Enjoy a preview of Demon Leap, book one of The Specials…
Glossary of Terms
Atomization Arts (AA) – magic science focus on the atomization of organic and inorganic material, with or without functional infusions
Inanimate Matter Transfiguration (IMT) – magic science in which inanimate objects are physically transformed into other objects, states, or materials via molecular manipulation
Kinetic Energy (KE) – magic science of the controlled generation and application of kinetic energy
Telepathic Projection (TP) – magic science ability to telepathically project alternate or augmented realities in conscious humans
Time Manipulation (TM) – magic science ability to alter the progression of time through the use of fabricated wormholes
Animalia Science – practitioners, called Mediums, present the ability to control or affect non-human species through non-verbal communication
Electro-Magnetism – the magic science of spontaneous electric charge generation and the production of magnetic fields
Pyrology – the magic science of fire creation and heat manipulation
Cohabitating shifter (cohab) – species that may present as either human or non-human, alternating between forms via conscious command
“If I don’t graduate,” I said, “bad things are going to happen.”
It was a dramatic statement and I was confident I’d delivered it well, yet my counselor, Mr. Morrison, acted as though I’d made an observation about the weather. He leaned back in his chair and regarded me with steady gray eyes. He didn’t yawn, but it seemed he could have.
“Where did you get that gun, Arrow?” he asked. “You didn’t have it with you when you entered my office.”
“I made it. Just now. Using your stapler.”
His eyes flicked to the space on his desk where the stapler had once sat. “You transfigured it?”
“While you were opening the file cabinet.” I jiggled the barrel to keep him on track. “So what do you say?”
“I say you just performed Inanimate Matter Transfiguration without a certificate.” He sat forward. His eyes gleamed like a snake’s. “I’m impressed, young lady.”
I could only stare at him.
Transfiguration—or “meddling”, as I called it—was illegal without a certificate. It would get me ten years in prison at the very least. Then there was the fact that I was threatening to put a hole in Morrison’s head.
“Your grade in IMT was only average,” he went on, ignoring my shock. “Looks like I should have paid more attention to your practical exams. You’re talented.”
“I just need to hear that I’m going to graduate,” I gritted out. Was he stalling for time? Had he secretly alerted the campus police? A bead of sweat slid down my rib cage. “You’re capable of altering my final record. You’re going to do that for me right now.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble, Arrow?”
“You could say that. I can’t get a job without my certificate. You know this.”
Morrison looked out the single window in his office. We were on the fifth floor. The rain clouds had locked out the sun, permitting only dread and gloom. This was his last appointment for the day and the campus appeared empty. No one liked to get wet anymore.
“You failed your final,” he told me, still looking out the window. “In addition, your semester test scores are terrible in a way that makes me think other people took them for you.”
I nearly laughed. “I should have. I have the Glyph Eye condition. When it strikes, I can’t read anything. There’s no cure so I deal with it. But gibberish is gibberish, and my scores reflect that.”
“Glyph Eye is a controversial diagnosis,” he said. “Most people consider it bunk. Tough luck if that’s what you have, but a failed score is a failed score. Combined with your overall poor grades…you’ll need to complete another semester.”
“I don’t think you get it, Mr. Morrison. I’m not leaving here without your promise that I’m graduating.”
He looked back at me then. “You’ll kill me otherwise?”
“I’ve got nothing to lose if I can’t get a job.”
I could tell he didn’t buy it, but he didn’t know my situation. I needed an income more than I needed anything else in my life. Because this wasn’t about only me.
“I’ve alerted the campus police,” he told me mildly. As I tensed, he added, “They should be here in about two minutes. I won’t change your graduation status, Arrow. Your grades are a matter of public record. If I changed them people would notice and I’d lose my job. You’re not worth losing my job over. I’m sorry, but you’re not earning your certificate this semester.”
The rain hummed. It seemed to laugh.
“You bastard,” I choked out.
“However, if you were able to escape this room, there may be options for you.”
I blinked back the burn of tears. “What?”
“Escape this room, Arrow. Avoid the police. Show me your ingenuity.” His gaze changed, the veneer of a polite school counselor lifting away to reveal the shadiness that had prompted me to believe he might cheat the system for me. “I may have work for you.”
“What kind of work?” My shoulders itched. I could sense the police rushing up the stairs from the bottom floor.
“Show me that you deserve to find out.”
“What kind of answer is that?” I blurted. I turned my head slightly. I heard the squawk of radios, the thunder of boots.
Morrison smiled thinly. “This meeting is over, Arrow. Put down the gun and surrender.”
I threw the gun at him. He managed to dodge it but by the time he’d straightened up I’d grabbed one of the cheap office chairs and launched myself at the window with it.
The glass shattered in a halo around me. I felt shards of it slice through the skin of my cheeks and cut through my hair. As I hurtled through rain and glass I meddled the chair I held, directing its molecules to draw together and separate, to speed up and slow down. The ground rushed up at me—
My body jerked upright as the makeshift hang-glider came together. I gripped the handlebar as the air caught beneath the plastic wings.
I heard shouting from the window but I wrestled my glider through the rain and didn’t look back. When I was low enough, I released the bar and jumped to the ground. I skidded in a puddle before I took off running as hard as I could. My glider, unmanned, nosedived into the ground. When I looked back, a single figure stood silhouetted in Morrison’s office window, watching me flee.
I was in a heap of trouble. I’d left evidence of my illegal IMT work everywhere: the gun, that hang-glider… It was a matter of time before I was dragged in by the Victory City cops and formally charged. Had pulling a gun on my counselor been the stupidest thing I could have done? I didn’t know. But it had certainly felt like the only thing I could have done after receiving a certain text message today. When I reached my parked scooter, I jumped on board and rode it hard through the sheeting rain.
“I should have shot him,” I ground out. The rain falling down my face felt warm. Maybe I was crying. But if I was, they weren’t tears of sadness.
Dark buildings rushed past me and car horns honked, unhappy to be sharing the wet roads with my little scooter. It was a relief to leave downtown and hit the quieter suburbs. I rode my scooter too quickly through a roundabout and nearly wiped out. With my heart pounding I straightened the wheel and slowed my speed as I pulled beneath the porte-cochere for the Dandelion Home. I was soaked and probably wild-eyed, completely at odds with the quiet serenity of the place, but I didn’t care as I ran through the front entrance.
It was Director Endicott.
“Please,” I said in a rush as I skidded inside. “I got your message.”
Endicott had always struck me as a man treading water in both his career and personal life. His suit was the pale gray of over-worn river rocks, shiny at the elbows yet rough at the hems. His tie looked like something bought in a pack of six. I often felt slightly sorry for him, thinking he deserved better.
Today, though, there was a definite spark of life in his eyes. Too bad it was a spark of exasperation.
“Arrow, this time it’s gone too far,” he told me. “The building itself is affected.”
“But I’m here! I’ll take care of it.”
“And when I can’t get in touch with you? You and I both know this will happen again.” He frowned and motioned at my face. “You’re bleeding—”
I waved off his concern. “You know I’ll heal.”
After a pause, he nodded. He turned and hurried through the lobby, expecting that I would follow. “This is very bad.”
“But the suppressant works.” I dogged his heels. “As long as we keep using it—”
“You stopped paying for doses three weeks ago. Your latest payment didn’t go through. The billing department left numerous messages for you.”
My embarrassment felt hot enough to sear the raindrops from my skin. “I’ll get the money to resume treatment. I’ll have it by next week, I promise.”
“She needs the suppressant now. And a week later. And the week after that. That’s how it works. It’s continuous, and so is the expense. And as you know, the doses are not cheap.” His voice echoed as I followed him down the tiled hallway. “No one will fault you for moving your grandmother into the Crossing Program, Arrow. That’s where everyone ends up eventually.”
I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands. “No way in hell. She’s not ready for the Crossing.”
“She’s not lucid. The majority of the time she doesn’t recognize anyone around her—”
“But she’s still projecting!”
He sent me a grim look from over one shoulder. “For better or worse, yes, she is. Alright, Arrow. We’ll deal with this first. I need you to calm her so the nurse can administer a sedative. It’s essential before everyone in the building is harmed.”
We hurried around a corner and the floor became carpeted. The lighting was the same here as it had been in the tiled section, but it seemed darker because I sensed ghosts crowding around us. It was depressing. It bolstered my determination that I wouldn’t put my grandmother into the Crossing Program. The program was the final easement into the end of a person’s life, dignified and peaceful. But I resisted it. No matter how it was done, it still meant death.
A female nurse I knew as Melody and two male orderlies that I didn’t know stood outside my grandmother’s room as though guarding it. Their expressions were strange. The men wouldn’t look me in the eye. They seemed shaken. One of them was ashen-cheeked and kept curling and uncurling his hands.
“What has she been doing?” I asked, uneasy with their reactions.
Nurse Melody spoke in a hushed voice. “Elise has altered the composition and nature of her room.”
“She’s turned the entire thing into a man-eating monster!” the pale orderly cried. His nametag identified him as Edward. Two red splotches marred his cheeks as he stabbed his finger at the door to my grandmother’s room. “We nearly died in there!”
My eyes widened. “But her projections aren’t real. She tampers with perception. It’s not really—”
Edward stepped toward me aggressively. “That old lady in there should be behind bars. Or better yet, shoved through the Crossing.”
My jaw dropped and then fury filled me. “You son of a—”
Endicott stepped between us and took a firm hold of Edward’s arm. “Enough. You’re being paid very well to deal with these sorts of things, Edward. Arrow is here now and it’ll all be settled. Let’s go to the dining hall while she and Nurse Melody calm Elise down.”
“Good luck,” Edward snarled at me. “She’s as much a monster as that room is. That thing came from her!”
The two orderlies weren’t about to defy the director, especially since, as he’d mentioned, they were being paid higher than normal wages. Dandelion cared for elderly patients whose mental decline made their magic powers either inconvenient or potentially harmful to themselves or to others. Dandelion also had a reputation for intense privacy, which was why I’d moved my grandmother here. But it came at a considerable price.
As soon as the men were out of earshot, I turned my disbelief on Nurse Melody.
“Did she really hurt them?”
The older woman shook her head, though I sensed she was holding something back. “She only scared them. But…the danger was real, Arrow. You know how the projections work. As long as you believe them you can be hurt by them. You’re fortunate that Director Endicott didn’t call the police. Some on the staff begged him to.”
That explained the urgent text message I’d received, warning me that action would be taken if I didn’t pony up the money due on my account.
My stomach clenched. I couldn’t take any more suspense. “Please. Let me see for myself.”
She caught me before I could reach for the door. “You need to wear this.”
At first glance she held out a bundle of ropes and straps. When she shook them out I saw that they comprised a chest harness.
“So you don’t go anywhere,” she mumbled, avoiding my eyes as she lowered the harness over my shoulders and chest. She cinched it in back and fed one end of a long white strap through a D-ring between my shoulders. “We usually use these for residents who sleep walk.”
I had the feeling I wasn’t about to step into a dream. More like a nightmare. Nurse Melody wrapped the free end of the strap around her waist and held on to it while opening the door with her other hand.
“Calm her for ten seconds,” she told me. “That will give me enough time to administer the sedative.”
I nodded tightly and mentally braced myself as she pushed in the door.
It swung open on gloom. The fluorescent lighting was gone. So was my grandmother’s bed, and the chair and table which normally sat beside it. The dresser and the mirror that sat upon it—all gone. Even the walls and the one window with a view outside had vanished, replaced by fog that curled over the ceiling and crept along the floor until it spilled into a square hole in the center of the room. Within that hole I saw a set of stairs descending into a gray-green light.
There shouldn’t be stairs in this room. There wasn’t a basement as far as I knew. Even if there was, access to it wasn’t granted through my grandmother’s room. I stepped forward slowly, cautiously, trying to see what lay at the bottom of the stairs. But the steps seemed to go on forever, diminishing into more mist.
“Grandma?” I called out, unsure where I should direct my voice.
I heard nothing except the rush of my own blood through the veins in my ears. The only option was to take the stairs, though I didn’t want to.
“This is only a projection,” Nurse Melody reminded me as if she’d noticed my hesitance. “Remember the harness. It will mentally ground you to reality.”
I looked back the way I’d come. She stood in the opened doorway, a shadowed figure gripping the strap attached to my harness. Behind her I could see the white-walled hallway and the industrial carpeting. The sight of Dandelion as it truly existed helped calm the racing of my heart and quelled the massive disorientation that I felt.
I placed my foot on the first step. Then the next. As I slowly descended, I tried to visually pierce the mist that concealed what lay at the end of the stairs. The lighting was too strange and dim. The mist was in constant motion, bubbling and swirling like the steam rising off a boiling pot of soup. Was that where the monster hid? Would I reach the bottom and be torn apart?
I took another step down and my foot sank in up to the ankle.
Understanding and panic struck me at once. I’d expected gnashing teeth or the grip of sharpened claws, not to be swallowed alive. This was how the monster would eat me. My other foot broke the surface of the step I was standing on and sank in, too.
I tried to pull myself free. It was impossible. Without a solid surface to push against I could only sink. As I clawed at the higher steps behind me, trying to get a grip on their smooth surfaces, the steps below swallowed me up to the knees. My feet grew chilled as though they were succumbing to frostbite.
“Arrow!” Nurse Melody yelled.
“Pull!” I shouted back.
The harness seized tight against my shoulders and chest, pinching beneath my arms as she hauled back on the strap she held. She was strong and she pulled steadily. But her efforts did nothing to slow my engulfment by the stairs.
As I sank in up to the hips, kicking exhaustedly at what felt like jellied ice, the mist below began to change. My heart hammered against my ribs. A body clothed in a white nightgown began to rise out of the mist, vertical but floating. White hair streamed about its head like a halo of light. The mist blew away like puffed dandelion seeds, revealing the figure’s peaceful, somnambulant face.
“Grandma!” I cried out in a mixture of relief and dread. Anything, I knew, was still possible. “Grandma, it’s Arrow! It’s Arrow! You have to stop!”
Her body continued to rise as I continued to sink, until we met in the middle, her closed eyes drawing abreast of my forehead. I hesitated and then I gave up my clinging grip on the stairs to reach for her. My fingers passed through her hair as though through clouds. Her cheek felt like an exhalation of air.
“Grandma, help me,” I begged desperately. “Don’t do this!”
Her lips parted and I thought she was going to smile or speak. But her mouth kept opening, wider and wider until the entire upper half of her head hinged back, splitting her skull. Where her throat should have been yawned a black tunnel that stretched into an endless distance. Naked, grasping limbs filled it, each flailing like pale earthworms. Faces howled soundlessly from within the murky walls.
The stairs in which I was submerged suddenly tilted, angling me toward that tunnel to Hell. I tried to thrash my legs free but I’d have better luck breaking them. The stairs’ grip on me was absolute. I put my hands up as I was steered into the literal jaws of death. As my arms breached the tunnel of limbs and faces I screamed.
Strands of my hair kicked forward, stirred by the passage of something too quick to be an insect. The stairs jerked and then reversed their movement, taking me away from the Hellish tunnel. Beneath my feet the stair steps firmed, raising my lower body out of the melt. My hips cleared, then my knees. Finally my shoes emerged from the goo. The entire set of stairs began to rise and soon I was carried up into my grandmother’s room. The steps beneath my feet melted and spread again, but only to become a floor that filled in the square hole. The last I saw of the misty form down in the hole was its pale blue eyes gazing up at me and its mouth curled into a sad smile. The floor sealed over it completely.
The lights blinked on. I squinted against the star-bright intensity. All of the missing furniture in the room had returned, including the bed containing my grandmother. I rushed over to her, nearly tripping because of my shaking legs.
A dart that was smaller than the tip of my little finger jutted from her bony shoulder. I plucked it out and tossed it to the floor but the sedative had already begun to take effect. My grandmother could barely keep her eyes open as she looked up at me.
“Arrow…the world is changing,” she whispered. She brought a frail, knobby hand to her mouth and covered it as though to muffle a sob. “Where did all the goodness go?”
I gently pressed my hand to her cheek. I was relieved at the corporeal feel of her. “The goodness is still here,” I promised her, trying to sound strong despite my jangled nerves. “It’s just tricky to see sometimes. But it’s here. You don’t need to fight anymore.”
“I tried to eat the sinners,” she told me as her eyes filmed over. “That used to be my responsibility in the war. I was the only one who could.”
“And you saved so many,” I told her around the lump in my throat.
My grandmother had fought to keep us safe during the Drowning War, but others had feared her strength and took steps to neuter her. This was the result. I believed that she was still strong. I also believed that she was extremely damaged. Deep inside, she retained the will to fight. But because of all the drugs, she now fought only in her manic telepathic projections.
“You don’t need to be responsible for anything anymore,” I told her. “You’ve done your duty.”
She blinked and then she caught my hand in hers. Her skin was as soft as rose petals. “The past comes back, I think. And then I can’t tell the difference.” Her puffy cheeks turned pink. “I get lost in it sometimes, Arrow. So lost…”
“I know. I understand. But you’re doing fine. Don’t worry.”
A noise turned my head. Nurse Melody inclined her head slightly and I saw that she held a syringe tucked against her side. I nodded. As she shuffled to the other side of the bed, I stroked my grandmother’s cheek, drawing her attention away from the nurse.
“I’m graduating soon,” I lied. “Soon, I’ll be able to turn spoons into swords. I’ll do the fighting for you.”
She smiled weakly. She didn’t notice when Nurse Melody injected the sedative into the IV line running into the back of her right hand.
“You should turn this world into an enormous, glittering palace,” my grandmother whispered. The sedative worked quickly. Her thin, blue-veined eyelids began to slide over her eyes. “Use your power to remake the world, Arrow. Don’t fight it like I did. Make it pretty. For me.”
Her eyes fell shut and her fingers went lax around my hand. I pressed a kiss to her forehead.
“I have a dose of suppressant.”
The hushed admission from the nurse widened my eyes.
Nurse Melody looked furtively to the open door. “It’s only a portion. I saved it from another resident who didn’t require the full dose. We keep track of all the vials so I can’t get a full one, but…it’s something. With your permission, I’ll administer it. It should help for a couple of days. She’ll need another dose, soon, though.”
“Thank you,” I said softly. “You don’t know how much I appreciate this.”
Nurse Melody injected the suppressant into the line and then pocketed the evidence. “She’s an important lady.” Her gaze was fond as she admired my sleeping grandmother. “One of my heroes from the war.”
I stiffened, but she shook her head at me.
“I’ve known for some time, Arrow. I didn’t tell anyone then and I won’t now. I know you have your reasons for keeping her here under a false name. I respect them.”
I nodded slowly, warily. “It’s complicated, but it’s for her safety.”
“You don’t need to explain to me.” She sighed and looked sadly at my grandmother. “I hate seeing her lose control like this.”
I could only nod, ashamed. It was my fault that my grandmother lost touch with reality. If she received the suppressant regularly she would be fine.
Endicott had returned. He took a look around the room and then turned his attention to my sleeping grandmother. His regard was not unkind. “Let’s talk in my office.”
Once there, he gave me a towel with which to dry off. I rubbed my hair with it and sank into the chair opposite him. My body felt like it was made of lead, though as I’d told him, the cuts I’d sustained when jumping through Morrison’s window had healed completely.
“She’s an amazing woman,” Endicott remarked as he regarded me from over steepled fingers. “My brother and I used to keep a tally of all the demons that the freedom fighters killed. Gruesome, yes, but psychologically uplifting during a dark time. We both imagined that we were fighting alongside them, doing our parts, though of course in reality we had no way to contribute.”
“Did you imagine being locked in a hospital and drugged until you no longer understood the word ‘fight?’” I asked bitterly.
He didn’t flinch from my ferocity. If anything, he deflated. “No. What followed the war was…controversial.”
“The government still denies it!”
“Yes.” He sighed. “It was a travesty. And now here we are.” He reached up and loosened the knot in his tie. “Unfortunately, in her current condition, Elise’s magic has become dangerous all over again.”
“I’ll get you the money for the suppressant, Director. I will.”
“I believe you’ll try.” He studied me a moment. “I understand your parents’ death merited an honor inheritance…”
“It’s run out,” I admitted, not able to smother a spike of fear at that knowledge. “It was only meant to pay my expenses through school. But I’m going to graduate soon and I’ll be able to get a good job.” The lie came too easily and I questioned why I kept repeating it. Did I think I could make it come true by pure force of will?
He nodded and turned his head to look at a painting on the wall. It was of a waterfall in a faraway place where the ground was black and jagged and the sky steel gray. It was a stark, lonely image for him. I would have expected a scene with grazing sheep, maybe. I reminded myself that we were all deeper than we appeared, some holding reservoirs of peace and satisfaction, some stuck on a battlefield where the fighting was never-ending.
“We’ll take care of Elise.” He faced me again, his expression stoic. “That’s what we do here. But I have a boss to answer to, and he doesn’t extend credit. Not even to heroes.”
“He won’t have to.”
“Understand this, Arrow: if you don’t find the money I’ll have no choice but to remove her. Or…admit her to the Crossing Program.”
I clutched my hands in my lap. “I’ll get you the money.”
Endicott looked as tired as I felt. The two of us were swimming upstream, dragging my grandmother behind us while trying to keep her afloat.
“You’ve had a difficult life, Arrow.” His voice was full of understanding. It made me angry, and then it made me ashamed for resenting his kindness. “I promise you it won’t always be like this.”
I nodded at the platitude but it did nothing for me. I’d just made my already difficult life a thousand times more so by pulling a meddled gun on my counselor.
“I recently sent my brother to the Crossing,” Endicott said quietly. His gaze sought the waterfall again. “It wasn’t so bad. He didn’t feel a thing.”
“What did you feel?” I asked him.
He stared at the painting and said nothing.
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