The rattle of the front door cut through Kay's sleep like a knife. Someone might have knocked, but since the door sat loosely in its frame, the rattle was much more audible than the knock itself. In her half-asleep state, she couldn’t decide if she had heard the wind or a potential intruder.
She sat upright and fumbled around for the obsidian pendant around her neck. She would rather not kill an intruder with magic, since the cops would ask too many questions, but it was better than getting shot or stabbed.
There was another knock, this time louder, and she calmed slightly. Whoever was at her door in the dead of night wasn't trying to sneak up on her.
She stepped into her apartment living room just in time to hear a muffled voice say: "Kay? Open up; I'm from Maywitch."
That was the last thing she wanted to hear at any time, let alone at 3 a.m. the first day of summer classes.
She strode to the door and opened it, squinting in the light of the hallway outside. "You trying to wake the neighbors?" she hissed.
She strode to the door and opened it, squinting in the light of the hallway outside. "You trying to wake the neighbors?" she hissed.
The man in front of her was a few inches taller than her, with broad, sloping shoulders. His expression was gentle, though, and he waved a hand over his shoulder dismissively. "Silence spells. Don't worry, no one can hear me but you."
And no one can hear any screams of protest, Kay thought as she bit her lip. She had heard rumors about Maywitch, the de facto governing force of the witching world, having to step up their activities in recent weeks, but this was unexpected.
"I, Juan Fredricks, am here to inform you that your presence is needed at Maywitch Western Base, and failure to comply will result in heavy sanctions under the Magical Unification Code," he said, his tone practiced and level.
She started to roll her eyes, stopped herself, and tried to disguise her emotion by sweeping brown strands of hair out of her face. She had known all along that Maywitch could come for her eventually; mage children were always taught to honor any request from them, for the good of their magical community. But she knew she wouldn't be much use to them, since she had stopped using magic except in self-defense. Plus, any sanctions levied against her wouldn't accomplish much. She could survive any attacks on her thin ties to the witching world.
"I decline," she said. "No offense, just not--"
"One of those sanctions will be the termination of your lease," he said.
She stared at him for a long moment. "What? You can't do that."
He offered a nervous half-smile. "Sorry, but we have an agreement with the landlord. I think you were under the impression some funds from your father's estate were paying for it, through an arrangement your mother's lawyer made. It's actually been us. It was part of your mom's agreement with us. We will revoke your access to the trust and make sure your lease is--"
"What agreement?” Kay stopped and folded her arms. "Back up. Where’s my mom? I want some proof for what you just said."
He nodded. "Let's get in the car and talk there, before any neighbors spot us," he said. "No obligation. Just a talk."
She stared down at the floor as she considered his offer carefully. Part of her was terrified at the prospect of having to get in a car with some random man claiming to be from Maywitch. Her heart, though, pounded faster at the thought of getting some answers regarding her mother's whereabouts. She had been missing for nearly two years - and if Maywitch had some kind of agreement with her, then surely they had some kind of clue as to where she was.
"How do I know you're really from Maywitch?" she asked.
"Because I know the date of your father's death, as well as the manner in which you found out, as well as the exact day and time you last saw your mother. We keep these on file as security questions, of sorts, and your mother left them with us--"
"Answer the last one, then," she said.
He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, clearly deep in thought. "August 8, 2014, shortly after 8 p.m. outside this apartment."
She sighed. That was exactly it. While his answer didn't technically prove he was from Maywitch, it at least proved he knew something about her mother - and that was enough of a reason for her to follow him.
"Let's go. You can explain the rest in the car," she said.
"Pack a bag, first, in case you decide not to come back."
She stared at him. "I mean it," he said. "We can't just sit in the car in the parking lot; it'll look like a drug deal. We have to get moving."
Before the sun began to rise over Maywitch’s base in Salt Lake City, Felicity Gardner was already reviewing Juan’s notes from the night’s recruitment.
Follow-up: Kaylee Clark. Scouts determined at 0245 that she was spending the night at a friend’s house. No safe course of recovery determined at that time. Still isn’t answering her phone.
Contact: Michaela "Kay" Adamis. Target was taken in at 0415 with no resistance. Briefing will occur after I complete more urgent matters.
Gardner sighed and rubbed her eyes. She would have much preferred to have contacted Clark. Kay Adamis was almost 20, but she showed much less potential than many of her peers. In the Houston Metro area alone, there were some 400 mages who had been identified by Maywitch - and there was a slim chance that any had been overlooked. Adamis was likely one of the weakest mages in the area, since Maywitch’s surveillance suggested that she hadn’t used her magic in a long time.
But she was easy pickings. Most of the world’s mages were either too old to fight effectively, or were too politically powerful to be drafted. Though Maywitch didn’t grant exemptions in writing, it was well-understood that certain families simply weren’t good choices for being roped in for emergencies.
Gardner’s cell phone rang, making her jump, and she whipped it out of her pocket and answered it. “What?” she snapped.
“Director, we got seismic activity near Denver.”
“Weak, but growing. It also seems to be spreading south. There’s a weird line it seems to be radiating from. I’m sending real-time data to your pad—”
The small tablet on her desk lit up, and Gardner swiped her mahogany fingers across its screen. She sighed and set her phone on the desk before putting it on speakerphone.
“Casey, tell Juan’s group to veer south. I don’t care if it takes them an entire week longer, just keep them away from that,” she barked as she stood up. “I’m grabbing my things and coming upstairs-”
“Um - actually, if you look at the data now…” Casey’s voice trailed off, and Gardner’s tablet suddenly showed a map, with multiple spidery lines of red spreading out.
Gardner stopped with one of her desk drawers open. She watched as a red line inched outward, across deserts, roads, and several highways hundreds of miles apart. “Shit,” she muttered. “That was fast.”
“What are your orders?”
She sat back down as fear gnawed its way into her stomach. She hadn’t been prepared for this. Logistically, most of the pieces were falling into place, and defending against this new and unknown enemy shouldn’t be horribly difficult. But every decision she made would always be a gamble. There were too many variables, and the chessboard was always shifting - and in danger of being overturned completely. Her predecessors had never dealt with anything this bizarre, so there was no protocol or precedent to utilize.
“Dispatch Dia’s team, if they’re still in Austin,” she said. “Let the Feds know. And if Dia can’t handle it, reroute Juan to do it, since he’s the only other one with a good grip on the trap spells.”
There was a faint grunt of surprise from Casey. “Er, roger that,” he said.
Gardner ended the call and rubbed her temples. Magical accidents and occasional cover-ups were all that she thought she was signing up for when she accepted the job as Director of the Western Region. It was just her luck that the world would throw her such a dangerous curveball.
As they barreled down Interstate 10 away from Houston, Juan hadn't gotten off his phone long enough to answer Kay's questions. Judging by his frustrated tone and occasional swearing, it was something important.
The driver, a middle-aged man, politely declined to answer any of Kay's questions. When Juan ended his next call, Kay snapped: "Hey, you wanna explain why we've been driving away from my house for the past hour?"
"We can drive you back, but we didn't want to drive in circles," Juan said. "Someone would eventually notice if we did that. Also, Marcus, take the next exit south, will you?”
The driver nodded, and Kay felt the last of her patience slip away. "Wait, I've been trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but now I want answers,” Kay said. “Start from the beginning. Where is my mom?"
"We don't know,” Juan said. “She's off the grid, and we're more than a little worried. We don't have any reason to think she's dead, though."
She stared at the floor of the car. If even Maywitch didn't know where her mother was, then that was a serious problem. Her mother was a talented Mage who had shied away from the witching world as she focused on raising Kay, her only daughter. She had vanished soon after Kay turned 18, but had unlocked a sizable trust fund - left by Kay’s father, supposedly - that could've lasted her through college.
"So as soon as she left me, she went with you guys?" Kay said.
"Exactly. We needed her help on a top-secret research program. About seven months ago, we sent her on a mission to investigate something, and she vanished." Juan turned around and met her eyes. "How much do you know about Maywitch in general? It seems you've never been than plugged into our world, so maybe I should start with the basics."
"Y'all basically keep the magical world from mashing up against the non-magical folks. Cover-ups when needed."
Juan shrugged and turned back around. "I mean, we also do research and education. Plus, when previously non-magical folks start dabbling in Wicca or something else and inadvertently discover they have more abilities than the average human, we have to do some damage control."
Kay couldn't suppress a smirk. "So, cover-ups."
"Yeah, and luckily that doesn't happen that often. But our other purpose..." He trailed off for a moment as he glanced at his phone. "We are also responsible for assembling a militia in times of war or other crises. And a crisis has come. You know that explosion in Illinois all those Congress folks were fussing about eight months ago?"
Kay nodded. It had barely registered in her mind through the haze of work and studying, but it was hard to ignore when every politician in the country had been shouting about it. "I do. Was that Maywitch?"
"Not exactly. It was the precursor to the current mess, though. There's been a huge uptick in low-grade earthquakes across the western half of North America, mostly in the U.S. and Mexico, since that explosion. To make a long story short, we suspect demon-summoners have reemerged."
She tilted her head in an attempt to read his expression, but the pre-dawn darkness obscured it. "I thought they didn't exist anymore."
"That's what we thought, too, but it's not like there's a DNA test for this shit. Just gotta wait til someone's powers emerge." He glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. "And that's where--"
His phone rang, and he sighed and flipped it open. "Fredricks."
She scowled out the window, trying to conceal her annoyance. A few seconds later, Juan barked: "Marcus, head back north, past the highway. We might have trouble."
The driver nodded and flicked on his turn signal. "Are we heading into it, or running away from it?"
Juan waited, apparently listening to something. "Shit. Got it." He ended the call and tossed the phone onto the dashboard. "Heading into it. Dia's squad fucked up their plan, so we're Plan B."
Kay suddenly felt her heart rate increase. She tried to get a glimpse of her escorts' expressions as they careened down the two-lane road, but they seemed stoically focused on the task at hand. "Kay, can you shoot some fire for long enough for me to trap this thing?" Juan said. "It should take about 15 seconds. Marcus will do whatever it takes to shield you, so just shoot when he tells you to."
"I haven't used magic in at least six months," Kay said, running a finger over her pendant. "Can't y'all do it?"
"Possessors can't take over demons, so our options with two people are--" He grunted in annoyance. "Dammit, I didn't mean for you to get into this, but I need you to trust me!"
Kay watched warily out the window as the car rushed through a stop sign and past a gas station, the only building visible in the vicinity. Her situation was dire. There was no shelter - at least, nothing that wasn't a major explosive hazard - and it was too dark for her to run anywhere without risking major injury. She had little choice but to fight.
"If I die, I'm gonna haunt y'all long enough to make sure my mom fucking kills you," she said without thinking.
Juan glanced up to the rearview mirror and laughed. "You're just like her, too!" he said. "And Bailey could totally kill me, too. Don't worry, just give me 20 seconds of fire and we'll be fine."
Easy for him to say, she thought as he continued giving directions to Marcus. Several minutes later, the car crunched to a halt on a gravel road. They were pulling off the main road into sandy plains, with the sun shooting orange light straight through Kay’s window. It was a foreign, surreal landscape that only made her more nervous; her home was in the city where her mother had raised her, with metal and brick drowning out the natural world that now surrounded and exposed her.
“There’s a demon heading southeast in our general direction, and we’re gonna see if we can draw it out,” Juan said over his shoulder as he opened his door. “Kay, stay here a minute.”
Marcus followed him outside. Kay sat back in her seat, wondering just what the hell he was hoping to accomplish.
Something in Juan’s hand lit up, casting jagged shadows on the plains around him. The scene outside the van remained quiet and still for several minutes. Just as Kay was starting to wonder if they could leave, she felt something tremble beneath her feet.
“Get out, Kay,” Juan yelled over his shoulder.
Kay’s arms felt like lead as she pushed the car door open. He handed a vial of something to her – wormwood, she realized after a moment – and ran a hand through his sweaty hair.
“Whatever the fuck it is, blast it with fire and move however I tell you to,” he said. “I have no idea how agile this thing is.”
He turned back around and held his right hand away from his body, almost as if motioning for someone to join him. The earth stopped trembling, then started again, the magnitude of the quake seeming to grow every second.
Then, somewhere behind the car, there was a furious roar.
Next Chapter: The Magical World