For a moment Alan Ryans could only gasp at the painful, painful cold, and try not to get any more of the failed attempt at punch in his mouth. Was that grape Jello, mixed in with what was supposed to be pink lemonade?
That’s the last time I walk under the Home Ec window. Ever.
Why did they even have Home Ec on the second floor? Couldn’t they spring for more plumbing than just the setup for the cafeteria kitchens? Wasn’t like Hancock High was anywhere cheap to go-
“Hey Dash, you didn’t look out the window first!” A hand the size of a baked ham waved, as the football quarterback attached grinned down. “Sorry ‘bout that! Oh man, what a mess....”
Alan took a breath that tasted pinky-purple, and sloshed his soggy way away from the window. He didn’t think the guys up there had dumped out failed party punch on top of him on purpose; the laughter up there didn’t sound vicious enough for that. But nobody was taking a precious sliver of time out of their Friday afternoon party prep to help the new kid out, either.
Perfect end to a perfect day.
It’d started with sleeping through his alarm, and dashing out the front door with no more breakfast than he could slap between two of Miss Tanya’s pieces of toast. Then he’d almost caught up to Morgan MacLea on the redhead’s walk to school, just in time to catch her curious, dark-lashed look at him. Which had resulted in blushing, and a horn-blaring jolt of adrenaline as he almost walked right in front of traffic.
Smooth, Alan. Real smooth.
But he’d managed to get into school without killing himself, and made it to his homeroom just as the bell rang. Only to be told by the prim lady in red glasses whose name he hadn’t quite gotten yet that it wasn’t his homeroom... anymore.
“Didn’t you get the email? Principal Cavins reassigned you.”
To the Bio lab with Mr. Dzez- Zvezdi- damn it, he was going to get the biology teacher’s name down eventually.
Probably about the time I figure out why I wanted to hug the guy who invented the Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts.
Alan just didn’t do spontaneous hugs with people he’d never met before. Much less a prickly young Bio teacher who wore a blue Hancock sweatshirt two sizes too big, and used glares with the same devastating finesse as a sushi chef used fillet knives.
But looking into gray eyes, he’d wanted to toss caution to the wind and just glomp the guy. Because here was someone who understood.
He hadn’t, though. Fortunately. Way his luck ran, the guy would have karate-chopped him into bits and then charged him with harassment.
Anyway. Bio lab. Morgan’s homeroom. Which should have been all kinds of cool, if he could keep from spontaneously combusting every time she gave him one of those bird-quick glances. Or it would have been, if Principal Cavins hadn’t rewritten his entire schedule.
All things considered, Alan hadn’t really been surprised to find himself summarily booted into the principal’s office. He had been surprised that the violet-haired man was smiling at him. Bright. Open. Cheery, even.
Somehow, some way, he knew this was going to be a disaster.
“I’m moving you into the Theater track.”
...Yep. Definitely a disaster.
Alan liked to think that he wasn’t a cynic; just pragmatic. He was in Hancock High because he could probably get as good an education where his father wanted him to be as he could have where he’d wanted to be: back in his hometown, well north of the Mason-Dixon line, where his mother had worked as an independent blogger and writer, met his dad whenever Silversmith Sr.’s legal business took him up north, and smiled her way through life until The Accident.
Which he was not going to think about. Not. At all.
He’d been doing fine on his own, damn it, just fine. He could cook, he could clean, the condo was paid for and he was balancing the budget left from his mom’s insurance well enough that Child Services had been tentatively coming around to the idea of just leaving him alone. Though if they’d had one clue about little Maria and her ragged band of street survivors, they’d have yanked him in so fast his sneakers would have been smoking on the sidewalk.
But they didn’t, and they hadn’t, and between his mother’s notes and Sister Thomasina’s careful dance with Immigration, he’d been pretty sure he’d had Maria and the other ak’al-ab’ on track to get refugee status. Until a month ago, when the world had suddenly flipped upside down and he’d wound up curled up on the floor, crying his heart out and so damn hot, he’d been burning up....
Alan didn’t remember dialing 911. He had a bad feeling that he hadn’t; that Maria had used her key, and found him, and run for it after she’d called for help. When he’d come around more than a week later, he’d been in a Florida hospital, where a helpful nurse had told him everything would be fine, the fever had finally broken, and his father was coming to take him home.
Awkward didn’t even begin to cover it.
For now, he didn’t have the resources to get back North. For now, he couldn’t go home. So Alan planned to bide his time, keep in contact with Sister Thomasina by email, figure out some way to get a job without his father or his father’s legal wife finding out about it, and in the meantime keep up a somewhat friendly facade of someone grateful to be here, really. Which included not getting into trouble at school. No matter how insane the principal was. Even if being in the same room with the guy gave him the oddest swoops of hope and wariness down his nerves. He was going to stay calm. “Look, Mr. Cavins. My father set up that schedule, I don’t have any problems with it-”
“Then you should have.” The principal’s smile was just a little more sober. “There’s a reason I get all the new students up on stage at least once.”
What, besides the embarrassing torture value?
Though it hadn’t been nearly as embarrassing as it could have been. Sure, Principal Cavins had had a full assembly the first day, where he’d warned - er, informed them that Hancock High had a strong theatrical arts program; everything from acting and dancing to electronics and SFX makeup. And that he was always on the lookout for new talent. But he’d only grabbed students a few at a time, during their free periods over the course of the first week, so Alan’s own personal nightmare had only played out in front of about twenty people. And Morgan.
Morgan had been beautiful.
Granted, from what he’d managed to pick up from the school grapevine so far, the MacLea family grew up on the dojo mats, and maybe breaking a pile of flaming bricks with one heel-strike was no big deal.
Then it had been Alan’s turn. Not up against one of the teachers, like the rest of his luckier classmates. No; he’d been shoved up on stage right in front of Principal Cavins himself. The guy whose last role in Hollywood had been the swashbuckling Sinbad the Sailor. With a sword in his hand.
This is a terrible idea.
Which he’d tried to tell the guy, as the principal pulled violet-dyed hair back with a silver and leather tie and Alan tried not to drop heavy metal on his own foot. He’d have felt safer trying to jump over an alley with three annoyed gang-bangers behind him; that, he’d done before. “Look,” he’d stammered, “this isn’t going to work, I don’t know anything about fighting, the only sport I’m into is track-”
The principal’s smile had been terrifyingly happy. “So run!”
He’d tried. And maybe stayed ahead of sword, kicking feet, and grabbing hands for all of... oh, about thirty seconds. They’d had to drag him off the stage, after.
And now Cavins wanted him in the Theater track? Why?
“So....” The principal’s grin had teeth. “Right about now, you’re wondering how crazy I am, and if you can get out the windows first. You can’t, by the way. You’d need a lot more training for that.”
“Though with hands like those, I know you’d make it down from the window. Most freshmen here wouldn’t,” Cavins reflected. “Track. Right. What do you really do? Rock climbing? Gymnastics?”
Like his mom would have been able to afford either of those. “You’ve got my records,” Alan stated. “I do track.”
“Right,” the principal drawled. “Well, whatever it is you don’t do, you have the grip strength for swordwork. That’s important. But there’s something even more important you don’t know yet.” Cavins held up his old schedule, and deliberately tore it in half. “You could take these classes. And probably do well. And have all the time you think you need to plan your escape.”
What? Wait, how’d he know-
“I’m really trying not to take that personally, you know.” The principal tore the schedule across again. “I don’t know your whole story yet, but I can read between the lines. Your last name is Ryans, your father’s is Silversmith; your records got transferred down here without your direct permission, and a week before I got any of your paperwork you were delivered to our local hospital raving out of your head with a fever. In short - no one asked you, no one so much as gave you a choice to be here. And since you’re a stubborn kid, fierce enough to try to stay alive even when a mad principal’s coming after you with a really big sword... you’re planning to run for it.”
Cavins tore the folded paper a third time. “You have guts. I like that. Which is why I’m going to help.”
“...What?” Alan managed, tense. Because there was no way, no way an adult was going to help him get out from under his father’s thumb without strings attached. People weren’t that nice. Ever.
“You,” the principal said gravely, “are going into the Theater track. Where you will be very, very busy. And you will learn things. All kinds of useful things, for a kid who wants to try something his father definitely won’t approve of.” The smile came back. “And remember, learning is a collaborative experience! Think of your fellow students. They need more experience in dealing with interesting people.”
Alan blinked. Twice. That didn’t sound like the way anybody sane used interesting, unless it was May you live in Interesting Times. “Did you miss me falling over your feet?”
Cavins grinned. “Give it a week.”
“Give it a week,” the principal repeated. “Then I’ll chase you around a stage again. I promise, you’ll last more than thirty seconds.”
Way, way too good to be true. “On my own,” Alan said neutrally. “No help.”
“I’ll go after you as fiercely as I did then.” Cavins’ eyes danced. “I train stuntmen, Alan. I know good reflexes when I see them. You have them. You just need someone to drag them out.” Standing, he brandished a new schedule in Alan’s face. “Get moving! You’re already late!”
Bewildered, Alan had taken it. And bolted.
The rest of the day had been relatively tame, if he didn’t count forgetting his ID, getting looks over bringing his own bagged lunch, and getting lost in the halls three times while trying to find the rest of his new classes. Getting the textbooks he had traded in for the ones he needed now had pretty much taken the last oomph in his ability to blush. And now this.
Cold, damn it... okay, think. Alan knuckled his forehead, trying to push past that fine edge of fever that had never really gone away; just subsided to the point the doctors had sent him home to get better rather than risk catching something else in the hospital. Where can I get stuff cleaned off before this goop sets?
Well. If the football players were all up in Home Ec, they weren’t in the locker room.
Showers it is.
Sink first, actually; splashing water and scrubbing with paper towels until the rest should come out in another wash. Good thing old habits died hard. He was used to packs with mended holes, so he’d lined the inside with a plastic bag, and all his new books were still un-punchified. Pens and pencils would take a heavy rinse, but he could do that later. Lucky for him Hancock High had some old-fashioned stuffiness about computers; anything with a keyboard got left home, you had a whole computer lab to play with in a free period. Something to do with too many inter-class raids wrecking circuits; he still wasn’t sure he’d heard that right....
In the middle of looking over the rest of the damage, his teeth chattered.
Shoes and socks safely tucked on a bench, Alan threw his uniform into the shower long enough for cold water to rinse some of the sticky off. Snatched it out, and turned up the water as hot as it would go.
Alan breathed in steam, wringing the last smudges of purple out of mouse-brown hair, and tried not to think about the torture fall in his hometown would be right now. Until he could shake this fever, just a whisper of a cold draft made him hurt all over. Even air conditioning ached. As for keeping up his usual run schedule - he wasn’t that much of a stubborn idiot. He’d run some, but he planned to keep it light and short. And hope another week would fix whatever was wrong with him.
If it doesn’t, I might get out of Theater.
Though even thinking that made him grit his teeth and dig in mental heels. He hated to fail, even if he didn’t want to be in Theater. Or anything to do with acting, or makeup, or being seen. Lawyers needed theatrics. Anne Ryans had been an independent journalist and blogger; she’d used her words to change the world, not her looks. And he was going to do the same. Silversmith, Miller, and Katzinger was his father’s firm, and his half-brothers’, and they could keep it.
So no. He didn’t want to be in Principal Cavins’ pet program. Why would anyone sane want to fling themselves up against a maniac retired stage fencer with a real sword, with nothing between them and the death of a thousand cuts but a half-guess at which way to jump next-
Steel glinted, as the world slowed.
Alan shook water out of his eyes, trying not to think about that weird feeling in the midst of Cavins kicking his butt all over the stage. The moment he’d been sure, impossibly sure, that all he had to do was-
Heel-stomp, launch up and twirl, the opening is there-!
The edge of his hand had struck the base of the principal’s left thumb. He’d felt muscles spasm, loosening Cavins’ iron grip on the hilt.
Then the world had gone too fast and crazy again, and he didn’t remember exactly what had happened next. Only that he’d been crumpled on the stage, breathing too hard to move another step. And everything hurt.
Maybe I dreamed it. Maybe I didn’t even touch him.
Wouldn’t be a surprise. Ever since the fever, he’d had the weirdest dreams. Monsters, falling through a tunnel of light... and yet somehow, none of it counted as nightmares, because there was a weird core of peace. An utter certainty that he wasn’t facing the dark alone-
Alan swiped more water out of his eyes, and shoved the shower off hard. It hurt. It hurt, being alone.
Which made no sense. It’d always been him and Mom against the world. Sure, he’d had a few friends to run with and maybe play a videogame or two. And he missed them. A little. Wasn’t even worth mentioning, next to how worried he was about Maria and the rascals. Yet even worry felt nothing like this.
It’s just weird dreams, Alan told himself, grabbing a towel. That’s all. Get better, they’ll go away.
“How long can we share adventures like this, with Al-Thamen out there?”
A young boy’s chuckle, and a hand gripping his. “Forever.”
Just a dream, Alan thought, dressing in his gym clothes; at least they were dry. Just a terrible - wonderful - dream.
Seriously, Al-Thamen? His subconscious must have been drinking from the old fairytale fountain while he was out. And thank god Morgan couldn’t look inside his head. If she ever found out his mind had dressed her up in a skimpy ancient slave girl outfit, they’d never find his body.
You’re lucky you’re still breathing as it is, Alan knew, settling the cord that held his multitool over his head. Even if all else failed and his house keys went the way of the dodo, he could still get in and collapse in his own bedroom. Wasn’t burglary if you were breaking in to where you lived, right? “Did it hurt when you fell from Heaven?” Fail, Alan. Utter fail.
He didn’t know which was scarier; the looks from Morgan’s older, toothier cousins as they cracked their knuckles, or the fact that it hadn’t been a line. He’d seen her move; like a falcon, like a red wolf on the prowl. He’d seen her stop and help up one of the cafeteria ladies’ little kids who’d tripped, swiping off tears with a napkin and informing the boy with a stern and serious air exactly how to clean that scrape off so his mother wouldn’t worry. And his world had just - turned over.
Which was insane. Why would a cute girl like Morgan even look twice at him? He wasn’t that tall, he definitely didn’t have the muscles somebody on the football squad could lay claim to, and, well, hair that looked like a giant mouse could borrow it and no one would notice. Mom had always said he was utterly adorable, but that was Mom; most people thought the family’s gold eyes were just weird.
I don’t know what Morgan needs that I could give her. I mean, who am I to give anybody around here anything? But - if she does need something, I want to be there.
Heh. What a dream. So far all he’d managed was a lot of babbling and a few inane questions about the MacLeas and local martial arts tournaments, with a couple added intelligent bits like, “What’d you think about number 3 on the Chem quiz?”
Alan took a deep breath, and sighed. Packed up his clothes, put on slightly squishy socks and sneakers, and slung his backpack over his shoulder. It was Friday. Time to stop thinking about Morgan, and crazy principals, and crazier dreams about a blue-haired kid he could never quite see, blinded by sun-bright birds.
Just get home and collapse, Alan told himself. Try contacting Sister Thomasina again tomorrow night. She ought to know if she’s got the right files by then. If she doesn’t, might be able to get some out of online storage, or... I don’t know. We’ll think of something.
Looking both ways, he headed out the door that led toward the football field. Scary territory, but he’d already snooped around enough to know if he just snuck through the chain-link corridor and took a left, he’d end up behind the grounds maintenance shed at the start of the pine woods, and that was usually a quiet run home-
Darkness burst in his face, like a flutter of black birds.
Red and black as lava, they flung him against the side of the shed, sinking into the sand-painted concrete wall as if they weren’t quite real. They were real enough to hold him, though, no matter how much he struggled. “What the hell?”
In black, Alan thought inanely, as a tall, sharp-bearded man stalked into view, long coat over his suit as if he stood in the middle of his own personal blizzard. Of course he’s all in black.
“A child.” The man’s accent sounded foreign; European, maybe? “And you thought this would save you?”
“Let him go!” The words that came with another clank of chains weren’t English, but somehow Alan knew them anyway. “He hasn’t done anything to you!”
That voice, Alan thought, fighting to stay upright as chains bit into his arms, draining away strength like water. Where have I heard that voice before?
Thirteen, maybe fourteen; definitely a boy, even if the blue braid escaping from his turban was long enough to try roping a horse. Eyes just as impossibly blue, and defiant, as the kid struggled under his own weight of red-black chains.
Alan swore, and fought his chains harder. A kid out of his dreams, a perfect stranger - he didn’t care. Nobody hurt a kid in front of him. Not while he was still breathing.
“But child or not, the power is there,” Black Coat mused to himself. “And in such a callow youth... ripe for the plucking.” Fingers glittering with dark power, his hand plunged down.
What- not happening...!
Black Coat’s hand was under his skin, rummaging around in Alan’s chest like he was poking for lost car keys. Invading, tearing-
With a smirk of triumph, Black Coat pulled out a glowing black sword.
That... was inside me...?
The blade shimmered with unearthly heat, too hot for mortal flesh to bear; heat sucked out of the marrow of his bones. The world grayed out as Alan’s knees gave way. Dimly he could hear Black Coat chanting, the chained kid’s pleas to wake up, Alibaba, you’ve got to stay awake, Amon needs you-!
Alibaba? Alan wondered, mind a muddled mess of monsters and light and cold. He thinks I’m his friend?
Which didn’t make sense, anymore than dying of hypothermia in the middle of a Florida afternoon. But he was. Alan could feel the chill stiffening his fingers, closing down his thoughts like a river locked in ice.
Have to do something.
“Alibaba.” The blue-haired kid had used Black Coat’s chanting distraction to get over to him, chains and all. Tears were trickling down his face; Alan felt one splash on his cheek. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! He found me before I could wake up - before I could wake you up, or Morgiana, or anyone!”
Alan blinked, trying to think. Chains... mean a lock.
He fumbled open one side of his multitool, thumbnail prying open the little prong of steel most people used for a nail-file, and he’d learned to use for... well, various things involving doors he was on the wrong side of. Gripped the kid’s arm, and turned it to look over the manacle.
Don’t care if it’s magic. Don’t care if it’s impossible. If they locked on, then there has to be a lock!
There. A dark line in darker magic. Alan stabbed the nail-file in, and twisted.
Open! Damn it, open!
The kid’s chains were draining him even worse than his own; sucking away life and hope like vampire leeches. Alan gritted his teeth and kept prying. I’m going to open this thing if it’s the last thing I do-!
Dream-images flickered through his daze. A lock that needed two right hands to open. A smile. A promise.
Alan drew in a breath, for one last defiant snarl. “Khul ja shem-shamayim!”
With a note like shattering crystal, chains burst asunder.
Yards away, Black Coat cursed, a steel wand flaring white-hot before it warped and melted. “You dare defy me, slave of Solomon?”
Damn right he did. Alan couldn’t get the words out, no matter how much he wanted to hurl them at the man. Huh; he’d broken all the chains, not just the kid’s. Too bad he didn’t have the oomph left to take advantage of it. Djinn aren’t slaves. They choose their own kings... why do I know that?
And why did his multitool feel warm?
“Alibaba.” Faint and far away, he felt smaller fingers close his own on familiar metal. “Don’t give up! Repeat after me - don’t complain, Amon, there’s no time! - sacred servant of decorum and austerity-”
The words were ancient. Impossible. But even as everything faded, he knew them.
-I command thee and thy brethren.
Warmth, flaring against his fingers.
Use my magoi to lend tremendous power to my will.
Warmth burned into hot, racing down his veins to kick his faltering heart back into rhythm.
“Show yourself, Amon!”
Fire, roaring around him like a forest set ablaze.
The metal in his hand wasn’t a tool, anymore.
Alan glanced up from the antique dagger in his grip, and put the kid behind him. He didn’t know how he was standing again; breathing, even though it felt like someone had scraped his soul raw. But he’d take it. “Back off, you son of a mule and a drunken camel!”
Wait. That was definitely not what he’d meant to say.
Alan cleared his throat, feeling the flames inside the blade ready to flick out again. There were already scorch marks spiraling over the red bark mulch, and how the hell was he going to explain that? “I said back off!” His free hand was tucked behind him, ready to either grab the kid or slam up to help a block, and why on earth did he think he had any clue what he was doing?
“So you too can summon the spirit of a past warrior from the rukh to empower your champion,” Black Coat mused, fingers twitching as if they meant to grab something out of the depths of his coat the moment Alan blinked. “But that spirit has had no time to learn the strengths of this body.” A smirk. “Or its weaknesses. Modern mortals are so very soft, aren’t they?”
Alan wouldn’t say that, exactly, but right now, the guy might have a point. He’d done enough rooftop running to recognize the tremble of exhaustion in his muscles. Finish this quick, or he’s going to be all over us. And he’s not shaking. “Who are you? What do you want with us?”
Alan fully planned to freak out about that us. Later. Right now he hated bullies, anyone who chained up a kid with life-sucking manacles was the worst kind of bully, and he’d set Blue-Hair straight about who he wasn’t after they got away.
Right. Get away. As in start moving, now.
“He said his name was Callimachus,” the boy behind him got out in a rush. “And he’s an alchemist and he was looking for the lost power of Solomon - and that’s kind of crazy, it wasn’t ever lost, Al-Thamen just slammed it down for a while - and where’s that pretty girl who was with him?”
Girl? Alan thought, trying not to freak at the fact that no, Blue-Hair was not speaking English. What-
He saw a flicker of movement just in time to keep his jaw from getting broken by a flying kick. Just.
Dark hair - not a girl, must be at least thirty - punches like a demon-
Flashes, in the terrible intensity of focus that was staying alive. He twirled and slashed, trying to ignore the feel of cloth and skin tearing with his strikes. She was fast, blindingly fast; the only thing that’d saved him was that flicker of surprise in dark eyes. That yes, he knew she was trying to kill him, and he was trying to kill her right back.
Oh god I’m going to be so sick.
Later. He’d be sick later. Because she was trying to get past him to the kid, and he - he was not going to let that happen.
Not going to have a choice. She’s fresher than I am. If I could just-
It was crazy. But what wasn’t? “Amon!”
Flames crashed down with his next strike, biting into thinner denim under her arm. Not a surface slash, he was through fooling around; this one was going to slide right past ribs and kill-
Black light flared, an intricate runic circle that blasted fire back in his face. The world flashed red.
...How am I still alive?
Because he was, even as he tried to pick himself up from the dent he’d left in the maintenance shed. An actual, three-inch-deep dent, the hard adobe-like coating over plywood cracked and powdered where it’d crunched inward around him.
Alan tried to catch his breath, every muscle shaking; steel still warm in his grip. All he could think was that he had to be hurt way worse than he knew. And even that didn’t hurt like his heart, as the black-haired martial artist gave him a dismissive look and headed for-
Almost. Almost, he had a name as the blue-haired boy stood straight. Stood there, not running like a sane person.
“You don’t want to do this.”
...And it didn’t matter how hurt he was, or that all Alan’s muscles felt like overcooked spaghetti. He gripped the edge of the broken wall, and started trying to pull himself up. Because she really, really did want to do this, and if the kid couldn’t see that-
The boy raised one hand, face set and determined, a white glow fluttering around his fingers like moths. “I mean it. You really don’t want to do this.”
Alan blinked away dust, as the woman stopped. “Sir?” she said quietly.
“A bluff, Phaenomena,” Callimachus declared, reaching into his coat. “He has no wand-”
The boy shoved his hand forward, and light blazed like a curved wall.
...Houston, I have officially hit Wonderland.
Their pair of bad guys seemed to be right at home, though. Callimachus and Phaenomena just traded a glance, and she started circling left to draw the boy’s attention from whatever Callimachus was about to do-
A streak of white, blue, and fiery MacLea red blazed through the air. Bone broke with an audible crunch.
Collarbone, Alan realized, almost on his feet. Good one, too many magicians rely on gestures- yipe!
Morgan and Phaenomena were a blur of kicks and punches as Callimachus stumbled away from the brawl. Any one of those, Alan knew, would have laid him out for a week if he were lucky. The two woman were striking and dodging like this was a walk in the park.
Okay, maybe Central Park.
Small fingers wrapped around his left hand, pulling him up with surprising strength. “Morgiana’s here too? Awesome!”
Great. Kid thinks we’re both his friends. This is going to be so messy. Alan coughed, surprised his ribs weren’t stabbing through his lungs. “We need to get out of here before somebody gets hurt!” Okay, well, hurt more....
But somehow that’d been the right thing to say. The kid’s face lit up, even as he reached up to pull off his turban-
White fabric had just floated free like laundry snapping in the wind, shaking into a wide white rectangle of impossibly stiff cloth. The fringe flicked him like fingers, scooping up him, the kid, and his backpack smooth as silk.
“Phaenomena!” Callimachus roared, left hand trying to scrabble something out of his coat. “Cut the carpet-”
Morgan backflipped away from her opponent’s sweeping kick, and leapt.
And she sticks the landing, natch, Alan thought, as white cloth hurtled upward fast as a rollercoaster. He didn’t remember dropping down to his knees as the wind tore at them, but hey, good idea-
We’re on a flying carpet. What part of any of this is a good idea?!?
“It’s okay.” The boy was right beside him, looking over the scratches and bruises he’d gotten with a way too experienced air. “You drained your magoi a lot - Amon, that was mean of you, when we get a little rest we’re going to talk! - but you’re okay.” He smiled at Morgan, bright as dawn. “You’re always rescuing us! I’m so glad to see you....” He trailed off at her slight frown. “What?”
Morgan stared at him, red-brown eyes intense as fire. Glanced at Alan. “Why do we understand what he’s saying?”
Alan tried to shift a little closer to the center of the cloth, staring at the longleaf and live oaks so far below. From this high he could even spot the Gulf of Mexico, a red pennant flapping on a sailboat tacking across the bay. “No. Clue. Whatsoever.”
“You... don’t....” The boy swallowed hard. “Oh. It’s like Titus was, after-”
And that was all the warning Alan had, as those thin, strong arms pulled him and Morgan into a three-way hug.
“I’m Aladdin,” the boy said fiercely. “And a long time ago, you two promised to wait for me. No matter how many lives it took. I’ve missed you so much!”
“Well, well.” Simon tapped the quite real sword at his side, bestowing the look of a man upon whom the gods have smiled to the black-clad pair trying to drag themselves up out of scorched mulch. “Trespassers.”
“Be careful,” Ja’far murmured. “This could be a fair fight.” The bruised black-haired woman had the look of a ki-using martial artist. And from the way the rukh swirled about the other, silver-black as a haunted thundercloud... if the man with the overly dramatic coat and broken collarbone wasn’t a magician - a powerful one - he’d eat off his daggers. Their unwelcome guests had shattered the wards around Hancock High like they’d dropped through a glass spiderweb; he’d barely had time to grab Simon and run here, hoping the uproar in the rukh wouldn’t lead them to corpses.
No bodies. But anyone who’d broken his wards was definitely not a friend.
Two on two; much more even odds than he preferred, ever. But right now there weren’t any innocent bystanders, so he could pull out as many underhanded tricks as he liked.
There were innocent bystanders, though. Ja’far let his gaze just brush over the scorch marks on the mulch; fire magic, definitely. Or mostly innocent, he amended, catching sight of the dent in the shed wall. The only people that could have made that and walked away were a full-strength Fanalis, a highly-advanced magoi user... or someone with a Vessel. The situation is moving faster than I thought.
Maybe he’d had too much of a breather, these past few years running Hancock High with Simon. The man lived such a quiet life.
...Well. In comparison to several lives ago. Oh dear.
“Who are you?” the magician said coldly.
“Oh, I think that should be my line,” Simon said easily. “But since you asked. Simon Cavins, school principal, ex-stunt fencer, and general ladies’ man.” He winked at the martial artist. Who looked like she’d just spotted a scorpion in her shoes, after she’d put them on. “Which means I’m responsible for the safety of my students on school grounds. And if that means warning off people who shouldn’t be here....” Fingers tapped near his hilt. “I guess someone has to do it. And you?”
The magician looked past Simon. Never a good idea. “And you?”
Normally his wards would have warned Ja’far of approaching strangers while they were still far away enough for him to take precautions, even if they were idiots out from the naval base pushing their vehicle to its redline. This time there’d been no warning before the wards had been smashed. He and Simon had barely had time to get here; Ja’far hadn’t had so much as a breath to raise the careful weave of subtle spells that hid his magic whenever there was reason to be wary.
And their opponent was an experienced magician. Meaning he’d seen enough to know the glimmer of gold in Ja’far’s own silver rukh wasn’t... normal. Not in this world.
“Oh, he never gives names on the first date,” Simon said easily.
Not that it would matter much if Simon did give them his legal name, Ja’far knew. Zvezdilin was effectively an alias; and given most of his students couldn’t even pronounce it, any curse that might try to ensnare it would be seriously weakened.
“This is school property,” Simon went on, “and you’re not members of my staff or parents of any of my students. I know all of them. Now. Do you want to tell me what you’re doing here, or do we call the police.” Simon’s smile edged a little wider. “Of course, you know what they say. When seconds count, the police are minutes away.”
“Is that meant to be a threat, Principal Cavins?” For a man who ought to be writhing in pain from shattered bones, the magician was remarkably self-possessed.
Well trained, then. Ja’far’s eyes narrowed. And probably much older than he looks.
Though it was the woman who might be the wild card. He knew enough about magic to be prepared for how an injured magician might strike out. But there was something he didn’t recognize in her stance. And that worried him.
“Threat? Why would I threaten anyone?” Simon’s own stance shifted; not a threat, but a promise. “I’m an educator. And no one strays onto school grounds without getting an education.”
“I see I already have,” the magician muttered. Eyed the both of them coldly, turned, and strode away.
Ja’far watched the pair of them head for the road, probably intending to follow the sidewalk to the nearby park’s parking lot. If they meant to travel by car, and not magic circle.
And they probably do, Ja’far thought. Magic’s thicker in the air these days - a slow seep, rather than dewdrops - but those two just got their noses bloodied. And they’re smart. They’ll save their magoi, if they can.
“Well. That was... interesting.” Simon’s grin still bared a few too many teeth. “Someone you’ve met before?”
“I don’t think I have,” Ja’far reflected. “Ever.”
“A whole new set of enemies?” Simon looked downright intrigued. “Well, I suppose that’s only fair. We might have too much of an advantage, otherwise.”
Ja’far stifled a groan. Why did I have to get reborn now? And as a magician?
Worse, as one of the magicians of the Magnos Clan, whose founders had been bound and determined not to let magic get lost just because someone didn’t survive to write the spells down. So they’d studied, and experimented with the thin magic still remaining in the world - and found a way to ask the rukh for what they thought they needed. So on their thirteenth birthday the elders of the clan performed a complex working, to find an ancient name that would unlock a child’s memories of magic that soul had seen - or done - in past lives.
Which works just fine so long as your clan members are reborn magicians.
A former Partevian assassin... hadn’t really been what his clan members had in mind.
At least I didn’t kill anybody getting out of the cavern, Ja’far thought ruefully. Most of the clan’s children “woke up” to being surrounded by magicians with utter joy. He - well, given Sindria’s sometimes dangerous relations with Magnostadt, coming to with jumbled memories and recognizing a potential wand crossfire had resulted in several bloody noses, a few broken bones, and a lot of very tense negotiations as he’d held a knife to what had turned out to be his great-uncle’s throat. All compounded by the fact that at the time, his grasp on modern language had been... shaky.
It’d settled down in a few weeks; the Magnos spell was meant to give access to past memories, not overwrite the present. He wasn’t the same Ja’far as he’d been in Sindria, for better or worse. Probably for better. His past self, encountering Simon, would have dragged him into the Magnos spell out of sheer paranoid self-preservation.
His present self, once he’d accepted the fact that Simon was real, and not a radioactive hallucination, had started layering every spell of mental and spiritual protection he could find on the man. Including a few he’d flat-out invented. Because no evil, grasping megalomaniac was getting their fingers into that soul ever again.
Never again, David. You’ll have him over my dead body!
...Not that that would slow Aladdin’s bastard of a grandfather down much. Ja’far only hoped the young magi had put that misbegotten son of the black rukh down for good.
But I can’t be sure. Ever.
All he could do was bury the past, and hope no other soul dragged it up again. Because anyone with the power to rouse those lost memories... wouldn’t have gentle intentions.
Sinbad of the Seven Seas. And he thinks he’s just an actor.
Well. Simon Cavins would never think he was just anything.
“So.” The actor-turned-principal eyed the scorch marks. “Fire magic, or Heat magic?”
Simon was one of the few non-magicians who knew there was a difference, if only in the effects; Fire magic used the energy of the spellcaster’s magoi to create flames, while straight Heat magic might just effectively microwave an unlucky victim. The former actor would never be a magician, but he’d taken to magoi manipulation to strengthen bodies and speed reflexes as easily as he had charming teachers, parents, and school boards. Ja’far’s clan didn’t exactly approve, but after Simon’s advice had allowed the clan to arrange certain property matters so they didn’t have to rely on just illusions to keep location scouts and Russian soldiers off clan territory, they’d mostly gotten over it....
And Simon’s raised brow meant he’d noticed Ja’far wasn’t answering. Oh no.
“So it’s definitely magic,” Simon concluded. “If the school grapevine bore honest fruit, Alan was headed this way to slog home after our sainted football team got careless. I keep telling them they need to practice manners if they ever want a second date... and none of them are ever going to get a first date with a MacLea if they cringe when she breaks things.”
Ja’far tried not to cringe himself. If his clan elders’ reading of the rukh was right, and the amount of magoi people could grasp to work magic was on an upswing after centuries of quiet, dating a Fanalis was about to become a distinctly hazardous life choice. Especially Morgan. Normally the rukh flowed thin and faint around Fanalis, the way it did around Morgan’s pair of wild cousins. But from the moment Ja’far had seen her walk into his homeroom the first day of school, she’d glimmered; like a lake casting back the faintest hint of dawn.
Caress that young lady for the first time, you’re likely to get your arm broken. Or worse.
Not that that had stopped some people before. In his past memories, one person in particular.
“Alan didn’t even flinch at the brick-break. Interesting,” Simon reflected. “Morgan must have thought that was, too. The way the ground’s torn up here, someone faced off with our denim-clad lady martial artist, and there’s no way Alan’s up to that kind of sustained fight yet.” He paused. “Yet a Fanalis can’t call up magic without risking her life.”
Yes, Simon had definitely paid attention to his lessons. This was going to be awkward.
Simon cleared his throat.
Very, very awkward. “Well, you do love surprises?” Ja’far tried.
“And you hate surprises,” Simon stated. “But you tossed our little gold-eyes up at me on stage anyway. And if the two we met tangled with two of my students hard enough to leave this,” he waved at the man-sized dent in the shed wall, “then they’re in trouble. What. Do. You. Know?”
Simon might not have seven Djinn backing him, but he still had a swashbuckler’s fierce confidence, and that drive to make a place for those who didn’t have any that had created Sindria out of islands and sheer determination. Ja’far braced himself, and told the truth. “I know enough to know I’m... confused.”
Some of the tension went out of Simon’s shoulders. “You do know him.”
“I think I did, a long time ago,” Ja’far admitted. Not that he could be sure. His past had crossed blades with no few fire-users, and back then he hadn’t had a magician’s eyes. “I’ve managed to touch him a few times, and his magoi feels familiar. He’s strong enough to support this much magic.”
“But?” Simon put in.
“But he shouldn’t know how.” Ja’far nodded toward the slightly singed dent. “You see how it’s shaped? That’s direct force absorption. Clean and efficient. Most magicians his age - especially if they’re self-trained, and Mr. Silversmith knows nothing about magic - wouldn’t know more than a standard Borg, if they could even manage that-”
“Right; the basic reflex sphere-shield. Which would leave a big domed dent, if he got hit hard enough to knock it back,” Simon finished. “Not at all like our poor shed. Still, he obviously managed to defend himself. The question is how?”
Ja’far hedged. “I’m not sure....”
Simon crossed his arms, fingers tapping on his sleeve.
Ja’far was blushing, he just knew it. “Unlessthere’sadjinninvolved.”
Simon blinked. Well, fine. He’d said it. Crazy as it sounded-
“Seriously?” Simon grinned.
...And how could he have forgotten that to Simon, crazy was a challenge? “But I don’t know how that could happen!” Ja’far protested. “I know magoi’s been easier to use these past few years, but it’s still an icicle-trickle to the ancient world’s waterfalls. No one’s seen a dungeon in millennia, much less a magi-”
The ground trembled.
No way, Ja’far thought, frozen. Florida did get natural earthquakes, after all; minor ones that would barely shake a plate off the shelves, but they did happen. And then there were the not-so-natural aftershocks and bangs from the various military bases scattered through the Panhandle. So there were plenty of perfectly reasonable explanations for why there was a shaking in the air and earth that wanted to rattle his very bones-
Simon was peering past him, open-mouthed. “...Wow.”
I don’t want to look. Wincing, Ja’far turned.
A tower was rumbling skyward, sheer walls the color of old ivory. A spiraling staircase seemed to sprout out of the midst of it like a vine, curling down farther and farther as the tower itself pierced upward.
...He couldn’t be absolutely sure from right here, but it looked like the school tennis courts were history.
Ja’far wasn’t sure exactly how long he might have stood there staring, if Simon’s hand hadn’t landed on his shoulder. “So that’s a dungeon, hmm?” The principal grinned. “Are we doing anything this weekend?”
Ja’far groaned. And wondered how fast he could get hold of Instructor Tiburon when - not if, when - Simon finally talked him into it. Because he had memories of six dungeons already, each more hair-raisingly dangerous than the last, and if he couldn’t lay hands on any of Sinbad’s other Generals then at least Sharrkan was going to go down with him.
Cheer up. Sinbad’s last Djinn said none of us would ever be allowed in a dungeon again - “seven Djinn is enough”. That might still hold. Maybe.
...Why do I not think I’m going to be that lucky?