Kaelan’s Postcasting Emergency Smoothie:
Lg spoonful peanut butter
Lg scoop protein powder--vanilla good, chocolate better
Lg scoop brown sugar
Lg scoop white sugar
Ice cream--any flavor, squash it down into the rest of it
1 2 5 peanut butter cups
Add heavy cream (milk is an okay substitute) until two inches from top of blender
(Must use blender. Stirring together = nightmare.)
Kaelan nodded his thanks to the barista and dropped his change into the tip cup before turning away with his brewed coffee. He’d never managed to make more money than what it took to scrape by, so he’d never gotten addicted to the fancy cappuccinos and lattes that everyone else drank. He carried his cup over to the station to doctor it with six packets of sugar and a healthy dollop of cream.
He’d always had a crazy metabolism. It was a trait other people, especially women, envied, but since he’d grown up never getting enough to eat, it had been nothing but a major inconvenience. These days his job as a bicycle courier made things worse. He burned off calories faster than he could replace them. Last week he’d had to poke an extra hole in his belt or risk his jeans falling to his knees in the middle of the street.
Sipping his sweet, creamy coffee, Kaelan skirted the line of patrons waiting to order and went outside. He’d been too impatient to lock up his bike, and even though it was pretty beat-up and not a prime target for thieves, losing it would also mean losing his meager income and, after that, his tiny studio apartment.
He leaned against the building and drank his coffee, engaging in some people watching. A guy wearing superskinny jeans went inside, and Kaelan enjoyed a long look at his butt until the door closed. An adorable couple joined him on the sidewalk a minute later, the girl’s hand tucked into her boyfriend’s back pocket. They couldn’t have been more than seventeen, fresh-faced and probably spending Daddy’s money on their coffee and the pastries inside the bag the boy held. They kissed, oblivious to the people having to walk around them and the disapproval of some older women at their PDA.
A little flicker of something pinged Kaelan’s awareness. Not too close by, which meant it was stronger than he’d first thought. He frowned and gulped some more of his coffee, letting his senses stretch out toward the source of the energy. Dark magic for sure. He looked around, but everyone seemed to be going about their business. Mundanes, not casters, then.
Whatever it was had nothing to do with him. If he chose to ignore it, no one would blame him, because no one would know. It wasn’t automatically his responsibility to stop every dark spell or ritual that happened in the city. It wasn’t his fault if someone else was clueless or an asshole.
He didn’t have to deal with this.
Growling with frustration, Kaelan drained his coffee in three long swallows, burning his throat, tossed the cup into a nearby trash can, and jumped on his bike.
A blue sedan’s horn blared at him as he dropped off the curb into the street, even though he wasn’t in its way and didn’t plan to be. He glanced over his shoulder, pedaled hard, and shot across the street in the gaps between cars passing cars.
The crackle of magic was already stronger, and he was only a block closer than he had been. This was going to be big and nasty, and he wasn’t sure how much time he had.
Kaelan made a sharp right into an alley. He’d counted on it being empty, but it held a guy with a grubby apron tied around his waist, dragging a plastic trash barrel toward a Dumpster.
Under other circumstances he wouldn’t, but this was an emergency. He flicked his hand, opening a portal immediately in front of him and ducking as he rode straight into it. The sizzle across his skin, all the hairs on the back of his neck standing up, made him clench his teeth, but within seconds he was out the other side, a dozen blocks closer to the source of the disturbance and crunching through a swirl of dried leaves that the wind had gathered in the alley behind a parking garage.
He rode faster, all his focus on keeping his path clear. With magic, it was easy enough for a gentle push on a pedestrian here or there to prevent anyone from wandering into his planned route. Well, easy in that he could do it, even if it meant later that night he’d crash hard and wake up tomorrow with the worst postmagic hangover in the world and craving a thousand calories or more for breakfast.
It seemed crazy, looking up at the blackened sky and swirling clouds over the old warehouse building ahead, that the city was full of people acting as if nothing was happening. The sharp, discordant waves of magic didn’t affect them. They might notice the wind, but they’d blame it on the weather. To most of them, it would never be real
, not the way it was to Kaelan and a handful of others he’d met.
He left his bike unlocked again, propped against a wall with a view to a quick exit if needed. Wrongness squeezed at him until he felt as if his insides were about to squirt out of his skin like a seed from an orange. He ran around the side of the warehouse, searching for a door close enough to the center of the disturbance to be useful. There weren’t any guards. That troubled him more than the prospect of fighting his way in. No guards meant any door he found would be locked--simple to deal with--and warded, which was more of an issue when he was in a hurry.
The door he came across tried to fade into the wall, its edges blurred. Bad
door. Kaelan focused on it, learning it from the sun-blistered blue paint to the gouge on the lower left panel. What would’ve taken hours when he was a kid took a few moments now. Practice made perfect, and he’d had plenty of it in his twenty-four years. The spell warding the door clung to his senses--an oil slick on his tongue, a persistent whine in his ears, a skunk stink tainting each inhale.
He sent a wave of light over the surface of the door, cleansing it of the spell, if doing nothing for the caked-on grime. It took endless seconds to soak in, but when it had, the door yielded to his touch, the lock snicking
open, the handle turning with a grate of metal that made him wince.
“Shh,” he told the door under his breath and patted it approvingly when it opened fully without another creak.
Kaelan winced again as a wave of magic escaping the building washed over him. It was the kind of wrongness mundanes might notice, interpreting it in a way that made sense to them--the smell of gas from a leak, the suspicion someone was lurking close by with a weapon. He closed the door behind him quickly and quietly.
Even wearing a blindfold and earplugs, he would have known where to go. Dark rituals of this magnitude were loud
in every way possible. He felt what was happening down into his marrow. His teeth ached.
There were two people involved in the ritual. Kaelan sensed each person’s signature, like a collection of smells overlapping one another. Plus someone on the sidelines who wasn’t participating. Kaelan wasn’t sure who he was, but the odds were good he was a caster and male. His signature was proof of that, though it was indistinct. A shield could have that effect, but the smudging was subtly different. Interesting.
Kaelan moved down the hallway toward the darkness, intent on a doorway that didn’t have a door in it. He crept through into a huge open room; the ceiling was at least thirty feet up, which didn’t surprise him. Some spells required a lot of space, and the way this one made his skin crawl confirmed it was one of them. He squinted and focused on the man and woman standing in the center of the room with inky-black magic swirling around them. They were the eye of the storm.
The watcher was off to the right, inching forward. And invisible. Kaelan couldn’t see the caster, only sense his presence, glimpsed out of the side of his eye. A shield converted to a cloak, had to be. Kaelan sucked at shields, and that kind of tweaking was beyond him.
He had no idea what the watcher had planned, but it didn’t matter, because the ritual was ramping up, the level of magic like nails on a blackboard. The woman took the cover off a basket and grabbed a black kitten that squirmed in her grip, trying to get away.
Kaelan didn’t have time to think. He had to react, and fast. He lifted his hands and lit up the room with white-hot sparks.
The two doing the ritual spun around, but their attention went to the cloaked man, not Kaelan, because the invisible man was now a guy crouched over, looking exposed.
Shit. Was that his fault? For the cloak to have popped like a soap bubble as his spell sprang to life might have been a coincidence, but Kaelan had learned that around magic, coincidences were rare. He’d also learned the basic truths that actions had consequences, good intentions counted but didn’t save you from those consequences, and people using kittens in rituals probably grew up thinking Cruella De Vil was the heroine.
The sparks zipped around the room, angry fireflies, burning skin. Kaelan spread himself thin to keep the sparks from touching fur or the guy whose ass was now on the line.
It was a nice ass, showcased by black tailored slacks. This wasn’t the time to be appreciating the beauty of the male form, but Kaelan had always been good at multitasking. The guy was tall, with strawberry-blond hair swept back off his face and wide shoulders. Damn, he was taller than Kaelan. Total deal breaker. Oh well.
From the incredulous, furious glare the man shot him before muttering an incantation that created a fence of shifting bars in front of him, the attraction was one-sided. Kaelan still wasn’t sure he was responsible for the man’s predicament, but clearly the man didn’t share that uncertainty.
Time to show he was on the side of the kitten lovers in the room before the guy put him at the top of his to-kill list. Even if the cat in question was on the scrawny side, with a slit ear indicating its life had been packed full of excitement, and a total lack of cute to its name.
Kaelan gathered the sparks into a ball, compressing them until the mass they formed glowed too brightly to look at.
“Can’t hold it,” he yelled, not entirely lying. The ball writhed over the couple’s heads, tendrils of light shooting out randomly. “It blows, the whole place is leveled. Give me a reason to be nice and let you live. Put the kitten back in the basket and walk away.”
What he expected was some kind of verbal response. Instead, the woman lifted a hand and dispersed Kaelan’s sparks much more efficiently than he’d gathered them. They exploded outward, sizzling as they struck the floor and singeing Kaelan’s skin and clothes. He yelped and slapped at them, which was wasted effort; it wasn’t as if they were live flames he could extinguish. He’d created them, and he made them vanish.
The watcher moved between Kaelan and the other two while Kaelan was still figuring out what to do next. He wanted to tell the guy that he didn’t need any help, but that was when the man performing the ritual sent a dark sphere hurtling toward his head. He went from resenting the fence shield to profound gratitude.
The sphere struck the shield, and the impact threw Kaelan’s rescuer backward onto his ass. Kaelan got his magical ammunition under control and shot it into the center of the ritual. The woman blocked it again, but the kitten, seemingly aware that the person holding it was now only doing so with one hand, made a loud, angry sound and flipped out of her grip. It hit the floor with a light thud, then scrambled to get its feet under it and ran off like a shot into a far corner of the room.
Kaelan was too worried about the trouble he was in to go after the cat. He was just glad it had gotten away. If it had any survival instincts, it would keep running and not look back.
“Darkness take you!” the woman screamed.
As threats went, it didn’t scare Kaelan spitless. In fact it left him wondering why someone with the ability to control his fireball didn’t have the imagination to come up with something less stupid and clichéd.
Until the lights went out, and yeah, okay, apparently it’d been a prediction, not a threat. Good to know.
Breathing wasn’t an issue, and nothing in the squid-ink cloud of ickiness was trying to bite chunks out of him, but when the blond guy snarled out an incantation and the darkness shredded like damp paper, Kaelan exhaled with relief.
He glanced around the room, glad the air was clear, even if their opponents had fled. “Evil has left the building,” he muttered.
“With your help, yeah.”
Attack or apologize? Always an easy choice, but because he hated being predictable, Kaelan threw in humor and a smirk. “Look, I’m not sure what happened with your cloaking thing--nice way of adapting a shield, by the way--but we all have performance issues from time to time. Don’t beat yourself up about-- Hey!”
The finger poking his chest hurt, but he set his jaw and held his ground, exchanging the smirk for a glare. Green eyes shouldn’t sizzle, but the ones glaring back at him were doing just that.
“If I turned you into a mouse and got the cat to come back and eat you, it’d play hell with my karmic balance, but it’d be worth it.” The flat, cultured voice made each word a slap across the face, stinging, contemptuous. “Fucking amateur. Do you know how long I’ve been tracking that pair? Weeks. Weeks
. And now they’ve seen me.”
“Traumatic for them, but they’ll recover.” Kaelan jerked his chin up. “And yeah, I don’t charge for it, but I’ve been casting since kindergarten, and I’m good at it, so unless you want to wear your lungs on the outside of your manly chest, lose the attitude, Abercrombie.”
“What the hell are you doing here anyway?” The guy was tall and condescending, sure, but Kaelan had been intimidated by worse.
He shrugged. “I was over by Vernon, and I sensed the buildup to the casting. I knew it was something big, and I couldn’t ignore it. Believe me, I tried.”
“Yeah, somehow I don’t find that hard to believe,” the other man grumbled. He blinked. “Wait. Over by Vernon? That’s sixteen blocks from here.”
“Wow. Charming manners, and you can count too? I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have figured you had enough room in your head for math, what with all the bullshit.” Kaelan wasn’t even sure what he meant; the aftereffects of his magic use wouldn’t hit for an hour or more, and right now he was riding high on adrenaline. “Anyway, I don’t owe you any explanations.” He looked around. “You see where that cat went?”
“No.” The man followed him as he crossed the room and started poking around in a collection of cardboard boxes. “I’m serious. You were over by Vernon, and you picked up on a ritual happening here?”
“Yes.” Kaelan reconsidered. “I mean, no. I wandered in here entirely by accident. Does that work better for you? I wouldn’t want to screw with your limited worldview. Or any other part of you. I mean, I don’t even know your name.”
“Maxfield Ancaster,” the guy said absently. “Who are
That wasn’t the same as asking his name, but for once Kaelan decided to give the guy a break. “Kaelan Bishop. I’m a bike courier. Help me find the cat, okay? I want to make sure he’s all right. Then I’ll answer any questions you want.”
“I could make sure of that.”
Kaelan snorted, abandoning the search in favor of listening. Was that a rustle over to the left? Please, let it not be rats
. Though the cat wasn’t much bigger than one. “I bet. Listen up, Mad Max. If you plan on doing something to me I don’t like, telling me in advance isn’t the best idea you ever had. If my casting screwed with yours the way you think, it was an accident. And for the life of me, I don’t see why it would.”
“I felt you,” Maxfield said. “Ever built a house of cards and someone walks into the room, and the next thing you know, the cards are falling? It was like that.”
“Huh.” Kaelan shrugged. “Weird. Let’s never do magic within a mile of each other again, okay? There. Problem solved.” He saw the tip of a tail curl up from behind a box. Black, furry, feline. “Got you!”
A moment later, blood welling up from deep claw marks, he revised that. The cat had most definitely got him
. Clinging to his hand with its front paws, back paws scrabbling wildly, the young cat sank its teeth into Kaelan’s thumb, the pain eye-wateringly intense.
“Fuck! Let go, you little bastard! I’m a friend!”
“I don’t think he approves of you,” Maxfield said, deftly detaching the cat from Kaelan’s hand without a whisper of a spell. “They say children and animals always know.” He held the cat out, its bottom cradled in his palm, his other hand grasping it by the scruff. The cat mewled a protest, then yawned, showing off a raspberry-pink tongue before purring, the buzz louder than it was. “Still want him?”
It was hard not to sound sullen. “No, you keep it. At least it likes you.” Kaelan wiped blood off his arm onto his jeans, which were probably already a lost cause, and stuck his bleeding thumb into his mouth before realizing it would make him look like a little kid. Which was how Max was treating him even without a reason for it.
“Yeah, okay. Nothing else about tonight turned out the way I planned.” Max shifted the purring kitten into a more comfortable position and gave Kaelan a thoughtful look.
“What?” Kaelan frowned at his bleeding wounds and then at Max.
“I’m going to take the cat home. You can come with me and wash those scratches and bites out if you want. You don’t want to end up with an infection.”
“I’m a healthy kind of guy. I’ll be fine. Try again with a better reason I should go with you.”
Max shook his head. “You killed my shields. I want to know how and why. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve got a workshop equipped with everything we’ll need to test you. I’ll start with aura, blood, and essence and go on from there.”
The hell? “You can test how many sparks it makes when I punch you right here.” Kaelan squared up to him, drawing in what he had left in the way of power, which wasn’t much. He needed sugar. He needed sleep. He didn’t need to be poked and prodded by someone with a grudge.
“You’d be safe, if that’s what’s worrying you. The tests aren’t painful.”
“Safe and pain-free isn’t the issue. Trusting you is.”
“You can’t tell me you’re not curious too,” Max said, and damn, but he could put a lot of charm into his voice when he tried. Too much charm.
Kaelan gave him a chilly stare. “Tell me that wasn’t you using glamour on me. Really? Me?”
Max had the nerve to stare blankly back. “Why would I do that to another caster? Why would I do that to anyone? It’s tacky as hell, and I don’t do negative magic. Ever.”
That seemed to be a real hot button for Max. Kaelan did his best to stick to spells that didn’t leave him edging toward the dark, but he’d be lying if he said he never used a smidge of glamour to smooth life’s rough spots. Not often, but sometimes. He just didn’t like it being used on him.
“Yeah, well, it sure seemed that way,” Kaelan muttered. He ran his hand through his hair. Needed washing. Sweat and dust clung to every strand. Max wasn’t wrong about his curiosity. If he could cancel shields without knowing he was doing it...ouch. That might get nasty real quick. Maybe there was something screwed up with him or Max. Maybe it was temporary. Wouldn’t hurt to find out.
“Okay, I’ll come back to your place. But I want a drink before we do anything, and there’s gonna be no prodding or poking unless it happens to you too. I was fine before we met, so I’m thinking it’s your fault, not mine.”
“Good. My car’s around the corner. Where’s yours?”
“Don’t have one. I told you, I’m a bike courier. You can give me and my trusty steed Rusty a ride.”
Max grimaced without losing an iota of his good looks. “You named your bike
“Not really. It’s a word I use a lot around it, and it stuck.”
Max’s car was a beat-up piece of junk any respectable car thief would’ve crossed the road to avoid. It didn’t work with the picture Kaelan had formed of the man, and his bemusement must’ve shown, because Max grinned as he popped the trunk.
“Your bike should fit.”
“Be careful not to damage the paintwork,” Max said blandly.
Kaelan eyed the dented driver’s door, then ran his finger over a scratch on the bumper. It was a deep scratch, but his finger met nothing but a smooth surface. He took a step back, focused on the car, and rolled his eyes as its true form swam up, hanging like a mirage before fading. “I get why you wouldn’t want to drive a fancy car around here, and your misdirect glamour is fucking good if it fooled even me, but why not make it look halfway decent? If anyone I know sees me in this POS, I’ll have to memwipe them.”
Max shot him a cold look. “Don’t joke about that.”
Kaelan held up his hands, then grabbed at his bike as it slid sideways. He’d propped it against the car without thinking twice. How much did it cost to polish out a scratch on a two-hundred-thousand-dollar car? “Sorry.”
“The weight it carries is huge. Most people don’t realize. They tweak a memory here, wipe another there, then--”
“They’re soul-lost and screaming in the Netherhells. I know
, okay? Bad joke.” Kaelan wedged his bike into a space bigger than it should’ve been in either version of the car and slammed the trunk. “Want me to drive, and you can hold the teeth with fur?”
“Ha-ha. Good one.” Max gestured at the passenger door, and they got in, Max passing the kitten over to Kaelan, who took it gingerly. The cat’s purring hesitated as it eyed Kaelan with suspicion, then picked up again where it had left off after the car pulled away.
They drove across the city toward a much nicer area than the one Kaelan lived in, and stopped on the edge of a neighborhood renowned for its exorbitantly high rents. Max paused outside a building that looked average from the sidewalk, older and showing its years but as if it had been well maintained, waiting for the traffic to clear. “Guess I’ll find out how much trouble he can get into when I’m not here,” Max said, glancing at the kitten. He didn’t sound happy.
“Hey, if you don’t want to leave him alone here, I can go home,” Kaelan offered. He found himself hoping Max wouldn’t agree, which was weird.
Max looked at him. It was a long, calculated sort of study that made Kaelan want to squirm, but he didn’t let himself. No way was he going to let this guy get the better of him. “No, you can come upstairs for that drink you wanted. We’ve got some research to do.”
“My apartment. I own the whole building. I’m a private investigator, of sorts, but I’m picky about my cases. Let me put the car away first.” He steered the car down into an underground garage next door and parked it in a space right by the entrance that wouldn’t exist to mundane eyes.
As soon as they got out of the car, it shimmered and went invisible, though Kaelan saw a vague outline if he concentrated. Made sense. Max would need to find it, after all, and not by walking into it. “Nice,” Kaelan said, handing the kitten to Max.
“Yeah. It’s an Aston Martin DB9. Is this a game? Pass-the-kitten, maybe?” Max tucked the small scrap of fur into the crook of his arm. “I don’t have a litter box, food, or a scratching post. Shit.”
“They produce a lot of that, considering their size.” Kaelan patted Max’s arm consolingly, then snatched his hand back as a jolt of static went through him. His fingers stung as if he’d grabbed a bunch of nettles. “Okay, we don’t mix well.”
“It’s starting to annoy me,” Max said, leading the way to an elevator. “We need to find out why. I don’t get a reaction this extreme when I touch other casters, and your aura’s clean enough.”
“I only just got it waxed. Usually there’s this streak I can’t get out.”
“You’re impulsive, smart-mouthed, and disruptive,” Max said, ignoring Kaelan’s flippancy. “But if that was enough to shatter my shield, I’d never be able to form one.”
“You are not
taking me apart to see what makes me tick.” Kaelan stepped into the elevator, unsurprised when Max pressed the button for the top floor. Max wasn’t the type of man to like people over him in any sense. “Not unless I get to prod you back.”
Now where had that come from? They exchanged a speculative glance. Then Max said casually, “I’m bi, but you’re not doing it for me. Sorry. You can keep flirting, but it won’t get you where you want to go.”
Asshole. Kaelan put his hand on his head, then moved it, palm flat, until it was level with Max’s nose. “See that? You’re too tall. And if you were a vacation destination, you’d be Detroit in the rain in November. I don’t want to go there. Ever. I’m a sun, sand, and ocean guy. Got it?” Max nodded, green eyes amused. Kaelan nodded back, a decisive jerk of his head. “Good.”
Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow