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Chapter One

 

Arguing with my advisor over my class schedule was a familiar ritual. We’d done it six times before, like clockwork, once for every quarter of my freshman and sophomore years, and without it, my junior fall at Welton would not have been ready to start.

But usually the argument went the other direction.

Rodriguez had leaned forward to study the list on his screen, but as he read, he sagged backward until he was slumped in his chair. “This . . . is not what I expected from you, Kim.”

I shifted self-consciously in my own seat. “Sorry — I know I should have sent it to you earlier. But I kept waffling, and didn’t make up my mind until pretty late.”

That fell short of describing the situation. My roommate Liesel and I had ended our summer vacation by visiting her parents in Dusseldorf, and only got onto campus yesterday, with classes starting this morning. Instead of the normal pre-quarter meeting with my advisor, I was basically presenting him with a fait accompli: the courses I had already signed up for, which I’d have to file requests to change. And this time, it wasn’t at all the usual spread.

Rodriguez ran a thumb over one eyebrow and sighed. “Well, at least you’re not trying to take six courses this time. Unless there’s another you want to add, and need me to sign off on it?” I shook my head, but it didn’t blunt his wariness. “That’s two changes from the routine, then. What brought this on?”

I shrugged, hoping it looked casual. “I have to get to my distribution requirements eventually, don’t I?”

“An excellent point,” Rodriguez said, in an amiable tone I didn’t trust in the slightest. “One I believe I’ve made several times now. And every time, you’ve waved it off, saying you’ll get to them eventually.”

“That’s not fair,” I objected. “I did my language and pre-Manifestation history courses freshman fall. And my telepathy requirements that winter and spring. Last year –”

Rodriguez stopped me with a raised hand. “Yes, yes. But there are three branches to the psychic sciences, Kim, and you’ve been avoiding two of them like the plague. I expected a list full of whatever divination courses you haven’t already taken, with maybe one mundane class as leavening.” His mouth was set in an ironic line. “To be honest, I was practicing my speech about how you don’t want to leave your CM and PK distribution until your senior year, and how the time will slip by before you even know it’s gone.”

“Well, there you go,” I said cheerfully. “I listened to your advice before you even gave it.”

He should have looked happier. But Rodriguez was in the telepathic sciences, too, and by the frown on his face, he could read me well enough to tell there was something more to my decision than simple common sense.

Possibly I had just been a little too gung-ho about it. “Ceremonial magic and pyrokinesis, in the same semester,” he said, glancing at the list once more. “And you haven’t exactly chosen lightweight options for either one. Are you sure you want to tackle both at once?”

Yes, and at the same time, not at all. But I’d gone over all of this in Dusseldorf, with Liesel as my sounding board, weighing the pros and cons — a lot of cons. Not enough to scare me off, though. I grinned at Rodriguez, doing my best to make sure none of my doubt leaked past my shields. “I tear off band-aids in one go, too.”

His resigned sigh was familiar, and welcome. It meant he was about to approve my course choices. I wondered sometimes whether advisors at MIT or wherever suffered through the same debates with theirstudents. Probably; I couldn’t imagine that science nerds were much different from psychic ones. And Welton, being the best psychic sciences university in North America, attracted a lot of high-grade nerds.

Of which I was one. “I’ve still got Historical Tarot,” I pointed out. “So you know I haven’t been replaced by a golem or something.”

“Or something,” Rodriguez said, leaning forward once more. “Well, you haven’t died from lack of sleep yet; I suppose you’re not likely to start now. Though if you’d tried for six courses again, this argument would be a good deal longer.” He tapped briefly on his keyboard, then nodded. “All right, Kim. You’re all set. Just do me a favor and remember that you can drop a course if you need to. You’re not exactly hurting for the credits, and you still have two years to go.”

“Sure,” I said, and meant it. I would remember. That just wasn’t the same as being willing to do it.

My grin faded, though, as I stepped out of Linwood Hall. Campus myth held that Welton had a weather-control office in charge of arranging sunshine for graduation, prefrosh weekend, and the start of fall quarter, but if so, the staff was out sick this year. The sky had clouded over while I was inside talking to Rodriguez, leaving it a flat plate of grey, and the breeze was cool enough to pass for chilly on what should have been a hot summer day.

I’d come out the back entrance of Linwood, and the gardens there were deserted. Everybody must be in class, or at lunch. Which sounded like a good idea, and never mind how much unpacking I still had to do. Brushing my hair from my eyes, I set off through the gardens.

Ten steps in, I felt like I’d slipped into a different world. The hedge blocked much of the wind, leaving the air hushed and still, and the grey sky felt too low, like a ceiling masquerading as open air. The flowerbeds were in full August bloom, tall lupines fencing off bushes exploding with roses, and their colors almost glowed in the flat light, as if someone had dialed up the saturation.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and not from cold. Welton’s campus was a familiar place, and these gardens were one of my favorite parts, but today they felt alien and strange. I tried to tell myself it was just the jet lag talking, but didn’t quite believe it.

The answer, I thought, was to get out of the gardens. Back to the wind, back to people and noise and the rest of the world. And food, I needed food. The central fountain splashed quietly on the far side of the inner hedge, the only sound other than the crunch of my feet in the gravel. I quickened my steps as I rounded the tall bushes —

And almost ran into Julian.

I didn’t even realize it was him at first. What I registered might as well have been a ghost: pale skin, fair hair, clothes that lost their color in the odd light, as if drained by the flowers around us. I yelped and jumped back, and only after that undignified reaction did I realize the ghost was a person, and I knew him.

“Gods!” I exclaimed, pressing one hand to my collarbone. “Don’t do that to me.”

“Sorry,” Julian said, keeping his distance. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

I wanted to say I hadn’t been startled, but that was pure lying pride. My heart was still going four times too fast. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.”

It sent a new chill along my arms. “How did you know where I’d be?”

Julian’s eyebrows rose. “I called Liesel.”

His prosaic answer brought me back to earth with a thump. No doubt Julian could find me with one psychic hand tied behind his back, but he wouldn’t. Whatever people thought of wilders, they had better manners than that.

No, I’d just muted my port while I was meeting with Rodriguez, so he’d called my roommate. Like a normal person would. I drew in a deep breath, grounding myself, settling my jumpy nerves. “Let’s start this conversation over again. Hello, Julian; how are you?”

He smiled. It softened the sharp lines of his face, banishing the unearthly ghost of a moment before, replacing him with the guy who had been my friend since freshman year. The hairs on my the back of my neck still refused to lie down, but that was normal; that was Julian. It was just that I hadn’t seen him since May, and it was easy to forget what his presence was like. Skin-crawlingly weird — but I would adjust to it soon enough. I always did. “I’m fine,” he said. “I was wondering if you’d like to get lunch with me and Robert.”

“As long as it’s quick. I’ve got class at one.”

Julian checked his watch. “That shouldn’t be a problem. What’s the class?”

“PK 310,” I said as we circled the fountain, heading for the far side of the gardens. “I’m facing up to my pyrokinesis requirement at last.”

He let out a soft breath of amusement. “You sound so derogatory.”

“I don’t want to earn my way through life blowing things up for Hollywood directors.”

“Special effects aren’t the only application, you know.”

I did know, but it didn’t much change my opinion. “I’m not going to turn myself into a human crash cart, either. What else is there, combat? Not something I’m likely to need. And they don’t teach those uses to undergrads, anyway.”

Julian was only half-attending. “Wait — isn’t 310 Effect Limits?” I nodded, and in my peripheral vision I saw him frown. “If you don’t like pyrokinesis, what are you doing in 310? They design it for PK majors, not divination specialists. Why aren’t you taking something lighter, like Small-Scale Control?”

“Small-Scale Control is parlor tricks,” I said with a sniff. “Lighting people’s cigarettes with a snap of your fingers, crap like that.”

“Effect Limits will flatten you. It flattens everyone. What possessed you to sign up? Don’t tell me Rodriguez suggested it.”

“No,” I admitted. “But Liesel convinced me it’s better not to leave my requirements until senior spring, and I figured, I might as well do it right.” Which applied to more than pyrokinesis, so I headed Julian’s next question off at the pass. “I’m taking Structures of Ceremonial Magic, too.”

He stopped dead at the edge of the gardens. “Are you, now.”

I stopped, too, and faced him. Julian was almost impossible to read on any level; his impeccable shields blocked all the empathic traces I might pick up from an ordinary person, and his expression didn’t give away much more. I’d surprised him, though. “It’s a standard introductory course for CM.”

“But not the only one you could’ve chosen.”

No, it wasn’t. I couldn’t admit my reasoning, though, not even to Julian. Admitting it to Liesel had been hard enough. Easier to take refuge in annoyance than to face it again now. “So what? Yes, it’s a hard class. Yes, Grayson’s an iron bitch. She’s also an amazing professor, and I’ll learn more from her in one quarter than I would from any other teacher in a year.” Assuming I didn’t fail out.

Julian remained still for a moment, not blinking. Then he started walking again, leaving me to catch up. “True. As long as you know what you’re getting into — and I’m sure you do.”

His back almost communicated more than his face did. Was he really sure? I didn’t know what he was hiding from me, but there was something, or he wouldn’t have turned away. Maybe he knew I hadn’t just been avoiding CM out of laziness or prejudice.

I didn’t ask. He probably wouldn’t answer, and I didn’t want to talk about it anyway.

We arrived at Hurst, whose glass-fronted dining hall looked out over a charming little pond edged by trees. Inside, those trees’ dead cousins were pinned or taped to every vertical surface, a gauntlet of flyers advertising campus clubs and start-of-year events. The lunch rush was in full swing, but Robert was parked at one of the small window tables, feet propped up on two empty chairs to defend them against poachers. He nodded a greeting to Julian, then rose when he saw me. Taking one of my hands in his and planting a chaste kiss on my fingertips, he beamed down at me from his considerable height. “So you’ve returned to us at last, my lady.”

If Julian had unnerved me, Robert made me want to laugh. The Irish accent was genuine; the courtly speech wasn’t, and in any other person it would have been annoying as hell. But he took pure delight in showy behavior — a trait I blamed on his love affair with ceremonial magic — and I wouldn’t dream of raining on his dramatic little parade.

“Congratulations,” I said, dumping my bag onto a chair.

He blinked. “Congratulations?”

“Deirdre.”

His blue eyes widened, then narrowed in suspicion. I laughed. “No, I did not peek. Liesel heard it from Michele this morning. Normal people, you know, send messages when their little sister manifests. They don’t leave their friends to hear it from the rumor mill.”

Robert collapsed back into his chair, disgruntled. “I hoped to tell you in person. Unfortunately, your person was in Germany, and arrived here inconveniently late.”

“Blame Liesel. We stopped in Dusseldorf to say hi to her parents.” I shoved my bag onto the floor and sat down, while Julian headed for the serving line. I was leaving myself perilously little time to eat before PK, but Robert doted on his sister; he needed a chance to brag. “How’s she doing?”

Robert’s grin split his face. “Very well indeed. The doctor said –” His breath caught audibly, and his expression became a comic mix of horror and apology.

I could guess why. “Don’t sweat it. I’m glad she’s turned out okay.” Psi-sickness was a concern for any gifted family, all the more so because no one knew what caused it, and whom it would choose to strike. My younger brother Noah was one of the unlucky ones. But it was five years since he’d died, and I no longer broke down crying whenever the subject came up. “I hope she hasn’t wreaked too much havoc.”

The tension in his shoulders drained away, but when Robert went on, his manner was more subdued. “My parents are agile enough with their gifts to suppress most of the damage, although one unpleasant nightmare broke most of the windows in her room.”

I shrugged philosophically. “It comes with the territory. At least she hasn’t set the house on fire.”

“Pyrokinetics do not appear to be her havoc of choice, no. Mostly poltergeist activity, and mostly at night.”

Julian came back with a tray full of food. I eyed his selections dubiously — salad, some unappetizing preparation of chicken breast — and wondered if they were the best the dining hall had to offer. Probably. I excused myself from the table to forage for edible fare, and when I returned, Julian and Robert were discussing courses.

“You’re in what class?” I demanded, catching the tail end of a comment Robert had made.

His eyes twinkled with unholy glee. “Lo’s. Dr. Powell, with whom I worked this summer, put in a good word for me.”

“I thought Powell’s specialty was feng shui.”

“It is, but they’re good friends from their own college days. And since golems are a such an important field within technomagic, he offered his aid with Dr. Lo. I believe I impressed him with my maturity and control.” Robert put on a serious face.

“You? Controlled?” I rolled my eyes, and he threw a grape at me.

“Bite your tongue,” he said. “They must not learn the truth until after they’ve taught me to build a golem.”

I had a vision of Robert at the head of an army of constructs — a sorcerer’s apprentice with an unseelie sense of humor. The thought made me shudder.

“What of you?” Robert asked me. “I already know what my fool of a roommate intends for himself. Pray tell me you are not likewise suicidal.”

“Grayson,” Julian said. He didn’t look up from his salad, where he was apparently on a quest for healthy lettuce.

Robert looked at him, then back at me. I watched comprehension register on his face. Then he gave an abrupt bark of laughter. “Witchcraft 101! Are you at last giving up on that silliness known as the Department of Telepathic Sciences and coming over to where the real power is?”

“No,” I said, gritting my teeth. “I’m not a bloody sorcerer like you.”

“So you’ve said, on many occasions. And yet you choose Grayson. Your mother will be pleased.”

She would. And that was not a conversation I was looking forward to. My very sorcerous mother had been disappointed beyond words when my gifts kicked in, and a talent for ceremonial magic was conspicuously absent from them. Especially after all the effort she’d put into preparing me.

But no force in this world or any other would get me to admit that to Robert. “I did it just to shut you up,” I said instead. “Every time I tell you I don’t like CM, you fold your hands and intone, .You know not whereof you speak’ –” Julian laughed quietly. “By the time this quarter’s done, I will know.”

“You got my accent entirely wrong,” Robert informed me loftily. “I would tell you to practice it, but I suspect you’ll lack the time. Are you familiar with the term .overwork’?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s what happens when you take classesand waste time worrying about your friends, who are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.”

Whatever response Robert would have made, it got cut short by Julian. “Kim knows what she’s getting into,” he said.

A test of myself, was what. Because if I couldn’t do CM, there was no point in dreaming; I’d take the obvious path, make use of the talents I did have, and be happy with that. Or try to.

A glimpse of the clock on the far wall distracted me. “Shit,” I said. “I’ve got to hurry, if I want to get to Frazer by one.”

“Frazer,” said Robert, very precisely, “is a pyrokinetics building. What torture are you submitting to there?”

“PK 310. Effect Limits.” I grinned at his appalled look. “For an explanation, apply to Julian. I’ve got to run.”

***

Professor Townson hadn’t gotten the memo that nothing important should happen on the first day of class. “I assume you can all read the syllabus without my help,” he said, once he’d sent the file to our ports. “If you have any questions, you can ask them after class.” And without any further ado, he launched into a lecture on thermodynamics.

I was sitting with Ana and Geoff, two friends from Liesel’s Wiccan circle, and trying not to ask myself whether Small-Scale Control might not have been a better choice after all. Geoff, a telekinetics major, didn’t even seem to be paying attention. The way his brown fingers danced over his port looked more like he was playing a game than taking notes. My own hand ached with cramps, and class was only half over.

“We’re going to see Mindstorms with Michele this afternoon,” Ana murmured to me, while Townson scrawled an equation on the screen that dominated the lower end of the lecture hall. “Want to come?”

It took me a moment to place the title. “Is that the one about First Manifestation?”

From the far side of Ana, Geoff gave an affirmative grunt. “And her .we’ doesn’t include me. Too many dead people, too many crazy people. Sheffield’s class was bad enough.”

I would be starting that class tomorrow morning. I wondered idly if Sheffield would give extra credit for seeing the movie.

Did I want to see it? I remembered my grandmother’s stories about living through First Manifestation as a little girl, and believed that any retelling of that history had an obligation to the truth, no matter how harsh. It was the chaos of Robert’s sister Deirdre, replicated on a worldwide scale: half the adult population suddenly in possession of psychic gifts they had no idea how to control. In the weeks after that moment, before the first rush of power faded back to more manageable levels, whole cities had gone up in flames. The violence might bother Geoff, but it had to be included, or the story was a lie.

But violence wasn’t a guarantee of truth. “Is it accurate?”

“Very,” Ana said. “Or so Michele says. They had a whole team of people doing postcog on Welton’s old house, things like that.”

“Oh, shit.” The words came out involuntarily, and too loud; a buzz-cut Latino guy in the row ahead twisted in his seat to glare at me. I lowered my voice. “I forgot it was about Welton.”

Geoff snickered quietly. “Got a problem with our saintly founder?”

“No, I have a problem with the actor.”

“Gosselin?” Ana said in surprise. Then her eyes widened in understanding. “Because he isn’t a wilder.”

The irony was that Henry Welton — geneticist, wilder, and namesake of our university — was the very man who identified the source of our gifts. His colleague Alexander Krauss designed the test to measure its genetic cause, the newly-activated sequences in previously junk DNA, but Welton realized what those genes represented, and why people treated him as if he were no longer entirely human.

He wasn’t. And to a lesser extent, neither was anyone else.

The entire human species carried a genetic inheritance from the sidhe.

It was just a theory, of course. Welton, operating as much on psychic intuition as science, posited another realm — the Otherworld — that separated from ours ages ago, probably during the earliest years of the Iron Age, leaving behind no clear record of their existence. Just remnants of legends, some of them more accurate than others. The Celtic legends came the closest, and so he called the strangers of that distant past the sidhe. They interbred with humans, and after their departure their legacy spread across the planet, eventually diluting to a tiny remnant, a blip in our long chain of DNA.

You’d never guess it, looking at somebody like Geoff. His wrestler’s build wasn’t at all what we envisioned of the sidhe. But wilders’ Krauss ratings were so high their gifts kicked in at birth, and it showed in physical ways, too. You couldn’t come within ten feet of a wilder, couldn’t even look at one, without knowing there was something inhuman about him.

As I’d just been reminded that morning. And nobody had yet invented the technomagic that could convey a presence like Julian’s in a movie.

Down at the bottom of the lecture hall, Townson was saying something about convection. I hadn’t caught a word of it. “Sorry,” I whispered to Ana, shaking the stiffness out of my hand. “I can’t really bring myself to watch some actor in makeup pretend to be Henry Welton.”

“They could hardly get a real wilder,” she pointed out. “They’re all busy with more important things than movies.”

Like being Guardians, running the government facilities that raised and trained wilder children — and in one anomalous case, going to college. I wondered what Julian thought of Mindstorms. Robert’s doomed freshman-year attempts to find his roommate a hobby had established that movies weren’t Julian’s cup of tea, but he probably knew about this one. Was it an insult? Did he even care?

I had more immediate things to worry about. Fire leapt over Townson’s desk. He’d conjured an asymmetrical flame into being, demonstrating how it licked against but didn’t melt the block of ice in his hand. Effect limits, indeed. I wondered if he’d planned that to grab wandering attention like mine, or to scare away the faint of heart.

I wasn’t so easily scared. PK didn’t worry me the way Grayson’s class did. My pyrokinetic abilities more or less ended at a candle’s worth of flame, but I didn’t need power for this, just control. And that, I could get with practice.

If I paid attention. “I know,” I said sideways to Ana, focusing on Townson and applying my stylus once more. “But I’ve got to unpack anyway. Let me know whether it’s any good.”

Her shrug was just visible out of the corner of my eye. I wondered if she thought I was being sensitive, because of my friendship with Julian. Ana wasn’t among the people on campus who had a problem with him — if she had been, Liesel wouldn’t have hung out with her — but neither were the two of them more than acquaintances. I doubted she knew the full extent of the problems he’d faced when he came to Welton, and how many of them lingered even now.

Well, class wasn’t the place to point it out. And if I wassensitive, than so be it. I had enough to keep me busy anyway, without spending an afternoon watching a fake wilder.

***

The stacks of Talman Library were standard college issue, which meant they were gloomy and full of shadows, the perfect setting for a creepy suspense flick. Despite the atmosphere, though, I liked Talman. The musty scent of books reminded me of home, and my parents’ library room.

I could find my way to the divination section blindfolded, but had to check the map for the CM shelves, when I went after class the next day. They took up most of the fourth floor, row after row of books: mostly recent works, but also some pre-Manifestation antiques, useful mostly for historical interest, but occasionally applicable to modern magic. I trailed my hand down a row of spines, fingertips tingling with the faint psychic traces left behind by previous readers. Sometimes those helped me understand the texts. I could use their aid now.

The section I wanted was small, just two shelves near the floor. I spotted the familiar blue spine without having to check call numbers, and pulled it out. The old alchemical symbols for the elements decorated the cover. I wondered, as I stuffed it into my bag, whether I was making a mistake. Revisiting the past might not be my brightest idea ever.

This time when the hairs rose on the back of my neck, I anticipated the cause. I rose to my feet just as Julian walked by in the main aisle. He saw the movement and turned to face me, robbing me of the fun of startling him in revenge. “Hey,” I said, coming forward, so Julian wouldn’t look at where I’d just been, and wonder what my interest was in childhood CM pedagogy.

“Kim,” he said in greeting, and scanned the shelves around us. “Extra research already? Or an assignment from Grayson?”

“Just being prepared. What about you?”

A nod of his head, toward the back of the building. “Theories of power containment.” He paused, then said, “You’re going to be fine, Kim.”

It stopped me dead. I blushed, staring blindly at the shelf to my right. “Am I that obvious?”

“Midway between Liesel and Robert, I’d say.”

Meaning one would notice, the other would not. I didn’t need Julian to tell me I was an open book to my roommate; Liesel had made that clear in Dusseldorf. “I just . . . this is new to me.” Which was a lie, but I made sure my shields were good before I said it, and crouched to scan a bottom shelf, so he couldn’t see my expression.

Julian either believed me or was willing to let it pass. “Most things are, when you start learning them. Though I guess divination was different for you.”

“That was new to me once, too.”

“Not like this,” he said. “You’ve got a natural talent for divination — a strong one. One of the strongest I’ve seen.”

Stronger than a wilder’s? But they tended to be good at everything, not great at one thing. Still — “I’m not thatgood. Not in the same league as, say, Madison, or Bradley.”

“They’re professors; they have more experience. But give it time.”

He was standing close to me, now, and I didn’t quite trust myself to look up. The flattery was a nice boost for my ego, but it only made me dwell more on CM. I reached out to grab a book, to cover my embarrassment, and realized just in time that I’d been staring at a row of Arabic-language texts. Sighing, I pulled my hand back, and tilted my head inquiringly toward the exit. Julian shrugged agreement and followed. “Yeah, well,” I said. “I’m not spending much time on divination this term — Historical Tarot on Fridays, and that’s it, other than Div Club. Assuming I even have time for meetings. How about your schedule? What have you been up to today?”

“Combat Shielding this morning, Power Reservoirs in the afternoon. You?”

And I thought my schedule was ambitious. If I didn’t miss my guess, both of those were grad-level courses. Julian, with years of training behind him, had tested out of the basic requirements and gone onto bigger things. “Sheffield’s class and CM.”

We reached the circulation desk. I slid my book across face-down, so Julian couldn’t see the title. “What did you think of Grayson?” he asked.

“She scares the crap out of me,” I admitted. “But it’s weirdly reassuring, in a way. I honestly believe she could do the basics she’s teaching us in her sleep. And I like her style. Very simple, no flashiness or wasted time.” To Robert’s eternal disappointment.

Julian nodded, leaning against the desk, facing away from the student there. “That’s because she was a Guardian.”

The word sent a thrill down my spine, which I tried to hide. Guardian. I’d grown up on the same stories everyone else had, outrageous action flicks wherein the hard-bitten, lone Guardian single-handedly defended New York City against some sorcerer’s unleashed demon. Then I’d looked further, into the reality, which was more like the magical equivalent of an EMT. Not as glamorous, but a lot more useful.

And a dream that wouldn’t let me go.

But you needed a strong background in CM to qualify. At present, I wasn’t even within spitting distance. Hence the book in my bag, and my schedule for this term.

“How do you mean?” I asked Julian as we went out into the bright sunlight. Our nice first-day weather, a day late. “Do they teach Guardians to work like that?”

“Teach, no. It just happens. They usually work under pressure, so they don’t waste time on a fancy personal style. After a while, they strip everything down to the bare necessities.”

“To them, and past,” I said. “I swear I saw Grayson cast a circle at the end of class with about half the usual process.”

Julian’s eyes weren’t on me. They rarely were. “She’s strong. That’s part of why she can do it that way. Most people don’t have the power to operate on a reduced procedure. But it’s strength of mind, too, as well as strength of gift. New Guardians have trouble, until they’re in a situation where they have no time for the full thing. Then they cut it down, because they have to.”

Strength of mind. I bit my lip, thinking. How much could it make up for lack of gift?

By the end of this quarter, I’d have my answer.

As usual, our fellow students — with varying degrees of subtlety — were giving Julian, and therefore me, a wide berth. He watched them out of habit, but I’d learned to read his body language, in the absence of the usual empathic cues. His attention was on me. Which was not where I wanted it, not while I was thinking about something so personal. What had he been talking about? Stripped procedures. “Sounds good to me,” I said. “Robert may want to be the next de la Vega, but I like Grayson’s way better.”

A faint smile touched his lips. “Yes,” Julian said, “I think Grayson’s the right teacher for you.”

Because she’d train me, or kill me trying. I sighed. “I guess I’ll find out.”

***

I’d wanted a cobra for my birthday, and I’d gotten one.

That image — last night’s dream — made me think of the quote I had taped to the top of my screen, Professor Madison paraphrasing Mark Twain. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and prophecy. Not words you expected to hear out of the woman teaching your intro divination class, but I knew what she meant. Like statistics, you could twist prophecy around to mean practically anything you wanted it to. The point of divination, she said, was not to find some fixed truth, but to open your eyes to possibility, and to help yourself think ahead.

The question wasn’t what the cobra foretold, but rather what I was going to do about it.

I recalled it distinctly: me, sitting in my old green armchair, holding the snake just behind its head so it couldn’t bite me. I’d been stuck between triumph at finally getting what I wanted, and a sneaking suspicion that wanting it had been a Bad Idea.

I chewed on the meaning of the snake in between classes, and tried to put it out of my mind during. Ceremonial magic, or Guardianship, or maybe something more. Parental approval? Whatever it was, the cobra hadn’t bitten me. I’d taken no harm from getting my desire.

Or maybe I’d just woken up too soon.

I fished in my bag and pulled out the library book I’d gotten the day before, gliding one hand across the familiar blue cover. The Yan Path, by Yan Chenglei. Subtitle: Early Foundations in Ceremonial Magic.

Inside, the pages were just as I remembered. Some parents sent their kids to math camp or Suzuki violin lessons; my mother got me a Yan Path teacher. Child-sized lessons in the principles of Western ceremonial magic, designed to familiarize your daughter or son with the basics before their gifts even kicked in.

It worked just fine, too. Right up until I manifested, and tried to do the exercises for real.

Loud music from across the hall covered the sound of Liesel’s key in the door, so that I jumped when she came in. I didn’t bother to try hiding the book, though. She knew about the Yan lessons; in fact, she was the only person I’d ever told about them in any detail. When she cocked a curious eye at the open text, I held it up so she could see the cover.

Echoing my own thought from the library, she asked, “Is that a good idea?”

“Who knows. I can’t decide if it’s comforting or stressing me out.”

Liesel took the book from my hands and paged through it. “Doesn’t look like much.”

“It isn’t, really. You learned more than this from Charbonneau last year. It’s just . . . .” I gestured, trying to shape the words I couldn’t find. “The book isn’t the problem.”

“Your memories are.”

“Yeah.” I watched as she put away her shoes and bag and fetched her hairbrush. Tidy as always. That our suite was at all livable so soon was her doing; she’d even stacked my half-empty boxes neatly in the corner, out of the way. Liesel’s pictures — a mixture of family and the Alps — were already arranged above her desk. Me, I hadn’t unpacked my books yet.

The lamp haloed her golden hair as she brushed it out. Saint Liesel, I’d dubbed her during freshman year. Martyr Liesel, if you let her. She was the most seelie person I knew, helpful and kind to a fault.

And her empathic gift meant I didn’t bother trying to hide much from her. “What if nothing’s changed? What if I go to do my first practical for Grayson and it fizzles like before?”

She paused in the middle of braiding. “What if it does?”

My gut clenched at the words, a familiar mix of dread and disappointment. I’d spent a year living with that feeling, after my gifts manifested, before telling my mother I was done with Yan lessons, and fleeing with gratitude to divination.

But I had to know whether I stood any chance of becoming a Guardian. And that meant facing up to the dread, and seeing if I could push past it.

If my attempts fizzled . . . Liesel let me think it through, her fingers going about their task without needing her attention. “If I rock the theory, and fail completely at the practical,” I said, “I can still get a C plus. And I won’t fail it completely. I’m not baseline incapable; I just suck. So I guess I’ll work my ass off and see what happens.”

“And when will you tell your parents?”

By which she meant my mother. I let out a noise that was half-sigh, half-grunt. “When I have to?” Liesel gave me a chiding look, and I said, “Yeah, I know. But if I tell her now, there’ll be all the expectations again. She’ll try to hide them from me, because she really doesn’t want to put pressure on me –”

“But she does it anyway.” Liesel tied off her second braid. She looked like a sweet German milkmaid, except for the t-shirt that said Empaths Do It With F├╝hlung. “You can’t hide it forever.”

I bit my lip, then said, “How about this. Let me get through the first practical. See how that goes. Then tell her.”

“That makes sense.”

Her agreement sent a wave of relief through me. I shot her a suspicious look. “Are you playing mind-healer on me?”

She put one hand to her cheek, all innocence. “I have to do my homework, don’t I?” My sudden jerk made her laugh. “That was a joke. We’re not allowed to use fellow students as guinea pigs without you signing a waiver — at least for class purposes.”

“Comforting,” I muttered. “It’s freelance meddling.”

“And free for the asking,” she said. “I don’t like you being stressed any more than you do.”

Most strong empaths grabbed at the chance for private rooms as soon as they could. Liesel had stayed with me, despite the strain of living in dormitory conditions with another person. I made a special vow to watch my shields this term. Between CM and the less-fraught but more advanced challenge of PK, I was going to be a walking ball of stress, and if I broke, the last thing I wanted to do was take Liesel down with me.

***

Grayson, I imagined, was the sort of woman who would throw a baby into a lake to teach it to swim. Glad as I was to be getting the first major practical out of the way early, it still seemed appallingly abrupt.

“Your athame is one of the most important pieces of ritual equipment you will ever make,” the professor said in the third week of classes, placing both hands on her desk and leaning forward to pin each of us with her gaze. She was a tall woman, with a profile carved from walnut; despite the solid white of her cropped hair, she was not what anyone would call old. Nobody sat in the front row of her class. “You’ll use it to cast and banish circles, to direct and sever your power, and countless other tasks. If it’s well-keyed, it will become an extension of yourself. If not, everything else you do will suffer.

“The materials for this class included a black-hilted knife. If you haven’t obtained one by now, do so. Your assignment for the weekend is to cleanse and dedicate the knife as your athame. I’ll inspect them in class on Tuesday.” She scanned the rows of students, mouth set in a forbidding line. “Do this carefully. If you create a shoddy athame, it will set the tone for all your future workings. Class dismissed.”

Her words left a cold stone in the pit of my stomach. Judgment Day. Couldn’t we have started with something smaller?

The small assignments were all in the fluff class, the one I’d oh-so-cleverly decided not to take. But if I had to be an idiot, I could at least be smart about it.

I couldn’t skip the Divination Club meeting that night; it looked bad if one of the co-presidents flaked, and besides, I’d promised Akila, the other co-president, that I would give a talk on tarot for our freshman recruits. But once that was over, I begged off the post-meeting ice cream run. All my classmates would be lined up in the Arboretum come Monday, doing their athames at the last minute, and I didn’t want the distraction of somebody impatiently waiting their turn. Besides, if I botched it tonight, I could ask Julian or Robert to wipe the thing clean so I could start over.

If my pride would let me.

“You aren’t going to botch it,” I said to my silent, empty dorm room, and started throwing equipment into my bag.

I didn’t have to use the Arboretum. There were nice, modern sorcery labs in Adler, with all the amenities I could want. Like lots of people, though, I preferred the natural environment. Welton’s biggest selling point was its world-class faculty, but its location ran a close second: out in the Minnesota countryside, far from the pre-Manifestation steel architecture, which disrupted the magical atmosphere.

Witchlights marked the path as I entered the forest. The first ritual glade I came to was roped off, but the next was empty. I dumped my bag on the edge and took a deep breath.

My home in Atlanta backed onto a couple of acres of woodland, with a glade at their heart. It was more a bit of landscaping than anything else — my mother had her own well-stocked workroom on the third floor — but I’d used it for my abortive attempts after manifestation. This was familiar, very familiar.

The longer I stood thinking about it, the worse my nerves would get. I pounded a stake into the ground at the center of the glade, tied a rope to it, and walked the perimeter of my circle, marking my path with stones taken from a rough pile near the entrance. The knife went in the middle, where the peg had been; candles went at the cardinal points. Then I paced three more circuits, moving outward with each one and scattering salt as I went, muttering a brief invocation under my breath. French was my ritual language; it helped to pick something foreign to you, because of the way it focused the mind.

I needed focus tonight.

Third circuit complete, I sent out a flick of energy to light my candles, melting an inch off each one — my precision left something to be desired. Maybe I should’ve taken Small-Scale Control. But it did the job; the energy hummed against my skin, an invisible field. External energy, not like the internal disciplines of the telepathic and telekinetic sciences. Not something I’d played with in years.

So I had a circle. This much, I could do; anybody with enough sidhe blood for gifts could consecrate a bit of space, banishing foreign influences, though it wouldn’t hold up to stress. Had I done it well enough? Or would something contaminate the dedication of my athame, warping its resonance and crippling all my future efforts?

Tell yourself the truth, I said inwardly. My mother had taught me not to cheapen a ritual with random chatter.You’re afraid nothing will happen at all. Just like before.

Power and willpower, Julian had said. I could bring at least one of them to bear tonight. Before I laid one finger on that knife, I had to banish all the emotions that could disrupt my efforts, all my fear and self-doubt and yes, my anger at my mother, who had been so sure her daughter would follow in her footsteps.

She was a Ring Anchor for the southern United States, doing workings so large most people couldn’t even conceive of them. Welton’s University Ring monitored campus activity, issuing permits for dangerous tasks and cracking down on the dumber segment of the student body, but my mother dealt with regional weather patterns, negativity from the cities, and similar high-level problems. It was dull work in many ways, and she didn’t necessarily want me to end up with her exact job; just something in that vein. Sorcery was a prestigious field, like medicine or law. Not, as she had said many times, that there was anything wrong with divination.

It just wasn’t what she envisioned for me.

She also didn’t envision Guardianship. Not after losing Noah to psi-sickness. That was the other reason I hadn’t breathed a word of my dream to anybody, for fear it would get back to my mother. She wanted me to swim in the safe end of the sorcery pool. No sense worrying her if it might all come to nothing.

Time to find out.

I opened my eyes, holding hard to the cool focus within. The knife lay before me, and for one instant I thought I could see the energies clinging to it: mine, the store clerk’s, others too faint to identify. Breathing carefully, I began the ritual.

With each pass of my hand, I gathered up the wisps and tatters of energy, balling them up and then banishing them beyond the circle’s perimeter. Every handful stripped away, though, revealed more beneath, like water seeping out of a sponge. Would I ever get it all clear? I had to. And so I worked my way methodically from one end of the knife to the other, flipping the blade over halfway through — not necessary, but if it helped me visualize, then so be it.

Except that visualization was the problem. That was the heart of the Yan Path: learning to visualize the magic before it came to you. But once you got good at it, how could you tell your imagination from the reality?

I had nothing to guide me but my perceptions. So when they told me the knife was clean, I rolled my shoulders to loosen them and re-established my concentration. The copper blade lay before me, cold and inert. This was the key moment. If I’d gotten it perfectly clean, and could imprint it with my own energy, it would be mine.

If.

I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and with my breath I poured my power in.

The metal flared to life. I kept exhaling, kept the power flowing steadily from my outstretched hand. I ran out of air just when the blade was full, shimmering with the energy I’d imparted to it. I inhaled again, then locked the power in place, just as Grayson had taught us.

Dizziness made me float for a moment, before I came back to myself. Looking at the knife told me nothing; this wasn’t a familiar Yan exercise, and I didn’t know the techniques that would let me evaluate the result. Until the professor checked it for me, I was working blind.

Or maybe not. I blew out the candles, turning the clearing grey with starlight, and considered my options. If I were smart, I’d go home and get some sleep. I had a PK test tomorrow, and wasn’t remotely prepared.

Since I wasn’t smart, I took up my athame, breathed deeply, and started in on the last exercise in the Yan book — one I’d walked through in practice, but never tried with my gift, because I bombed everything before it.

I had to change things. Yan’s method was originally designed for Chinese magic, and later adapted for Western traditions; nothing in his book required an athame. But the prevailing theory was that all of it was a crutch anyway, mental systems to help us do what the sidhe had done naturally. If I wanted to test my blade, all I had to do was rebuild the exercise based on principles. And those, at least, I had a good grasp on.

So I gathered up icons of the four elements and placed them about my circle: water from the Copper Creek to the east, a fist-sized stone in the north, a stray feather in the south, and a relit candle in the west. With the tip of my athame, I touched each one in turn, and invoked the powers they represented. As Grayson said, the purpose of the tool was to direct power. As I drew the blade back into the center of my circle, I drew the energies with it.

That left me at the crux of two very different axes of power, holding — or at least envisioning — all four elements in my psychic hand. Somehow they had to be made to work together, forming a solid shield for the circle. Yan advised blending — but these resonances, however much I tried to visualize differently, were about as eager to blend as oil, water, lead, and a rabid weasel. Lines from the book yammered through my head, in my old teacher’s voice: When it is proper to stand, stand; when it is proper to bend, bend. I stopped trying to force, started trying to — what? Channel it through me?

The instant I thought that, everything I’d been holding in my psychic hand slammed into my skull instead.

I fell to my knees with a bone-jarring thud, and only by instinct flung the point of my athame skyward. My thought was to keep from falling on it, but the movement sent the energies yowling up my arm and out the blade, flaring briefly in the air before burning out again.

“Gods and sidhe,” I said, and dropped my athame.

How stupid was I, trying that before anyone had checked my work? And with an untried circle technique, no less. A badly-keyed blade could have really burned me. Maybe it just had. Or was that the consequence of changing the exercise?

I was certain of only one thing. Whatever I’d done wrong, I hadn’t imagined that energy. The flare of light was still imprinted on the inside of my eyelids. I’d drawn more power tonight than I’d managed in a year of trying when I was thirteen.

Drawn it — but not controlled it.

Exhaustion overwhelmed my ability to decide if that was a victory or not. Sending that mess out my athame — not to mention the creation of the athame itself — had drained me more than I realized. And I had PK tomorrow.

I hauled myself to my feet, groaning. My blade went into a swatch of blue silk, shielding it from contamination for the time being, before it went into my bag. The rocks went back onto their pile. Then, my flashlight leading the way, I went home, with a head full of unanswered questions.