A blood-curdling wail pierced the air, carrying the kind of magic that twisted insides apart and sent terror riding up spines. I flinched and clapped my hands over my ears. The two agents holding the screaming woman wore ear plugs, but they still jerked away from the sound, releasing the woman from their grip.
She spun in terror, but there was nowhere for her to go. The small dorm room was sealed, and there were no visible exits. She dragged in another lungful of air, and her magic-infused scream punched the air again. I leaned into my own magic and conjured a shield around the woman, cutting off the shrieking.
We all sighed in relief, and Ethan nodded at me in solidarity. I preferred to reason with newbies, but the woman was freaked out, and her magic was out of control. There wasn’t much we could do until she wore herself out and calmed down enough for me to explain that developing magic was a gift and she didn’t need to be afraid.
I felt bad for the woman we’d essentially snatched off the streets, but we had to help her learn to control her new abilities. After I’d freed magic, Mundanes around Boston began developing powers, and it had gone spectacularly poorly. Public panic spiraled out of control, and DODSI—the Department of Defense, Special Interests—demanded that we stop magic from spreading. Boston was quarantined until we could prove that Mundanes who developed powers could transition peacefully into a new magical world.
Dried blood streaked the woman’s face and light-brown hair. She’d clearly dressed for work this morning, but her pale-pink button-down shirt hung off one shoulder, torn. A few of the DODSI agents looked a little banged up. One of them had four slashes on his face, finger-width apart. Our newbie had put up a fight, but it was good that she was a fighter. Her life was about to change in every way, and just like bringing a new life into this world, it would hurt, but the result would be worth it. I shook my head at my sentimentality—clearly, all the baby prep with Aria and Gia had gotten into my head.
Special Agent John Lennart, our assigned handler from DODSI, frowned as he watched his agents hand her off to us. Since magic had been freed, we’d seen a lot of him, and things had gotten tense. We were running out of time to prove that magic didn’t need to be contained, and the government was running out of patience with our lack of progress.
“Good thing you have those disruptors,” I said with a whole bunch of false innocence in my voice. “She was packing a big punch in that scream. I don’t know if your team could have handled it if you’d taken any longer to get her here.”
He stared down at me, all six-foot three-inch wannabe intimidation and muscle. “My job is to bring you the freaks. You should focus on yours and try to fix some of them.”
Every time Lennart brought in someone manifesting new magic, he rubbed our failures in my face. All I could do was enjoy the fact that he had magic, too, but didn’t yet realize it. My lips curled at the corners as I eyed the growing aura of energy around him, and Lennart’s brow wrinkled as he watched me. I was really looking forward to the day his magic fully manifested. I’d happily lock him in one of our chill rooms until he stopped screaming.
Our stare down ended when Ethan took a half step in front of me, putting himself between us. With dark-brown hair and kind brown eyes, Ethan had the kind of wholesome good looks of a high school homecoming king. But he wasn’t arrogant or sporty. He was constantly tinkering with magic and mundane objects—just the right kind of geeky.
In response to Ethan’s slightly aggressive movement, the DODSI agents raised their magic-disrupting guns at both of us. Ethan’s magic didn’t rise as he faced off with Lennart, but his obviously protective movement was enough. We’d flinched first, and a cocky grin spread across Lennart’s stupid face. I really wished Silas were there so Lennart would tone down the stupid alpha-male act. My hands were tied by DODSI’s ultimatums, but Lennart knew Silas could put him down in a heartbeat and not care about consequences. I put my hand on Ethan’s arm before he gave Lennart an excuse to shoot him.
Ethan stepped back without argument. With a small tug on my powers, I unsealed the only exit in the room, and a space the size and shape of a standard doorway opened in the wall. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
“Good luck.” Lennart smirked. “Maybe this one will actually work out.” He turned on his heel and marched out of the room, his agents falling in behind him. Ethan followed them out to make sure they actually left as I gritted my teeth in a silent snarl. We had yet to successfully transition any of the newbies back to normal life. At first, I was confident we could do it—magic was a natural part of life. I believed wholeheartedly that the world needed it, but I hadn’t realized how hard it was for someone who had no idea magic existed to learn how to control it.
The government had given us three months to show the world it was possible for normal people to do just that, but we’d burned through the first month trying to quell the riots and panic in the city once they were told they’d been “infected” and Boston had been locked down. We’d spent another month working with the people who’d developed powers, but it was hard to help someone who didn’t understand what was happening to them. It was awful all around, and we weren’t making progress. Only a few newbies had managed to calm down enough to consciously access their magic, but they were far from being able to control it. We had only thirty days left to try and “fix” someone.
Gia, the mother of my newborn niece, walked in, holding a piece of paper. DODSI was all about paperwork. She gave me a sympathetic grimace before we turned our attention to the woman who seemed to be winding down her freakout inside my soft bubble of protective magic.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
The door sealed behind Gia as she pushed her curly black hair over her shoulder and scanned the intake paperwork. “Christine Davina of 43B Tremont Street, Boston.”
Gia’s previously angry and spiteful demeanor had completely disappeared after we’d made our peace over the death of my brother Marcel, who was also the father of her baby. Over the last few months, I’d enjoyed getting to know her—and the rest of the splinter group that had moved to Alaska after my mother had died at the hands of the Brotherhood. Gia had stepped into her leadership position seamlessly as she relocated their group to our campus in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston and helped everyone settle in.
I squatted in front of the woman on the floor and softened my voice. “Christine?” Her soft brown eyes were rimmed in red as she blinked up at me. “My name is Maeve O’Neill. We’re going to help you, and everything is going to be okay. I promise. What’s happening to you is perfectly natural, and we’re going to help you through your transition.”
“I want to go home.” Christine’s voice was hoarse from screaming, and she hugged her knees as I unraveled the magic surrounding her.
“You can go home once your new powers are under control. I’m going to tell you everything you need to know, okay?”
DODSI had kept us from telling the world the full truth about where magic came from and how it could be controlled. Most people thought it was some kind of contagious disease and were terrified they would catch it. Christine listened silently as I laid out the facts, including that having it was a good thing. She stared at me as if attempting to process and reset her brain with every blink. I used my calm voice to give the speech I’d recited to the other newbies, but as she listened, her face drained of color.
I hit her with my big finale. “People like us are part of a new world, Christine. Our magic can be used for good, to help others and build a better world. It’s a gift. You’re very lucky.”
With wide eyes, she took in her surroundings—a bed, a sink, a small desk and a television mounted on the wall. No windows, no doors. We’d done our best to make it comfortable, but it was hard to disguise the lack of exits.
“Can I go home?” Her voice wobbled.
I took a deep, steadying breath. Things always went south right about there. “We have to teach you how to use your new abilities responsibly first.”
“I don’t want them. Please, just let me go. My son needs me. I have money—I can pay you!”
“Everything is going to be all right, Christine,” Gia said in a soothing tone. “You have to stay with us until you can demonstrate control over your new abilities. You’re safe with us, and we’ll make sure your son is taken care of for as long as it takes.”
Christine gaped at Gia, her fear palpable. She dragged in a breath as her fledgling magic rose around her.
I held up my palms. “Christine, don’t—”
She screamed, and her magic punched me in the gut. I staggered backward. She inhaled again, her eyes wild. I conjured a shield around her just before her power rammed the barrier, and it remained blessedly silent on our side. She started pounding against the dome of magic with her fists, wailing and crying. I couldn’t hear her words, but I could see her lips moving. Let me go! Let me go!
Conflicting emotions burned through me as I stood inches from the woman whose life had been flipped upside down. I felt sorry for her, but I was also angry. DODSI had tied our hands, and their ignorance kept people terrified—the whole world believed magic was scary and dangerous. The transition didn’t have to be like this. Instead of telling the Mundanes the truth and allowing magic to spread naturally, they’d quarantined the entire city, forced us to contain magic within its boundaries, and refused to let us show people how magic could help. We’d had no chance to prepare them for the possibility of manifesting it. Every Mundane trapped in Boston lived in terror of catching magic.
Christine was blind with panic.
Gia shook her head. “I shouldn’t have said that about her son. Stupid.”
“She’ll be fine. She just needs time to calm herself… like the others. We’ll get her there.” I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Shit, I’m going to be late again. Can you handle this?”
Gia’s eyes were a little wet, but she nodded. “I’ll stay with her until she calms down. You should go. I know you’re really busy.”
I felt a little guilty, leaving Gia to handle the newbie on her own when she was clearly rattled, but I would make a point of following up with her later to let her know she was doing a good job. Our lack of progress wasn’t her fault.
I unsealed the exit and found Ethan waiting on the other side. “Any progress with the others?” I asked.
“We think a few might be able to make the deadline.” He grimaced, undermining his own words.
Gia and Ethan spent all day, every day, trying to work with the hodgepodge group of Mundanes who had developed magic. There were over ninety of them, and most were a mess. Several had to be almost constantly sedated. Only a small handful had shown any progress but were nowhere near being able to actively use their magic.
Not only were we not making enough progress with the newbies, but we’d also had to put our diplomatic talks with the Fae on hold. Their former leaders had leaned heavily into Fae-first separatist propaganda, and we were still working on a way to unwind all the damage and incorporate them into our community. There was a limited window to heal that damage, but we were under too much scrutiny from DODSI to incorporate the non-human population until things settled down.
“Gia’s got this,” Ethan said gently, reading the concern on my face. “She’s really good with the newbies. I swear she’s got some Fae blood in her, she’s almost a natural Empath. She’ll get Christine calmed down, and I’ll come back and help later today too. It will be okay, Mae.”
I couldn’t help but feel a stab of guilt. People like Christine were going to have to do this the hard way because I’d freed magic and sprung it on the word without warning. I’d failed to make DODSI see reason, and I’d failed to make any progress with the Fae—or we would’ve had access to their Empaths and Healers, who could have helped. I was running myself ragged trying to hold everything together, but the setbacks kept piling up.
The only option left was to prove to DODSI that normal people could adjust and to show the rest of the world all the good things about magic. Once we did that, everything would be fine. Magic would be a positive in people’s lives. It would all work out. It had to.