11 March 2019

The Beyond – Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

Magic was thick as humidity in the southern Louisiana air. And it felt glorious.

Today, there was no hiding. No pretending. We were humans, but not just humans. We were Sensitives, and we were doing magic in public.

My students stood in a line on a plot of green, facing downriver and staring intently at the small objects on the grass in front of them. A wooden box, a ceramic vase, a knitted cube, an old FM radio, and an agate bookend.

“Get those shoulders back!”

I turned my gaze to the man who stood beside me. He was nearly four feet of attitude, stubby black horns, and more magic than my body could safely hold. Moses was a Paranormal, one of the good guys, and one of my favorite people.

He also had a sass mouth, as Earlene, the oldest of my Sensitives, liked to say. It was one of the things I loved most about him.

“You look like trolls.” Moses hunched his shoulders. “Stand up straight, for crap’s sake.”

“We talked about positive reinforcement,” I murmured, hands on my hips, as the sun bore down on us, hard as a punch.

He held up a fist. “I’ll show them positive reinforcement if they don’t get this right.”

“And Moses will be playing bad cop today,” I said to the group. A few managed weak chuckles, but the rest were fixated on their foci, the objects they’d attempt to fill with their excess magic.

They were tall, short. Dark, pale. Big, small. Old, young. Magic was the thing they had in common—their unique sensitivities to the power that had crept into our world from the Beyond, the world of Paras. One could freeze matter, one could call animals, and one could communicate telepathically.

Their powers were new, and they were untrained. I was here not to teach them how to use their magic, to make them better at freezing or calling, but to help them stay sane.

Once upon a time, the Veil—a ribbon of magic that separated the Beyond from the human world—had kept the magic on their side. Nearly eight years ago, the Paras tore it open, ravaging the southern U.S., including New Orleans. Sensitives had helped magically sew it shut again, even if a little power had seeped through the stitches. But humans, being humans, had made a very bad mistake, and it had been ripped apart again. This time, it left a mile-long gap, and magic and Paras had been streaming into our world ever since.

A few “lucky” humans could sense that power, use it. About seven percent of the population, as far as Containment could tell. But human bodies weren’t built for the burden of otherworldly energy. Too much magic warped bone and broke down muscle, turning Sensitives into skeletal wraiths whose only desire was the very magic that degraded them, even if they had to kill to get it. And there was no coming back from wraithdom.

I was teaching these Sensitives to find balance, to keep the right amount of magic spooled in their bodies. Enough to use if necessary, but not so much that it overwhelmed and broke them. This was the fourth group I’d trained since the Veil had been breached. Forty people who were willing to admit to their condition and get help for it. Probably not everyone affected. But I couldn’t make anyone face their demons. Even if that meant they’d face them as wraiths later.

We stood in the pulsing heat on a greenway in Devil’s Isle, the neighborhood-turned-prison-turned–neighborhood for Paranormals. It had been the Fabourg Marigny, had become a prison for all Paranormals, and now served as a prison for some and a refuge for others, because humans had acknowledged not all magic—and not all Paranormals—were evil. It was only after the Veil had been opened again that the former Paranormal Combatant Command, and its Containment unit that operated Devil’s Isle, had finally admitted there were two groups of Paranormals, and only one group was our enemy. The Court of Dawn led the war; they’d magically conscripted their enemies, the Consularis, to fight.

Containment had allowed the Consularis to leave Devil’s Isle if they’d wanted to, but kept the Court imprisoned. And as Court members slithered into our world again through the breach in the Veil, many of the freed Consularis Paras had stayed to fight. The PCC had become the Unified Combat Command, humans and Consularis Paras bound together to fight the Court of Dawn.

And fight we had. It was good they were still outside the perimeter that Containment had been able to establish around New Orleans. But that had been a matter of will as much as of strength. Cracksof magic and popsof ammunition rolled like thunder across the city, which was down to military personnel and the thousand or so hardy humans who’d refused to leave their homes. But we’d stay as long as we could. As long as we could hold New Orleans.

“Focus on your foci,” I said, only realizing how corny that sounded when the words were out of my mouth. I walked down the line, feeling out the magic that quivered around them. “And go step by step, just like we’ve talked about.”

“Find it. Grasp it. Cast it. Bind it,” they repeated together.

The rhyme had been my idea, a mnemonic device to give them something familiar to hold on to as they dropped their minds into the magic and tried to wring it out again.

“I still think mine was better,” Moses muttered, scratching the edge of one dark and gleaming horn.

“Yours was filthy,” I said, giving him a flat look.

His grin was as devilish as the horns. “That’s what made it perfect.”

Biting back a smile, I turned back to the Sensitives. “Find it,” I repeated, and they closed their eyes, began to feel out the threads of magic that permeated their bodies.

“Grasp it.” Their faces were studies in concentration as they pulled the magic together—winding or braiding or balling it up—in preparation for dragging it out. Sweaty, narrow eyed, and red cheeked from working in the oppressive heat. But it had to be done. They had to learn control under even bad conditions. Because in the real world, they might not have a choice.

“Cast it,” I said, and waves of power began to shimmer in the air like heat rising from asphalt. The foci began to vibrate as magic was stuffed into them, as energy fought mass.

A little movement was fine; magic was a powerful thing. So I didn’t notice the wooden box hopping off the ground until Moses started shouting.

“Incoming!” he said, and wrapped his short arms around his head.

“Everybody watch out!” I yelled, and Sensitives darted for cover.

The box exploded, sending a gust of magic and needle-sharp splinters into the air.

Every hair lifted in the tingling air, I opened an eye and looked around. Moses sat up, legs extended, rubbing his eyes.

“You okay?” I asked.

He looked at me, blinked. “There two of you, or just one?” He squinted. “Or maybe just two of your hair. You look like an orange cloud.”

“You keep complimenting me, and Liam’s going to get jealous,” I said, offering a hand to help him to his feet.

He took it, snorted. “I don’t date orange clouds.”

“My heart breaks,” I said dryly.

Around us were torn jeans, ripped T-shirts, and blown-back hair. The air smelled faintly of burned things, and mine wasn’t the only puffy hair.

“Lo siento,”said Mariah, the owner of the box, or what remained of it. She had light brown skin and long dark hair she’d pulled into a knot. Tendrils had blown out of the bun and surrounded her face like a Renaissance halo. “The magic got away from me.”

A former Containment soldier named Dave, with tan skin and military-short blond hair, stamped out the smoldering remains with his boot-clad foot.

“Well,” I said, “all things considered, I still think that went better than last time. Anybody lose a finger?”

“No,” they all called out.

“Definitely better than last time,” Moses said with a nod.

“Happens to the best of us,” I said. “And I mean that literally. I exploded a cypress stump once upon a time.”

There were relieved murmurs down the line.

“You’ll get better,” I said to Mariah. Not just supportive words, but the absolute truth. Mariah had a literal spark—in her fingertips she could manifest power, tiny threads of electricity that were very handy in a place where the grid was inconsistent.

“You’ve shown today that you can gather up the magic,” I said. “Next step is to get it bound without an explosion.”

I’d intended to give them instructions, to remind them of our next scheduled practice. But before I could say anything else, at the back of my neck was a flutter, delicate as a caress but touched with magic.

I glanced back, found golden eyes staring back at me.

Liam was home.

It had been six days since I’d seen him. Too long, especially now that he stood at the edge of the park, tall and muscled, a gleam of desire in his expression.

Thick brows topped his blue eyes, his nose a straight wedge, his eyelashes thick and dark. He wore jeans, muddy at the knees, and a V-neck T-shirt streaked with more dirt. A camouflage backpack was slung over one shoulder, and magic, invisible but tangible, hovered in the air around him.

Liam wasn’t a Sensitive; like his grandmother Eleanor, he’d gotten his magic in battle via a strike from someone else with power. That power had somehow transferred, giving him the ability to mirror another person’s magic.

He was still dealing with that, with the fact that he now stood on the other side of the line he’d walked since Paras had first set foot in our world.

His brother, Gavin, stood behind him with the same backpack, but rolling his eyes. They were a couple of years apart but looked unmistakably fraternal. Same tall and muscular build, same dark hair, same sculpted cheekbones. Gavin was a little leaner than Liam, his features a little sharper, as if the second edition had been honed a little more than the first. I, of course, preferred the original.

Liam and I walked toward each other, gazes locked.

“Ms. Connolly.”

“Mr. Quinn.”

He tugged a lock of my red hair, his blue eyes piercing mine. Then he slid that gaze to the shrapnel spread across the ground. “Mos,” he said questioningly. “I thought you were going to keep her out of trouble.”

“What am I, a freaking wizard? And not her fault, anyway. These damn kids,” he said with a shake of his head, even though I’d have bet some of those kids were older than he was.

“Whom you’re supposed to be teaching,” Liam said with a grin that pulled the dimples in his cheeks. God, I loved those dimples.

Moses waved a hand like he was swatting away the idea. “They’ve done all they’re going to do today. Practice tonight,” he told the group.

Liam took my hand, linked his fingers with mine, and, when we reached the edge of the green, pulled me behind an oak tree with branches that gracefully arced over our heads before skimming the grass again.

“I’ve been waiting on this for a week,” he said, then fastened his lips to mine.

Since I was sticky and hot, I decided his mud didn’t make much difference. I wrapped my arms around his neck and drew him closer. “Same here.”

“You taste like summer.”

“I taste like New Orleans. Sticky.”

I could feel his smile. “Youtaste like Claire.”

“It would be awkward if I didn’t,” I said. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.”

He leaned back. “Did you spend the week binge-watching old movies?”

“God, I wish. I don’t suppose you happened to bring back some reliable Internet access?”

He felt his jeans pockets, front, then back. “Damn. I forgot again. So I guess no binge-watching.”

“Unless you mean watching Sensitives destroy their foci. But no lost fingers.”

His lips curled. Just seeing him smile—seeing happiness on his face—was enough to lift my mood.

“That makes this a red-letter week,” he said. “Did you see the goats while I was gone?”

“Not a single one.” Supposedly, Containment had imported three herds of goats to keep shrubs and plant growth in New Orleans—at least in the areas not already scorched by magic—at manageable levels. “I’m starting to wonder if it’s an urban myth. Or a post-urban myth.”

“I saw one,” Gavin called out.

Liam shook his head, rolled his eyes. “That was a deer.”

“They’re both ungulates.”

We both looked back at him, and he lifted a shoulder. “I found a book of crosswords. Been working on my vocab.”

“Suspicious,” I murmured, and looked back at Liam, searched his eyes. “What did you actually see?”

Liam was a bounty hunter, had worked after the war to track Paranormals who hadn’t been captured by Containment and bring them into Devil’s Isle. But he knew the truth about Court and Consularis, and he’d been very particular about his bounties—and helping Consularis Paras stay hidden. Now he was using his skills to scout New Orleans and its surroundings, watch for Court movements into the area.

“There’s a new encampment,” he said. “North side of Lake Pontchartrain. About forty of them. All Seelies.”

My stomach sank. Although they seemed pale and delicate, Seelies were among the fiercest of Court fighters. They’d been part of the first guard unit that had fought us when the Veil was ripped open—with their furious eyes and golden weapons—and we’d barely survived the attack. One of us hadn’t. Erida, a Consularis Para and, I later learned, my father’s secret paramour, had taken a fatal wound for me.

We hadn’t seen any Seelies since that battle; that they were amassing outside New Orleans didn’t bode well.

“Forty Seelies,” I said, trying to imagine the havoc they could wreak. “How did a group that large get past Containment?” The Veil’s gap at Belle Chasse—while plenty wide to cause trouble—was the only existing void, and Containment had an outpost right there. And we’d have heard about a battle against forty Seelies. Gunnar, one of my best friends and a Containment higher-up, would have had many thoughts.

“Probably a few at a time,” Liam said. “I’m going to talk to Gunnar.”

“They’re preparing for something?”

“I don’t know. It’s certainly possible, but they also don’t like to mingle with other Paras. Royalty among peasants.”

I put a hand on his cheek. “I’m glad you made it back.”

“I made it back, too,” Gavin called out.

“I’m not talking to you,” I said.

“I said I was sorry.”

“You did say that. But it doesn’t excuse what you did.”

“I didn’t put the possum in the truck.”

“You left the windows open. In a wildlife refuge. Overnight.”

He didn’t have a response to that.

Liam’s lips were at my ear. “Please try not to kill my brother. We’ve just returned to our homeland, and that’s a little too Greek tragedy for me.”

“I’ll do what I can,” I said, but narrowed my gaze at Gavin.

He almost managed not to smile.

“Come on, frère,” Liam said. “We have a debrief to get to. You two can snipe at each other later.”

Gavin muttered something in Cajun, and Liam flipped him off. That was their chemistry.

“I’ll see you tonight,” I said, and tugged Liam down for one last kiss. “And don’t forget about the party.”

“What party?” Gavin asked. “And will there be sexy ladies?”

“Tadji’s birthday party.”

“Oh, right. I forgot about that.” He ran a hand through his hair, which he was letting grow out. It nearly reached his shoulders now. “Do I need a present? And does she like hot sauce?”

“Stop scavenging for that mess,” Liam said. “It’s at least eight years old.”

“Like diamonds, pepper sauce is forever,” Gavin said with a grin.

There wasn’t a praline to be found in the entire city of New Orleans, but not even war had decimated our supply of souvenir hot sauce.

“Does Tadji know about the surprise guest?” Liam asked.

“She does not,” I said. And I hoped that didn’t come back to bite me. Neither of us was big on surprises; we’d seen plenty of drama in our lives. I was making one very large exception tonight.

“It’s going to be spectacular,” I said. And hoped I was right.

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