Blue Magic (Excerpt)

You’ve been enjoying her Buffy Rewatch, and you saw the book cover art post, now take a sneak peek at A.M. Dellamonica’s Blue Magic! This sequel to Indigo Springs is due out April 10:

This powerful sequel to the A.M. Dellamonica’s Sunburst Award–winning contemporary fantasy Indigo Springs starts in the small town in Oregon where Astrid Lethewood discovered an underground river of blue liquid—Vitagua—that is pure magic. Everything it touches is changed. The secret is out—and the world will never be the same. Astrid’s best friend, Sahara, has been corrupted by the blue magic, and now leads a cult that seeks to rule the world. Astrid, on the other hand, tries to heal the world.

Conflicting ambitions, star-crossed lovers, and those who fear and hate magic combine in a terrible conflagration, pitting friend against friend, magic against magic, and the power of nations against a small band of zealots, with the fate of the world at stake.

Blue Magic is a powerful story of private lives changed by earthshaking events that will ensnare readers in its poignant tale of a world touched by magic and plagued by its consequences.

Chapter One

 

The gate had been stalking Will Forest ever since he arrested his wife. It grew into bare patches of wall in his various hotel rooms and his quarters at Wendover Air Force Base; it had taken over a discreet corner of the kitchen of the Oregon home he so rarely returned to. It turned up in his peripheral vision in restaurants, TV stations, and shops. An archway of brambles, seven feet high, it pushed through drywall and hardwood with apparent ease. Its slats were a blue-tinged wood; its handle was a carved ram’s horn.

He touched it once, and his hand vanished into nothingness. Blue light bled from the boundary between his wrist and the absent wall. When he pulled back, his skin was chilly to the touch, like meat from a fridge.

He would go into restroom stalls and find the gate on the side wall, exhaling a cold draft that fluttered the toilet paper. He had seen it in the temporary courthouse the air force had erected at Wendover. It waited in the prisoner interview room, an unobtrusive witness to his attempts to get information out of captured Alchemite terrorists.

None of his colleagues noticed the thing. One of the prisoners tried throwing herself at it . . . and bounced. As far as anyone at Wendover was concerned, she had flung herself against an impenetrable wall. The suspects had done crazier things: shouting prayers through the pretrial hearings, faking seizures, pulling out their hair during jury selection.

“Daydreaming, Forest?”

Startled out of his contemplation of the gate, Will found General Arthur Roche neatly turned out in full dress uniform, his hair so newly cut that every salt and pepper strand lay in perfect, bristling formation. Even the hearing aid tucked into his left ear gleamed.

It wasn’t a reprimand. In fact, Roche served up one of his carefully rationed smiles, a rigid upturn of the lips that froze as he took in Will’s wrinkled shirt and unshaven chin.

“It’s Monday morning,” Will said. “My son and daughter should be getting ready for school.”

Another man might have clapped Will on the shoulder. Roche, though they’d been friends since college, barely nodded. “Take another run at your wife today. Maybe when the trial starts, it’ll sink in that this is serious.”

“Yes, I’ll try Caro again,” Will said without much hope.

“Now Sahara’s on trial before the whole world, the Alchemite movement will crumble like dried-out cake.”

“Cake,” Will agreed. He didn’t point out that getting this far had taken a tremendous toll on both the government and the military.

“Today’s the beginning of the end for the witches, you’ll see.” With that, Roche hustled Will into a glorified storage closet furnished with a cheap table and chairs, a space designated for witness interviews and small meetings.

One of Roche’s tame journalists waited inside, dictating copy into her phone: “. . . opening arguments in the trial of Sahara Knax, head of the fanatical cult that sank the aircraft carrier USS Vigilant last fall. Knax and nine followers face charges of attempted murder, committing terrorist acts, and treason in connection with the attack on the carrier.

“Today I am talking to the two men responsible for bringing Knax and her so-called mystics to trial. Will Forest insists that he is an ordinary person, doing his best in extraordinary circumstances. . . . Listen, they’re here. Call you back?”

Will stifled a sigh. Sahara’s show trial was little more than a diversion from the magical catastrophe enveloping the country. The real power lay beyond the gate of brambles even now embroidering itself on the wall. It lay within a reservoir of spilled magical energy in the Oregon forest and with the woman who controlled it, Astrid Lethewood.

Officially, Astrid was a bit player in this mess. Sahara had embarrassed the navy when she sank its carrier, so quashing the Alchemites was the government’s first priority. Oh, the air force was firebombing the magical well, and they were fighting to stop the alchemized forest from spreading. But as for recapturing Astrid? She would keep, Roche said.

Would she? Will hadn’t pushed: Astrid was probably beyond their reach. And he’d liked her, more than was wise . . . which might be why he hadn’t mentioned the gate.

The reporter snapped her phone shut. “I appreciate your talking to me, Mr. Forest.”

“Call me Will.” He shook the hand she offered.

“Minimal pleasantries, okay?” Roche glanced at his watch. “Trial starts soon.”

“Okay, Will: We’ll start with an easy one. Everyone remembers where they were when they learned that magic exists. How about you?”

“Home, watching the same news broadcast as everyone else.” It had begun with a police standoff: Some guy with a shotgun, holding his girlfriend and her roommates in an old house in Oregon. A local fireman had blundered in and been killed. The gunman was holding off the sheriff’s department. Sad stuff, but nothing peculiar.

Then . . .

“You saw the lawn and trees growing to giant size, the alchemized bees and songbirds attacking police?”

“Yes, from the comfort of my living room. I saw Sahara Knax escape on a flying carpet. Then the house collapsed.”

Sahara had fled to California with a pillowcase full of magical objects, now known as chantments. She used them to set herself up as a goddess, scamming thousands of believers.

“Your wife was with you?” the reporter asked.

“My whole family saw it,” Will said. “Afterward, Caroline became one of Sahara’s followers.”

“She left you and kidnapped your children?”

“That’s right.”

“And it was Caroline’s departure that led to your capture of Sahara Knax?”

“Indirectly,” Will said. “I got involved in the effort to contain the alchemical spill in Indigo Springs. My job included interviewing the survivors of the initial standoff—”

“Including the gunman, Mark Clumber?”

“Mark had been contaminated. He couldn’t speak.” Clumber, a supposed bad guy, had arrived in Indigo Springs to find Sahara Knax locked in a power struggle with Astrid Lethewood. Their house was sitting on a source of immense magical power Sahara wanted to control.

“He’d been in contact with this magical fluid?”

“Vitagua—that’s right. Sahara had broken into a wellspring of the magical liquid. Astrid, Sahara, and their roommate, Jackson Glade, were trying to contain the spill when Mark Clumber showed up. He was something of a last straw.”

“Things went from bad to disastrous?”

“Catastrophic. Sahara used a chantment to force Mark to shoot at police. They were trying to buy time, but the ploy failed. The magical spill triggered an earthquake. Vitagua contaminated the entire region.”

“What happened to everyone in the house?”

“Clumber and one of the neighbors, Patience Skye, were doused in magic. The army took them and Lethewood into custody. Lee and Jackson Glade were killed.” The press still didn’t know that Jacks Glade had been shot by police. “Knax, of course, got away.”

“And you caught her, three months later.”

“That’s right. I was interviewing Astrid Lethewood, and Alchemites attacked the facility where she was being held. Lethewood and Clumber escaped, and I arrested Sahara Knax.”

The reporter leaned in. “Since then, you’ve helped arrest several key Alchemites, including your wife. But you haven’t recovered your children?”

“No. If anyone knows where my children are, please contact the authorities. There is a reward.”

The worried father stuff played well with the public; Roche was using him and the kids, but what could Will do about that? Not search for Ellie and Carson?

It wasn’t working. A sense of pointlessness, time wasted, assailed him with the force of a riptide. The confidence he’d had in his old friend and the might of the army was fading.

“This trial is a step forward for America,” Roche said. His plan to steer the United States beyond the magical crisis was simple: convict and execute Sahara; then subdue the remaining Alchemites. Last, sort out the contamination in Oregon.

Will tried not to stare at the magical door. Astrid had offered to help him.

Still. He’d give Caroline one last chance.

They finished the interview in time to watch as nine Alchemite prisoners, seven women and two men, were led into the courtroom. Caro was third in line. Her posture was upright, her golden hair ragged. Scabs and bald patches marked her scalp. Hunger strikes had diminished the curves Will had once loved, and her now-skeletal face was puffy and bandaged. She wasn’t the only one: several prisoners sported black eyes.

Will shot an uneasy look at Roche.

“Self-inflicted,” he huffed. “Marshals caught ’em smashing their faces into the cell walls last night.”

The defendants were led to a side room for a last search, in case anyone had gotten their hands on a chantment on the way from the cells.

As Will followed Roche into the courtroom, the gate of brambles flowered into view behind the bench.

Sahara Knax was brought in after her followers were seated. Like Mark Clumber, she had been exposed to raw magic. Astrid had improvised a treatment for her condition: before her arrest, Sahara had been devolving into a bird. At present she looked human.

Her delusions of godhood were as strong as ever.

“Who’s the new guy?” Will asked, spotting a lean black man, maybe thirty-five years of age, conferring with the prosecutor.

“Gilead Landon,” Roche said. The man’s head came up, as if he had overheard. He raised a hand in greeting, revealing a badly scarred palm. “Landon’s been helping hold back the magical forest. He’s got ideas about containment.”

“Containment as in burning Alchemites?”

“It may come to that.” Will darted a look at Caro, and Roche added hastily, “Landon wants to burn the contaminated and their magic toys. Just Sahara and the chantments, see?”

“How’d this clown find you?”

“I found him.”

“What?”

“True or false, Will: Lethewood murdered that fire chief, Lee Glade, because he was in a competing magical faction. . . .”

“Fyremen.”

“Correct.”

“This Gilead Landon is a witch burner?”

“Will, if these people understand magic, I want ’em on board, not running wild. Anyway, he’s with you on Lethewood. Says she’s the one that matters.”

“Oh, if he agrees with me, let’s get into bed with him.”

“Why shouldn’t I reach out to a potential resource?”

“They’re murderers, Arthur. A society of killers whose charter was written in the Middle Ages.”

“Says who? Astrid Lethewood? She’d killed one of them, Will. She had every reason to claim they’re bad guys.”

“Didn’t you just say this guy wants to put Sahara on a stake?” The Fyreman was studying Sahara as she sat at the defendant’s table.

“Law says if Knax gets convicted, we’ll give her a lethal injection,” Roche said. “So what if we cremate the remains afterwards?”

“What if he wants to burn her alive, Arthur?”

Roche made a frustrated noise. “This isn’t pattycake we’re playing here. You want your kids back or not?”

Will was spared the necessity of a reply when a clerk called court into session. The assembly rose, and the Federal Circuit Judge, George Skagway, wheeled his chair to the bench.

“Be seated.” His voice was a rich, resonant bass, the modulated boom of a seasoned speaker. Everyone obeyed him . . .

. . . except Sahara Knax.

“Poisoners of the world, lovers of the Filthwitch, I hereby mark your faces,” she said. Her lawyer tugged on her orange plastic sleeve, but she shook him off. “You will drown in floods, freeze in blizzards, choke in the dust storms I bring down upon your Earth-hating heads.”

Filthwitch: that was her name for Astrid.

“Praise the Goddess!” The defendants chanted, “Praise the Earth, praise the—”

“That’s enough!” Skagway had the lungs of an opera singer; he drowned out the sound of his own gavel coming down, overriding the prisoners. “Defendants will quiet down or be banned from the courtroom for the day.”

The Alchemites’ prayers became shrieks of rage. Several banged their heads against the table. Others, Caroline included, curled so they could reach their hair with their cuffed hands and yank it out in bloody tufts.

The U.S. Marshal in charge of courtroom security, Juanita Corazón, already had her team jumping in to restrain the defendants.

Sahara feinted, stepping out to face the prosecutor. “You, Wallstone. You’ll be first to feel my wrath.”

The Fyreman, behind her, laid his scarred palm on Sahara’s shoulder. She swayed, dropping into Juanita’s arms. The gallery quieted.

“Move to dismiss, Your Honor.” The defense attorney hopped up. “Prosecution’s assaulted my client.”

“Motion denied. Who are you, young man?” Judge Skagway asked.

“Gilead Landon, Your Honor.” The Fyreman raised his eyes to the bench. “Consultant to the air force.”

“I’ll thank you to stay away from the defendants. The marshals have this in hand.”

“Just trying to help.”

“Help us again, you’ll be banned from court.” Judge Skagway said, “Defendants may watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. We’ll recess to facilitate the transfer.”

“See, Will? Gilead’s got his uses.” Roche covered a smirk with his hand. “The public sees how easily subdued Sahara is, it makes her less scary.”

“You planned this?” Will said.

“It didn’t take much imagination to know Sahara would want to disrupt the first day.”

“But will you broadcast her threats?”

“We may edit the footage.”

“And pretty up the Primas’ black eyes digitally, while you’re at it?”

“Not a bad idea,” Roche said, ignoring his sarcasm.

“Won’t people wonder how Landon knocked her out? Won’t they say, ‘Hey, wasn’t that magic? Aren’t you government types telling us that magic is bad?’ ”

“Officially, the point is terrorism, not magic,” Roche said. “Now, do you want to talk to Caro?”

No, Will thought. “All right.”

Minutes later, he was seated across from his ex-wife in one of the six-by-six booths the Wendover staff had dubbed “squirrel cages,” watching a marshal cuff her to the table. A screen on the far wall offered a view of the courtroom; a keypad on the desk let her text her defense attorney during proceedings. No need for that now, though—a lawyer was present.

The newest raw spot on her scalp was oozing.

Caroline the Alchemite bore little resemblance to the Caro who had rappelled from the roof of a student residence tower to the deck of Will’s apartment when they were undergraduates; the woman who’d climbed K2 without oxygen on her twentieth birthday. The woman who had shared his bed and dreams, who’d worked two jobs while he attended grad school, who’d soothed their son’s night terrors while writing her bioethics thesis was gone.

These days, Sahara was first in her thoughts. “What did that bastard do to the Goddess?”

“Want me to find out how she’s doing?”

“Still the negotiator, William? I’d have to do something for you, right?”

Never fight the subject on her own terms. Will produced a file, sliding out two news clippings: an account of an Alchemite’s death in Wichita, first. Just after Sahara’s arrest, her followers had taken to wearing orange jumpers similar to prisoners’ uniforms. It made them easy to spot; this one had been beaten to death in his home, which had then been looted—the killers, naturally, were after chantments.

The second clipping was about a woman who’d had the bad fortune to resemble Sahara: she had been drawn and quartered in Bogotá. He let Caro read, saw her blanch. She passed the pages to her lawyer with a shaking hand.

“Caroline, tell me where Ellie and Carson are. Whoever you’ve left them with, she isn’t safe; she can’t protect them.”

She shook her head.

“Sahara can’t watch out for her flock. The army’s chipping away at your leadership. . . .”

“We’re coming out even there,” she muttered. It was true. Hundreds of soldiers had vanished in the skirmishes of the past six months. A few had been killed; when desperate, the Alchemites powered their chantments by drawing the life out of the people they were fighting—and any unfortunate bystanders. Vamping, they called it.

Will fanned three last pages out in front of her. “You weren’t the only mother in the cult, Caro.”

“I am the Prima of Wind, Worker of Miracles,” she hissed. “I am soft air washing away the sins of the technofilth—”

Her gaze fell on the pages.

It was the biggest weapon he had, a police report detailing the fate of a minor Alchemite and her three children. He had not spared her the photos. Caro let out a long keening breath. For the first time since her arrest, she was rattled.

“Caroline?”

Tears ran down her face, and Will felt a shred of hope. She tried to pray, stuttered, looked at the images of the bodies. Then her expression closed, shock bleeding out, hate brimming in. The fleeting glimpse of his kids’ mother was gone.

She launched herself across the table, clawing at him with her free hand.

Will stood his ground. A gust of power from his enchanted ring heaved Caro back. Her arm jerked against the restraint of the handcuff and she teetered, pinned and off balance. Will had to fight not to slump. Magic was tiring; it would have taken less energy to step out of reach.

“Ellie and Carson, Caro. They’re not safe out there.”

“Filthwitch puppet,” she bellowed, regaining her feet. “I’ll cut their throats myself before I see them back with you!”

Will’s hand flew to his gut, as if he’d been punched. “We’re done, then,” he heard himself say. Abandoning the papers, he walked out.

Roche had been watching through the glass. “You okay?”

“Did you hear her?” It was sinking in; the army couldn’t get the kids back. He’d been wasting his time.

“Will,” Roche said. “Snap out of it. I’ll get the team on it, work up a new strategy. Try drugs on her, maybe.”

Cut their throats myself . . .

“She’s locked up; she can’t harm anyone. Will, you listening?”

“I’m okay.” He forced his numb lips into a smile. “Trial starts again in five.”

“Five.” Six months, the trail cold, and anything could be happening to Carson and Ellie. They should be in school. . . .

“Where are you going?”

“I need a protein shake. The ring.”

“Of course.”

“Arthur,” he said. “I know you’re trying. Thank you.”

“See you in there.” Roche almost saluted, then turned the gesture into a weak wave before walking away.

Will took a last look through the one-way mirror of the squirrel cage, at the woman who had been his wife.

“She’s bleeding,” he said to the marshal on duty. “Can you get her treated?”

“Of course, sir.”

He stumbled across the base to the officers’ lounge, a dimly lit bar with big flat-screen TVs. Off-duty pilots crammed the place, waiting for more trial coverage.

Near the bar sat a fridge filled with protein shakes.

As Will opened the fridge, the magic gate formed silently beside him. He could write a note, explain his departure. He could send a text message and be gone before Arthur received it.

He fingered the shakes. He thought of stealing one, bearing something from the old world into whatever lay beyond the magical gate. He examined the plastic bottle, the stamped red expiration dates, the foil seal. . . . This faltering world of technology had been such a marvel. Would the land of the fairies have refrigeration, or hot running water? It seemed unlikely.

Closing the fridge, he slipped through the bramble-framed magical gate.

Nobody saw him go.


Chapter Two

Morning arrived in Indigo Springs, but it did not bring the dawn.

The shattered remains of Astrid Lethewood’s hometown rested beneath a dense thicket of magically contaminated forest. Earthquake-tumbled buildings lay in pieces in the understory, the concrete rubble interspersed with steel beams, plastic refuse, and the knotted roots of overgrown cedar and spruce.

Though daylight could not penetrate the matted canopy overhead, it wasn’t dark: the glow of raw magic suffused everything it contaminated. The massive trunks of the alchemized trees cast a lambent blue-white light. Their glimmering, fast-growing roots eroded ancient bedrock and cement building foundations with impartial ruthlessness. Blades of grass and seed cones shone; motes of dust hung in the air, winking like stars.

The trees had crushed cars and shoved whole homes aside as they shot upward, like a thousand fairy-tale beanstalks . . . and then died. Even magical plants needed sunshine, and most of the affected trees had lost the race to the sky. Much of the luminescent tonnage overhead, as a result, was deadwood.

As the federal treason trial raised its curtain in Utah, as Sahara Knax threatened judge and jury and Will Forest finally lost faith in the system, Astrid was planting tomato seedlings.

She had erected a makeshift greenhouse atop one of the few buildings that had weathered the disaster—the Indigo Springs Grand Hotel. The hotel was the center of her world, in a sense: when she escaped government custody, six months earlier, she had found it standing here, stately and solid, defying overgrowth and tremors alike. Here, in the heart of the enchanted forest, she had begun pruning out the tons of sun-starved vegetation around the building. By reducing the dead trees to chips, she had carved out an open space at ground level, a clearing both supported and illuminated by the trunks of the surviving trees.

Beyond and above the perimeter of the clearing, the forest remained overgrown and impassable. The tangle blocked out daylight, but it also shielded them from ground assault and from Roche’s planes.

As if summoned by her thought, a jet howled past, rattling the panes of the greenhouse.

“You could just make tomatoes using magic.”

Astrid had not been alone, even in those early days. Mark Clumber had been with her ever since she got away from Roche. An ill-tempered sound engineer with mismatched eyes, Mark had always seemed like a big-city con man to her, not a hometown boy. In reality, they’d known each other since kindergarten.

“Gardening helps me think, Mark,” she said. “Plants won’t grow without real light.”

“I’ve chanted the helium tank over there—it’ll make sunshine.”

Mark frowned. “Government might pick up the heat.”

“Then what? They bomb us? They’re already bombing us.”

“Astrid—”

“You’ve been keeping the air force out of here.”

“Doesn’t mean I want you making my job harder.”

If they were mobile, protecting themselves would be simpler, a game of hide and seek. But Astrid was tied to Indigo Springs. The magical well was here, and they had to defend it.

“It’s a teeny bit of sunlight, Mark.”

The two of them had never liked each other: it was one of the reasons she trusted him now. Sahara had flattered them both— then lied. She’d agree to something, then do as she pleased. And that was before she’d lost her mind.

These days, Astrid preferred honest dissent.

“Today it’s sunlight. Tomorrow you’ll want to put in a landing strip for the jets and see if you can win the pilots over to Peace, Love, and the Magical Way.”

“Think that would work?”

He covered his face in his hands, moaning.

Astrid relaxed. “You’re not angry.”

“The bombing runs have been off target, haven’t they? Nobody’s getting to the well as long as I’m around.”

True, so true, a voice tittered. She shook it away, like a mosquito.

“So,” Mark harrumphed. “Sunshine?”

With a magician’s flourish, Astrid lay her hand against the rusty helium tank. Waxy drops of golden light wobbled into the air, filling a nonexistent balloon that shivered liquidly as it grew. It rose to the scooped-out ceiling of the clearing, splatting against the trees and coating them in light. The encampment brightened, and Astrid felt warmth on her skin.

“Waste of power—vitagua throws plenty of light to work by.” Mark gestured at the glowing tree trunks.

“Cold light. Anyway, it’s not extravagant. I’m just borrowing some of the sun shining on the canopy.”

Mark gave her the look that meant he wished her priorities were in line with his. Thankfully, he seemed as tired of speaking the words as she was of ignoring them.

“Aren’t you guys watching the trial?” Patience Skye appeared on the hotel roof, apparently from nowhere.

Patience, like Mark, had been in Astrid’s house during their standoff with the police last September. Sahara had dunked both of them in vitagua.

The raw form of magic was cursed, and direct exposure turned people to animals—“Frog Princed” them, Mark liked to say. It stripped away their emotional armor, amplifying psychological weaknesses.

Astrid had found a way to arrest the process. It wasn’t quite a cure; it hadn’t cured Sahara’s greed for magical power. But she had managed to keep Patience and Mark from going crazy or devolving into animals.

The treatment involved fusing chantments into their bodies, items that drew the contamination into themselves. It was an okay compromise, and someone thus treated could make use of the magical powers embedded within the chantment.

Patience had been the first attempt. Astrid had fused three objects into her: one gave her stunning good looks, while a second allowed her to pass through solid objects. The third had been a shape-shifting chantment. But three objects had been too many. Patience’s appearance changed at random and entirely against her will.

“Patience, I need a favor,” Astrid began. Then Everett Lethewood—Astrid’s mother, sort of—appeared on the hotel roof beside them.

Like Mark and Patience, Ev had been exposed to raw vitagua. In his case, the contamination had revealed something he said he’d known all along. Ev wasn’t female, hadn’t been meant, he said, to live in a woman’s body.

Her Ma, really a man? At times, Astrid still didn’t quite believe it. But when she treated Ev’s contamination, Astrid gave him the ability to change a person’s sex. Ev hadn’t hesitated: his body now was as male as he claimed his spirit had always been. He hadn’t shown any inclination to change back.

Patience spread her arms wide, drinking in the sunlight. She was short-waisted and petite today, with Japanese features and a buzz cut. “These sunglob thingies work at night?”

“No. You gotta have sunshine to borrow sunshine,” Astrid said. “And they burn out. Someone will have to make new ones.”

“Good job for new volunteers, I suppose,” Mark said.

“It’s a relief to see daylight,” Patience said, basking. “I’ll do it if no one else will.”

“I have something else in mind for you,” Astrid said.

“That so?”

“We need someone to speak for us in the unreal,” Astrid said. The magic she was restoring to the ordinary world was coming from a realm her father had called Fairyland. The trapped residents of that realm were demanding their freedom . . . and Astrid had promised to give it to them. “The pressure on the magical well is increasing.”

“How much?” Mark demanded.

She shrugged. “They’re pushing. Testing me.”

Patience clucked, an old-woman noise that reflected her age more accurately than did her appearance. “They got every right.”

“I’m committed to getting the vitagua back here where it belongs, you know that. But I need time.”

“The question is how much time, sweetie?”

“However long it takes to get the body count down—”

“I’m for no body count at all,” Ev said.

An awkward pause: it was already too late for that.

“You’ve seen the Big Picture,” Astrid said. “We have to take it slow, equip people to deal with the emergence of magic.”

“Fine,” Patience sighed. “I’ll go play ambassador.”

“Pop? Would you go with her?”

“Me?” Ev’s weather-beaten cheeks reddened. “I’ve got a job. I’m helping the trans folk coming through Bramblegate—”

“We can send ’em to you for gendermorphing,” Mark said.

“Young man, I don’t much care for the way you give cute names to every little thing, and that word especially—”

“I’ll make a second chantment for the hospital, Pop,” Astrid interrupted. “The medics can do gender transitions here.”

“There’s Two-Spirited people in the unreal, Ev,” Patience said. “Some of ’em might want morph—transforming too.”

Ev glowered. “Astrid’s trying to get me out of here before someone drops a nuke on her head.”

“Nobody’s getting nuked, Pop.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.” She knew the future—bits and pieces of it, anyway. There were disasters in the offing, terrible things, but nothing like that.

“Roche knows that if he lobs a nuke at us, we might manage to send it back,” Mark said. Shortly after their escape, the government had fired missiles into town. Some had exploded harmlessly, far from the magical well. As for the rest, the four of them—with the help of a growing pool of volunteers—had sent them off course.They detonated missiles above the forest, out at sea. They’d even sent one back to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Roche was holed up, blowing it up a few miles from the Wendover air base just to make a point.

Sabotaging unmanned missiles had been no small feat. Magic took power. Diverting those first barrages had left them starving, kitten weak, and half frozen. But Roche got the message. Now he sent manned flights, planes with napalm. Will must have told him that Astrid wouldn’t harm the pilots.

“The point of Sahara’s treason trial is to show that the government is in control of the magical outbreak,” Mark said. “They can’t go nuclear on us without seeming desperate.”

Ev relaxed. The chantment Astrid had embedded in Mark—his eyeglasses—made it impossible for him to lie.

Astrid took his hand. “Pop, I’m not coddling you. Sending you to the unreal shows I’m serious about keeping my promises. Please go. Remind the Roused we’re on the same side. They have something I want, remember?”

“Jacks Glade.” Pop nodded. “Okay. Patience can calm people down, I’ll . . . gendermorph the transgendered folks there.”

Astrid felt a surge of relief. The grumbles, those little voices she kept hearing, claimed Ev was going to survive this crisis. But knowing the future didn’t keep her from worrying.

“Astrid?” Tuning forks hung around their necks quivered, projecting a lilting Irish voice. “There’s a newcomer caught in Briarpatch. I think it’s Will Forest.”

“Is it Will day?” she said, pleased.

“Gee, I guess we’re all saved,” Mark muttered.

“Don’t be a grouch.” Astrid headed through the nearest archway of brambles.

She stepped out onto the intricately patterned marble floor ofan old train station. Gleaming rose-colored stone stretched between its crumbled walls. Scarred oak benches with thick leather upholstery formed a gallery to one side of the gate, across from a big ARRIVALS board that still showed the time of day in cities around the world. Two dozen people were gathered on the benches, watching a glassed-in television that was tuned, naturally, to Sahara’s trial.

Over where the departure platforms had been, columns of frozen vitagua rose skyward, casting their oceanic glow.

As Astrid crossed the marble floor, she became part of a small crowd flowing through the archway; the train station was their primary transportation hub. Anyone who passed through the gate of brambles ended up here.

Mark appeared at her side, hustling to catch up.

“You’re coming?”

“Would I miss the big reunion?”

They crossed the plaza, stepping among the blue glowing columns and murmuring “Briarpatch” in unison. Blue light washed out everything . . . and then they were at the rim of a pit of blackberry canes. Will Forest stood in its midst, his hand—the one with the chanted ring—snagged in blackberry thorns.

A rotund Swede in a parka got out of a lawn chair, raising his hand in greeting. “I tried knocking him out,” he said, breath misting in the chill. “Didn’t work.”

“He has a protection chantment,” Astrid said. “You’d just be vamping calories off him.”

“Don’t worry; I stopped.”

“Mark? You going to let him loose?”

Mark tsked. “There’s security on Bramblegate for a reason.”

“Come on, he’s not dangerous.”

“Yes, infallible one,” Mark sighed, speaking to his security people. “Jupiter, pull the pin on Bramblegate.”

The thorns entangling Will’s arm curled back. Astrid brought them all into the plaza, into the semiprivate alcove near a bank of lockers.

Will blinked, adjusting to the changed light. “Mark, hi. Hello, Astrid.”

Astrid fought an unexpected interior flutter. “What’s the etiquette for this? I feel like we’re friends, but the only time we met was when you were interrogating me for the Roach.”

“Want to see how a hug feels?”

Mark grimaced, no doubt biting back a sarcastic comment. Will opened his arms, and Astrid stepped into the embrace. It felt more natural than she would have guessed.

“I guess you knew Arthur would strike out on finding Carson and Ellie,” Will said.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

“Ever since we caught Caro and the children weren’t with her . . .” He was hollow eyed and thin. “I need you to find them, Astrid.”

“I can’t do worse than Roche.”

“More optimism, please. By now I’m probably wanted for treason.”

“I can do upbeat.” She gave him a smile, tried to seem steady, rock certain. “Remember the grumbles?”

A nod. “They tell you the future.”

“They speak of a classroom of children, all learning how to chant. And your kids are there.”

“A magic school? What if it’s Alchemites teaching them—?”

“It’s my class, Will. I hear me.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” He looked hopeful and apprehensive. “The grumbles have lied before.”

“They withhold things, but they don’t lie.” It was something she understood better now. “And the longer we’re in the Spill, the more I learn.”

“In the Spill?”

Careful, she thought, take it slow. “Before, there was almost no magic. People like my dad made chantments and Fyremen hunted them, closing down the wells. I screwed all that up—”

“—by spilling tons of vitagua into the ravine, I know.”

“Will, we’re still spilling. The more magic we dribble out, the better it will be when the well pops.”

When it pops, not if?” He took that in, evaluating the information without seeming to judge her.

He had never judged her, Astrid thought, not even when she told him she’d killed Jacks’s dad.

“When,” she confirmed.

“I call it Boomsday,” Mark said. “Astrid doesn’t like that, so much—it rhymes with Doomsday.”

“Which is why you do like it?” Will asked.

“Astrid prefers the Small Bang.”

“Because the smaller the better,” Astrid said.

“Yessir, boss, sir.”

Will wasn’t tracking their banter. “What does the well opening have to do with Carson and Ellie?”

“The grumbles say we have good days ahead, Will. They talk of magicians digging wells, feeding the hungry. A floating city in the Pacific, cleaning the water, repopulating fish stocks. The Roused free, the curse broken . . .”

“Meanwhile society goes down the toilet?”

“No! We figure it out. Will, there’s still going to be cars and email and plastic surgery. It’s just there’ll also be magical cures for cancer and, you know, sea monsters.”

“Happily ever after?”

“I don’t know about ever after, Will, but it’s going to be good. A long honeymoon. Lifetimes.”

“Happy After doesn’t have the right ring.”

She tried a disarming shrug, realized she was aping a move of Sahara’s, and ended up feeling self-conscious. “This is why I leave naming things to Mark.”

“A good future.” Will chewed this over. “You promised that my children would be fine. That they’d thrive.”

She let the grumbles in, listening for the children. “I hear Carson. He’s chanted a pair of magic . . . skates, I think. He’s laughing. You’re arguing with Ellie over homework. . . .”

As she spoke, she felt the shape of that future; she was cold, for some reason, chilled to the bone. Will was teasing her about being a permissive stepmother. . . .

Stepmother? Were they together, then? Her emotions surged, tangling: hope, panic, a pang of guilt for Jacks, who had loved her, an upwelling of nameless, unidentifiable grief.

“How soon?” Will’s brittle tone brought her back.

She shivered. “They’re young, Will, still young. It can’t be long.”

Mark shot her a worried glance from behind Will’s back. Soon wasn’t good: they were trying to hold off the Small Bang.

Will looked at the glowing columns, the people vanishing into the blue light. “I don’t know how long I can wait.”

“We get them back, Will. They’re young, they’re chanters, and we’re all laughing.”

“Har dee har.” He took a ragged breath, turning to Mark, and began to extend a hand in greeting. Then fighter jets screeched overhead, and he froze.

Astrid covered her ears. Seconds later, explosives whumped a few miles away.

“Off target,” Mark said with a smug grin.

“Mark’s keeping the bombs off us,” Astrid explained.

“All by himself?”

“Not at all. I have minions, underlings, cannon fodder—”

“Mark!” Astrid said. “He’s kidding about the fodder.”

Will smiled.

Mark said, “Speaking of my team, I should be with them. You giving Will the grand tour?”

Astrid nodded.

“Catch you both later, then.” Giving Will a nettled look, Mark headed off into the glow.

“What now?” Will said.

There were so many answers to that question: she wanted his advice on a dozen different things. “I’ll show you what we’re doing here. It’ll give you an idea of how we’ll go after your kids.”

It was the right answer: he brightened.

She led him among the columns of vitagua, saying, “Bigtop,” as they stepped down the concrete steps and came out in front of the hotel.

Will’s jaw dropped.

She realized anew how strange it looked. Even with the overgrown trees and brush cleared away, the forest floor was drenched in vitagua, dangerous and uninhabitable. They’d left it that way, a bright impassable lagoon of magical fluid and mulched forest. Glowing mushrooms formed a carpet over the slime, toxic bluetinged amanitas in fairy rings, clusters of gold-streaked honey fungus, fluted chanterelles and tall, porous morels all lending an exotic, fairy-tale look to the place.

Working up from the floor, she and her volunteers had created an island of fill by gathering the bones of the destroyed town, forming piles of concrete and steel among the enormous stumps of the dead trees. Abandoned cars, bits of highway, and garbage bridged the clearing; brightly colored silk tents were pitched on its main hub. New fill radiated from the central campground in spokes, raised pathways that expanded outward into the lagoon.

The fill bridged the space between the hotel and one other building they’d managed to salvage whole—the Indigo Springs hospital.

Sunshine globbed onto tree branches like paint, a camp built on rubble, vitagua-filled bottles hung from the trees, magic mushrooms, tinkling musical messages . . .

Will turned a slow circle. “This is your base of operations?”

Astrid nodded. “Let’s start with the ravine.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Will followed.

“How much do you remember about vitagua?” she asked.

“Let’s see . . . magic used to be a living cell. It allowed people to bend the rules of nature.”

“Right,” she said.

“Centuries ago, when the Inquisition began burning witches, the cells—”

“Magicules.”

“Magicules, right, were driven into the unreal and they became vitagua.”

“Blue in color, thick as blood, dangerous as hell,” she said, quoting her father. The fluid had been drizzling back into the real world for centuries. Well wizards like Dad had taken it drop by drop, locking it within magic items like Will’s ring.

The physical breach between the real and unreal was in the ravine. It had been concealed in the chimney of Dad’s old house, and an irregular pile of bricks still marked the epicenter of the Spill. Blue fluid oozed through the porous, cracked bricks, pooling in the ravine, forming a boxy lake.

Will peered down. “That’s . . . a lot of vitagua.”

“Barely a drop in the bucket,” Astrid countered. “Remember the glaciers in the unreal?”

He nodded. “You’re spilling it into the woods?”

“I’m also making chantments.” She pointed at a line of shopping carts filled with junk: small carvings, combs, dishes, lampshades, books, tools, purses, plastic necklaces, jewelry boxes, flowerpots . . .

“Where’s all that coming from?”

“There are crews out salvaging in the evacuated towns. See that work crew there, going through the stuff?”

“That’s . . . what, twenty people?”

“It’s a lot of work. They have to sort through everything. Broken stuff has to be mended. Glass and electronics can’t be chanted at all.”

“You must be making hundreds of chantments.”

“Abracadabra.” She’d had a gold barbell pierced through the web between her right thumb and index finger: chanting required a break in the skin. She twisted the barbell before bending to dip her fingers into the flow of vitagua from the ravine.

Liquid magic passed through her body, seeping from the piercing in the web of her hand and, from there, into the rescued objects. She’d shown Will how this worked before; she didn’t need to explain that she was binding raw magic into the scavenged items so people could safely access its power.

Peace and a sense of vitality flooded her.

This was what she was meant to do. The personality juggling, the meetings, the planning and recruiting, the endless defense of the town—those were just by-products of the Spill. Item by item, she made the junk into chantments. Volunteers bustled in to take the carts away.

Will asked: “What’ll you do with them?”

“Mostly, give them away.”

“You’re not hanging on to everything?”

“Only what we need. Being a well wizard is about sharing power.” She pointed at a red silk tent. “Over there, we have a team of volunteers using chantments that make them psychic. They’ve been working on locating your children.”

“What if they say the kids are in Timbuktu, surrounded by heavily armed Alchemites? Got a plan for that?”

“Of course,” she said. “You think I’ve been sitting around all this time?”

A smile—a real one—broke across his face. “You are more of a go-getter than a sitter.”

“What we’re gonna go get is your children, Will.” Astrid found herself wanting to hug him again. Instead, she led him toward the hotel. “Come on, I’ll show you the rest.”

Blue Magic © A.M. Dellamonica 2012

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