It's been six weeks since Allish Statia, former prima ballerina at the Mersetzdeitz Ballet, broke her leg during the last performance of La Sylphide. In that time, she has healed (mostly), relaxed (a lot), and taken advantage of her husband's willingness to order take-out on most weeknights.
Until someone breaks into her apartment and points a gun at her.
Using the Wind Elemental powers few know she has, she is able to subdue the man. But he is only a part of something much bigger—something that wants the destruction of her, her husband, and everyone she knows and loves.
She was not a murderer.
The man was unconscious, not dead.
He lay in the middle of her apartment, crumpled face-down on the floor. Around him, the dark mahogany boards gleamed under the space’s stark lights. Crisp, bold frames decorated the walls, recording her dance career in black and white stills, show posters, news clippings, and awards. In the corner, the dormant television reflected the scene in a dull, dark perspective.
Allish Statia took a step closer, her breath catching as the wood planks creaked under her bare feet.
Holy Christ. Is this really happening?
She could hardly believe it. Juxtapositioned against the comfort and luxury of her near-penthouse apartment’s receiving area, the intruder’s slumped form looked like a nightmare that had crawled up from some alternate universe—incongruent and impossible. Adrenaline thundered through her veins, making her bad leg shake beneath her. Behind him, the front door was still open, and the outside light created a scalene patch of brightness against the shadows of the inner wall. The outer hallway held its normal, casual quiet. The lights made their subsonic hums and buzzes, and the ventilation continued its background rumble. From a nook at the opposite end, close to the elevators, the drumming of rain against the passage’s sole window had softened, blending into the rest and overpowered by the rain on the windows behind her.
Out in the hall, it was normal. Light, airy, open. Inside, it felt like someone had shut her apartment off in a vacuum. The air hung still, with a thick, attentive quiet that struck her as both familiar and hostile. Everything had come to a dead stop, the only movement existing in the tick of the kitchen clock and the soft breaths from both herself and the man—hers ragged and shaking, growing tighter and shallower with every panicked second that passed, his drawing softer and thicker with the relaxation of unconsciousness.
She stared at the gun that lay close to his hand. The third spotlight on the wall threw a slight gleam onto its two ridges, picking up the subtleties in its boxy, modern shape even as its dark body seemed to silhouette itself as a stain against her floor.
That drew her attention more than the light on the wall. Even as the trilling roar of panic growled over her brain, her attention flicked between his hand, the gun, and his head, waiting for any twitch of movement or any change of pattern.
And the magic in the room was going into overdrive, snatching at every atom of air, every scrap of a breeze, catching at all the wild currents outside the building. She knew that for certain. As a Wind Elemental, she could feel it.
Magic. That’s how she’d knocked him out, by pushing the air at him. As one of the city’s few native-born Wind Elementals, it was one of her specialties. She could feel the air as an extension of herself, as if a piece of her existed in its eddies and currents. Except, this time, instead of pushing him back like she’d intended, it had done something else—something intricate and complex that her mind was still catching up with. It had been as if something else had taken over, moving her powers along some instinctual defense she’d never accessed before. Everything had happened so fast.
A sick feeling slithered up her stomach as she continued to stare at the intruder. She peered closer, trying to see his face. His hat, a navy blue ball cap with some sort of company logo design on the front, had fallen forward off his head and blocked most of his features, but the rest of him was visible. He was a young, twenty-something man with the broad, solid physique of someone who’d been in the military. His jeans were muddy at the hems, and, upon closer inspection, the logo on his ball cap appeared to be from some kind of private security firm. The heavy, practical work-boots had been silent when he’d entered, which somewhat affirmed her suspicion of military training.
The room’s spotlighting reflected off the smooth, wooden floor around him, desaturating the color from his dark, concealing clothes. His jacket, slick with rain, dripped a slow puddle onto the hardwood. He did not move.
She remembered just how big he’d looked coming into the room—out of the corner of her eye, it had felt like an entire section of the wall had moved—and the jolt of shock and surprise as she had caught sight of him and registered what was happening.
Holding her breath, she stepped in a wide half-circle around him, trying to get a better look at his face. An angular chin came into view, followed by a pair of open lips that were half-smooshed against the floor, the angle of his head was limp and awkward, looking like a doll’s. A trickle of drool dribbled down his chin, oozing to the wood beneath him.
Jesus. What the hell was she doing?
She backed up and shivered, replaying the last minute in her mind.
It had all happened fast—too fast. One second she’d been reading a paperback at the breakfast table, and the next? There had been an intruder knocked out on her floor.
She didn’t even remember standing up.
Allish shivered again, then groped for the edge of the breakfast table as the after-shock grabbed her, turning her muscles weak. Rain ticked hard onto the floor-to-ceiling window behind her in a flurry of angry taps, and the windstorm groaned against the glass, as if to shatter it in the next second. Chimes, outside on her balcony, danced and rang with manic rage in the gusts.
A draft tickled across her collarbone as she stared. Her hands shook even as she held on to the table.
The chimes stopped ringing in a sudden lull. Slowly, Allish bent to retrieve the phone she had dropped, never taking her eyes off him. His gun rested about a foot from his limp hand, its muzzle glinting dangerously
I should move that.
But she didn’t. Instead, she stared, and a cold, seeping numbness seemed to creep through her mind and body. In the back of her head, the roar was reaching a crescendo, threatening to crash down at any second.
If she hadn’t heard the front door unlock and seen him enter…
She lifted her gaze to the still-open door. Her husband—and only roommate—never entered through the front door. He was a Mage. He teleported.
Ivern headed the Council that oversaw all Elemental and Mage magic in Mersetzdeitz. As one of the most powerful Wind Mages in Mersetzdeitz, he had a large store of magical tricks up his sleeve, none of which Allish could do. That was one of the main things that separated the Mages from Elementals like her—she could manipulate the Element, but she could not perform any spells. And she doubted she ever would.
Mages had not been born on this world; they’d crash-landed on it, fleeing the destruction of their home world in sleek, inter-dimensional ships.
Magic hadn’t even been on this world before them. Not really. It was only afterwards—when the defense centers of her world had lowered their guns, when the peace-talks had agreed on most things, when the Mages and Elementals had begun to mingle with the locals, to naturalize—that the locals had noticed new powers awaken in themselves.
Allish had been one of the first. One day, she’d woken up with the ability to control air. But she was the exception rather than the rule. Out of fifteen million people in Mersetzdeitz, only around one hundred had developed powers.
The Mages had expected this. People like her were like white blood cells in a world-wide immune system. When the foreign magic had touched down, her world’s latent magic had begun to stir. Elementals like Allish had been the first sign of mutation among the population. Just like a body fought off an infection, her world could also fight off an invasion.
She was the natural next step in evolution.
At least, that was how they'd explained it to her.
The Council kept this whole matter secret. A wise move, given the anti-magic sentiment that had been gaining strength over the last twenty years since their arrival, a time known as the Transition.
Looking at the downed man, she sent silent thanks out for the secrecy. What would have happened if he’d known about her powers? Her relationship with Ivern would have made her questionable, but if he’d known she could also manipulate the wind?
This had been no common robbery. Whatever this was, it had been deliberate. He had invaded her home. He had pointed a gun at her.
He had known her name.
She drew in a ragged breath, front teeth chattering together. Her shoulders shook from the shock as the numbness slowly started to leave her body.
Allish activated her phone with a swipe of its screen, trying to keep her hand still as she keyed in a number.
She almost missed the second man walking in.
He was older than the first, and the hallway light cast a burglar’s shadow on the wall behind and over him as he moved. A dark baseball cap—marked with the same insignia as the first—shadowed his eyes as he followed his gun into the room, aiming it at the floor. His windbreaker rustled, not as subtle as the other man’s almost silent entrance.
Swish, swish, swish.
Allish held her breath, watching, her finger poised over the ‘Call’ button.
What the hell?
One guy was odd enough—but two? Her mind raced, trying to jump ahead of the panic that was already drumming into her chest. Was this something political? Were they out for Ivern?
That seemed the most logical conclusion. Ivern had informed her very early on in their relationship that Mages had a somewhat violent history when it came to politics, and his current position as Council Head put them both in the cross hairs.
But conclusions wouldn’t help her now.
Out of the corner of her eye, she gauged the distance between her and the next room. Too far. He hadn’t seen her yet, but that would change if she moved. Besides, the door didn’t have a lock.
He stopped when he saw his partner. His lips tightened.
Her phone’s screen blinked out in her hand. The movement caused him to look up.
Their eyes met.
Her breath rattled out. She’d have to take him down, too.
With a sense that was neither touch nor taste, sight nor sound, but acted more like thought and emotion, she pulled on the magic that had wakened in her shortly after the Mages’ descent. Like one might call tears, she could describe it.
Outside, the wind rose. Her chimes went mad. The glass groaned.
If she could just take his breath away…
His expression grew taut. Perhaps, unlike his fallen partner, he would not assume she was defenseless. Even without being aware about her magical abilities, knowledge of her marriage to Ivern likely made the sudden wind activity suspect.
He took a step forward, keeping the gun aimed at the floor. Old, dark wood groaned under his foot.
“My name is Marcus O'Reilly. I’m a private detective. Can you tell me what happened?”
Allish flinched. His voice sounded loud in the quiet room. She couldn't tear her gaze off the gun in his hand.
The room narrowed as she backed up. Her heel hit the glass wall behind her, pain shooting up from the lingering injury in her shin. She hissed through her teeth, leaning on the table for support. Her Element dragged at her energy much more than it had before.
“Are you all right? What’s wrong? Did he hurt you?”
Her brain swam. Okay, that was an odd thing for him to say, and it skewed her grasp of the situation—but, even if he was here to help, he still had a gun in his hand, and he had still walked into her apartment without her permission.
And she had already started defending herself.
In her mind, the chimes drowned him out. They knelled in her ear, light and sweet, fast and chaotic. Her eyes stayed on the gun. Light darted up the muzzle's edge as it wavered in his hand.
Allish's fingers clawed at the glass. Her breath faltered as she pulled harder on the air.
For a second, she couldn't breathe.
Then, the muzzle swayed, tipped.
The gun clattered to the ground, and the man flopped on top. His head hit the wood planks with a thunk that made her wince. Whiplash lolled it over. Crushed to the floor, the bill of his hat slowly pushed the cap from his balding head. Then that, too, became still.
She pressed her back against the dry inside of the rain-soaked glass. Cold shocked into her bare shoulder. The blanket she’d been using before had fallen from her shoulders during the first confrontation and lay a couple meters away, close to the kitchen island.
Struggling to maintain her calm, she studied the gun handle poking out from under the man’s chest.
Jesus Christ. This could have been bad.
With shaking hands, she took a few steps forward, intending to kick both guns away from the men with her bare feet, or perhaps pick them up and put them on the counter or in a drawer, but a sharp pain on the second step halted that idea. She hissed, her fist tightening on the phone. A flash of her accident slapped across the front of her mind, making her double over.
Okay, so no walking for a bit.
She limped back to the table and leaned against the window, using her good leg for support. Gritting her teeth against the pain and the shakes, she reactivated her phone with a swipe and hit the ‘Call’ button.
Ivern answered on the first ring. “Allish? What’s wrong?”
Of course, he knew something was up. He had spells all over this apartment—magic-detecting spells. But magic-detectors didn’t detect guns. It would have been her magic that had set them off.
She heard voices in the background. Was he in a meeting? Her throat grew dry, scratchy and itching suddenly.
“Allish?” His voice rose an octave.
She fought to unglue her tongue.
“Trouble. There’s two men—” She choked, and, for a second, had trouble forming the next words as the instincts of her two languages clashed in her mouth, paralyzing the muscles. “Get here, now.”
His breath caught. The receiver crackled, switching to dead air. Something she’d heard from him before.
Teleportation played hell on cellular connections.
She set the phone down, fumbling it so that it fell the last few inches, clacking loudly against the surface of the table. Her gaze swept back to the unconscious men. She hugged herself tighter, her back to the pane, her knees drawn to her chest, and waited.
The chimes had gone back to little erratic pings again. Rain spiked against the window. The two men did not move. Around them, warm-toned spotlights formed archways on the white walls, showcasing the framed posters of her old ballet recitals. Dramatic, artistic photographs of her dotted the room.
Pain still twinged in her bad leg. The muscles shook, though this time, she suspected the shake had less to do with her injury than her actions for the past few minutes—a consequence of isometric movements compounded by her general overall weakness. Three months ago, when she’d been at the top of her game, she wouldn’t even have batted an eye at this. Now? She could barely make it up a flight of stairs without resting.
A change in the air pressure signaled Ivern’s impending arrival, like a sudden soft pop in her eardrums. Without her Element, she might not have noticed it. But his magic made her fingers itch.
He appeared in the kitchen to her right, stepping out as if from behind a magician’s curtain. His white work-shirt stood out against the hard black appliances and storm-gray countertops. Although the darkness diffused the color from his light brown hair, his eyes, as they found her by the window, retained their lightness. Gray symbols twisted across his pale skin like smoke—remnants of his spell. If she’d looked, she might have seen similar sigils scurry across the floor.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
In answer, she directed her stare back to the men on the floor.
The air went dead still. Even her chimes went silent.
“Who are they?”
“Did they hurt you?”
They stiffened as the first man groaned. Ivern’s power pulled at the air again, and the first man’s gun skidded away from him like a possessed planchette across an Ouija board.
“Is there another gun?” he asked.
She pointed at the second man, trying to ignore the shake in both her arm and her voice. “He’s on top of it.”
Allish got the feeling her husband had little desire to get close to the men. He steeled himself, the grimace on his face turning into a smooth, hard façade, and stepped forward. As the first man began to move, Ivern grabbed him by the jacket shoulders, dragged him to the wall, and propped him up. The second man joined the first, his head lolling onto his chest.
Ivern stepped back, rubbing rainwater on his jeans.
“What if they have back-up guns?” she asked.
In answer, his lip curled back. He fished a phone from his back pocket and keyed in a number from speed-dial.
“Les? I need you here. My apartment.” He switched to his old language, and its foreign syllables jangled in her ears. “Gibn mae abroka.”
He replaced the phone in his pocket.
The air changed again, that sudden pop back in her ears. A second Mage materialized by the front door, wearing the severe black and gold of the Mageguard.
The newcomer—tall, with short blond hair and eyes almost as light as Ivern's—moved with the skilled grace she’d seen only in fellow dancers and trained soldiers, his face the same careful, placid expression as Ivern’s had returned to. He crouched down, took a moment to study the felled men, and then looked up, a question in his raised brow.
“Bind them,” Ivern said.
Les nodded. A surge of heat warmed the air around him as he leaned toward the first man. A Fire Mage, perhaps? Three symbols, each glowing like embers, pulsed on his hand. When he pressed them against the man’s forehead, red-orange lines flashed down the intruder’s skin, trailed down his cheek and neck, and vanished under the jacket collar. A second later, they reappeared from the ends of the jacket’s sleeves, splitting at the palms to capture each digit in their light.
Another spell she couldn’t do. Still, she couldn’t complain. She could make a pretty mean gale if she wanted to. Not to mention defend herself from unwanted guests.
The older man had started to drool. Allish moved into the kitchen, putting the island between her and the four men.
“How did they enter?” Ivern asked.
“Through the door. I heard it unlock.”
Ivern glanced back. His Element stirred. The door slammed shut.
“Les, I’m not sure if I want this on record or not. We’ll play it by ear. Allish? Tell us what happened.”
“He came in first.” She pointed to the younger man. “Said I needed to go with him, pulled a gun. I knocked him out. Was just about to call you when the other guy came in. He didn’t actually threaten me, so I don’t know what’s going on. Actually, I don’t know what’s going on with either of them.” She paused, catching her breath. Les never took his eyes off the two men. “I think the first guy’s military or something. He moved too well.”
“You and your dancer’s eyes.” A small noise, like a gasp, came from the floor, and Ivern’s attention shifted downward with a nod. “Ah, I see he’s awake.”
The first man’s eyes opened with a wince. His gaze flicked over his surroundings. When they found Ivern, his memory appeared to come back. He said nothing, and, like both Ivern and Les, a neutral mask quickly shuttered his expressions, but the skin on his face paled.
“Hi.” Ivern’s tone sounded a little too cheerful. “Who are you?”
“Depends who’s asking.” The man’s voice came out hoarse, the words sluggish.
A second later, he was choking. Smoke-colored symbols crowded his neck.
Ivern watched him for a few seconds, then turned to her, his brows drawing down and eyes softening with worry. “Do you want to leave for this?”
She winced at the gagging sounds, watching the man’s eyes squeeze shut. Above him, a large poster showed her dancing a pas de chat, arms extended in a mimicry of wings, head tilted down toward the man. The black and white contrast made her seem particularly unholy.
“You will torture them?”
She tensed inwardly as she heard her home accent bleed into the words, differentiating it from the distinct clipped pattern of the locals, but the embarrassment was brief and stupid. They were all second language speakers here.
“Not overly. If it comes to that, we’ll move.”
Great. Moral ambiguity. But she could live with that, needing to know what these two had been doing here. She leaned on the counter-top. Ivern’s shirt was wrinkled around the collar, and his broad shoulders had tensed under the fabric. The photographs’ spotlights limned every stray hair on his head. The man continued to gag in the background.
“I’ll stay,” she said.
Ivern released the spell. The man sputtered and coughed. Every breath wheezed.
“Who are you?” he asked again.
The man mumbled something.
“And your friend?”
The second man was still unconscious. His legs were slightly bent, damp jeans stretching over his knees. The windbreaker protruded over a sagging gut.
Seth, face half in shadow, switched his focus to Allish. She stiffened, holding his gaze. The chimes knelled outside.
“How did she—” His question cut off with a sputter.
Ivern watched him choke, his face impassive.
“I'll ask the questions,” the Wind Mage said.
When Seth made no further comments, Ivern directed his attention to Marcus, who was still unconscious.
“Allish, how long’s he been out?”
“Three minutes?” she guessed.
Perhaps a bit too long. She moved around the island, steadying her hand on Ivern’s arm. Marcus looked older than she’d thought. Without the hat, she could see the silver in his hair. Wrinkles lined his eyes.
“Les?” Ivern prompted.
“You’re better at revival, sir.”
Symbols snapped onto Ivern’s skin, crawling with a storm’s energy. A charge built in the air as he walked forward. Seth watched him, visibly tensing.
The discharge thrummed through the space, hitting Allish’s lungs like waves of sound. Marcus jerked, heaved, and threw up. Seth swore.
“What happened?” Marcus’ voice slurred. Like his partner, his eyes locked onto Ivern.
Leftover symbols still clung to the Mage’s skin, diffusing like clouds. Vomit dribbled down Marcus’s jacket. Allish wrinkled her nose as the smell hit her.
Then, anger flashed.
“I knocked you out.” All three looked over as she crossed the few steps to Ivern’s side. Her accent curled around the vowels as she spoke. “I took the oxygen from inside your lungs and put it elsewhere.”
Marcus turned paler. Despite anticipating it, she didn’t rejoice in his fear. Instead, she felt tired. She pressed her shoulder into Ivern’s. He pressed back. His eyes remained on the men.
“What were you going to do with her?” Ivern’s voice came out sharp.
Marcus opened his mouth, closed it. Allish wasn’t sure he had recovered.
“Do with her? Nothing. We were only to observe.”
Observe? She frowned, casting a sidelong glance at Ivern. Did he have a new enemy?
“Observe by breaking and entering?”
“No. That was not the plan.”
“What was the plan? Why were you observing us?”
“We’re private detectives. We have been keeping a quiet eye out for a couple of weeks now, but Seth here watched too much shoot-em-ups last night and—”
“Hey! You told me she would know the most, if only we could talk to her!”
A couple of weeks? Allish threaded her hand around Ivern’s arm. His skin was warm. He took her hand in his automatically.
“So you decided to try B and E? With a dash of assault?” Marcus asked.
“I only wanted to solve our problem.”
“That is not how we solve problems.”
Seth opened his mouth to speak, but the look on Ivern’s face stopped him—his smile was just a little too dangerous now. In the silence, they all heard the storm groan against the windows.
“You are a private investigator?” Ivern addressed Marcus. “Who hired you?”
Marcus shifted, then winced as a red-orange symbols flared on his face.
“You don’t know who hired you? Isn’t that usually a good thing to find out, in your line of work?”
“There was a lot of money.”
“All the more reason.”
“You’re right.” Marcus visibly regretted this job.
“He did say he was a private detective when he first came in,” Allish said. “And he didn’t point his gun at me.”
Ivern studied Marcus. In the light, his pale eyes took on an eerie tone.
“What was the job?”
“We were to find out what we could about you, observe you, take pictures if we could.”
“And how much did you find out? Who else knows?”
“Us, the client, and whoever they shared that information with. I have reports in my office.”
“And you know nothing about this client?”
“I know that they are rich.”
“I-I will find out about them.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Ivern rubbed the bridge of his nose. Even after twenty years of wearing contacts, old habits died hard.
“I don’t,” Marcus said.
Allish glanced at him. Despite being shaken, the resolve beneath his fear could be seen. His eyes fixated on Ivern and, although his hands shook, he didn’t let the fear paralyze him.
“I’m good at my job. Without Seth here, you would not have known I was investigating you. I can find out who hired me.”
Her bad leg shook as Ivern slid from her arm. When she bent to rub her knee, not quite wanting to go all the way to her shin where the real ache originated, she caught Seth watching. She narrowed her eyes in his direction. That stare put her on edge. She blew out a sigh of relief when Ivern began a new spell, snapping Seth’s interest away.
“All right, you’re on. But your investigation of Allish and myself has ended. I will come by tomorrow to pick up all you have found.”
Marcus seemed relieved, his chest sagging. “You’re letting us go, then?”
Another ill-themed smile formed on the Mage’s face. “No. You will be transported downtown until we find out what inspired Seth to attack my wife.”
Three other Mageguard arrived. It took fifteen minutes for a fourth to bring an automobile. Ivern put tracking spells on both men, etched in the same graphite tint as his other spells. When he picked up the phone afterward, Allish limped into their bedroom. She’d had enough action to last her a good while, and the aftermath of the adrenaline rush now left her sluggish and exhausted.
The sheets felt cool when she slumped onto the bed. The outside door stood ajar, leading to the covered balcony. Its draft stirred the nearby tablecloth. As she massaged her aching shin, she listened to the wind. In here, she could hear the chimes more clearly as the storm thrashed their strings. A couple of loose panes in the balcony’s windows rattled. The lights flickered. Maybe they’d have a power outage tonight. They hadn’t had one of those in a long while. The building creaked around her, and the air stirred the hairs on her skin. When the chimes quieted, their absence made the room a little too silent.
Ivern’s voice was muffled by the door. He made several phone calls, clinking dishes and opening the refrigerator as he puttered around the kitchen. By the time he had finished and found her in the bedroom, he had a half glass of rum and soda in his hand. Without a word, his free hand brushed around her shoulders and pulled her closer. She leaned her head into his neck, seeking solace in his embrace. Just his presence alone soothed her.
He murmured into her cheek. Something about keeping her safe. She didn’t hear, too busy following the trace of his fingers on her shoulder.
“You okay?” The words hummed through his chest.
She did not answer immediately. A gust of wind rattled the panes.
“Yeah. I’m not alone.”
“I’ll always come, Allish,” he murmured into her ear this time. “You know that, right?”
She nodded. She knew.