I let the fingers of my right-hand flex and relax, flex and relax, all the while drawing the magick out from within myself.
I was in a ballroom. A beautiful, black chandelier hung from the ceiling, and tiny echelons of glass dangled from its arms like moss off a cypress tree, sparkling despite the dimness. At one end of the room there was a stage, at the other end a grandiose fireplace. I walked across the expanse, my feet clicking on the fully restored, pine floors, a sound that rang out loudly within this echo chamber of a room.
Nina stared at me from across the empty room. The air between us was electric, each particle scorched with the intensity of our clash. This caused a wild, burnt smell to fill the space, like the aftermath of a forest fire. The magick circle hovering an inch above the wooden floor shone soft and blue, causing the knife in her hand to gleam cold and deadly.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Are you?” she asked.
“This time, I’m going to throw magick at you, and you’re going to protect yourself using my shield. Think you can do that?”
Nina nodded and twisted her body into a defensive stance, drawing her knife hand up and turning the blade parallel to her face. I could see my reflection imprinted on its side. My eyes narrowed as the magick gathered in the palm of my hand, causing it to vibrate. Sparks flew from between my fingers, and when I cocked my arm and swung it at her, bolts of arching green lightning went streaking across the room, headed straight for Nina.
“Aurum, rego, fira!” she yelled, and my lightning met a brilliant wall of shining silver light that seemed to cause the very room to shimmer. Streaks of green enveloped the shield surrounding Nina, dissipating harmlessly into the air around her. The magick was non-lethal, and when it struck the floor and the wall, it did so without leaving black scorch-marks.
I kept the streaks of lightning coming for as long as I could, but then allowed my hand to fall and the magick stop, leaving a cloud of thin, white, odorless smoke to fill the room. Nina relaxed, though she was heaving, her shoulders rising and falling with each breath she took.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m fine. It just felt like the shield was going to rip me apart.”
“It’s not easy magick to master, and it takes a lot out of you. I can’t keep it going for more than half a minute at a time before I need a break, but I haven’t met magick it can’t block yet.”
“That’s twenty-nine seconds longer than I can go without needing a break.”
“Maybe it’s because Madison is a high magician,” Nicole, my coven mate and sister in magick, called out from the side of the room. She and about ten other witches had been watching including Nicky who, after only a couple of days of recovery, was ready to throw himself into really learning how to use magick. “High magicians are more adaptable to different kinds of magick,” she said.
I shrugged. “Maybe. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, though.”
“I don’t know,” Nina said, “I wish I could use magick without having to speak. Incantations give my spells away.”
“Do you want to try again?”
I cricked my neck and prepared again to use non-lethal magick, only this time I would blast her with fire instead of lightning. Nina rolled her shoulders and got back into a defensive stance with her knife arm stretched out in front of her, the blade running across her face. I could sense her own magick building within her, and I summoned forth my own, calling the fire from within myself and willing it to manifest in the palm of my hand.
I cocked my arm and went to hurl the ball of flame, but Nina broke eye contact with me.
“Shit!” she yelled. She hadn’t protected herself, but the magick had already left my hand and I couldn’t recall it. The ball of fire struck Nina’s unprepared chest and sent her crashing to the floor in a cloud of fire and smoke. The fire wouldn’t burn, and the smoke wouldn’t hurt the lungs, but the ball still carried enough force to hurt.
“Nina!” I yelled, “I’m so sorry!”
I started to walk toward her, but loud, echoed clapping resounded throughout the room. I turned on the spot to the source of the clapping—the door. A woman was standing there, resplendent in a white and black Chanel suit, with a tall and slender build, dark skin, and an angular face. I had no idea who this woman was, but judging by the speed at which Nicole approached my side and the look of terror on her face, she did.
The woman let her sarcastic clapping die off and turned her dark eyes toward me. “Good job,” she said, “Unless you were trying to kill her. In which case, that was shoddy at best.”
“What are you doing here?” Nicole asked.
“Nicole Harriman. It’s nice to see you again. I take it you’re the mastermind behind this little school you’re running here?”
“The school was our idea,” I said, “And this is private property. I don’t know how you got past the wards, but you need to leave.”
The woman’s face twisted into the kind of smile that could turn blood to ice. “When you get to my age, you’ll find there are few wards that can stop you from getting where you want to go. And I wanted to come here, so here I am.”
“She told you to leave,” Nicole said, “So you’d better leave.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be leaving until I’ve spoken to the person in charge. He is here, isn’t he?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m not telling you anything until you tell me who you are and what you want.”
She let out a sigh. “I’m getting tired of these questions,” she said, and with the flick of her wrist she sent a wave of magick sweeping through the room. I had barely enough time to cross my arms in front of my face and create a shield strong enough to counter the spell, protecting Nina, Nicole, and myself, but I couldn’t cover all the witches in the room and they fell to the floor, out cold.
High magick, I thought. She hadn’t had to speak to make the magick happen. Damn.
I was about to speak when the woman threw her right hand up toward us and, mimicking my earlier magick, sent a pillar of crackling lightning racing across the room. Since I’d had my hands up already, conjuring the shield was easy, but the magick that struck it caused my knees to buckle. Nicole screamed. The palms of my hands burned as I struggled to keep the shield between us and the powerful magick this woman seemed capable of producing.
Then the magick stopped, leaving me with red-hot palms and my pounding heart firmly wedged in my throat, and the smell of rotting eggs in the air. “You had no right to do that!” I yelled.
“That’s a formidable shield,” she said, “Where did you learn that trick?”
“That’s none of your damn business.”
“Nicole?” the woman said, “Care to explain to this young witch who I am? Maybe she can avoid more harm coming to you all.”
“You need to leave,” Nicole said, “You aren’t welcome in New Orleans.”
“Perhaps I wasn’t welcome before, but things seem to have changed, haven’t they? Remy Jackson, I hear, is no longer in control of the coven. In fact, there are many covens in the city now, each acting independently but working together. Remy is also, in fact, sponsoring this magick school operating out of his very own estate. I may have been discouraged from coming back under Remy’s rule, but since he no longer rules…”
My blood was starting to boil, causing anger to rise into my chest and cheeks. I scanned around the room, looking for something I could use to distract her long enough to give me the upper hand. When I saw the paint buckets and brushes stacked against the door, I found my target.
“Nicole, get back,” I said, “I don’t care who this woman is. This is our city, it’s our school, and if you say she isn’t welcome here, then she’s gotta go.”
“Madison,” Nicole said, “Don’t. Whatever you think you’re going to do, don’t do it.”
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.”
“Because this woman is Tamara Blake,” Remy said. He had started to walk into the room from the outer door and crossed to where we were. “Hello, Tamara,” Remy said.
Tamara’s lips pulled into a predatory smile. “Hello, Remy,” her voice softening now, taking an almost sensual tone. “It’s great to see you again.”
“I wish I could say the same. I also wish you hadn’t hurt our students.”
“Please, they’re only stunned. And if they were truly good students they would have been able to protect themselves like this one did. A high magician. Good find.”
“I didn’t find her—she found us. Now, tell me what it is you want, and keep it brief.”
“How about we talk in private?”
“I think we should talk out here.”
“Well, alright,” Tamara said. “It’s no great story, really. For a couple of weeks now I’ve been hearing rumors about you and about New Orleans, so I wanted to come over and check them out for myself. See if it was true what everyone was saying about you.”
“And what’s the word down the grapevine?”
“That you’ve gone soft like a rotting banana. That you’ve given up your power, your rights, to teach students how to do magick. That’s not the Remy I knew, and it’s definitely not the Remy I once wanted in my bed.”
Woah, holy shit; those two?
“There’s no need to get personal,” Remy said, “Now you’ve seen it’s all true, I’d like it if you left my property. There doesn’t have to be any more altercations.”
“I can’t promise either of those things, Remy. I actually don’t have any intention of leaving New Orleans. I used to live here. I was born here. Now I want to come back home. I worked just as hard as you did to make this place great, and I’m not going to let some upstart little bitches take what belongs to me.”
“Wait a second,” I said, as hot blood coursed through my veins. “Just who do you think you’re talking to?”
“I’m talking to a little girl who’s way in over her head. New Orleans isn’t your home, and if you think I’m going to leave town just because you’ve asked me to, you’re sadly mistaken. You’ll be seeing a lot more of me, I can assure you.”
“Fair enough,” Remy said, “But not today.”
Tamara flashed a wolf-like grin, and with a flick of the wrist she knocked over the paint cans and brushes I had been eyeing to toss at her. The grin turned into a smug, satisfied smirk, and she turned around, disappearing down the hall and out of sight, leaving only the sound of her clacking heels as evidence she was even here at all, and me feeling like a tornado had just swept through the area. Remy sighed and dragged a hand down his chin and jaw, a sign of a man trying to wash away a great deal of tension.
“Is anyone hurt?” Remy asked.
“No,” Nina said. She had gotten up and hobbled over to where we were, but I had been so focused on Tamara I hadn’t even registered her presence. “The others are asleep. I checked.”
“Good,” Remy said. “I’ll get to work on waking them up.”
“I’ll help you,” Nicole said, and they both rushed off to help the fallen witches.
“What was that all about?” Nina asked.
“You heard the woman,” I said, “Looks like there’s a new bitch in town.”
“We gonna kick her ass?”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I said, though I could already tell this woman was looking for a fight; and if she poked hard enough, she might just get one.