Excerpt – The Final Formula

The-Final-Formula 800 Cover reveal and PromotionalChapter 1

The covered crucible rattled against the glowing red support ring. When it took a little hop, I stepped back. No need to risk my eyebrows. Again. It’s not that I’m vain, but a gal needs her eyebrows to communicate. And here at Master Boris’s Alchemical Academy, a nonverbal response kept me out of trouble—most of the time.

I tweaked the Bunsen burner and cast a quick glance at Boris’s office door. He’d have another fit if he caught me deviating from his lesson plan, but I needed to dry this last ingredient. Unfortunately, his lab lacked an oven, so I’d had to make my own.

An oven wasn’t the only thing the lab lacked. The small room barely had enough space for the three laboratory workbenches and mismatched bookcases he’d crammed inside. Every horizontal surface held the well-used equipment of the trade: extra ring stands, chipped Erlenmeyer flasks, a gravity-defying tower of black rubber stoppers—just to name a few. Most of it looked like it’d been around since the 1950s.

The screech of steel on tile alerted me that my lab partner had once again moved her stool to the other end of the bench. I offered the woman a reassuring smile and got a frown in return. No surprise. Like most of the other students, she knew nothing about alchemy. When magic returned two decades ago, these so-called academies had sprung up in community centers across the country. A mecca for bored housewives and magical wanna-bes, they offered more in entertainment than true instruction. The self-taught alchemists who ran them varied in skill level, from the completely inept to the terminally clueless. I hadn’t decided where Boris fell on the scale, but then, I wasn’t here for instruction. I needed a lab and for the moment, I had one. It was the best I could hope for in Portsmouth, Ohio.

The crucible began to dance, clattering against the support ring. Perhaps I shouldn’t have taped down the cover. I reached for my tongs, but before my fingers closed over the grip, the crucible shot straight up in the air. I gave up all pretense of professional indifference and ducked under the bench. The heavy porcelain dish smashed into the ceiling fourteen feet overhead—or at least I assumed it was the ceiling. My view was limited to stool legs and fleeing feet, but the following rain of porcelain supported my assumption.

“Addie!” Master Boris’s voice drowned out the muttered curses of my fellow students. How had he known it was me? He hadn’t even been in the room.

“What the hell was that?” His scuffed Wolverine boots came to a stop in front of me.

“Sir?” I crawled out from under the bench and dusted my knees. Master Boris stood a few inches shy of six feet, with a width nearly equal to his height, but his mass didn’t intimidate me. He’d need a little something between the ears for that.

“Today’s lab was a simple distillation. None of the ingredients were volatile!” He must have missed the smell of burnt rosemary, otherwise he’d realize that I hadn’t been performing his simple distillation.

“I’ll clean it up, sir.” I bowed my head in an effort to look contrite and glanced at the bench top. A fine red powder covered the slate surface. Not bad. My crude oven had been a success, though next time, I’d find a way to vent it.

“You’re the worst damn alchemist I’ve ever had the displeasure of teaching.” His thick-jowled face moved a shade closer to purple.

“Master Boris?” My buddy James left his workspace to join me. Tall and lanky, and just out of high school, he was easily the youngest person in the class.

“Stay out of this, Huntsman.” Boris spared James a frown before turning back to me. “I can’t afford your ineptitude. Clean this up and get out.” He wheeled around with a porcelain crunch and stormed off.

I took an involuntary step after him, ready to protest, and stopped. No, I wouldn’t beg. I could find another lab. I pulled a clean brush from my bag. With practiced strokes, I began to sweep the fine powder into a mound closer to the edge of the bench.

“About damn time.” The young man at the workspace across from mine flicked a piece of crucible in my direction. It emitted a faint tink when it struck the scarred tile at my feet. “You’re a menace.”

I gave the Neanderthal the appropriate eyebrow arch before I pulled a clean vial from my bag.

James moved to my side, exchanging a glare with the other man before turning his attention to me. “What’s that?” He jerked his chin toward the red powder.

“Remembrance Dust. Chemically, it’s similar to rosmarinic acid, but with an alchemic twist.” A bent scrap of paper made a temporary funnel, and I gently swept the powder into the vial. “Not the classic preparation, but it works. My next master will have a muffle furnace.”

James snorted, well aware that Master Boris was anything but. “And where will you find a man who can call himself your master?”

“I’d settle for one I could call my equal.” A pen loop inside the front pocket of my backpack provided secure storage for the vial. With a grunt, I swung the bag over my shoulder. Time to go.

“Addie, wait up,” James said.

“Finish what you’re doing.” No need for him to miss out on the lesson.

I left the lab and pulled the door closed behind me. The slamming door echoed in the empty hall, rattling a glass case that held lop-sided clay pots from the pottery class a few doors down. Community center learning at its finest.

I knew I was being too critical, but getting kicked out of Boris’s academy stung. Of course, if my current potion worked, my laboratory needs might prove irrelevant. Hitching my pack higher on my shoulder, I shoved open the front door.

“Addie!” James caught up with me before I’d even left the block. “Hey, why didn’t you wait?” He slowed to a walk beside me, still cinching his bag.

I glanced over at my sidekick, one-time rescuer and only friend. With dark hair, bright green eyes, and a smile that caught the attention of every teenage girl around, I couldn’t understand why he chose to hang with me. “You better not have quit,” I said.

“No. Not yet.” He slung his bag over his shoulder. “Let me talk to Boris.”

“No need. If this doesn’t work…” I wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. I tried not to think beyond the potion I had brewing at home. It wasn’t the end of the road, but what my future held beyond it was as obscure as my past.

“It’ll work,” he said. “You didn’t receive those bands for—”

I swatted him in the stomach and glanced around to see if anyone was eavesdropping. A couple of late-model cars drove down Ninth Street, but the only pedestrian close enough to overhear bobbed his head to whatever played on his iPod.

Beneath my shirt sleeves, five tattooed bands encircled my right biceps and four decorated the left. A symbol of rank at the Alchemica, each band represented a discipline mastered. No one except James knew about my tattoos, and I intended to keep it that way.

“You don’t even know if they’re legitimate,” I whispered.

“And neither do you.”

I gave him a frown and picked up my pace. The earliest memory I had was James pulling me out from behind a dumpster, blocks away from the burning ruin of the Alchemica in Cincinnati. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there or how I’d escaped the explosion that killed all the others. All I remembered was alchemy. Every formula. Every ingredient. Every technique.

“Addie, come on.” He matched my stride with ease. “I’m saying that you’re a good alchemist. The best. With or without your memory, that won’t change.”

I didn’t feel like arguing, so I let it go. “Thanks.”

We rounded the corner, and the Huntsman Gun Shop came into view. They carried everything your avid hunter could ever need—or so they claimed. Guns, bows, ammo, clothing and assorted paraphernalia I knew little about. They were family owned and operated, local but modern. They had even hired an alchemist. Me. Magic bullets were all the rage, and I helped the Huntsman keep pace with the times.

“We’re not due back at the shop for another hour,” I said. “I’d rather not tell your brothers I flunked out.”

“Then don’t.” James turned down the alley beside the shop, leading me to the side entrance rather than the front. A decade-old black Buick sat near one wall, blocking most of the narrow space. James slowed as he eyed the car.

“Anyone you know?” I asked.

“No.” He gestured at the back end of the car. “Hamilton County plates.”

I grunted. “You think word of the shop’s bullets has spread as far as Cincinnati?” The city was over a hundred miles away.

“Your bullets.” He flashed me a grin and climbed the three steps to the side door. “And I’m surprised it took this long.”

Shaking my head, I followed James inside and up the back stairs. After today’s experiences, it was nice to have someone on my side.

The attic room over the shop served as both my workshop and my bedroom. I’d shoved a twin bed into one corner along with a couple of milk crates to use as a nightstand. Three folding tables occupied the rest of the room, each cluttered with an assortment of makeshift lab equipment. The shop paid for the things I needed to make bullets, but the rest I’d acquired panhandling at local high schools. My take included a nice assortment of cracked beakers, volumetric flasks without stoppers, and stained stir bars. If I could have found better equipment, I wouldn’t have had to attend Boris’s academy.

I set down my pack and shrugged off my jacket.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” James asked.

“Yes.” I gave him a frown. I’d been working up to this for weeks; he knew that. “If you’re staying, close the door.” I waved a hand toward the door and unzipped my pack. Removing what I needed, I walked to the table where I’d cobbled together some of my better pieces of equipment. The product of the complicated set-up had filled one tiny vial. It sat in a rare clear space on the table, majestic in its solitude.

The door closed with a soft snap of the latch, but I didn’t look over. I sprinkled the Remembrance Dust into the vial, and the clear liquid turned a deep ruby red. Burnt rosemary momentarily overpowered the usual odor of gunpowder in the room. A month’s worth of work in a 20mL vial. Perfect. Would it prove to be the perfect solution? I had my doubts, but until I knew what potion had stolen my memories, I could do no better.

James stopped beside me. “It could be dangerous.”

I capped the vial and gave it a shake. “Are you afraid the potion is toxic, or do you fear it will work? You know what they say about Alchemica alchemists.”

He shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I’ve heard the rumors. You know, about the ingredients they used?”

“Blood, body parts, decaying flesh…”

“Yeah. You think it’s true?”

“I can tell you the alchemical effect of each of those ingredients—and then some.” Which, come to think of it, was a bit disturbing.

“So? You can do that for anything. Even for things I would never suspect could be used as ingredients.” He folded his arms across his chest. “It really pisses me off the way Boris treated you.”

I tried not to smile at his righteous anger on my behalf. “I did blow up a lot of his equipment.”

“Still, you’re brilliant.” James scowled at the vial I held.

I studied his youthful face. Where did the kid get such faith in me? I had no idea what I’d done to deserve it. “You don’t want me to take this potion, do you?”

He looked up, the anger replaced by uncertainty. “It could be toxic.”

“It isn’t, and if you truly believe I’m as good as you claim, you’d listen.” I held up a hand to stop his protest. “You’re afraid it’ll work and I’ll turn out to be the Alchemica Master these bands declare me to be. That I really did earn them through blood—or worse.”

“Addie.”

“Tell me the truth.”

His brows lowered, shadowing his eyes, and I got a glimpse of the man he would be. My sidekick was going to be someone to be reckoned with. His expression softened. “You’re not evil.”

I gave him a fond smile and uncapped the vial. “Shall we find out?”

His brow wrinkled further, and he opened his mouth, but I didn’t wait for his comment. I downed the potion in a single swallow.

 

Familiar shadows surrounded me. I didn’t turn my head, but I knew that if I did, I’d see a battered nightstand to my right and an overflowing bookshelf to my left. The mattress beneath my back poked and bulged in the usual places. My bed, my room at the Alchemica—and I wasn’t alone.

The mattress shifted to bear the weight of an old man in split-sleeved robes of white: the Grand Master. He leaned forward to brace one hand beside my pillow and brushed back the hair from my forehead with the other. The movement exposed his upper arms and the black bands encircling each—four on the left, five on the right. Like me: a master alchemist lacking only the elusive final band. The final band for the Final Formula.

I caught his scent, a mixture of Old Spice and acetic acid, and felt a twinge of déjà vu. Before I could analyze the feeling, he spoke. Pain splintered my head at the sound, making it impossible to follow the words. The dim lights went dark.

Garbled voices and darkness reigned for a period of time I couldn’t judge. It could have been minutes or hours, maybe even days. Suddenly someone pulled me upright and in the same motion, threw me over his shoulder. The Grand Master? Too confused to protest, I simply hung there as my head pounded in rhythm with my heart.

He carried me from my room into the brighter light of the hall. Through pain-narrowed eyes, I looked down his back.

What the hell? The man carrying me didn’t wear the robes of my Grand Master; he wore black fatigues. Had the military decided they needed an alchemist?

I tried to cry for help, but shouted a list of ingredients instead. I snapped my mouth shut, too stunned to be afraid. Oddly, the pain lessened. It seemed as if speaking the words had released the pressure clamped around my head. That scared me even more.

My captor stopped at the intersection of two corridors. I tried to get my bearings, but I wasn’t used to viewing the hallways upside down.

“Check out the tattoos,” he said.

Another pair of black boots and matching fatigues came into my line of sight. “Nice work. He’ll be pleased.”

I took a breath to try another shout, but the words never left my lips. The world exploded in light and sound. My captor screamed and released me. The stone floor rushed toward my face, and I threw out my hands.

 

I woke to darkness, facedown on an uneven surface. My hips and legs on one level, while my upper body rested on a sloping decline. The position didn’t help my pounding head. I shifted and sucked in a gasp of smoke-scented air. I ached all over.

A glimpse through slitted eyes revealed distant fire and mounds of rubble. The Alchemica—or what was left of it. What hadn’t been reduced to jagged piles of stone was burning. Dear God, how had I survived that? Had anyone else?

“Over here!” The loud voice sent bolts of pain rocketing through my skull.

I lifted my head to turn it in the other direction and the muscles in my neck and shoulders screamed in protest. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I pushed my dark hair out of my eyes and searched for the speaker. A man stood a few feet away, his back to me. He wore robes, but even in the faint light I could see that they were the wrong color for an alchemist. His robes were dark gray, trimmed in small black triangles: the alchemical symbol for fire.

My heart tried to escape my chest. An Element. No, The Element. The Lord of Flames himself. What the hell was he doing here?

Elements didn’t like alchemists. Since magic had returned, those with magic and those without had waged a cold war to see who would claim this new world. The alchemists fit in neither category. We were a hybrid: mundane humans who dared to wield power we didn’t innately possess. No one with magic could stand us, and the Elements were the most magical of them all.

“Your Grace.” Running footsteps halted nearby. “I pulled the car around.”

“Good. Let us go.” The deep commanding tone made me want to slip off my slab and hide in the rubble. I didn’t breathe until the pair moved away.

I don’t know how I went unnoticed. Perhaps my black robes blended with the shadows. Once they were gone, I pushed myself up to my hands and knees. I had to chew my lip to stay silent. Fine grit coated the slab, biting into my scraped palms. My stomach threatened to heave, and I slumped forward, pressing my forehead to the stone until it passed.

“There!” a voice shouted from close by.

I pushed myself back up and saw two men in black fatigues only yards away. The same two men? If they’d survived the blast as well, perhaps it’d been our location within the building that saved us.

“I found her!” the same man shouted.

I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted with me, but I wasn’t going to sit here and find out.

With a grunt, I pushed myself to my feet. The world swam around me, and I stumbled off the stone slab using a partially standing wall to catch myself. No way I could outrun these guys. It’d have to be a potion then.

I slipped a hand along my ribs to the vials I kept hidden among the folds of my robes. The bodice fit close, the gathered fabric forming a multitude of little pockets, the perfect size for a potion vial. I found nothing.

The two men advanced toward me. My head clearer now, I noticed that neither moved well. They hadn’t come through the explosion unscathed. Maybe I could make a run for it. I shifted sideways, back to the wall. An opening gaped a few feet away.

“Stay right there,” the more agile of the pair told me. He picked his way through the rubble, cursing when a loose stone nearly felled him.

I slipped through the gap and ran.

At first, I didn’t think I’d escape the debris-laden remains of the Alchemica. I nearly went down twice, but once I reached the street, I did much better. Running warmed my sore muscles, and I stumbled less with each block I put between me and the Alchemica.

My head pounded, but I couldn’t stop to rest. A block back, the men were still following. They kept up better than I expected. I darted across the street. When I reached the curb opposite, I glanced back. Now three men in dark clothing were following me. Three? Had they picked up a recruit along the way? I increased my pace and turned the corner before they caught up.

An alley too narrow for cars branched off to my right. A dumpster blocked the far end, but enough space remained for me to squeeze through to the street beyond. I turned and jogged toward the gap, hoping it’d be too small for my pursuers to crawl through.

The sickening sweet odor of rotting garbage grew stronger the closer I got. Breathing through my mouth helped. I glanced over my shoulder, and my foot slipped in one of the iridescent puddles beside the dumpster. I staggered to the side and smacked into the wall, somehow managing not to land on my butt in the putrid slime.

“I told you she took this alley.”

My stumble had cost me. I spun and discovered that the trio tailing me had caught up. Out of habit, the fingers of my right hand drifted to the empty vial pockets along my side. The men fanned out, blocking me in. The third man hadn’t been in the explosion. His fatigues weren’t dirt streaked, and he didn’t limp like the other two.

I backed toward the dumpster.

“Where you going, pretty girl?” the new guy asked.

Wow. Flattery. I was charmed. My fingers itched for a blow tube of Knockout Powder. He wouldn’t be so confident then.

My back thumped against the dumpster with a metallic clang.

“Got you cornered.” He was close enough that I could see his overlapping front teeth when he smiled.

Yeah? “Marigold, dried and chopped.” I pressed my lips together. So much for the witty comeback. On the plus side, my head felt better.

“What’d she say?” one of the others asked, and all three laughed.

Jerks. Maybe Knockout Powder was too humane for these losers. How about—

Something brushed by my hip, and I sidestepped with a gasp. An enormous dog stopped a few feet in front of me, his shaggy black hair darker than the shadows around us. He looked like a cross between a rottweiler and an Irish wolfhound, but bigger. Built for speed, but loaded in muscle.

Monster Dog growled, and every hair on my body stood on end. No hound I’d ever met made a sound like that. The three men backed away. A strange green glow now lit the alley, making their horrified expressions visible. Definitely not a natural dog.

I stepped away until my back pressed against the dumpster again. The giant canine snarled, and as one, the thugs let out a scream and ran. For an instant, only the dog and I remained. A soft growl—I swear it sounded almost like a chuckle—and then the hound gave chase.

Strangely, I couldn’t hear the dog’s tread, though I could see his toenails scrapping the pavement. The thunder of fleeing boots I heard fine. I sagged against the dumpster, alone now. But what if the dog came back?

I squeezed between the dumpster and the wall. My small size proved advantageous for once. No way that dog could fit in here.

I huddled against that grimy wall, holding my robes out of the pungent filth, and waited. I couldn’t hear the men or their monstrous pursuer. Did I dare squeeze out the other side? Running footsteps in the alley put a halt to that plan, and I sank lower in the shadows.

“Hello?” a voice called.

I leaned to the side. A young man stood a few yards from the dumpster. He bent over to grip his thighs, taking several deep breaths. I must have made some noise because he looked up and saw me. He smiled and straightened.

“Are you okay? I saw those guys harassing you.” He waved a hand toward the street beyond the dumpster. Perhaps he’d seen them from the other side, but couldn’t squeeze through the gap. He must have circled around.

He stepped over a thick puddle to stop outside my hiding place. I wanted to ask if that’d been his dog, but didn’t want to shatter his illusion of my sanity by speaking.

He offered me a hand. “Do you need some help?” I followed his arm upward and met his green eyes.

 

Chapter 2

“Addie?”

James leaned close, wearing the same worried expression he’d worn then. I lay on my bed in the little room over the gun shop. James sat beside me.

“Did it work?” he asked.

“Sort of.” I sat up and massaged my temples. My head ached.

“Sort of?” James got to his feet.

“It returned my memories to just before the Alchemica was destroyed, but nothing earlier.”

“So, you know what happened to the Alchemica?”

“I’m not sure. There were guys in black fatigues who tried to abduct me, and—” I looked up, remembering those gray robes. “The Elements were there.”

“You’re certain?”

“I saw one of them, when everything was on fire. The Flame Lord stood just feet away from me. I recognized the robes.”

“But the paper said an explosion in the lab destroyed the Alchemica.” James stared at me as if I’d just suggested that the sun really did revolve around the earth.

“Maybe, maybe not.” I rose to my feet and walked over to my workbench to disassemble the crude apparatus I’d constructed to brew my potion.

James joined me. “What now?”

I kept my hands busy while I thought about it. I still had no idea who’d given me the memory mangling potion or why. Today’s potion had probably taken me back to the moment the other took effect. If that was the case, then my memory loss and the destruction of the Alchemica weren’t connected. Unless I’d learned something I shouldn’t—like the Element’s plans. But the Elements didn’t have access to a potion like that. Hell, they’d probably see its use as beneath them.

I rubbed both hands over my face. I’d created more questions than I’d answered. How were those men in fatigues involved? Did they work for the Elements? Another alchemist? If so, I was in trouble. As far as I knew, all the Alchemica alchemists were dead.

“I want to visit the Alchemica,” I said.

“It’s condemned.”

“I need to see it. I now know these bands are real, and it’s the only place in the world I know I’ve been to before. It might stir some more memories.” I hoped so. I didn’t know any other memory-restoring potions.

“I don’t think it’s safe for you to go back there.”

“It burned three months ago. No one is sitting around waiting for the residents to return.” I didn’t have a car; I had to talk James into taking me.

“You really think it’ll help?”

He was coming around, but I resisted the urge to smile. “It’s all I have. Please?”

His shoulders fell, and I moved in for the kill.

“Supper’s on me.”

“You want to go now?”

“Could we?”

He shook his head, though a smile threatened. “For the record, I still think it’s a bad idea.”

I snatched up my jacket and followed him out of my workshop and back down the stairs. I stopped beside the alley door while he selected a coat from the rack.

“We can drive through Mickey Ds,” I said.

“You sure you can afford it?” He grinned openly now, well aware of how much he ate.

I didn’t get a chance to comment. Two forms in camo charged down the hall and slammed into James. I jumped out of the way, my hand going for a vial tucked in my front pocket, as they shoved James against the wall opposite the door. I hesitated. It was Brian and Henry—two of James’s three brothers.

“Outside. Now.” Henry pulled James off the wall and slammed his hands against James’s chest, shoving him into the door to the alley. The doorway I stood in.

I had time to gasp, and then James slammed into me. My back collided with the door, but it offered little resistance. I windmilled my arms, trying to regain my balance as I teetered on the top step.

James turned and caught me.

“Move.” Henry gave James another shove.

Overbalanced, we tumbled down the steps and landed hard on the lumpy cobbles of the alley, not far from the car with the Hamilton County plates.

“Addie! Are you okay?” James pushed himself up on an elbow to stare down at me. His legs were tangled with mine, but he’d managed not to fall on me. Barely.

“Maybe?” His brothers had ambushed us so fast that my brain still hadn’t caught up.

“Now that’s more like it, James.” Brian joined us in the alley. “That’s what you do with a woman.”

James sprang to his feet, fists clenched at his sides.

I climbed to my feet in a slower, more pained motion and gave his brothers a frown. A family resemblance existed between the three of them, though the brothers were broader in build with lighter hair—Henry bordering on blond. Appearances aside, I hadn’t been around them long before I wondered if James was adopted.

“What the hell are you doing?” James glared at one brother and then the other. “You could have hurt Addie.”

“George said to keep you out of the shop,” Brian said.

“And now you are,” Henry added.

“The collected wit here is staggering.” I brushed the dust from my backside.

“And this from our Addled Alchemist?” Henry gave me a sneer.

I crossed my arms. When James first brought me home, I couldn’t speak. Each time I tried, it came out as alchemical nonsense. His brothers had dubbed me the Addled Alchemist—Addie for short. Since I couldn’t remember my name, the new moniker stuck.

James took a step toward his brothers, but I caught his arm.

“Let it go,” I said.

James hesitated, glancing from them to me.

“Wow, baby brother, she has you trained.” Brian nudged Henry.

“You know why he takes those alchemy classes?” Henry asked. “It’s so he can understand her pillow talk.”

James launched himself at Henry before I could even think of moving. He caught his larger brother by the front of the shirt and threw him against the brick wall across the alley—a good ten feet away. Henry smacked bricks with so much force that I expected to see cracks radiate through the mortar joints around him.

“James!” Brian stepped between his brothers and caught James by the upper arms. Henry slid down the wall to sit at its base, his stunned expression mirroring my own.

Damn. That took some serious strength. How had James managed that?

Henry shook his head and pushed himself to this feet using the wall for support. “Freak.” He glared at James as he spoke then turned away and almost ran into me. “Move.” His teeth were gritted so tight it sounded like, “Murve.”

I couldn’t resist. “That’s the fastest ass-kicking I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah?” Henry clenched his fists and took a step toward me. He stood so close, I could smell the onion rings he had for lunch. Brian wrapped a restraining arm around James.

I pulled a vial from my pocket and held it up to display the lime green liquid inside. “You should thank James. What I’d do isn’t so pleasant.”

“Enough,” a new voice barked from the back door.

All four of us jumped like guilty children and turned to find George glaring from the top step. The eldest of the Huntsman brothers, he’d inherited the gun shop from their parents and ran it like a drill sergeant.

“You two,” he frowned at Henry and Brian, “were suppose to take him to the house and keep him there.” He pointed to the mouth of the alley and the two-story house across the street.

“And you.” He focused on me. “Inside. I’ve got a customer waiting on those new bullets.”

“What’s going on?” James asked.

“They’ll explain.” George met James’s eye and made a shooing gesture.

James didn’t comment. A glance at me, and he turned and left with Brian and Henry.

George’s attention shifted back to me. “Move your ass, alchemist.”

I bit back a retort, deciding that spending less time with him was preferable to a witty comeback. Next time, I promised myself.

 

I returned to the attic workshop, annoyed with the delay. Fortunately, I’d finished the bullets George wanted; I just had to pack them in their cardboard ammo boxes. George had splurged on professional printing. I loved how the boxes smelled of fresh ink—like a new magazine. With red letters on a glossy black background, they weren’t fancy, but better than me penning the letters on a plain white box. Packing the bullets shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Though it would have gone quicker if James were here.

My mind drifted back to the alley, and I remembered how easily James had flung Henry against the wall. Maybe James deserved the wary glances his brothers gave him. And if they knew how strong he was, why didn’t that earn James more respect? They usually treated him like crap—when they acknowledged him at all. I’d been here three months, and I still hadn’t puzzled out this family dynamic.

Twelve boxes later, I was no closer to a solution.

The door banged open and George stormed into the room.

I jumped and dropped half the bullets I’d been holding. They clattered on the plastic table, one rolling off the far side.

“Where are they?” he demanded.

“They’d be in the box if some jerk hadn’t startled me.”

George smirked. My least favorite of the Huntsman brothers, he took particular pleasure in tormenting me. Worse, he actually had half a brain and sometimes he used it.

I gathered the loose bullets and began to place them in the ammo box I’d been filling.

“Hand me that one?” I pointed to the bullet that lay near George’s left foot.

He crossed his large arms and leaned against the wall beside the door. Asshole. No way James could be related to this loser.

I retrieved the bullet myself and finished filling the box. “There you go.” I stacked the last box on the plastic tray with the others, my task complete.

“Bring them.” He turned and started down the stairs. “He wants to meet you.”

“What?”

He didn’t answer. No surprise.

I struggled to lift the tray with its twelve boxes of ammo and stumbled after him. He never introduced me to the buyers. I suspected he feared I’d be enticed away.

I managed the stairs without hurting myself or dropping any boxes. When we entered the shop, the man at the back counter looked up and a wave of unease swept over me. He didn’t wear camo or Carhartts like most of the shop’s regulars; he wore a suit.

His eyes met mine and my feet tangled with the rug. I would have fallen if George hadn’t stepped forward at the last moment to catch the tray. He glared at me for the near miss, but replaced it with a smile when he turned to face the customer.

“And our special bullets. The ones you called about.” George thumped the tray on the counter, causing the bullets to clink within their boxes.

The man lifted a box and turned the label toward him. “Heart Seekers?”

“It’s a play on heat seeker,” George needlessly explained. “Like the missile, but without all the clunky technology. And on a much smaller scale, of course.”

The man opened the box and withdrew one of the bullets. His fingers looked rough, the nails yellowed and cuticles peeling.

“Ten seconds?” he asked George.

George tapped the small print on the back of the box. “Dead in ten seconds or less, no matter where the shot hits.” He pulled out a bag and began stacking the bullets inside.

“Sounds…dangerous.”

“It’s designed for animals,” I spoke up. “Human blood won’t trigger the magic.”

The man’s eyes rose to mine. “I assume you’re the alchemist.”

I took in his clothing and remembered the car in the alley. He’d traveled over two hours to see my special bullets. “And you’re from the PIA.” I offered my hand, refusing to let him intimidate me. “I’m Addie.”

He took my hand, smiling now. The dry skin of his palm rubbed against mine before his chilled fingers enveloped my own. “Agent Lawson.”

I returned the smile and hoped it didn’t look like a grimace. PIA: Paranormal Investigation Agency—or as practitioners of the arcane liked to call them, Pain In the Ass. Once a branch of Homeland Security, they had become an agency in their own right in the last decade. Specifically, an agency to police the magical community. My memory might be full of holes, but I knew the PIA could make life difficult.

George’s good mood baffled me. This couldn’t be an investigation—on him or me. He might be personally pleased to see me arrested, but he’d be pissed to lose my financial input to the shop’s coffers.

“These bullets are impressive,” Lawson said. “Where were you trained?”

“I last attended Master Boris’s Alchemical Academy on Ninth Street.” I saw no reason to lie—no reason to tell the truth either.

“Boris Tuppins is no master. Before he decided to try his hand at alchemy, he taught chemistry at a Kentucky high school. He’s never set foot inside the Alchemica.”

It seemed Lawson had done his homework. “Master or not, that’s where I last attended an alchemy class.”

“That surprises me. While we were registering this shop’s bullets, analysis suggested they might be the work of a Master.”

And now his presence, and George’s creepy smiles, made sense. Purveyors of magical items had to register their wares with the PIA. If the PIA gave their stamp of approval, you could advertise as such. In other words, the PIA agreed that the magic was safe and did as you claimed—and prices tended to adjust accordingly. George could probably double his profits.

“The formula is mine,” I said.

Lawson frowned. “But you’re not old enough.”

“Old enough? Were you expecting an Alchemica Master?” I smiled, trying to make it a joke. “I thought they were all dead.”

“There were no records on the numbers attending the Alchemica, so it is possible a few survived.” Lawson drew a card from the inside of his coat and offered it to me. “I’d like to learn the name of the man who taught you alchemy.”

Man? Was he looking for a male alchemist? I took the rectangle of crisp white cardstock. It contained only a name, Robert A. Lawson, and phone number in black ink. The number had a Cincinnati area code.

The front door of the shop opened with an electronic chime. “Addie?” James saw Lawson and started toward us.

“Shit,” Lawson muttered and in one smooth move, drew his gun.

Shocked, I could only watch as he trained it on James.

“Whoa!” George threw up his hands and to my total astonishment, stepped between Agent Lawson and James.

I hurried around the counter and caught Lawson’s arm. “Wait!”

He glanced over, his pupils huge, and I pulled my hand away. Crap. The man was a Sensitive. I’d heard rumors that the PIA hired them to sniff out those who failed to register their magic. But why point a gun at…

I connected the dots. James was magical. The confrontation in the alley took on a whole new light. I needed to think fast, or James was going to get some unwanted attention. Though Lawson’s reaction seemed a little over the top.

“I guess my Hunter’s Prowess potion is a success.” I created the title on the fly then lowered my voice. “Especially if a Sensitive is picking up on it at this distance.”

Lawson stiffened then lowered the gun. It looked like his sensitivity was a secret. His eyes swung in my direction, and I offered an innocent smile.

“What do you think, Agent Lawson?”

“I think I’d like you to come in for an interview, Miss Addie.” His voice dropped. “You appear to be a talented young lady.”

“And underappreciated.”

“Hmm.” He studied James for a moment longer before he tucked the gun away. “You can do that,” he nudged his chin in James’s direction, “with a potion?”

“I can do a lot of things with a potion.” I met his gaze and held it. That’s right buddy, focus right here. Ignore the boy.

“The potion will need to be registered.”

“When it’s perfected, it will be. Just as we registered the bullets.” I waved a hand toward the counter where George had bagged up his order.

He continued to look me over as he picked up his purchases. “I’ll be expecting your call.” He turned toward the door.

That was it? No interrogation? No preliminary formula? He really hadn’t come looking for me.

“Mr. Huntsman.” Lawson nodded at George. James took a step back to let him pass, but held his stare without flinching.

Lawson pushed open the front door, the chime interrupting the silence in the shop. A silence that didn’t return once the door closed.

“What the hell are you doing?” George turned on James. “Didn’t you listen to Henry?”

“A PIA agent came looking for Addie and you didn’t tell me?” James closed the distance with angry strides.

“You were supposed to stay in the house.” George jabbed a finger toward the front door. I still couldn’t believe he’d put himself in harm’s way for James.

“I covered it,” I spoke up. “Agent Lawson thinks I used a potion on him.”

“How’d you know?” George turned on his brother and grabbed him by the shirt. “Did you tell her?”

“No one told me anything. Come on, I’m an alchemist. I bottle magic for a living.”

“You made that agent focus on you.” James glanced at me then dropped his gaze to the floor. “What if he’d taken you in?”

“Why would he?” George released James with a small shove. “You’re the one he wants.”

I ignored George and kept my attention on James. He frowned, but wouldn’t meet my eyes. I didn’t expect him to be so shy about this magical ability of his.

“But what about the interview?” James asked the floor. When I didn’t immediately respond, he looked up.

I shrugged and hoped it didn’t look as stiff as it felt. I no intention of going for a little tête-à-tête with Agent Lawson, but I didn’t want to discuss that in front of George.

“I don’t trust him,” James said.

“Nor should you,” I said. “He’s PIA.”

“And that means what?” George demanded. “You got a problem with authority?”

It took me a moment to gather my wits. “You make and sell magic bullets, and you’re defending the PIA? Do you want them to regulate every move you make?”

“We are fully sanctioned by the PIA.” George took a step toward me. “I don’t want to hear anything out of that smart mouth of yours. If I do, you’ll be out on your counterfeit ass.”

“The ass is legit.”

George fisted his hands, and the cords in his neck stood out in stark relief. Not overly tall, but packed with muscle, George made an imposing figure. I doubted he had any qualms about striking a woman. I should probably shut up.

“As for the PIA,” I began.

“Addie’s not going to discuss them in this household.” James stepped between George and me. Taller than his brother, James had the lean, athletic build typical of his eighteen years. George made him look like a malnourished child. “Isn’t that right?” James asked me.

Whatever James’s magical talents, I knew he wouldn’t stand up to George as he had Henry. I couldn’t let my sidekick get pummeled for my inability to shut up. “Yeah, sure.” I clamped my jaw closed to prevent further elaboration on the subject.

“She better not.” George glared at me.

I managed to stop an eyeroll. I needed to get out of here. “You want to go for that drive?” I asked James.

“Sure. Let’s go.”

“You love birds got a hot date?” George snorted and eyed James. “Where do you take an alchemist?”

“The cemetery,” I answered before James could. I grinned at George’s scowl and patted James on the shoulder. “You pack the shovel?”

“And I remembered the crowbar this time.”

I might be a bad influence.

 

Chapter 3

James parked in the municipal lot across the street from the Alchemica and shut off the engine. Neither of us spoke as we stared through the windshield at my former home. Night had fallen, but several streetlights and a nearly full moon provided enough illumination. Surrounded by a chain-link fence and Do Not Enter signs, the Alchemica looked like a construction site. Only the crumbling shell of the three-story building remained. I stared at the rubble, looking for something I remembered. Maybe it was the destruction, but I didn’t recognize a thing.

“You okay?” James asked.

I picked up one of the flashlights he’d brought and put it in my pocket. “Let’s take a closer look.” I opened the door and stepped out into the dimly lit lot.

We hadn’t talked much on the two-hour drive from Portsmouth to Cincinnati. The agent’s reaction to James had clearly bothered him. He’d spent the trip twiddling with the radio, rather than talking with me. I didn’t mind. Preoccupied with our destination, I’d watched the Ohio farmland slide past my window, lost in my own concerns. Would the ruins of my former home awaken any new memories, or would this prove to be a wasted trip?

With James at my side, I started across the street. Behind a clump of bushes, we found a gap under the chain-link. James slid beneath the fence with ease, and I hurried to follow. Small stones ground into my stomach, and the fence snagged my jacket, but I managed to wiggle through. Between the moon and the streetlights, I didn’t need to pull out my flashlight.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” James said.

“What? Exploring a burned-out building in the dark? Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“A little caution is a good thing.”

I blew him a raspberry before picking my way through the ruin of a fallen wall.

“Looks like the explosion was on this side of the building,” James said.

I agreed. On the other end of the building, the stone outer walls still stood. Here, that wasn’t the case. With cleanup already begun, I couldn’t be certain, but it looked like the walls had been blown outward. Had the Elements been inside? Odd. If I were going to burn down the place, I’d do it from outside. It’d be easier to avoid falling chunks of roof and smoke inhalation.

I climbed down into the debris field that had once been an auditorium or gym. In places, I could see sections of hardwood floor. Careful of my footing in the low light, I threaded my way around man-sized chunks of cement and twisted I-beams.

“I’m no expert,” I said, hopping across a foot-deep pothole, “but this seems like a bad location to take out the building.” I gestured toward the rest of the structure. “It didn’t take down very much.”

James cleared the pothole in one long stride. “Maybe the building wasn’t the target. A room like this would be a good place for gatherings.”

“Good point.” I remembered nothing, of course. At the time, I’d been in my bed waiting for my head to explode. Had there been an assembly that evening? Had the Elements heard about it and decided to take us all out? Why? We’d co-existed for over a decade and a half. What had changed?

We reached an archway that might have supported double doors, and stepped through to a concrete floor. The fire had destroyed everything that would burn, leaving a cavernous space open to the night sky above.

I crossed my arms and followed James through the blackened rubble. Ash rose in a cloud around our feet, occasionally drifting high enough to tickle my nose. I searched for something familiar, but found nothing I recognized. Nothing. If I hadn’t retrieved those few memories, I would believe the tattoos on my arms were fakes.

“Look. There’s a basement.” James turned right and picked his way to a square hole and a set of cement steps that disappeared into darkness. Without further comment, he pulled out his flashlight and started down. For someone who’d been hesitant about coming in here, he had overcome his reservations. Give him a leather coat and a fedora, and he’d be all set.

I pulled out my flashlight and followed.

The basement had survived the blaze better than the upper floors, possibly because of the block walls. A door-lined hallway stretched before me, and for the first time, my memory stirred. I stopped to analyze the feeling.

“Addie?” James halted a few feet away, his voice pitched low.

“The labs were down here,” I whispered.

“You remember something?”

“Maybe.”

Heat had warped the metal doors lining the hall. Most hung askew, hinges broken and painted metal surfaces gorged by prying tools. We weren’t the first to find this place.

I chose a room at random and walked inside. Three rows of black graphite benches occupied the space. I ran a hand over the pitted surface. I could almost smell the reagents and hear the excited chatter of the apprentices. Shelves lined the walls, most empty or piled with worthless clutter. Nothing of value remained, but that didn’t upset me. I’d been right; I’d been here before. I hurried out to try another room.

I was close, so close. Terrified the sensation would slip away, I ran from room to room searching for something I knew. Had one of these labs been mine? Would I know it if I saw it? I searched quickly, my anxiety driving me.

“Addie, slow down,” James called.

I ignored him and sprinted toward the last room I’d yet to explore: the one at the end of the hall. I pushed on the door, but found it jammed. I took a step back and threw my weight against it. The door resisted, then broke free without warning. I tripped and fell forward, landing hard on my hands and knees. The force knocked the flashlight from my hand, and it rolled to a stop a foot away. A shower of dust fell through the beam of light.

“Addie! Move!”

A deafening pop sounded overhead. I snatched up my flashlight and swung it toward the ceiling. Dust fell from above, and I lifted a hand to shield my eyes. Through my fingers, I watched a wide support beam bow toward me, cracks radiating across the plaster ceiling.

I tried to regain my feet, but the marble-sized debris beneath my shoes sent me back to the floor. I skidded a few feet on my knees and bumped into James, having almost slid between his spread legs. He grunted and metal screeched overhead. I looked up and forgot to breathe.

James had caught the beam. He held it suspended over his head, the cords in his neck bulging with the effort.

Chunks of ceiling fell around us, but all I could do was stare.

“Go,” he growled—literally growled. The sound rumbled deep in his throat and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I shoved myself to my feet once more and stumbled past him. Somehow I dodged the large chunks of cement falling around me, and reached the door.

I looked back in time to see James hurl the beam back into the room. He ran for the door and had almost reached me when a hunk of rebar-spiked concrete crashed into his shoulder with a crunch and a splatter of blood.

“James!” Only a foot away, I reached for him, but he shoved me back with a snarl. The force knocked me out into the hall where I landed hard on my butt and slid halfway to the stairs.

I swung my flashlight back toward the room. Dust billowed out, shrouding the hallway in a gritty haze, but I could see well enough to know that James hadn’t made it out. I scrambled to my feet, ready to go back for him when he stumbled through the doorway. He staggered a couple of steps before dropping to a knee. His jacket gaped open revealing a crimson stain on his white T-shirt.

I swallowed, trying to force my heart out of my throat and hurried back to him. “You’re bleeding.” I started to kneel beside him.

“Stay back!” He snapped the words, and I hesitated. When he raised his head to glare at me, I froze. His eyes glowed like green lamps in the darkness. “Did you get any blood on you?”

I swallowed. “N-no, just a few bruises.”

“Not your blood, mine.” The fury in his voice made me take a step back. “Did I get any on you?”

“I, I don’t think so.”

“Check. Now.” He started to rise, but caught himself and dropped back to his knee. “You’re not checking.”

“Your eyes. They’re glowing.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, the glow had dimmed. “Check, Addie. Please hurry.”

“Why?”

He rubbed a shaking hand over his face. “I’m cursed. My blood is cursed.”

I had to strain to hear his soft words. “Cursed?”

“It’s poisonous.” He looked up. “It’s been long enough. If I’d gotten any on you, you’d be dead.”

“That fast?” I couldn’t believe that. No poison worked that fast. Not on absorption.

“Yes, that fast.” He took another breath and it shook. He wasn’t mad; he was scared. “Go upstairs where the light is better and check your clothes. There’s a duffle bag in the car if you need to change. Take what you need and bring me the bag.”

“You’re still bleeding.”

“Please go check. I’ll take care of this.”

“I could probably find some rubber gloves. I’m used to dealing with toxic substances.”

“No. Please go.”

He looked so miserable that I gave in and started for the stairs.

 

 

Once outside the chain-link, I walked a short distance along the fence and stopped beneath a streetlight to examine my clothes. All clean. Well, not clean, just not blood splattered. Dust and soot covered nearly every inch of me. I leaned over to brush my thigh and caught a glimpse of the back of my hand. Four drops of crimson lay drying on my dirty skin.

I stilled, half-expecting… What? It was just blood. James had exaggerated. It wasn’t as lethal as he thought. I squatted and rubbed the back of my hand in the grass. No need to upset him.

I retrieved the duffle bag from the car and jogged back toward the gap in the fence. Maybe I should have stayed with him. What if he didn’t get the bleeding stopped? If he passed out, I’d never get him out of that basement. I couldn’t even call for help. Neither of us had a cell phone.

Movement drew my attention, and I looked back. A man sat on his haunches beneath the streetlight I’d stopped beside earlier. I’d almost reached the gap under the fence, but I slowed my pace to watch. What was he doing? He braced his hands wide and leaned over to press his face to the ground. His tongue snaked out and licked the grass—in the same place I’d cleaned my hand.

“What did you find, my love?” An older woman stepped around the large tree to my right, nearly colliding with me. We gasped in unison.

“Oh, you startled me.” She pressed a hand to her chest, her wide eyes on me.

I stared, unable to help myself. I’d never seen eyes like hers. The irises were so pale, they appeared white.

The man stood, his movements slow and awkward, and turned to face us. I expected him to greet us until his filmed-over eyes met mine. I failed to bite back the scream that bubbled up. Undignified as hell, but to my knowledge, I’d never come face-to-face with a zombie.

I dropped the duffle bag and stumbled back. A tube of Knockout Powder rested against my palm though I didn’t remember pulling it from my sleeve. The zombie took an uncoordinated step toward me and then another. Through a section of missing jaw, his tongue worked the blood he’d licked from the grass.

“Are you out for a stroll, too?” the woman asked. “Lovely evening for it.”

I glanced over in time to catch her wide smile. I’d guess necromancer. And something about that spaced-out twinkle in her odd eyes told me she might not be the brains of the operation. Wonderful. I had all the luck.

“You want to call off your, um, man?” I asked.

She looked confused until I gestured at the man in question. “Oh, sorry.” She turned toward the advancing zombie. “Come here, Ethan, and leave the nice lady alone.”

Ethan didn’t listen.

“That’s odd,” the woman said. She scratched her head through her short graying-blonde hair, her expression puzzled.

“What’s that?” I suspected her definition of odd varied a bit from my own.

“He’s bound. He shouldn’t ignore me.”

“Are you saying you’ve lost control of your zombie?”

She pressed her thin lips together as she considered him. “Ethan, stop!”

He didn’t. Only ten yards away, his opaque eyes remained fixed on me. I took a step back, my shoulder brushing the woman’s, and mentally ran through my inventory of potions and powders. Nothing short of fire or decapitation would stop a zombie. Though what actually animated him stood beside me.

I turned and blew the Knockout Powder into the necromancer’s face. She collapsed at my feet without a sound.

Unlike her zombie. He continued to shuffle toward me. What the hell? He shouldn’t still be moving.

With a scream, I whirled away and slammed into the fence, smashing my nose. My eyes watered and my vision blurred. I laced my fingers through the cold chain-link, searching with my feet for the gap. It should be close. If I could put the fence between me and the zombie—

On the other side of the fence, a dark shape ran straight at me. I gasped and ducked as it vaulted eight-foot of chain-link with ease. With a huff of breath and no other sound, an enormous black dog landed beside me. The same dog that had come to my rescue the night the Alchemica burned. His head rose, and I met his eyes. His glowing green eyes.

A throaty groan and we both turned to find Ethan the zombie only feet away. A squeak escaped me, the chain-link rattling before I realized I’d pressed my back against it.

With a snarl, the dog sprang. He slammed into the zombie and the pair crashed to the ground, rolling on impact. Something flew off and landed in the grass at my feet. Ethan had lost a finger.

I worked my way down the fence, away from the pair. The dog caught an arm and with a twist of his head, ripped it off. I closed my eyes and tried not to lose the Big Mac I’d had for supper. It helped a little, but I couldn’t escape the sounds: the wet tearing, the snap of bone, the gurgling of a torn throat. Worse were the muffled snarls and the snapping of canine jaws. Oh please, don’t let him be eating the zombie.

When everything went silent, I drew a deep breath and regretted it. The stench of rot overwhelmed me, but when I looked, the sight proved worse than the smell. The dog stood a few feet away, black fur covered in—were those intestines? I dropped to my knees and lost the Big Mac. When I looked up, both the duffle bag and the dog were gone.

I took a shallow breath—just enough to allow me to speak. “James?”

“Be right there.” His voice came from the other side of the tree, followed by the sound of a zipper. “You okay?”

I drew another breath. I could do this. “I’m fine.” I wasn’t going to freak out. I rubbed a hand over my face and took a few minutes to get control of myself. My best friend was a dog. Cool. I liked dogs.

Even giant black ones with glowing green eyes.

I pushed to my feet, determined to take this in stride.

James stepped around the tree, tugging a sweatshirt in place over a clean pair of jeans. His feet were bare, but aside from the tousled hair, he didn’t look any different. Most importantly, he wasn’t covered in zombie gore.

He stopped beside the woman, eyes narrowing as he studied her. The way his lip curled made me suddenly uneasy. “Necro.” He spat the word.

“What gave it away?” I walked over to him.

He looked up, clearly surprised that I’d joined him. He probably expected a different reaction.

“I hit her with Knockout Powder,” I continued, needing to say something. “Talk about a nut job.”

“I hear it’s part of the job description.”

I smiled at his attempt at humor. “Hanging with the dead probably isn’t conducive to good mental health.”

He grunted, his eyes still on the unconscious woman.

“I wonder what she’s doing here,” I said.

“This is Cincinnati. A lot of necros live here. She probably took her pet for a walk.”

“Oh.”

We both fell silent. Now what? Should I say something or let him bring it up? Or would we both ignore the elephant—er, black dog—in the room?

“Shall we go?” I asked. “If a cop drives by, I don’t want to be standing here with an unconscious woman and Ethan bits.”

“Ethan?”

“Her buddy.” I hooked a thumb in the direction of the zombie remains. My skin crawled as I thought about what lay in the grass. “He can’t—”

“He’s done.” James shouldered the duffle bag. “You’d better drive.” He started for the car and I fell in beside him.

“Is something wrong?”

“Blood loss. I’ll need to sleep soon.”

“Your shoulder?”

“I’m fine.” His tone made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about it.

“Oh. Good.” I had so many questions, but his silence was contagious. I dug out a piece of gum from my jacket pocket and popped it in my mouth. Spearmint washed away the unpleasant impression Ethan had left.

We reached the car, and I slid in behind the wheel, taking a moment to adjust the seat and mirrors. James slumped in the passenger seat, his head on the headrest and eyes closed. I decided not to bother him. He’d tell me when he was ready. Meanwhile, I could try to get my mind around it. James was a shapeshifter. It wasn’t a common ability. Could he heal himself when he changed? His shoulder didn’t seem to bother him, and there was no blood on his shirt.

My mind ran in circles, but fortunately my driving didn’t. I found the interstate without trouble and wondered if a subconscious part of my brain recognized my surroundings. After all, this had been my home. I wished it were more familiar.

“You look sad,” James said.

I glanced over and found him watching me. “I’m lamenting how little I learned from this expedition.”

“Like that it wasn’t an explosion in the lab that blew up the Alchemica?”

True. The labs were intact. “What if the Elements did it? The Flame Lord was there.”

“Why would the Flame Lord destroy the Alchemica?”

“I don’t know. Professional envy?” I gripped the wheel and glared at the road through the windshield. Why else would the Flame Lord have been there? A new thought occurred. “I could ask him.”

“You can’t be serious.”

Yes, someone who witnessed the destruction. Even if he didn’t do it, the Flame Lord could shed some light on what happened that night. If he wasn’t innocent…

“You are serious.” James interrupted my thoughts.

“I could do it. I know a few potions that’ll make any guy talk.” I’d need to pick up some ingredients. And it’d take a day to prepare.

“You going to slip it in his drink or what?”

James had a point. The delivery system might prove tricky. But first I’d have to get in to see the Flame Lord. “Don’t they hear petitions?”

“How do you know your potion would even work? You know how unpredictable they can be with the magical.”

“I could experiment.” I kept my eyes on the road. “On you, if you’d let me. Unless there’s something about your magic that’s different.”

“It’s a curse.” His low voice just reached me. “Centuries ago an ancestor made a deal.”

“With the devil?” I joked.

“The details have been lost, but I do know that he bartered away not only his own life, but those of his descendants.”

“Your brothers?”

“It doesn’t work like that. Only one of us has to pay the price.”

“The price?”

He fell silent, and I looked over to find him watching the dark landscape flashing past his window. Wow. Old Magic. Rare and wondrous, and not following any of the modern laws. Well, none of the New Magic laws. Magic, being a product of the mind, was molded by the user’s beliefs. When magic returned almost two decades ago, it found a modern world rooted in science, and those beliefs colored the way New Magic manifested.

Old Magic was different. It had always been around, hiding in the dark and forgotten places, pretending not to exist. Quietly passed down through the generations to a distant descendant…like James.

I made an effort to rein in my enthusiasm. Why did he call it a curse? That sounded like a clichéd B movie.

“Werewolf?”

“No.” He squinted in the glare of a passing car. “I’m a grim.”

I searched my memory. “If I knew what that was, I no longer do.”

“Shuck, devil dog, hellhound.”

“Hellhound? Your eyes aren’t red, they’re green.

He grunted and leaned back in his seat again.

“I’m kidding. Come on, a hellhound?”

He didn’t respond. Why didn’t he want to talk about this? It wasn’t like he was evil. He’d come to my rescue tonight, and it wasn’t the first time.

“The night the Alchemica burned. You ran those guys off.”

“Yeah.”

I waited, but he didn’t offer anything else. When I glanced over again, his eyes were closed. “James?”

A soft snore answered me.

<<<>>>

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