Okay, so I’ve been talking a lot about my superhero serial, because it’s been at the forefront of my writing pile lately.
I’ve been teasing it, advertising it, linking to it, explaining how it came about, etc. There’s now a permanent portal to its chosen home on the sidebar.
But you, intrepid readers, have endured with me. You’ve suffered the slings and arrows of me ranting for months. You deserve at least a taste of the reward without having to click somewhere else.
Maybe, if you like what you see, consider clicking on over for more. But regardless, please enjoy the complete first chapter of Casters’ Court!
And stay tuned next week for a breakdown of the logo! Want to take a stab at who everyone is? The chapter released tonight on Tapas at 12am central introduces all your choices!
On nights like this, I don’t lock my door to keep other people out, but rather, to keep myself in.
As long as I have the presence of mind to set the lock when I walk in the door, I’ll be fine. It typically takes about half an hour for my resolve to break, then another twenty to twenty-five minutes for me to undo the lock. It’s a brilliant spell, actually. Every time I cast it, randomizes a completely new unlocking mechanism that I have to figure out to leave my apartment. The concentration required to solve the puzzle usually distracts me enough that, by the time I’ve gained access to the outside world, the endeavor seems pointless.
It’s banks. Always banks. I pass by three on the walk from headquarters to my apartment. The armored truck was parked outside of First National today, and after an hour-long argument with Clara about whether or not we should stick our noses into a matter forty miles outside of our jurisdiction, the idea started weighing on my mind. Robbing banks is just so easy for me that I’ve never had to work a day in my life– though my civic service should count for something. But I certainly don’t need money now. No I can still support myself, Phoenix, and Misty for about seven more years on what I already have. I would do it simply because I could– because it had been awhile since I had. Tonight’s escapade would be pointless. And if I keep telling myself that for about another ten minutes, I might not even try and unlock my door.
I lie on my couch, still, muscles relaxed, breathing slowly. There’s always the vague risk of being caught. I try to use that as an excuse to stay on the couch, but I know that isn’t a real concern. Still, I try to picture the looks on their faces when they see it on the news. The public outrage. The media crying out, mislabeling me as a hero turned villain. That would only be one half of the story, and a gross exaggeration at that. Bank robbers aren’t really villains. They don’t terrorize people. In my time as a hero, I’ve seen a lot of real villains. The kind that can get inside your head and tear at the things you most need to survive– but just barely tear at them. The really good ones leave the utter destruction up to you.
Sinister hadn’t been a villain.
As soon as my thoughts turn toward Sinister, my phone begins buzzing against the coffee table. I’m not immediately sure whether I’m grateful for the distraction or not. True, thinking about Sinister while I’m this tempted can only get me into trouble, but part of me is begging for it. I decide to pick up the phone anyway. I can be good tonight.
I am relieved to find that it’s Phoenix calling. I half expected it to be Clara, in which case the distraction would probably just incense me to the point of acting up. I take a deep breath and answer. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and she’ll be in the same sort of mood I’m in. Then, she can come with me and help. “Hello?”
“Hey.” My small flare of hope flickers out abruptly. She’s about to ask me for a favor. She never starts a conversation with ‘hey’ unless she needs something. Despite the fact that I’m anything but happy, I crack a smile, so that I can answer with the expected level of emotion.
“What do you want?”
“To be honest, I want to be at home in my pajamas right now, but since Clara doesn’t seem to think that’s an option, I’ll settle for you letting me in.”
I breathe a heavy sigh. She’s here. Of course she needs something that requires me to see her in person on a night like this. As I’m trying to decide how I want to answer, she continues. “We tried knocking, but I guess you didn’t hear us.”
We. So, to make matters worse, Misty is with her. “Are you guys on the balcony?”
“Yeah. Is . . . Is this a bad time?” she can hear that my voice is strained, clearly, but she hasn’t offered to come back later. It must be urgent, then.
Still, I allow her another few seconds to change her mind. I remain silent, hoping that she’ll get the idea and think of some other way– any other way– to get what she wants. She doesn’t take the bait, however. In a tight voice, I finally deliver my resigned answer, “You want to let Misty practice her lock-picking skills?”
She is quiet for a second. She knows what I mean. Though I know Phoenix would never outwardly judge me for this, it’s still somewhat embarrassing to admit. She seems to acknowledge this, because she doesn’t reply directly to me. Instead, I hear her muttering something to Misty. A few seconds later, the characteristic scrape of metal against metal penetrates my soundproof barrier, and Misty begins to pick the lock.
I hang up the phone without any warning to Phoenix. Out of sheer habit, I feel compelled to use the spare minute or so to straighten up– at least somewhat. I take the stack of unopened junk mail on the edge of the coffee table and toss it into the open door of my bedroom, which I promptly close. There are dishes littering the coffee table, too, but by this point, I doubt I have time to get them to the sink. Instead, I settle for stacking the smaller plate on the bigger plate, and balancing the half-empty coffee cup on top. I don’t know why I bother. The two of them have seen my apartment in far worse conditions than this. Perhaps I’m trying to make up for the fact that I’m making Misty lock-pick her way in because I can’t open the door– because I have absolutely no self-control.
Misty has the lock open in under a minute– I expected nothing less. She pushes the door open with a self-satisfied smirk on her little face. “Someone like you should have better locks.”
I can’t suppress a smile at the irony of that statement. “Someone like you shouldn’t know how to pick them.” It’s true, I suppose, that master lock-picker isn’t on the resume of a typical eleven-year-old, but I can’t deny that we’re all thankful for that particular skill of hers. It isn’t every day that you stumble across a caster that young with more street smarts than I aim to acquire in a lifetime.
Misty steps inside, and Phoenix follows suit. I notice that neither of them even bothers to look around at the state of the apartment. Misty’s eyes are trained on Phoenix, who has her eyes narrowed, unsurprisingly, at me. “You sure this isn’t a bad time?”
“No, no, perfect timing, actually.” It’s just true enough that my tone doesn’t come off as too sarcastic. “I wasn’t doing anything. What brings you guys over?”
“I got called in,” Phoenix sighs. “Would you mind keeping an eye on Misty for a couple of hours?” A knowing smile twitches at the corners of her mouth. “You could give her harder locks to pick if you want.”
She’s teasing me now, so I smile back. “I’m sure Clara would love that.”
“Yes, well, I’d care a little bit more about what Clara thinks if she didn’t call me in out of the blue at 9:00 at night.”
“And I’d care a little more if she’d let me come with,” Misty throws in unexpectedly.
“It is a school night, Misty,” Phoenix grumbles.
My smirk widens. “She’s homeschooled.”
Misty lets out a small sigh. “Can we at least ask Clara if I can go? It would make communication a lot easier.”
“What kind of job is it?” I ask, mostly to distract myself from how much I secretly wish Misty would go with her. The lock has already been undone. Fate is begging me to go now, and I can’t if Misty stays. It’s for the better, I try to remind myself, but it’s not much consolation.
“Surveillance, from what I gather,” Phoenix answers. “Garth’s systems picked something up about ten miles north of the pass, and Clara figured we should check it out. She sent Jack out there already to get a preliminary energy reading, but it was apparently suspicious enough that she wants a visual.”
“Mhm,” I mutter, recalling my earlier argument with Clara that had put me in this state of mind to begin with. “You’re sure she said ten miles?”
“That’s what she said.” There is amusement in Phoenix’s eyes now. She had been present for at least part of that discussion. “And you know Clara isn’t one to lie on principle.”
She has a point. As determined and ruthless as Clara can be, she has a certain style of always doing it honestly. If Clara wanted Phoenix to look at something forty miles away, she would have told her forty miles. But Phoenix would lie to me, I realize suddenly. As I turn to look at her again, in order to evaluate that possibility, I find that she’s already got her eyes narrowed suspiciously at me. “Why do you ask? Wondering how well distracted we’re going to be?”
My eyes flash to Misty and back. Phoenix knows better than to allude to the reasons for my unopenable door in front of her. The superior expression on Phoenix’s face slips for a second, and she glances sideways at her young charge as if she had forgotten she was there. I’ve seen that look plenty of times before, and more times than not it means that she had forgotten Misty was there– because Misty had been actively bending Phoenix’s attention away from her.
Misty realizes she’s been caught, so when I glance back at her to examine why she’d attempted the distraction, her guilty eyes meet mine. She doesn’t even try to hide the cell phone– Phoenix’s cell phone– that she’s cradling in her hands. Phoenix snatches it back from her quickly. “Didn’t I tell you to stop doing that?” she growls. “Leave my mind alone.”
“What’s the point of having superpowers if you aren’t allowed to use them?” Misty asks with a sigh that’s just a little bit too innocent. I feel that smirk working its way onto my face again. Phoenix is scrolling through her phone now, searching for what Misty was doing with it, and I’m fairly certain I know what she’s going to find. Just to antagonize Misty, however, I turn my smirk to her and gesture toward the couch.
“Well, go ahead and get comfortable. The TV is yours, and you know where the food is.” She hesitates. I look back at Phoenix to gauge her progress on searching through the cell phone, and as I do, it vibrates once in her hand. Misty turns her entire head to watch Phoenix read the text message, and as I expected, Phoenix’s mouth narrows into a thin scowl.
“In response to the question, ‘would it be a good idea to bring Misty?’ Clara says, ‘I didn’t want to pressure you, but I think it would be extremely helpful to have her.'” I glance back and forth between the two of them, and I’m not sure which face is more entertaining– Misty’s gloating smirk or Phoenix’s mixture of indignation and pride. The latter looks up from the cell phone and meets my eyes dead on. “Now, Misty, do you realize how rude you’re being to Mage? I’m sure he was very much looking forward to spending some time with you.”
It takes me a few seconds for my mind to re-center and realize that she isn’t making a dig at Misty– she’s making a dig at me. Misty’s shenanigans pushed the sight of the armored truck and the smell of crinkled bills to the rear of my mind, but now they’re back. Phoenix is right. If she takes Misty, I’ll be free to walk right out the door and straight into whatever financial institution I find most appealing tonight. Will I? I can re-cast the lock the second they leave . . .
But will I?
Phoenix seems to see the apprehension in my eyes, because she turns her attention back to her phone again, shaking her head. “No, you’re staying here. Mage is lonely and needs some entertainment.”
Misty’s eyes flash toward me in an almost defiant way. “Babysitting me isn’t entertaining. I’ll sit quietly in the corner and be the most boring person in the world if you make me stay.”
Boring or not boring, her presence would be enough to keep me from leaving– and Phoenix knows it. I look at her again, and for a second, I’m ready to take the life raft she’s so kindly tossing in my direction. I open my mouth to back her up, but when the words finally come out, they sound more like, “Let her go, Phoenix.”
“YES!” Misty cries. “You have to take me now! He’s not letting me stay!”
“That’s not what he said. Mage, are you sure about this?”
I shrug a shoulder. “You and Clara both agreed that a little more field experience would be good for her.”
“Yes, but tonight?” The conflict is visible in her wide, panicked eyes. Does she trust me to stay inside? No. She thinks that, by taking Misty, she’s allowing me to commit the crime.
But she isn’t.
The necessity of entertaining two extra people for a few minutes has shaken me out of my spiral effectively enough that I think I can manage. I was doing a fair job of controlling myself before they showed up, but now, I’m feeling a bit more confident. “No time like the present,” I answer, managing to force a smile as I take a couple of steps toward the balcony door. “It’s not every day that you get that blatant of an acceptance out of Clara. Take it while you can.”
The glare Phoenix is giving me makes it abundantly clear that she thinks I’m trying to lie to her. I take a couple more steps toward the door– but I’m not really walking to the door. When I get close enough, I reach up and place my hands on Misty’s shoulders, as if to direct her to the balcony. As I start driving her that way, however, I breathe one, barely perceptible word. “Inticeles.”
I feel the energy streaming suddenly toward me from various points in the room. From the chirping crickets outside the door, from the soft buzzing of the fluorescent light bulb above our heads. My breathing and Phoenix’s breathing and Misty’s own breathing– Misty can hear it all, even if she doesn’t realize it. I push her gently, playfully toward the door and, at the same time, I pull the sounds slowly away from her– slowly enough that she won’t notice their abrupt absence. I can feel the buffer zone growing around her and, when I’m convinced that it’s thick enough, I finally speak.
“Seriously, I’m fine now.”
“You don’t seem fine.” She’s speaking quickly, because the longer I keep sound from Misty, the more suspicious she’ll get. “You’d better not be lying to me, Mage.”
I turn to look over my shoulder and meet her eyes as I push Misty further. A small, almost malicious smile works its way onto my face. “Why? Because this happens to be one of the few nights I can’t talk you into coming with me?”
I know that my sarcastic digs aren’t helping my cause. My suspicions are confirmed when she narrows her eyes into a glare and starts storming in my direction. “Fine. Do whatever you want. I was just trying to help you.” As she approaches, I take one hand off of Misty’s shoulder and catch her arm.
“Really, though. I’m not going to do it.” The corners of my mouth twitch again into a weak smile, and I hope I’m convincing myself as well as I’m trying to convince her. Telling her that I’m fine will make it so much worse if I have to cave. I never know what I’m going to feel like in ten minutes. In ten seconds. The moment they leave, the desire could take my mind over again, and I could end up doing something I’d really regret tomorrow. I can never tell.
Nevertheless, I continue my confident statement. “I promise.”
I pull my hands back from Misty’s shoulders so that Phoenix can’t respond, but by the look on her face, I seem to have convinced her. She lets out a heavy, resolved sigh and pushes past us to reach the balcony door. “We’re not going to make this a habit, Misty.”
She grins. “Sure, we’re not.”
“I’m serious! I would have been a lot more happy about this if you would have just asked me first.”
“I did ask first, and you said no.”
Phoenix fixes me with the look of extreme exasperation that I’m sure Misty intended, and I merely shrug a shoulder. The kid does have a point. We both know Phoenix isn’t really angry about this. If she were, she wouldn’t be letting it happen. Instead, she turns back toward the balcony door and pushes it open. “I guess we’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Bright and early,” I confirm with a slight hint of bitterness. She rolls her eyes just before she steps out the door. Meetings at eight in the morning aren’t the least bit unreasonable, but I’ve never been a morning person.
When Phoenix is safely out on the balcony, far enough away from the building to avoid scorching it, I nudge Misty’s arm. “That was pretty impressive.”
She’s trying to suppress a grin, but a small hint of one breaks through her defenses. “Thanks.” We both watch through the open balcony door as a ball of flame suddenly engulfs Phoenix. In the subsequent few seconds, it changes shape– stretching, intensifying, and growing to a sphere that dwarfs the oval it left behind. Flames lick the bottom of the balcony directly above me. They leap toward the glass of the balcony doors, flirting with the cheap siding lining the building, but they don’t stay long enough to do any harm. They subside as quickly as they came and, in their place, stands a bird. She’s scarlet red, the size of a Clydesdale with a wingspan nearly double her length. Her wings are folded at present, though, and she cranes her plumed head around to look back through the balcony doors at Misty. “You’d better get out there before she changes her mind and leaves you,” I warn.
Misty snorts. “She would.” She quickly clears the distance between me and the doors, and she reaches up to wave at me over her shoulder. “Bye, Mage! Have a good night!”
“You too. Have fun!” Misty closes the door behind her, but I continue to stand there, watching as Phoenix stoops down to let Misty onto her back. She’s barely settled before Phoenix begins flapping her wings. The balcony doors rattle against each other for a moment, but only for a short one. Within a couple of seconds, the majestic bird and her passenger have cleared the balcony railing, and they’re soaring over the roofs of the houses across the street.
I watch them until they’re out of sight, then I take a couple of steps toward the balcony doors. It’s best, I suppose, to do the responsible thing and re-cast the lock. I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out a way to have it fade after a few hours, so I won’t have to get up even earlier in the morning to let myself out.
I reach out to the handle of the door. As my skin touches the metal, I realize, with a startled jump, that I reached for it with my left hand. The concept is so jolting that I don’t proceed with the spell, but instead just stand there, staring at my fingers against the curved metal. Then, quite suddenly, I start to laugh.
The laugh develops quickly into a sort of cackle– a comfortable, familiar cackle from the shadows of a former life. I let my hand slip from the handle, but the cackle doesn’t subside for another several moments. “Not tonight,” I choke out at the end of it. I turn away from the balcony door and head back through the living room toward the bedroom door. That was all I needed to snap me out of it, I guess. The urge is completely gone now. Not tonight.
Maybe some other night.