The Rise of Ren Crown

The Rise of Ren Crown

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Blurb
Excerpt
Series note

 
 


Blurb

Reeling from what the students at Excelsine University are calling “Bloody Tuesday,” Ren is determined to regather her magical family. But the events of the attack were not without multiple costs. Magically broken and exposed, Ren is ripe pickings for multiple factions that want to use and chain her, and the Department is the scariest of the pack.

With only a limited amount of time to save her friend, and confined with the rest of the student body awaiting their fate, Ren stands a mere hairsbreadth from losing her freedom completely with each and every decision she makes.

 


Chapter One: Aftermath

Campus was in total disarray. Carnage was visible as far as the eye could see.

All students—even those bruised and blood-splattered—were assembled at Top Circle, for a mandatory assembly directed by Administration Magic that targeted every human life-form capable of movement on the top eighteen levels of the mountain. Only medical students with a Level Six clearance or above, and the severely injured, were exempt from the assemblage.

Non-students had been quickly shuffled to a field on the Second Circle, and the professors had gone there to suss out any remaining assailants.

Officials of all stripes argued fiercely behind a silencing field at the front edge of our shell-shocked student body.

I touched my elbow and the connection threads that had gone hazy. Constantine was in a bed somewhere, half dead.

And others…? I gripped the discarded scarf tightly in my hand, and clutched at the dwindling magic within it—a dwindling tie to its owner.

Others were lost.

A cold gust of wind swept over the grass on which we stood, followed by a warmer breeze. The weather enchantments were finally re-engaging, hiding the bitter cold reality of six thousand feet and the tragedy that we had all just experienced. The terrorists had turned off the regulatory enchantments along with the rest of the Administration Magic before they attacked.

Like the last time I had been thrust into the middle of the entire campus population on Top Circle, there were no dragons chirping and blowing fire on the breeze, and there were no mages performing silly or extraordinary enchantments. Only the weather enchantments steadily restarting provided any sense of normalcy.

Sobs could be heard—wild moor-like calls in the otherwise stifling verbal silence. Several students were frantically wielding cleansing enchantments and clothing spells with their diminished magic reserves, frenetically flipping from one outfit to another, trying to stave off panic attacks or grief by stripping it physically from their skin.

But most students stood silently, fiercely at the ready—wearing their injuries and grime like badges, grieving their losses, wearing the garments of battle with steely determination in their gazes.

Hard gazes focused on our group, and on me. Questioning. Demanding answers.

Olivia’s scarf burned in my hand. The link to Olivia was slipping further away the longer I was held here, inactive.

We had only been standing on Top Campus for five minutes, waiting for whatever decision was being made by those engaged in the vehement, silent arguments occurring on the steps, but for me it was four and a half too many. Community Magic recharges would kick in soon, but the residual magic in my dorm room would give me a faster return. Impatiently, I stepped forward, but something grabbed my ankle, jerking me to an abrupt, stilted stop, my foot pulled harshly back to the ground.

Panicked, I jerked my foot upward. A vine, reaching upward from the dirt, wrapped my ankle.

The vine squeezed warningly and I froze in the act of yanking. The vine relaxed and slid upward to form another coil.

It took me a moment to identify the magic in the vine as Alexander Dare’s. It took me a moment more to relax. The vine wound around my skin further, pulling free of the ground with a snap, and settling beneath my jeans.

I looked up to see Dare, the peak of physical perfection, leaning with forced casualness against a pillar on the steps of the cafeteria. He was staring at me, and when my gaze met his, he shook his head slowly. The vine mirrored the movement with a slow squeeze.

Beside me, Will jerked in shock, touching just below his ear as mages sometimes did when they were talking via frequency.

“He… He said you will stay put and wait for the coming spectacle to end,” Will whispered to me. “Or you will end up in a cell.” Will shook his head. “It was far more cryptic and terse than that, but that was the meaning. How did he get my frequency?”

No need for Will to specify who ‘he’ was. Dare, speaking lowly to his cousin and uncle near him on the steps, was no longer looking in our direction, but his forced, casual stance hadn’t changed.

“Don’t reply and don’t access any other communication,” Mike said, lips barely moving. “Nothing is truly secure right now.”

Neph and Will tightened their positions around me, along with Mike, Delia, Patrick, Asafa, and the other members of Plan Fifty-two. Neph’s fingers touched my right wrist. Relaxing magic pulsed through the connection, but my internal system couldn’t absorb it in the usual way—my magic was sluggish and broken.

“They can’t do anything to you while you are enrolled at Excelsine,” Will whispered. “It’s a safe haven still. They would have to get you kicked out first.”

Enrolled at Excelsine? I gripped the bag on my shoulder—Justice Toad was toasted somewhere inside after croaking his throat out when the Administration Magic had reactivated on campus. There was every chance that I had been summarily expelled through the sheer overload of offenses committed by, and through, me.

The officials, who had been silently arguing had finally agreed on something. A signal was given and a unit of Department stooges frog-marched the remaining members of the Peacekeepers’ Troop toward the Administration Building. Dare exchanged a look with his uncle, then Julian Dare strode in after them. The remaining officials followed in their wake.

“To the Truth Stone,” Will murmured, shuddering.

Marsgrove held the door for a group of Department officials, including the truly scary one from the projection at the battlefield. Marsgrove then turned to face the crowd.

“No one moves,” he said, painful consequences promised in every steely word. The words were addressed to the student body, but he looked right at me as he said them.

I touched the new cuff on my wrist—control cuff number four. Marsgrove had brushed roughly past me and clamped it on when I’d entered Top Circle. His expression had been tight-lipped and fierce, but the action had been smooth and surreptitious.

My magic was so twisted, cuff number four probably wasn’t even necessary to keep my unconscious impulses contained.

As Marsgrove entered the building, magic flipped up between the buildings surrounding Top Circle, creating a clearly defined pen of students. Like gladiators—or farm animals—awaiting slaughter.

Panicked voices rose from the crowd, students too, freshly traumatized by containment.

The combat mages were encompassed as well, arrayed around the path edges and on the steps of various buildings. If we all had to fight our way free, at least we had firepower.

A number of soothing, well-spoken voices rang over the crowd, speaking in deliberately steady tones, directing everyone to remain calm and safe, and to tune into frequency 8136, or 25192, or 69036—I quickly lost count and interest in the numbers. But they continued the broadcast for any mage needing a distraction, discussion, or soothing tones.

“Steady everyone,” Mike’s voice echoed in my head, coming through the scarves around our throats—a communication system we set up days ago in order to be able to speak outside the frequency system.

It had been an excellent decision—concocted because frequencies were easily hackable, and because I didn’t have one. It had allowed us to stay in contact when everything else had gone to hell.

The bodies immediately surrounding me—all allies—steadied, on edge. Their mental presence was a simple buzzing through the scarves, most of them far too used to rule breaking to risk saying anything incriminating, even in a private communication.

The student peacemakers stopped speaking aloud, finally, jobs accomplished.

The unnatural quiet of a crowd of thousands of traumatized and panicking students made my skin itch, but frequencies were going wild around the field. It was obvious by the way gazes were tracking: touching on me, touching on others, and returning. No lips were moving, but information was being exchanged at a rapid rate and the facial expressions were mixed—anger, fear, resignation, hardness.

Gazes I could see, kept switching from Bellacia Bailey back to us—some discussion occurring over magic that I had not yet harnessed in my head. But anything involving Bellacia Bailey was not good for me.

Mike swore harshly through the scarves, his mental series of curses startling both Will and me.

Son of a…community opinion is not our most pressing concern, Mike said in a rush, his thoughts barely coherent. His gaze was completely frozen on something to our right. Everyone—

“The girl from the dome,” said a deceptively compelling voice, easily heard in the unnatural silence of the crowd. “I want her in front of me now.”

The crowd around me tensed, and I followed their gazes to the long steps of the cafeteria. A man from the Department—so identified by the buckled throat collar he wore—emerged from the shadows of a pillar—out of the shadow. His jet-black hair, smirking features, and long, flaring coat perfectly fit an anime villain. Power coiled tightly around him. Five other Department stooges, also dressed chin-to-toe in military black, emerged from other shadows to stand at his side.

Directly from the shadows. As if they had been the shadows seconds before.

The stooges stood at military attention, narrowed gazes searching faces and auras, while the man at their head stood casually, far better dressed and supercilious than his counterparts. His gaze was cruel as it slowly and methodically dissected the enormous crowd, moving from group to group, person to person.

The vine that had wrapped around my ankle shot up the leg of my jeans, flattening itself to my skin as it shot all the way up my body and into my sleeve. It swallowed whole the stamp Constantine had given me and the tube of paint my golem had left behind, then dove back down the same path to wrap around my ankle again, vibrating in agitation.

Stunned by that, more than the emergence of shadow dwellers, I stared down at my bloodstained and torn clothing, to where the live, carnivorous vine was hugging my skin beneath. That was an action as close to panic as I’d ever witnessed from Alexander Dare.

I tore my gaze away to look in his direction and saw the combat mages from Dare’s team step minutely closer to him.

Panicked murmurs flew around the field.

“That’s Praetorian Kaine.”

“He’ll wipe us all!”

“Shadow Mage. Right hand of Stavros.”

Someone near me whispered in a panicked voice, “Why is he out here? I saw him go in with the others! Someone get Marsgrove!”

I tried to catch Dare’s gaze, but the crowd in front of me shifted, and Mike slid slowly, but very deliberately, in front of me. Familiar, taller bodies pressed around me on all sides, blocking me from view.

“You have no authority here, Praetorian,” Dare said coldly, addressing him only by title. “And you are supposed to be with the other Department heads, sealed in with our officials while the Administration uses the Truth Stone.”

“I think you’ll find that I soon will have far more authority than you can imagine, Mr. Dare,” he responded with a cold relish that bespoke an ongoing acrimonious relationship. “As for this moment, they need me not, so I swapped seals. This sealed area works just as well under the terms I agreed to.” He shrugged, lips wickedly lifting. “And while the Administration Magic is still coming online, I have every right to conduct a preliminary investigation.”

Magic glittered above the crowd, and a number of students around me panicked. I could only see the edges of the magic, though—and I could see Praetorian Kaine through small gaps as he walked almost restlessly, weaving casually between bodies and groups along the cafeteria stairs, turning in small circles as he gazed harder at some mages than others.

“Of course, my acceptance of this seal is slightly different from yours, which was forced upon you by Administration Magic. Unless you have…special talents, Mr. Dare, then all of you have been commanded to remain in place—a five-foot length, was it not?—a command that can only be broken if you are in danger of dying. It would be bittersweet were it to come to that.”

My ragged magic reacted painfully to the threat I couldn’t see, trying to compensate for my lack of visual stimulus. Marsgrove’s cuff activated in order to control my subconscious impulse, but barely any magic was even stuttering upward for it to control.

Something hard shoved me in the side. I looked down to see a small handhold device with a viewer in the palm of Will’s hand. The view was connected to Will’s sight, and the praetorian’s hawkish features were displayed prominently on the screen, along with those of the mages standing around him. Will’s gaze was focused forward, but he held the viewer steady—hand only shaking a little—allowing me to see through his eyes what was happening without revealing myself.

It also displayed a number of facts around the edges of the image—most importantly that the praetorians answered only to the head of the Department. And were basically black ops with nearly limitless reach in the Second Layer—untouchable in the courts.

But they were not allowed in educational institutions for underage mages.

And yet, here one was. Scary enough, without seeing everyone’s reaction to the man, shrinking as far from his presence as they could get, with their heads down to avoid notice.

In the viewer, Dare’s arms were crossed, lips pressed tightly together, as he looked at the magic dissipating in the air in front of him. It looked as if a scroll had been momentarily displayed there.

“We have but little time before the Truth Stone seal lifts and the more traitorous of you contact your mommies and daddies. I will be watching and listening to see who does that, of course.” His smile went wide. “Perhaps pay a few visits afterward.”

Panic grew.

“You are taking too long.” Kaine addressed an underling at his left, with a voice edged in steel.

The underling was looking at a device in his hand and swallowed heavily. “She’s here, sir. On this field. Something was interfering, but it’s narrowing in now.”

Panic spiked. They were tracking me, and I was penned in like a farm animal.

Kaine coldly surveyed us, a crowd of nearly fifteen thousand students. “It will go better for everyone if you show yourself, girl.” His modulated voice wasn’t overly loud, but it was easily heard in the stifling silence.

There was a distinct pause when no one moved, as I watched familiar faces whirl through the display as Will scanned the crowd.

“The usual rules do not apply today, as you’ve seen.” Kaine’s lips parted in a shark-like smile. “Someone should point her out quickly.”

Shockingly, even with the implied threat, and the terrified gasps in the crowd, no one in Will’s view did. And there were quite a few who had one reason or another to do so.

Bryant—who had originally been part of our group, but had fled when he’d realized we were going to fight the terrorists—said nothing. But his sullen silence wasn’t a surprise. Self-preservation was his primary concern, and both sides would punish him for speaking out.

On the other hand, I expected Peters, who was also in view, to say something. He gripped his Canary-yellow Justice Tablet, but his gaze stayed purposely fixed on a point opposite us.

Will’s gaze, and the image on the viewer, switched to the front of the crowd.

Bellacia’s neutral gaze was on Kaine, but she wasn’t standing as casually as usual. She, like the rest of the crowd, was unnerved by this man.

Camille Straught, who had to have been updated by Bellacia immediately upon frequencies being reinstated, was staring in our general direction—probably right at me—but her lips didn’t move.

Was the campus population protecting me?

“She’s over there, sir.”

A single thin finger pointed in my direction.

Keiren Oakley, a boy who had made life quite unpleasant for me in Layer Politics class and by very obviously recording my actions around campus, was pointing our way. I had breathed a sigh of relief when he had left with the privileged others to attend the combat competition live. At some point during the battle, he had obviously returned to campus.

Mike’s back seemed to grow in size, blocking me even more completely from view of the men on the steps.

“And where’ve you been, you little slimeball?” Mike asked. “Suspicious, you getting off campus exactly when everyone was going to burn, then suddenly being back here now. Who told you about the attack?”

Oakley’s pale skin turned completely white. “I attended the All-Layer Com—”

“Silence,” Kaine said coldly.

But Mike wasn’t done. “And spoke with quite a number of the Peacekeepers’ Troop—who are all currently being questioned with the Truth Stone—before you did,” Mike said, aggressively, ignoring Kaine’s steely command. Mike’s condemning gaze focused solely on Oakley.

“Silence.” There was a definite threat in that single word this time, and Mike clutched at his suddenly shadowed throat.

I grabbed the back of Mike’s shirt in one hand, and pressed shaking fingers to the back of his neck, absorbing the pain Kaine was sending into him. My magic channels twisted and receded further inside of me, like the flame of a match lighting strands of hair.

It was a warning choke more than anything, and I had experienced worse while trying to resurrect my brother. But the feeling of absolute terror emanating from the students surrounding us seeped in as well. Neph grabbed one of my forearms and Will grabbed the other. Some of it leeched through, as they bore part of the pain.

Mike had protected ‘feral’ me for a long time, and even after learning about my Origin status today, he was still doing it. He hadn’t run in terror yet.

Kaine released the punishing magic, and my fingers dropped from Mike’s neck.

I fisted the back of his shirt harder in my other hand though, as we both heaved in breaths. The tie between us strengthened, shifting to a connection thread at his neck. Not yet on a level with Will, Neph, Dare, Constantine, my parents, or Raphael, but a far stronger connection than to any others. Breathing heavily, I sent through all the vestiges of healing magic that I could draw from the tangled, twisted mass of half-burnt channels inside of me.

I was never going to find Olivia with my magic so damaged. I couldn’t even manage a proper spell.

The crowd began moving in tense jousts of bodies, and the vine tightened around my ankle, in a strange gesture of comfort.

Mike tilted his chin down, swallowing roughly. His lips didn’t move, but his voice was clear, coming mentally through his scarf—still tied around his neck—to the rest of ours.

Hold steady, he said as the men around Kaine parted the crowd and headed in our direction. I stared at Will’s device, gripping Mike’s shirt as we watched the men quickly approach our position.

I could feel them getting closer, an unseen force unzipping the crowd in a four-foot vee as they strode forward.

Will abruptly pulled the viewing device back, jamming it into his pocket. His empty fingers clenched at his side.

Kaine’s voice echoed, a mere fifteen feet or so away. “The six from the images we were sent. Tap each of them.”

No official had confirmed that Olivia was missing. An unofficial death toll had started and I had heard the echo of it through the scarves as people repeated frequency broadcasts. But there were so many students receiving treatment in Medical and being revived, that the lists were constantly updating.

Olivia’s mother’s audible demands concerning the whereabouts of her daughter had gone unanswered, and Marsgrove, who actually knew Olivia was gone, had disappeared inside the Administration Building with the other officials.

But five of us—Neph, Will, Mike, Delia, and I—were still standing after our attack on the battlefield dome, and were available for whatever “tapping” was.

Will withdrew something thin from his pocket as he was magically pulled forward, Mike was physically pushed to the side, tearing him from my grip, and Asafa and Patrick, who had been part of the group flanking us, were thrown against the surrounding bodies of the crowd, in the small five-foot allotment of movement that Marsgrove’s spell had invoked. Patrick’s eyes glinted with malice as he eyed the Department mages who were tightly interweaving themselves among our group of five.

I took a deep breath, then another, nearly panting with panic.

A trickle of magic seeped through a leaf of the vine, unnaturally attempting to regulate my state back to calm.

But I wouldn’t be able to reclaim Olivia, if they put me in a cell. All chance would be lost. And the others… The others would be lost as well.

No, no, no, no. Conscious thought to do magic whipped up in me, but was immediately yanked back and pinched hard by the vine around my ankle. I reflexively pushed against the restriction as the menacing officials in black prowled closer. The vine tightened further, battling for control of my magic.

I could feel the point at which I could break free of it. Right there… Just where the vine seemed to thin…

Dare’s magic pulsed along the threads connecting us. Trust. Let go. Trust…

I abruptly let go of the magic, and the vine loosened. On impulse, I shoved Olivia’s scarf into my back pocket.

Then I was staring at Kaine as he stepped directly out of a shadow formed from the crowd in front of me, and my gaze met his ruthless one directly, for the first time.

“Ah. Here you are.” Satisfaction edged his cold gaze in icy, ornamental spikes. Silver eyes in hollowed sockets stared down at me. Surprisingly, he was much younger than I would have assumed. Maybe in his late twenties. Not that much older than the oldest students on campus, but the soullessness in his eyes seemed ancient.

One long fingertip drew a path from the outer edge of his right eyebrow, then curved beneath his eye. A haze of magic fell across the eye, turning the iris from silver to black, the entire pupil swallowed by darkness. Zips of polychromatic colors wove in and out.

I swallowed with difficulty, and eyed the other black-clad figures surrounding us.

The vine around my ankle tightened, waiting to strike if I reached for magic.

Someone behind me fiercely whispered, “Where are the professors? Johnson and Marsgrove might be sealed, but the professors—well, get around the communication block!”

Kaine smiled—a slashing cut of his mouth and eyes. “Where are your professors indeed?” he asked aloud, addressing the whisper. “And where were they when all of you required their aid? No, I think it far better that you be under the Department’s protection, and the Legion’s, for the foreseeable future. And Tarei, do tap the student who was just speaking as well as these five.”

There was a clap of sound, and the noise of the crowd dissipated around me.

“Now, to more interesting matters.” With his magicked eye, Kaine took in the surrounding faces. His gaze rested on Neph, Patrick, then Delia, for the longest moments. Magic swirled up and over his blackened silver eye, like dark mist orbiting a sphere—giving data on everything that passed through his vision.

“What a riveting little group this is,” he said. “Full of degenerates and sympathizers.”

Patrick bared his teeth in a very savage smile, eyes glittering. Delia and Neph stood frozen.

Kaine smiled coldly, then turned his icy, spelled gaze directly on me. “Name?”

I shook my head.

He looked at the top of my head—which meant he could see Raphael’s spell—and his cold smile grew colder. “There are so many reasons for me to take you to where you’ll never again see the light of day, girl.”

Raphael’s insanity-laced words about the Department’s basement slammed into my head.

It also made me very aware that whatever protection Raphael had placed upon me to avoid Department eyes was no longer in place. Whether it had gone with the chain I had unlinked between us over the past few weeks, or was due to something Raphael had done in retaliation during our fight, I didn’t know.

And God, I was covered in evidence. Constantine’s stamp and the tube of Awakening paint were in the vine wrapped around my ankle, my brother’s bracelet was clasped on my wrist, Olivia’s scarf—which was lightly, and very illegally leeching a small part of my ragged magic again, now that everyone was worried about frequencies once more—was in my back pocket directly connected to the one at my neck, and most damning, the residue from Kinsky’s papers had seeped into my skin.

“Should I question your friends first?” Kaine sounded disinterested and detached, but his gaze intensified and I registered a sickening pleasure increasing in his magic.

“Ren,” I said immediately, my voice scratched and shaking. I cleared my throat, never looking away from him. “My name is Ren.”

Never Florence. Not in this world, not a name that could connect me to my First Layer parents. I had changed my name in Excelsine’s administrative system and it had been sealed as my “true” name when Provost Johnson had restarted my record after I’d accidentally destroyed the entire Shangwei Art Complex first term.

“Ah. Ren Crown, isn’t it? We’ve come across your name in reports from a variety of sources. Quite a run you’ve had, so far, at this academic institution. Such a short run.”

His gaze was hungry—and, so very, very merciless—as he looked at me.

He couldn’t take me. I swallowed and mentally repeated the sentiment. He couldn’t just take me. The crowd was too big. Too many people looked militant. I had just helped save campus. And even if people didn’t know how it had happened, they knew who had done it. Everyone at the battlefield who had seen us fight Godfrey and somehow secure the dome—had thought they were watching us die.

Kaine’s magicked gaze tracked me, seeming to know exactly what I was thinking, as his smile grew.

“What happened to the Origin Dome that Vincent Godfrey raised? The one dismantled by Origin Magic—new Origin Magic. The one you dismantled.”

There was a surge of magic in the crowd—whispers flitting over frequencies, judging by the nonverbal communication I could see.

Kaine’s empty gaze surveyed the crowd as if he could hear them when I could not. His gaze landed back on me, reflecting a terrible pleasure. “Why do you look so frightened, Miss Crown? This is but a simple question. And one that everyone wants to see addressed.”

The magic on the field stilled.

I could hear Olivia’s clipped tones in my head, and what she would surely be saying: He can’t take you as a hero—he has to make people fear you first.

I tried to send a mental request to Neph through my scarf, but silence was the only response. Kaine was sporting a terrible smile, and I looked past him to see one of his men pinching Delia’s scarf between two of his fingers. Cutting off contact. Since the scarf was still around Delia’s throat, it was an even more threatening gesture.

Mike was pulling at the hands holding him and yelling—lips ranting and throat working—but I couldn’t hear a word of it. Kaine had managed to eliminate the crowd from my reach—allowing me no audible way to judge what was happening around me.

“Such interesting stories still forming and being bandied about. Tell us, Miss Crown, how did you do it?”

Kaine hadn’t seen what had happened firsthand. The terrorists’ transmission from campus to the outside world—which had included all of the Council members, heads of state, parents, and citizens—had been cut the moment Godfrey had realized the dome over the battlefield had been wrested from his control.

But I remembered the intense gaze, tracking Kinsky’s papers. Not this man’s cold gaze, but his boss’s—Enton Stavros. I remembered the moment his absolute focus had switched from Godfrey to tracking the papers. He hadn’t had time to see me.

But now?

The cruel smile on Kaine’s face said everything. Piecing together the firsthand accounts, and narrowing down the variables, it wasn’t hard to guess that it had been me. All Kaine needed was to get me to confess—to trap me in evidence, admissions, and lies.

I shook my head. The savagery in his smile grew as he surveyed the crowd again, his gaze calculating—as if he were actively listening to all of the secret and private conversations that everyone was having en masse in the moment. Eavesdropping on and parsing all communications on campus.

“The papers used on the dome over the battlefield stands—where are they?” He pressed a cold fingertip against my forehead.

Kinsky’s papers. A single piece of damning evidence that would out me for what I was.

“Papers?”

His finger sparked and pain shot through me, spiking in my forehead and spilling down my limbs like he had electrocuted me. I fell to my knees.

“Tricks do not work on me, girl. Nor on any in the Department. Better to learn that early. Now, let’s try the same question again.”

I opened my mouth to give the same answer, but the pain turned crippling. A hand pulled me back to my feet and harshly held me upright as my legs folded again. He was using a form of Justice Magic, but far more excruciating than the kind used on campus.

“Observe the lies she is trying to tell.” Kaine’s voice was dismissive, as he addressed the crowd I still couldn’t hear. “Pitiful.”

I hadn’t signed any sort of contract with Kaine. He wasn’t part of campus. How was he wielding Justice Magic over me?

“Now let’s try again.”

I concentrated on the pain, blanking my mind to anything else. If there was one thing Raphael and my active delinquency on campus had taught me, it was how not to tell the truth yet still skirt the edges of fact.

Kinsky’s sheets were somewhere in the Midlands—I had thrown them in that direction when I realized we were being forcibly marched back up the mountain. Because the tiles were constantly shifting within the Midlands, I had no true idea where they were inside those levels.

“I don’t know.” I couldn’t give him coordinates or even a reasonable guess without further thought. I set my mind to the active task of reciting First Layer song lyrics.

Crippling pain made me drop again, lyrics splintering in my head.

“You do,” he said with relish. “Where are the papers?”

“Somewhere in the Midlands,” I gasped, the answer pulled from me.

The Midlands could hide anything. I had to believe that.

“Very good.” He nearly cooed. “Now, what was on the sheets?”

“Vague human forms,” I said. Truth. That was the last thing I had seen on the sheets—all of the trapped men inside. “I don’t know who created them.” I didn’t know the parents of the men or any of their kin. “I can’t be sure what they did.” I had no idea of the men’s pasts.

I repeated these notions to myself over and over, without letting my thoughts deviate from those truths.

“No? You are manipulating the truth of the magic. It’s obvious by how you still struggle to stand. If you simply gave the truth, there’d be no pain. But you’ve given me plenty, Miss Crown.”

His finger dropped from my forehead, but I could tell, by the sharp, malevolent look in his spelled eyes that he wasn’t finished questioning me. Rather, it was as if he were suddenly on a ticking timeline.

“Such reports from the battlefields. Such unusual residue left lingering in the air.” Kaine smelled the air, eyes closed. For a moment, it seemed like another face rippled across his features. “A scent not smelled in…much too long. The clear ozone smell of Origin Magic.”

Sound returned to me in another clap of magic, and I heard the wave of murmurs break over the crowd.

“Not the reused, repurposed smell of the captured magic of the past.” Kaine’s lips turned down, as if he were dismayed, but everything else about him registered dark pleasure. “This is fresh. A new creator. And society can’t have that type of danger running around unchecked. A danger like you.”

He knew what I was. Clear as the sun sinking in the sky, and my heart to my toes, he knew. He couldn’t just take me, though. Not on a suspicion. Not when I had just saved campus.

“Test her.”

Hands grabbed my arm roughly and yanked me to my knees.


Series note

This is a planned five book series. The order of the first three books is:
The Awakening of Ren Crown (1)
The Protection of Ren Crown (2)
The Rise of Ren Crown (3)