took place. And now
magic is warping itself because of all the new users. It can't seem to take
"That's prepost—" Mexico began.
"Allow me to finish," Archie said, starting to pace a bit now as he
worked up a good head of steam with his story. "We had a long, fallow
time with magic. Trust me on this, I was there. I have precious little
memories of the 20th Century as a result of this dead time."
Archie gave Mexico a look, his bushy eyebrows lowered so low
Jeroan couldn't see his eyes.
"I have your boss to thank for that. And for all these gray and white
hairs on my head. I had very much gotten used to being young and aging
incredibly slowly, thanks to magic. Michael Azure took that away from
me in Chicago."
Mexico sighed with impatience. "All right, all right. I know that part
of the story."
"But in recent weeks, many new users have been created. From what
I've read in here," he held up the white book, "our friends Kelley and
Polly triggered nearly a hundred people that night on the riverboat. And
those people went home and probably triggered at least one person, most
likely four to six other people. Probably by accident."
Archie lowered the book and gave Mexico another piercing look.
"You did pick up on that, didn't you?"
"Yes, of course," Mexico rumbled. "We were watching. We were
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
tracking most of them. There's no way we could've followed up on each
and every one."
"But you wanted to find Michael."
Mexico crossed his big arms in front of his chest and glared at the
old man standing in front of him. Jeroan wondered if he'd have to step in
and break up the inevitable fight, though he doubted he'd do much good
against these two dudes.
"In any case," Archie said, "people continued using magic around
the world, just not as much as in that small river city in Iowa. Maybe a
dozen people were using it outside Dubuque, possibly two dozen. I
know, because Michael was tracking those other users during our week-
long vacation in the mountains. Three guesses who those people were."
Jeroan, tired of listening and standing around, chimed in.
"I'm guessing five of 'em were the jokers who jumped us tonight.
And a couple more were the ones who attacked Azure at the volcano.
"Volcano?" Archie said, just as the building shifted and creaked high
above them once more.
"Never mind the volcano, Archie," Jeroan said, impatient to get on
with it and then get out of this building. "What did you do to those five
Sorcerers that attacked us today? Did you blow them up?"
Archie paused to slip the little white book into the pocket of his
baggy khaki pants, averting his eyes from Jeroan and Mexico. He let out
a loud sigh.
"I released them."
Jeroan wasn't sure who said it louder, him or Mexico. But Mexico
had his Pincers out again.
"I chose not to kill our attackers. I don't play the game that way. I
merely stopped them from trying to hurt all of you, and then I sent them
Archie ignored the looks of disbelief on the faces of Jeroan and
Mexico and kept right on talking.
"You may remember that I slipped away for a moment during the
"Oh yeah, I do," Jeroan said.
"Well," Archie continued, "I needed to come down here to get
something. Not for Michael, but for myself. Evidence, you might say, of
the warping of magic. When it's happened before. I found what I needed
in one of the scrolls here, and slipped that into my pocket." He touched
the pocket of his khaki pants, and Jeroan heard the crinkle of paper.
"Then, right before I came back upstairs to take care of the Blood
Sorcerers, I set the library on fire."
Jeroan put a hand on Mexico's big, rock-like arm.
"Allow me to say it," he said to the wide-eyed operative, and then he
turned to Archie. "You what?"
"This is the end of an era," Archie said. "Michael and I agree on this.
All of the work that went into this Center has to be wiped clean, so it
cannot be used against us or any of the new magic users in the world.
We have to start fresh, and leave the old ways behind us. The Center
must be destroyed. It's time for Michael to retire. As a favor to him, for
all he's done for me in my many years, I agreed to come back and help
him start his new life. I am more than happy to do so."
"He could've talked to us about all this," Mexico muttered, gazing
around at the library. "All that equipment, all our work..."
He stopped and turned back to Archie, his eyes narrowing.
"And who's to say you're not just making all this up, old man?"
"Didn't you say earlier that there had been wild fluctuations in magic
Archie closed his eyes for a second, as if trying hard to remember
something, and when he opened his eyes again, they were glowing blue.
When he spoke, he did a pitch-perfect impersonation of Mexico's voice:
" Unfamiliar signatures, ancient patterns, and spikes of magic the kind of
which we haven't tracked, ever."
Mexico grimaced. "Stop that."
Archie rubbed his eyes, as if wiping the blue glow away, and then
cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his eyes were normal, and his
voice was his own.
"The epidemic of magic will—we hope—simply fade away in a few
more weeks, as the people who were triggered go back to their normal,
mundane lives, and they will no longer pose a threat to themselves or
others. If they know what's good for them. My concern isn't for them so
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
much as for the state of magic flowing through the world of late. It's an
uncertain kind of magic these days. It's dangerous because it is no longer
predictable, even with gadget magic or any other method of channeling
it. Magic is... skewed. Those triggered people up in Dubuque would be
much better off—I hate to admit this— without magic in their lives."
Jeroan wasn't buying it. The old man wasn't telling them something.
He thought hard, trying to remember all he'd read in that little white
book. But his mind wasn't cooperating, and the sounds from the floors
above them had gotten louder and more creaky. He couldn't focus.
Mexico seemed to be having the same troubles.
"So you and Azure figured it would be best to destroy the years and
years of work in this place to keep it out of the wrong hands? And it
wasn't just bad luck that Orleans snagged you with his smart wall instead
Archie started to nod at that, and then a cloudy look entered his
"Why, yes," Archie said, but his voice lacked the conviction of
earlier. He sounded more like an old man now, tired and kind of feeble.
"We have do this, you see. It's, ah, for our own good. To leave no trace
behind. You see?"
Jeroan heard another rumble from high above them. He looked away
from the old man and cast a nervous glance up at the ceiling. He
wondered if the others had heard that, but Archie was still looking sort
of baffled, and Mexico was too distracted with all that Archie had just
said to hear it.
"So," Mexico said, "this warping of magic that made it so erratic.
Was it caused by the—"
"Watch out!" Jeroan shouted. He raised his right hand to point at the
ceiling, where a chunk of the library ceiling had broken away. The world
blurred around him for an instant, but the falling chunk of metal
remained clear as Jeroan focused every ounce of his will power on it.
That way, he thought, moving his right hand toward the distant book
The chunk of ceiling followed his hand as if it had been connected
to him by a pole, and it smashed into the shelves with a loud and wet
crashing sound. The shelves were now nothing more than splintered
wood. That piece of ceiling had been heavy.
"Nice work," Mexico said in a surprised tone of voice. "You didn't
even have to use any Words."
Jeroan grinned, and his grin lasted all of two seconds before a wave
of nausea passed through him. He tried to hide his grimace, but
Archie—who no longer looked confused—had caught it.
The old man nodded and stroked his beard, as if to say, There you
have it, folks. Magic gone bad. Causing stomach aches since 1000 A.D.
"We need to get outta here, guys," Jeroan said at last. "This place
"Yes, I agree," Mexico said, distracted. He was digging in his pants
pocket, filling the air with jangling and clattering sounds. He must've
had two dozen things stuffed in the pockets of his suit pants, somehow.
Jeroan swallowed tentatively and waited for his stomach to settle. At
the same time, high above them, the building gave another series of
nasty sounding creaks and pops. Mexico let out a triumphant shout.
"Let's roll, gents," he said, holding up a fat keyring attached to a
greenish-brown hunk of leather. His big fingers were pinching a car key
from the ring. "I just hope there's gas in the van."
"Awesome," Jeroan said. "Let's go then..."
He trailed off when he saw Mexico pull out his Pincers once more.
Without a moment's hesitation, the operative touched them to Archie's
neck with a sickening click.
"No!" Jeroan shouted.
The old guy never saw it coming. Archie fell face-forward toward
the floor as if he were dead. Without dropping his keys or the Pincers,
Mexico moved in a blur and caught Archie before he could hit the
rubble-strewn ground. With hardly any visible effort, he hoisted Archie
up onto his shoulder.
Jeroan wanted to shout at Mexico and tell him he didn't need to do
that to the old guy. That he could've killed Archie, Pincing him like that,
completely out of the blue.
"Let's roll, newbie," Mexico growled, not even out of breath as he
walked past him, heading for the stairs with Archie slung over his
shoulder. "Don't say another word."
Jeroan followed, feeling young and naive and helpless about pretty
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
They made it down the steps, past the few remaining cops and the
last fire truck, and to the operatives' van painted with flowers and
labeled as Roberta's Flowers.
A second later, the top three floors of Azure's Center collapsed.
"Oh, man," Jeroan whispered as Mexico plopped Archie into the
back seat. "There it goes..."
"Don't watch," Mexico said. He gunned the van's engine, and it
responded with a rattling roar. "It'll just haunt you if you see it fall."
Still thinking about the heartless way the operative had knocked out
the old man, Jeroan ignored him, thinking, I don't need your advice
about my mental well-being, crazy man.
As they sped off, just before the van turned off on a side street,
Jeroan watched in the side mirror as the rest of the shortened building
shuddered, and then, as if in slow motion, the Center for Magical Study
and Containment crumbled into the Cape Fear River.
Finally, Kelley thought. She'd found Maria at last, and the woman
was in a talkative mood. Kelley couldn't count how many times she'd
stopped by Haze Books and Gifts after school to try to grab some of
Maria's time. In those first visits she'd tried to pepper the woman with
more questions about magic, and then in more recent visits she'd wanted
to learn more about the weird way she kept forgetting things. At least,
when Kelley could remember to ask about that.
But she'd never had any luck in furthering her education about
magic and its side effects. And Maria never seemed to have any time for
her at her store.
Until now. Now, you couldn't shut the lady up.
"Ah, yes, my store," Maria was saying. "I quite hated closing the
store and giving away all my merchandise to charity. Business was
booming, and all the people stopping by got me tapped into the pulse of
the city once more. It was a good feeling. It rejuvenated me."
Kelley gazed around the living room of the small house. A bright
orange fire kicked out waves of welcome heat from the stone fireplace—
a fire that the guy with the long hair had started with just a muttered
Word, right before he and his female companion headed off down the
hall, claiming they had some research to finish up. Mags had elbowed
Kelley at that, giving her a wicked grin.
Gran and the others had the couch, while Maria sat close to the fire
on a puffy chair printed with purple flowers. Kelley stood so she could
listen and walk back and forth on the creaky hardwood floor as Maria
spoke. It felt good to stand after sitting so long in Beyers' back seat.
"Once they saw the crystal balls, the books, and even the windup
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toys," Maria gave Kelley a meaningful glance with her sharp blue eyes,
"the people in my store just started talking to me. Almost all of them had
been on the riverboat that night in November, or if they had not been on
it, they either knew someone who had been, or they had a friend or a
relative who had started acting... peculiar."
"What'd they say about that night?" Polly asked, sitting up on
straighter on the couch, with her sister and Jimbo next to her. "Did they
" Polly," Kelley said. "Give me a break."
"What?" Polly said. "Just askin', that's all."
"They were not sure what—or whom—they saw," Maria said.
"Much of their memory of that night had faded. But they knew
something had happened to them on that riverboat, and they wanted to
talk about it with me. So I let them talk. They mentioned blue and green
fireworks, explosions, and even people flying around the boat, all of
which had to be impossible, they assured me. Not to mention how the
boat had somehow ended up floating down the Mississippi as well. They
had many questions and theories for me."
"That makes sense," the man with the long black hair streaked with
gray said from the other side of the room. At some point he'd entered the
living room while Maria had been talking, and Kelley hadn't even
noticed him. Maria had introduced him as Ishmael something. Ishmael
Waterson, maybe? It was a name that felt really old to Kelley.
"Not the having-many-questions thing, which is obvious," Ishmael
said. "But it is common in the way they found Maria. Many people new
to magic need someone like our Maria, someone to help them make
sense of their triggering, as you call it," Ishmael said, nodding at Kelley.
He had big, kind of sad brown eyes that reminded Kelley of a puppy.
"But if the newly triggered do not work at strengthening the magic
temporarily flowing through their veins and in their blood—"
"It goes pbbtthhhtt, right?" Kelley said, doing her best impersonation
of a balloon losing all its air.
"Something like that," said Cynthia Floodgate, who'd also appeared
out of nowhere and now perched herself on the hearth to the fireplace,
close to Maria. "Magic tends to be finite, you see."
"Figh nite," Mags repeated with a loud sniffle from the couch. Her
nose sounded plugged up again. "What's this figh nite garbage?"
Cynthia smiled, but in a tight, forced way. Kelley hardly recognized
her as the same woman from the riverboat two months ago. Cynthia's
dark brown hair had a lot more gray in it than Kelley remembered.
"Finite," Cynthia said, "means that there's only so much to go
around, Miss Erdman. We have your good friend Dr. Azure" —Jimbo
snorted derisively at that description— "to thank for the shortage of
magic users in our world. He preferred snuffing them out whenever
possible, to avoid any other mishaps like the incident two years ago in
Singapore or the explosion in the mid-nineties in Minnesota. He
certainly didn't want the newly triggered keeping in touch with those
who triggered them. Azure was a big fan of keeping magic finite and
under control. His control, preferably."
"You know, if too many people suddenly started using magic, all at
once," Ishmael said, gazing into the fire, which was now burning low,
"that might explain all these strange side effects we've been hearing
about. The reports of people trying to fly and falling, the strange
headaches, the loss of memory." He shot a quick look at Mags. "The
nosebleeds. Could be that magic is being stretched too thin, by too many
Leaning against the couch now instead of pacing, Kelley didn't
remember pulling out her phone, but it was in her hand now. She
absently flicked through her various applications, noting the fading
battery as well as the time on her phone: 12:33 a.m. There was
something missing here in this little house, something her tired brain
wasn't picking up on. She shivered as the wind rattled the windows and a
cold breeze moved through the house.
"Heat up already," she said, focusing on the fire. Her phone went
white for an instant, and a tiny burst of warmth puffed out of it. But a
bigger wave of heat came out of the fireplace, which roared to life with
Kelley's magical attention. The flames rose eight feet high, blazing hot
and orange in the small fireplace, before settling back down to their
"Kelley," Maria said. "It seems you have something you would like
to add to the conversation."
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Kelley gazed around the room. Everyone was now looking right at
her. Glancing at Cynthia, she figured out what was bugging her about
the Blood Sorcerer's theories about magic. And it had to do with her
"I think it's actually infinite," she said, glancing over at Polly and
Mags, "not figh nite."
Cynthia and Ishmael both shook their heads and chuckled as they sat
back down, as if to say, Silly magic newbie, what do you know?
Kelley walked in front of the roaring fire, her phone gripped tight in
her hand. For a second, her mind went blank, and words failed her. She
hated public speaking.
Instead of panicking, though, she just looked back at everyone
around her. With Alexander crawling on her knee, Mags sniffled and
scratched at the dried blood on her nose, while Polly fiddled with her
beat-up camera. Jimbo looked ready to doze off next to Polly, but Kelley
was pretty sure that was just an act, and he was paying attention to every
word being said. Next to Jimbo, Gran polished her thick glasses and
squinted up at Kelley, looking like a turtle out of its shell without her
spectacles. Ishmael sat close by on the hearth, watching Kelley with a
half-smile on his face, while next to him Cynthia shot quick glances at
the back door and then the front door.
Maria continued smiling up at Kelley from her flowery purple chair.
Kelley nodded back at her and found her voice.
"Magic looks out for itself, I think. It found me, as if it knew I'd be a
good user of it. Well, at least until I started losing my memories and
forgetting how to use it. But anyway. It's so contagious, it seems silly for
it to be limited. I mean, all we had to do was use it once or twice, and we
infected over a hundred people with it. Sure, it's probably a bit stretched
thin right now. But it seems to get stronger whenever we run it through
one of our gadgets, not weaker. Give it a couple days or weeks more,
and I'll bet it'll be even more powerful than ever with all the folks using
it, 'cause I'm sure they all have cell phones or cameras or some kinda
gadget. Those new users just need a lesson or two in how to channel
magic. I mean, it's been around forever, right? Magic takes care of itself,
so why would it run out now?"
While Cynthia and Ishmael exchanged slightly worried looks, Maria
kept nodding at Kelley so fast that she thought the woman would nod
herself right out of her puffy purple chair.
"I feel you may be right in what you say," the gray-haired woman
said. She stopped nodding at last. "As for what you said about your own
forgetfulness, I would also like to add this, which I learned all too well
from experience: if you use too much magic, too fast, it can hurt you.
And you used a great deal of very powerful magic, all within the first
day of your triggering."
Kelley nodded, thinking about the words she'd read aloud from the
little white book that had turned her house into an inferno, or the way
she moved almost instantly from Maria's shop to the hospital, or how
she stopped the raging battle in the hospital room with just a word and a
buzz from her phone. Not to mention helping Archie push most of
Azure's spilled blood back into him, pretty much all with willpower and
magic. And that was just day one. Let's not even think about the next
night, on the riverboat.
"Not like I had much choice in the matter," Kelley whispered. "I had
to do it. All of it."
Maria looked like she was just about to continue explaining the
unpredictable aspects of magic when the wind slammed into the house
Mags and Polly both jumped, and Jimbo woke from his half-doze
with a sharp intake of breath. Gran patted his hand with a distracted look
on her face, her glasses now aimed at the front door. Her white hair
fluttered up and down like wings from the cold breeze that had slipped
into the room once again.
As if blown into the house on a gust of wind, a big black man in a
dark suit burst through the front door with a big white bag clutched in
his hands. Kelley raised her phone the instant she saw his dark, dusty
face and his irregular movements. It was Maria's store all over again,
and they didn't even have any windup toys to protect them this time.
"Moammar!" Maria shouted, popping to her feet from her chair with
a surprised look on her face.
And then the living room went from peaceful to chaotic in a
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
* * * * *
That was it, Kelley thought, letting magic flow through her and
temporarily blur her vision. She remembered that missing piece of the
puzzle now. Just a few seconds too late, as usual.
That missing piece was Moammar, one of Azure's many henchmen.
He was the third person the shoe guy had told them about yesterday
back in Dubuque. Moammar had helped Ishmael and Cynthia move
Maria out of her shop, forcing her to leave her world behind. The shoe
guy had said how shocked and unhappy Maria had looked, as if she'd
just gotten fired. And now Moammar was here to finish the job.
Polly had her camera out, while Jimbo put himself between Gran
and the door, hoping to shield her with his skinny body. Mags grabbed
the poker from the fire and looked ready to follow Kelley's lead in the
attack. The three other Sorcerers in the room didn't move an inch, as if
Moammar had used some sort of spell to freeze them in place.
There's no way, Kelley thought as she inhaled deeply and let magic
course through her, that he's here to help us. Not after all the trouble he
gave us back at the riverboat dock.
But before Kelley could release the energy running through her and
into her phone, Maria snapped her fingers, once. Loudly.
Kelley felt the magic sucked out of her so fast she lost her breath.
Polly fumbled with her camera, almost dropping it again, while Jimbo
removed his hands from his eyes from where he stood next to the couch.
Mags let the charred black poker fall to the hardwood floor with a loud
clang, and everyone seemed to exhale at the same exact time.
"Welcome back to our inside man," Maria said. "Who appears to
have brought us a post-midnight snack. Thank you, Moammar."
Still feeling a bit dizzy even after getting her air back, Kelley looked
over at Maria.
"So Moammar here is a spy?" Kelley said. "Since when? Last time
we saw him, he seemed pretty serious about taking you out, Maria."
"Ancient history," Moammar said in his deep, gravelly voice. He
smiled at Kelley with his too-white teeth, as if enjoying all the chaos he
had just caused. "After that night in Dubuque, Maria showed me the
error of my ways."
He walked in his awkward fashion—as if he were about to fall over
at any second—over to the kitchen table to set down his big bag, which
gave off a lovely fried scent. Kelley's stomach rumbled happily.
"It was Yishi's idea, actually," Maria said.
Everyone turned to look at Gran, who had just now gotten up off the
floor from where her well-meaning grandson had pushed her, ignoring
Jimbo's attempts to help her up.
"Thought it would be a good idea," she said, brushing off her coat
sleeves, "to get someone to keep an eye out for our old friend Michael
and his Blood Sorcerers."
"Dr. Azure," Jimbo muttered. "What a jerk."
"Perhaps," Maria said. "Perhaps not."
Mags kicked at the poker on the floor, looking a bit frustrated that
she didn't get a chance to use it on Moammar.
"So," she said, her dirty face brightening a bit, "are we gonna eat
what's in that bag, or just act like a bunch of morons and pretend nobody
sees it sitting there?"
"Eating is an excellent idea," Cynthia Floodgate said, quickly
crossing the living room with just a whisper of air. Kelley's empty belly
agreed with everyone else, and she followed the others toward the table.
A few minutes later, munching on a burger and some fries in front of
the fire, Kelley felt herself relax for the first time in a long time. Maybe
everything is going to be all right, she thought, now that we found Maria
and she has her Blood Sorcerer friends on her side. Kelley smiled as
Alexander fluttered across the room from the couch and landed lightly
on her shoulder again.
"I did magic tonight," she whispered to the dragon, nodding at the
fire. Almost twice, if Maria hadn't blocked her from attacking
Maria approached Kelley and the fireplace, carrying a paper plate
with just three French fries lined up on it.
"So," she said, "was this the sort of information you were seeking? I
realize this is quite a bit to take in, all at once."
Kelley was already shaking her head. "No, I want to know it all. Tell
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
She swallowed suddenly, thinking of Jeroan back in Azure's office,
saying, "I want you teach me everything." The food she'd just chowed
down went heavy in her stomach at the thought.
"I am sorry you had to travel so far to learn this," Maria said. "But
sometimes such measures are required. I needed to get away from your
fair city to keep a lower profile and help Ishmael and Cynthia monitor
their former colleagues, the Blood Sorcerers."
Kelley noticed that Cynthia and Ishmael had disappeared again. "Is
that where they are now? Monitoring?"
Maria lowered her plate and looked around the living room. A look
of concern passed over her face, just for an instant.
"Why yes, I suppose that is where they are now, in the spare
bedroom with their equipment. Peculiar. And they had been so excited to
talk with you when they learned you and the others were coming. I
Maria stopped suddenly when Gran let out an angry cry from the
front door. Alexander shot off Kelley's shoulder air and flew to Gran's
side to investigate.
"She left! She left!"
Kelley wanted to grab Maria and ask her just how Ishmael and
Cynthia had known they were coming, but the petite woman slipped
right past her. Instead of joining the others at the front door, where Gran
was letting loose a stream of Chinese words that did not sound at all like
words of praise, Maria headed back down the hall toward the two
Kelley glanced out the front door, trying to see what Gran was
talking about. When she saw the empty street, she understood in an
Beyers had taken off. She'd used the story-telling time in the living
room to get free of whatever hold Gran had on her, and somehow fired
up her noisy car to get away. Or maybe she'd put the car in neutral and
let it roll down the snowy hill in front of the house to make her getaway.
In any case, she'd left them stranded here in Minnesota, without a
way back home.
Gran headed outside into the cold, looking like she was going to
chase down Beyers on foot. Jimbo, Polly, and Mags charged after her,
calling her name and telling her to come back.
Kelley stood at the edge of the living room, torn between following
the others or tracking down Maria and her so-called Blood Sorcerer
friends. Her scalp was tingling, and she felt a weird change in the air, as
if the temperature had just gone up twenty degrees. Her heart started
pounding, and a hot sweat covered her as if she'd caught an instant fever.
Moammar clumped up next to Kelley, smelling like burnt toast as
always. His dark face looked blurry for a second.
"Too bad about your ride, cuz," he rumbled as Kelley desperately
blinked away the blurriness. "Don't worry, I got my SUV outside if you
"Sure thing," Kelley said right away, fanning herself and inching
toward the front door. Her dry eyes hurt, and she wanted this
conversation to end right now so she could get outside and cool herself
off from the weird heat covering her.
But Moammar was looking at her in an odd way. He almost looked
like he was smiling. His teeth freaked Kelley out by how white they
"You don't know who I really am, do you?" Moammar said at last in
a soft voice. "Your mom never spoke of me?"
"My mom? Leave her out of this, please."
"But she's my great-great-great grand-niece. I can't just leave her out
Kelly wiped sweat from her brow and looked right at the ancient,
scarred man next to her.
"Your... Your what?"
Instead of answering, Moammar held his dark, scarred hand up next
to Kelley's. Beneath all the damage to his skin, his coloring matched
Kelley's skin tones almost perfectly.
" Yep," he said with a wink. "Thought so, cuz."
Kelley was staring at his hand next to hers—and was about to
angrily explain to this guy that their matching skin coloring meant
nothing—when a series of explosions lit up the night outside the house.
"Man," Mexico murmured as the fake florist van rumbled westward
on Interstate 40 at eighty-five miles an hour, "I'm really going to miss
"Wilmington?" Jeroan asked, waking from a near-doze. The
booming sound of the wheels of the van had been filling his ears and
putting his tired self to sleep. "Or the Center?"
Mexico grunted and nodded. "Both. There was some good energy
there. Right up until the place fell into the river."
All thanks to Archie, Jeroan wanted to say to the still-unconscious
old man stretched out on the floor in the back of the van. That place felt
more like home than Jeroan's house back in Dubuque. And that place got
destroyed, too. Also by someone he knew. Not cool.
They'd been driving for over three hours now. Barely five minutes
into the drive, Mexico had offered to drop Jeroan off at a bus stop or
even the closest airport, but Jeroan had just laughed and asked him if he
"You think I wanna leave?" he'd said to Mexico. "After what they
did to me and the other guys, not to mention the Center? No way am I
slinking home now. They picked a fight with the wrong guy."
Mexico had let out a booming laugh at Jeroan's tough talk, but he'd
also given him a grateful, almost proud look when he got done laughing.
"All right then," he'd said, goosing the accelerator. "Let's roll."
And so they rolled. At midnight they passed Greensboro, North
Carolina, turned north, and kept right on rolling. Mexico seemed to
know where he was going, but he wasn't sharing their destination. And
Jeroan felt too exhausted to care.
"It was the water, you know," Mexico said after a few more minutes
of silence. "You probably didn't read about that in your books, did you?"
"Water?" Jeroan said, stifling a yawn.
" Water. Which makes sense, really, because the place we're heading
to has all sorts of bodies of water everywhere you look. There's a
connection between magic and water, Azure once told me. "
"What do you mean?" Jeroan asked.
"Water's a conductor for magic, just like it conducts electricity.
Water also keeps magic from getting too unstable. The trick is, too much
water, and you can extinguish magic. Just like if you submerge the
hottest torch into a lake. All that water simply overwhelms it. That's why
they used the ocean to banish—"
Mexico stopped in mid-sentence and swore under his breath. He
shook his head as he gripped the wheel tighter in his big hands.
"Ah, never mind all that. I'm no Sorcerer. I'm just the hired muscle.
What do I know, anyway?"
They drove in silence for a while, and Jeroan thought of the
Mississippi River in Dubuque, and the Cape Fear River back in
Wilmington. Azure had set up shop right next to both of them. Right on
the river, in the case of his temporary office on the Diamond Jo.
And now that he thought about, in all the various Words of Magic
entries he'd read, there had always been water. Like the moat that
Johnny kid had jumped into during the battle to help heal the injured. Or
the flooded river in Snowdonia, where the narrator—Azure himself!—
had gone with his apprentice to ease the flooding and re-route the very
And Azure had been sent there by none other than the Druid.
Jeroan touched the little white book, which was still tucked into his
back pocket. At least I still have it on me, he thought, relieved.
"So where are we going?" he asked, figuring that was a safer topic
The operative paused long enough to make Jeroan sink back into his
seat and give up on the conversation. The van thumped its noisy way
down the mostly empty interstate.
"Right before we had our Sorcerer visitors tonight," Mexico said,
shaking his head at the memory, "our roach buddies back there picked
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up some fresh readings that matched some others we'd been tracking for
a couple weeks now. The latest readings point to a place in the Midwest.
But we can never seem to get a clean reading of the exact spot. They're
back there reviewing the data right now."
Jeroan glanced into the back of the van, looking at the two
cockroaches crawling over the gadgets stuffed into every spare inch of
the van behind where Archie was zonked out.
"They're... reviewing the data right now," he repeated slowly. "For
In the back, one of the roaches called up a new window on a taped-
up digital tablet, while the other used its two front feet to tap on a smart
phone with a cracked screen so it could zoom in on a map of the
Midwest. The two roaches moved fast, like they'd been sipping a couple
bug-sized energy drinks. As impossible at it looked, they actually
seemed to be working.
"No way," Jeroan whispered. If this was really happening, he was
amazed that the roaches were able to get the gadgets to function for
them. Maybe the beat-up devices recognized the operatives' auras or
something, he figured, and then he shuddered.
Roaches. What a way to go.
He turned back around and gazed through the windshield at the utter
darkness of the mountains closing in on them.
"So where in the Midwest?" Jeroan said. "Dubuque?"
"Nope," Mexico said. "The roaches say Minnesota."
"Oh," Jeroan said, feeling a surprising sense of disappointment. He'd
figured Mexico would be taking him back to his new hometown, where
apparently Kelley the Beast had been triggering innocent people left and
right. Thinking of her made him recall the night Mexico and York had
picked him up and flown him through the darkness, from Dubuque all
the way to the Center in Wilmington.
That had been a fun flight. At least for the first thirty minutes.
He hated thinking about it now, but about an hour into that flight,
Jeroan had started having second thoughts, especially when his face
went numb from the cold, and his ears wouldn't stop ringing from the
constant roar of the wind in his ears. His arms and shoulders ached from
being held up by the two big guys as they whipped through the sky at
high speed. He started freaking out a bit, thinking this impossible trip
would never end.
And he'd left Kelley and Polly behind to deal with Azure on the
riverboat, pretty much all by themselves.
Little brother, Kelley had said inside his head, right before he'd
joined up with Azure, what's happened to you?
The Beast was going to kill me, he'd kept thinking that night, five
hundred feet in the air, until they finally landed in Wilmington an hour
later. He fell over as soon as they hit the sidewalk in front of the Center,
and if he could've hugged the ground then, he would have.
Jeroan jerked up his head and opened his eyes with a sudden
inhalation of air. He'd fallen asleep, just for a few moments.
"Bad dream?" Mexico said with the hint of a laugh in his deep voice.
"Just thinking about how short our flight from Dubuque to
Wilmington had been. Two hours to go about a thousand miles. You
"Not my call," Mexico said with a shake of his head that send his
afro bobbing back and forth. "That was all Azure's magic getting us
from there to the Center. If he hadn't been in the middle of a pitched
battle there in his portable office, he could've teleported all three of us to
the Center in the blink of an eye. But still, the man has some serious
magic ability in him. That's why we have to find him."
Jeroan felt a sudden chill. Good thing, he thought, Azure's magic
didn't run out on us while we were shooting through the sky at about a
zillion miles an hour.
"So," he said, ready to change the subject, "how did he find you?
How long have you been working for him?"
Mexico let out a surprised chuckle.
"You really want to know about me? It's a long story, newbie."
"We've got time," Jeroan said, nodding at the long stretch of
interstate unfolding in front of them.
Mexico looked over at him with a bemused expression on his face
for a long moment before turning his attention back at the road.
"All right. How to best explain this? Let me think..." Mexico
checked his rearview mirror for a second. "This is classified information
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I'm telling you, newbie. Don't let on to York and Orleans that you know
"Got it," Jeroan said with a furtive glance at the busy roaches in the
back of the van.
"We all were victims of magic, each of us operatives," Mexico said,
his voice softening the tiniest bit. "York was caught in an explosion after
a kid tapped into magic underneath New York City and nearly blew the
entire subway system to bits. Orleans, on the other hand, got sucked into
a voodoo cult in the French Quarter that had foolishly been using real
magic. He would've been the cult's first human sacrifice if Azure hadn't
Mexico was caught up in his memories, his face filled with the blue-
white glow of the dashboard lights.
"As for me, I was on a Greyhound bus, heading across the country
from San Diego to this state, actually. Funny how these things work out
sometimes. I was about to do my two weeks of hardcore training down
at Camp LeJeune to see if I had it in me to be a Green Beret."
"Sweet," Jeroan whispered. "Though I had you pegged for a
"No sir. Never liked waiting on someone else to pass the ball to me.
I had a football scholarship, back in the 70s. Best pass rusher the
University of San Diego ever saw. York back there was a star baseball
player in his heyday, and Orleans was a rugby guy, all the way. Azure
chose us pretty well, I must say. The three of us have made it the longest
of all his operatives, and there have been quite a few over the years."
Jeroan did some subtracting and tried to guess Mexico's age. The big
guy seemed way too young to have ever gone to college in the 70s.
Maybe getting hooked up with magic kept you from aging. At least that
would explain Mexico's 'fro, which seemed like something from the 70s
Mexico shrugged his big shoulders. "So anyway. I was headed to my
Army training when everything changed. I sometimes wonder if I
would've made it as a Green Beret, but then I think again. Because I've
saved countless more lives working for Dr. Azure than I ever could've in
the military. I guess it was destiny that made me get on that bus that day.
A bus that would drive me right into a battle between Azure's men and
four rogue sorcerers fifty miles west of Albuquerque."
Jeroan risked a quick glance back at the old man in the back to see if
Archie was eavesdropping on all this. But Archie was still sprawled out
on the floor, arms flung wide with his feet up on an overturned computer
tower. The old dude didn't look like he'd be waking up any time soon. A
thick piece of folded-up paper jutted out of Archie's right pants pocket,
almost slipping free onto the floor.
"So anyway," Mexico said, hurrying through his story now as if
eager to get it over with, "our bus is chugging through the desert in the
middle of the night, and everyone's dozing but me. I've been watching
the far-off light show outside my window as it gets closer. I just figured
it was heat lightning, right up until the moment those bolts of blue and
green lightning hit the bus. Instantly everyone's awake and screaming.
We go off the road, almost into a ravine, and the bus catches fire. I start
pulling people out of the bus as fast as I can. And then the rogues show
"Oh crap," Jeroan whispered. This was better than a Words of Magic
"The rogues laughed as they took aim at the bus, and at the people
I'd pulled out of the bus. Like it was all target practice to them. They
were dressed in red sweatshirts and black pants, like some sort of
uniform. Magic had driven them all mad. But then Azure and his Blood
Sorcerers arrived like the cavalry, with a wave of green energy
connecting all six of them, and so much power in the air it made my
fillings sing and my hair stand on end—my hair's never been the same
since," Mexico added with a laugh, and then he turned serious. "Azure
and his Sorcerers hit the rogues so hard there was nothing left of them. "
Jeroan closed his tired and sore eyes for a moment, regretting he'd
asked to hear this story.
"Afterward, while his Blood Sorcerers did their best to heal the
injured and help everyone forget all that had happened, Azure set down
right in front of me and asked if I'd used magic to get all the people next
to me out of the bus. Somehow he knew what I'd done, without ever
asking or witnessing it. I shook my head—I couldn't even speak at that
point, I'd seen so many impossible things in such a short time—and he
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offered me a job. To that question, I was able to find the words. I said
yes, of course."
Jeroan put the palm of his hand onto the cold window next to him.
He couldn't stop thinking about the way Azure had offered him a job as
well, back in the bald man's riverboat office in Dubuque, right after
Azure had somehow peeked inside his head and learned Jeroan's every
I'm not sure I like having this much in common with Mexico, he
thought. This is a guy Archie pretty much said was an assassin.
Jeroan pulled his hand off the window and set it on his forehead. He
imagined he heard a sizzling sound as his cold hand met his overheated
Mexico looked over at Jeroan for a few seconds, and Jeroan felt the
heat in the van disappear, as if chased away by the cool intensity in the
big man's brown eyes.
"So now you know where our loyalty to him comes from," Mexico
said. "We were all victims of renegade magic, and we owe our lives to
Dr. Azure. We owe him everything."
Jeroan nodded and rubbed his arms, hoping Mexico didn't see the
No comment, he thought, shivering. I have absolutely no comment
* * * * *
They drove in silence for the next few hours.
Jeroan had planned on keeping himself awake for the whole drive,
especially after all that Mexico had told him. But he'd given up
somewhere on the other side of the mountains, well into Tennessee.
I'll just close my eyes for a few minutes, Jeroan figured.
When he woke it was nearly two in the morning. Behind the wheel,
Mexico still looked focused and fresh, not even a bit tired. In the back,
the roaches had found a perfect spot to take a rest from their work,
perched on top of Archie's floppy gray hat.
The old man was starting to stir. Jeroan saw that the rolled-up scroll
that Archie had dug out of Azure's library was now almost halfway out
of the old man's pants pocket. Jeroan glanced at Mexico, who seemed to
be lost in his own thoughts as he drove, and then he looked once more at
Archie's face. He thought of the picture of the kid at Stonehenge that he
and Polly had found on her camera back in the alley. While the old guy
was sleeping, the years seemed to slip off his face, and Jeroan could see
the resemblance to the boy in Polly's camera.
What kind of crazy stuff have you seen in your long life, Archie?
As casually as he could, Jeroan reached into the back. He tugged the
scroll from the old man's pocket, and then unrolled it as quietly as he
could. Mexico was still ignoring him, so he stayed halfway between the
front seat and the back, holding the scroll just out of Mexico's view. In
the weak light of the dashboard lights, he tried to read the words written
on black ink on the thick yellow paper.
It was a letter from someone who only signed his or her name as an
over-sized capital D. The handwriting was big and flowery, full of
flourishes and fancy swirls. The letter appeared to be addressed to
someone named Michael. Jeroan could just make out a few words and
phrases as the van bumped along a poorly maintained stretch of
Only blood can truly control...no other method shown to be safe...
It wants and needs to be directed...
...too many users can dilute and warp...they must be controlled...
...can only truly be extinguished... depths of the ocean...
...swear I shall...
"Don't be getting carsick in my van," Mexico said in a sharp voice.
"What are you doing, anyway, newbie?"
"Nothing," Jeroan said. "Just checking for a pulse on the old guy,
"He's fine," Mexico said. "A good Pincing never hurt anyone." He
gave his dry chuckle again. "You should know that better than anyone,
"Ha ha. Hilarious," Jeroan said as he rolled up the scroll. He was in
the process of sliding it back into Archie's pocket when the van hit a
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" Oh," Archie said in a slightly distracted voice, as if someone had
tapped him on the shoulder, and then he sucked in a deep breath and
began snoring some more.
Back in his seat again, Jeroan was wondering if it was some sort of
letter from this Druid guy to Azure hundreds of years ago when a hand
touched his shoulder.
Jeroan nearly screamed out in surprise.
" Gentlemen," Archie said in his deep voice from behind him.
"Ah," Mexico said, craning his neck to watch Archie in his rearview
mirror. "Welcome back to the land of the living! Sorry 'bout the Pincing.
Just a safety precaution for our trip west."
The old guy's blue eyes—not glowing, thankfully!—were clear, and
he had a bit of color in the bits of his cheeks that were visible through
his white beard. He gave off a whiff of mints instead of the stink of b.o.
that Jeroan remembered him having.
"West," Archie said. "You mean... Minnesota?"
"Correct," Mexico nodded. "So you knew about that, too, old man?"
"We need to get there, now," Archie said, ignoring Mexico's
question. "I fear it's too late."
"Look, we're going as fast as we can." Mexico gripped the wheel
tightly as he spoke. "I can't push this bucket of bolts any faster than
eighty-five, or it'll shake itself to pieces. Got any better ideas?"
As Archie sat up straight and gently removed the two sleeping
roaches from his gray hat, Jeroan tried to wriggle away from the old
man's hand. But Archie had a grip like a vise.
"I believe I do," Archie said. A soft white glow came from the old
man's left hand, where he now held a beat-up, grimy flip phone that may
have once been pink. Polly's old phone.
"I feel quite rested after my unexpected nap," Archie said with a
smile in Mexico's direction. A wave of heat rolled into the front seat
from the back, and Jeroan fought the urge to cover his head from what
was about to happen. But caught in Archie's grip, he could do nothing
but squint his eyes and hope for the best.
"Which enables me," Archie said, blue energy now crackling out of
his left hand as magic flowed through the phone, gathering intensity and
focus and power, "to do... This."
We got set up, Kelley thought.
She held up her phone and squinted up at the green-glowing figures
shooting through the air like human bottle rockets. In the weak
moonlight, she caught a glimpse of a woman with long silver hair and a
man in a turban. She was pretty sure she'd seen both Sorcerers on the
night of the riverboat attack.
Forty feet above them, the Blood Sorcerers sent bursts of green
energy flying everywhere, though half of the blasts were absorbed by a
mostly invisible, blue-tinted bubble that surrounded the house. Cynthia
and Ishmael must have put that bubble in place long before the attack.
Thin strands of green light connected all seven of the attackers. Or were
there eight? They moved too fast for Kelley to track.
A tree in the front yard had caught fire, and Moammar's once-red
SUV was now a smoking pile of blackened rubble in the driveway. That
had been the explosion Kelley had heard earlier.
Yep, Kelley thought. Cynthia and Ishmael set us up tonight. And we
walked right into it.
Jimbo had tried to pull Gran out of the fray and back into the house,
but the second she saw the Sorcerers above the porch of the little blue
house, Gran was ready for action. She sent three bursts of blue energy
out of her tinkling MP3 player and knocked three of them from the air.
The downed trio landed with a series of crunches on the snowy lawn
next to the front sidewalk. Polly, Mags, and Alexander dove off the
porch and quickly rolled them into an unconscious pile. Alexander—
now puffed up to the size of a horse and growing bigger each second—
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had been too busy guarding Mags to even consider leaping into the air
after their attackers.
Gran probably would've taken out the other Sorcerers as well and
ended it right there, but Cynthia slipped out of the house like a ninja and
disarmed the old woman from behind, sending the MP3 player flying.
Gran went down to one knee with a weak shout.
"I am sorry," Cynthia began, "but I have to—"
The woman never got a chance to finish. Kelley, just five feet from
Gran and Cynthia on the front porch, shouted the words " Get down!" at
Cynthia, and with a burst of white-hot eGadget light, Cynthia joined the
pile of Sorcerers on the snow.
I did it again, Kelley thought with a crazy smile on her face. Magic!
Mags gave Cynthia a kick in the side for good measure before
moving back behind the small blue wall of energy Polly had built in
front of them to use as a shield.
The night grew silent after Cynthia went down. The last four or five
Blood Sorcerers had given up their direct attack and were now
somewhere above them. Probably regrouping and plotting their next
attack. Kelley heard some thumping from inside the house, and she
hoped Maria was okay in there with Ishmael and Moammar.
On the porch next to her, Gran was back on her feet with her
recovered MP3 player, and Kelley saw that at some point Jimbo must
have caught a blast of green Blood Sorcerer energy in the side trying to
protect his grandmother while fumbling with his new phone. His
sweatshirt had caught fire.
This is all my fault, she thought as she took a step closer to Jimbo as
he slapped away the flames on him. I should have known been than to
Kelley touched Jimbo's still smoking shirt and saw the burns on his
skin. He jumped and started to protest, but with a flash from her phone
and a puff of hot air, Kelley healed his injuries before he could finish his
"Uh, thanks," he said, looking at Kelley as if for the first time. She
still had her hand on the bare skin of his mid-section. "Sorry—"
"Oh," Kelley said, taking her hand off Jimbo quickly, her face hot all
of a sudden.
She bit back the apology on her own lips and turned away from
Jimbo. She had to get focused here, and after the small bits of magic
she'd done tonight, she already felt a bit light-headed and scattered. At
any second, the Sorcerers above them were going to make their move, or
the downed Sorcerers were going to regain consciousness.
"Surrender your weapons!" a harsh female voice shouted from about
four stories in the air, way above the roof of the small blue house. "We
need to speak with you!"
"Do not make this any worse than it already is!" a man with a thick,
African-sounding accent shouted from somewhere up there next to the
"What the heck?" Polly called out, peeking from behind her glowing
shield of energy, which was wavering a bit. "They attack first, then they
"Let's just try and talk to—" Jimbo began, then he saw the look on
Kelley's face. "Sorry," he whispered again, putting a hand over his
Mags responded for everyone by shouting out a stream of curse-
filled insults at the Blood Sorcerers, including some zingers about their
attackers' mothers that Kelley had never heard before. Gran and Jimbo
were now both covering their own mouths with identical looks of shock
on their faces.
I need to just send them away, Kelley realized, watching the fire in
the tree burn itself out at last, leaving just a smoking, ten-foot high trunk
scarred with black ash. I have to send them away just like in the hospital
room that day. Even if it does make me forget my name forever.
She tried to recall how she'd managed to teleport over half a dozen
people—against their will—out of the hospital room. She hadn't really
had to think about it. She just hoped she could still do it...
And then she snapped her fingers.
She almost laughed out loud as she caught sight of the first Blood
Sorcerer slowly hovering into view in the night sky above her.
That's it, she realized. I've been analyzing it too much, and not
letting it just happen.
She raised her phone casually, as if checking for a text, but she
never took her eyes off the Sorcerer floating twenty-five feet above her.
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Then twenty feet away.
Just let it flow, she told herself. Fifteen feet.
"Go away," she whispered.
Her phone flashed and gave off its familiar puff of heat, and the
levitating Sorcerer disappeared with a tiny poof of air.
"Sweet!" Polly and Mags shouted at the same time from the front
lawn, as if watching someone belt a home run at a Cubs game. They
probably had the best seats in the house out there in the snow, safe
behind Polly's shield and Alexander's big wings.
"Shh," Kelley hissed, but the other Sorcerers had noticed their
colleague's sudden exit. She heard a whisper of movement and a softly
spoken word—or more likely, a Word—and then a pair of Sorcerers
dropped onto the roof of the porch above them. A green glow filled the
air five feet above Kelley.
"Kelley!" Polly shouted from the lawn. "The roof—either side!"
I got it, Kelley thought, feeling impossibly calm as she raised her
phone. I got it.
" Go," she said, looking up to her left, and then she turned slightly to
her right. "And go."
The green glow above her disappeared with a pair of pops, along
with the two Sorcerers.
She couldn't locate the last pair of Blood Sorcerers—the woman
with the long gray hair, and the man with the turban. Out in the yard, the
three knocked-out Blood Sorcerers, as well as Cynthia Floodgate, were
starting to stir, and Polly and Mags started taking turns sending them
away like Kelley had with the others.
Poof. Poof. Poof. Poof.
Mags is definitely gonna have another bloody nose after this, Kelley
thought, and then the wooden steps of the front porch exploded.
Jimbo pointed up at the cause of the explosion, and that was all his
Gran aimed her MP3 player at the woman with the long silver hair
above the porch and sent her away with a whispered Word.
Poof. She was gone, just like the other Sorcerers on the front yard.
"Shouldn't we interrogate 'em or something before we send 'em all
away?" Jimbo said, his hand resting protectively on Gran's shoulder,
though she kept trying to shrug it off. His face was flushed with
excitement and a confidence Kelley hadn't ever noticed in him before. It
looked good on him.
"Maybe," she said, waving Mags and Polly onto the porch for
protection as she scanned the skies again. "Though we should've thought
of that sooner."
Kelley knew there had to be only one of them left—the guy with the
black turban. She hoped maybe he'd just take off now that he was alone.
Alexander kept his wings spread wide to protect the two sisters as they
shuffled through the snowy yard toward the porch.
Kelley stepped closer to the still-smoking front steps and glanced
around again, getting nervous now.
Where are you, turban guy?
She'd been so intent on watching the sky that she never saw the
Sorcerer with the turban rise up from the far side of the porch until it
was too late. A billowing fireball of green energy shot toward her from
the Sorcerer's outstretched hand, and Kelley couldn't get her phone up in
time to try and block it.
All she had time to think was this: I'm dead.
And then, when it was just a few inches from her face, close enough
to singe her hair, the three-foot-wide ball of green fire winked out with a
popping sound. Alexander whooshed through the air an instant later,
tackling the Blood Sorcerer.
Kelley nearly fell off the porch when she whirled to see who was
It was Moammar, standing in the doorway to the house with his
dusty black dampener held out between Kelley and the spot on the porch
where the Blood Sorcerer had been standing. The gadget was still
popping and crackling with the energy it had stolen from the green
Meanwhile, the guy with the turban had now been almost
completely swallowed up by the white dragon wrapped around him in a
fierce bear hug.
"Hey," Moammar said in a low voice. "I got your back, cuz."
"Thanks," Kelley said, heaving a sigh of relief when she saw Maria
walk down the hallway inside the house. Maria looked angry but
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unharmed. Kelley pulled herself together with a quick sigh of annoyance
aimed at Moammar. "But stop calling me that."
"It's not an inaccurate nickname," Moammar said with another
white flash of his big smile. He tucked away his now-silent gadget inside
a pocket of his dark jacket. "Just saying..."
Kelley felt a headache coming on from all the magical activity
tonight and Moammar's presence. Next to the porch in the darkness,
Polly and Mags were trying to pry open Alexander's wings.
"Don't you have some double-agent duty to do or something?" she
asked the big man. "Or you could help us get that Sorcerer free from
Alexander's grip so we can talk to him before he's squished like a bug."
"Will do," Moammar said, and then added "cuz."
He awkwardly navigated his way across the porch like
Frankenstein's monster, leaving a trail of black dust with each heavy
No way, Kelley thought as she shook her aching head. No way am I
related to that dude.
* * * * *
They sat the Blood Sorcerer with the turban on the floor in front of
the fireplace next to Ishmael, who was lying on his side and appeared to
be unconscious. Maria had indeed been able to handle herself. She was
back in the puffy purple chair again, her normally pale cheeks red with
exertion, and a fierce look on her face as she kept watch over the man
who had betrayed her.
"That was so awesome," Mags was saying as she bounced into the
living room. "The way Alexander deflected those green lightning bolts.
And how we made those bad guys just disappear! How the—I just—I
can't hardly believe..."
"Shhh," Polly said, pulling her little sister onto the couch next to her
with a concerned look at the two Sorcerers on the floor and the very
angry female Sorcerer sitting in the purple chair.
"Hey. Where's Alexander?" Mags said. "Where's my dragon?"
Ouch, Kelley thought as she sat down on the couch next to Polly. I'll
pretend I didn't hear that.
"He's keeping watch outside," Moammar said, standing in the
doorway leading outside as well. "In case any of those Sorcerers come
Gran stomped into the living room and gave Ishmael a not-so-
grandmotherly nudge with her shoe. When he didn't respond, she kicked
him in the side.
"Wake up, traitor!" she shouted.
"Gran!" Jimbo said. "Take it easy, okay?"
Gran responded by kicking Ishmael again. He groaned and moved a
bit, but didn't open his eyes. The guy in the turban leaned away from
Gran, as if afraid that he'd be next.
"I do not like traitors," Gran said as she backed up until her short
legs hit the couch. She dropped next to Kelley, never taking her eyes off
the two Sorcerers on the floor. "Ever since Stonehenge. And we were
betrayed more than once tonight. I do not believe this."
Kelley nodded, remembering Beyers taking off in her car. And with
Moammar's SUV just a pile of rubble now, they had no transportation at
all. Stuck in Minerva, Minnesota. Lovely.
"What happened here?" she asked Maria. "I thought Cynthia and
Ishmael were your friends. You've been living here with them for a
couple weeks now, right? Didn't you see this coming?"
Maria shook her head, and Kelley could see the pain in her eyes.
And then the look passed, replaced by determination.
"I let them fool me into thinking I did not have to be alone any
longer, living there in my shop in Dubuque. That I did not have to
constantly be on guard. Afraid to set foot outside my home. They
brought me here and listened to my stories and gave me the
companionship I had craved for decades. I thought they were working
for the greater good here, hidden away from the world so close to the
headwaters of the Mississippi. But it appears they were simply biding
their time, waiting until the right moment to turn on me, it seems. And
all of you as well."
"Us?" Kelley said, glancing at Polly, who gave her a baffled look in
return. "What do they want with us?"
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"I believe," Maria said, turning her gaze back to Ishmael and the
other Sorcerer, "that they wanted to finish what they had begun on the
Kelley rubbed her arms, feeling a sudden chill. "But Azure's gone.
Why are they still so gung ho to wipe us out?"
"Let us ask our former friend about that," Maria said in a cool voice.
The fire had burned low in the fireplace behind Ishmael, and the long-
haired guy gave an involuntary shudder when everyone turned to look at
"We did not know about this attack," he said. "Not until it was too
"Go on," Kelley said. She and Gran seemed to share the same
feeling of impatience. The little old lady had popped up from the couch
and started pacing like Kelley had been doing earlier. Kelley wondered
if Gran had a monster headache like she had brewing behind her
eyeballs right now.
Ishmael shook his head and whispered something. Kelley stiffened,
thinking he was getting ready to try to use a Word or two on them.
"Say that again," Maria said, leaning down over him. A chilly breeze
blew in from the cracked front door.
"Just following orders," Ishmael said. "The attackers were just
Maria shot a look at the guy with the turban. "Rashad?" she said. "Is
The man named Rashad looked down at the floor for a moment, and
then he met Maria's gaze. "Yes. His orders. They must be followed. It's
part of the vow we took as Sorcerers."
" Blood Sorcerers," Polly said, glaring at the men as she fidgeted next
"If Cynthia were here, she could explain it all to you better than I,"
Ishmael said. "We thought the Blood Sorcerers that attacked us were on
our side. That's why Cynthia disarmed you at first, Gran."
Gran answered that with a low muttering noise that sounded like a
growl to Kelley's ears. She wasn't buying it.
" Careful," Rashad said to Ishmael, nodding at someone or
something behind Kelley.
She turned from where she sat on the couch and saw Moammar
standing in the doorway to the kitchen, staring intently at Rashad and
Ishmael. She felt a chill run through her.
Maria gave a quick nod and then grabbed Gran's hand as the little
Chinese woman paced.
"Yishi," Maria said, "we must talk. This is more urgent than we
As the two older women huddled together, whispering, Kelley
carefully walked past Ishmael and Rashad and sat between Polly and
"Whose orders?" Polly hissed into Kelley's ear. "Who's telling these
Blood Sorcerers what to do?"
"Azure, right?" Jimbo asked from the other side.
"I guess..." Kelley said, watching Maria and Gran finishing up their
chat. "Unless it's the—"
She saw Ishmael leaning close to the two older women above him,
trying to listen in. Kelley cleared her throat loudly in warning. Ishmael
heard her and leaned back closer to the fireplace with a sheepish look on
Before Kelley could get back to answering Polly and Jimbo's
questions, Maria was standing over her. She had her hands on her hips
and her light blue eyes danced with excitement.
"Do you have the book?" Maria asked her. Kelley didn't have to ask
which book, because she could feel her compact copy of Words of
Magic tucked inside her coat pocket growing warm, as if excited to have
people talking about it again.
"Yep," Kelley said. "Why—"
"You may need it shortly," Maria said, turning toward the door.
"Moammar," she called out. "It is time for us to go. Watch those two for
us," she added, gesturing at Ishmael and Rashad.
"Hurry," Gran said from next to Maria. The little old woman had her
eyes closed tight behind her thick glasses.
"Gran?" Jimbo said as Moammar shuffled into the living room and
stood over Ishmael and Rashad.
"Kelley?" Polly said.
Everyone was talking, and things were happening too fast for
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Kelley. She couldn't get up with Maria standing over her like this, and
Gran's face was now turning red.
"Almost have it," Gran said in a strained voice. Her eyes were
closed, but she was moving her hands around like she was navigating a
map. " There! I know where to go now. Let's go. Quickly."
"Maria," Kelley began, reaching for Maria's hand as well as Gran's
in front of her. "What is this?"
"You will see," Maria said, and then Kelley's hand touched Maria's
and Gran's. The world went white, and Kelley left the couch far behind
her as she hurtled through space and time with Maria and Gran. The last
thing she saw was Jimbo's face across from her, eyes wide as he gripped
his grandmother's hand.
And then everything went dark.
Crazy magic, Jeroan thought as his ears popped and his chest went
tight as he was pressed against his seat. Archie has crazy magic.
During the five seconds of nothingness in the van that followed
Archie's burst of magical blue energy—five seconds that felt like five
years—Jeroan could neither breathe nor blink. He could only grab onto
the car seat under him to keep from flying off into the void of the
universe. He was helpless and powerless to do anything.
Or so it felt in those five endless years.
And then the nothingness was replaced with reality once more.
When Jeroan could breathe again—and after he'd blinked away the after-
images of the blinding blue light—he saw that the van was now idling
loudly in front of a small house enclosed by a chain link fence. The
charred remains of a red SUV sat in the snow-lined driveway next to the
house, close to a blackened and smoking tree. Distant sirens filled the
night, carried to Jeroan's ears by the wind that pitched gravel against the
sides of the van.
"Ah," Archie said. "We are too late. They are gone."
Every molecule in Jeroan's body was quivering from Archie's crazy
Sucking in a shaky breath, he was just about to ask just who was
gone when Mexico killed the van's engine. Moving almost faster than
Jeroan's eyes could follow, the big man unbuckled his seat belt and
pushed his way into the back until he was on top of Archie.
"Why did you do that?" Mexico shouted. "You used magic to throw
us through time and space, knowing full well how unreliable magic has
been the past few months? You could've killed us all."
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"Hey, um, chill out," Jeroan said, but Mexico never heard him.
"I don't plan on dying by driving through a brick wall or off the side
of a mountain, old man. Or worse, nearly getting killed and having my
mind implanted into the head of a bug or a mountain goat! I had this
situation under control, old man!"
Archie sat cross-legged on the floor in the back of the van,
surrounded by scattered bits of electronic equipment. Mexico crouched
above him, his hands just a few inches away from Archie, but not
touching him. The two roaches stalked angrily up Archie's arm, headed
back to their preferred spot on his floppy gray hat.
"Perhaps," Archie said in a calm voice, "but your readings—and
your roaches—told me otherwise. We needed to make haste. Even with
my efforts, however, we still missed a large magical event here. I sense
that my old friends have already departed. Such is my luck of late—
always a minute or three too late."
Archie waved a hand in the air, and Mexico flinched back away
from him as if expecting to be smacked by a spell. He swore when he hit
his head on the van's roof.
"Can't you feel the lingering bits of it still in the air?" Archie said
with the hint of a smile on his face at Mexico's reaction. "Now, I say we
get outside and survey the damage."
"Agreed," Jeroan said. He needed to get out, to get moving. He was
sick of being cooped up in that van, smelling everyone else's body odor
mixed in with his own, and listening to the roaches' chittering. He also
didn't want to see the big man Pince the old man for the second time in
Time to use all I've learned at the Center, he thought once he was
outside. He didn't bother waiting for Mexico and Archie to get out of the
van to back him up. He just touched his jeans pocket to make sure his
charged phone was still tucked away in there, and then he headed toward
the busted-up front steps to the porch of the house.
When he got a dozen feet from the van, the front door crashed open,
and with a shout, a ball of blue energy shot toward Jeroan like a glowing
But he was ready this time. He had pretty much been expecting it.
With a wave of his hand and tickle of heat from his pocketed phone,
he sent the ball of blue energy caroming away from him and into the
I've dealt with worse from Marky and his wannabe gang, he thought
with a laugh. And they weren't even throwing magical basketballs at me.
Just the real kind.
With a grim smile on his face, he turned to the person standing in
the shadows of the porch.
"Come here," he whispered to his attacker, feeling his eGadget go
hot inside his jeans pocket once more. An instant later, a thin white girl
with long, dishwater-blonde hair was staring him face-to-face, eyes
" Polly?" Jeroan said.
" Jeroan?" Polly asked back at the same time.
Mexico cleared his throat from behind them. "If you two are going
to hug, just do it and get it over with already."
Jeroan shot a dirty look at Mexico, and then he tensed up as another
person stepped out onto the darkened porch. It took him a moment to
recognize the small person as Polly's crabby little sister, Mags.
He shook his head. He thought he'd seen Polly for the last time that
night, right before he'd left Dubuque for good. And now, here she was,
"Of course," Polly said, crossing her arms and glaring up at Jeroan.
She quickly looked down at the snowy ground, as if he disgusted her.
"That would explain it. You made them disappear. You probably made
all this happen tonight."
"You frickin' jerk," Mags added from the safety of the porch.
Of all the houses to arrive at, he thought, after traveling at
impossible speed across half the country, we had to arrive here at this
place with the Erdman sisters?
Jeroan opened his arms wide, completely baffled.
"Hey, we just got here. We didn't do anything," he said. He hated
taking the blame for anything. "What are you guys doing here? This
surely can't be Dubuque."
"It's Minerva, Minnesota," Archie said in a calm, deep voice behind
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him. The old guy stepped into the circle of people on the shadowy front
lawn. He gave off a faint blue glow that added to the light from the van.
"Who's this old fart?" Mags said, giving Archie the stink-eye as the
distant sirens continued wailing in the night.
Archie ignored her, addressing only Jeroan, for some reason.
"It makes sense, now, of course. Minerva, Minnesota is a place with
a long history of renegade magic, as my old friend Michael would have
called it. Sorcerers of all types and methodologies have been drawn here
for ages, because of its proximity to the headwaters of the Mississippi.
The churning of the headwaters can work as a shield for magic use, if
you can control both water and magic properly. I would hazard a guess
that Lake Itasca, the lake responsible for the first drops of water that
make up the Mississippi, is very close to this tiny burg. There's a reason
our friends came here, my boy."
Mexico made a grunt of frustrated recognition at that. The lake's
strange power over magic would explain the operatives' failure to locate
this place back at the Center, Jeroan figured. He understood and felt a
portion of Mexico's anger. Tons of rogue users may have been here in
Minerva or Lake Itasca for decades, maybe even using one of the places
as a magical terrorist headquarters.
Jeroan wanted to say something to Mexico about it, but he couldn't
seem to look away from the old man's glowing gaze. He felt a bit sick to
his stomach, staring at Archie's too-blue eyes.
The sirens were growing louder. Mexico plucked the two roaches
off Archie's floppy hat and turned back to the van.
"I'll take care of the local authorities," he said as he hurried across
the lawn, past the human-sized indentations in the half-melted snow next
to the sidewalk.
"Don't kill anyone, please," Jeroan called after him, but if Mexico
heard him, the big man didn't acknowledge it as he disappeared into the
van. Jeroan shuddered as the wind bit into him.
Archie finally looked away from Jeroan and turned to Polly.
"But those friends are no longer here with us, are they, Polly? Looks
like we missed a battle here tonight, didn't we?"
"Yeah," Polly said to Archie, still refusing to look Jeroan in the face.
"You missed a butt-kicking, is more like it," Mags said, proudly. "A
bunch of Blood Sorcerers dropped in on us all at once, blew up
Moammar's SUV, and tried to set us and the house on fire, but we sent
all of 'em away. Well, all but two of the back-stabbers."
"How did they find—" Jeroan began.
"Mags!" Polly interrupted as she turned back to the porch and her
sister, "You left Ishmael and Rashad inside, unattended?"
"I was just following you!" Mags shouted back. "I thought we were
having another ambush when that van pulled up. Plus, I figured
Moammar could handle them on his own inside."
Jeroan felt glad to see Polly's anger directed at someone else beside
him for a change. He also wondered if this was the same Rashad guy
that had tried to take out Azure yesterday. Dude got around.
Mags had already turned back to charge into the house.
" Stop," Archie said.
Even the sirens had stopped, either silenced by Archie's Word or the
gadgetry of Mexico and the two roaches.
"Two tied-up Blood Sorcerers can still be dangerous," Archie said.
He walked up to the ruined front steps and paused. "You did gag them,
"Um," Polly said. "Well..."
" Crap!" Mags said.
Archie nodded with a resigned look on his whiskered face. "Stay
behind me, children."
Following the old man, they made their way onto the porch, Jeroan
right behind Archie, twitching with irritation. He hated being in second
place. After all he'd seen tonight, he wanted to go first and unload some
magic on someone, instead of getting smacked around himself.
Especially if these were the same guys who'd ambushed Azure on the
other side of the world yesterday. He'd had enough of these Blood
Sorcerers and their back-stabbing ways.
But as soon as Archie touched the doorknob, Jeroan felt more than
heard two strange popping sensations come from inside the house. He
swallowed and felt his ears crackle.
"That can't be good," he muttered.
"Ah," Archie said, cocking his head toward the house, as if listening
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for something nobody else could hear. "Late again. They are gone."
An instant later, a black man in a dusty black suit—with a small
white dragon perched on his shoulder—yanked open the front door.
Archie, Jeroan, Polly, and Mags spilled forward and landed in a pile at
the dusty black man's feet.
"Hello again," Archie said with a groan as he tried to extricate
himself from the pile, " Moammar."
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, they'd somehow managed to fit everyone into
the fake florist van.
Mexico drove, with Mags in the passenger seat and Alexander riding
shotgun on her shoulder. The roaches were once more doing their
navigational dances on the various equipment and screens on the shelves
in the back of the van, while Jeroan and Polly sat on tiny metal stools
next to all the equipment. Below them, Archie and Moammar sat facing
one another on the metal floor of the van, rocking back and forth as
Mexico somehow translated the roaches' chatters and clicks into driving
directions to the lake.
"You just sent them away?" Polly said, slapping her knee in
frustration and nearly falling over as the van turned a sharp corner. She
looked at Archie, still doing her best to ignore Jeroan. "Those two
probably knew where Kelley and the others took off to. And now I'll bet
they're gathering more Blood Sorcerers to come at us again. Good one,
"Mo-Mo," Mags said from the front with a derisive laugh.
Jeroan wished he had room to get up and pace, even if that did
remind him of Kelley's bad habit to do the same thing whenever she got
worked up or nervous. He had to content himself with leaning over
Moammar and trying to squeeze in a question whenever Polly or Archie
gave him a chance to get a word in edgewise.
"So these Blood Sorcerers are old buddies of yours?" Jeroan asked
Moammar. He shot a quick glance at Archie, who sat with his back
resting on the back of the driver's seat, calm as the Buddha. He
wondered how the old man would've answered this same question.
"Not buddies," Moammar said. "Colleagues, perhaps, at one time.
For those that were old enough to have lived through the Great Split."
Archie nodded along at that.
"Yes," he said. "Colleagues. Never friends. Not with Blood
Jeroan leaned in closer, wanting to hear more about this Great Split.
But Moammar had gone silent, and his scarred face seemed to grow
even slacker than usual, as if he were exhausted from the wild magical
events of the night. Even Polly seemed to have run out of questions, and
Mags had fallen asleep in the front passenger seat.
"Archie?" Jeroan asked, impatiently. "The Great Split? A little help
The old man shrugged.
"That, my boy, is a long story. Probably one for another day. Suffice
it to say, magic has evolved naturally for the most part over the past
millennium, but some powerful events occurred which permanently
changed magic and how it is used. The Great Split was one of these
events. It's when some of us banded together to exile the—"
From the shelves of the van above Archie, the roach that smelled
like York to Jeroan began chattering loudly as it jumped up and down,
distracting Archie from his history lesson.
"Got it," Mexico called from the front door. "We're almost at the
entrance to the park surrounding Lake Itasca, folks. Jeroan, how do you
want us to play this? I'm gonna follow your lead, newbie."
Jeroan felt his stomach do a queasy flip as everyone turned to him.
He hadn't expected this back at the house in the crazy moments after his
arrival there with Archie and Mexico and the roaches. Back when
everyone was convinced that another Blood Sorcerer attack was about to
Listening to everyone panicking around him, Jeroan had made his
decision. He'd had enough of all this running around. This was what he'd
been training for in the past few months. This was the reason magic had
found him. To go on the offensive, and not be defensive.
"Let's go find them, and go knock on their front door," Jeroan had
said back at the house. With a whoop, Mexico had hurried outside to fire
up the van. He hadn't needed much convincing at all. The others needed
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a bit more persuasion.
"So what if those Blood Sorcerers that attacked the house really did
want to talk?" he'd said to Polly, Mags, Moammar, and even Alexander.
"Because if they truly wanted to blow up the house when they attacked it
earlier, they would've done that, right? Look at what they did to
Moammar had groaned at that, Mags had grinned, and Polly had
finally nodded her head. Alexander answered by puffing smoking out his
tiny white nostrils and giving a tiny dragon shrug.
And now, fifteen minutes later, they rolled through the park's front
gates that Archie had popped open with a grunted Word from the back
of the van. Mexico took them down a narrow paved road lined with
thick trees, the stars providing the light when Mexico shut off the van's
headlights. After a few minutes, Jeroan felt his stress levels rising as he
thought about what he was getting ready to do, and who they were going
to find here.
Most likely Blood Sorcerers, he figured. Maybe some renegade
magic users there too, for good measure. They would probably be
waiting for us here. Somewhere...
They entered an open area dotted with small log cabins that looked
to be a hundred years old. In front of the cabins, the wide, flat expanse
of an ice-rimmed lake stretched out. A tiny green light glowed out from
a small island in the middle of that dark lake.
That was where they had to go.
When the van rolled to a stop, Jeroan felt a clawed hand grip his
"Wait," Polly said, looking down at her hand on his arm, still
avoiding his gaze. "I-I can't do this. Not now. I need to find Kelley. She
just—just... disappeared tonight when Jimbo's Gran grabbed her. Gran
also took that lady Maria with her—" Archie looked up sharply at that—
"and Jimbo, too. Just left us here, on our own. I think Gran took all of
them someplace dangerous. Let me stay in the van and I'll try getting in
touch with Kelley on my phone. Or," she gave a grossed-out look at the
two multi-tasking roaches above her, "maybe Mags and I can work with
these bugs and try to locate her."
Jeroan took in a slow breath that didn't calm him one bit.
"Kelley can handle herself," he said, trying to keep his voice low. He
hadn't expected such a reaction from Polly, and especially not right now,
right when he needed to be at the top of his game.
"Polly," Mags said, "give me a break. Don't chicken out on us now."
"Look, I'm worried about Kelley," Polly said, and then shared a
nervous look with Archie. "And I don't want to fight those Blood
Sorcerers again. I'm tired, Jeroan."
Jeroan stifled the surge of anger at this latest betrayal. I should've
known better than to think I could ever trust Polly again, he thought.
Then, as he was prying his arm free of Polly's hand, he realized
"How about I check on Kelley real quick," he said, his face suddenly
hot when he realized what he was about to expose her. He'd never told
anyone about this, not even their parents. "I can use, um, my magic to do
"Really?" Polly said, looking him right in the face without sneering
for the first time all night.
"Whaa—at?" Mags said, poking her little head around the front seat.
"Twin magic," Jeroan said, closing his eyes with a dismissive wave
of his hand. "You guys wouldn't understand."
He tried to block out everyone else and just focus on touching the
Beast's mind, just for a few moments. The wind rattled snow and small
rocks against the side of the van as everyone else went silent.
Kelley, he thought as hard as he could. Where are you? And are you
From the front seat he heard Mags mutter something like, "This is so
weird," and then he heard his sister's voice, but not with his ears. Kelley
was in his head again.
We're safe, she said. Her voice was soft, and seemed to fade with
each word. Gran and Maria are with us. Jimbo too. Oh, whoa. Gotta go.
Gran is... about... to...
Her words faded away in mid-sentence.
" Kelley!" Jeroan tried to shout in his head, but it ended up coming
out of his mouth.
"Oh God," Mags said from the front seat. "They're all gonna die.
Wherever they are."
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
"No," Jeroan said, blinking his eyes quickly as he came back to
reality. "They're okay. They're just somewhere safe. I think. She didn't
say where. But it felt close by, maybe."
The roaches clicked and clattered from the instruments, which
caused Mexico to exhale loudly from the front of the van.
"We have got to get going, people. The boys are picking up some
magical activity on their instruments. Something's happening out there
on the lake."
"Okay, okay," Jeroan said, surprised at how badly he wanted Polly
and even Mags to join them. "Just follow my lead, all right? Let me do
the talking, and it'll all be okay. Come on."
Mags had slipped into the back seat and moved to Jeroan's side, her
little dragon rumbling softly in her hand like a cat purring. Polly held off
for a few seconds more, causing another loud sigh from Mexico up
"All right, fine," she said. "Someone needs to keep their eye on you,
Jeroan. Can't have you joining the dark side all over again."
"The dark side?" Jeroan said. He felt something crawl over his hand.
First the York roach crawled over him to get to Archie's hat, then the
Orleans roach did the same. Archie winked up at him.
"Maybe I should stay," Moammar offered with a guilty-looking grin.
"Just to guard the van and the instruments, of course."
"No!" Jeroan said at the same time as Polly and Mags.
"Just a thought..." Moammar said, wiping black dust off the lapels of
his jacket. "Sheesh."
"Let's go then," Jeroan said, tired of being pulled along this night,
and equally tired of pulling other people along after him.
It was time to face up to the magic.
He opened the sliding back door of the van and felt the frigid wind
slap him in the face. It woke him up and almost felt welcome, making
him positive—well, as positive as he could ever be about anything these
days—that he was doing the right thing.
He stepped out of the van and approached the canoes tied to the
dock of Lake Itasca, ready to paddle out to what could very well be the
secret lair of magical terrorists from all around the world.
Good thing, he thought, I've got plenty of crazy magic on my side
Excerpted from Words of Magic, page 1162:
The blessing and the curse of being a Sorcerer was the way in which
it made a person invulnerable to time.
I should have been long dead by now—a fact that haunted me in the
past few decades, when we lost some of our best Sorcerers and
apprentices. I should have been dust and rotting bones myself, but I still
lived and breathed. Though I long ago lost track of the exact years and
dates, I believed I was at least five hundred years old as the year 1500
The blessing of magic was that I felt very little of those years in my
physical body, which looked and functioned much the same as it did the
day I accepted the Druid's offer to join him.
The curse came from all the details— I could not forget any of my
failures, nor my mistakes, nor my acts of cruelty performed in the name
of the common good. Nor could I displace the constant pain in my heart
that I felt from all those companions I had lost.
The worst loss, the one that damaged me the most, was that of my
first apprentice. Maria.
The mob of ignorant farmers in Sicily that had taken her,
denouncing her as a strega—witch—had all now turned to dust and
bones themselves. We lost her over a century and a half ago, but to me it
felt as recent as last week.
Why they did not take young Jonathan or me, I shall never know.
Did they think her more evil, because she was a woman performing
those beneficial acts?
Their ambush was violent and swift. Jonathan and I both attempted
to use magic against the men, but they had caught us in a moment of
weakness outside our meeting place, a ramshackle inn and ale house at
the crossroads of the major roads crisscrossing the plague-stricken
Early in the attack, I suffered a severe blow to the head that rendered
me witless long enough for the farmers to steal Maria away. I also
discovered that earlier in the day, Jonathan had foolishly healed every
man, woman, and child he'd met in the half dozen villages he'd visited.
He told me later that he couldn't help himself. His exertions had left him
exhausted, barely able to speak, much less ward off the farmers'
Jonathan and his compassion.
I, only the other hand, had followed the Druid's decree to the letter,
healing only the young and the strong. I blamed Jonathan just as much
as I blamed myself for losing Maria that day.
If anything good came of that ambush, it was this: while barely
conscious in the mud, bleeding from my head with only one apprentice
at my side instead of two, I vowed to find a new, better method of
channeling magic. One that did not take such a harsh toll on the user's
body and mind.
It took me many, many years, but at last I succeeded.
My new way was beautifully simple, a method I should have
uncovered long ago. It was also a method I never explained to the Druid,
my former master. He would not have understood the need for a way of
utilizing magic other than what he had devised himself.
And now, today, over a hundred and fifty years after losing Maria, I
found myself once more in mortal danger with only Johnny at my side.
We'd been on the run for days, having been forced out of our northern
homelands as the Druid's men chased us across the sea and into the
At first we fled on foot, then by boat, and now on the backs of
strange beasts. We could not break free of the hooded men with the long
black cloaks. The Druid's three killers.
Astride my failing camel, wrapped in white robes with a turban tied
in place by a green cord of thick rope, I looked back into the wind-
whipped wall of sand at our back. The trio dogged our heels, always the
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same distance behind us, never coming in close for battle. It was as if the
Druid wanted them to simply stay behind us forever, monitoring our
every movement, and preventing us from using my new method of
"Still back there?" Johnny called out, lifting the long piece of burlap
he wore wrapped around his head just long enough to speak. He blue
robes were filthy with dried mud and peppered with sand.
The roiling sand made the simple act of taking a breath painful and
dangerous. I'd heard of men who had died from inhaling too many
particles of sand. I would not be one of them, for I chose not to answer
the boy. Just listening to his voice and hearing his ragged breathing sent
me dangerously close to a rage. He and I had been at odds with each
other from the start of this mad journey almost a month ago.
Our row had started when Johnny saw me use my improved version
of blood magic with our newest recruit: a young African man ten years
older than the age Johnny appeared to be. He was a good-natured fellow
who went by the name of Moammar.
When I sent my magic flowing through the new apprentice's blood,
forced there by my will and my Words, Johnny had nearly attacked me
himself. He thought I was killing Moammar. Johnny didn't realize the
negative effect that channeling magic had on the other boy was only
temporary, while the power that came from this kind of blood magic was
easily twice what I'd ever generated running magic through my own
body and blood.
If I'd known of this new magic a century and a half ago, Maria
would still be at my side, and she would have been a full-fledged,
incredibly powerful Sorcerer—instead of a permanent apprentice like
my current traveling companion, the ever-disappointing Jonathan.
My fatigued camel chose that moment to stumble as the hot wind
sent a blast of sand into the beast's eyes. The camel fell, and I rolled off
its hump and hit the ground hard, the wind knocked out of me. Even the
sky was made of sand from where I lay on my back, lungs aching for air.
Johnny skipped lightly off his beast and landed at my side a moment
later, but I shook off his hand on my shoulder.
"That does it," I tried to say, but all that came out was a rasping
Furious, I got to my feet, ignoring the now-crippled camel next to
me. I turned my back on the moaning beast and my shocked apprentice.
The camel's blood would work quite nicely for what I had planned for
the three men dressed in black coming our way.
Jonathan lifted his rag from his mouth to speak, only to have the
sand-blasting wind rip it from his face altogether.
"Michael!" he shouted, his boyish features twisted with desperation.
"You cannot defeat them. They have the Druid's will and his powers at
their disposal. They'll drag you before him for his pleasure!"
I just shook my head at him. He didn't understand that the camels
our three pursuers were riding were about to increase their intelligence
ten-fold, just as soon as I plucked almost all of the life from the bodies
of the men perched on their backs. It would just take a few of my most
powerful Words—Words I'd never taught to any of my apprentices—
along with some energy, and quite a bit of blood. Someone else's blood,
The riders were almost within range of my voice. They never
slowed, the fools. Perhaps the three dark-cloaked men sensed that the
chase had at last come to an end, and they were eager to hasten its
conclusion. I may have overstated their intelligence in comparison to
"Michael!" Johnny cried. "We cannot kill! Whether we follow the
Druid or not, we vowed never to do so unless there was no other way.
There is another way!"
Eyes glowing with a fierce blue light, he stepped between me and
the three riders, holding in his hand a square metal contraption complete
with clicking gears and tiny pulleys moving up and down. The blowing
sand quickly began to clog the gears, making the ticking and clicking
"Your foolish gadgets have doomed you," I said, letting the power of
magic blur my vision for a heartbeat, just long enough to inhale.
And then I sent the gathering magic through the blood of my injured
The jolt of power coming from the magic that traveled between the
blood of the beast and my own blood was strong enough to knock me
into my apprentice, who dropped his clacking machine onto the drifting
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sands at our feet.
The arcane Words came fast to my lips, and the shared blood magic
made the consequences of the Words I shouted instantaneous.
All three hooded men in black fell lifelessly from their camels onto
Johnny cried out at the sight, but I watched each man closely.
Despite the cloud of whirling sand clogging my vision, I saw a
minuscule flash of light leave each man and enter that man's camel.
I exhaled, not realizing I'd been so distraught that I'd forgotten to
The Druid's story about his men was true. Though their physical
bodies had been ruined, his henchmen were not actually dead. Their
essences had found the closest possible hosts: the bodies of the camels.
It was a perfectly elegant way to resolve the issue, and the new blood
magic kept me from ever feeling the negative effects of the incredibly
powerful Words I'd just used.
Johnny, however, did not see it that way. He saw the three men fall
from their mounts and hit the ground like dead men. I could tell by the
look on his face that now he saw me as a killer, cold-blooded and
"Johnny," I began, but he would not listen.
With most of the sand out of his contraption, the boy spun a tiny dial
on the side. A wave of heat shot out from the tiny, clicking machine.
He turned to me and simply shook his head, not so much angry as
"I am your apprentice no more," he said.
The ticking of his mechanism sped up, and his body blurred. An
instant later, the boy in the dirty blue robes was gone, leaving just a tiny
clatter of the gears echoing from his clockwork mechanism.
And then, silence.
Surrounded by sand below me and blowing in at me on all sides, I
had never felt more alone or cut off from what was most important to
Jonathan, I thought, climbing aboard the boy's camel and riding
back the way we'd came, past the three confused camels and the three
lifeless bodies on the ground next to them.
Just like Maria, I'd lost him.
I would have to find him again, of course, and bring him to his
senses. And if that did not work, I would have to silence his magic
forever—just as I'd done with these three lackeys for the Druid. Even if
Johnny's memory would haunt me like all the others. Despite his
shortcomings, Johnny was as close to a son to me as I would ever get.
If there was any justice in this cruel world of ours, I would never see
the boy again in this lifetime.
* * * * *
Kelley closed the book, filled with a lingering sense of wrongness as
she imagined the ancient bearded man she knew as Archie—who used to
be a boy named Jonathan—being young enough for Dr. Azure to
actually think of him as a son.
Weird. The world of magic was truly weird.
In this Words of Magic entry, Azure had called magic a blessing and
a curse. She knew that firsthand, except while he couldn't forget a thing,
she was having trouble remembering anything. She'd gladly trade his
situation for hers.
Trying to shake off the odd feelings from the passage she'd just read,
Kelley tucked the book into her coat pocket. She looked around at the
nice leather furniture that filled the living room of the house where Gran
lived with Jimbo and his parents. Maria caught her eye and nodded at
Kelley from where she sat at the kitchen table, silent with her thoughts.
Remembering the passage she'd just read in her book, Kelley felt a
whole new appreciation for Maria and all that the older woman had been
through. It seemed as though her capture all those years ago, and the
development of new types of magic, had started a civil war among all
the Sorcerers back in the day of Druid. That Azure guy must've really
been surprised to see Maria again back in November. So surprised that
he sent Moammar after her to take her prisoner.
Moammar, Kelley thought with a soft, cynical laugh. My ancient
relative. Or so he says, acting like he's somehow part of my family.
Kelley was dying to talk to Polly, and she felt terrible about
dragging her and her sister into this. But Polly didn't have a phone any
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more, and Kelley didn't know Mags' number. She had to hope for the
best for those two, along with shifty, dusty Moammar. At least they had
Alexander there to help out in a pinch if Moammar got up to any more
of his mischief.
Looking around at the Chinese art on the walls of the living room,
Kelley felt like she couldn't escape family or relatives lately, even when
they tried to get away like Jeroan had. She thought of Jeroan's strange
touch inside her head a few minutes ago, right after she'd shown up here
in Jimbo's house. Jeroan had wanted to know where she was, and
strangely enough, he even asked how she was doing. He sounded almost
as if he cared about her, for a change.
As if on cue, Jimbo finally came down from his parents' bedroom,
followed by Gran. They had both been talking non-stop to his parents
ever since their abrupt arrival an hour ago, trying to calm them down
and explain that they'd really let themselves in through the front door
with Gran's key while his dad was dozing off in front of the TV. Papa
Jimbo hadn't been buying that story, not one bit.
"They're sleeping again," Jimbo said. "Mom was starting to clue in
on what was really going on, so Gran had to up the wattage a bit. Mom
must remember those Nèi Jìn bedtime stories too."
He gave a nervous grin at Kelley, and then Maria. Next to him, Gran
pushed up her glasses and cleared her throat.
"Sit down," she said. Jimbo and Kelley dropped obediently onto the
cold leather couch, bumped into each other, and quickly slid apart.
"Gran," Jimbo began, but he quickly shut his mouth when he saw
the fire in the old woman's eyes.
"No questions. You must listen. Nobody knows about magic here in
this city. That is a good thing. That gives us time to gather our forces
and get ready for the... The, updealing that's about to come." Gran
adjusted her thick glasses and made a face. "That is not the right word.
"Upheaval," Maria said calmly from her seat at the kitchen table.
"Yes, that is it! Upheaval. That is what is coming, because the Blood
Sorcerers have gotten organized. They are no longer scattered around the
globe and unfocused. Maria and I think they want to finish what they
started back on the riverboat. We need to gather our forces and prepare
for their next attack."
Jimbo twitched nervously on the couch next to Kelley.
"How are we supposed to do that, Gran? We're not soldiers, and
you're no general."
"Leave the logistics to us," Maria said in a preoccupied tone. Over at
the kitchen table, she had pulled out a pen and a piece of paper from
somewhere, and she was busy writing on the paper. She'd pause, squint
her eyes for a second, and then nod before scribbling down something
else. It looked like she was getting some sort of weird transmissions
from outer space. The air in the room flickered with tiny breezes of heat
every time Maria squinted her eyes.
Kelley ran her forefinger back and forth over the squiggly design on
the spine of her white book, enjoying the little shock it gave her each
time. She smiled as she figured out who was going to make up this army
"They all visited your store," she said to Maria, snapping her tingly
fingers. "That's how you know who they are, right, Maria?"
"Who?" Jimbo said, casting a nervous glance upwards, in the
direction of his parents' bedroom.
"Yes," Maria said, still writing and pausing, pulling the names not
from outer space but from her memory. "Every person from that night
must have stopped by in the past two months. They most likely had a
strange compunction to visit my little shop. Why else do you think
business was so brisk?" She paused again, accompanied by another
wave of heat. "Ah yes, her too. And him. And him..."
"Who?" Jimbo asked again.
Kelley couldn't help herself. "Can you do a dog barking next, or are
owls your specialty?"
"What?" Jimbo said.
"Sorry," Kelley said. "Just giving you a hard time. It's the people
from the riverboat. You missed it, of course, because you bailed on us,
but Polly and I did a number on everyone on the boat that night. We
triggered them just like Archie triggered you at Harvey's. Everyone on
the boat got infected with magic, because of us."
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
"Holy crap," Jimbo muttered. "I don't believe it." He looked at
Kelley for a long moment, and she could see the comprehension fill his
eyes. He had nice eyes.
"No," he said a few seconds later in a soft voice, nodding. "I
remember how you acted in the hospital room. How you took over the
situation. I believe it. I believe you, Kelley."
"Well," Kelley said, wishing she had the same confidence in herself.
She felt a smile start to cross her face, but she forced it away. What
she couldn't stifle was the tingling sensation running up and down her
back from what he'd said, and the way he was looking at her now. It was
like the tiny shocks she got from the white book, but stronger.
"But all of this can wait," Maria said as she wrote down a final name
or two on her list, which now took up the front and back of her sheet of
paper. "First, we need to get some rest."
"Seriously?" Jimbo said, his voice growing more agitated with each
word. "We're not going to head out right now and start some magical
battles? We could bring Blood Sorcerers to our house. Mom and Dad
could make them some food, and and and—"
Pointing at her skinny grandson, Gran mumbled something under
Jimbo stopped babbling and slid down on his side of the couch.
Soon he began snoring.
"He will sleep there," Gran said. "You can sleep in my bed, Kelley,
and Maria can use his bed. I will sleep in the chair and keep an eye on
my super-brave grandson."
Gran smiled at Jimbo on the couch, arms flung out wide, with one
leg kicked up on the cushions and the other leg still on the floor. He
looked like he'd been thrown out of a car.
Kelley got up and stretched. She wasn't a fan of sleeping in someone
else's bed, but any bed would feel good right now, she decided. This had
been an insane day.
With a yawn, she headed toward Gran's bedroom, glancing at the
grandfather clock in the hall next to the living room. Ten after three in
She dropped onto Gran's bed and pulled down the heavy white
blanket covering it. She was out the minute her head hit the feather
Maybe we should've waited until dawn, Jeroan thought when their
canoes were a hundred feet out onto icy Lake Itasca and his wet hands
had gone numb on him. But by that point it was too late to turn back,
and he'd never be able to relax with another Blood Sorcerer attack
waiting to happen at any minute.
We're doing the right thing by confronting them here, he thought,
even if it is their home turf. The parentals would've been so proud of me,
taking the initiative like this.
Polly, Mags, and Archie sat huddled together in the front of the
canoe next to him, letting Mexico do all the paddling for them.
Meanwhile, Jeroan had ended up with Moammar in his canoe. The dusty
guy sitting behind him was heavy, and terrible at paddling. Jeroan had
finally told him to stop, because he was just making it worse.
"Maybe you should have stayed back in the van, Moammar," Jeroan
panted. He had to paddle twice as hard to keep up with Mexico's canoe.
"I tried," Moammar said, his bright white teeth flashing in Jeroan's
peripheral vision. "But nobody ever listens to ol' Moammar."
With the dusty former operative lounging in the back of his canoe,
looking up at the stars, Jeroan grew more angry with each passing
second. Thanks to his numb hands, he kept making splashing noises with
each stroke of his paddle. Mexico, meanwhile, didn't make a sound as
the other canoe pulled ahead of Jeroan and Moammar by a couple
lengths. The moonlight was just bright enough for Jeroan to see Mags
sticking her tongue out at him.
"Tell me again," he said at Moammar behind him, "why we can't just
zap ourselves onto their little island out there?"
"It's all the water, of course, cousin," Moammar said. "Water and
magic have a funny relationship, you see. Usually it's a good one, with
water adding to magic's potency, but with the way magic has been acting
lately, I don't trust using it around all this water. We could, as you say,
'zap ourselves' across the water, but we'd most likely end up ten feet
under the mud of their island, or fifty feet down at the bottom of this
Jeroan looked at the two-story metal building sitting smack in the
middle of the lake, a structure that York and Orleans had pinpointed
with their roachy skills. The building sat on an island that appeared to be
100% mud, with no trees or grass anywhere. The metal building on the
island was illuminated by the weak green light from a bulb dangling
from the peak of its roof.
"And that wouldn't do much for the element of surprise, would it,
cuz?" Moammar added, and then he put a finger to his lips as Jeroan
made an especially loud splash with his paddle. From twenty feet ahead
of them, Mags tried unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle at that.
" Right," Jeroan said, gritting his teeth in anger. "They probably
know we're coming anyway. I mean, they can do magic, can't they? Any
please stop calling me that, Mo. I'm not your cousin."
"Well," Mo said, "we should talk about that, actually. I already filled
in your sis."
Jeroan pretended not to hear him. He flexed his unfeeling hands on
the grip of his paddle and tried to cut through the icy water in a more
quiet fashion. But he could barely move his fingers now, and Mexico
and his canoe were way ahead of them now, almost halfway there.
" Whatever," he said as he set down his paddle in frustration. "I'll
take my chances with the water," he muttered.
Focusing on what looked like the least-muddy section of the
approaching island, Jeroan puffed warm breath onto his frozen digits and
let his eyes go out of focus. With a nauseating lurch, he felt magic flow
through him once more, warming him immediately and bringing his
fingers back to life enough so he could point at the island.
"Jeroan," Moammar hissed. "Don't do it, cuz."
There, Jeroan thought, ignoring the big man behind him.
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An instant later, with a buzzing from his phone inside his pants
pocket, his canoe shot past Mexico's. It went by so closely that the
canoes scraped sides with each other. Jeroan dropped the paddle from
his stinging fingers and held tightly to the sides of the canoe, bracing for
the coming impact. The canoe hit the mud island and kept going,
burying itself into the mud.
Jeroan rolled out of it, pulling Moammar along with him just before
the mud swallowed the canoe completely.
" That's what I'm talking about," Jeroan whispered. He was covered
in mud from his thighs to his toes, but they'd gotten there first.
He turned to gloat at Mexico's turtle-like approach. He ignored the
pang of queasiness in his belly he felt from using magic as well as
Moammar's loud grumbling about kids these day having no respect for
the wisdom of their elders. He thought Mo said something about
relatives, but he figured the dude was just going on about nothing.
Jeroan didn't have long to enjoy his victory over Mexico, however,
because the night exploded with green light all around him.
He found himself surrounded by half a dozen men and women who
had materialized out of the air. The two that now stood closest to the
water's edge swiftly channeled enough magic between the pair of them
to reach out and grab Mexico's canoe with green tethers of energy. A
second later, Mexico's canoe beached itself in the mud next to Jeroan
"You!" Polly shouted as tried to get out of the canoe, nearly falling
into the water. "You set us up, Cynthia!"
Jeroan, still out of breath from his rowing and the quick surge of
stomach-churning magic he'd used, turned to see who Polly was pointing
at. A woman in her thirties with gray streaks in her brown hair stepped
into the circle of bright light and moved up to Jeroan, her booted feet
making no sound as she stepped in the mud.
"Nice work," she said. "You must be Jeroan. I can see the family
resemblance. We were hoping you'd find us here. I am Cynthia
Floodgate." She looked over at Polly and Mags and added, "I hope
there's no hard feeling from earlier tonight, back at my house?"
Now that he'd finally caught his breath, Jeroan swallowed the Words
of Attack he'd been preparing in his head. His shoes were sinking fast
into the mud.
The woman—Cynthia—winked at him with a flash of green.
"You were expecting a different kind of welcome," she said, her face
shadowed by the bright green spotlight behind her, "right?"
Jeroan shrugged and tried to lift his feet out of the mud. Half of the
other Sorcerers had already slipped back inside the metal building, quiet
as mice, while Polly and Mags had slopped through the mud to stand
next to him.
"Maybe," he said. "How do you know who I am?"
"Let's get you all inside," Cynthia said, "where there's a bit of heat,
and we can explain more then. Too many prying eyes outside here,
under the stars. Sound good?"
Jeroan looked at the others, and he realized they were all looking at
him, waiting for him to make a decision. To be the leader. Even Archie,
the oldest in their little group by a couple of centuries, watched Jeroan
with his furry eyebrows raised, saying not a word.
"Of course," he said, getting ready to put on his most charming
smile. But he stopped when he saw a man in white robes and a black
turban drop down to the mud from the roof of the shack.
He stepped back, his entire body tensing. He'd seen this guy before,
too many times before. A stream of Words rose to the tip of his tongue
again. Next to him, Polly, Mags, and Mexico had the same reaction.
" Wait," a white guy with puppy dog eyes and a ridiculous ponytail
said to Jeroan, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Rashad is one of us."
"Yeah," Polly said, "and you're one of them, too, Ishmael!"
"Hey, I knocked that guy out back at the Center," Mexico said, a
hint of pride in his voice as he looked up at the Blood Sorcerer named
"Traitor!" Mags shouted at Rashad, her high voice echoing off the
lake. "Gran is so gonna kick your butt! You and Ishmael both. And
Cynthia, too, for knocking her MP3 player out of her hand back at the
house. Bunch of crapheads."
But Archie and Moammar walked right toward the metal building,
apparently not at all bothered by the sudden appearance of the Blood
Sorcerer who'd been a part of at least two attacks on them in the past
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
"Hullo, Cynthia, Ishmael, Rashad," Moammar called out, nearly
slipping in the mud. "We'll be inside with the others."
" Guys," Jeroan said out of the corner of his mouth, trying to get the
attention of Archie or Moammar. But they were already out of earshot.
"I know how it looks, after what happened back at Cynthia's house
and the Center," Rashad said as he hovered a foot above the mud where
Jeroan stood, careful to not get his pristine white robes dirty. "But we
can't speak out here. We'll explain it all inside."
"You'd better believe you will," Mexico said, heading for the metal
building with a series of smacking sounds as his dress shoes sank into
the mud of the island with each step. He sighed and started muttering to
himself. "A freakin' mud island, in the middle of winter. You're gonna
owe me a new pair of shoes before this is all over, Jeroan."
Jeroan tried to keep his cool with Rashad and Ishmael right next to
him, but he couldn't help but blurt out, "Why me? Why not make
Cynthia or Rashad here get new shoes for you?"
Mexico glared back at him for a second, and then he followed
Moammar and Archie through the creaking metal door leading into the
flimsy-looking metal building.
"All right," Jeroan said, to himself as well as the others standing—
or hovering—in a loose circle around him. "Let's go inside, then. You'd
better have some seriously good heat in there, I'm telling you."
With Polly and Mags right behind him, Jeroan slopped through the
mud up to the metal door of the Sorcerer's headquarters. Cynthia slipped
inside first, and Ishmael held the door open for Jeroan and the others.
Jeroan paused and watched as Rashad rose a few feet higher to take one
last look around, and then the floating Sorcerer extinguished the bright
green spotlight up there, leaving just the weak green bulb at the top of
With a shiver, Jeroan stepped inside, glad to be out of the darkness
and the bitter cold, but still expecting the worst.
He entered the shack and nearly stepped right into a twelve-foot-
wide pool of black water.
Polly grabbed him by the back of his coat, helping him get his
balance back before taking a dip in that strangely calm pool.
"Thanks," Jeroan whispered to Polly. She gave him a dirty look for a
second, and then her expression softened a bit.
"Watch where you're going next time," she said, punching him in the
The shack was warm, as promised. It was also crowded full of
people, and it wasn't nearly as big as Jeroan had expected it to be. The
six Blood Sorcerers stood side-by-side on the far edge of the pool, with
Archie, Moammar, and Mexico stood on the small mud walkway on the
right-hand side of the water. With Polly and Mags behind him, Jeroan
followed the walkway to the left until he was next to Cynthia and
Ishmael. He want to keep an eye on Rashad, who still hovered above the
mud next to Ishmael and the other Blood Sorcerers.
"Welcome," Cynthia said. "We're glad you could make it here
tonight. We fashioned this island at the headwaters of the mighty
Mississippi so we could remain hidden from our misguided Blood
Sorcerer brethren. The constantly moving water hides our activities, but
for how much longer it is not clear. It seems events are drawing to a
head in the magical world lately."
Jeroan couldn't help but smile at that. He'd arrived. This is what he'd
been waiting for, all his life—to actually be a part of something amazing
and new. He just wished he'd gotten better training back at the Center.
The black water of the pool shimmered, just for a second, as if a fish
had come to the surface for a quick look-around. Jeroan glanced down at
it and wondered how deep that pool was. It probably went down and
down forever. He owed Polly for snagging him before he stepped right
"And this," Cynthia said, gesturing at the smooth black pool at her
feet, "is who we've been monitoring here in the safety of our watery
home. This image shows all the Blood Sorcerers that have survived into
the modern era."
The black face of the water in the pool below them shimmered and
filled with tiny flashes of green and blue light.
"Whoa!" Mags said. "Awesome!"
Within seconds, the flashes on the pool surface morphed into a
scene—a birds-eye view of the Diamond Jo riverboat at night, covered
in green fire. The riverboat was clearly going sideways down the dark
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Mississippi, and its roof was ringed with floating Blood Sorcerers, each
of the faces clearly lit up with the green glow of the burning ship.
"Holy crap," Polly said in a soft voice next to him. "So that's what it
looked like, right after everyone abandoned us on the roof."
Jeroan leaned down closer to the pool, hardly able to comprehend
what he was seeing. The Erdman sisters moved in next to him.
Cynthia pointed at the pool, over and over again, rattling off a list of
names. Every time she pointed and said a name, the image of a Blood
Sorcerer in the pool would light up with his or her name off to one side.
It was like a PowerPoint presentation projected on the black water.
When she was done, Jeroan counted thirty-two lit-up Blood
"You missed a couple," Mags said, doing her own pointing. "There's
you, Cynthia. And Rashad's here. And Ishmael, way out here. And here's
you three other guys, right?"
Cynthia nodded. "We were part of the attack, yes. But we've since
learned the errors of our ways. Our brethren, however, have not. At
least, not yet."
Jeroan swallowed hard. This was after he'd bailed on everyone so he
could take his freezing flight to the Center. This is what he'd left for
Kelley to deal with—a burning riverboat and nobody but Polly to help
her. Kelley looked fierce and frightened and ferocious as she reached for
Polly's hand on the burning rooftop, with a faint halo of white
surrounding her and Polly both.
Mags had been looking in the same place as Jeroan. She whistled.
"Is that you, sis, right in the middle of the frickin' fire with Kelley?"
Polly nodded in a distracted way. She had her attention focused on
"So what's your point here?" Polly said. "Are you trying to tell us
that you're not working for Azure after all?"
Cynthia stared hard at the nearly three dozen lit-up Blood Sorcerers
glowing on the pool.
"We have stepped away from the increasingly violent and unethical
activities of the other Blood Sorcerers—with the exception of our
infiltrator, Rashad, here—"
"But he tried to kill Kelley," Polly interrupted. "He threw this big
ball of green fire at Kelley, and it would've smacked her right in the face
if Moammar hadn't..." Polly paused, looking across the black water at
Moammar, standing next to the other Blood Sorcerers and grinning
brightly at her. "If Mo hadn't stopped it with his dampener thingie... Was
that just—no, it couldn't have been—"
"Just like smoke and mirrors," Rashad said, hovering about eight
feet above the ground.
"It would've just glanced off her if I hadn't stepped out of the house
at that moment," Moammar added. "Fooled you folks, didn't it?"
"Don't look so proud of yourself, Mo-Mo," Mags grumbled.
Jeroan had been thinking back to the other attack, back at the Center.
How Rashad had never tried to attack him personally, nor did he try to
hurt any of the three operatives. He'd just kept busy destroying
equipment—including the gaming consoles. That hadn't been cool. But
way better than trying to zap him.
"Okay," Jeroan said, putting a hand on Mags' head to keep her from
saying anything else and getting herself tossed into either the lake or the
pool. "But what about that attack at the volcano, at Mount Etna. You
were there, too, Rashad. Right?"
"Along with Yu and Dominic, Tanya's favorite Blood Sorcerers.
Tanya is their leader, by the way. You met her up close at Azure's
Center. Silver hair, likes to dress in black, mean as a snake?"
"I was there at Mount Etna to make sure nobody got killed, and to
make sure that the man there was truly Michael Azure. All while not
exposing my real intentions. And yes, that really was Dr. Azure."
"I could guess that he wasn't himself by the clothes he was wearing,"
Jeroan said, but his joke rang hollow in the crowded shack.
Cynthia cleared her throat. "I think we are getting ahead of ourselves
here. First, we need to show our friends why we've had to deceive them
and their other friends. We need to start with our split from the other
"Split?" Jeroan said hopefully. "You mean like the Great Split?"
Cynthia shook her head. "Ah, no. This break was nowhere as
cataclysmic as the Great Split, but it was filled with plenty of internal
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
strife, regardless. The six of us broke away from the other Blood
Sorcerers when we realized that their new leader was making the wrong
"There's just the six of you?" Jeroan said, amazed. These guys were
either really brave, or nuts. Or both. Jeroan could related to that.
Rashad nodded sadly. "We have lost a few along the way. The other
Sorcerers have been merciless when it comes to traitors. Which is
another reason why we are so determined to stop them."
Mexico rapped his fingers on the metal wall behind him.
"It can't be Azure leading them," he said. "He's cut all
communications with us, and according to Archie here, he's given up his
responsibilities and retired."
"We figured something like that had happened," Cynthia said.
"That's why we think that Tanya, the new leader of the Blood Sorcerers,
has been following the orders of an older, stronger power."
A sudden roll of thunder shook the walls of the metal shack. The
vibrations broke up the glowing image of the riverboat on the pool
below them, leaving just dark nothingness again. Two of the other
Sorcerers muttered a few Words and then floated across the pool and out
the door to investigate.
"Thunder in winter," Archie said from the other side of the shack.
His eyes gave off a faint, bluish glow, just for a moment, and just
enough for Jeroan to see the two roaches perched on his hat, right above
his bushy eyebrows. "Means more snow is coming. Snow, or something
Jeroan felt a shudder run through him, and his own eyes started
burning. He'd forgotten how late it was, and how tired he was.
"We should continue this discussion in a few hours, in the daylight,"
Ishmael suggested. Jeroan had almost forgotten the quiet, long-haired
guy was there on the other side of Cynthia. "I'm worried that even the
traces of magic we've used tonight will alert Tanya and her Blood
Sorcerers to our location."
"You may be right," Cynthia said as more thunder rippled across the
lake outside and rattled the walls and roof of their small headquarters.
"We have hammocks, blankets, and a couple battery-powered heaters
upstairs," she said, nodding at a ladder against the wall that Jeroan was
sure he hadn't seen before. "Unless you'd prefer paddling back and
sleeping in your van tonight?"
Their answers of "No" were unanimous.
Within five minutes, everyone had clambered upstairs and fallen
into hammocks. Jeroan swung himself to sleep immediately, and for the
rest of the night he dreamed of falling into dark water that quickly
covered his head as he sank, farther and farther down, but he never woke
Kelley walked the streets of Dubuque, each block less familiar than
the last, with the wind growing so cold in her face she could scarcely
open her eyes. She was searching for... Something. Or maybe someone.
She wasn't sure which, but she knew she was almost there. Just around
this corner. Or on the other side of this street. Or one more block...
Or maybe, she thought with a shiver, someone was looking for me.
She stopped at a crosswalk slick with melting snow and turned in a
slow circle. Cold wind blew in her face from all directions. She couldn't
get her bearings, but she refused to admit she was lost.
This is my new home, she thought. I can't get lost here now. I just
As she glanced once more from left to right, a flash of movement
caught her eye. Kelley nearly slipped in the snow as she tried to follow
the movement. Something green, moving fast. And then it was gone.
Off to her left this time, she saw another flash.
Fine, she thought. I've got magic if I need to use it.
But the Words refused to enter her head. She patted the pocket of
her jeans, but her eGadget wasn't there. She'd forgotten that, too. It was
probably sitting back in her hotel room, gathering dust.
Someone was watching her. Possibly two people, maybe more. She
couldn't see them, but she sensed their presence like hot breath on her
neck on this cold, lost morning. They were Blood Sorcerers, and their
weird energy filled the air.
Her head filled with the same sickening sense of confusion that had
haunted her in the past few weeks. She was lost, with someone stalking
her, and she had no magic.
She stepped off the curb onto the street, heart pounding and mind
racing. I've got to get somewhere safe, she thought, her gaze running up
one side of the street to the other. But where?
She sucked in a cold lungful of air and was about to run headlong
across the street when a hand grabbed her shoulder.
"Kelley?" a soft voice whispered in her ear.
* * * * *
Kelley bit back a scream as she opened her eyes.
"Careful!" the voice—a little old lady's voice—said. "You were
about to set the room on fire!"
For a terrible couple of seconds, just like in her dream, Kelley had
no idea where she was. She was inside, not on the streets of Dubuque.
But the room she was in was dark, and she felt like she was being
swallowed up by the bed. And the room felt like it was on fire, instead of
cold and windy like in her dream.
A tiny figure sat on the bed next to her, now patting her hand.
"Bad dream," the woman said, and then Kelley remembered. Gran.
She'd slept in Gran's bedroom last night. "Happens to all of us. Glad you
didn't burn our house down."
"Ouch," Kelley groaned, wriggling free of the woman's grasp and
sitting up. She rubbed her eyes. "I didn't need to be reminded of that,
Gran. Blowing up my house was a memory I wish I could forget forever.
But no, I juts seem to forget the good stuff these days."
Gran popped up off the bed and hit the light switch. Kelley groaned
again as the bright light stabbed at her sleepy eyes.
"Sorry about that," Gran called as she slipped out of the room.
Kelley followed the little old lady down the hallway, half-stumbling
until she caught the smells of bacon and coffee. Despite the sudden
rumbling in her belly, she had the presence of mind to stop at the
bathroom and wash her face.
Shaking off the last remnants of her unsettling dream as she dried
her face, Kelley thought about her chance to fix what she'd done back at
the riverboat. The poor folks who'd had the bad luck to go gambling that
night at the Diamond Jo had ended up infected by magic, against their
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
will. They were probably dealing with the same problems that she'd been
having these past few months, but without the benefit of knowing a
single thing about magic.
Today, if Gran and Maria's plan worked out, they'd get to fix that. If
people wanted to keep magic in them, they could do so, given a stern
warning from Maria and the address to Maria's store and Kelley's phone
number if they needed anything at all. Jimbo had also volunteered to
share his email address and the number to his new cell phone as a kind
of Magical Tech Support backup for Kelley.
Or, if the triggered person preferred a life free of the strange side
effects of magic, then Gran and Maria would "clean" magic from that
person altogether. Kelley wasn't sure how the two ladies were going do
that, but she was going to have to trust them there.
She walked out of the bathroom, inhaling more wonderful scents of
breakfast that carried her through the living room, and found a feast
waiting for her.
Jimbo—looking freshly showered and bright-eyed in his gray Iowa
Hawkeyes sweatshirt, a clean pair of jeans, and the ever-present
Harvey's cap—motioned Kelley to an empty seat in front of big bowls
and plates filled with scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, toast, oatmeal,
and what looked like steamed dumplings in a bowl. Everything smelled
heavenly. Kelley had to restrain herself from piling her plate high with
Jimbo watched her eating, along with Gran and Maria and his
parents, and grinned.
Gran pointed at him with her chopsticks.
"My grandson the chef. He loves making American breakfast food,
don't ask me why. But he does make a mean dumpling."
"Jimbo, seriously?" Kelley said. "You made all this? What time did
you get up?"
Jimbo just shrugged his shoulders and sat down at last to eat. His
face seemed a few shades redder as he grabbed the bowl of dumplings
"Eat up," Gran said. "You are going to need the energy today,
"We're so excited you get to go to the Court House for a tour today,"
Jimbo's mother said as she handed Kelley the bowl of dumplings. She
had short black hair and tiny laugh lines around her mouth. "I didn't
know kids still did field trips in high school."
"Yeah," Jimbo said quickly. "Our social studies teacher is really into
showing us how the law works." He gave Kelley a look. "Right,
"Um, yep," she said. "Could you pass the syrup, Mrs. Wu?"
Kelley kept herself busy chowing down during the rest of the meal,
avoiding any further questions from Jimbo's parents, who obviously had
been the recipients of some magical suggestions from Gran late last
night. Kelley hoped there wouldn't be any lasting damage. Today was
supposed to be all about undoing any damage magic may have caused
She had to smile at the way Jimbo rolled his eyes at his parents'
constant chatter, and the way he kept hopping up to get people more
food or juice or coffee. The guy really seemed to enjoy taking care of
people. His parents both talked about the Chinese restaurant the owned,
and Kelley realized that Jimbo had probably disappointed his parents
when he got the job at the local Harvey's roast beef restaurant instead of
coming to work with them. Kelley also had to grin at how much Jimbo
looked like his slender father, all bony elbows and sharp jawline, but he
had his mother's intense eyes.
At the end of her meal, Kelley pushed her plate away and fought the
urge to pat her belly. She looked over to her left and jumped a tiny bit
when she saw Gran looking intently at her. Gran raised an eyebrow at
her, and then winked.
Kelley's face heated up, but she wasn't sure why. Maybe, she
thought, Gran suspected I was checking out her grandson. She shook her
head and helped clear the dishes from the table. No way.
A few minutes later, after the feast cleanup was over and Jimbo's
parents had left for work, Maria sat down at the kitchen table with
Kelley and Gran. Jimbo was still puttering around in the kitchen, but
Kelley could tell he was keeping tabs on everything they were doing.
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
"Kelley, we need addresses for all the people on our list," Maria
said. "We thought you could use your phone and find the people on my
"Of course," Kelley said. She had her phone out in an instant, and
she tapped it to life.
And then... Nothing.
Kelley just stared at the main screen of her phone, which was filled
with colorful icons, none of which looked familiar any longer.
"Oh no," she muttered. She felt a big old headache coming on.
"What is it?" Maria asked, resting a cold hand on Kelley's wrist.
Gran gazed at Kelley over the tops of her thick glasses, not saying a
word. Jimbo was silent as a mouse in the kitchen behind them.
Kelley swallowed with a clicking sensation, and she felt her big
breakfast turn to acid in her stomach as she said something she thought
she'd never say:
"I don't know how to use my phone."
Maria lowered her eyes for a moment and squeezed Kelley's hand.
Gran took off her glasses and began polishing them with the tablecloth.
So this is how it's going to be from now on, Kelley thought. I just
Jimbo broke the awkward silence.
"Maria," he said. "May I have your list?"
With a nod, Maria passed him the piece of paper with the various
"Come on," Jimbo said to Kelley. "You can help me."
He led her upstairs to his room. Kelley paused outside the door,
knowing how smelly and messy Jeroan's room usually was. But a quick
glance inside told her that Jimbo ran a tight ship—his room was pretty
"Wow," Kelley said when she saw the ancient computer wheezing
and bumping away on his desk. Instead of a flat-screen monitor, he had a
boxy beige monitor that looked like it weighed a hundred pounds and
gave off gentle waves of heat. "That's a really, really old computer."
"Tell me about it," Jimbo said, pulling a second chair over to the
desk for her. "But it's all my parents could afford. I think it may qualify
as an antique."
He opened up a browser for searching the Internet, and the hard
drive groaned in response, followed by what sounded like a dozen tiny
fans clicking to life.
"So," Jimbo said as they waited for the computer to respond to his
most recent mouse click, "I thought you could read off the names and
help me with some searching tips."
"I can try," Kelley said, rubbing her forehead with a shaky hand.
She wondered what other things magic had made her forget how to
do. She kept thinking of Mags yesterday, dropping out of the sky during
her flying lessons as magic bailed on her.
What would've happened to Mags if Alexander hadn't been there at
that exact moment to catch her? Kelley shuddered at the thought.
"Don't worry," Jimbo said as he squinted at the first name on Maria's
list. "It'll come back to you." He glanced over at her, a half-smile on his
face. "It will."
Kelley sighed. "How can you be so sure?"
"I saw you send those Blood Sorcerers away back at that house last
night. You still got it." His half-smile became the real deal. "Hey, why
do you think I'm being so nice to you and staying on your good side?
You've got mad skills, girl."
Kelley laughed for what felt like the first time in months.
"You're crazy, Jimbo," she said when she could talk again. "But
He just shrugged and pointed at the flickering screen of his
"Got one! She lives just up the street, too. Sweet. Who's next?"
Kelley read off the next name on the list and took a quick look
around Jimbo's room. He had a couple posters of basketball players
flying through the air towards an invisible basket—we've been there,
done that, too, she thought—as well as framed movie posters from "Star
Wars" and "Pulp Fiction." She wanted to take a peek at the tall bookcase
next to his closet to see which authors he liked to read, but they didn't
have time for that. You could always tell a lot about someone by what
She helped Jimbo google the rest of the names, feeling her
confidence return. She considered taking a look at her phone to see if her
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brain was cooperating on that front again, but she didn't dare. If she lost
her skills with her phone, she'd pretty much lost everything.
"Can you make this out?" Jimbo said. He pointed at the last two
names on the list.
Kelley took the paper and held it every which way, but all she could
make out was that the people listed there both seemed to have the same
last name, something that started with an "S." Everything else was
"That's weird," she said. "Usually Maria has perfect handwriting.
This is mostly scribbles. We'll have to ask her about that. Maybe she just
got really tired last night. This is a pretty long list—about eighty
"Yeah, we'd better get to it," Jimbo said as he powered down his
churning and whirring computer. Kelley waited for the thing to backfire
like an old car. "We've got our phones," he added, "so we can do some
searching while we're on the road, right? We'll just ask her about those
last two names later."
Kelley picked up a pencil from a mug in the shape of Yoda's head
and twirled it on her fingers.
"Yeah," she said. She looked over at Jimbo. "Hey, thanks for
helping out downstairs. You kinda rescued me from the two lady
sorcerers down there. They were looking at me like a charity case."
Jimbo looked like he suddenly didn't know what to do with his
hands. A flush of red covered his cheeks.
"Oh," he said. "Oh, that. Well, don't worry 'bout it. I mean," he
added, meeting her gaze for a few seconds. "You're welcome."
Kelley smiled at him and held his gaze for another second before it
got too awkward for both of them. She looked away and busied herself
with putting the pencil back where it belonged, in Yoda's brain.
"Ready to go find some folks infected with magic?" Kelley said as
she stood up.
"Ready as I'll ever be," Jimbo said. "Let's go."
Kelley led the way downstairs, where Gran and Maria stood at the
front door in their winter coats and hoods, ready to go.
"We got our list of addresses," Jimbo said. "It shouldn't take too
long. Just a couple folks from out of town, but they're not too far away."
"I'll navigate for you," Kelley said, pulling out her phone
instinctively. She hadn't even stopped to think about her earlier block
with how to use it. She just let her fingers do the work, and she had her
mapping application open and working.
I still got it! she thought. There's hope for me, after all.
She pulled on her coat, and they stepped outside into the late
morning grayness. The sun was hiding behind the clouds, and the winter
wind sent Kelley's hair in all directions. But she didn't let the cold and
the gray dampen her sudden good mood. She hadn't felt this happy since
she'd left Maria's shop for the first time, with a white book tucked inside
As Gran and Maria climbed into the back of a blue Toyota Tercel,
Kelley dropped into the passenger seat.
"You've got your license, right?" she asked Jimbo in the driver's
"Of course," he said, almost dropping the keys in his excitement.
"For a whole month now."
Kelley read off the address where she'd written a "1" next to it from
Maria's list, which she and Jimbo had numbered roughly in order of
closest to farthest away. The car rolled down a snowy street, sliding a bit
in a patch of snow. Jimbo was fogging up the windshield with his
"You got it, Jimbo," Kelley said. She turned up the defrost to help
clear the windshield and then checked her phone. "Turn right at the light
"Thanks," Jimbo said. He was gripping the wheel so tight his hands
Kelley looked away, not wanting him to know she'd seen that, and
just as she did, her good mood disappeared when she saw a quick flash
of what looked like greenish light outside the passenger-side window.
She moved her head closer to the window until her forehead touched
its cool surface. She looked all around at the neighborhood rolling past
her, the two-story houses set back just a few feet from the road, most of
them behind fences made of wood or wrought iron.
Maybe I just imagined that flash of light. Probably just from my
headache, she thought, and then she saw another one out of the corner of
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her eye, coming from someplace behind them.
"Kelley?" Jimbo said. "Which way now? I don't know where to go."
"Oh, sorry," she said, pulling her head away from the window.
"Sorry. Got distracted there."
She looked down at her phone and checked the house numbers
written on the mailboxes and front porches.
"Right there," she said, pointing at a yellow house with five steps
leading up to the front door. "That's where our first triggered person
Jimbo parked the car, only running into the curb twice before he
pulled the emergency brake with a loud ratcheting sound.
I just hope we aren't about to make this person's life even more
miserable, Kelley thought as she and Jimbo turned back to Gran and
Maria for their instructions.
Jeroan had never slept all night in a hammock before, so when he
woke the next morning dangling in the air, he opened his eyes, shifted
his weight to the left, and nearly fell right out of the hanging bed.
He caught himself without making too much noise, and as far as he
could tell, he didn't wake anyone in the hammocks around him. He
looked around the shadowy room at the top of the shack and saw that all
the others were still asleep, except for one empty hammock. The one
where Mags had been sleeping.
Great, he thought as he tiptoed across the cold metal floor and
grabbed hold of the top of the ladder leading downstairs. We've got a
When he felt the cool air from the pool rising up from below, he
almost gave up and crawled back into his hammock. But he couldn't risk
anything happening to Mags—Polly would never forgive him—and he
still didn't trust creepy old Moammar any farther than he could throw
He let himself down the ladder and found Mags sitting in front of
the pool with her back to him. Alexander sat on her shoulder, still as a
statue except for the puffs of smoke coming from his tiny nostrils every
The pool in front of them was no longer black, but filled with the
image of a messy living room in a cramped apartment or house. An
angry-looking white woman about thirty-five years old sat on a gray
love seat surrounded by dirty clothes and magazines. She had a drink in
one hand and a mostly ashed-up cigarette in her other as she stared at a
TV. The image on the pool wasn't a frozen image like the one that
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Cynthia had shown them last night, but an actual live feed, like a
webcam. Smoke trickled up from the woman's cigarette, and every few
seconds she'd take a sip from her drink, which did not appear to be soda
from the way she grimaced with each sip. The woman still had a pink
curler in her hair that she must have forgotten to take out this morning.
"Mags," Jeroan whispered.
The young girl jumped to her feet in surprise, wiping the tears from
her face. She tried to block his view of the pool. Alexander took to the
air, wings flapping wildly. He had doubled in size in just one second.
"Don't look!" Mags said, waving her arms and trying hard not to
yell. "It's none of your business, you turdball!"
"It's okay, it's okay, I didn't see anything." Jeroan made sure she saw
him looking at the metal walls of the shack, not the pool. He peeked
down at her. "But how did you do that, Mags?"
"I listened to that Cynthia lady say the Words. It's easy to do if you
listen close and pay attention. Most of the time, people don't even notice
I'm here." Mags touched her nose for a second and sniffed. "Then I
tweaked the Words a bit so I could see what was going on right now."
"Nice job," Jeroan said. He watched Alexander spread his wings and
glide around the room. "Glad you're on our side, kiddo."
"I ain't on nobody's side. I just want to get home."
She sniffed again, and then sat back down to face the watery
window to Dubuque that she'd created. Alexander glided in for a landing
between Mags and Jeroan.
Jeroan gave a nervous smile to the over-protective dragon. He
nodded at the water and said as gently as he could, "So that's home?"
"Shut up about it, okay?"
Jeroan hunkered down next to Alexander and Mags, but didn't get
too close in case she wanted to take a swing at him.
"Hey," he said. "Your nose is bleeding a little."
Mags swiped at her nose and swore when she saw the streak of red
on the back of her hand.
"Stupid magic," she said as she splashed her hand into the pool to
get the blood off.
Jeroan felt a sudden shock wave hit him, as if something had leaped
right out of the pool of water. Mags got knocked back by the invisible
wave as well, and Jeroan reached a hand behind her head just in time to
keep her from cracking her head on the metal wall behind them.
The image of Mags' and Polly's mom disappeared from the pool.
The water was black again, but it was unsettled, rippling and bubbling,
as if it hadn't liked Mags touching it. Rashad shot down the ladder,
skipping the rungs and landing a foot above the dirt floor. Jeroan
wondered if the white robed guy's feet ever touched the ground. His
black turban was still upstairs, and his thick black hair had come
uncoiled on the top of his head.
"What did you children do?" he said in a soft voice. "You didn't
touch the pool, did you?"
"Hey," Mags said, sniffing angrily now. "Nobody told us not to."
The other Blood Sorcerers, led by Cynthia and Ishmael, had come
down the ladder in the meantime. Archie and Mexico popped their heads
out of the hole leading up to the second floor, Archie's beard hanging in
his eyes and his hat in his hand.
"The water is quite sensitive to touch. We should have warned you
all." Cynthia rubbed her chin as she watched the dark pool bubbling and
fizzing like a can of soda. "It usually settles down much faster after an
incidental touch. This could be the sign we've been waiting for. Ishmael
and Calia, go outside and keep watch for any other visitors."
Ishmael and the black woman next to him nodded and slipped out
the door. Before the door closed again, Jeroan caught a glimpse of snow
falling outside, with a layer of white already covering the mud.
"I just put my hand in for a second," Mags said. "It's not like I took a
swim in it or nothing."
Archie cleared his throat from upstairs.
"You mentioned," he said in a muffled voice. He reached up to
move his white beard from his mouth before continuing. "You
mentioned last night that events were drawing to a head. I think it is time
to discuss the elephant in the room at last."
"Elephant?" Mags said, exchanging a wide-eyed look with
Alexander the dragon. "Where?"
Finally, Jeroan thought. That elephant had to be the Druid.
Archie tumbled head-first out of the opening to the second floor
sleeping area and dropped right toward the bubbling black pool. Jeroan
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
winced, waiting for the splash.
But with a grunted Word, Archie stopped his fall, and then righted
himself so he was floating two feet above the water, with his legs
crossed. He popped his hat back on his head, still levitating. To Jeroan
he looked like a cross between Yoda and a slightly mental Santa Claus,
"Nobody wants to come right out and mention it," Archie began,
turning in a slow circle to meet the gaze of each person around the pool.
"But the Druid has awakened."
The pool fizzed and farted below him. Mags stifled a nervous laugh.
"I had feared as much when Michael Azure brought his minions to
Dubuque, perching his portable office right on the Mississippi. The
battle that followed—with quite a large amount of magic exchanged on
all sides—" he nodded at Mexico, and then Jeroan, and then looked
around for an instant, trying to find Polly before he continued his lecture
"—surely sent an enormous ripple of magical energy through the
waterways of the world, down to the depths of the ocean where we
Archie's moment of confusion distracted Jeroan from the old
Sorcerer's theorizing. He did a quick head count as Archie spoke. He
could've sworn he saw Polly asleep a few hammocks away from him as
well. Or had that just been a pile of blankets in her dangling rope bed?
Crap, he thought as a chill ran through him. Archie caught his
panicked look, but the old guy held up a gnarled hand.
"That ripple of energy may have been the genesis for his awakening,
and the surge in the number of new users of magic in the days that
followed that battle surely sped up the process. In any case, it appears
he's trying to end his banishment that began with the Great Split."
"Impossible!" Mexico shouted from the second floor, though the last
syllables of his shout were drowned out by a roll of thunder.
At least I hope that's thunder, Jeroan thought, looking at the door to
the shack. The temperature felt like it had dropped ten, maybe twenty
degrees. And it had been cold in here to start with.
Archie gave Mexico a warning look that froze the big guy, who was
halfway down the ladder and about to leap off, most likely right on top
of Archie. Now, Mexico just clung to the ladder with one hand, unable
to let go, and glared at Archie. The old man, meanwhile, calmly reached
up and plucked the two roaches from his hat. When he spoke again, he
was looking right at Jeroan.
"The Great Split," Archie said as he bent down to the pool of smooth
black water, "happened over two hundred years ago, on the other side of
the world. We thought its impact—and the price we paid for it—would
have lasted at least two hundred more years than this, if not longer. My
personal hope was that it would have lasted forever."
Archie shook his head sadly, and then held the roaches up to his
mouth and whispered something to them. He looked like a gambler,
blowing on his dice for luck. With a flash of blue light, Archie tossed the
two roaches into the pool.
But the roaches didn't sink. They skimmed the top of the pool,
moving in sharp, confident zigzags that left tiny trails in the water. The
black water began to glow in the places where the roaches' feet had
touched it, leaving tiny, delicate lines. A map of the world began to form
as the roaches zipped around the pool at top speed, like over-caffeinated
"Here's where—according to the tireless labors of our small friends
York and Orleans—the energy distortion is strongest," Archie said. He
pointed at the glowing map of the world the roaches had sketched onto
the black pool. A spot off the southeast coast of Australia lit up. "In the
same location where the Great Split occurred."
He paused and held Jeroan's gaze tightly, like a vise. Jeroan couldn't
"This is where Azure and my friends and I banished the Druid, many
miles under the water of the Tasman Sea."
"Why?" Jeroan said. He now wished he'd read all the stories about
the Druid and Azure in the little white book. But every time he thought
he'd read them all, he found a dozen more, as if the contents of the book
were constantly shifting and updating based on what he'd read.
Or, he thought with a growing sense of frustration, it changed based
on what it needed me to know. Using me, like a pawn.
"Magic overtook him," Archie answered after a long pause.
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The gathered Blood Sorcerers cleared their throats, sighed loudly,
stamped their feet in the mud, or otherwise expressed their discomfort at
"And it drove him mad."
" Really?" Mags said. "What sort of crazy crap did he do?"
"You do not want to know the details, child. Suffice to say that he
destroyed the futures of many promising young Sorcerers, leading them
down the wrong path. Quite a few innocent lives were also lost along the
way. It got to the point where the few Sorcerers and apprentices still
alive had to put their differences behind them and band together against
the Druid to put him down. And even then, he still nearly broke free
Archie stopped talking, distracted by the glowing image the two
roaches had completed on the pool. In the spot between Australia and
New Zealand spun a whirlpool that grew wider with each passing
second. And inside the whirlpool, Jeroan could almost see something
else taking shape. It looked like a face, with wide eyes and a smooth,
hairless head. It could've been Azure, or maybe even the Druid.
More thunder from outside made Jeroan jump. When he blinked, the
face was gone, but the whirlpool down under still turned faster and
Jeroan took a shaky breath and watched the roaches climb back up
Archie's outstretched hand, zip up his body, and crawl up his beard until
they were safe back on his hat. He looked around at the others and
realized that someone was missing from this circle of friends.
"Hey," Jeroan said. "Where's Moammar?"
"And where's my sister?" Mags said. She must've been doing the
same thing as Jeroan—taking roll. "What'd you guys do with her?"
Mexico, released from Archie's unspoken Word, shot up the ladder
in half a second. Jeroan heard the big guy's shoes clacking against the
metal floor as he did a quick search of the upstairs.
"Nothing!" Mexico called out. "They're both gone." He dropped
down through the hole in the ceiling and landed in the mud next to
Archie with a plop, still talking. "I'm not sure how they did that without
getting anyone's attention."
"Mo-mo," Mags said, almost spitting the syllables. "I knew we never
should've trusted that bag of bones. We have to find them!"
Jeroan fought the urge to pat her shoulder for reassurance, afraid
he'd pull back a stump.
"Cynthia," he said instead to the Blood Sorcerer next to him,
pointing at the pool. "Can you find them for us? Polly more so than
Moammar, but I have a feeling they might be together."
"I'm not sure if that's a good idea," said one of the other Sorcerers, a
pale fellow with limp blond hair. Jeroan had already forgotten his name.
"The pool has already been compromised by this girl, as well as those
filthy bugs. The others have most likely have picked up on the
disturbance in the pool from her touching it."
"Gimme a break!" Mags shouted at him. "It's not my fault!"
All of the Sorcerers, including Cynthia, still looked frazzled about
the Druid's return, as if their worst fears had been at last confirmed.
Finally, Cynthia shook her head at the complaining Sorcerer.
"I think the time for the pool is at an end, Dane," she said. "No harm
in one last vision before we have to leave it and destroy the shack."
The Sorcerer named Dane just shook his blond head at that, but
didn't try to stop Cynthia as she mumbled a few Words over the now-
black waters of the pool. A welcome burst of warmth filled the room as
she waved her hands over the pool, while the other Sorcerers climbed or
levitated up to the second floor to start gathering their few belongings.
The pool flashed green a few times before it cleared into an extreme
close-up of Polly's face. Her eyes were closed, and she looked peaceful,
despite the wildness of her dishwater-blonde hair and the smudges of
dirt and mud on her face. The image was zoomed in so close her face
looked eight feet wide. Jeroan felt a rush of heat to his face and a weird
clenching in his chest, looking at her in the pool like this while she was
sleeping. She looked pretty without her usual glare aimed at him.
"Now where is Moammar?" Cynthia said under her breath. "He
better not have taken things into his own hands once more."
The image of Polly went fuzzy for a few seconds as green lights
swirled over her closed eyes and dirty cheeks, and then a crooked, black,
dusty hand moved across the surface of the pool. The hand touched
Polly's cheek, and she woke, startled. That had to be Moammar's hand,
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
and a second after she realized where she was and who she was with,
Polly's glare returned, and Jeroan could lip-read some pretty good curse
words flowing out of her mouth.
"Can you pull back a little bit," he asked Cynthia, agitated now after
seeing Polly like this, "so we can see where they are?"
"I'm trying," Cynthia said, her face red. "But there's some good
interference there. Either from Moammar, or someone else. Or
some thing else."
Mexico had taken the two roaches from Archie's hat again, and he
tossed them onto the surface of the pool again.
"Dane's not gonna like that," Mags said in a distracted voice. Her
eyes were focused on the pool and the image of her angry sister. It
looked like Polly was in some kind of office, maybe.
"Those two will find her," Mexico said as the roaches scurried
across the surface of the pool, accompanied by another roll of thunder.
Jeroan checked his pockets, making sure he had everything he needed on
him: book, phone, wallet, keys. That thunder outside didn't sound natural
to him, and he wanted to be ready to roll if he needed to.
As the image of Polly faded, the roaches spun out a new map, this
time of four Midwestern states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and
Illinois. One of them—it looked like Orleans' roach self—mapped out
the lake where they were, while York worked on the eastern section of
Iowa. The Orleans roach tracked its way down to York, leaving a blue
line in his wake that ended right at the city of...
" Dubuque!" Jeroan said, snapping his fingers. "Moammar took her
"Of course," Mexico said, sharing a meaningful look at Archie.
"That's where all the magic has been happening lately."
"We have two people there on the ground," Cynthia said. "I can give
you their contact information, and they can—"
But before she could finish her sentence, the front door of the metal
shack was blown in with a ear-pounding blast of thunder.
Ishmael and Calia were shouting out Words outside, no doubt
running their blood magic through one another to defend themselves
from the attackers. Through the doorway leading outside Jeroan could
see at least a dozen flying Sorcerers raining green energy and fire down
on the two of them and the shack as the other Blood Sorcerers inside
flew past to join the battle.
One of the Sorcerers attacking from the air was the woman with
silver hair, dressed once more in black. Tanya.
"Go," Cynthia said to Jeroan and his friends. Her face was calm, but
her eyes were blazing with anger and green light. "We'll hold them off
for you as long as we can."
"But," Jeroan began. "We can't just leave!"
"Yes, we can," Archie said, and with a nod of the old man's hairy
head, Jeroan and the others blinked away from the shack and blinked
back inside the freezing interior of the van, parked at the edge of the
Feeling dizzy from the sudden change in locations, Jeroan peeked
out the tinted back windows and winced as the metal shack exploded on
the mud island.
"Crap!" Mags said.
Guess they didn't need to worry about destroying all evidence of the
shack, Jeroan thought. The other Blood Sorcerers took care of that for
them. Just hope Cynthia and the others survived that.
Mexico fired up the van, and in seconds they rumbled away from
Lake Itasca and the ongoing battle between the two sets of former
We're going home, Jeroan thought, feeling not a single hint of
excitement at the idea.
The hardest part of this whole process, Kelley quickly realized, was
simply getting in the door. The rest was a snap.
Jimbo had first suggested they just have Kelley knock on the doors
of the triggered folks from the riverboat and pretend to be selling Girl
Scout cookies, but Kelley had shot that one faster than you could say
thin mints. She had wondered out loud why they couldn't just use magic
to open the doors, as that would be the quickest way to get the
But Maria, as always, was the voice of reason.
"They will remember me from my store, of course," she said. "I will
simply knock and explain who I am. The rest will take care of itself."
Some folks wouldn't open the door, at first, but all Maria had to do
was mention the word "riverboat," and the nervous person on the other
side of the door would relent. They usually hugged Maria with relief the
moment they recognized her. Kelley felt a pang of sympathy whenever
she saw the foggy look on the faces of the people who had probably
been experimenting with magic quite a bit in the past two months—they
were the ones who took the longest to remember Maria, and even longer
to make the connection between Kelley and the girl who'd zapped them
with magic on the runaway Diamond Jo.
As soon as they were inside the triggered person's house or
apartment, though, Gran and Maria made short work of getting the
magic in their host or hostess under control.
Like the guy sitting on his couch next to his friend right now. This
was the tenth place they'd visited this morning—the pair of elderly
female Sorcerers moved fast—and like all the rest of the triggered they'd
met so far, these two guys were tired of magic. They'd chosen to get rid
of it. They didn't like how it made them feel, how it made them forget
stuff, and how it had turned their normal lives upside down.
Gran and Maria had sat both men down and started whispering
Words that heated up the living room and made the air go all blurry.
Gran's MP3 player tinkled with soft music, and Maria's new cell phone
buzzed. A blue light drifted out of both men's eye like smoke, and Gran
quickly wafted the smoke away. The room turned cold for a second, and
then it was done. The men were free of magic.
Their loss, Kelley thought. She didn't get people like them.
Then they hit the road and did it again at the next address on Maria's
list. For the out-of-towners, Gran and Maria agreed to try calling them
on Kelley's eGadget and doing their magic over the phone. That seemed
to work, and they even found an adventurous soul living in a small town
called Dyersville thirty minutes away who chose not to lose magic.
Kelley and Jimbo got the woman's phone number and email address,
along with the names of her husband and two kids.
"What do we do about her?" Kelley had asked Maria after she'd
turned off the speaker phone and ended the call. The woman on the
phone had been full of enthusiasm, and she couldn't stop talking about
the little ways magic had improved her life. Like ending arguments
between her kids and teaching a lesson to the neighborhood bully, not to
mention helping her get to work on time on the mornings she was
"She will need guidance and training," Maria said as Jimbo checked
the address on Maria's list of names while the Tercel idled at a stop light.
Gran grunted from the back seat. "Magic is not all about getting
your kids to school on time."
"Her husband and children are no doubt triggered as well," Maria
said. "So we will need to keep in close touch with her."
"And she did agree to be on-call," Jimbo said, tossing the wrinkled
sheet of paper onto the black dashboard. "In case we ever needed
backup. Y'know, it's almost easier if they decide not to keep magic," he
added as they pulled up in front of a row of duplexes in downtown
Dubuque. "Isn't it?"
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Ignoring Jimbo's comment for now, Kelley took a closer look at the
two women in the back seat. Maria's hair seemed to have more gray in it,
while Gran had circles like bruises under her eyes that were magnified
by the thick lenses of her glasses.
"How about you let Jimbo and me help, um, extract magic out of the
folks who don't want it. Our phones are fully charged. I can tell that this
is taking a toll on both of you."
Gran just shook her head with a frown, but Maria had a thoughtful
look on her face.
"It is taxing," she said. "More than I had expected. But with each
person who lets go of their unwanted magic, I can feel more of a balance
return to the world. Nothing makes a Sorcerer more concerned than
magic that has been ignored, or magic that has gone out of control."
"Unless—" Gran began. "Ah. Never mind."
Jimbo killed the car's engine and also turned toward the women in
the back seat.
"I've about had enough of that," he said.
"Grandson?" Gran said. "You don't talk to your elders that way."
Jimbo was shaking his head so hard his Harvey's cap fell off.
"No," he said. "I'm tired of you talking that way to us. We're all
involved in this, so stop holding out on us, Gran. Tell us who or what
you're so worried about." He glanced over at Kelley, but she was too
shocked by his reaction to do or say a thing. "I think we have a pretty
good idea who you're talking about. So quit beating around the bush.
Don't treat us like kids, Gran."
"It is the Druid," Maria said bluntly, patting Gran on the hand before
the little old lady exploded at her grandson. "He has returned."
"Not good," Kelley blurted out, remember Gran and Jimbo's story
from the car ride yesterday. Lost noses, mind control, zombies...
"This is why we need to work fast today," Gran said, shaking free of
Maria's hand. "He is back, or is trying to make his way back, and he has
his loyal Blood Sorcerers to do his bidding. We saw that back at
Cynthia's house in Minnesota. That's why we have to hurry today, before
his Sorcerers can get organized. One thing we learned many centuries
ago was that allies are the best weapons you can have."
Weapons, Kelley thought. Allies. This was going to be some kind of
war. And we're stuck right in the middle of it.
She had another urge to get in touch with the parentals, but they still
hadn't responded to her email from last night. Annoyed at them for being
so busy with work that they couldn't even answer an email from their
own daughter, she gave up on texting or even calling Mom or Dad to
warn them. They wouldn't be able to comprehend a war for magic even
if it was exploding right outside their law office.
Jimbo jangled the car keys in his hand nervously.
Kelley was about to continuing arguing her case for letting her and
Jimbo help un-trigger the next folks on their list when she saw another
flash of green light up ahead of the Tercel, past the row of small houses
on their right. When she turned to look at it more clearly, the light was
Of course it was gone, Kelley thought, growing more irritated. Just
my magic-infected brain, playing more tricks on me, she thought as the
others got out of the car and headed toward the duplex. And we don't
have time for that right now. I've got some people to help fix up.
* * * * *
Even if the only reason they were stopping there was so Jimbo could
use his employee discount, Kelley still felt impressed that Jimbo offered
to buy lunch for everyone at Harvey's at the end of their long, tiring
He grinned with pride as he watched everyone pile their trays high
with sandwiches, fries, and drinks, as if he'd made each meal himself.
Sort of like the look he'd had that morning at breakfast. Kelley had to
chuckle a bit to herself, quietly, when she saw the crestfallen look on
Jimbo's face when he got the total for their bill.
"Thanks for lunch," she told him once they were all settled into their
booth, surrounded by the aroma of salty, greasy sandwiches and fries.
Kelley was already tearing into her first big roast beef sandwich.
"You're welcome," Jimbo said.
And then all talking ceased as they dug into their food. Apparently
working with triggered people made you pretty darn ravenous.
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Ten minutes and many roast beef combos later, Maria got out her
list to recap their insanely busy morning.
As she ticked off the six dozen or so people they'd met with today,
Kelley felt her tired mind start to wander. Maria had finally taught her
and Jimbo the Words to extract magic from a triggered person, and using
those Words had made her feel like she was back in the hospital room,
pushing Azure's blood back into his body after Polly accidentally shot
him. It was old magic she was doing, and it made her all jumpy and
Gimme gadget magic and a keyword any day, Kelley thought as she
drank the last of her strawberry shake.
"Today," Maria said, a far-off look in her eyes, "reminds me of that
day long ago, when we healed the plague victims in Sicily. We saw and
healed a great number of people in a short period of time. So many sick
people. Exhausting, yes. But very rewarding."
"Well," Kelley said, "hopefully today will turn out better for all of us
than that day did for you, Maria."
"It will, I'm sure," Gran said, sounding a bit irritated. It seemed to be
her default mood lately. "This was a good day," she added, a bit
grudgingly, followed by a loud, long yawn.
"As a result of our work today, magic should become much more
reliable," Maria said, "now that we have addressed everyone from the
"We got everyone?" Jimbo said, slurping loudly as he tried to get the
last bits of his own shake with his straw. "Even the out-of-town folks?"
"Yes," Maria said, consulting her sheet of paper one more time.
"Our phone calls did the trick for those people. We have met with
everyone on my list, and fifty-five of them asked to have magic
extracted from them, as Kelley likes to call it. Only fourteen triggered
people chose to keep magic in them, and Jimbo gave them our contact
information. They also agreed to be our backup, should we ever need
"Backup," Gran murmured, her eyes going a bit unfocused behind
her big lenses. She spoke in a sleepy voice. "Always good to have
backup. We could've used that back at Stonehenge..."
"Easy, Gran," Jimbo said, propping her up with his shoulder before
she fell over onto him. "I know you're tired. We all are."
Kelley didn't want to let fatigue get to her either, although with her
full belly and the heat kicking on in the restaurant, she really wanted
nothing more than to take a nap. Thanks to all the magic she'd done in
the past few hours, her thoughts were a jumble, and she was having
trouble keeping up with the thread of the conversation.
And there were all sorts of things she needed to remember, but
Surely this lack of focus and brain drain, Kelley thought, didn't
happen to all Sorcerers. If that were the case, they never would've
survived this long. We have two ancient Sorcerers right here at our table,
and they haven't gone nuts or lost all their memories.
So why me? Why is this hitting me so hard?
She crumpled up the wrapper from her third sandwich and glanced
out the door, half-expecting to see another blast of green light at any
Instead, she saw a white kid from Jeroan's wannabe gang walk by,
his hood up and his cheap sunglasses on, trying to look all tough and
ghetto. Kelley had to laugh to herself, and then she snapped her fingers.
"Jeroan's gang," she said. Everyone turned to her. "How come they
aren't on your list, Maria? Jeroan and Polly used magic to get away from
them the day the two of them first got triggered. Why didn't the gang
kids get triggered too?"
Maria rubbed her lip thoughtfully while Gran let out a soft snore.
"Interesting," Maria said. "It could have been that Jeroan and Polly's
magic was too new, too unformed yet. Did they use magic directly on
these children in the gang?"
"Polly and Jeroan just used magic to jump really far, didn't they?"
Jimbo chipped in.
Kelley shrugged. "So maybe those kids are okay? I mean, not
Maria was turning her wrinkled list of names over and over, as if
checking to see if any more names got added every time she turned it
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
"I believe so," she said, setting the paper down at last. "If the kids in
this gang were not close to Jeroan and Polly, and if those two did not use
magic directly on the kids in the gang, they should be free of magic."
Kelley nodded reluctantly and exhaled, feeling suddenly tired and
glad to not have to meet any more new people today. She slid the paper
closer to her and took another look at it.
"Hey," she said, tapping Maria's sheet. "You have check marks next
to everyone on the list but these last two names. What's up with that,
"Ah yes," Maria said, looking at the bottom of her paper under
Kelley's finger and tapping her lip. She wouldn't look directly at Kelley
or Jimbo. Kelley tried not to take that personally. "Those two. They are
a, well... A special case."
"Maria," Kelley said, her stress levels rising. "What do you mean?"
"These two were not on the riverboat that night."
Kelley picked up the paper and held it close to her face, an inch
from her eyes. The sounds of the restaurant and other people talking
suddenly fell away, and her breathing sped up. The very last two names
on Maria's list were missing a check.
"They both have the same last name. It looks like my last name,
actually. Strickland. No way." Kelley let the piece of paper fall from her
numb fingers. The restaurant suddenly felt way too hot as she looked
over at Maria. "My parents?"
"What?" Jimbo said, but to Kelley his voice sounded like it came
from a thousand miles away.
Maria finally met Kelley's gaze. A pink flush covered the older
woman's usually pale cheeks.
"It is probably best if they explain their involvement in this to you in
person," Maria said, and then, after seeing Kelley's angry reaction to
that, she quickly added, "I have met them. More than once."
If there were any explanations for how Mom and Dad—two lawyers
who worked twelve-hour days most every weekday, and sometimes
weekends—could somehow be friends with Maria, they weren't rising to
Mom and Dad? Kelley thought. And magic?
"As I said, they were not there that night on the riverboat," Maria
said as Jimbo and Gran—refreshed after her cat nap—quickly cleared
the debris from their lunch off the table. "But they visited me at least
once a week after your family moved to Dubuque. And before that, they
would call me every couple of weeks or so."
Kelley reached for her phone in her pocket with suddenly numb
fingers. She had to call the parentals, right now. This was just
impossible. But thanks to her unsteady hands, she couldn't manage to get
her phone free from her coat.
"Why didn't they ever tell me," Kelley mumbled, giving up on her
phone. "Why didn't you tell me, Maria?"
"I'll explain in the car," Maria said. The table was clean, and Gran
and Jimbo were waiting at the door. Gran wore an impatient scowl, as if
she had seen this coming and was ready to move on. Jimbo was looking
more stressed than usual, though he was smart enough to keep his
distance and not say a word right now.
They hurried back out into the cold, and Gran rode shotgun in the
Tercel while Kelley and Maria took over the back seat. Kelley tried
running through her memories to try and connect Mom and Dad with
magic or Maria in some way, but she was so tired from their magical
exertions that morning, not to mention her current inability to focus on
pretty much anything these days, that she had no luck.
"They did what they did to keep you and your brother safe," Maria
began, just as Jimbo pulled away from the street in front of Harvey's and
headed downtown, toward the river.
Toward Mom and Dad's office, Kelley realized.
"But you're not gonna tell me what it is they did, or do, or used to
do, right?" Kelley said. She let out a frustrated laugh. "Fine. Whatever."
"It is..." Maria said, almost reaching out to pat Kelley's hand, but
stopping herself, "It is, as they say, complicated."
Kelley nodded absently at that and used the rest of the short drive
down to the riverfront to calm herself. She remembered how panicky
she'd gotten back when those Blood Sorcerers had dropped in on them at
Cynthia's house in Minnesota.
And that had done me no good, she thought. But when I finally
calmed down, I was able to use my gadget magic again. And I had
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
kicked some butt. So for now, I just need to chill.
Jimbo did a passable job of parallel parking in a spot close to the
brick building on the riverfront where the offices of Strickland &
Strickland were located. Kelley got out of the car, wondering who would
get to do the shouting first—her at her parents for hiding all this from
her, or her parents at her for disappearing for the past day. Or maybe
they'd just yell at her in general for getting triggered by magic and
getting sucked into this crazy new world. A world they probably never
wanted her to be a part of, just like Jeroan and his gang back in their
"Follow me," she said to the others.
She charged off down the sidewalk, kicking old, gray snow out of
her way. The cold wind coming off the river felt good in her face.
"Kelley," Jimbo said, jogging to catch up to her. "You okay? Slow
down, would you?"
"I'm fine," she said with a big smile, holding the door open for him
and Gran and Maria. "Their office is on the third floor. My parents'
"It'll be nice to meet them," Jimbo said as he walked past her into
Kelley had to restrain herself so she didn't smack him on the head
for that one.
They took the elevator up in silence, and a familiar-looking woman
stood outside the door to Mom and Dad's office. Her eyes filled with
green light the moment they stepped out of the elevator, but Gran froze
her with a Word.
"Nice," Kelley said, even though her blood had turned cold at the
sight of the woman. She was one of the Blood Sorcerers that had
attacked the riverboat that night. Kelley was sure of it.
"So they know about Kelley's parents, too," Jimbo said, his voice
rising. "Just great."
Kelley paused right outside the door to the office.
Relax. This is Mom and Dad's office. They're okay. Everything's
She finally opened the door, which wasn't locked, and stepped into
the small alcove that was just big enough for the desk where the
parentals' receptionist usually sat. The two big offices off the to the right
seemed empty, but Kelley saw that the door to the conference room
straight ahead was closed.
With Jimbo on her left and Maria and Gran on her right, Kelley
walked to the door and leaned in close, listening for voices. Nothing.
"Here we go," she said, and reached for the knob.
When she opened the conference room door and pushed it open, she
saw that the parentals were not alone in the big, window-filled room.
Mom and Dad sat on either side of the oval-shaped, dark brown
conference table, while at the head of the table—standing in front of the
floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined with leather law books, with his hands
on his hips and his bald head shiny with sweat—stood Dr. Michael
First the Center in Wilmington and now Cynthia's shack on Lake
Itasca, Jeroan thought, as he held tight to the shelving above him in the
back of the speeding van. I've been leaving a path of destruction behind
me everywhere I go these days.
He wished he could still see some signs of the fighting back on the
island, but other than a faint orange glow lighting up a line of smoke that
rose above the dark treetops, there were no other signs of anything
magical going on. Soon they were out of the park and back on the main
road, Mexico driving and Mags once more riding shotgun.
Jeroan winced as the van hit a pothole and bits of equipment rained
down on him. He felt like a dog for bailing on Cynthia and Ishmael and
the others. The way she reacted made him think she and the others had
been expecting an attack like that.
As he set the displaced gadgets and other equipment back on the
shelf above him, Jeroan checked on Archie. The old man seemed to be
dozing after the exertion of popping all of them off the island and into
the van, but Jeroan saw the pink phone held tightly in Archie's left hand.
The old man had become a die-hard convert to gadget magic.
"So," Jeroan said. "You're okay with just leaving Cynthia and the
others back there?"
"They will be all right," Archie said to Jeroan without even opening
his eyes. "They have the right attitude of cynicism in these turbulent
times. But they are still, at heart, Blood Sorcerers. Which makes them
untrustworthy in my eyes."
With a soft flutter of air, Alexander the dragon glided to Archie's
shoulder from the front passenger seat. The foot-high white dragon must
have heard them whispering and come back to investigate. In the driver's
seat, Mexico complained about the van's slowness, while Mags looked
like she was about to doze off in the passenger seat.
The roaches, meanwhile, had taken advantage of the down time to
nap on Archie's hat.
"Yeah," Jeroan said. "They did try to burn up that riverboat with
Kelley and Polly and all those other people on it, just because Azure told
Archie nodded, and—just like a cat—Alexander batted a white paw
at the roaches on his hat.
"A little caution is always needed in this line of work." Archie
sniffed and rubbed his eyes, looking his age for a moment. "My true
concern is for your friend Polly and what my old companion Moammar
might be up to back in your river city."
Jeroan slid closer to Archie, checking to make sure Mags wasn't
trying to eavesdrop from the front seat. Alexander flew from Archie's
shoulder and landed on Jeroan's hand.
"What's up with Moammar, anyway?" he asked Archie as he
carefully petted the dragon. "Why would he take Polly with him like
Archie's furry brow furrowed. "I have concerns about Moammar's
allegiance. He was always the weakest link in our chain of Sorcerers,
back in the day. He sees himself as a kind of free agent, always changing
sides. Not a good combination of traits when you're a Sorcerer and have
the kind of powers that we do."
" We," Jeroan said. "You mean him and you, huh?"
"And you, Jeroan. You've got it, as does the young lady up front,
and your friend Polly. And your sister, of course."
Jeroan felt a flush of pride try to distract him from getting more
information from Archie while the old guy was in a talkative mood. I'm
a Sorcerer, that proud little part of him wanted to shout to the world.
"Speaking of relatives," Jeroan said. "I think Moammar was
dropping some serious hints about being related to the Be—to Kelley
and me. You know anything about that?"
Archie was looking at Jeroan, but he seemed to be doing some sort
of calculating in his head. Jeroan imagine him sifting back through the
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
years, trying to see where Moammar and Jeroan's family might fit into
the equation. Then he nodded.
"I think I see the connection, from many years back. He's most
likely telling the truth. And it makes sense. As powerful as your
newfound method of channeling magic through your wonderful new
phones and cameras is, magic still has strong ties to blood. Many of the
most powerful Sorcerers are related."
Archie cast a curious look at the front seat, where Mags was
complaining about being bored.
"Hmm," he said. "I wonder... Nah. Couldn't be."
Jeroan gave Archie a curious look of his own, but the old man said
nothing more, and the dragon was nibbling on his finger.
Jeroan pried his finger free from Alexander, feeling a bit repulsed to
share the same blood as someone like Moammar, who to him felt like
the worst kind of traitor—someone who kept changing sides but
pretended to be loyal to everyone.
He had many more questions for Archie about Moammar and the
Blood Sorcerers, but before he could ask the next one, his phone buzzed
in his pocket.
This was the first time he'd gotten a call in months. His last call had
actually been from Polly, way back in November, when she woke him
from a nightmare the day after they first ran into the old man sitting next
to him. In that nightmare, he'd been flying over the city, covered in
green fire and blue energy, and then he'd dropped out of the sky as
magic bailed on him.
Jeroan scrambled to get his phone out of his pocket, but he was too
late. The phone had only buzzed once. The other person had hung up, or
they'd lost the connection.
He checked the recent caller list and was surprised by the lone
number listed there.
"What the—" he began. "Mom?"
Alexander nudged Jeroan with his warm nose, as if trying to get
Jeroan to tap the Call Back button.
Mom wouldn't have called unless it was some sort of emergency.
Not if Kelley was still home—she was always the one they called first.
Alexander nipped at his finger again.
"Okay," Jeroan said, annoyed. "I'm calling her back!"
But Mom's phone just rang this time, and she hadn't left a voicemail
or any other messages on his email or texting applications. Jeroan tried
Dad's cell and got the same thing. As the ultimate last resort, he hit the
number for their law office—Dad warned them to never call that number
unless it was, well, an emergency—but the phone there didn't even ring.
Just dead silence.
He tucked away his eGadget, rocking back in forth with the
movements of the van, and picked up the squirmy little dragon.
Time to get moving, Jeroan decided. He was tired of sitting, anyway.
Dragon in hand, he pushed against gravity and momentum to get
close to the driver's seat. He set Alexander back on Mags' lap, making
the dozing girl jump.
"Punch it, Mexico," Jeroan said to their driver. "We need to get
"Yeah!" Mags said from the passenger seat, fully awake now,
clapping her hands and nearly launching Alexander onto the dashboard.
"This thing can barely do eighty," Mexico shouted over the straining
engine of the van. "You know that. And these roads are narrow. We
need an interstate, soon."
Jeroan looked over at Archie on the floor. The old man was resting
on the floor, with one eye closed and the other focused on Jeroan.
" Or..." Jeroan said, nodding his head at the old man in the back.
Mexico slapped the steering wheel so hard Jeroan thought he'd bent
"No, no way, man! I do not want to risk traveling like that again."
"Like what?" Mags said.
"I'm not sure we have a choice," Jeroan said, motioning for Archie
to come closer. "Like Cynthia was saying, things are drawing to a head."
"We'll be there in three hours," Mexico was saying. "Three and a
half, tops. Just don't—"
"Archie," Jeroan said over the rumble of the van's engine and the
roar of its tires and the excuses of its driver. "You remember Dubuque,
right? Do you feel up to getting us there, fast?"
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Archie got himself up on one knee behind the driver's seat with a
groan. He already had his—Polly's—pink phone in his hand, flipped
open and glowing.
Archie smiled at Jeroan as if to say, Silly newbie.
And then with a sudden wave of heat, the van filled with bright blue
light, and the world went blurry for five long seconds once more.
* * * * *
At the end of those five seemingly endless seconds, they came to a
stop in front of the tan and brown shot tower in downtown Dubuque.
Mags immediately began shouting obscenities inspired by the abrupt
turn of events, while Alexander the dragon had left her lap again.
In those five seconds of magical, high-speed traveling, the dragon
had grown to ten times his original size, making the back of the van very
crowded with his wings and claws everywhere. Alexander looked like he
wanted to bust out the back doors and shoot to the top of the shot tower.
"Let's stop by the hotel where my parents are staying first," Jeroan
told Mexico. "I need to check on them, even though I doubt they're
there. If it's daylight, they're at their office. But it's just a few blocks this
way," he added, pointing to the left and directing the van back to the
"Hey," Mags said. "What about Polly? We gotta find her, too,
doofus. Don't forget about Polly again, Jeroan."
Ouch, Jeroan thought. How'd that little eight-year-old get so good at
giving me guilt and grief?
The van rumbled and roared through the sparse early-afternoon
traffic of downtown Dubuque, passing folks heading back after lunch to
their offices close to the riverfront. They got stuck behind a slow-
moving pickup, and Jeroan nearly whispered a Word to send the rusty
old truck onto the sidewalk so they could get past it. He couldn't stop
thinking about the single buzz on his phone, and what Mom might have
said if he'd answered it in time.
At last, they rattled to a stop in front of the hotel. Jeroan rushed out
of the van and up to the second-story trio of rooms overlooking the
parking lot. The shades were drawn in all three rooms, but it looked like
there was a light on in the room where Mom and Dad had been staying.
Panting from running up the stairs and down the walkway, he tried
the door. He'd expected it to be locked, but the knob turned.
"Mom?" he called out. "Dad?"
The light beside the king-size bed was indeed on, but neither Mom
nor Dad was inside. Someone, however, was sitting in the chair next to
the window. Someone in a black outfit with a glint of metal on her chest.
Jeroan stepped back, nearly bumping into Mags, who was right on
his heels, holding a reduced Alexander in her hands. For a bad second or
two, he was convinced the woman sitting there had been the Blood
Sorcerer named Tanya. The same woman who'd knocked him out at the
Center yesterday, and helped blow up the metal shack on Lake Itasca
But Mags wasn't confused by the woman's identity for a moment.
" Beyers!" she shouted. "You stinkin' traitor! I should sic my dragon
on you, lady."
Beyers, dressed in her police uniform, badge flashing on her shirt,
quickly got to her feet. She had her left hand resting on her holstered gun
in an obvious way.
"Easy there, little one," she said in her emotionless voice. Jeroan had
heard that voice way too often in his first few months here in Dubuque
as Beyers and her slob of a partner Gregson had lectured him and Polly
after way too many run-ins on the streets. "I'm here to see my old friend
"Don't you even recognize me?" Mags said in a soft, almost hurt
"Sorry, ma'am," Beyers said. "I don't believe we've met."
"Cray-zee," Mags said, giving the lady cop one more look before
flopping onto the bed with her pet dragon.
"Okay, Beyers," Jeroan said, trying to figure out how Mags might
have known Beyers, unless Polly had told Mags about her. "I don't know
why you're here, hanging out in my parents' hotel room, but we've got a
situation. My friend Polly's missing, and my parents aren't answering
their phones. Have you seen any of them, or have you just been kicking
back, staking out empty hotel rooms?"
"Easy there," Beyers said again.
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"How did you even get in here?"
Beyers pulled out a key card. "From your parents. Though I know
the manager, and I could've gotten in just as easily. Your folks wanted
me to be here in case either of you kids came back."
Jeroan rubbed his chin. So Kelley hadn't been here either. He felt a
bit lost, but just for a second.
I don't need the Beast to save the day here, he reminded himself. I've
been training with Azure's men for the past two months, for crying out
loud. I got this.
"Where are they?" he said, tired of Beyers' smug, know-it-all
expression on her face as he took in all the facts of the situation. "My
parentals—my parents, I mean."
"And my sister!" Mags called from the bed. "Hello!"
Alexander made a loud puffing sound as emphasis, and Jeroan was
darkly glad to see Beyers' eyes go wide as she took a good look at the
"Dragon," she whispered. "I've seen you before. But you were much,
much bigger. At the shot tower?"
"You askin' me?" Mags said from the bed as Alexander fluttered
without a sound to the top of her ratty, uncombed hair. Mags looked
over at Jeroan, who was still standing in the doorway. "She's lost it. She
was the one who drove all of us in her big old car up to that house in
Minnesota, then she bailed on us first chance she got. And she don't even
remember doing it."
"Doesn't even remember it," Jeroan said automatically. He
cringed—that was something Mom and Dad were always doing,
correcting his grammar.
"Whatever. I think it was that little old lady controlling her. Jimbo's
grandmother. Wherever they are now. Who knows. Everyone's bailing
on us, man. Even Polly and that doofus Moammar."
"Shh," Jeroan said to Mags.
Beyers had taken an unsteady step backwards, nearly knocking over
the pole lamp next to her.
"Beyers," Jeroan said. "Sounds like you've been getting jerked
around like a puppet lately. Why did they put you here tonight? What
were they expecting?"
Beyers nodded at the bed, as if hoping that Jeroan would sit down
there. He kept standing, too agitated to get comfortable, while she sank
back into the chair where she'd been waiting for them earlier. He kept
expecting Archie or Mexico to show up, but they must have stayed in
the van, recovering from their wild trip here.
"They didn't give many details," Beyers said, rubbing her face as if
she were suddenly exhausted. "Just told me to get to the hotel and keep
an eye on things for them in case you or Kelley came back. They had
serious business to deal with back at the office. They did not want to be
Great, Jeroan thought. Mom and Dad think of Kelley and me as
disturbances. I feel so loved.
"I think they're about to get interrupted," he said. "So they're at their
office, right? Let's go, Mags."
"I can't let you do that," Beyers said, about to get to her feet, but
Alexander was quicker. He shot from Mags' head—she let out a couple
swear words in surprise—and onto Beyers' lap in a flash. Already three
feet tall, he spread his wings and growled at her.
"You were saying?" Mags said.
"Look, you kids..."
Jeroan exhaled. "No, Beyers. You look. We've been all over the map
in the past two days, and we can actually remember what's happened to
us. I think a whole crapload of bad magic is about to come down on the
city that you're supposed to protect and serve here. I think you need to
forget whatever orders my parents gave you and come help us. If you
don't want to help us, just get out of our way. Stay here and wait for
Kelley to come back if you want. There's probably pizza in the fridge
Jeroan paused for breath and saw that Mags was staring at him with
her mouth hanging open.
"Aren't you on-duty, anyway?" he said. "You're wearing your
Beyers glared at him, trying unsuccessfully to pry Alexander off her
"You shooting straight with me, Jeroan?" she said. "I swear I heard
you say the word 'magic.'"
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Mags popped up off the bed, making Beyers put her guard up again.
"I'll explain in the car," Mags said, "so long as I get to ride shotgun
with you in the po-po-mobile."
"Fine," Beyers said with a sigh. "I told your folks I'd keep an eye on
you kids if you came back. So that's what I'm doing. They never said I
had to keep you here."
" Finally," Jeroan muttered.
They left the hotel room behind, and Jeroan made sure the door
locked when it closed. He was glad—and a bit surprised—that he hadn't
had to use any magic on Beyers to get her to cooperate.
"We have a police escort," he told Mexico and Archie when he got
back inside the van. Now that Mags was riding in the Beyers' cruiser, he
took the passenger seat in the front.
"What?" Mexico shouted.
"Don't worry," he said. "It's all under control."
I hope, Jeroan added silently as the van rumbled away from the
hotel, with Mags and Alexander riding behind them in Beyers' police
car. Looks like I'm bringing my special touch to Dubuque now. Wonder
what buildings will get leveled because of me here?
He got his answer ten short minutes later when they pulled up in
front of the old brick building where Mom and Dad had their law office,
and a dozen Blood Sorcerers dropped on them the instant they got out of
In the time it took Kelley to walk three steps into the room where
her parents were talking to Dr. Azure, she had a sudden memory,
complete and clear for a change.
It was from earlier that day, when they were trying to find a college
kid who'd been gambling on the Diamond Jo the night she and Polly had
triggered everyone. They found the kid in his dorm at Loras College,
and he hadn't wanted to answer the door. When Maria finally popped the
lock magically and they all pushed inside the little room, Kelley wished
they'd never come.
The college guy, who was just a few years older than Kelley, had
looked like a zombie.
Not a rotting zombie from comic books and TV shows. Almost
everything about him seemed pretty healthy, but his eyes had a
blankness to them, and his face was slack and expressionless, as if he
were asleep with his eyes open. And he didn't seem to be able to talk.
Gran and Maria used more than their usual share of Words on him,
until the little room was boiling hot. At last the guy snapped out of it, for
a bit, just long enough to complain about his head hurting. And then he
dropped onto his messy bed and started snoring.
"Bad reaction to magic," Maria had explained after they'd left his
dorm room, but Kelley had caught the nervous look passed between
Maria and Gran. It had taken a lot of their energy and magic to get him
to come back from the land of the undead.
Kelley felt just like that college guy right now, looking at the bald
man dressed for some reason in a green T-shirt and loud plaid shorts,
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standing there chatting with the parentals like they were old buddies.
After the door to the conference room clicked shut, Kelley heard the
soft whisper of violins. She felt a warm rush of magic.
Gran was holding up her MP3 player, and the little old lady sucked
in a loud, harsh breath.
"Wait," Kelley tried to say, but her voice caught in her throat.
But Gran didn't wait. Instead she let loose a Word:
A blast of blue energy formed at the tip of her MP3 player and shot
across the conference room table, headed straight for Dr. Azure. Kelley
bit back a groan. It was like the fight on top of the riverboat all over
But Gran's shot never hit its target. Just like the fireball of green
energy that had come from the man in the black turban on Cynthia's
front porch, Gran's attack got swallowed up by not one, but two small
The dampeners—which looked an awful lot like a pair of well-used
Blueberry phones—were held by Mom and Dad.
"Hello, Maria," Mom said, setting her still-glowing Blueberry down
on the table in front of her with a calm smile aimed at the older woman
on the other side of Kelley. "Long time no see."
"And this must be Yishi," Dad said. "And her grandson, I'm
assuming." He gave a wave, but didn't get up from his chair. "I'm Gerald
Strickland, and this is my wife Erika. Nice to meet you all. Please, have
a seat, why don't you?"
Kelley felt like she'd turned invisible.
Mom and Dad wouldn't even look at me, she thought. She
swallowed hard, trying to break out of her zombie-like daze. What had
Azure done to them? Hypnotized them? Or worse?
"Mom?" she finally managed to say. "Dad? What's going on here?"
The parentals both looked over at Azure, still standing at the head of
the table in his bright, plaid shorts and his green Italy T-shirt. The bald
guy had to be freezing in those clothes, but he was sweating instead.
Surprisingly, he hadn't done anything in response to Gran's knee-jerk
Then Mom and Dad finally looked at Kelley, and she felt herself
sink into a chair at the far end of the table before she fell over. Their
eyes weren't zombified, but clear and full of affection.
They were okay, she thought with relief. They were okay.
"Kelley," Mom said, smiling, with tears glittering in her dark brown
eyes. "We can finally tell you."
"We were hoping to wait a few years more," Dad said. He had a
sheepish look on his face. "At least until you and—" he coughed and
looked down at the table for a second, "—your brother were sixteen. But
the events of the past few days have forced our hand."
At the far end of the big table, Jimbo took the seat on Kelley's right,
while Maria sat on her left, and Gran remained standing between Jimbo
and Kelley like a bodyguard.
"Tell me what?" Kelley said. "That you and this Azure guy are old
college buddies? That you're both Sorcerers but totally forgot to tell us
about it? That this whole lawyer thing is just an act?"
Jimbo rattled his fingertips nervously on the top of the desk next to
Kelley, but he stopped quickly after a quick elbow from Gran.
"I'm sorry this had to happen this way," Mom began. "It wasn't part
of our big-picture life strategy for you two, that's for sure. We just
wanted to protect you and Jeroan—" Dad winced again at the sound of
his son's name "—from this darker world."
"Well," Kelley said, unable to listen to another one of Mom's
patented, long-winded speeches with Dr. Frickin' Azure hanging out
there at the head of the table. "That didn't work out so great, did it?
Seems like that darker world found me. And the first casualty was our
"I knew it!" Dad whispered, rapping on the table with a knuckle. "I
knew it had to be magic that blew up our place. So it was you, Kelley?
I'm just glad you didn't get hurt that day. You blew up the house," he
added with a hint of pride in his voice. "That's my girl."
Mom glared at Dad for a moment before continuing. Azure just
stood there, sweating and looking paler by the second.
"In any case," Mom said, speeding it up a bit, "your father and I
have both been involved with magic since we were sixteen. Ever since—
well, never mind the details on all that. Suffice to say that we are not
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Sorcerers. Nowhere close. We are just... Well, you could think of it as
Sorcerer's assistants, but that doesn't give our job enough credit."
"I like to think of it as being part of the street team for the magic
world," Dad said. "We had a nice base of operations set up in Chicago,
doing odd jobs for Dr. Azure and his Sorcerers off and on over the years.
Until we had to move because of your brother. But we've done all right
here in Dubuque."
"But," Kelley said. "What do you guys do?"
"We keep an eye on things for him," Mom said, nodding her head in
Azure's direction. "Let him know if anything suspicious pops up so he
can send his operatives in to check on it. And we help out in other ways,
too, like finding a place for an aging Sorcerer to retire, or providing legal
advice—we really are lawyers, of course—or anything else that might be
needed to keep magic in the world, but still under control."
"So... Uncle Bob?" Kelley said. "A Sorcerer?"
Mom and Dad nodded.
Dad laughed. "Nah. He's just some old guy who needed help with
Kelley wished she could laugh along with him, but she was having
trouble finding things humorous now that her world had just been turned
upside-down. Again. She was grateful when Maria's cold hand patted
her hands, which up until that moment had been clenched into angry,
Kelley relaxed, glancing at Jimbo as he gave her an encouraging
From the far end of the table, Azure cleared his throat.
"All right," he began, looking at his left wrist for a watch that was
no longer there. "Now that we have that brief history out of the way, we
must take a look at the situation currently facing us in the very
immediate present. But first," he said, raising his voice a bit more, "let's
have our other friends come in."
With a Word from Azure, the door next to Kelley and her friends
swung open, and Moammar shambled in, dragging a red-faced,
dishwater-blonde-haired girl along with him.
" Polly!" Jimbo shouted. He got up from his chair but didn't leave the
table. "Are you okay?"
"Let go of me!" Polly said, wriggling free of Moammar. "I'm so tired
of you getting your nasty dust all over my coat, Mo-mo."
Maria and Gran both snickered at that.
"Mo-mo?" Maria asked. "Really?"
"You were following us," Kelley said, pointing at Moammar. "All
morning. Weren't you?"
"Someone had to keep the Blood Sorcerers off your tails,"
Moammar said, and then added with a grin, "cuz."
"Yes, we were following you guys," Polly said as she walked away
from Moammar. "Don't listen to him," she said, cocking a thumb at the
dusty black Sorcerer. "He'll never give you a straight answer. He's as
crooked as his busted-up fingers. He claims he was knocking Blood
Sorcerers off your trail, but all I ever saw was a bunch of flashes of
green light from Mo-mo here."
" Moammar," Azure said, his voice cutting through the other
discussions like a knife. The room went silent. "Have you completed
"Yes, sir, Dr. Azure," Moammar said. While Polly grabbed a seat
next to Jimbo—the big conference table still had a dozen chairs left—
Moammar took up position in the doorway, slouching and giving off a
small puff of black dust. "The fish are swimming toward the net."
" Fish?" Mom said, turning on Azure. "What's he mean by that,
Azure shook his head at Moammar, eyes blazing despite his obvious
"Ignore my old, old friend's attempt at colorful phrasing. Moammar
has always been a fan of schemes and plots. The others will come here
of their own free will, including the young man you've been waiting for
all these weeks."
Jeroan, Kelley wanted to say. He's here, or on his way.
"Finally," Dad murmured, and that's when Kelley figured it out.
Azure had convinced the parentals that he knew where Jeroan was. The
bald guy was foolish enough to think that he could control Jeroan.
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
If I couldn't do it, and Mom and Dad definitely couldn't, then
nobody can. That's Jeroan for you.
All eyes in the room turned to Azure, who had wiped his face dry of
all its sweat. He seemed to be getting his composure back, and he looked
much less desperate than he had when Kelley had burst through the
conference room door. He now stood there with his head cocked,
listening to something Kelley certainly couldn't hear.
"Good," he said as if talking to himself and nodding. "They could
use a little humbling before they join us."
Kelley could've sworn she heard an explosion from outside, and she
glanced out the window at the river three stories below them. She
thought she saw a flicker of green light reflected on the brown, slow-
moving waters of the Mississippi. But it could've been the sun slipping
through the gray winter clouds.
Azure cleared his throat.
"I am here," he said, standing up straight and looking slowly around
the faces at the table, stopping for an extra few seconds to gaze
unblinking, at Kelley, "to announce the end of magic as we all know it."
Jimbo put his heads in his hands and said "What?" in disbelief. Gran
growled something in her native language, while Maria sucked in a
surprised breath. Moammar chuckled in the doorway, Mom stared
blankly at Azure, and Dad nearly fell out of his fancy leather chair.
Polly, meanwhile, turned to Kelley, already shaking her head, as if
she knew this was all just a trick by the old Sorcerer.
Kelley looked from Polly back to Azure and said in as calm a voice
as she could muster:
"You're full of it, Dr. Azure."
Azure glared at her for a few seconds more. In the silence, she heard
another explosion outside. Azure jumped a tiny bit at that, acting all
vulnerable to back up his story, Kelley figured.
And then Azure dropped into a chair, laughing.
"Well said, young lady," he said after a few more seconds of
laughing. "I now wish you would have come to my training center along
with—or possibly instead of—your brother. I like your spirit. Though
the facts remain unchanged. Magic is going away. You know this to be
true." Azure's face darkened. "If I still had magic in my blood, this is the
point where I'd probe your minds and use the tricks I learned years ago
to influence your thoughts. But alas—"
"What do you mean," Kelley blurted out, " if you still had magic in
Azure held up his hands. "Gone. Let's just say that I am glad your
quick-thinking parents stopped my old friend Yishi's magical attack a
few minutes ago. For I would have been defenseless to stop it."
"Wish it would have gotten you, traitor," Gran said, but Azure
"I have no magic left, because the Druid has returned. He's taking it
back, one Sorcerer at a time. Warping magic as he greedily pulls it back
into his essence. Surely you have felt some of these negative effects of
magic yourself, Kelley?"
The sound of Azure saying her name out loud made Kelley want to
shudder, but she forced herself not to show any kind of reaction other
than a shrug. She'd experienced his so-called "negative effects of magic"
way too often in the past few weeks to doubt that part of his story. She
tried to relax enough so she could test his theory about magic going
away. She'd just used magic a few hours ago, with no problems.
Think I'll start, she thought, by sending Mom and Dad back to the
hotel room so they can be safe. Then I'll send Azure somewhere on the
other side of the globe. Or maybe the moon.
Luckily, Jimbo saved her from having to answer Azure's question.
"But what about those gadgets?" Jimbo said, pointing at the
dampeners in Mom and Dad's hands and then pointing at Azure. "How
come they still have magic, but you don't?"
"It is residual," Azure said, glancing at the Blueberries. "And
temporary. Most likely."
Kelley willed the magic all around her to start flowing, to start
blurring her vision as she channeled it into her phone so she could bring
it under her control. But for now, her vision remained clear. Painfully
"You're lying," Polly said. "Even my little sister could see that."
Azure gave her an annoyed look, one eyebrow raised.
"Is that so? I know of a young man who relied too much on his
clockwork gadgets, and it nearly cost him his life. And he was not the
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first." He glanced at Kelley and added, "Nor will he be the last to make
Kelley stared back at Azure without saying a word as she touched
the eGadget in her coat pocket, needing to feel the familiar flash of heat
coming from it.
But nothing was happening. It couldn't be Mom and Dad's
dampeners doing this, she thought, hands shaking under the table. And
even if Moammar had his on full-blast, it shouldn't be able to block me
from at least attempting magic.
This was different. The sensation that magic was all around her was
gone. It was like someone had cut the power to her computer. Or turning
out a light.
She sat in her chair across from Azure and his cold smile, feeling
like she was about to float away into the gray sky outside the big
windows of the office.
I'd touched magic, just for a few months, she thought, and then I lost
it, just like I lose everything.
Azure was telling the truth—magic was gone.
That had been too easy, Jeroan thought as they turned from the now-
empty street and charged up the steps to Mom and Dad's office. Those
Blood Sorcerers should've kicked our butts from here to Chicago. But
just a few Words from Archie, some nice moves by Mags, a lot of magic
dampener action from Mexico, and a good bit of boom-shaka-laka from
yours truly had sent those Sorcerers packing.
It also helped that Alexander the dragon had shot up to his full
dragon size and chased most of the bad guys away a few seconds after
the Blood Sorcerers ambushed them. Even Beyers had bailed, rushing
off in her squad car after taking a good look at all thirty feet of
Alexander's wings. Good riddance.
They never landed a shot on us, Jeroan thought. They stopped
outside the main entrance to the Mom and Dad's office, everyone
panting for breath except Mexico, who wasn't even sweating. Not even
that Tanya lady got a hit in on me this time. Right before I sent her away
without even saying a Word.
"Holy crud, we kicked some—" Mags began, but Archie shushed
her with a finger to his lips.
"Too easy," the old man said in a soft voice, confirming Jeroan's
theories about the ambush. "Be careful in there," he said to Jeroan.
Jeroan nodded and charged through the front door of the office, and
from there right into the conference room.
Where everyone seemed to be waiting for them. Including the
parentals. And Dr. Azure, still wearing his god-awful tourist clothes.
"Jeroan?" Mom and Dad said at the same time.
"Polly!" Mags yelled.
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"Mags!" Polly yelled in return. "Get over here and sit down, girl."
"Dr. Azure!" Mexico shouted, zipping soundlessly across the room
to the side of his boss.
"Archie," Maria said, getting up to hug the tired-looking old man.
Jeroan couldn't help himself. In for a penny and all that. He went
right in, elbowing Moammar out of his way, and plopped himself down
next to Dad, who was grinning and squeezing his arm like a madman.
"Please, make yourselves comfortable," said Azure as he nodded at
the new arrivals and pointed at the empty chairs around the table.
Archie sat by Maria, and Mags bounced into the chair next to Polly
and Kelley. Mexico stood at Azure's side, glaring at Moammar, who
stood with his back to the conference room door as if needing it for
The whole frickin' gang is here, Jeroan thought with a guilty glance
over at Jimbo and his white-haired grandmother. Even the Beast. Just
like the bald doctor planned it, no doubt.
With Dad and Mom both smiling at him but not saying anything—
which was sort of weirding him out—Jeroan realized that this
conference room had windows that opened up onto the Mississippi. If
Mom or Dad had sat at the head of the table, right in front of the shelves
full of boring law books where Azure now stood, they could have seen
the entire battle on the Diamond Jo back in November.
And for all he knew, they could've done exactly that. They certainly
would've still been at work that night when that craziness went down.
But now the office was experiencing a new kind of craziness. Azure
" So," Dr. Azure said, sitting at the head of the big oval conference
table, directly across from Kelly, whose face was ashy and gray. "We
have everyone. Now we can truly begin."
The room went silent as Azure paused for dramatic effect, and then
Mags sniffed loudly.
"Begin what?" she said, stuffing a tissue into her dripping nose.
"As I told the others earlier," the bald man said, gesturing at Kelley
the Beast and the others at the far end of the table on Jeroan's right,
"magic is ending. For you as well as for myself. He is pulling it to him
as he tries to return from his exile. The Druid, that is. Consider yourself
lucky to let magic fall away from you, for the Druid would otherwise
use the taint of magic on you to track you down and..." Azure paused,
looked down at his hands resting on the table for a moment, and then
looked up again. "Then he will dispose of you."
Mom shuddered at that and put a hand to her mouth. Watching her,
Jeroan remembered something Cynthia had said earlier that day.
"We have two people there on the ground," Cynthia had said, right
before the other Blood Sorcerers had attacked and no doubt destroyed
their metal shack on the lake.
Those two people must have been Mom and Dad, right? But that
was impossible. Right?
Jeroan opened his mouth to say something, but a sharp glare from
Azure made him close it again. He frowned at the bald man, and then
got a chill from the way Mexico was intently staring at his returned boss.
With another look around the room, Jeroan saw the same intensity on the
faces of the others, including Archie and Kelley and Jimbo and his
grandmother. Even Polly and Mags.
They were all buying this line of garbage Azure was giving them.
"He took all of my magic from me at a volcano on the other side of
the world," Azure said, continuing his magic-is-dead fiction. "In a sneak
attack by three of his Blood Sorcerers. I believe my friend here has the
visual evidence of this."
Azure gestured at Mexico, and the big man tapped on some keys on
his banged-up and duct-taped dampener until it glowed green. Then
Mexico set the dampener on the table and positioned it just so. Like a
projector, the dampener glowed brighter, displaying onto the big table a
frozen image from one of the webcams pointed at Mount Etna. It was
the same webcam image Jeroan had found for the operatives in the
"But wait," Polly said, tapping on the four-inch-high image of a
floating man in a black turban on the table in front of her. "Rashad here
wasn't working for the Druid. At least that's what he said. He's supposed
to be part of a group of Blood Sorcerers fighting against the Sorcerers
who were following you. Or maybe they're following the Druid. Or
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"Yeah," Mags said. "So how could he steal your magic, baldy, if he's
on the same team as you?"
Azure looked at the glowing image covering the table. "Hmm.
Rashad. Working with the resistance? Very interesting. Play it forward,
With another tap and touch from the big operative, the halted image
on the table unfroze, spooling out the attack: waves of energy that
traveled in a circle between the three attacking Sorcerers—though the
energy seemed to waver and weaken a bit around Rashad, as if he wasn't
putting forth his full effort. The energy was then transformed into blasts
of green energy that sent Azure flying perilously close to the now-active
"How did you escape?" Mom said in a soft voice.
"When did you lose your magic, then?" Kelley asked at the same
time, but in a louder voice.
Jeroan realized he had the same question in his own head, because in
this little video, Azure was still able to fly a couple hundred feet above
the valley surrounding the volcano.
"It is coming up," Azure said. "Watch their hands. Well, at least
watch Dominic's and Yu's hands."
The video had continued past the short bit that Jeroan had seen back
at the Center. Mexico must've gotten the roaches to find the rest of it and
upload it to his dampener at some point. Those roaches were pretty
handy, he had to admit.
" There," Azure said.
The woman in the flowery shirt and jeans held something black in
her hands, as did the tall white guy with the stupid-looking red beret.
The objects could've been small Pincers, or possibly smart phones or
even a tablet. As Azure was reeling from the unexpected attacks, the
gadgets in the hands of the two Blood Sorcerers let out a strange wave of
black energy that hit Azure right in the face.
It was like him getting shot by Polly in the hospital room all over
again. Azure dropped like a stone, falling out of the picture. The image
froze on the two Blood Sorcerers, dangling in the air as they watched
"You must've been at least a hundred feet in the air," Dad said.
Mom was nodding along. "How did you survive the fall, without
"Dude," Polly said. "I think that Rashad guy saved your bacon."
Jeroan glanced back at the table. Like Azure, Rashad had
disappeared from the frozen image spread out on the dark wooden
tabletop as well.
"You may be right," Azure admitted, grudgingly. "I had been
wondering about that. I owe Rashad—not to mention Cynthia and her
other rebellious friends—a debt for that, to be certain. When I woke on
the ground, with the lava from Mount Etna sliding ever closer toward
me, I was just a shell of a man. I left that area and made my way back
here. Slowly. Magic, my near-constant companion for almost a thousand
years, had left me."
The room went silent. Jeroan caught himself holding his breath.
"No, let me amend that," Azure said a moment later, pounding his
fist on the table so loudly that everyone jumped, even Archie. "Magic
was taken from me."
From the other side of the table, Mom made a sympathetic sound.
Jeroan rolled his eyes at her. Mom always cried at sappy movies, too.
"All right," Jeroan said, unable to sit still any longer. "Let's get to the
Druid part of the story already."
He heard Kelley say "Yeah" from the other end of the table, but he
kept his gaze locked on Azure. This was the guy who'd used magic to
poke around inside his mind back on the riverboat, along with Polly and
Jimbo's heads. Now, if Azure was telling the truth, he had no powers
other than Mexico's muscles and gadgets to protect him. No wonder the
guy looked so tired and sweaty.
Azure nodded slowly as the sun hid behind the clouds outside,
making the frozen image of the Sorcerers on the table glow even
"Mexico," he said, pointing at the dampener, "if I may?"
"Of course, sir," Mexico said. He was still standing, ever vigilant to
The table was wiped clean of the old image as Azure worked the
dampener. The new image was of water. Lots and lots of water.
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
" This happened two days ago," Azure said, "though the media never
got a whiff of it."
The water was an ocean, Jeroan could see that now, thanks to the
waves rolling back and forth on the table. In the image, the last of
darkness was burnt away by the morning sun, which glinted off the
waves like bits of glass.
"But when you are part of the world of magic, as everyone in this
room now is, you can see things that happen around us that nobody else
in the world can."
As soon as Azure finished his sentence, the gently rippling water
was overtaken by a monstrous wave that reached nearly thirty feet in the
air. Jeroan blinked in surprise, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks
" Tsunami," Archie muttered from the shadows of the conference
room. Something in his voice made goosebumps run up Jeroan's arms.
The camera or satellite or whatever it was that was doing the
recording pulled back to show that the big wave hadn't formed in a
straight line, but had actually started in one spot in the water and then
radiated out in an ever-widening circle.
At the origin of the disruption was a dark blot in the water, like an
oil spill. The sight of it reminded Jeroan of the black energy from the
new gadgets in the hands of Yu and Dominic, the Blood Sorcerers that
tried to take out Azure at the volcano.
"Some of my old friends here in this room may remember this spot,"
Azure said with the hint of a smile on his face. "Off the coast of
Australia. Woolongong, to be precise. Where the Tasman Sea meets the
"It cannot be," Maria said, standing up so fast she sent her chair
flying into Moammar. He caught it with a blackened hand, but just
barely. Yishi, meanwhile, put a small hand to her forehead and closed
"Yes it can," Moammar said in his raspy voice. "That is the place,
Maria. You weren't with us then. It was the Dragon that sealed the deal
for us. He had managed to raise a Dragon, Maria. We had no choice but
to banish him."
Gran had walked over next to Archie in the corner, and they
whispered together. They sounded to Jeroan like they were arguing.
"Gran," Jimbo muttered, tugging on the old woman's arm. "Shhh."
But Gran ignored him and the others staring at her. She finished up
her conversation with Archie and turned to Azure, angry and defiant.
"You are working for him," she said, pointing at Azure. "Johnny
here doesn't think that, but I do. Why else have you brought us all here if
you weren't going to hand us over to your beloved master after all this
"Oh man," Jimbo said as he rubbed his face with a shaking hand.
Azure tapped the dampener and killed the image of the black spot in
the sea where the Druid had supposedly been banished all those years
ago. He tossed the dampener to Mexico and muttered something too soft
for anyone but the operative to hear.
Maria and Gran were still standing, while Archie just slumped back
in his chair. Jeroan caught Kelley's eye for the first time since he'd come
rushing into this room, and he felt a spark of energy pass between them.
He felt her question forming inside his head and tried to block it, but she
was too fast.
Do you believe any of this? Kelley asked.
Jeroan gave a tiny shrug, and then added in the silent voice that only
she could hear, Some of it.
I think he's telling the truth, Kelley's voice said inside his head. It
happened to me. I lost it, too, Jeroan.
Jeroan didn't have time to say anything to that, and he wasn't sure he
could've said anything sensible in his shock.
"Listen to me," Azure said, a touch of anger in his voice now. "I
have brought you all together like this for a reason." He gave Maria and
Gran meaningful looks. "But not to hand you over to the Druid. You
may recall that banishing him had ultimately been my idea, back in
1790. That was not a decision I took lightly, and it is one that has
haunted me ever since."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Gran said.
"Yes," Maria said. "What do you propose we do, Michael?"
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Azure didn't even hesitate.
"We work together, just like we did for the Great Split. We gather
our strength and fight the Druid. He will have Blood Sorcerers on his
side, and will be looking for us. He'll be looking not just for vengeance
for his banishment, but also for power. The same power that drove him
mad and made him think that raising the dragons would be beneficial for
humanity and the world."
"But dragons are cool," Mags said, holding up a six-inch tall
Alexander as an example.
"Not the kind of dragons he'd talking about," Archie said in a low
voice. "That was a Dragon. Capital D. Bad, bad news."
As if in response to Archie's dark words, the lights in the room
suddenly flickered, half of them going dark, while outside the windows,
black clouds crossed in front of the setting sun. What little sky was
visible was quickly turning purple.
"Ah," Azure said, his voice a croak as he pushed back from the table
and looked out the darkened windows. "It may just be too late. He has
Jeroan turned to Moammar, who was now leaning heavily against
Maria's abandoned chair. Smiling his too-white smile.
" You," Jeroan said. "You told him where we were, didn't you?"
Moammar just shrugged.
"It's for your own good, cuz," Moammar said as he pulled out a
black gadget. It wasn't a battered dampener like Mexico had, but a
sleeker, smoother tool. Jeroan felt magical energy fill the room, heating
"You kids stay out of trouble," Moammar said, waving his black
dampener around the room once, sending waves of black energy around
him in a circle, like he was painting the air black.
Moammar started pointing his gadget at people around the table.
Kelley, Polly, and Mags hit the floor, quickly followed by Jimbo.
Jeroan didn't even think. He launched himself at Moammar,
reaching for the man's gadget while channeling magic through his own
blood and hopefully through his phone. He just wanted Moammar gone,
in the worst possible way.
He remembered the entry in Words of Magic about Moammar's
disintegration at Stonehenge at Archie's hand, and the instant the
memory entered his mind, it became reality.
Jeroan didn't even have to say a word. Or a Word.
Moammar turned to black dust, his outline holding together in the
air three feet in front of Jeroan for an impossible instant, just before his
remains dropped into a pile on the empty chair in front of him.
Jeroan caught the black gadget Moammar had been gripping in his
hand before it hit the floor.
"It's okay," he said as he turned back to the rest of the room. The
now- empty conference room.
"What the—" Jeroan said. His stomach roiled and churned, and for a
horrible moment he was convinced he'd also turned everyone else in the
room to dust with his anger-fueled magic.
And then Mags took him out at the knees.
Jeroan fell to the floor and saw the other kids down there, huddling
under the big conference table. Kelley, Polly, and Jimbo, who was
picking the two roaches off his Harvey's cap. Next to Jeroan, Mags still
held Alexander the dragon tight in her left hand while her right arm
stayed wrapped around his knees. And off to his left, Mexico sat on the
floor, his back against the wall.
But the rest of them, all of the old Sorcerers—along with the
* * * * *
In the suddenly silent conference room, Jeroan was the first to find
the ability to talk again.
"This was Moammar's fault," he said, looking out at the black river
far below them. Somewhere, far off to the north, a metal shack at the
headwaters of this river was probably still smoking. "I'm glad I did it,
then. I don't care if he's just a pile of dust now."
"What are you talking about?" Jimbo said, jumping to his feet and
waving his arms at the empty end of the table. "They're all gone! We
have to go find them, now! Gran is sick, she still hasn't recovered from
the last incident with Azure, and hey, it's your parents, too. They're
gone, too. We gotta find them, Jeroan."
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
"Maybe," Jeroan said, surprised at how calm he felt. He kicked at
the pile of black dust that used to be Moammar.
" Nasty," Mags hissed from the floor next to him. "You got some of
it on me!"
I'm glad I did it, he thought again. Glad I killed him, the traitor.
But he couldn't quite convince himself. His stomach was roiling and
full of acid. If he kept talking, he was convinced he'd throw up all over
the fancy conference table.
He turned to his sister, but she wasn't paying him any attention. She
was staring at the dust that used to be Moammar with a sick look on her
face that probably matched the look on Jeroan's.
"Kelley?" he said in a raspy voice. He hadn't spoken to her out loud
in two months, and her name sounded strange to his ears. He swallowed
and took a shaky breath. "Is it true? What you said to me about magic?"
"Yes," she said. She caught his gaze, just for a second. He could see
the devastation in her eyes. "I've lost it, completely."
"I think we all have," Jimbo said. He stepped close to Kelley and
held out a hand to help her to her feet.
"Crap," Mags said. She was now sitting on top of the conference
table, rapping her knuckles on the polished wood. "How did that
Mexico still sat on the floor a few feet from Jeroan, elbows on his
knees and his big hands hanging down in front of him uselessly.
"Can't believe we lost him again," the big operative said. "Lost all of
"Dude," Polly whispered to nobody and everybody from the chair
she now sat in. She looked exhausted, her skin pale and black circles
under her light blue eyes.
This was a pathetic crew, Jeroan thought. They're beaten already.
And they're letting themselves stay beaten.
"Let me try," he said, pulling out his phone. But after his dust-
making with Moammar, the battery was completely dead, and his
stomach gave a sharp lurch, as if just thinking about doing magic was
making him sick.
He set his dead phone down on the table, along with the seemingly
featureless black rectangle that was Moammar's upgraded dampener.
Waving away a stubborn fly that kept trying to get in his face, he took in
all the faces around him at Mom and Dad's conference table: Mags and
the little dragon on one side, standing in front of Mexico, and Polly,
Kelley, and Jimbo and the roaches on the other side. They watched him,
waiting for him to lead the way.
This is what you always wanted, he told himself. People who needed
you. People who would follow you, wherever you went.
So do it.
He took a deep breath, cleared his mind, and waited for the blur of
energy, the burst of heat, and the sensation of power to fill him once
He knew it was in him, in his blood. Dead phone or not, he knew he
could do it.
Jeroan waited, and he waited.
But the only thing that came to him was a cold, unmoving silence.
Cast of Characters in the Contagious Magic Novels
Kelley Strickland: A sharp-minded, somewhat shy, black fourteen-
year-old with a strong desire to learn all she can about magic as well as
the latest and greatest tech. Misses spending time with her workaholic
parents, but too independent to admit it. Also known as "the Beast" by
her twin brother Jeroan.
Jeroan Strickland: A sharp-tongued, somewhat over-confident, black
fourteen-year-old with a strong desire to be someone larger than life.
Got involved with gangs in Chicago, but not as deeply as his parents and
Kelley feared. Also known as a huge pain in the neck by his twin sister
Polly Erdman: A thin white girl from the poor side of Dubuque, also
fourteen, from a broken home, who starts out as Jeroan's friend but ends
up a closer friend to Kelley. Loves learning magic and wouldn't give it
up for the world. Likes to call people "Dude."
Mags, aka Margaret Erdman: Polly's eight-year-old sister, with a short
temper and bad habit of swearing like a sailor. Got infected with magic
by her sister, hates magic because of the nosebleeds it gives her
whenever she uses it. Able to see right through people acting like
Jimbo, aka Jiang Wu: A skinny sixteen-year-old of Chinese descent,
who loves his job at Harvey's restaurant and is proud to have his driver's
license. Over-protective of his grandmother, and fearful of magic and its
side effects. Sort of has a thing for Kelley, but would never act on it.
Archie, aka Jonathan Archibald Masterson Brightwell: A 700-plus-
year-old white Sorcerer with a full beard and eyes that tend to glow light
blue when he uses magic. Also called Johnny (in flashbacks) or the "old
bum" or "the old man" (in the present). Sort of has a thing for Maria.
Maria Haze: A petite white woman from Eastern Europe just a few
years older than Archie, runs a gift shop in Dubuque. Also a Sorcerer,
although she hasn't used it in a while. Has only sister-like feelings for
Archie. For now.
Alexander: a former green-and-blue wind-up dragon from Maria's store
that turned white and became real thanks to Kelley realizing her magical
potential. Usually no larger than six inches tall, Alexander can expand to
nearly thirty feet from tail to nose. Can also turn himself and his riders
Dr. Michael Azure: A bald white man with green eyes and a penchant
for expensive suits who has taken it upon himself to rid the world of
rogue magic users. Once was the magical mentor to Johnny/Archie and
Maria, before things went sour. Now in charge of three operatives:
Mexico, York, and Orleans. Also known as Dr. Azure.
The Druid: A mysterious, ageless man reportedly covered in tattoos
who gathered the various ways of doing magic from around the world
and taught them to Michael Azure, his first apprentice. Missing his nose.
Gran, aka Yishi: A small Chinese woman with completely white hair
who Jimbo has always thought was his grandmother; in reality she
should have a bunch of "great"s in front of the grandmother title, as she's
over 500 years old, a veteran Sorcerer, and a former ally of Archie and
Moammar: Another Sorcerer and former apprentice to Azure, over 600
years old, Moammar has a bad limp and dark black skin that's always
dusty ever since Azure tried to disintegrate him. Sneaky and secretive,
Moammar also claims to be Kelley and Jeroan's ancestor, but Kelley
refuses to believe that.
Mexico: Azure's top operative, an intense black man with a full afro that
puts him at almost seven feet tall, who sometimes smells of cheap
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
cologne. Would never admit it, but enjoys teaching Jeroan about magic
in Dr. Azure's absence.
York: A stubborn but loyal operative of Azure's with a gift for
programming all the various computers and gadgets at Azure's Center.
Not as tall as Mexico, but thicker, has slicked-back brown hair and a
drooping mustache (before he changes into something else, that is).
Orleans: Another operative at the Center who specializes in creating
new tech for finding "magical terrorists," as Azure calls them. Not a fan
of having to teach Jeroan magic. Stouter than York and Mexico, has
black hair usually pulled into a ponytail (before he changes into
something else, that is).
Seamus O'Shea: A big red-haired Irish man with a fondness for the
newly invented Pincers. One of Azure's operatives from the 1870s who
tried to capture Archie when he was still the boy called Johnny in
Chicago. Wanted to be known as Amsterdam, but could never convince
people to use his code name.
Nanci Beyers: A white cop in her late thirties who gets caught up in the
world of magic when Gran "recruits" her to be their driver for a short
time. Drives a green '70s Monte Carlo muscle car. Seems to be missing a
sense of humor altogether.
Gerald and Erika Strickland: Kelley and Jeroan's parents, both forty-
two and utterly dedicated to their jobs as lawyers, to the point of
forgetting they have two teenagers. Friends with Maria, apparently. Also
known as "the parentals."
Mr. and Mrs. Wu: Jimbo's parents, who run an authentic Chinese
restaurant, Wok on the Wild Side, in Dubuque. Both are easily swayed
by Gran's Words, and they remain blissfully unaware of the world of
Mary Erdman: Polly and Mags' mother, a white woman in her mid-
thirties, started drinking after splitting up with her husband, Polly and
Mags' dad. Works two jobs and lives in a small apartment with the girls.
Marky: Leader of the club ("it's not a gang!") in downtown Dubuque
who makes the mistake of talking back to Mexico and York at his club
headquarters and gets smacked in the nose by a basketball. Tries to get
revenge on Jeroan and Polly later, but they use their newfound magic to
leap to freedom.
Cynthia Floodgate: A Blood Sorcerer with graying brown hair and a
dark tan who broke away from the other Sorcerers loyal to Azure and the
Druid to lead a small group of rebel Blood Sorcerers intent on finding
out what's causing the disruptions to magic.
Ishmael Waterson: Cynthia's loyal companion and on-again, off-again
boyfriend, with long black hair also streaked with gray and eyes like a
puppy dog's. Appears to be in his early forties, just like Cynthia.
Tanya: A woman with silver hair and a penchant for dressing in black,
the new leader of the Blood Sorcerers in Dr. Azure's absence. She
prefers to attack first and ask questions later. If anyone is still standing,
Rashad: A Blood Sorcerer who seems to have been everywhere, more
or less at the same time. Usually wears a black turban and a white robe
that contrasts sharply with his dark skin. Tends to hover a lot, most
likely to keep his robe clean.
Dane: One of the rebel Blood Sorcerers helping Cynthia and Ishmael, a
pale fellow with blond hair. Very protective of the pool in their metal
Calia: Another rebel Blood Sorcerer, a black woman very loyal to
Cynthia, often working as a lookout or guard.
A WILD EPIDEMIC OF MAGIC
Yu: A Blood Sorcerer of Japanese descent who often wears torn jeans,
flowery shirts, and black boots when she's ambushing so-called magical
Dominic: A French Blood Sorcerer (one of the few), a tall white man
last seen wearing a red beret, blue T-shirt, and black jeans.
About the Author
Michael Jasper is fascinated with exploring the places where the
normal meets the strange. In pursuit of this fascination, he has published
eight novels, a story collection, and over six dozen short stories, along
with a digital comic with artist Niki Smith.
He's also put together two how-to books about how to create digital
comics (also with Niki Smith) and how to create and market digital
In the past he's tried bartending, teaching junior high, painting
houses, being a secret shopper, working construction, and many more
jobs; he prefers fiction writing. For his day job, he works as a technical
writer. He lives with his family in North Carolina, and his website is