Vampires. Shifters. Fae. Djinn. Mages. This ain’t the New York City you know…
Aspen is a Norm. A non-magic. A human. And in the magically hidden boroughs of New York City—a city full of supernatural races and overseen by the powerful Mages—that’s a quick way to wind up dead. Or worse. So instead of magic, Aspen relies on her skills as a thief to stay alive and make ends meet.
Until she tries stealing from a Mage. And gets caught.
Even worse, the Mage is Lucien Dunadine, notorious rule-breaker and one of the most powerful members on the Council of Mages. When he discovers Aspen’s latent ability to resist magic, he wants more than compensation for her thieving; The Council is demanding Lucien present an apprentice to take part in a competition to select their newest member. And Lucien wants Aspen to be that apprentice.
But something sinister is going down in New York’s streets. Supernatural beings are popping up dead and mysteriously, impossibly, drained of magic. If Isak, Aspen’s handsome, aggravating opponent in the competition, doesn’t kill her first, they just might be able to figure out who’s behind the murders before an ancient evil is unleashed.
Welcome to the city. Let the competition begin.
Chapter One—The Fire of Memory
On the day her parents were murdered, Aspen discovered ice cream.
Brune, her mom and dad’s best friend, had gone with her to the shop. He’d taken her down the cobblestone streets of Ember’s Landing—one of the magically hidden boroughs of Manhattan—toward where they had just begun selling the frozen treat, imported from the Norms.
Norms. She hated the word. Non-magic folk. Humans. Weaklings. Like her, Aspen darkly reminded herself, even though her mom and dad had told her not to think of herself that way; because even Norms had a place among the boroughs, they said.
Even if no one else in the magical community thought so.
“I heard the ice cream tastes like heaven,” Brune said in that low, slow way of his. “And it’s cold like, the tu—tun…like the tun—”
The tundra?” Aspen guessed.
Brune’s face lit up with a smile that cut through his thick black beard. He beamed down at her, the edges of his eyes crinkling. “Yes, the tundra.”
Even though he was an adult, Aspen didn’t mind Brune coming with her. She loved him as much as she loved her parents, and he loved her just as much back. He always carried trinkets from his shop deep in his pockets that his fingers were too big to reach, but Aspen’s tiny ones could. Gears and tiny vials and scraps of spell paper. He always swung her around over his head whenever she asked, even when her parents thought it was too dangerous. He didn’t treat her like she was seven, but an actual adult. That’s what Aspen liked most of all.
So, no, she didn’t mind him coming with her. But she knew why he did. Ember’s Landing, where they lived, was one of the safest magical boroughs in New York. But even ‘safe’ in Ember’s Landing didn’t mean ‘safe’ if your family were the only Norms allowed. Even being a liaison (the word tasted funny on Aspen’s tongue, almost like lasagna) between the real world and the magical didn’t protect them completely. They’d had threats. The djinn, of course. A few Fae. Some of the vamps from Ember’s Landing promised to run them out, or worse. Aspen knew what they could do, even if her parents hadn’t wanted her to. She’d seen those long, sharp fangs, and the glowing red hunger in their eyes the few rare times she’d spied a vamp close to sun down. Norms didn’t belong in the boroughs. Norms were just a reminder of why the magical community lived in secret in the first place.
But nobody would bother her today. Nobody messed with Brune. Not the vamps, not the wraiths or shifters. Aspen bet even the all-powerful Mages would keep their distance.
Nobody wanted trouble with a giant, not even a half one.
The turned down another street. The cramped, balcony-studded houses were squeezed on either side of them like a set of mismatched teeth. The stone they were made of wasn’t like the rest of New York, built of metal and glass. This was older stuff, stained black and scuffed smooth by years of use. The magical boroughs were all built a little differently, but they were almost always the oldest part of any city.
“Magical folk, different folk, were always congregating together, even in the early days,” her mother had told Aspen. “Before most anyone else, really. There’s safety in numbers, after all.”
“Safety from what?” Aspen had asked. She knew that, as much as the different races distrusted each other, they distrusted humans more. “Norms can’t hurt them. They have magicand claws and stuff.”
“We Norms have numbers,” her father said, tussling her hair. “And weapons. And fear of the unknown. Those are enough to make even something as strong as a Mage or necromancer afraid.”
But as much as the magical communities said they disliked Norms, Aspen noted as they crossed a wide, fountain-filled courtyard, they sure did their best to copy them. Stores carrying Norm clothing lines sat beside electronic shops. Even taco trucks had been parked beside butchers and blacksmiths, these nestled within gothic-style buildings. It was as if the borough couldn’t make up its mind on what it wanted to be. It was a strange dynamic. One Aspen loved.
What she did not love was being the odd one out.
She heard laughing on her left. In the lip of the alleyway they’d passed was a small gang of kids around her age. Aspen tried to ignore them as they passed. She saw one of the girls whisper something to a boy. She pointed at Aspen and they both snickered. Another boy, one a little older with faint, claw-like tattoos running up the left side of his face, followed Aspen with his eyes as she passed. The girl said something to him too. He didn’t smile.
Aspen jerked her head away, face flaming.
“Are you all right?” Brune rumbled.
“I’m fine.” She reached up to slip her hand in his.
They finally found the ice cream place just off the square, between an apothecary and a shop full of knick-knacks. Some sort of off tune music was coming from inside the knick-knack shop. It made Aspen’s head hurt.
“Look at the line!” she said despairingly when they stopped in front of the ice cream place. It seemed the entire population of Ember’s Landing had come for the grand opening. She saw vamps, their hooded eyes and milk-white skin obscured by dark long-sleeved clothing and sunglasses. Beside them was the magic shimmer of one of the Fae; even a djinn, though those didn’t wander from their own boroughs into another’s very often. This ice cream stuff must have been something else.
“We can wait,” Brune said patiently, taking a spot at the back of the line.
“Why can’t theyjust go into the city and get it themselves?” Aspen demanded.
“Some can’t blend in as well as you can,” Brune said.
Aspen gazed up at his towering figure. It nearly blocked out all the sunlight, casting her in shade.
“Besides, your parents worked hard to get things like this into Ember’s Landing.”
Aspen kicked at a cobblestone. “I guess...”
A figure a few spots ahead turned to them. Aspen shivered as his ice-blue eyes hit her. His jaw hung limply from the rest of his skull, distended almost, able to unhinge to accommodate its monstrous appetite. She could see flecks of corrosive saliva in its rotting mouth as it gave her a toothy smile.
“Would the little girl like my spot?” It rasped.
The shade covering Aspen shifted as Brune stepped a little in front of her. She huddled behind the flaps of his jacket.
“Back off, ghoul,” Brune growled.
“Just a small taste of her life force. That’s all I ask. She’s young and ripe…she’s got plenty.”
“Ghoul…” Brune’s voice rose to a warning pitch. A couple nearby wolf-shifters glanced over in alarm.
“It’s okay, Brune.” Aspen gently tugged on his arm as the ghoul quickly swiveled back around. “It’s okay, really. He’s not going to hurt me.”
But now others had noticed them. Noticed her. She could see their eyes narrow, lips curling into sneers. She could imagine their thoughts: Magic-less. Human. Weak. Prey.
After an eternity, they reached the front of the line. Aspen ordered two scoops of mint-raspberry in a cone. Brune couldn’t decide so he got the same, the cone looking ridiculously tiny clutched in his sausage-like fingers. Aspen helped him retrieve some lumps of gold from his pocket to pay.
“Only dollars now,” the bored clerk said, pushing the gold back toward them.
Brune slowly blinked at him. “What?”
“Dollars? Cents? Norm currency?” the clerk said, more warily this time, perhaps noting Brune’s agitation and realizing this customer wasn’t just some annoyed imp he could brush off.
“Ember’s Landing’s phasing out old payments. Gold, spells, debts, threats, the works. Mage Shimshar’s already done it with the Fae over in Rivendell.” He held up his hands. “Not my policy, dude.”
“My parents gave me money, Brune,” Aspen said. She handed him the dollars and helped him clumsily flatten out the crumpled bills and hand them to the clerk. The kid exchanged them and handed the change back to Brune.
“We get more back,” Aspen insisted. She grabbed the money from Brune and counted it. “We get more.”
“Whoops,” the clerk muttered. He hurridly handed Brune the rest and he and Aspen shuffled back out to the street.
“Thanks,” Brune said. “The tiny numbers…I can’t see them very well…It’s not that I don’t know how to count…they’re tiny…”
“No problem,” Aspen said. “I’ve got your back.”
They tried the ice cream. Aspen closed her eyes in delight as the cold treat filled her tongue. Sweet. Buttery, almost. It was heaven. It was perfect.
“Aw…too little.” Brune was staring glumly at his empty fingers. Apparently one lick had been enough to finish his off. Aspen gave him the rest of hers. After another lick Brune stomped off to wash his hands in the square’s fountain. Aspen stood there, trying to remember the taste of mint, the coolness of the ice cream, the—
Someone shoved her.
She hit the concrete hard, half her face splashing in a rancid puddle. Her palms stung where she’d scraped them.
“It’s the Norm!” Someone cackled gleefully.
Aspen picked herself up, wincing at her bleeding knee. They’d surrounded her, the boys and girls she’d seen in the alleyway before. Angry eyes pinned her in place; clenched fists were held at the ready.
“What are you doing here, Norm?” one of the gangly boys said. He pushed her as she stumbled up, but Aspen caught herself before she fell. “What are you doing in our part of the city?”
“I live here,” Aspen said.
“Live here?” Another girl screeched. “You can’t livehere!”
“She means in the gutter,” another girl said. She kicked water at Aspen who brushed it off, determined not to cower from them.
“Not in the gutter!” Aspen said. “My parents—”
“Are Norms,” the gangly boy said. He pushed her again. As she hit the ground, Aspen saw the tattoo-faced boy from earlier. He was standing against the wall of the alleyway, partly in the shadows, arms crossed and watching her. Watching to see what she’d do next.
“I’m just like you!” Aspen protested, standing and facing them again. “I live here too!”
“You’re nothing like us,” one of the girls said. She held out her hand. “Can you do this?”
A small, magic-powered flame flared to life in her hand. For a second, Aspen was mesmerized as it flickered in her palm. Magic. Real magic. Aspen had never envied any of the magical inhabitants for their abilities. Not their shifting or enhanced speed or glamour. She’d never cared. Never in her life. Except for those who could wield magic. Except for that.
“Well? Can you?” the girl demanded.
“I…no. I can’t.”
“Or this?” One of the boys shifted so that his face was that of a wolf’s.
“Or this?” Leathery wings sprouting from another boy’s back.
“No, I can’t do any of that, but—”
“I’m not use—stop pushing me! Stopit—”
Aspen whirled around, bringing her arm up. She felt her fist connect with one of the witch-girl’s face, felt the skin of her knuckles split over her cheekbone.
The witch girl collapsed. The others—Aspen included—stood stunned for a moment, watching the witch girl pick herself up. Her face was blotched purple with rage and a worsening bruise. She summoned another ball of magic, and this time there was nothing mesmerizing about it.
“You filthy little cockroach! How dare you touch me!”
Aspen crouched, ready to defend herself again. Her pulse thumped in her ears. Every ache and pain on her body was there but sharp, focused.
The witch girl pulled back her arm. It jerked to a stop.
“Enough, Eve,” the boy with the tattoo on his face said.
“But—” The witch girl said. The boy squeezed her wrist and she gasped. Her magic sputtered out.
“I said enough. The giant’s coming back.”
Sure enough, Aspen felt the rumbling beneath her feet at Brune’s approach. It sounded more frantic than normal. Maybe he’d heard the commotion? Maybe somebody else had seen them?
The other kids scattered, all except the tattooed boy who lingered a moment longer. Aspen wiped the blood off her chin, feeling his gaze burning on her.
“What are you looking at?” she spat, glaring at him. He didn’t flinch.
“You should get out of here. Out of Ember’s Landing. You don’t belong.”
“You can’t make me leave!”
“I’m serious. You’ll end up dead. Or worse.”
She could still see the reflection of his eyes in the dark as they backed down the alleyway, before vanishing all together. Aspen wiped another smear of blood off her cheek and went back to the street. Brune nearly crashed into her as he came to a lumbering stop. He was panting, his eyes wild. He glanced down at her, his eyes barely skimming over her cuts, then said,
“Fire! At your parents’ house!”
He pointed over his shoulder. There, over the rooftops of Ember’s Landing, right where her parents lived, thick smoke was rising.
Even with her tiny legs, Aspen swiftly left Brune behind, sprinting as fast as she could, as fast as she ever had before. Her arms pumped. Her heart threatened to burst. Her feet practically flew over the concrete and cobblestone.
Halfway there she cut right, through a little hole in the plywood on the side of a condemned building. She flew up the rickety staircase and onto some scaffolding. Here she was able to tiptoe along the drain spouts and gutters at the edge of the roofs above.
Aspen knew this route—knew dozens of routes like these—by heart. Hours of exploring in the winding back alleyways and secluded pockets of Ember’s Landing when her parents didn’t know had given her a more intimate look at her home than someone who’d lived their three times as long.
Aspen had just reached the edge of the next roof when the smoke hit her, forcing her to cover her eyes as it grew thick in the air. She shimmied down the nearest drain sprout, scraping her knee again as she stumbled into the street. The brief pain was quickly masked by the stinging in her eyes. The smoke was thinner down here but already her head was hazy from breathing it in.
She rounded the corner and halted, forced to shield her face from the intense heat.
Her parents had been lucky enough to own their townhouse outright, purchasing one squeezed between a couple others like it on either side. It had been a narrow building, three floors, high ceilings, big glass-paned windows facing the front that Aspen had loved sitting beside during rainstorms, watching drops dribbling down them.
Now the heat from the fire had blown the glass out onto the street, scattering it like shards of ice. Almost the entire bottom of the house was enflamed, leaving only small gaps where she could see inside, the fire slowly crawling upwards. The townhouses on either side of theirs had already caught and were teetering dangerously. Fire spewed from the windows. Even from here her skin had begun to blister.
Where was everybody? She couldn’t see anyone else running away or toward it. Where were the water witches and druids? She’d even take the Norm fire department right now.
“Mom! Dad!” Aspen cried. A tremendous crack answered as something caved inside. “MOM! DAD!”
Movement, through the space in the front door still untouched by flames. It had looked like a person running upstairs—running back intothe fire.
Brune’s voice was still distant but growing closer. Aspen waited for the figure to emerge from the house. She was sure any moment her parents would burst out and hug her and assure her they were fine. Why didn’t they come out? Didn’t they hear her? Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe they were trapped. Maybe they’d die soon if she didn’t help.
Before Brune could catch up, Aspen took a deep breath and rushed through the front door.
The heat outside had been nothing compared to this. The sweat and puddle water coating her skin sizzled away the second she entered. Her face was seared with heat, the moisture in her mouth shriveled to dust. Aspen kept low to the ground and made her way to the stairs where she’d seen the figure run up. She couldn’t risk yelling. She had trouble just breathing.
She raced up to outrun the worst of the fire as it spread. Blackened walls and ash-covered floors greeted her at every turn. Aspen shuffled through smoldering carpets as she reached the second floor. Another flash of movement came from above her, up on the top floor. That was where her bedroom and parents’ offices were.
Another monstrous crackmade her look up just as one of the ceiling beams came crashing down. Aspen dove out of the way as it careened past and exploded on the first floor. She scrambled to her feet and began half-crawling her way up the stairs before the bulk of the flames could reach her.
Aspen’s bedroom door was open. Fire was licking its way in from the outside, peeling the posters off her wall, reducing the stuffed animals her dad had given her to nothing but beady marble eyes. Over the crackle of the rising flames below she heard movement in her parents’ offices just across from her. She shoved her way inside.
Just as an explosion took out the opposite wall.
Aspen was tossed like a limp sack of flour, slamming into the bookcase on the other side of the room. Her back was in searing pain, her front prickling with heat. Thick smoke and more flames were consuming every inch of the office, inching their way toward her.
Aspen forced herself to stand. Her parents’ filing cabinets were all charred, as was most of their books; years of work consumed in seconds. The entire opposite side of the wall was gone, leaving an opening to the outside. Aspen spied a pair of bodies on the floor just beneath it.
Her breath was sucked from her lungs. Her legs froze in place, then crumpled until she was sitting in a heap in the middle of the carpet.
No. No.It couldn’t be them. Her mind denied it even as her heart told her otherwise. Their bodies were so burned and blackened it was hard to tell, but Aspen knew. She knew even as her heart lurched and the tears falling from her eyes evaporated before they touched her cheeks.
All sensation had left her body. She was only partially aware of a figure clambering through the hole the explosion had caused. It was hard to make him out in the growing smoke, but then the flames lurched, casting him in harsh light. He was young, the top of his head smooth, his face twisted in a snarl of rage. He whipped around as he entered, his robes twirling, and raised a hand. A couple sharp bolts of red magic shot from the tips of his fingers toward somebody she couldn’t see. Another explosion followed a moment later.
The man finished pulling his leg through the hole and straightened up. He froze when he saw her.
“What—?” It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing before his sharp, cruel face twisted into a sneer. “A child…? Yes…yes you must be the offspring.”
He sneered again, and in the firelight Aspen saw his eyes glitter with malice. He placed his hand against one of the desks that wasn’t completely consumed by fire yet. The rest of it burst into flames.
“You.” Aspen’s mouth was chalk dry as she spoke, her tongue shriveled to a husk. “You did this.” She stumbled to standing. “You killed them!”
Before she could think about what she was doing, she was running right at the man, fists raised. He waved a hand. A sensation like an iron arm caught Aspen in the gut. She felt a rib snap. What remained of her breath was snatched away as she was thrown back into the center of the room.
“Pathetic,” the man said as Aspen curled into a pained ball. He stood above her, the firelight painting his face orange and red. “You’re not even worth the effort it would take to kill you. I’ll let the fire do that. It will look more natural that way.”
“I’ll—I’ll k-kill you,” Aspen wheezed. Her broken rib was stabbing into her lungs with every breath. “I-I’ll ki—”
The man knelt. He twisted Aspen’s face toward him. “Such spirit. Maybe if you lived you would ha—”
Another small explosion erupted over their heads. The man snarled a curse and spun away. A shimmering shield manifested in front of him, deflecting the next few blasts of magic that soared through the window. The man returned with a few of his own and backed out of the office.
Aspen blinked, trying to stay conscious. The smoke was thickening in her lungs. She could feel the heat of the fire growing closer. She could hear shouts now from outside. Other people had finally arrived.
Don’t mind me,her fading mind said. Just let me die. Let me—
A monstrous snap!came from overhead as another ceiling beam started to break. She could barely tilt her head to watch it careen toward her.
She wasn’t sure what happened next.
In an instant, the heat around her vanished; all noise ceased. She existed in a vacuum, like she’d been dunked completely into a deep, soothing pool. The outside world was nothing to her but a distant reality through a shimmering haze of magic. Shapes moved beyond it; the fire eating up everything around her; perhaps a shadowy smudge of movement. Maybe the shape of her parents’ murderer escaping. And then…and then…
Aspen’s world went dark.
Ten years and a lifetime later
Chapter Two—House of Troubles
This stupid job was going to get her killed.
“Are you serious? That’sthe house Hugo wants me to break into?”
Aspen drew back into cover, crouched in the alleyway across the street from the place they were supposed to hit. Then she took another peek, just to be sure she wasn’t overreacting.
Nope. The house was way, way bigger than Hugo had made it sound. An estate more than a house. Front gate, terraces, Italian-style red-tiled roof that was almost level with the roof of the building next to it. The entire place was a zoning infraction. And even a magic-less Norm like her—even an idiot—could tell it was just bristling with magical safeguards.
The kid Hugo had demanded she take along kept twitching beside her. Aspen resisted the urge to reach over and slap him into stillness. He was named Snitch (A very, very poor choice of names right there), was four months past due on his last haircut, and had a serious allergy problem, judging by the amount of sniffling and snot dripping from his nose into the faint wisp of a mustache on his upper lip. If he didn’t have the pointed, sharp ears and delicate, almost beautiful bone structure that announced to the world he was an elf, then he could have been any other loser kid on the street.
“Back. Back up.” Aspen ushered him farther into the small alleyway between the cell phone repair shop and Italian restaurant. This street of Manhattan was less used than some but she’d still sprinkled a touch of Fae dust on herself from Brune’s stash. Nobody even glanced her way, and she wanted to keep it that way.
“What’s the problem?” Snitch said. He wiped his nose. It didn’t help.
“The problem is Hugo didn’t specify that this was the place he wanted me to break you into. It looks like a fortress!”
Snitch’s lip twitched into a sneer. “I thought you were good.”
“I am good.” One of the best, if she wasn’t feeling particularly humble. But…
She rotated Snitch around and pointed. “What on earth does Hugo need in there so badly? And in the Norm world, too?”
Snitch shrugged his bony shoulders. “Not sure. S’not my job to ask questions, just to do as I’m told.”
“He didn’t tell you anything?”
“Look, Hugo just wants something in there,” Snitch said, his voice rising to a whine. “You know the Norm world and can get us in. So just do it already.”
Aspen eyes him for a full half-minute, until the shifty little elf looked away.
“Okay. But I’m getting paid double.”
Snitch coughed like he’d choked on his snot. “Double? Hugo will never—”
“He will if he wants you in there.”
Aspen could see Snitch weighing his options: come back empty-handed (not really an option) or come back with what Hugo wanted and a slightly higher price tag. Also, he’d get to keep all his limbs intact.
While the elf debated, Aspen slumped nonchalantly against the brick, trying not to let her anxiety show. She could do this. She knew she could. But bluffing with the only job and only money they might get for a while was risky. Brune’s rent was coming up and Aspen knew for a fact he didn’t have the cash to cover it. Again.
Snitch continued muttering to himself.
“Going once,” Aspen said.
“Just give me a min—”
“Yes! Yes, I’ll do it. Just get me inside.”
“Smart boy,” Aspen said, patting him on the shoulder. “Follow me. Stay inconspicuous, stay quiet.”
Even with the Fae dust, Aspen pulled up the hood of her leather jacket and crossed the street. That was just being extra cautious. Nobody in this snazzy part of town would even spare a glance her way. Not a Norm, not a Mag. The soles of her ratty Converse had almost come loose, her socks had holes, the seams of her jeans and shirt were frayed. Even the jacket was a size too big and smelled like stale sweat and cigarettes. But it was hers. Technically. She’d stolen all of it from Goodwill (she still wasn’t sure if that was stealing or not) because she didn’t want to take anymore equipment from Brune’s meager supply. Most of the clothes he stocked wouldn’t fit her anyway. He outfitted magic users, sometimes even bounty hunters and mercenaries passing through NYC on a job, all of which meant he didn’t usually stock clothes for overly skinny seventeen-year-old girls.
The only thing that would stand out about her was her hair, silver as a full moon. The one thing that (occasionally) saved her from the ridicule of the Mags. Plenty of Mag races had silver hair. Well, some, anyway, and she knew she wasn’t any of them. Unfortunately, so did most of the Mags where she lived. She had idea how she’d gotten that color, and didn’t particularly care.
They reached the other side of the street and kept walking past the house’s front gate. Aspen scanned for a way they could get in.
“Where are the other two chumps Hugo sent with you?” she said.
“They’re around,” Snitch said. “Keeping lookout.”
Aspen snorted. “You mean being useless.”
“You know, the house was back ther—”
She took a sharp left, through a narrow opening between the outer wall of the house and the next building over. They shimmied between it until Aspen found a wider place to crouch. She immediately pulled out her iPod and working gloves.
“What are you doing?” Snitch said.
“My job.” Aspen scrolled to ‘Start Me Up’ on the iPod, pressed play, and set it on the ground. She pulled back her jacket and double-checked her gear was all accounted for. Her knife was in its sheath, powders, pastes, and grappling gun secured, guns all loaded.
“This place probably has alarm charms,” Snitch was saying. “Aren’t you going to do a countercharm?”
Aspen slipped on the gloves and then cocked an eyebrow up at him. “I would if I could.”
“If you could…” Snitch’s eyes widened in realization. “Wait,you can’t use magic?”
“Have you ever heard of me?”
“I—of course I have! Tons of people have. But—”
“And have you heard I’m good?”
“Yes, but you can’t use—are you a Norm? You—Gah!”
Snitch leapt back as the iPod twitched. Eight needle-like metal legs sprouted from the back. The front screen broke apart and re-formed to make compound eyes and a single tiny camera where the bottom port had been. Music filtered out of its grainy speakers, each lyric cobbled together to say,
“Lady…Aspen,” it crooned in an R&B voice. “You look…lovely as…always.”
“Stop it, I’m blushing.” Aspen jerked her head up to the top of the wall. “Check out their defenses, Charlotte.”
The spider, Charlotte, immediately leapt onto the wall, its tiny legs digging into the stone, and scuttled up. Snitch watched it with revulsion until Aspen stood.
“If you’re scared I can’t do what I’m good at you can cancel the job. I’ll still get paid my share, so it doesn’t bother me.”
The pointy tips of Snitch’s ears flamed. “No. I just—Hugo didn’t mention what you were…”
“I don’t exactly go spreading that I’m a magic-less Norm around everywhere.”
Snitch continued staring at her for a little longer. Aspen let him until he looked away. His reaction was milder than most. As she’d grown older those in the magical boroughs—or in Ember’s Landing, at least—had treated her with something like grudging acceptance. She was here, and she wasn’t going anywhere. That didn’t mean they had to like it. Didn’t mean they had to treat her well. But at least most didn’t actively try to kill, maim, or steal her soul on sight.
Aspen held her arm out and Charlotte lowered herself onto it by a thin cable wire. She tilted its ‘abdomen’ up until Aspen could see the screen. A single runic symbol popped up. Three chalk-like markings sketched into an interlocking pattern.
“Huh. Pretty basic alarm charm for a place like that. Thanks, Char. Once the charms go down get the back door unlocked for us.”
The spider bobbed an affirmation and leapt back onto the wall. Aspen held up her right hand. A wheel of different runic symbols similar to the one Charlotte had shown her were etched onto a thin sheet of magical conductive metal. Just another of her modified designs. The metal, like most of the parts for the things Aspen assembled, had been a pain in the butt to scrounge, build, or steal. But in the end, she’d wound up with an arsenal of thieving equipment even the top-trained mercenaries would be salivating to get their hands on.
Aspen turned the wheel until the symbol for the counter-charm was facing front. She did the same for the other hand and then placed them both against the wall. With no innate magical power of her own, she’d had to make sure the gloves had been previously charged enough. But this should do it…
There was a sharp pulse of magic, shoving its way into the wall. A snap like a firecracker. The air filled with the charged stench of a broken charm. The faint shimmer of magic Aspen saw over the top of the wall faded.
“Go,” Aspen said to Charlotte.
The spider scuttled up the brick and vanished over the other side.
“Did you…make those yourself?” Snitch asked, apparently temporarily forgetting his earlier aversion to her being a Norm.
“Yes,” Aspen said. “We need to hurry. Chances are that won’t be the only charm this guy has and we need to be out before he gets back.”
Aspen easily vaulted the wall then crouched on the other side to wait and scan their surroundings while Snitch clumsily clambered after. The back garden was an insane amount of luxury space for the city. It would have been unheard of even within a magical borough. Most of the boroughs used shrinking spells to fit their part of the city between the Norms’, but even this was extreme. Outside the boroughs was even more rare. She imagined whoever this was had used some sort of expansion charm. No easy feat. It meant he was rich enough to pay for it.
Or was powerful enough.
“We clear?” Snitch whispered beside her. Aspen made another visual sweep of the yard. Trimmed hedges, ornate fountains, pool full of crystal blue water. She didn’t see the telltale shimmer of magic. Despite the lack of any magical talent of her own she’d never had trouble feeling or spotting it.
It’d kept her alive on more than one occasion.
“We’re good,” she said. “Charlotte should be almost done.”
They kept low and snuck around the outside of the hedges. Aspen scanned the ground for any other signs that there was something else she’d missed. With a house this luxurious the security was surprisingly light. Maybe they had a less subtle form of security: guard gremlins; nasty green suckers with sharp teeth you could keep in line with the promise of fresh meat. Maybe even a hellhound. Aspen shuddered as they reached the back porch. Baast, she hoped not a hellhound. She’d once run into one on a job. Once had been bad enough.
Charlotte had jimmied the back door open without Aspen’s help. Good. No more magic required. Aspen held her hand up to keep Snitch back, then stepped forward.
“Negative,” Charlotte answered.
Aspen sighed. She loved the little machine, but it did have its limitations.
“Guess we’ll find out.” She held her hand out and Charlotte leapt into it, folding back into an iPod. She slipped it into one of the many pockets in her jacket and motioned for Snitch.
“There, you’re in. Can’t guarantee there won’t be any lovely surprises your mystery man left inside, but my deal with Hugo was just to get you in.”
Snitch hesitated before nodding. Then he slipped around her and slunk through the door. Aspen carefully folded up her gloves, stowed them away, and followed. She usually hung back on jobs like these, but this person—whoever they were with their ridiculous house and lack of any prior info—intrigued her.
The inside was just as immaculate as she’d imagined. Full, glass-paned windows ringed a central rotunda of white marble, an enormous skylight at the very top. An immense crystal chandelier hung directly above her. Not one, not two, but three freaking spiral staircases led from where she stood to the second-floor landing. Aspen counted half a dozen rooms just on the ground floor.
She’d been in a lot of places to steal a lot of stuff, but this was by far the most elegant. Extravagance had been almost tossed around carelessly; gold gilded bannisters, crystal adornments on the doors, elegant paintings of Chinese dragons snaking across the walls, encircling the ground floor. Most of the other magical boroughs weren’t exactly poor, but they were nothing compared to this.
As she took it all in, another small twinge of nervousness festered in Aspen’s gut. Who, exactly, was Hugo stealing from?
While Snitch was busy rifling around in another room, Aspen took the stairs two at a time. Most of the rooms on the second floor were empty or filled with useless junk; books and dusty scrolls and artifacts that looked like they’d hold no real value if she tried to sell them on the black market. But Aspen could appreciate a collector of stuff. Brune did it. Tinkering with all the mundane and magical knickknacks he brought back was how she’d learned to build most of her gear.
A loud crash came from the first floor. Aspen ran back to the balcony and looked down between the chandelier to the first floor. Snitch was kicking pieces of a shattered vase off his leg. He brushed white chips off his pants and glanced sheepishly up at her.
“Idiot. Better find what Hugo wants fast. I leave in five.”
“What?But…But can’t you check if there are any more safeguards for me?”
“I haven’t foun—”
Aspen jerked her head up. Above her was just the chandelier and the continuation of the rotunda, another balcony bannister ringing it. She thought she’d seen a shimmer of magic, a flicker of movement. She took another look at her surroundings. Everything else looked normal. Except…hadn’t the Chinese dragon paintings been on the ground floor?
No, she going crazy. They werequite intricate, though, with their yellow peering eyes and snarling mouths. Quite life-like.
“I haven’t found any other charms,” she said to Snitch. “Five minutes. Then I’m out.”
She left a groaning Snitch behind and returned to the previous corridor, throwing one last look over her shoulder for anything out of place. She hadn’t seen anything just then, but instinct told her not to dismiss it. This was no ordinary job, or victim’s house.
Aspen rounded the next corner and paused. The air ahead in the broad, white-tiled hallway was shimmering in front of a single door.
Aspen triple-checked there was nothing immediately obvious that would kill her, then pulled out her gloves and slipped them on.
Sure enough, the door the shimmering was in front of had a severe locking charm on it. She could break it, but it’d probably drain the remaining magic her gloves had stored.
“You’d better be worth it,” Aspen muttered. She turned the circle on her gloves to the right countercharm and placed them against the door.
Searing pain raced up her arms. Aspen yelped and leapt back. The fingers of her gloves were singed as she yanked them off and furiously rubbed the raw, tender tips. “Why you—”
The doors clicked open.
Something in the hallway behind her rustled.
Aspen whirled, pulling her Dakri knife, the rarest and most prized possession she owned. She’d nearly gotten herself killed stealing it from a demon’s shop. Forged in the heart of a dying volcano the blade was cursed, making anyone it cut bleed continuously until Aspen pressed a button on the handle. It needed a constant supply of blood to keep the blade from rusting.
There was a chance that blood was coming soon.
Aspen flicked her eyes left and right, trying to pick out any anomalies in her setting. The knife would hopefully be enough against anything here. She wouldn’t use her guns except if absolutely necessary. Magic bullets weren’t cheap.
Keeping her eyes on the corridor, Aspen backed through the now-open doors. She swore she’d heard movement from the hallway ceiling, but there was nothing up there but lights and more of those eerie dragon paintings.
Aspen paused as she entered the new room. More immaculate than the others, it was also filled with floor to ceiling bookshelves stuffed with instruments and leather-bound books. This was the one room that actually looked somewhat used. Three broad tables were set in a fan before large-paned windows facing the garden. Instruments had been set on the center table beside writing tools: Spell sealing dust, pens, bottles of ink; open notebooks with blotches and scribbles messily scrawled on the inside.
Aspen paused as she trailed down the left table. She thought she’d heard the rustle of a page across the room; maybe the slither of scales on paper. But that wasn’t the only thing that’d made her stop.
In the middle of the center table was a device she’d never seen before. And that was saying something. With the amount of magical materials moving in and out of Brune’s shop she had seen a lot of things.
It was made completely of silver. It was pill-shaped, and almost completely smooth, the entire thing no bigger than a football. A faint blue glow emanated from the surface. When Aspen leaned closer she could see the shimmer of magic; hear it humming, almost like a computer fan on overdrive.
There was a single symbol etched on the top: claws reaching up from either side to encompass a single blood red dot in the center. Something else she’d never seen before. Maybe this trip wouldn’t be so fruitless after all—
Her hand accidentally brushed the outside of it. Aspen felt her fingers latch onto the surface, then violently shoved away. A force like a punch to the gut launched her into the nearest bookshelf, slamming her head against the spines.
“Hex it all!” Aspen wheezed, pushing herself up to a crouch. Her muscles shook as the excess magic ran up and down her skin. A moment later the magic dissipated. Another moment and the feeling of disorientation passed. It always did. She’d been hit with more magical attacks, safeguards, and counterspells then she cared (or dared) to admit. None of them ever lasted too long. She never knew why but she was willing to take whatever small mercy had been thrown her way. So she couldn’t use magic, but at least she could take a hit better than the other guys…
The silver pill thing looked unchanged. Figured. Whatever that had been had…
Aspen slowly froze as she stood, dread filling her as her eyes caught something at her feet. She’d knocked some items off the bookshelf when she’d hit. One of them, a scroll, had unfurled, revealing a deep, golden seal. A symbol she did recognize.
A Mage’s seal. Hugo had asked her to help steal from a freaking Mage’shouse.
Aspen jerked as the sound of sharp claws scuttled on the ceiling. From way back in the rotunda, Aspen heard Snitch cry out in shock.
Then Aspen was sprinting out the door, yelling, “Snitch! Snitch, we’re getting out of—”
Something hit her from behind, sending her tumbling into the hallway. Aspen rolled as she fell, avoiding the cleaving claws that pierced the ground where she would have landed. She sprang to a crouch to find herself face to face with the Chinese dragon paintings—one on either side of the hallway walls, both peering at her with glowing yellow eyes.
“Aw, troll piss,” she muttered as both of them lunged.
Hope you enjoyed the excerpt!