Charmfall – First Chapter
I’d tripped and fallen, which put me at eye level with the giant werewolf in front of me. He growled deep and low, and my heart stuttered a little . . . until he padded forward and nuzzled my arm.
“I’m fine,” I assured him, hopping to my feet. I may have been okay, but my jeans probably weren’t going to recover anytime soon. The tunnels beneath Chicago were damp and dirty, and they left brown marks on my knees.
“Frick,” I muttered, dusting them off the best I could and blowing choppy dark hair from my eyes. “I really liked these jeans.” Maybe for once it was a good thing I’d be back in a plaid school uniform tomorrow morning.
A flash of light filled the tunnel, and a sixteen-year-old boy in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt appeared in the hallway where the wolf had been.
“The jeans are the last thing you need to worry about right now, Lily,” he said, ruffling a hand through his dark blond hair. “I beat you in that last lap by a full ten seconds.”
“I fell,” I pointed out, blushing a little as I looked into his blue eyes. “Besides, you have four legs. I only have two.”
He made a sarcastic sound, but winked at me. That didn’t exactly stop the blushing. Actually, Jason and I had been dating for a few weeks now, and I still blushed a lot. He was just, you know, cute. The kind of cute that gave you goose bumps and made your heart flutter.
The sound of splashing echoed through the tunnels, followed by the sound of heavy panting. This time, it was just two teenagers. Scout Green, my slightly weird BFF, and Michael Garcia, her totally adorable would-be boyfriend, stood in the threshold to the next tunnel. (Would-be, if she let him. He was still working on it.)
She was one of my suitemates at the über-snotty St. Sophia’s School for Girls. Michael and Jason were juniors like us, but they attended a private school a few blocks away from ours.
“You guys okay?” I asked.
“We’re good,” Scout said, but she didn’t sound thrilled about it.
“I won,” Michael said, jumping around the tunnel like he’d just crossed a goal line and spiked a ball. “I am the champion. The champion! Ahhhhh! Ahhh! The crowd goes wild!”
Scout rolled her eyes, and Jason gave him a fist bump.
“Yeah, it really was,” Michael said, dark curls bouncing as he pranced around Scout like it would actually impress her. Normally it wouldn’t, but there was a tiny smile at one corner of her mouth this time. Maybe she was a little impressed.
“So we’ve done our sprints,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “What’s next on the list?”
Jason pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and opened it up. “Recommended Adept Workout Number Two,” he began.
“Is it, ‘commence being awesome’?” Michael asked.
“It is not,” Jason said. “It’s dodge ball.”
We all smiled. Dodge ball was one of our favorites, ’cause our version had nothing to do with lining up in a row like in gym.
See, we were Adepts—teenagers with magic. And I’m not talking about magic tricks or smoke and mirrors. I’m talking real magic—vampires and werewolves and spellcasting—and that was just the stuff I knew about.
As it turns out, the world was full of magic. (That fell into the category of “things that totally shocked me,” which also includes turducken and gladiator sandals. Who do those things look good on?) A lucky few teenagers with some special skill or quality got a taste of magic while they were young. Scout, for example, could bind and cast spells. I wielded firespell, which meant I could control lights and send out blasts of power that could knock out bad guys. Michael could read architecture—he could put his hands on a building and figure out what had happened there recently.
And Jason Shepherd, my boyfriend, was a werewolf. He said being able to transform wasn’t exactly magic, but part of an ancient curse; I wasn’t sure about all the details, but being a werewolf apparently meant superstrength and a unique ability to fight. And, I mean, it was awesome to watch your boyfriend turn into a wolf and attack the bad guys in the middle of a battle. I also knew he was careful to stay away from me when the moon was full. It was too dangerous to be around him, he said.
Problem was, the gift of magic was only temporary—like an upside to puberty. Adepts like me promised we’d let the magic go in a few years, when our time came. We respected the natural order of things. Reapers, on the other hand, were magic users who started stealing the souls of others as a last-ditch attempt to hang on to their power.
That’s why we were standing in the dark and dirty tunnels beneath Chicago on an otherwise gorgeous November Sunday. Adepts were responsible for keeping the Reapers—or the Dark Elite, as they called themselves—in check. That meant a lot of late nights after school running around in the dark and a lot of keeping our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t run into anything we couldn’t handle.
We weren’t always lucky.
Anyway, when we weren’t chasing Reapers or taking classes, the Adept higher-ups decided we should get in workouts to keep our magic sharp.
“Dodge ball it is,” Scout said, rubbing her hands together. “Who gets the short straw this time?”
“Obviously me,” Michael grumbled. His magic was more about information than offense, so he always had to do the dodging. And Jason could really only nip at us, which left the magical aggression to Scout and me.
She looked at me and grinned. “Rock, paper, scissors?”
“All day long,” I said. I walked over and faced her, and put out my hands. One in a fist, one palm up. “You ready?”
“All day long,” she repeated, putting her hands out.
We counted down together—“One, two, three, go”—then picked our sides. She picked rock . . . but I picked paper.
“Booyah,” I said, covering her hands with mine. “Paper beats rock. My turn to throw.”
Scout grumbled a few choice words, but picked up her skull-faced messenger bag from our dump spot in a dry bit of tunnel and slid it over her shoulder. “Fine, newbie. Just try not to electrocute us,” she said, then pointed between Jason and me. “And no cheating.”
“Would I do such a thing?” Jason asked, sliding me a glance.
“Frankly, yes. You would. But that doesn’t matter now. Adept, ho!” she said, then turned around and began walking backward, taunting me. “Bring it, newbie.”
The goal of Adept dodge ball was to practice throwing magic at a target. In this case, Scout, Jason, and Michael were the targets, which meant I had to practice throwing really light firespell. Diet firespell. Strong enough that they wanted to jump out of the way, but not so strong that I actually hurt anyone.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounded.
“We’re waiting, Lils,” Jason said, moving toward Scout and beckoning me forward with a crooked finger. “Come and get us.”
He was cute, but this wasn’t just a race down a hallway.
This was firespell.
Sure, the power was still new to me. Mine was an accidental gift. I’d gotten my magic after a Reaper, Sebastian Born, inadvertently hit me with a shot of his own firespell. But I was getting better at controlling it—and throwing it at others.
“You got it,” I muttered, closing my eyes and opening myself to the flow of power that spilled through the tunnels beneath me. It rose through my arms and legs, looking for a way out, a way back to ground. It tickled my fingertips, eager to move.
I opened my eyes again, the cage lights that hung in the ceiling of this stretch of tunnel flickering with the effort. I imagined gathering up a lump of power like a snowball, and as Jason, Scout, and Michael stepped over the threshold into the next segment of tunnel, I lobbed it at the ceiling above them.
Scout squealed and ducked; the firespell exploded into a shower of green sparks that vibrated the walls around us. Not exactly a comforting feeling when you were a story or two underground, but it’s not like we had better practice grounds. Other than Reapers and the few nonmagical folks in Chicago who knew we had magic and helped us stay safe, our powers were secret.
“The race is on!” Michael said. He took off down the tunnel, Jason and Scout behind him.
I gathered up a bit more firespell and ran down the tunnel after them. Each caged light dimmed as I passed beneath it, like they were bowing to the power I held in my hand. I tossed another ball of firespell as the trio disappeared through an arched doorway, sparks showering down behind them.
I muttered a curse. Sure, I wasn’t supposed to hit them, but I was trying to get as close as possible. And that last one could have been a little bit closer.
Water splashed in the tunnels in front of me as they ran away. The tunnels had been used for a small railroad that carried coal and trash between the buildings in Chicago. Water tended to collect in the floor between the old rails, not to mention the stuff that seeped down from the walls. The tunnels were usually dark and always cold, and they were especially chilly now that winter was on its way.
I followed the sounds of their splashing like a trail of crumbs, pausing when they slipped into a segment of tunnel I hadn’t seen before. There was a thin metal bar across the threshold.
“Is that actually supposed to keep anyone out?” I wondered, slipping underneath it and hustling ahead. But when silence filled the tunnel, I stopped.
It was quiet except for the slow drip of water somewhere behind me. Quiet enough that I could hear blood humming in my ears—and still no sounds of the other Adepts. Had they stopped running? Snuck into a side tunnel to ambush me when I wasn’t looking?
Only one way to find out.
I let the power flow a little more—just enough to gather a bit in my hand and scare the pants off them if they tried to be sneaky. I crept forward one step at a time, trying not to worry about the little multi-legged things that were probably scurrying around me in the dark.
The lights were dimmer here, but they still flickered as I walked beneath them—stalked beneath them with a pent-up dose of firespell in hand.
“Hello?” I whispered, peeking into a nook in the concrete. Empty. The firespell itching to be set free, I rubbed my fingers together.
“Anybody there?” I whispered, sneaking to the end of the tunnel and peeking into the next one, but there were no lights. It was too dark to see ahead of me more than a few feet, and every few feet that didn’t reveal three grinning Adepts (or two grinning Adepts and a werewolf) just made me more nervous. Anticipation built as I waited for them to make their move.
My nerves pulled tight, I stopped. “All right, you guys. I give up. Let’s head upstairs. I have party committee tonight.”
There was shuffling in the dark in front of me. I froze, my heart thudding beneath my shirt. “Guys?”
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew Scout had jumped behind me, but my brain wasn’t exactly working. I screamed aloud and jumped at least two feet into the air, and then let go of the firespell I’d been holding back.
It flew from my hand, warping the air as it moved. It wavered past Jason and Michael, who’d edged against the walls of the tunnel to avoid it, but hit Scout full-on. Her body shook with the impact, and then went slack. I reached out and grabbed her before she fell, and I lowered her gently to the ground, her body cradled in my lap. Tears pricked at my eyes. “Oh, crap—Scout, are you okay? Scout?! Are you all right?”
Michael rushed to her side. He put a hand to her forehead, then tapped her cheeks like he was trying to wake her up. “Scout? Are you all right?”
“Scout, I am so sorry,” I said, panicked at the thought I’d knocked my best friend unconscious. It wasn’t exactly a good way to repay the first girl who’d actually paid attention to me when I’d been shipped to St. Sophia’s a few months ago.
Jason kneeled beside me and looked her over. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. You weren’t going full force, were you?”
“Of course not,” I said, but she had scared me. What if I’d accidentally turned up the firespell volume?
“If you wake up,” I said, “I’ll let you wear my fuzzy boots—those ones you really like? And I won’t complain when you take my chocolate muffin anymore at breakfast. You can have it everyday from now on. I swear—just wake up, okay?”
A few seconds passed in silence . . . and then Scout opened one eye and grinned at me. She’d been faking!
“The chocolate muffin, huh?” she said. “And the fuzzy boots? You heard her, boys—you’re my witnesses.”
It didn’t bother me that she landed in the middle of a puddle when I dumped her onto the floor.
Maybe I should have firespelled her a little harder.