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A world that exists right on top of ours–in every nook and cranny…a world that modifies the memories of anyone not yet awakened to magic…a world at war…
Devastated by the loss of her twin–and consumed by the realization that magic actually exists–art student Ren Crown illegally enrolls in a fantastical university determined to bring her brother back to life. But caught in a time of war, and as a mage with abilities that both sides want to harness and use, Ren finds herself an unwitting pawn in a larger game.
Needing to hide from those who wish to enslave her, Ren gambles everything on her determination to succeed, putting herself in plain sight of those who could capture her. Constantly needing to figure out who to trust–a cold, powerful roommate, a genius magical engineer, the most powerful combat mage of their age, a mysterious muse, a cunning and brilliant tactician, a charming terrorist, an influential politician, or the voice of her brother…the hardest thing may be trusting her own heart.
Chapter One: In the beginning…
I would do absolutely anything for my brother.
“This is hardly a high security lock, Ren,” Christian whispered, motioning at the precise movement of my hands. “Now isn’t the time to be perfect. Scrub those pins.”
“Scrub these,” I whispered back to my twin, lips barely needing to move in order for him to hear me. We had perfected the art of nearly silent communication over the past seventeen years. I carefully pressed in the torque wrench and slid my lock pick across one pin at a time, feeling them, discovering their secrets, movement, and depth. A schematic of the lock drew itself in my mind, and I rotated the picture to determine which pin to move first.
Brilliant, but impatient, Christian would always be a scrub and bumper, raking a pick across the pins. Which had always worked quite well when our parents were away, and we were uncovering Christmas presents or retrieving items that had been locked up–then putting them back before our parents noticed. But uncovering the secret of each lock was what I found fascinating, and doing it silently while my parents were within hearing range increased the thrill. I loved the feel of visualizing the lock, of finding the order, of fitting each pin perfectly in its slot.
I felt the tiny give as I pressed the last pin into place. “Ta-da.”
“Brilliant.” He flashed me a grin as I finished and soundlessly pushed open the door.
So far, so good.
No alarm on the garage. No pets. No houses nearby. Three clear exit routes through the yard. Points checked off in my mind on my “Cover for Christian” checklist. Although Christian controlled everything on the field and in his social circles, he needed me to make sure he made it out of each adventure safely.
My brother attracted attention and exuded magnetism like a planet pulling in satellites. I knew who would get in trouble with the authorities if we were caught. I had tried to take the heat before, but people always looked amused by my attempts. Quiet, little, dreamer Florence Crown? Right.
I put my pick set in a pocket where I could easily retrieve it and dump it into a bush, in the event that an unnoticed alarm was triggered and we were grabbed by the cops. Having a pick set? Fine. Having a pick set and being caught breaking and entering? Not so fine.
Christian flashed me his widest grin, hiked his bag high onto his back, and prowled into the garage. I entered after him as always and quietly closed the door so we could use our flashlights.
We were on our own this time. Christian didn’t want his friends to witness his idea of epic romance. After spending two hours with him this afternoon, twisting red tissue into roses, I thought that was probably wise.
I held my light steady as Christian opened the door of the cherry red convertible, then slipped inside.
Something outside scraped across the vinyl siding on the garage, creating an eerie noise. The wind had been unusual all night. I concentrated all of my senses and took stock of our surroundings. Adrenaline was nicely buzzing through my veins, but other than the branches scraping outside, the house and garage were quiet.
Christian’s head reappeared, a careless and easy grin on his face, sapphire-rimmed teal eyes winking. “Player?”
I walked over, wedged the flashlight between my cheek and shoulder, and carefully unzipped my bag. “You don’t want to leave it on Sleeping Beauty’s pillow?”
I could practically feel his rakish grin. I rolled my eyes, my fingers finding the wired player we had Frankensteined earlier. If he hooked it up correctly, it would start playing when the car door was opened in the morning.
He took it from me, then absently rubbed the inside of his wrist. “Think of the old man’s face if he woke to hearing the music coming from his daughter’s room.”
“Let’s not. You are playing with fire as it is, star quarterback or not. Coach is a scary man. He probably turns into a werewolf on full moons and nights when his house gets broken into.”
“Might be worth being benched. Sate some of your monster-love madness.” Christian smiled and whipped his head in the familiar gesture women unrelated to me seemed to love–flicking his brown hair away from his forehead, then letting it slide down–as he began wiring the player and hooking up the trigger.
Once during middle school, I had crept into his room while he slept and cut a huge patch from his bangs. The next morning, I had awakened with half my hair sawed off as well.
I touched the back of my head just to make sure my hair was still attached and hanging past my shoulders. It had taken forever to grow back and had been a traumatic experience–short hair made my eyes look larger and my face look even younger. Looking my age was something I battled regularly as one of the shortest girls in our year. In the womb, Christian had somehow grabbed the height gene and taken some of mine as well.
Christian examined the steering wheel where tasteful tissue flowers were now twined. He frowned. “What do those romance novels and magazines you like to read say? Do things need glitter to be girly and romantic? You don’t like any of that kind of stuff, but you barely qualify as a girl.”
“Gee, thanks.” I crossed my arms. “Glitter, seriously? I don’t understand how you get dates.”
“I am awesome. And there are some hot girls in your community art class who wear glittery fingernail polish. You should make friends with them–invite them over for sleepovers and nail parties.”
“Great. Maybe I should transfer to a different high school too, in order to widen your selection? Are bikini models acceptable?”
“Yes. You are the best sister ever,” he said earnestly, carefully shutting the driver-side door and walking to the passenger side.
I smiled at his tone, and he winked, looking more relaxed as he absently rubbed the inside of his wrist again before entering the car on the other side.
He had been peculiarly agitated the last few weeks, and it had taken considerable effort to distract him and keep him busy. So, if all it took to get him back to his old self was a successful campaign to nab the future Homecoming Queen, I would thank her personally. It would be awkward, but it would be worth it.
Christian leaned over the center console to complete the last pieces of his campaign, armed the trigger on the “Franken-player,” carefully shut the passenger door, and bumped my shoulder companionably with his.
I had no doubt that tomorrow morning at school he would be greeted gleefully and with an enthusiastic yes to the question taped to the dash.
We locked the garage door and crept through the shadowed yard. Mission accomplished. Another operation successfully negotiated.
On the fifteen minute walk back to our house. Christian was silent, appearing deep in thought, so my mind started connecting the shadows and forming them into dark art in my mind–creatures twining up and howling as we passed.
My community arts class had watched a presentation on making oil paints from scratch. There had been an itch under my skin ever since I had seen the guest artist press the spatula into the linseed and pigment. It had kept me up all last night, staring at my hand-painted celestial ceiling. I had suppressed it in order to help Christian with the planning and execution of his task, but I couldn’t remember ever feeling such a need as the one that continued to run through me–I needed to create my own paint.
After I made my first batch, I was going to paint these shadows, with their long curling fingers and slow-moving grace. Even if I flubbed the mixing, I would achieve a murky brown result. I could work with that. Excitement built. Yes, that is what I was going to research when I got home. I could probably get Christian to help me beg Mom for the supplies.
Lightning streaked the sky, sending jagged lights through the shadows. Odd. There was no storm forecast and heat lightning was a summer event.
I gripped my flashlight reflexively.
“I saw your mail this afternoon,” Christian said casually.
My heart picked up more speed as I focused on him. “So?”
“So? They are courting you. Why didn’t you say anything? Finish your application tomorrow. I bet we can get Mom to take us to the steakhouse to celebrate. Dad needs no convincing to go.”
“How…?” No, I knew how he knew. He had poked through my stuff, after sneaking into my room to peek at what the Harvard stationery indicated. I shook my head. “I’m not going.” How could I keep an eye on him next year if he was halfway across the country riding the football scholarship everyone knew he was going to get from State?
“What? Don’t be an idiot. Of course you’re going. I told you that arts and engineering exhibition was a great idea.” He threw an arm around my neck and tugged my head into his space. “Once you accept their offer, I can pry you out of your art and math obsessions so you can finally relax and enjoy yourself. This is our year, Ren.”
Lightning flashed again.
I punched his side, halfheartedly trying to free myself. “The year of Crown.”
“We can do anything. The world is our clam shell–”
“–and we are searching for the diamond–”
“Pearl.” I tried to punch him again, but he moved his hips out of the way.
“–and the journey to find it will mature us into little mini-adults. All those teen self-help articles say so.” He pulled my neck in closer.
“Think outside the pyramid, dear sister. Now that you are in at Harvard, you can totally blow school.”
I bent my knees, shoved my hand up against his arm vice, and twisted free. “I thought you said we were supposed to be maturing into mini-adults.”
He splayed his arms wide. “Yeah, at the end of the year. This is like the opening chapter of our epic saga. We need to be frolicking in the pasture and splashing at the river’s edge and playing harmless pranks.” He motioned with his fingers, as if they were frolicking through tall grass.
I held up an edge of the prank bag he was carrying, in retort.
He grinned and we started walking again. “I know you’ll have a good time this year, if you just open up to people a little more. The guys like you, and they rag on everyone.”
“The guys” being Christian’s group of crazed friends. The ones who knew me as a helping hand on missions or the stealthy one in brutal capture-the-flag battles, or as the girl who sketched quietly at the lunch table, but rarely spoke.
He frowned. “Like you as a friend, I mean. I’d have to kill them otherwise. But cultivating more girlfriends is always a good thing. For all of us.”
“Very funny.” Lightning lit again, but there was no accompanying thunder. Where was it coming from?
“It’s all about continuing a benevolent dictatorship and having fun. And it is time for you to become a general, instead of first lieutenant.”
Anxiety ran through me. I could talk to Christian easily, but with other people, words garbled strangely from my mouth. “I don’t want–”
“So, during our third week of dominion,” he said, trampling over my objection. “You should be in charge of–”
Lightning seemed to light everywhere at once, and Christian suddenly stopped. He bowed forward, clutching his midsection. His bag dropped to the ground, contents clinking.
I grabbed his arm to steady him. “What’s wrong?” I demanded, all humor gone.
A weird wave of electricity surged through my fingers where they touched him. I snatched my hand back, staring at the digits. The feeling dissipated within me, but increased in the air around us, swirling and darkening. I tentatively touched his arm again, and the energy shot into me once more. It was like focused euphoria.
Christian shuddered, then rolled his shoulders forward. “I feel strange.” His brows drew together and he looked at his hands, stretching and retracting his fingers. “But good strange. Like I’ve just made twelve perfect passes and could complete a hundred more.”
Brows drawn together, he bent and lifted his bag. It looked like something was drawn on the inside of his right wrist. I started to ask, but spectral colors flashed out and wrapped around his duffel.
Our heads collided as we peered inside. It looked just as it had before–full of red tissue paper, green wrap, adhesives, and tools. Christian’s fingers ran along the top of the bag, sparking.
His fingers, not the bag.
I stared at him, dumbfounded, moving my hand along his arm and down to his wrist. It seemed important for some reason to maintain contact. “You…you’re electric.”
He gave a strangled laugh, hands jamming together and pulling apart. Electricity sparked between his forefingers, forming five crackling white arcs.
“Is this real?” I reached out tentatively to touch an arc, and a sparkle fell, exploding on the ground with the report of a bottle rocket.
I let go of him in shock. The weird pressure built around us again, pushing.
“The lightning–was it coming from you?”
There was a depression in the pavement where the spark had hit. I looked to see Christian staring wide-eyed too. “I don’t know.”
“You!” A man stepped out of the deep shadows cast by the trees near the end of the street.
No. I had stopped paying attention to our surroundings and now we were about to be caught far past curfew.
“Hands out, and stay right there,” he growled, his voice unfamiliar, his face still too deep in the shadows.
Christian touched my arm and the grip of his fingers indicated a readiness to run. His hands still glowed an electric blue, and the strange sense of elation ran into me again at the point of contact.
I shifted my balance to an optimal flight response. If we were caught, Christian could be benched until Homecoming. No one would be pleased by that outcome.
“Hands out, and–”
Christian pushed hard on my arm. I rolled forward on the balls of my feet with the motion and we immediately tore off into the yard at our right.
“They are running!” The man shouted, as he gave pursuit.
Another man in black sprinted toward us as we reached the fenced-in backyard.
Christian swore and we veered toward a backyard play structure, frantically climbing it, then leaping over the high fence. We crashed to the grass, rolling to relieve our momentum. Blue lightning arced around us.
The man trailing us yelled and I heard him fall into the hedges. We launched forward, skirting a car parked in the driveway and sprinting through the front yard and into the street.
Another man headed toward us down the street.
“What the hell?” Christian asked harshly as we ran, veering again into another yard, where a fourth man appeared from the shadows. Christian ran straight at him, pushing him hard in the shoulder. The man flew back and crashed hard. Harder than it seemed he should have with a normal block, but there was no opportunity to look back or think on it further.
A man stood at the end of the next street, and we swerved to the right. We were being herded out of the neighborhood.
Lightning flashed again and a crackle of strange thunder finally accompanied it. The lightning connected with the overhead power lines around us, white, sparking lines leading toward the utility company’s lot.
Christian pushed at my arm, and we ran directly toward the lot. Something clanged into the chain link fence as we scrambled up and over.
A knife lay on the ground on the other side of the chain link fence where we had just been, and my heart leaped fully into my throat. A harmless prank of breaking and entering into the coach’s garage was a punishment on par with laps around the football field, not mortal wounds.
And the police didn’t fling knives at fleeing suspects.
Electricity seemed to spark from the entire lot around us, the blue lines arcing from the poles and power lines toward Christian.
He pulled me behind a short, square building.
Why were we stopping? I quickly signed at him–plan? I had been in enough paintball fights at his side–staying in one position eventually meant death. But there weren’t enough structures for us to move stealthily between. Why were we here? The street chase was far more in our favor.
He motioned with his glowing fingers to signal that he was going to jump the men when they came near. I signed back a quick negative with a few added expletives that we had added to the code years ago.
But there was a focused mania in his eyes. “I don’t know what this is, but I can do anything right now, Ren. I can feel it.”
“What?” I hissed, grabbing his arm, the terror of being discovered combining with panic at his uncharacteristic behavior. Some of the mania in his eyes immediately lessened at the skin contact, but the focus remained.
He squeezed my hand. “Run. I won’t let them hurt you.”
“Hands at your sides.” A man stepped out of the deep shadows cast by the main tower. There was malevolence in his very movement. “Your type is so predictable, always looking for energy. Boy, put your hands against your sides now. Girl, come here. Clean and easy. There’s no escape now.”
The four other men appeared, surrounding our position. One of them was limping, his expression full of rage.
Christian stepped in front of me and the electric field between his fingers grew stronger.
“You don’t want to do that, boy.” The man lifted something dark and barreled.
I lunged at Christian’s back at the same time that he half-turned, grabbed me, and threw me to the side as easily as tossing a child’s stuffed animal. Something cracked in my right forearm as it hit the edge of the building and spun me around.
A deafening blast immediately hit the place where we had been.
As I fell back in horror, I could see Christian dodging left, then lightning lit from his fingers and three of the men went flying. The man from the shadows raised his gun toward me.
Christian’s arm reached out, and a wave of something warm and protective shot from his fingers into my chest.
Then something pulsed, blinding me, filling my vision with crimson. Lights exploded and detonations rocked the universe.
Everything in my world went end over end, and I slammed face down onto concrete.
Blackness. All I saw was blackness.
Darkness blurred. Faint shapes formed. My cheek was pressed oddly to the hard ground, and dark red streams streaked away from me.
I tried to move. My cheek wouldn’t lift. My neck wouldn’t lift. My vision was streaked red.
I told my neck to move. My lips tried to repeat the command, soundless, something wet upon them.
On my fifth blink, my vision returned. There was a strange absence of light, only the stars and crescent moon casting any at all. Power lines and towers lay in pieces around me. No electricity arced–as if the entire supply had all been used. There were six bodies lying twenty yards away. One slowly, painfully, rose–becoming a large shadow hovering above the others. The rising figure gave one of the motionless bodies a kick.
The shape and hair of the kicked body registered, and I instinctively rejected all emotion.
He was so still, splayed like a carelessly tossed doll. I had never seen Christian like that. Not even after being blindsided by a spectacular sack.
Protectiveness and primal panic surged.
I struggled to push upright, blackness completely overtaking my vision, pain radiating through my head. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, then forced my too heavy head to still and my vision to clear.
My view of the obliterated lot wobbled with my success. I tried to move my left arm, but it wasn’t working, so I stretched out my right and pulled myself forward. Eighteen feet away. Seventeen and a half. Seventeen. Just a little more.
Each pull scraped a layer of the void away from my mind and a layer of skin from my useless left arm, and my pulling became increasingly erratic and frantic as the figure with my brother’s hair didn’t move. The blackening pain and the nagging thought that something else required my attention were nothing next to my need, and I curled my fingers into the grit of the concrete, pulling, trying to get to him.
Then I was splayed out on my back, looking up at the twirling night sky. Stars twinkled and whirled. A booted foot pressed heavily on my chest. I felt and heard something crack, but nothing concrete registered through the all-encompassing pain and the thwarted need to reach my brother.
I tried to separate the shadowed features and black clothing from the starry sky beyond. The man held a device over me, his boot pushed down harder, and I could feel a gurgle in my chest.
“Stupid ferals. But I’ve got you now.” His hands moved with the device. A braided leather band dangled from his damaged fingers. Christian’s band.
He pressed harder and everything started to go black.
I flung up my free arm and grabbed the end of the band. Power and pressure flooded through my hand, and the sparking seemed to travel from the leather into my bones. The release on the other end of the band sent my arm slamming to the ground, but the band stayed within my grasp, vibrating, then abruptly stilling as it calmed something deep within me. My vision continued to dim, but was now replaced by a calm blue light hovering in my mind’s eye.
The shadowed man above me uttered a long stream of expletives, then stepped harder on my chest.
“Get up and get over here, you idiots,” he shouted. “And either wake up Lynch, or dispose of him.” Under the increased pressure of his boot, something else cracked in my chest.
I was…going to die.
A spark sluggishly ignited in my midsection around the steady blue light, like a wick that had been dormant too long, and the crack of another rib was echoed by a bang a few feet to my side.
“Son of a–” The foot was suddenly gone.
Flares of brown, swirling and long-tailed flashed, then the earth trembled as a body crashed next to me, and three others fell farther away.
A long pole twirled over me and poked down toward the ground.
“Isn’t hunting supposed to provide a challenge, Uncle?” The new voice was masculine and edged. Could a voice be described as chiseled? I longed to see the face attached to such a voice, but everything was going hazy again.
“You got lucky with that sudden trace that popped from nowhere,” an older voice responded.
“Or maybe I’m just that good.” I could almost picture the smile behind that riveting voice. I wanted to see it, but couldn’t turn my head.
Not being able to move, confusion, hearing irresistible voices. Angels? Maybe I was dying.
Dying. Christian. Panic penetrated my muddiness. I tried to turn myself, to reach him, but my body was absolutely useless, heavier now–my muscles seemingly nonexistent.
The older man sighed. “Try to stay out of the headlines this week, won’t you?”
The two figures moved into view, but like images from a Kandinsky. Frenetic motion and dark colors not allowing my eye to rest.
“Wild magic is flowing everywhere. The scavengers finished the feral off fifteen minutes ago, then drained him dry.” The older voice sounded disgusted, then swore. “We have to report that they have a tool to identify and hide an awakening.”
A twinkling white light beckoned me closer, slowly strangling the rest of my senses.
“…scanning…difficult…heavy in the air…”
“…feral…awakening…subverts suppression field.”
I couldn’t cough or breathe. Christian. I pushed away from the light with difficulty. I needed to get to my brother. I tried turning again, but the only parts of me I could still feel were the two fingers clutching his band.
“…scanner stopped working…”
A figure crouched next to me and touched my wrist. “The girl is fighting.”
As if the touch had connected me to an external speaker source, I could hear clearly again. It was the guy with the beautiful masculine voice. Michelangelo’s David would sound like this.
I tried to choke out the words for him to help Christian, but only liquid bubbled up.
I used every last resource I possessed to slowly curl my hand and touch the boy’s fingers at my wrist. The pressure of his fingers increased minutely at the touch. I tried to tell him to help my brother, but I couldn’t remember how to make my lips work anymore.
“I can barely tell it’s human under the blood.” The older man sounded extremely disinterested. “Broken nose, shattered cheekbones, but she does have long hair. Girl chose the wrong boyfriend. Poor mongrels.”
“She is as human as we are, Uncle.” The boy’s lovely voice radiated disapproval.
The older man sighed. “The scanner is dead and soon she will be too. Let her find peace,” the older voice said dismissively. “You don’t waste reserves on ordinaries when you don’t know who might be watching for the right opportunity to strike. If only the scanner was working.”
“Maybe she isn’t ordinary. I’ve never felt such a linger in the air.”
“These scavengers are foot soldiers only–boy probably had more magic than they could deal with–bet they leaked his magic everywhere, or else we’d have found it in a container. Still…check her wrist.”
I felt my wrist lifted.
“Nothing. Her skin is clear,” he said. He carefully laid my arm back down. “But she feels…” His voice trailed off.
“Mother would heal her,” the boy said, as if to himself. “She wouldn’t care that she was ordinary.”
“She would care if it hurt you. You are crouching there as if that girl is the first soon-to-be dead person you’ve ever seen. Help me finish tying up these scumbags.”
The boy stood and the heat from his hand lifted with him. Everything became cold, painful, and hazy again.
The night sky was circling. I…was at the planetarium with Christian? Any moment now there would be music and a laser show. But the manager and lighting technicians couldn’t agree on something. I could hear the buzz of their furious whispers. Then someone was once again next to me, kneeling and putting a hand on my arm, and I felt some semblance of clarity, along with relief that his hand was touching me again.
A sigh issued from somewhere far to my left. “Fine. Do it, if you must. A tiny amount only. I’ll transport these to Processing.”
The hand moved to my chest. Something like strangled laughter and blood bubbled from my chest and up my throat with the thought of telling Christian that I couldn’t even appreciate my first experience getting to second base.
Heat centered in the hand pressing against my chest, and something electric and white hot shot through me.
The electricity connected and something in me–that part that felt neutralized, like a sleeping dragon–pulled greedily, demanding treasure and gold, knitting it together and throwing swashes of energy through my limbs like paint splattering a canvas. And all of a sudden, all I could see was blue. Two circles of ultramarine, the color straight from the deepest shade of The Last Judgment. Staring into those eyes, a winged henna design sketched itself slowly in my mind.
“Their police are coming.” The older man’s voice was flat. Sirens whined in the distance. “They will take care of her, if she lives, and–”
Her, not them.
I flipped myself like a flopping fish, then dragged my body toward my brother’s unmoving form, arm over arm. There was no pain this time, and I could use my left arm again, but it felt like I was moving through sludge. Like in a dream. A nightmare. This had to be a nightmare.
“It–she’s moving.” The older man’s voice sounded disbelieving. “How much did you use, Ax?”
“Half,” he answered.
The older man sounded like he was choking. “Half…what were you thinking, Alexander? You are not indestructible, regardless of what you and everyone else thinks.”
“She’s a fighter,” he remarked simply, as if it explained all. “She took it, and I let her.”
“You play too many team sports. We should have raised you as an assassin instead. I told them that, but did anyone listen? Where’s she going?”
“To the boy.”
“Don’t bother, girl,” the older man called out. “He’s deader than dead.”
My mind rejected that notion totally. I kept crawling forward. It was getting harder and my vision was tunneling again. No. Not yet. Just a little farther.
“Ax, stop following her, dammit. This is getting less amusing. The suppression field won’t remove our faces from the memories of the officers should they see us. And don’t you dare use more magic for her! No! Dammit!”
A hand touched my back, and then I was next to Christian, vision suddenly clear, dark tunnel pushed away, my hand wrapped around his limp one, still warm. Oh, God. Oh, God.
“It is too late for him,” the boy whispered. The other man’s voice was swearing loudly in the background. “Bringing back the dead like this is forbidden. This is all I can do for you.” His breath, at the nape of my neck, was warm, his voice soft.
My vision was tunneling again–the shot of clarity having come from outside me. “No.” It sounded like my voice, but a croaked, cracked thing under the blaring sirens, which were growing louder. I could feel no life, but there was something else in my brother’s hand, something that tentatively brushed me. I could feel him. I squeezed his hand. Please.
“I am sorry for your loss.” The hand at my back gave a sympathetic pat, then lifted and the tunnel came rushing toward me, faster, blasting, before everything went dark.
The Awakening of Ren Crown is the first book in a planned five book series.
Deleted scenes, sketches, maps, and other extra materials will make their way to this page eventually. Anne has a minimum of 200 pages worth of deleted material from the first book, and some of it will appear here at some point!