Authors: Cecily White
I might have been sad for them if they weren’t so disgustingly happy.
“Once you pass your field exams,” Smalley addressed the seniors, “you will be told the origin of your bloodline. That information is yours alone until you submit your request for a bond assignment at the end of the year. Each of you will submit your top three choices, rank ordered, drawn from the unbonded Guardian Community. With input from our faculty, final assignments are made according to your ranks at graduation, and bond rituals shall commence at the summer solstice.”
I saw a lot of students nodding, the tension in the room palpable. Most of them were so jazzed they’d already started making out their pref lists.
“We are also very fortunate to welcome a valuable new recruit,” Smalley said, her gaze skittering over the crowd to rest on me. “Mr. Jackson Smith-Hailey is a former valedictorian at our Monroe campus and liaison to the Institute of Paranormal Convergence. He has agreed to take a leave of absence from his position at the Enforcement Guild to fill in as Examiner and Resident Guardian until we can find suitable long-term replacements. You will each get to know him well over the next week as he conducts your field exams and determines your initial class rankings.”
Jack stood to accept the applause and I groaned. Valedictorian? Paranormal Convergence? The Enforcement Guild? Jeez, the guy’s résumé read like someone running for public office. And now he was in charge of our field exams?
Oh, I was so screwed.
If I bombed my exam, then for the next six months I’d be stuck in paranormal preschool learning how to clip my fingernails without decapitating myself. I’d be denied my bloodline and instantly demoted to the bottom of every decent Watcher pref list. Alternately, if I rocked my exam, I’d probably be suited up,
up, and taking down rogue demons before Mardi Gras.
My resolve thickened. Come hell or high water, I
ace that test.
I dragged my attention back to the stage. Jack’s gaze had riveted to a spot in the middle of the hall, about ten feet above the center aisle, where a slight ripple twitched like fumes off a desert highway. It wasn’t a big deal, but, for some reason, the sight made my chest constrict.
With crisp, sudden hand motions, Jack signaled to the middle school guards at the rear of the hall and the back rows started emptying out, elementary first. At the same time, a handful of trainers broke from their posts at the front, taking up a defensive formation along the exits.
Katie and Lisa looked clueless, so I prodded Veronica in the back. “What’s happening?”
“Like I’d tell you if I knew.” She flicked a haughty glare over her shoulder.
“Maybe it’s a training exercise,” Skye suggested, ignoring her friend’s rudeness. “I wouldn’t mind a little training with him. The
kind, know what I mean?”
It would be hard
to know what she meant.
After a few more hand gestures, Jack strode to the edge of the stage and leaped off. He ambled down the aisle to a spot not twenty feet away and waited, his gaze fixed on the air.
The younger grades had already evacuated. The only Guardians left were our class, the faculty, and a smattering of trainers and staff who’d formed a loose perimeter around the outside of the room.
“Eyes front,” Smalley called from the podium. “If everyone could please proceed as calmly as possible to the rear of the assembly hall, we have trainers posted at each door—”
A rough sound, like cardboard tearing, interrupted Smalley as spits of black fire sparked overhead. Despite the thickness in the air, I kept my eyes glued to Jack. He had extracted something from under his robes, and I could just make out the silver glint of a short sword clenched behind his back.
“There’s no need to panic,” Smalley insisted from the stage. “If you’ll find the nearest exit, your trainers will be happy to—”
That’s when the chandelier began to vibrate.
Without understanding why, I stood and edged down the row toward Jack. If something big was going down, I wanted to be next to him. I
to be next to him. As the space between us closed, his eyes locked with mine.
“Go,” he mouthed silently.
I shook my head in refusal. As if I could just…
. The thought of leaving him here alone paralyzed me.
“Amelie, what are you doing?” Lisa snapped. “Smalley told us to evacuate.”
“I know. Just give me a sec—”
“Hey, y’all,” Katie’s voice trembled behind us. “I think something’s coming.”
All at once, a sharp scraping of wings and claws tore through the air, clouds of black smoke billowing out of the narrow rift. It poured like blood across the floor, stung my skin, and made my eyes water. As the terrified screams of my classmates rose up around me, realization crystallized in my head.
Katie had it wrong. Something wasn’t coming.
Something was here.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Lisa gripped my arm in a panic and pulled me toward the back of the hall.
Above us, misshapen creatures squirreled to get through the rift, their hooked claws and talons gleaming in the smoky haze. Obsidian holes glared from the sockets where their eyes should have been, dark and hollow like inky wells with no bottom. Something inside me froze as I watched them, and my blood chilled to ice water.
Then all hell broke loose.
Bolts of lightning shot out of nowhere. More demons flooded from the rift. A jolt of horror seized me as flames blanched the ceiling, with singed demon hair leaving odd puffs of smoke around the light fixtures as if the air itself had been set on fire.
Frantic, I scanned the room. The smoke hung so thick I could barely make out Jack’s outline. His body blurred in the half darkness as he twisted and lunged at the demon onslaught.
Matt had snapped the leg off his chair and swung it at the air, Alec Charbonnet’s head seemed to be bent in prayer, and Lyle, in an unlikely show of heroism, held up his Theories textbook to shield a whimpering Channeler behind him. In the distance, I could hear Marcus shouting evacuation orders, but, for the most part, it was just screams. High-pitched, horrible screams.
“Lisa!” I yelled. “Get Katie and get out!”
“I’m right behind you, I swear. Go!” I wrenched my arm out of Lisa’s grip, desperate to find some foothold in the madness.
So far, only lesser demons had come through—small creatures that scratched and bit with nasty precision but rarely killed. Under normal circumstances, they were about as threatening as a swarm of winged ferrets.
was far from normal.
Through the haze, I watched Jack raise his sword in a defensive arc. His face held no fear as he parried the demon attack, deflecting blow after blow. Bright streaks of crimson appeared on his cheeks, his shirt shredded to bloodstained ribbons. He swung his blade with the force of a battle-axe, sheets of black ichor spreading down his hands. Yet as fiercely as he fought and as much damage as he inflicted, I knew it wouldn’t be enough. Until that gate was closed, the demons would keep coming.
And they’d get bigger.
We’d been warned to expect hand-to-hand combat challenges, the occasional loose fiend, trainers lurking behind corners to pounce on us for “training purposes.” But untamed demon hordes and blasts of
Somebody had to do something.
I squinted against the heat and lifted up my hands. “
” I yelled weakly. The swirl of heat and fire tightened in my fingers for a second, then went slack.
“What are you doing?” Like a shot, Jack’s head snapped in my direction.
“I’m helping,” I shouted from my hiding spot behind the chair.
“You’re irritating them. Go away!”
irritating them?” I mumbled as he sliced through another demon wing.
Much as I ached to argue, I had to give him snaps for honesty. It was true, I sucked at the channeling thing. Once, I had tried linking power with Lyle during Fundamentals class last year. Total disaster. It had taken a solid month for his eyebrows to grow back.
Still, did Jack really expect me to sit and do nothing? He was getting slaughtered. Alone. Smalley and the rest of the faculty huddled near the exits. Even the trainers, who were allegedly hired for stuff like this, bustled safely toward the back.
I watched as another charcoal-skinned demon slid through the opening, its serrated teeth snapping at the air.
“Jack! Behind you!”
He turned in time to see the thing flying at his back. With inhuman speed, his sword came up in a glittering sweep to slice through its neck. Black blood spilled across his chest as the monster crashed to the floor in a stringy heap…just as two more like it hurtled through.
It was insane. Why was no one fighting?
Marcus and Daniel had funneled the last Channelers through the exits and were circling back to collect the Watchers and senior faculty. I recognized what they were doing. It was standard protocol for a rift-kill. First, they would clear the room and ward all the vulnerable points of exit. Only a small contingent would be left inside, one or two bonded pairs. When the demon flow had cleared, the Watcher would launch a charmed explosive device, etched with glyphs powerful enough to collapse the gate from the other side. We’d seen it a hundred times in training videos.
made no sense.
If I left the room now there would be
Channelers. No one to shield him when the gate collapsed.
Terrified, I stood and pushed through the demon horde to where Jack fought, his sword slicing the air like a whip. My chest was taut, and, with every step, heat seemed to billow up inside me.
“Give me a weapon,” I yelled.
“Bennett, I told you to get out of here. That’s an order!”
“I’m not leaving you. Give me a sword and let me fight, or give me your hand and help me channel.”
His eyes were dark with fury as he whirled. “It’s not your fight.”
“You’re going to die.”
“Bennett, for the last time,” he said, thrashing at the black-skinned horde. “
With a final hacking swipe, he flipped his sword to the opposite hand and made a grab at my arm. I’m not sure what he intended—to push me back, or maybe march me to Smalley’s office for a quick disciplinary lecture. Whatever his intention, it vanished the instant his hand touched me.
It was as if I’d been electrified, like a toaster oven suddenly plugged into the wall. All the power from the rift hurtled toward us, raw and hot and terrifying. I lifted my free hand again, black flames lapping at my outstretched fingers.
Exitus! Concedia! Incendia!”
Every command I could dredge up from last year’s Defensive Fundamentals class sprang to my lips. White and gold sparks flew out of my fingers and a hot wind blew, whipping the curtains into tight little circles. It felt like someone had injected liquid flames into my veins, as if the building and everyone in it were suddenly bleeding fire. Crossworld energy swelled inside me, blackening my heart and everything around it.
Jack ripped his hand off my arm but it was too late. Energy hung between us, thick and ropey ribbons of light. I could feel my power reverberating off his. My eyes slammed shut as a whip of heat cracked across my face, the darkness intensifying. Every instinct told me to duck, to run, to hide. But I didn’t. If I let go of the channel, the gate would open again, and I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let him die.
With an ungodly grunt, Jack launched himself at me, his weapon clattering to the floor beneath an acidic wave of black flame. The dull ache of impact ripped through my shoulder as we hit the ground and began to roll. Maybe it was instinct, maybe cowardice, I don’t know. But as soon as I felt him on top of me, I melted. My body sealed itself to his, every part of us fitting together like pieces of an ancient puzzle. Every hard plane of his chest, every inch of his warmth against me…even the smell of him, all sweat and soap and salty blood.
He felt like home.
Crossworld energy stretched across my soul as he tucked me beneath him. Somewhere in my ribcage I could feel my spirit suffocating, helpless and weak. I wanted to will the flames into submission but my control was gone.
I was drowning.
“No! No, not again.” Jack’s voice broke through the darkness. “Ami? Listen to me. You have to let it go. Try to remember, it’s like breathing.”
The Crossworld shadow roiled inside my chest, snarling and angry and relentless. I shook my head.
“You can do this, I know you can,” he promised. “Breathe, Ami. Just breathe for me.”
My fingernails scraped against the hard tile, my whole body brittle and hot. He sounded so sure…but how? How could
know something that I didn’t understand myself? I leaned my head against his shoulder and drew a ragged breath.
“Yes.” He rewarded me with a smile, hands stroking frantic lines over my forehead. “Yes, like that. Keep going.”
I took another breath.
Inch by inch, the Crossworld taint drained out of me, replaced by his warmth. Above us, the flow of air reversed itself to pull the demon horde back into the rift. It whooshed past us like a giant industrial vacuum cleaner. Through cracked eyelids, I saw tiny threads of light knitting up the rip in space, perfectly synchronized to Jack’s and my collective heartbeat. The scrabbling sounds of demons slowed, then ground into silence.
Clouds of smoke had left a dim haze over the hall, with light scorch marks where demons had combusted against the walls. Dark smears spattered the aisle with a few bits of black carcass, and giant fingers of soot streaked the ceiling. A twinge of dread curled in my belly as I looked at the chandelier, now a dangling black skeleton of twisted metal.
would go down on my permanent record.
Somehow, Jack had ended up on top of me, his body curved around mine in a protective cocoon. If the situation had been different, I might have felt self-conscious about how tightly I held him. I didn’t think he minded. He held me just as tightly. When he finally pulled back enough for me to see his face, I almost laughed. It held the same look my dad always got when I did something exceptionally reckless, that odd mixture of fear, fondness, and anger.
“What were you thinking?” he whispered. “You could have been killed.”
I tried to speak, but nothing came out. My cheeks were damp, and I felt dizzy and shaken, like I’d been stuck on an amusement park ride with no brakes. But it was worth it. Jack was safe, the demons were gone. Everything else was gravy.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” I managed softly into his ear.
Chunks of dust drifted to the floor as Jack shifted his weight back, fingers poised at my waist. A few threads of light still quivered where he touched me, but, for the most part, they’d dissipated with the rift. He’d just opened his mouth, I assume to launch into a lecture, when Daniel and Marcus emerged from the smoke, swords drawn.
“Stay,” he ordered gruffly. “I’m not kidding. Don’t move. Don’t speak.”
“Don’t worry,” I croaked, trying not to hurl. My head swam in sickly circles, and, much as I longed to lay into Creepy Daniel about his lackluster performance during the battle, I doubted I could manage it without spewing on Jack.
“Sir?” Marcus took a step forward, blade still raised.
Jack winced at the effort it took to push himself up. His shirt was torn and sticky with blood. Bright red scratches ran in angry lines down his cheeks.
“Stand down,” he said. “Marcus, make sure there’s no collateral damage among the students. Daniel, check the perimeter and confirm nothing got through. Then both of you report to Headmistress Smalley for debriefing. I’ll finish up here.”
From a few feet away, Daniel dropped a look of suspicion at me. “Sir, shouldn’t we—”
“You have your orders,” Jack cut him off.
The trainers exchanged cautious glances. For a second, I thought they might argue. Daniel’s ears were bright red and his eyes had that crazy look they got sometimes. I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath until Marcus lowered his weapon and backed away. Daniel reluctantly followed suit.
As soon as they were gone, Jack sank onto the ground beside me. His hands were shaking, but the rest of his body seemed calm. I lifted myself up beside him, fingers laced across my forehead. Never in my life had I experienced such a raging need for chamomile tea.
The smoke had begun to dissipate, rustling sounds of life filling the room. Little flutters of ash drifted like snowflakes to settle in his messy golden waves. It took me a moment to realize the smoke used to be demons and the ashes used to be curtains.
“Wow.” I pointed to the air. “That’s kind of pretty. Did we do that?”
did that.” Jack frowned, looking faintly greenish. “
is the rift closure command.
is the demon dismissal. You can’t close a rift before you dismiss the demons. And you
can’t set them aflame after you’ve closed and dismissed. Were you trying to blow up the school?”
I wasn’t. Not lately, anyway.
I lowered my head to my knees, waiting for the room to stop spinning. We were sitting so close our shoulders practically touched. If I moved my hand even a few inches, it would’ve been on top of his. “Jack, what happened back there? Why wasn’t anyone helping you? Is this about the Graymason?”
He eyed me carefully. “What do you know about the Graymason?”
“I know three of our profs are dead.” I demonstrated my handle on the obvious. “I know whoever called open that rift was probably inside the school wards. And I know the Elders think this is a big enough deal to send an agent in. So, either we’re dealing with a massive conspiracy—”
“Or it’s something new. Like a Graymason,” I finished with a narrow glare. “And yes,
. You can’t deny we work well together. I could be your sidekick, if you want. Like Superman and Lois Lane. Or Peter Pan and Tinker Bell.”
“Tinker Bell isn’t menacing.”
“Which proves how much you need me,” I insisted. “Fairies are terrifying.”
He sat up straighter and dusted off his pants. “Fairies don’t exist. Neither do Graymasons.”
“That’s what humans say about vampires and werewolves,” I argued. “So we’re agreed. You pass me on my field exams and I’ll help you bust the Graymason?”
Jack grunted at that, but didn’t argue.
His glasses had been knocked off during the fight, and this close, I could see details I hadn’t noticed before. Little worry lines edged his mouth and tiny scars streaked his left cheek and forehead. It made me wonder what kind of battle he’d gotten himself into, or if maybe he’d ridden his tricycle into a thorn bush when he was a kid. Either way, he wasn’t as perfect as I’d first thought, but I didn’t care. It made him more interesting to look at.