Magic to the bone, p.1
Magic to the Bone, page 1
Magic to the Bone
The Twenty-Sided Sorceress: Book Seven
Copyright 2016, Annie Bellet
All rights reserved. Published by Doomed Muse Press.
This novel is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and incidents described in this publication are used fictitiously, or are entirely fictional.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, except by an authorized retailer, or with written permission of the publisher. Inquiries may be addressed via email to [email protected]
Cover designed by Ravven (www.ravven.com)
Formatting by Polgarus Studio (www.polgarusstudio.com)
Electronic edition, 2016
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Dedicated to Jeff: 1969-2001
You made me the nerd I am today. You were the best brother anyone could ask for.
I miss you like hell.
The Twenty-Sided Sorceress series in reading order:
Murder of Crows
Pack of Lies
Thicker Than Blood
Table of Contents
Also by Annie Bellet
About the Author
I decided somewhere around day two that if I ever wrote an autobiography, I’d title that fucker Leveling Up Is Hard to Do.
Throughout my whole life my answer to pretty much any problem had been to either run away, or throw a lot of fireballs at it and then run away. I was done running. So that left fireballs. When all you have is a hammer, so the saying goes, every problem looks like a nail.
Not having magic was proving to be the Gojira of nails, and I was all out of hammer.
My father Ash’s solution so far had been rest, food, and enough meditation and “focus practice” to turn me into a monk. Finally, after a week of curbing my urge to start smashing furniture with my bare, utterly nonmagical hands in frustration, he conceded that his current method was not getting results.
“You are blocked,” he said. “Not burned out, as I thought.”
“Okay, great. How do we unblock me?” I asked. “And if you say meditating more, I swear I’m gonna start punching logs,” I added through gritted teeth.
We were seated on the knotted-rag carpet in front of the huge stone hearth, the fire popping and crackling behind an iron screen. Ash smiled at me, the expression putting deeper lines into his mid-forties-looking face, the red flecks in his black eyes dancing. He tipped his head back, contemplated the log cabin’s ceiling, and tugged on one of his braids in a gesture I was growing far too familiar with.
He didn’t speak for a long moment, but I’d learned to let him be. There was no rushing Ash into working through his thoughts out loud and using his words.
“No,” he said eventually. His gaze dropped back to mine. “Is there something you’ve forgotten?”
I knew he was musing from his tone, not really asking the question, but my frustration wouldn’t let me shut my mouth.
“That’s like the TSA asking if anyone has put something into your luggage without your knowledge,” I muttered. There was likely a ton I had forgotten in my life, but the important bits all seemed to be there. Samir trying to kill me. Samir destroying my life over and over. The people I’d lost because of him. Their names and faces were a litany in my mind, a list that had started with my first real family and ended with Harper. A list I would never let grow. Not a chance.
There was only one name left to add to the list of the dead, and it started with “Sa” and ended with “that fucking ass-wipe bastard who will die horribly-mir.” I rubbed my thumb over the divot in my twenty-sided die talisman. I’d picked up that habit since the mark was a reminder of my failure.
“Indeed,” Ash said softly, dragging me out of my murderous thoughts. I wondered what he had read in my face, for his eyes were sad though his expression was still contemplative. He unfolded his long legs and rose. “I have to go get something.”
“I’m guessing not something in the cabin?”
“No, and while I’m gone you must not leave the cabin. Under any circumstances.” Ash fixed me with a deadly serious gaze, tension in his shoulders. Like he knew that saying those words was putting candy in front of a starving toddler.
“Great,” I said. “Why don’t you also say ‘I’ll be right back’ too?” I guessed he didn’t watch a lot of horror movies while he was locked up in the secret government prison for magical critters.
“I mean it, Jade,” he said.
“I know. I won’t. I’ve read enough fairytales, thanks.” I smiled. I wasn’t lying, either, about the reading fairytales or the no intention of going outside. I figured when a dragon tells you not to do something, the wise response is to under no circumstances do that thing.
“Wait for me,” he said. Then he opened the door, without even putting on shoes or a coat, and disappeared into the darkness as the door slammed shut behind him, the latch turning itself.
I flopped back onto the carpet. He’d been gone ten seconds and the silence was already starting to wreck me. I made myself get up and go to the table. There was a box there with a deck of cards in it. They were old, no numbers on them. Ash had said he picked them up in Prussia and while he might have been fucking with me, something about how he said it and the look of the cards made me believe him. I wondered if he knew there was no Prussia anymore, but he’d only been incarcerated for about forty years, so I hadn’t said anything.
I didn’t know how long my father would be gone. Left alone with only my thoughts, sorrow and anger threatened to wage war in my heart, and despair prodded at my mental defenses like a bored velociraptor. My choices were to brood, meditate some more, or play solitaire.
I played solitaire. I didn’t even cheat. Much.
Ash didn’t come back for a very long time. I slept twice, but without windows I had no idea of the passage of time. I drank water from the sink when I was thirsty and made short work of the bread and cheese he’d left in a basket on the table. The weirdest part about being in the Veil pocket, whatever that was, was that while I got tired and thirsty and hungry, I didn’t ever have to pee. I wondered if I was going to explode when I finally got back to Earth.
These were the deep thoughts I was pondering by the second “day” of Ash’s disappearance. It was so damn tempting to go outside, but I resisted. Barely. I started to contemplate what I’d do if he didn’t come back, but the truth was, I had no idea.
Living in a limbo land without magic, locked into a log cabin and wholly dependent on someone else for everything was stupidly terrifying. Maybe one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve endured in my life. Which is saying a lot, considering I had been a homeless nonwhite teenage girl living on the streets of New York in the eighties. But even then, I’d had magic as a fallback, knowing I could and would fry the shit out of anyone who fucked with me.
Ash returned before I did anything truly stupid, like open the door. I didn’t know if I’d ever been happier to see anyone in my life.
He came through the door with a grocery bag in one hand and a soccer-ball-sized leather pouch in the other. He set both bags down on the table.
“Took you long enough,” I said. There was too much relief in my voice for the words to be as reproving as I meant them.
“You listened to me,” Ash said. “Good.”
“You said not to leave. I stayed.” I gathered up the cards from the carpet in front of me and put them back into their box as a crazy thought dawned on me. “This wasn’t some kind of stupid test, was it?” Was I supposed to go outside?
“No,” Ash said. “I had to leave the Veil. It wasn’t safe without me here keeping this pocket isolated and stable.”
“Why didn’t you just explain that before you left?” I made a face at him.
He lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “I did.”
I started to argue, then shut my mouth. There wasn’t a point.
“So,” I said instead, eager for something that wasn’t solitaire and brooding, “what’s in the bag?”
The grocery bag had food, shockingly enough. Despite my raging curiosity about the mysteriously plain leather pouch, I managed to sit quietly enough and eat the sandwich Ash had brought for me. He even knew I liked root beer. It was endearing, if a little creepy.
We finished, putting the wrappers back into the bag. I wondered what trash service in the Veil was like, but resisted saying that out loud also. I might’ve not had my magic back, but I was gaining über levels in shutting up and patience. Life skills. Really. I watched silently as Ash opened the leather bag. I didn’t know what I’d hoped for, but a small silver cup, a vial of green liquid, and a bunch of assorted roots wasn’t exactly exciting.
“Wazzat?” I asked. “Looks like spell ingredients, I suppose?”
“I’m a dragon, not a witch,” Ash said with a half-smile. “But you aren’t far off. I’m going to make tea. Then you will drink it.”
“Tea? Your solution is tea?” I crossed my arms and swallowed a nervous chuckle.
“It’s more like poison. If you were human or even shifter, it would kill you.” Ash pulled out a small folding knife, unfolded it, and started shaving slivers off the various roots and into the silver cup.
“You are going to poison me?” There was no holding back my incredulous laugh now. “That’s…” I trailed off. Maybe it was brilliant. If my body had to fight off the poison, maybe it would unblock my magic while it did so. For a moment I was totally on board with this crazy plan, but then reality crashed in.
“Wait,” I said. “That’s not going to work. Remember Lucy? She damn near bit me in half. If that didn’t wake up my magic to help me heal, I don’t think poison will do it.” His snake-shaped Guardian had nearly killed me and I was still magicless.
Ash’s dark brows knitted together and then he chuckled. “No, not poisoning you so that you’ll heal, though I can see why you thought that. This tea pulls the inside to the outside.”
That sounded really disgusting. I pictured my skin turning inside out and my guts prolapsing. He laughed outright at my look of horror.
“Inside, in a metaphysical sense,” he added as he went back to his work. “It should, if it works, show you what has been lost and give a path to get it back.”
I pushed aside thoughts of being turned inside out and focused on what he was saying. Finding my lost magic was good. But… wait a minute.
“Seriously?” I said. “Like, seriously?”
“What?” Ash asked, looking up from his concoction.
“My dragon-mentor secret father is mixing up a poison drug to send his Native American sorceress daughter on a fucking vision quest.” I leaned back in my chair and pressed my lips together.
“Perhaps you’ll meet your spirit animal,” Ash said.
I made a face at him, but something about those specific words bothered me. Spirit animal. For a moment, I almost remembered something, but it flitted away from my active thoughts before I could catch it, leaving a weirdly aching emptiness behind. Perhaps Ash was right. Perhaps I had somehow forgotten or lost something essential to myself, to my magic. I decided to shut up and let him work.
When it was done steeping, the poison tea looked like sunshine in a cup. It also smelled like overripe bananas and sadness. I really, really, really didn’t want to put that in my mouth.
Too bad I didn’t have a choice. It was time to suck it up and be an adult. And sometimes that meant doing things because they had to get done. Like taxes and standing in line at the DMV.
So I adulted the fuck up and lifted the cup of poison. “Sláinte mhaith,” I said with a grimace. Then I drank it down.
Worst. Shot. Ever.
“Do I get a chaser?” I gasped, eyes watering as my throat burned enough that I wondered how flames didn’t accompany the words out of my mouth.
“Best not to drink anything else with it, sorry.” Ash caught my elbow as I stumbled sideways.
The room was tipping, though I knew in some corner of my brain that it was me falling. The rug looked nice, a swirl of sky blue and grass green knotted into the cheerful yellows. It looked nice, but it was sure coming at my face really fast.
My father caught me before I bruised the rug. I lay in his arms in agony. Inside my head weird images formed. It seemed as if a flaming Zerg army was spawning inside me and swarming through my limbs. Just when I was ready to cede the whole planet formerly known as Jade to the Queen of Blades, the swarm leapt into a Nydus worm and my mind cleared.
My belly was still on fire, but it was at “shouldn’t have left the seeds in that jalapeño” levels instead of “I just inhaled a field of ghost pepper” levels. I struggled to sit up, and Ash let me.
“I saw a vision of a computer game,” I said. “I don’t think this is working.”
“Hold on to whatever you saw, no matter how strange,” Ash said. “Come with me.”
He helped me up. My legs were rubber but not on fire, so I managed to stand without leaning too heavily on him. I followed him to the cabin door.
It was broad daylight outside. The white sun hung at zenith and the sky was perfectly azure. Golden grass waved in the never-ending breeze. More of my head fog cleared in the fresh air and I sucked down a breath full of summer warmth and the scent of ripe hay.
“Ah, well,” Ash said. “I thought I felt a change. Perhaps not.”
“Um,” I said. “What about that?” I pointed to the left of the cabin.
For the last week, the landscape had always been unbroken rolling hills of grass, as far as my eye could see. Now there was a big bare patch with a mounded lump of earth in the middle only steps away from the cabin. I walked toward it. The mound had an opening, like a burial barrow or a giant ant nest. Not quite a Nydus and I was nothing but glad about that.
“What about what?” Ash said. Curiosity gleamed in his eyes.
I described what I saw and he nodded, back in contemplative dragon mentor mode.
“Let me guess,” I said. “I’m supposed to go in there?”
Ash shrugged, but I was already moving. The poison had brought me to this place. The key to unblocking my magic and defeating Samir could be down there. If I wanted to save my friends, if I wanted to ever be with Alek again, to be safe and happy again…
No choice. Not really.
I walked forward and let the earth swallow me.
Two steps in, I fell down the rabbit hole. Well, maybe less a rabbit hole than dropping into freefall in a moist, nearly airless tunnel. I stretched my fingertips out but couldn’t find walls. This was going to be the worst quest ever if I ended up a pancake at the bottom. Worst in many ways, not least of which was that I wouldn’t die.
Anyone who says flying is just like falling but without the sudden stop at the end has never fallen very far or flown much, that’s a
There was no sudden stop. One moment I was falling and trying to distract my fear-soaked brain with remembering what the terminal velocity for a human was. The next, I was on my hands and knees in a rough-hewn tunnel. The ground was rocky with a thick layer of coarse dust over it. Dust and musty air tickled my nose. A soft blue glow emanated from around me like an aura. I looked down and realized I wasn’t on my hands and knees after all.
I had no hands. Just paws. Huge black paws that were glowing pale blue. They were almost like a wolf’s paws, but as I raised one to examine it, sitting back on my haunches for balance, I realized I had retractable claws. Some kind of panther then? I wasn’t sure. Twisting my head revealed a long, furry body that ended in a very long tail that was definitely catlike. If my fur hadn’t been black, I would have guessed snow leopard based on that tail. Weird.
Guess I’d found my spirit animal after all. Un-fucking-believable.
The tunnel stretched out ahead and behind me, so I arbitrarily chose the direction I’d been facing as the one to go in. I was on a quest, after all. No lollygagging.
The tunnel split into three, all descending. It reminded me of a mine shaft, though there were no tracks, just thick dust and rock beneath my paws. The dream version of a mine shaft, perhaps. I froze as I heard footsteps coming from the middle corridor. There was nowhere to hide, so I moved into the opening of one of the side tunnels. Not that anyone coming could fail to miss the huge glowing panther-cat thing.
Two teenage boys in dirty jeans and flannel shirts picked their way to the intersection, both holding flashlights. The yellow light glinted off their black ponytails and their wide, nervous eyes. I recognized them as they stopped at the crossroads and turned. John and Connor. My cousins.
by Annie Bellet / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Short Stories / Literature & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes