The Protection of Ren Crown

The Protection of Ren Crown

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Blurb

Barely surviving her first term at college, all Ren wants to do over break is relax and bond with her roommate—not get eaten by a sentient building or attacked on the street. But with increasingly open warfare brewing between the magical factions and Layers of the world, this time, Ren will not fail in making sure everyone she loves stays safe and protected.

That includes doing things like filling her parents’ house with personal art heavily embedded with wards, bubble-wrapping her increasingly imperiled roommate, and even making sure that a certain sexy thorn-in-her-side continues to breathe free air.

Finding herself on duty protecting the entire university alongside campus god Alexander Dare…was not what she’d had in mind.

But this time it’s not only her life on the line. And Ren will do anything to protect those she loves.


Excerpt

Chapter One: Welcome to the New World

A flying carpet whizzed down the hallway of the Second Layer Depot and two mages followed slowly in its path, engaged in a magical duel with fencing swords in one hand and tasers in the other. They danced past us, alternating between lunges and electrocuted spasms. Bubbles emerged with each clash of steel, then popped boldly in the air, producing an offbeat chorus of a battle hymn.

This was my world now. My insane, exhilarating, dangerously upended world.

“Olivia Price, requesting a refill,” my roommate said crisply into a wall speaker as she pressed her palm to the wall along with an empty glass container shaped like a genie’s bottle.

I leaned against the wall next to her and withdrew a pencil from my back pocket. In the air I drew a depiction of the taser-fencing fight. I hadn’t quite gotten my air sketches to animate yet, but electrocuted hair was still pretty amusing in its stagnant state.

I forced my hand not to redraw one of the combatants as Alexander Dare, combat-mage-extraordinaire. I would have to add far more blood, destruction, and dying screams to the scene, if I did. Along with more intense, earth-shaking hotness.

“Identity confirmed,” the wall responded to Olivia in a soothing feminine voice. “Olivia Helena Price. Sanctioned for defensive magic use in the First Layer. Refill activating.”

The magic of the device enveloped both Olivia and the container, pulling out a small portion of Olivia’s magic and directing it into the container in her hand. A navy blue ribbon stamped with a gold dragon wrapped around the container, sealing itself and the magic within. The unbroken seal would allow Olivia to pass into the non-magic world with active magic in hand.

It hadn’t escaped my notice that out of the thousands of mages currently traversing the corridors of the largest transport hub in the world’s Second Layer, that we had been the sole occupants in this alcove each of the three times we had come here for Olivia to refill her container. I had neither a container nor a permit, and despite there being a station for filling containers, I had seen no evidence of anyone else possessing one either.

“Refill complete,” the wall-voice said.

Olivia tucked the container securely in a sling that crossed her torso, then tucked a single wayward brown hair back into her tight ponytail. “Finished.”

I twirled my pencil into my back pocket, and threw the air drawing toward Olivia’s bag. A stream of magic directed it to the first empty page of my sketchbook, where it should spread out and sink into the fibers. The possibility that, instead, the drawing would end up as pencil dust strewn inside Olivia’s designer bag was too humorous and terrifying to contemplate.

“All magicked back up and ready to scare the daylights out of people in the non-magic world again, Liv?”

“That is not amusing, Ren,” Olivia responded stiffly.

We were staying with my non-magical parents in the non-magical First Layer of the world over winter break, and last night Olivia had reacted a little explosively to someone bumping their cart into ours at the grocery store. The ice cream aisle there would never be the same.

“I should have been cited for that,” she said. “My permit doesn’t allow me to just randomly blow things up. That I wasn’t cited is a problem that you have yet to grasp. Especially with everything else we’ve been doing.”

“That the magical cops haven’t come for us is a terrible, terrible thing.”

She gave me the look that meant my wit was not appreciated and that I was three seconds away from a magical zap. “It means that either the reporting process isn’t working as it should in the First Layer, or…or that they saw the magic and didn’t cite me. I should have been dealt with brutally and immediately.”

“And yet, with a nice monetary donation to the store and a judicious use of the daydream enchantment that affects people without magic, you are free as a bird, and falling in line with my diabolical desire to corrupt you.”

She sighed. It ran through her entire body. “Ren…”

I smiled and hooked our arms together. “Library? Then home? It’s my birthday. I am exempt from recrimination during daylight hours.”

“Fine.” The word was heavy, but there was a smile tugging Olivia’s lips.

It was my new mission in life to make those smiles appear more often.

My old mission… Well, such shadowy thoughts were for the darkness of night. Daytime was for causing mischief. Exactly what my twin brother Christian and I would be doing on our birthday today, if he were still here.

I hip-bumped Olivia, which resulted in a haphazard series of snapped body crashes since our arms were still hooked. Olivia would have crushed me like a bug had I tried to shake her hand when we’d first met. But she had become increasingly tolerant of my physical contact and I was determined to desensitize her completely.

She hip-bumped me awkwardly back, restarting the drunken jostle.

I laughed, and my lingering melancholic thoughts departed, tucked away for later. I maneuvered us into a crowded hall leading to the northeast spoke of the Depot. Ducking flying objects—identified or unidentified—and skirting all manner of weird creatures and mechanical constructs, I made another appeal.

“If the magical law enforcement system isn’t correctly registering magic use in the non-magical world, then we are seriously squandering—”

“No.”

“But Will said that after my Awakening, if he hadn’t called Marsgrove, we could have gone on a serious magical bender.”

“William Tasky, while brilliant, is not who I would follow on a ‘bender.‘”

“Hey, Will’s awesome.”

And Phillip Marsgrove, Dean of Special Projects at our school, was not awesome, despite being Olivia’s powerful, older cousin. Marsgrove’s hatred of me was a sentiment I returned wholeheartedly. Speaking of which…

“We could use my new lockpicks.” I pointed at her bag, where I’d stashed them. “See what hilarious things magical picks will do to ordinary doors.” I had ordered a set of magical picks last week in case Marsgrove found a way to get around Olivia’s contract magic in order to imprison me again. “Will would totally be in for helping.”

She gave me a deadpan stare, unamused, as always, by lockpicks and delinquency. Last term, after being illegally enrolled, I had broken into her room each day for weeks pretending to be her newly assigned roommate. All term, I had convinced myself that I was getting away with it too, until the day Olivia had given me an actual room key and a scathing lecture about breaking and entering.

We were forced to separate as we turned into the corridor that led to the Library of Alexandria’s port. Mages were entering and exiting the Depot in multitudes of fantastic ways from across the Second Layer, but the most intense magical domains were still travel-restricted to specific ports within the main transportation hub.

“You have skill in picking useful friends, Ren. But a moral compass, or perhaps more accurately, a legal compass, William is not.”

“We have Neph for that,” I said.

“As a moral compass?” Olivia scoffed. “Nephthys would follow you to Hell and say that it was lovely,” she said as we entered the gilded Hall of Knowledge. The soaring, domed hall contained two-dozen ports and smelled of parchment and magic.

I pointed at Olivia. “And we would probably have a good adventure there. I’m just saying, we should—”

“No.”

I threw my hands forward. “You don’t even know what I was going to suggest.”

“That we engage in some wild and ‘awesome’ magical treasure hunt across the non-magical tri-state area using my container magic.”

I paused. “Okay, you knew exactly what I was going to suggest.”

We stepped through the thin, but elaborate port into the largest library in the Second Layer and the strange whirring noise of the magical sensors buzzed in my ear like a swarm of mosquitoes.

“Think about it, though,” I said as we grabbed the slips that spit out from a box on the side of the portal. “It could be fantastic.

I grinned at her, but then immediately grimaced as I read my visitation slip. The magical scan had allocated me with a one hour and five minute period in the library today. Five minutes less than yesterday, and ten minutes less than the day before.

If the sequence continued, I wasn’t going to be able to enter at all. Or maybe I’d just be digested while stepping through the port one day.

Because, while the library was awesomely magical and contained a bit of everything from the magic world, the Library of Alexandria was sentient.

And carnivorous.

Thus, the real-time scanner that examined each mage and issued a slip, precisely allocating the time that the mage had before the library started chewing. While Olivia’s one hour and forty minute allocation had stayed steady, the library was looking to chomp me sooner with every visit.

There was nothing I could do about that, at present, so I shoved the paper into my back pocket and continued needling my roommate.

“Besides, Olivia,” I said, multitasking as I set a timer in my head, grabbed a cloak from a peg, and plotted the fastest way to the warding books and materials I needed. “You are the one who wants to take over the world. I imagine that includes all five layers of the Earth—the four magical ones and the non-magical one too.”

Olivia glanced sharply at the guards stationed at the entrance to the library’s soaring, sharply-curved, golden atrium. They were standing smartly at attention as if guarding Buckingham Palace, but their gazes looked even more vacant than usual.

“A ‘magical bender’ is not a path to dictatorial splendor,” Olivia hissed.

I cheekily waved at the guards and, as expected, received no response. Olivia grabbed my hand from the air and pushed me into the atrium.

“Not a proven path,” I said, letting her manhandle me. “But on our journey, we could come across some magical trinket that will ensure you a long and terrifying rule—like a ring, or a medallion, or a fiercely magical toenail. Think about it, Liv.”

Her shoulders relaxed at the nickname. She would have shot me for assigning one to her weeks ago. “Wards first, splendor and terror second,” Olivia said, dryly.

I grinned.

My grin slipped, though, as we walked through the portrait gallery just past the library’s breathtaking entrance. Paintings covered every bit of wall space and were secured with thick spells. Deep alcoves contained individual observation benches and particularly special pieces. My gaze shifted to one alcove and one painting in particular, as it did every time I passed. The lovely woman draped in beautifully mixed oils was watching me. Again.

The hair on my neck stood on end.

Olivia deliberately picked up our pace, hurrying me past. We hadn’t spoken of the portrait, but there was no doubt in my mind that the artist who had created the extraordinary piece in Ganymede Circus had created this one as well—Sergei Kinsky, the last mage capable of wielding Origin Magic, both a god and bogeyman.

Olivia didn’t have to tell me that I didn’t have the time to study the magnificent work of art. She also didn’t have to explicitly state that I couldn’t afford to be seen doing so.

As it had for the last three days, my heart only stopped racing when we broke from the main corridor and entered the gallery tunnel webbed by thousands of complex and interconnected wards. My fingers brushed the access panel and quickly pulled up visuals of the wards that were on my day’s to-do list. Colored lines and shapes zipped and zoomed across the indexed screen and I pressed the button for “educational activation,” which pulled my twelve selected wards from the web and into the area where I could study and internalize them individually.

I took a deep breath, centering my magic. Replicating each magic and setting it to paper would require the entirety of my allotted library time.

My parents had “acquired” twenty-seven new pieces of frameless art in the past two days. After today, a dozen more would be attached to their walls.

Using one of the library spells, Olivia conjured a table and two chairs next to the staging area. We dropped our bags on the tabletop.

“How much time do you have today?” she asked.

“Fifty-five minutes after the cloak.” The cloak protected me from the library’s ‘taste sampling’ inclinations so that I didn’t have to expend the energy to protect myself. I had seen more than one screaming person run down the halls after being sampled. But everything had a cost, and time was one of the most precious bargaining chips here. By increasing the magic around me like it did, the cloak cost ten minutes of my allocated time.

I touched the first ward I was interested in replicating and wrapped it around me, absorbing it into my senses—taste, sight, sound, texture, purpose. The sensations coalesced into a dimensional picture in the eye of my mind and I stamped the image into memory, then sealed the associated sensations into the skin and bone of my fingers.

I released the ward and stepped back, shuddering at the discharge of the sensory overload. The real world snapped back around me. Not for the first time, I ached to discover what the other sections of the library could offer. Someday I would.

“I could live here and not be bored for a thousand years, Liv.”

Unsurprisingly, Olivia rolled her eyes. She hated coming here and never left the table once she placed all the appropriate protections. There were too many elements outside of her control in the library, and she hated things out of her control.

“The library would suck you dry in the one minute succeeding your fifty-five allotted ones, then feast on your bones for that thousand years,” she said.

“Might be worth it.” I flipped open my folio and extracted the specially designed sheets of paper I had created during the last week of fall term. I had created them just for this purpose—to put wards to paper. To protect my family.

The sensation of the ward swirled beneath the skin of my fingers, ready to push through my pencil and come alive on the page.

“You ready?” Olivia asked. She was researching the protections that had been previously placed on my parents’ house. We needed to make sure that what I was installing wouldn’t conflict and destroy the house while the new wards were seeking to replace the old ones.

“Yes. Yesterday’s batch settled in well. I’m feeling positive,” I said.

“Using paper was smart, and you have a talent for this.”

“The first time I died I was attached to a billion wards. That helps, I think.” It also helped that the defensive wards were responding to my overwhelming need to protect.

“Having a photographic memory for images and the ability to put an exact likeness to paper likely helps just as much,” Olivia remarked dryly.

“That too,” I said, twirling my pencil. Using magic was exhilarating and art made my magic sing. If only I could use it everywhere.

If only I could draw directly on the walls of my parents’ house… But using magic in the non-magical First Layer was impossible for normal mages without a container like Olivia’s, and would, without a doubt, bring the magical spooks of the Department right to my door—the opposite of what I was trying to do.

So for the past three days while my parents had been under the assumption that I was showing Olivia around our town, we had been returning to the Second Layer, and bit by bit I was constructing new protection wards and embedding them in the fibers of the paper. Olivia was transporting the papers containing the wards through the checkpoint to the First Layer with the crazy all-access pass that similarly allowed her to take a container full of magic into the non-magic world.

I gave Olivia’s foot a bump under the table and started drawing, making the ward become a physical representation on the page through color, design, dimension, and imbued purpose.

With Christian gone, my life’s focus had been…redirected. My vital need to protect and attend him had transferred wholly to a small group of people, of which Olivia had moved dangerously close to center.

We were taking care of my parents’ safety right now, so that when I left for school again after the holidays, I could leave without worrying that the repercussions from my actions last term would negatively affect them.

And so that I would not worry about the wards that were already in place on the house—the ones set by Raphael Verisetti, a notorious terrorist who killed without remorse. He had placed enchantments on my parents’ house before my magical Awakening in order to hide my presence from the magical world. In order to hide me until he could use me, betray me, and collect my magic—along with the magic that had transferred to me when Christian had been murdered during his Awakening.

Despite the absolute beauty and intricacy of Raphael’s wards, I could not let them remain in place without designing my own checkmate. I swallowed down my anger and got to work.

Thirty minutes in, the library desk ate my folio. Wooden jaws then reached up and grabbed my pencil. I released the vine charcoal just before the jaws clamped my uncovered fingers too. The library swallowed my magical pencil with a gulp.

Olivia sighed and gave me an irritated wave. “Go.” This wasn’t the first time the library had eaten my things, even with all the protections Olivia implemented each visit.

I rose and sprinted to the materials section, my cloak’s hem flying wildly over marble floors. Hungry magical objects trailed behind me and swooped at my sides, trying to nip any part of me that the cloak revealed as I moved.

Each section in the library was delineated by its time period or subject matter. The materials section was constructed completely of magical materials. Every chair, table, lamp, and rug was an exquisite piece to study. There were books, tomes, scrolls, constructs, and screens, of course. But there were also objects that were far more unusual. Cutting edge magical technology. Every few minutes something new would appear when someone, somewhere, added a new piece of technology or magic to the collection.

However, sometimes the library bypassed the system and independently acquired pieces it thought ought to be included.

I located my folio and papers quickly in an “inbound” stack and grabbed them. An outraged roar from the southern wall didn’t faze me this time, and I sprinted back to the warding gallery—passing a group of mages dragging long, purple boxes—while marble nipped at my heels.

The library ate knowledge and magic, incorporating everything into its catalogs and limitless memory. Even with the cloak, books flew out to brush along the bared skin of my fingers, chairs wrapped around me, and magic swirled through my hair, despite the enchantments in place. It tried this with me more than with Olivia, possibly because I was always doing stupid things unconsciously, like connecting to every little piece of the library that took my interest. I loved it here.

But Olivia had forced me to watch a traumatizing instructional video before we’d entered the halls the first time. The library would consume anyone who stayed past their time limit.

Excelsine’s libraries, unlike Alexandria’s, had special properties and wards that allowed enrolled students unlimited access within its walls—a priceless bonus. But because of the restrictions implicit in the allowance, Excelsine’s libraries couldn’t contain truly intense magics like those in the warding hall. Which was devastating, as the piddly little hour I was allowed here didn’t include time for adventure.

Not like those lucky mages with four or five hours printed on their slips. So unfair.

I repeated the sentiment to Olivia as I collapsed back into my seat and took the ward stone she handed to me. I placed the stone on top of the folio and papers. Using the ward stone would shave three minutes off my allowance tally, but running again would expend five.

“Lucky?” She gave me an unimpressed look. “Normal magic users, the kind who get four hours here because the library can’t be bothered to eat them sooner, can’t do that.” She pointed at the creations on my pages.

“I’m normal!” I argued. “People do crazy things at school all the time.”

“Excelsine educates some of the most powerful young magic users anywhere.” It sounded like she was reading from a brochure, her voice haughty and disdainful. “You aren’t used to normal, Ren. Or average. Most mages would be jealous of your one-hour limit here and what it means.”

“Eh,” I said, equally dismissive, as I stood and approached the web of wards. “Bursts of madness are great, definitely, but if a mage is diligent, she can build magic into a device or ward over time and make powerful things no matter her power level.”

And then spend as much time as she wanted here, enveloped by magic.

I wrapped myself in another ward and breathed it in before letting it go. I drew it with fast and sure fingers, then chewed the cap at the end of my pencil, examining the complicated image to make sure everything was correct.

“I think people underestimate the importance of diligence and working at something for years, Sistine Chapel style,” I mused.

“Nothing you say will convince me that you would rather spend three months doing something that takes you twenty minutes now.”

“Time itself? I could use a vacation.”

Something akin to a growl came from Olivia.

“Being an idiot means I’m normal,” I said cheerfully, tickled. The Olivia Price of two months ago wouldn’t growl.

Ten minutes later, I had completed three more papers. Olivia poked a finger toward the clock in the corner. When I looked up, a single digit appeared on the face, indicating my remaining library time.

“Almost done. Do you think—?”

My query was lost in a massive boom that shook the entire building.

Olivia immediately swept everything into her bag and thrust her chair back.

I followed suit, fumbling with the strap of my bag as I shook off the arms of the chair that tried to pin me in place. “I have seven more minutes.”

“No. This is an attack.” She was already at the end of the gallery and peering around the corner before the sentence had fully left her lips. She frantically dug two small devices out of her bag and activated a small silver bracelet. A tangerine shield sprung around her.

“On the library?” I said incredulously.

“Artifacts, Ren.” The devices she had grabbed from her bag whirled in her palms lighting her hazel eyes with the emerald halo of one device and the topaz of the other. “The library is full of priceless pieces that people want. But also full of magical protection—active, inactive, and sentient. Stupid thieves.”

The marble beneath our feet started swirling, as if responding to her words about its sentience. Olivia looked at the marble with distaste and a little fear. “Ugh, I hate it here,” she hissed.

Another boom shook the space around us. I waited for Olivia to take off running, but she kept her position.

“Does this happen often?” I whispered, watching the active marble swirl closer. But Olivia didn’t move, even as other mages sprinted past us, down the main corridor, running toward the atrium and the single exit at the far end.

“No.” Olivia gripped the emerald device. “The library exterminates all threats.”

And just like that, the swirls in the marble gathered into a solid fist and shot out into the main corridor, like a predator chasing fleeing prey, and rammed one of the fleeing mages down into the stone floor.

My heart stopped beating, and sound grew confusing.

“…is very bad,” I heard Olivia say, once my panic sharpened to tight focus.

Running the main corridor had just, very plainly, entered my “don’t do it!” category. There were shortcuts throughout the library—hidden doors and windows and quicksand floors, books that sucked you in and spit you out of other books, hanging lights that switched you out of existence then switched you back on in a faraway wing, doors that folded and unfolded you from space.

The building was full of small portals that transported people from one spot in the library to another, but the paths were dangerous, unpredictable, and unknown to me. Olivia was always reminding me not to touch anything other than the parts of the warding gallery we’d painstakingly vetted. I didn’t know any shortcuts.

But I did know there was only one exit to the building. And we were tantalizingly close to it, while being horribly far away as I watched mage after mage go down.

Guards were fighting mages cloaked from head to toe in black, while others were being swallowed by doorways and floors, and crushed by ceiling beams left and right. Rock, clay, marble, and wood exploded from each crash. Wall trim bent down to crush and rend, and picture frames snapped their jaws. The library had clearly switched to offense and it was winning.

Olivia and I, standing stock still and peering around the corner, had just enough defensive protection with her bracelet and my cloak, to remain out of the library’s immediate notice.

We had seven minutes to figure this out—probably six, now. And maybe the library wouldn’t remember me when my time ticked out. We could try to wait out the attack…spend my remaining six minutes devising a plan. Between us, Olivia and I would think of something in six minutes.

A cloaked mage threw something small and silver at a statue in the middle of the large atrium. Even a hundred yards from the atrium, the explosion knocked us off our feet.

And the library…screamed.

“Holy— Run!” Olivia shrieked, scrambling up.

Marbled hands thrust out from every wall, one punching straight for Olivia. I launched myself at her. Stone fingers tore my cloak straight off my frame as Olivia and I fell hard to the floor. We grappled with each other, elbows flailing everywhere, as we stumbled to our feet and lurched forward.

My last look at the atrium was of everyone—guards, terrorists, patrons—being swallowed by toothed arches and marble tiles.

We skidded down the main hall—away from the atrium, away from the exit—surfing the rumbling floors and dodging falling objects. Olivia slammed me into a wall, saving me from a chandelier hammering into the floor. I wiped the blood from my mouth, then tackled her just as draperies snapped out to behead her.

We scrambled to our feet again, sliding sideways as the marble buckled. A mage in black, racing toward us, shattered into a thousand clay-like pieces as he was violently crushed by hammering ceiling tiles.

We had to get out of here.

“We have to hide!” Olivia yelled amid the nightmare as we avoided the next crushing blow aimed our way. As if we could hide from something that we were already within.

Another tile crushed downward in a hammered fist and we threw ourselves against the wall, narrowly missing death. But the walls were no safer than anyplace else in the locked belly of the beast.

Locked? Wild thoughts bloomed. I grabbed the pencil in my back pocket.

“Shield!” I screeched as the library attacked. “Last stand! Last stand!”

Olivia threw a shield over us with everything she had left. The reverberation from the library’s strike was deafening. We’d withstand two, maybe three more strikes, and that would be it.

“Door,” I said, already drawing on the wall with one hand as I frantically reached over to fish my lock picks out of Olivia’s bag with the other.

If only I had paint. But I didn’t and I had zero time to cry about it. I had only the time to enact my burst of a plan.

I got the picks free and ducked instinctively as rocks burst against the shield Olivia was clutching around the two of us. Two more strikes.

My pencil tip flew over the corridor wall as I visualized and created what I wanted in a multi-dimensional landscape, schematics flipping through my mind too fast for conscious thought. I didn’t even try to make it conscious, as I thrust the expanding mental balloon into the creation.

Magical travel was Will’s passion, and port technology was one of his favorite discussion topics. Spending fifty-plus hours last term helping him on projects, and doing whatever he needed, had to have left a mark. That, and sheer insanity. I had no other option but to believe that this would work. Somewhere, my subconscious had to remember how to recreate the portal pad Raphael had ripped from my magic when I had Awakened.

There was, however, a chance this would kill us. Or suck us into some dimensional void.

“Faster,” Olivia gritted out, holding the shield against the marble floor to also protect us from being swallowed from underneath. Another column of stone exploded.

I drew the last line while letting conversations with Will, equations, and internal images of magical locks focus the magic sliding along the rays of the mental pyramid construct I used to correctly bring together and balance the cornerstones of magic. I pressed the torque wrench and pick against the newly sketched door, pictured the rotating tumblers of a triple-grade magic lock, thought the word exit, and pushed.

The door swung inward, shocking me, just as the opposite side of the corridor erupted into a swirling magical vortex.

My fingers wrapped around the edge of the new doorframe reflexively as the vortex on the opposite wall spun faster and the suction increased. I reached out my hand for Olivia.

A black clad mage appeared and grasped Olivia before I could. Using the leverage of her body, he flung her backward—toward the vortex—and plunged himself through my door. I released the frame and dove toward Olivia, frantically grabbing her outstretched hand in both of mine.

Her torso jerked and her legs flew out behind her. Magic erupted from her toes—defensive spells cast at the vortex, and offensive ones flashing in every other direction. The vortex reacted, swirling faster and swallowing everything into its cyclonic throat. Olivia’s magically thrown ropes, hooks, and fastenings snapped before they could attach—sweeping stone jaws eating all magic before it could connect.

The eyes of the library were directly upon us. My feet dragged along the floor toward the swirling hole of doom that was sucking us in, inch by inch. I tried to supplement Olivia’s defensive magic with my own. My pencil and picks dug into our clasped palms.

Jagged teeth rent the mangled shield around us, chipping and gouging more holes in the magic with each chomp.

I pulled Olivia for all I was worth, digging my heels into the slippery marble, and arching back.

Olivia’s legs swayed hypnotically behind her, like a snake in a death trance—the sucking vortex pulling us in while the library’s corridor dove toward us for an early kill. No!

“Let go,” Olivia said, her voice and gaze far too cynical and resigned.

“No way.” My feet lost six more inches. Gaping jaws tore through the remaining pieces of the shield’s top in one giant rip.

“We will both die,” she said in a voice far too calm and cold. “I would let go of you.”

Another inch of ground slipped beneath my feet. I looked back to see my door shutting—the library pushing it closed around my magic. Five more seconds and it would be gone.

Tick…

Six sets of jaws swept up the walls, converging on the ceiling, then together, dove toward us. There would be nothing to hamper their descent.

There was just one last thing to do. One action that I wouldn’t survive, but Olivia might.

Tick, tick.

I thought of the Kinsky painting, of my Awakening paint. A drop of ultramarine dripped in my mind and magic exploded against the door behind me. The momentum flung me forward and I used the initial jerk of propulsion along with a burst of magic to fling Olivia over my head and through the closing door.

I flew toward the vortex instead.

Ren!” The door shut on Olivia’s scream.

Motion slowed, and the feel of the drop of paint in my mind lit the magic around me. I could see the magic, layering one thread, one line, one sheet, one slab…one upon another in an infinite sequence. I could see the possibilities of the world. And in that last moment…a possibility for myself. I flung my right hand around a glittering turquoise ward striping the air and pulled it to my chest, tangling it together with the pencil and picks in my left hand. Thrusting them in front of me, I hit the vortex as hard as if it was a brick wall and told it to let me through.

The library screamed as I was sucked harshly inside.

Stygian blackness, then a flash of light illuminated the gloriously mechanical and magical Hall of Locks—which I had desperately, and absurdly, wanted to visit—then darkness and another flash.

I was painfully spit onto a textured, multi-colored floor.

Olivia was crouched behind a padded bench on the floor—a floor that was strangely far below me. She was holding her midsection. Art glittered everywhere. We were in what appeared to be one of the deep alcoves near the atrium.

“Liv, up here,” I wheezed.

Her head whipped up and she stared at me in horror. The skin around her eyes bunched, her lips painfully compressed. “You idiot.”

“I know.” I pushed roughly to my feet, coughing and spraying a mist of crimson toward the floor. Instead of splatting on the floor, though, the blood swirled around my ankles like real mist. Unease gripped me. But Olivia was alive. That was such the important part of this equation. And, hey, me too, bonus! “Where—?”

Detonations echoed weirdly in the distance. The alcove was strangely inactive, but clay and rock littered the floor in front of Olivia’s bench. Whatever the library was doing to people—turning them to stone before crushing them?—there was no blood to be seen other than that upon our skin. Unless the library was drinking down whatever fluids it spilled. And…it was better to think about other things.

“Don’t touch her!” Olivia’s voice was harsh as she reached toward me, then snatched her hand back. “Stop!”

I whipped around to see a woman walking toward me—a woman draped in beautifully mixed oils, with excitement vibrating her painted features. Ripples of her excitement flowed around us.

Flowed around us…on canvas.

Absolute terror crawled up my throat. I was inside the Kinsky painting. I had thought of it. I had thought of the painting before I’d thrown Olivia through the door. I’d been awash in thoughts of paint when I’d hit the vortex.

The woman’s painted hand dipped inside the folds of her dress and she pulled out a piece of paper, similar to the paper that had been held by the painted woman in Ganymede Circus. She motioned me closer, her movements elegant, but edged by anticipation. The paper pushed against the texture of the air, riffling out the colors of the piece.

I stepped toward the woman without conscious thought, enthrallment swallowing my terror.

Ren, don’t!”

I turned as an explosion rocked the hall behind Olivia, cutting off any further words. Stone teeth descended from the alcove’s arch. Olivia’s yells had alerted the library to her presence. My heart leaped to my throat. I was not doing this again. No.

The paint turned liquid beneath my touch and rolled up my fingers, as I grabbed for my roommate. Library air pulsed around my freed fingers in waves echoing the beat of my heart. The cuff around my wrist—the one meant to keep my magic from acting on uncontrollable urges—sizzled as the surface coating of the paint touched the edge of the flexible metal. The paint streamed upward, like rivulets of lava slicing through the final pieces of something supposed to be unbreakable. My magic burst completely free.

I grabbed Olivia’s wrist and before she could say anything, before the terror could completely form on her face, I pulled her inside, wrapping thoughts of safety around her as I did. The noises from the library turned distant.

I could feel Olivia’s terror… I could feel…everything around me. I tucked her against my back, holding onto her wrist, as I turned to the painted woman.

The woman said nothing—she just smiled and extended her hand—but I could hear the echo of speech and nonverbal communication in the painted textures flowing and swirling around us. I carefully accepted the paper from her fingers.

Words drew upon the page as I pulled it toward my chest.

Over my shoulder, Olivia read the words aloud in a rasping voice. “What do you seek?”

The woman looked at me expectantly, then motioned to the note in my hand. “Answer, magic, direction,” her paint whispered.

“A path home,” I answered her, light-headed but certain.

No.” Olivia’s voice held the strangest tone. “The Second Layer Depot.”

Oils swirled around us and I struggled with the split-second decision, while uncontrolled magic surged everywhere. Trapping the magic in my mind, everything slowed, and loose drips of paint suspended in the air as others whirled around us.

“The Second Layer Depot,” I said, concentrating on Olivia’s directive instead of where my magic wanted to take us. The four words spread on the page.

I held the paper out to the woman. She covered my hand with hers and smiled. Kinship, need, aid, her paint said. Brilliant, swirling color replaced shadowed light and her features changed, the lines of her body swirling outward into the world around her, and pulling us inside.

Simply looking at Kinsky’s paintings—both in the hall and in Ganymede—had moved me. His use of color and texture and emotion was extraordinary. But being inside that art was like nothing I had previously experienced. In the battle rooms at school, where simulations became real in the mage’s mind, the experience was still the mage’s own. Here…it was as if I was in another artist’s mind, blending memories and echoes of feelings together and producing new reflections with every movement.

I kept a tight hold on Olivia’s wrist even as I was overwhelmed with the world around us.

Colors mixed with snippets of sound. I could taste our desperation to escape from the library. No, I could taste Kinsky’s desperation to escape from…shadows…darkness, a collar?

Find it.”

Escape.”

Destroy.”

The words were not mine, and they were not the vanished woman’s, but they echoed in my head, trying to find purchase.

Turquoise mixed with fuchsia, sea salt, and rhubarb. Tastes, sounds, and textures mixed in patterns that made sudden, ringing sense for a split second—the secrets of the universe, unraveling in a single moment, only to be lost in the next.

Doorways formed in Munch-like whorls—brushstrokes that beckoned and repelled. No, not those. Not yet, a voice whispered in my head. The Second Layer Depot. I held the thought in the front of my mind and tightened my fingers on the paper still gripped in my left hand, and on Olivia who I gripped in my right. I didn’t look back at her, in case this was a place of myth where she would be released should I turn. I moved through the paint, pulling oil along the interior path of the canvassed world. Half-expressed memories and emotions bombarded me with every movement.

It was overwhelming. I looked at the paper in my hand, trying to concentrate on the words written there in turquoise ink.

Whorls of a turquoise path curled in front of me. I followed it, feeling the paper tug me along.

What if I had asked for…something else? Possibilities stirred and doorways formed and swirled apart on my sides, underneath me, overhead.

What if I had asked for knowledge? The path in front of me abruptly changed to silver and Olivia’s hand began to slip.

No. Protection. I crushed her slipping fingers in mine and screamed The Second Layer Depot in my head.

The turquoise path jerked back to center and a door at the end shot toward us, opening wide and swallowing us in kaleidoscopic paint.

We flew through endless space, then were spit out, face down on a mirrored floor.

Magic washed over me in a wave.

My mirrored image in the floor morphed—teal eyes turned brown, medium reddish-brown hair shortened to buzzed black. And––

“I’m a guy,” I said, a little panicked. My magic overloaded and sent streams bouncing around the mirrors that composed every surface of the room, and the color streams reflected a thousand times in the infinitely-mirrored reflections.

“Shut up.”

My magic stopped panicking at the familiar voice, and I looked over only to immediately panic anew when I saw a green-eyed, brunette male.

“Oh my God, I sucked us into an opposite dimension.”

“No you didn’t. Shut up.

Olivia grabbed my arm and her magic blunted the sudden, uncontrollable surge of mine. Overwhelmed by the trek through the painting, my thoughts were completely overloaded.

I snapped my panic-stricken lips closed. The active magic she was channeling grounded me and clued me in to other things as I touched the magic that had washed over me a moment before. I took a few deep breaths. Olivia’s magic. Olivia had cast an enchantment, changing our features and rendering us males. That meant she knew where we were and thought we were still in danger.

Later,” she said forcefully. Even as a boy, she was the master of a tight-lipped “I will crush you, if you don’t listen” expression. “I am furious with you. You are an idiot,” she said, her voice shaking a bit.

From her bag, she tugged the control cuff that Marsgrove had given her days ago when we’d been in line to leave campus.

God, I didn’t want that on my wrist. Especially after the temporary high of complete freedom in a world of paint. But reality was quickly returning. I had to wear a cuff. I had nearly destroyed my parents’ house—and everyone in it—the last time I was without one. That I might lose control and act on fleeting desires unchecked by conscious thought was more terrifying than wearing something that stifled me.

I nodded stiffly and closed my eyes.

When I didn’t feel it clamping onto my arm, I looked to see what the holdup was. She was staring at my wrist. More importantly, at the figures drawn there.

Two new butterflies drew forth from their cocoons, their wings touching.

A mage’s shifting tattoos showed a direct insight into her current thoughts or an important event, and were thus, highly personal. There were fringe groups on campus who preached to the freedom of showing the tattoos at all times, but the vast majority of mages kept them covered, usually by the control cuffs which were legally required to be worn in the Second Layer.

Olivia snapped the cuff into place, her fingers shaking.

I felt a pang as my magic abruptly settled underneath, caging the beautiful feel of unrestrained glory.

Glory that would obliterate everything around me the moment I forgot to consciously regulate my magic. I didn’t want to blow up my parents. Nor could I go bare-wristed to the government inquiry on campus that was scheduled after winter break. Heck, I’d probably be arrested the moment we stepped out of this room if I didn’t have the cuff clamping my wrist.

Olivia checked her bag twice—unzipping, then zipping it again—before nodding, satisfied. She rose, all shakiness clamped by tight control. “Okay, Reno, let’s go.”

A hysterical laugh bubbled up as I looked at our reflections in the thousands of mirrors, large and small, distorted and clear, surrounding us on the walls, ceiling, and floor. It made me deeply hungry to know how the painting worked. It had tapped into a port system somehow. “Lead on, Oliver.”

She grimaced, then limped toward a distorted mirror made of hundreds of bottle-glass bottoms, and swiftly turned one of the circles. The door opened and we stepped into a hallway in the Second Layer Depot.

A hundred different types of mages and strange creatures streamed by. My eyelids slid shut in relief. “Oh, thank God.”

“Don’t get giddy.”

Alarms sounded and people cleared to the side with us as a group of mages with buckled collars shot past on a flying skiff. Heading toward the Hall of Knowledge, I’d bet.

“Take care with your words.” Olivia’s finger twitched and I looked in the indicated direction. There was nothing there for a moment, then suddenly there was—as if Olivia pointing it out had made it real. A disc on the wall blinked, a thousand eyes shifting in a thousand directions. There was something very sinister and menacing about it. “Physical spells are easily seen through if one is looking for them.”

We turned a corner and the disc disappeared from view, but the tubes and tunnels and all of the mages and animals surrounding us were suddenly a lot less whimsical and fascinating.

Olivia’s controlled and precise magic rippled over me as we walked through the halls that ran in twisting spokes from the central area of the Depot. I felt bits of the enchantment loosening, felt my hair grow longer the farther we walked. Surreptitiously glancing at her, I noticed her eyes were almost hazel once more, and her hair was one shade off from her natural color.

Mages in battle cloaks strode past, and chaos burst around us as people opened feeds and holograms, trying to see what was happening. My gaze fixed upon one group of soldiers in particular, and one mage in particular. Ultramarine eyes narrowed on me and I couldn’t breathe until we turned the corner and I lost sight of Alexander Dare.

Two hall turns and three large crowds later—all filled with melees of magic, chaos, flying vehicles and creatures—Olivia and I were female again.

As we moved closer to the main room in the Depot, where the First Layer Checkpoint was, I found it harder to breathe. There was no way Dare had recognized me. And with Olivia’s magic, no way was anyone tracking us. No way.

“Hurry and keep up.” Olivia smoothed her hair. “We need to check most of our magical equipment in a locker and I will not be late returning to your house.”

I wanted to talk about the mages in black cloaks. About us nearly getting eaten. About the vortex and door. About being engulfed in the painting.

She shot me a hard look and I nodded sharply to indicate that we would wait until we were home. Safer.

Everything would be fine.

My new metallic cuff glinted under the magical lights of the Depot.

Control had been washed away by paint, like everything else in my world. But apart from my previous control cuff, everything else had survived—Olivia, her bag, my bag, the ward papers.

We were fine.

I looked at the walls with their hidden discs and at the occasional person dressed completely in black with a gaze far too keen. I pushed against the pit in my stomach that said we were anything but fine.


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)


Extra materials

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!


Cover versions

The Protection of Ren Crown