I understood her words just fine, but the crazed light in her eyes was another matter. Caregiver clearly wasn’t the role she was born to play. She’d probably come out of the womb with armor and that shotgun. “Yes, Mother,” I said dutifully.
She frowned at me. “Stay alive by any means possible, do you understand me?”
“I’ll scribe every night. I’ll use my magic every day. I’ll try to know when you need help, but use that phone of yours. Call me if something goes wrong and you can’t see a way out of it.”
After another tight hug, then she was back with Emery. “She is too easygoing for her own good, and you are too wild. Work on the balance between you two. My late husband always said, ‘The best magic in the world exists in a perfect balance.’”
“Yes, ma’am. I know something of that.”
She narrowed her eyes. “But don’t try to merge, mind. Otherwise you’ll have me to deal with. And trust me, what you’ve seen so far is tame compared to what I’m capable of.”
“Mother, would you stop?” I tugged at Emery’s arm in embarrassment. Without him, we would’ve been in deep water. He didn’t need constant berating about something that surely wouldn’t be an issue. I had power, sure, but I didn’t have any know-how. Merging with me would just weigh him down.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, his expression solemn.
I rolled my eyes. “If we’re going to go, we should go.” I tugged at him again. The man was a stack of bricks. He didn’t move.
“Wait right there. I’ll talk Merna out of her commuter car. That’ll give you twenty-four hours.”
“Why twenty-four hours?” I asked.
My mother looked at me like I was thick in the head. “We can’t wait any longer than that to call it in as stolen or the cops will get suspicious.”
Emery nodded like that made sense.
Even with this crew, I was the odd one out, and for once, I was okay with that. Sanity was a good thing.
Emery turned off the beat-up old Honda and sat for a moment, staring out at the darkening evening. Parked cars lined the busy Seattle street. People ambled by in light jackets and pulled-up hoods.
I clasped my hands in my lap, giving him a moment to collect his thoughts. His ego had taken a pretty solid beating after a day with my mother. She could bowl over the strongest of people.
“What do you know about the magical world?” he finally asked.
“I know that there are shifters, vampires, witches, mages, and a guy named Vlad. Also that there are two sets of rules: one set for humans, which I know really well, and another set for magical people, which I don’t know at all, but it definitely seems killing people doesn’t hold the same weight.”
“You forgot zombies on your list,” he said, his lips curling upward. He wiped his hand over his mouth, as though he hadn’t wanted to smile.
“Right. Yes. That probably should’ve been first on my list.”
His expression returned to stoic and he looked at me, his gaze deep and probing. “In a nutshell, there are a few worlds. The human world, which you know, the underworld, which you’ll probably never visit—”
“Even if I die?”
“The underworld isn’t hell. Hell is where a person lives when they lose everything. I’m going to make sure you never spend time there. The underworld is full of demons, gargoyles, and trolls, and Lucifer rules them.”
“Ah.” I nodded like I heard things like that every day.
“Mages primarily live in this world, which magical people call the Brink. I suspect that is because they are humans with magic, instead of magical creatures. They feel the most at home here.”
“You live in the Brink, then?”
A troubled look crossed his face. “I have no home. The Brink isn’t safe for me for too long, and I’m supposed to be banned from the Realm, which is the magical world that you will probably visit someday. It’s run by the elves without a sense of humor, hence my banishment out of a harmless practical joke, and populated with all manner of magical folk, many of which can’t live in the Brink because they’d stand out. I’m a gypsy, for the most part, moving from one place to the next.”
The loud buzzing in my head from all this new information dimmed and sadness for his situation took root inside of me. Losing his brother must’ve turned his life upside down. It reminded me of how it had felt to lose my dad. Except my mother, who was as tough and steadfast as a rock, had been there to shield me from the storm. And after the last twenty-four hours, I knew just how dangerous and wild that storm really was. That he had been plunged into it alone broke my heart.
Knowing that he was a hand holder, I reached out, feeling a surge through my middle when he curled his fingers around mine. A thankful smile ghosted his lips.
“Anyway, long story short”—his seriousness came back too quickly—“here’s what you need to know. An organized pack of shifters police the Brink on behalf of the Realm. They ensure magical people follow the rules, which are in place so that the humans don’t know we exist.”
“Because humans are crazy when it comes to anything different than themselves?”
“Yes. Right now, they have each other to bomb. Magical people don’t want to help them band together and focus on us.”
Something occurred to me. “Didn’t you break the rules running out of my house?”
“Yes. I’ve broken lots of rules lately.”
“Are the shifters after you?”
Wariness crossed his face. “The Mages’ Guild breaks the rules often, but it’s too powerful for the shifters to take down. The shifters don’t have much of a choice but to steer clear. There’s no lost love there, so they might just ignore me. On the flip side, since the guild is against me, the shifters might take that as a green light to come after me. And you.”
The buzzing had taken over again. “Uh-huh,” I said, as though I was following along just fine. It would be quicker in the long run.
“Shifters are prevalent in this world. So are their nemeses, vampires.”
“Wait.” I held up a finger. It didn’t help focus my thoughts. “I thought the guild was the shifters’ nemesis.”
“No. The guild is an entity that has gotten out of hand in this part of the world, and the shifters can’t scale it back. That’s professional aggravation. When it comes to the vampires, for some reason, it’s personal.”
“I have no idea,” he said, which was not at all helpful. “It might be because vampires turn humans into the undead, thereby increasing their numbers. The shifters have to breed more shifters. That’s just a guess. I’ve never asked—I have my own problems; I don’t want to dabble in theirs.”
“But…you can magically make shifters. At that retreat—”
“When you turned witches into zombies,” he said in a teasing tone.
“Right.” I drew the word out. He was getting too much enjoyment out of that. “At that retreat, they also made a werewolf. The mage said the werewolf was out terrorizing a nearby city and it wasn’t his problem.”
Chuckles shook Emery’s body. “That sounds like my kind of mage. But magically made werewolves are not the same as shifters.”
I knew I was making a funny face while I tried to process that, but I couldn’t help it. Those words made no sense to me. “Uh-huh.”
“So it’s best not to talk to vampires about shifters, and vice versa,” he said, and I hoped that was him finishing his hole-ridden lecture.
“Okay. No problem.”
“And don’t talk about the Mages’ Guild to anyone.”
“Got it.” I nodded dutifully.
“Oh, and a group of magical people, secretly affiliated with the human authorities, also police the Brink. They tend to take magical crimes the human police stumble upon. But since they’re also wary of the guild, I don’t suspect we’ll need to worry about them.”
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