Rogue Magic

Rogue Magic by Kit Brisby
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-527-2
eBook release: 
Jan 30, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-528-9
Print release: 
Jan 30, 2017
Word count: 
81,000
Page count: 
328
Type: 
Cover by: 
Ebook $4.99
Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
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While trapped in a stalled subway train on his morning commute, PR rep Byron Cole flirts with Levi, a young waiter with adorable curls. But Byron's hopes for romance crash and burn when Levi saves him from a brutal explosion—with outlawed magic.

When Levi is imprisoned, Byron begins to question everything he's ever believed. How can magic be evil when Levi used it to save dozens of lives? So Byron hatches a plan to save Levi that will cost him his job and probably his life. If he doesn't pull it off, Levi will be put to death.

Byron discovers that he isn't the only one questioning America's stance on magic. And he learns that Levi is stubborn, angry, and utterly enchanting. Time is running out, though. Byron must convince Levi to trust him, to trust his own magic, and to fight against the hatred that’s forced him to hide his true nature his entire life. The more Levi opens up, the harder Byron falls. And the more they have to lose.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

police brutality

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Some Sign of Life

Byron Cole was well into his personal best score at Trivia Dash. His phone blinked with the next question, bright against the darkness around him. Another distant explosion shook the subway car, and the little boy across the aisle began to cry.

The trivia timer was already winding down. Byron clenched his jaw and skimmed the question and answers.

What year did Charlotte’s Law pass? It was ninety-eight or ninety-nine. A girl in his second-grade class had been sent to foster care that year, when magic users were first forbidden to raise their own children.

He went with ninety-eight, and his run of correct answers ended. Sighing, he tucked his phone back into his messenger bag and rehearsed his speech silently.

Thanks to our nation’s vigilance and dedication, the United States has incarcerated those mages who pose a threat to our freedoms. And now Cole Industries has developed a system to relieve the tax burden of these rogue mages by using them to generate electricity to sell back to the power companies. Magic is an untapped resource and can produce the kind of clean energy America needs.

He ran through it again, wishing he’d emailed himself a copy. He’d written the speech himself, so he shouldn’t have been nervous about messing up, but this was his first assignment in front of a microphone. And he wasn’t prepared for follow-up questions he couldn’t answer.

No one had explained to him how exactly mages were going to generate electricity.

At the moment he was picturing thousands of stationary bikes. That was better than tuning in to the restless chatter around him. If his uncle hadn’t advised him to take the subway instead of a town car, he would have been at the press conference by now. But he agreed with the reasoning: He needed to humanize Cole Industries, give people someone to relate to. Someone who took public transportation.

And got stuck on public transportation.

“The police will be here soon,” the young woman sitting beside the sniffling boy was saying. She wore cut-off shorts and sparkling tennis shoes. An older sister or a nanny, maybe.

“How do you know?” he asked between shuddering breaths.

Byron felt a pang of remorse for ignoring the boy until now. Adults had a way of doing that to kids when terrible things happened. “The sirens. Hear them? They’re close,” he said, hoping no one else realized that didn’t mean a thing.

The dim emergency lights were still working, and the car wasn’t on fire, so the likelihood of being rescued any time soon was slim. Judging by the number of explosions that had gone off like thunder, nearby first responders had too much on their hands to deal with a stalled subway train. Thankfully, the boy gave a shaky nod and wiped his nose against his sleeve, apparently satisfied with Byron’s answer.

“Do you think it’s the terrorists?” an older woman asked. She sounded more hopeful than afraid, as if a terrorist attack was the best possible reason for the subway to have lost power in the middle of a pitch-black tunnel. It took Byron a long moment to realize she was addressing him, and by then others were watching him questioningly. They obviously didn’t realize he was only twenty-two.

He shifted in his seat, and his name badge for the press conference he was now incredibly late to caught on his sleeve. The Cole Industries logo gleamed. No wonder they expected him to know something. He plucked it off and shoved it into his pocket.

The woman’s voice went shrill. “Well?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if our delay is related to an act of terrorism.” Byron kept his tone low and even. “The alert level is pretty high right now.”

“Animals.” She made the sign of the cross hastily.

“I’m sure we’re safe. If they wanted to hurt us, they would have already.” A small part of him enjoyed the brief thrill of authority. At work, his colleagues—seasoned bioengineers and the pioneers of occult nanoscience—were more likely to ask him for a cup of coffee than his opinion. “All we have to do is wait for first responders.”

The woman sank back in her plastic seat, shoulders sagging with relief, but he had no real basis for reassuring her. Cole Industries was about to make a massive announcement regarding the next generation of their patented suppression technology, CALM. If anything was going to rile up the local cells of mage-rights extremists, it was a bigger and better way to control magic. For all he knew, they were about to die.

“Maybe it’s only construction,” a guy said softly. He’d been in the corner, seemingly asleep. But now he crouched by the boy, offering him a small package of crayons—the cheap, waxy sets of four they distributed at restaurants. He wore a white T-shirt and black slacks. A server, probably. Not at an upscale place, judging by the swirling edges of a tattoo peeking out from beneath one short sleeve.

“What do you say?” the nanny prompted, patting the boy’s shoulder.

The boy tore the package open with his teeth. “Thank you.”

The server smiled. “We’re safer down here than up there.”

“But my daddy’s up there,” the boy said. The tears returned, silent and fat.

“Um.” He sank back on his heels and looked up at Byron helplessly, as if he’d reached the extent of his ability to soothe children.

“I’m sure your father is fine,” Byron said absently, his gaze stuck on the guy’s shaggy mess of brown hair. He’d never considered himself the type to have a type, but after today, he wasn’t going to rule out pale boys with pretty curls as a front-runner.

The young man met his eyes in a bemused way that highlighted the charm of his thick eyebrows and dark-brown eyes. Byron turned away, his chest warming with a jitter of attraction.

“Late to work?”

Byron glanced back at him and yep—he was still incredibly attractive. He wanted to say something to that end, but he was out of practice when it came to flirting. “Sort of. I have a thing to go to.” This was why he preferred engaging in public relations from the safety of his own computer rather than having to act professional in public. His words had a way of jumbling up and making him sound young and foolish when he needed to seem anything but.

A soft smile didn’t make the server any less appealing. He gave Byron a look that held enough significance to make Byron’s pulse quicken. The plain, shameless interest didn’t calm Byron’s nerves. Nearly an hour trapped underground in a broken-down subway had been boring. Being flirted with by an adorable guy? Kind of terrifying.

He didn’t have to worry about his predicament for long though; the police abruptly pried open the door and shouted for everyone to stay calm and follow evacuation orders.

Byron gathered his messenger bag and waited for the little kid and the nanny to walk out first. Seven years at a high-profile boarding school had given him plenty of practice with evacuation drills, and it was second nature to fall in line and follow the light. This was a lot easier than trying to carry on small talk with a flirty, tattooed boy.

The burning smell from what should have been fresh October air above them made it hard to focus though.

The group quietly ascended the emergency stairs from the subway tunnel to the next level. Then it only took a few minutes of walking through a damp, narrow hallway to get to a ladder leading to the surface. Byron lined up behind the child, so he could catch him if the boy lost his grip. The kid climbed twice as fast though, clearly more accustomed to ladders than he was.

When he’d surfaced and picked himself up, Byron reached back for the evacuee behind him and found his hand clasped in the warm grip of the server with curls. Despite the thrum of helicopters overhead and the air thick with sirens, it occurred to Byron that this might be his only chance to ask the guy out. What harm would it do to break the grinding routine of entry-level PR work and catching up on baking shows on Netflix?

He should probably evaluate his coping mechanisms. Police in riot gear were dodging around abandoned taxis a few blocks away. A fire raged in the distance, smoking and steaming under the ministrations of several fire rigs. All signs pointed to an act of terror, and he was focusing on a server’s ass hugged by inexpensive slacks.

“Thanks.” Their hands remained entwined a moment too long. The man blurted, “Levi,” just before Byron could manage an introduction.

“Who’s Levi?” Byron asked.

“Me.”

“Oh, right.” He shook his head, flustered. “Of course. I’m—”

The storefront beside them exploded.

I’m going to die.

Would it be like the plane crashes and car wrecks that haunted his nightmares? But this time he wouldn’t wake up in a sweat. This was it.

Nothing happened.

“Shit.” That was Levi beside him, crouching with both hands raised as if to ward off the explosion.

“Oh God,” Byron whispered.

“I’m sorry.” Levi’s eyes were huge and scared. “I didn’t . . . It was an accident. Shit!”

Levi had warded off the explosion. With his hands—with magic. A shimmery barrier encircled all of them: The men and women from the subway car. The little boy. The police officers who already had their guns trained on Levi’s trembling form. The first responders who had been jogging toward them and now stood still and stunned.

“Lower your hands, mage,” one of the officers barked out.

“Dude.” Levi’s voice broke and his shoulders hunched in on himself. He flinched at the sound of boots scuffling closer. “If I stop, we’ll burn. We have to move away from the fire first. Can’t you see the flames?”

Most of the officers remained stalwart, advancing slowly—but a few looked up and around. Levi wasn’t exaggerating. Angry licks of fire were dancing along the perimeter he’d created.

Byron wasn’t about to wait on the decision-making skills of a group of rookie officers who’d been given evacuation duty. He began ushering the others to the far end of the bubble, away from the fire. He only had to gesture. Everyone shuffled with the wooden movements of people in shock. Levi remained still, clearly stricken with fear too raw to be fake.

Hadn’t it occurred to him that he could probably stop bullets with the same magic that shielded them from the explosion’s shrapnel and heat?

If he was really that clueless, he couldn’t be dangerous.

“I’m going to take a few steps back,” Levi said, swaying. “Okay? We’re all stepping back.”

When the entire group was out of the reach of the flames, the shield disappeared with no fanfare. It was simply there one moment and gone the next.

The others from the subway took off running down the street, toward the riot squad and the ambulances. But Byron couldn’t move. A sharp chill ran through him despite the pressing heat from the burning building across the road.

Levi’s shoulders sank like he wanted to curl in on himself and disappear too. Byron was startled to find himself wishing he would.

The punishment for unsanctioned use of magic was life in prison at best. For the powerful mages, it was execution.

Levi had to be strong. He’d stopped the raw force of an explosion. There were rumors that powerful mages could transform into small animals or bugs. Surely he had enough magic left to escape with his own life?

Byron clearly wasn’t the only one wondering if Levi could flee. One of the approaching officers hit Levi with a baton, driving him to his knees. Byron flinched and reached out as if he had the authority to stop them.

“Please. I didn’t mean to.” Levi made soft, pained sounds on each ragged breath. “It was an accident.”

They began to beat him, batons thudding against his back. He fell forward, bracing himself with his palms on the pavement and crying out.

He’d performed powerful magic by lifting his hands, but now he did nothing to defend himself from the blows that accompanied each demand that he keep his hands down on the ground.

“Mr. Cole.” One of the officers took Byron by the elbow. “Are you hurt?”

Levi’s pained expression gave way to betrayal that sent a lance of unreasonable guilt through Byron’s middle.

“Yes. I’m fine,” he said. Thanks to Levi.

“I recognize you from the Police Foundation gala. The magic containment unit is en route. Cole Industries vehicles. Let me escort you to an ambulance.” Fresh-faced and eager, the officer couldn’t be much older than Byron. It was a wonder none of them had put a bullet or ten through Levi’s skull yet. No one would fault an officer for killing a mage in self-defense—and that’s what it would be called if Levi so much as twitched his fingers in the wrong direction.

“I’ll stay,” Byron said, noting the officer’s name badge. Madison.

He didn’t need to stay. But he could explain his presence away easily enough: he’d never witnessed Cole Industries’ equipment in the field firsthand, and his curiosity had gotten the best of him. Even his uncle would believe that.

“Are the terror suspects in custody?” he asked, gesturing at the blaze. Half a dozen ladder trucks idled a few blocks over, likely waiting on an all-clear after Levi’s display of magic.

“Only this one.” Madison jerked a thumb toward Levi. His hand trembled.

Anger flashed across Levi’s face. He tossed his hair out of his eyes. Blood ran down the side of his face. “Seriously? If I wanted to kill people I could have let them die. In the giant explosion.”

The air seemed to stir.

“You said yourself saving them was an accident,” one of the officers near Levi said, gun trained on his back. “You didn’t really mean to protect anyone else but yourself.”

“So I rigged an explosion and then saved people from it? Super logical. I’m a criminal fucking mastermind.”

Christ, Levi. Stop talking. All of this was on tape thanks to the officers’ body cams. Angry sarcasm or not, that would hold water as a confession. The best Levi could hope for now was a quick death, and he wasn’t even going to get that if the public thought they had a terrorist to burn.

A special unit vehicle hurtled down the street like a tank on steroids. Byron had seen plenty of videos of test runs, but surround sound didn’t compare to the angry roar of the engine. It was the size of a monster truck. Embarrassingly bulky.

Levi was so small in comparison.

The vehicle skidded to a stop, and half a dozen men and women in hazard armor poured out. One of them hit Levi with a long-range stun gun without a word of warning.

Levi fell onto his side and convulsed, eyes blank with pain as the current ran through his body. The regular police officers shuffled back, unabashedly staring.

Madison rubbed his jaw and frowned. “I’ve only seen magic, you know, on TV.”

Every season some new show featured a villain using special-effects magic to rob banks or go on a killing spree. “Magic on TV isn’t real,” Byron said, voice tight.

Levi gasped on the hot concrete. That was real.

“Think they can stop him?”

“Stop him from what?” Byron snapped. It wasn’t like Levi was threatening anyone. And in a moment, he wouldn’t be able to use magic at all, thanks to Cole Industries.

A woman from the containment team nimbly clasped CALM bands around Levi’s wrists while he lay on the dusty concrete struggling to breathe, tears streaking down his face.

Byron tried to shake the feeling that all of this was wrong. He’d spent his entire life listening to his uncle justify magic control. Thanks to a minor in ethics with a concentration in occult theory, he understood better than most the reasoning behind keeping magic heavily regulated. CALM bands gave mages the opportunity to live normal lives, and they protected the general public inexpensively—a fact that tax payers loved.

“Stop him from doing magic.” Madison shuddered. “The Devil’s work.”

Byron’s teeth clicked together as he swallowed back a sharp reply. He wasn’t one of the uneducated bigots who hated all mages—even bound mages—because magic was “Satanic.”

“Yes,” he managed, watching a containment unit officer reach for the button that would activate Levi’s CALM bands. “I think they can stop him from doing magic.”

Garbled orders sounded from the radio at the officer’s hip. She pressed the button.

Levi began screaming.

It was awful—like nothing Byron had ever heard in his life. He knew in an instant that he would never forget the mindless, raw sound.

Madison turned to Byron, eyes wide. “Is that normal?”

“No. We don’t manufacture torture devices.”

Do we?

Levi’s screams died down, and then choked off.

He stopped convulsing.

He stopped moving at all.

Byron held his breath in turn, waiting for a twitch. A gasp. Some sign of life. But nothing happened. Levi lay there pale and contorted, with rivulets of bright-red blood streaking from his nose and ears.

The woman who had activated the bands crouched and touched Levi’s chest, hand inching out like she was reaching into a basket of snakes. “He’s not breathing.”

“Perform CPR!” Byron shouted. No one moved. “Listen to me, there’s a project. It’s part of the announcement today. We’re searching for mages like this man, untapped potential. If my uncle finds out we lost a prime candidate . . .” He let the empty threat hang.

After a long pause, two of the containment unit techs began resuscitating Levi. Byron sat down hard on the curb, his legs numb. Helicopters circled above. He could already see the headlines. Billionaire’s heir narrowly escapes death at the hands of a rogue mage.

When Levi’s chest began to rise and fall again, Byron didn’t feel any relief. Dread, thicker than smoke, caught in his throat—and he remained at the curb long after they had carried Levi’s limp form into the special unit vehicle and driven him away.

He didn’t even know Levi’s last name.

But he would soon.

 

Chapter Two

A Minor Moral Crisis

Cole Industries canceled the press conference.

After being checked out by the paramedics and giving a statement, Byron had been allowed to head home. He’d ridden in silence in the backseat of a town car for two hours in the horrendous traffic clogging up the city in the wake of the terrorist attack. All the Trivia Dash had left him with a dead cell phone.

Now Byron sat on his couch watching the news replay an overhead shot of Levi being loaded into the containment unit. He’d called his supervisors at the office under the guise of letting them know he was all right, and they’d confirmed what he’d hoped for—and dreaded.

Cole Industries had already requested custody of Levi. It was essentially a stay of execution. Cole Industries had access to all incarcerated magic users, and carte blanche to use them however the organization saw fit. It was part of the intricate, unprecedented contract Cole Industries had with the United States government to develop magic-containment technology.

“This isn’t how I pictured seeing you on TV today,” Eleanor said.

His roommate—and best friend—taught high school downtown, and the school was close enough to the explosions that it had been closed for the rest of the week.

“You wouldn’t have seen me on TV today anyway.” Byron sank back against the cushions and rubbed his eyes.

“Actually, my tenth graders were supposed to watch the press conference in ethics class. Several of them are writing their term papers on Cole Industries’ role in the private prison system and suppression devices.”

“I’m surprised the superintendent is letting that fly.” Even top universities struggled to fill seats in classes that debated magic control. Students trying to attend those classes had to run a gauntlet of antimagic protestors and smaller groups of students protesting mage registration.

“We have the highest percentage of registered, bound-mage students in the district. These issues are relevant to my kids.”

“Still ballsy, E.” Byron had seen enough drama on Eleanor’s Facebook wall to know that parents were looking for blood, furious with kids having the freedom to discuss radical ideas.

It was only lunchtime, but Byron felt like he’d been awake for days. He slipped his tie off and draped it over the side of the couch. Eleanor leaned against him, as if she instinctively knew he craved the contact.

“Obviously I have big balls.” Her breath huffed with a silent laugh as she nursed the dregs of a lukewarm cup of coffee. The power flickered briefly, but not enough to turn the TV off.

“The biggest.” It had been a running joke since they were little. She’d been the cooler, older kid on weekends at the shore—their parents slinging back cocktails at sunset while Eleanor dared Byron to sneak mini-bottles of vodka out of the cooler.

He’d always refused.

“The CALM kids are just as afraid of terrorists as the rest of us.” She sobered. “They didn’t ask to be born with magic. It isn’t fair to lump them in with terrorists taking innocent lives.”

“Careful,” he said halfheartedly. “Your reputation will go from liberal to radical before you know it.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about my reputation. It can’t get any worse than how pissed my parents are about me teaching.” Her words had no force behind them though. They both knew she couldn’t afford to lose her job.

“I’ve seen how rabid those parents are on your Facebook wall. People are looking for blood. You could get fired for standing up for CALM kids.”

“They need someone to stand up for them. It isn’t safe at school anymore. Two more kids in my homeroom got beat up this week. Their parents are going to homeschool them now.”

“They’re probably better off at home.” Byron ignored her gasp. “They won’t get into college anyway. Most employers won’t hire them.”

“Oh, okay.” Her coffee sloshed around in her Nyan Cat mug. “We just give up on them, then. Lost causes.”

Any other day, Byron would have been up for a debate with Eleanor. But the argument didn’t entertain him the way it used to. The argument now had kind brown eyes and a warm, solid hand. And a name. Levi Camden.

“They’re harmless,” he said absently.

Eleanor sighed and turned the volume on the TV down. She pushed her chin-length hair behind her ear. This month it was a reddish brown. Last month it’d been dirty blond. She referred to her color indecision as a midlife crisis, though she was only twenty-six. “Seriously. What is going on with you?”

“That man . . .” Byron blinked away the memory of Levi’s brown eyes.

“The terrorist they caught?”

“I’m not sure he was a terrorist. I met him on the subway, and he used magic to stop the explosion from killing over a dozen of us.”

“Did you hit your head?” Eleanor caught his gaze. “I don’t want to be a dick here, but generally you toe the line pretty hard. Terrorists use magic and mages are terrorists and Cole Industries has ’Murica’s best interests at heart, and all that.”

Byron pressed his fingers against his eyes.

“Well?” she prompted. “Wasn’t that going to be the gist of the press conference today?”

“He didn’t strike me as the type of person who’d destroy things and kill people.”

“Ignoring the fact that you’re making a really random judgment call there, can’t rogue mages warp perception?”

“You know how Warren is. I’ve been wearing an antiglamour device since I was ten. Even if Levi had been using perception-based magic, it wouldn’t have worked on me.” Byron glanced up at the TV. “Hold on. Turn it up.”

A middle-aged anchor was speaking gravely beside a graphic with a photo of Levi that looked like it had been pulled from Facebook. Levi smiled broadly from a booth in a bar, his arm around a black man with his face blurred out. Two half-empty beers in glasses sat on the table in front of them.

“Authorities say twenty-one-year-old Levi Camden of Brooklyn has been arrested for unsanctioned use of magic. The suspected rogue mage is not registered with the Department of Occult Supervision and was not outfitted with CALM devices at the time of the incident. Investigators are contacting Camden’s immediate family, coworkers, and friends to determine whether or not there were prior indications of magic capabilities. Under the Homeland Security Act, any individual knowingly harboring a rogue mage may be sentenced with up to five years in federal prison.

“The Keep CALM Alliance published a release distancing the activism group from any and all known terrorists, reiterating that KCA’s focus remains on facilitating peaceful relations between bound mages and the general public.”

“They shouldn’t have to say that,” Eleanor muttered. “Of course that’s their focus.”

“The manager at Café Ciccone, where Camden was a member of the wait staff, has released a statement condemning magic use. According to investigators, there is strong reason to believe that Camden is a member of the terrorist cell that triggered explosives killing eighteen people in New York City early this morning.”

“Levi should have kept his mouth shut,” Byron said.

Eleanor glanced at him, her blue eyes questioning beneath her delicately arched brow.

“Camden’s mother, fifty-one-year-old Cynthia Camden of Taunton, Massachusetts, did not respond to our calls. According to a public social media profile, Camden was active in the local arts and LGBT communities. He had no known ties with magic rights organizations.”

“He’s cute,” Eleanor said.

“I didn’t notice. I was busy almost dying in a horrific explosion,” Byron said, turning the TV off.

Eleanor nudged him. “You thought he was cute, admit it. Is that what this weirdness is about? Don’t feel guilty. You had no way of knowing he was a mass murderer.”

“He’s not— I didn’t— Damn it. No. I didn’t flirt with him. And I’m not being weird.”

“You’re definitely being weird. You never watch the news unless Warren’s bloviating about saving the universe.”

Byron ran his fingers through his hair. They caught in the tackiness of the styling cream he’d used to keep the stick-straight black mess in some semblance of the eighty-dollar haircut only his stylist could tame. It was all so absurd. Hair cream and a suit worth a month’s salary and Eleanor jabbing him about flirting.

Everything was trivial in the face of Levi going into cardiac arrest in the middle of the street because the CALM bands had done something very bad to him they’d never done to anyone else.

Or maybe Byron had never been made aware of CALM bands doing that to anyone else.

“I’m teasing you,” Eleanor said quietly, interrupting his thoughts. “I know you didn’t flirt with that guy. He is cute, though.”

Byron sighed. “He saved my life. And not only me—all those people. And he seemed surprised by his own magic. Do you think he really was? Is it possible to live for twenty-one years without knowing you’re a mage?”

“That’s a question for your coworkers, not for me.” When Byron remained silent, eyeing the high ceiling of their apartment, she went on, “But I think it’s interesting you’re entertaining the notion that he didn’t know he had magic.”

“Why is that interesting?”

“Because you seem determined to defend this guy.”

A traitorous flush heated his neck. “Think about it though. He was scared. Genuinely scared.”

“Jesus, Byron. You’re obsessed.”

“I guess I’m having a minor moral crisis. Maybe I’ll help you grade those ethics term papers. Learn something from your students.” He let out a weak laugh, trying to lighten the mood.

Eleanor gave him a long, unamused look and stood up, taking her coffee cup and his. She headed into the kitchen with her phone in her other hand, thumb already unlocking the screen.

Left in the silent living room with the blank TV in front of him, Byron wondered what else the news was saying about Levi. He couldn’t bring himself to turn it back on and face it.

One thought played in his head over and over, a little more treacherous every time: If he had the ability to stop destruction and death with the wave of his hand, he’d risk his life to keep that power. He wouldn’t give it up. Not for the law. Not for anyone.

If he’d had magic—some way to predict the future or see in the dark or travel great distances in a blink of an eye—he could have saved his parents. He would have.

He would have used magic without hesitation.

It was easily the most treasonous notion that had ever crossed his mind. How did one server from Brooklyn have the ability to unravel the values Byron had wholeheartedly subscribed to his entire life?

It was giving him a headache, and even that gave him pangs of guilt. Yes, his head hurt, but he wasn’t frightened or in agony. He wasn’t all over the news being called a mass murderer. He wasn’t in danger of being put to death for using an innate gift.

The practice of magic had always been abstract to Byron. Sure, he’d been around bound mages, but they couldn’t pull off a party trick, let alone legitimate magic. Not with CALM bands on. And the rare rogue mages who got caught using magic were only characters in the newspaper. A lawyer in Scottsdale. A stripper in Reno. A truck driver in Alaska. Distant threats immediately neutralized by the most foolproof method available—execution.

Levi wasn’t abstract. His hand had been warm and human, and he’d been so frightened, not of the deadly shrapnel and fire, but of the men and women he’d saved.

Byron needed a beer, not another cup of coffee. “Shit.”

 

Chapter Three

Off the Rails

“Did you knowingly and willingly use magic on the morning of Thursday, October second, at 9:16 a.m.?”

Levi wondered how many days had stretched between the beginning of October and now. A week? A lifetime? At least several days judging by the scruff on his jaw.

An investigator sat across from Levi, flanked by a man and woman dressed like cops from a bad sci-fi movie. They held menacing batons and wore black bodysuits with armor sleeker than any bulletproof vests Levi had ever seen. Not that he’d ever seen a bulletproof vest outside of TV shows.

The investigator was a tall guy, with the sallow complexion of a lifelong smoker and the tight expression of someone clenching their butt with fear.

“I didn’t check the time on my phone before everything blew up,” Levi said.

“Unlawful magic use is punishable by death.” The investigator squinted until the protruding bags under his eyes obscured his gaze. “Do you think this is funny?”

“No. I think it’s funny that you think I have a magical time stamp.”

“But you admit to using magic.”

“Whatever happened is probably on fifteen security cameras. Why don’t you review the footage and tell me?”

Talking about magic came surprisingly easy now that he had nothing to lose. After waking up on a gurney in a room too cold and sparse to be a real hospital, he’d tried to use his magic in a panic. A blistering flare of pain had immediately rendered him unconscious. The next time he’d risen out of the darkness, he’d had a breathing tube down his throat. That alone had been unpleasant enough to stop him from trying again.

Now his ribs throbbed with every breath, his head ached like he’d had three bottles of wine for breakfast, and his magic was all wrong.

It was still there. But his magic was a tightness inside of him, like a breath held too long. It hurt.

Whatever the CALM bands on his wrists were doing made his entire body sore like one big bruise. The bands weren’t heavy, but they weighed him down every waking second.

“Believe me, the security footage will come into play during your trial,” the investigator said.

“Will my trial take place in the town square? Right before the bonfire?” Levi waved his fingers like smoke and flames rising from his body.

The investigator flinched.

Levi sighed. Inspiring fear was a new, shitty experience. He hated killing spiders and felt marginally bad for killing cockroaches. He’d never been in a fight. He didn’t even leave bad reviews on Yelp.

“What will make this quicker?” he asked. “Can’t you tell me that much?”

“What do you mean?”

“What’s the path of least resistance here? The fast track to execution.”

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Occult Supervision want a thorough report on this incident and on any instances of magic use that may have occurred before the alleged unlawful use on October second,” the investigator said. Levi had already forgotten his name. There were too many bad guys to keep track of.

“So no matter what, I have to deal with all this bullshit before they end up killing me anyway?”

“No, you have to deal with all this bullshit before we turn you over to Cole Industries’ people.” For the first time, the investigator smiled. “They have a use for you.”

Levi folded his arms and shrank back in the cold, hard chair he’d been sitting in for three hours of interrogations. He’d always told himself that a violent death was inevitable—and pretended not to care. It was the risk he’d taken when he’d decided not to submit to registration and wear CALM bands. But that was an epic load of bravado. Execution wasn’t the way he wanted to go out. It wasn’t something he wanted his mother and friends to see.

And being poked and prodded by magic-hating scientists sounded even worse than being executed.

“They can’t experiment on me.” Levi’s voice tripped in his sore throat. “I—I have rights. Human rights. It’s torture.”

“You forfeited those rights when you failed to identify yourself as a mage and submit yourself to the CALM program,” the investigator said.

“That’s fucked up,” Levi said, glancing from him to the guards. They were people. People in scary outfits. Nothing more. “You know it is.” Desperation thinned his voice. The room swayed.

The investigator closed his leather notebook with a snap that startled Levi’s attention back from the panic whittling away at his composure. “I will repeat the question again. Until you give me a straightforward answer, we’ll keep this up. I have all night.”

“Can we order a pizza?” Levi shot back.

“Maybe you can conjure yourself something to eat.” The investigator cleared his throat. “Did you knowingly and willingly use magic on the morning of Thursday, October second, at 9:16 a.m.?”

Blanketed with weariness, Levi couldn’t come up with another deflection. He wanted to go back to the cell. He wanted to sleep. Sleep was his only escape, and he’d been up for longer than he could keep track of now. Maybe he’d be able to nod off despite the way his magic was beating at his rib cage like a frantic bird.

“I used magic that morning. It wasn’t willingly or knowingly.” Levi ducked his chin, feeling like a coward. “The explosion scared me, and I made a shield without thinking. I could have stopped myself after that, but it would have meant murdering all of them.”

“When you say ‘shield,’ are you referring to an incantation?”

“I don’t know any enchantments or spells or incantations.” Levi didn’t try to mask his bitterness. Magic existed within him, but he didn’t know how to use it—how to control it. Until that morning, he’d been more likely to short out a toaster than create a life-saving bubble. “It happened on its own. It was an accident.”

“Were you aware of being a mage prior to October second?”

Levi closed his eyes and pictured his mom in her little second-floor apartment. He saw her small hands wrapped around his wrists and the tears in her eyes as she’d made him promise to never, ever let his magic out. He’d been six years old and so angry at the bulldozers tearing down the complex across the street where his friends had lived. They’d had to move to make room for a big store. He’d wished so hard that the construction men would go away, and one of the bulldozers had tipped right over, like a toy. It had been easy.

So much easier than lying every single day of his life.

“No, I wasn’t.” Levi opened his eyes and met the investigator’s beady gaze. “I’m sure you can imagine my surprise.”

“I’m sure you can imagine my skepticism, Mr. Camden,” the investigator said, parroting his tone. “I’m no expert on magic use, but what I saw on those tapes didn’t resemble the work of an amateur.”

“No one’s an expert on magic use.” Levi gave a soft, hysterical laugh. “Because it’s outlawed. Because you shackle us and clip our wings. You take our children away. And burn us and torture us. No one knows what magic can do because you’re all so fucking afraid.”

“And you’ve developed those strong opinions this past week? In the six days since you suddenly and shockingly discovered you had magic on the morning of the terrorist attack?”

Levi scrubbed one hand down his face. “I read blogs,” he said lamely.

“How long have you been involved with the terrorist group responsible for the attack?”

“I’m not a terrorist. If I had known about those explosions, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near them.”

“Really? You wouldn’t have stopped the terrorists?” the female guard asked abruptly. The investigator made a big show of turning to glare at her, but she continued to watch Levi steadily. “If you’d known?”

The question stole Levi’s breath. A long moment passed before he found his voice. “I don’t know.” When he blinked, the exhausted tears he’d been fighting for hours fell. They felt good against his face, and he didn’t bother wiping them away. “I’m not a superhero. I don’t owe anybody anything.”

After a brief frown, she steeled her expression. “Pardon me,” she said with a nod to the investigator. “It wasn’t my place to question the suspect.”

“Did people die?” Levi asked. “In the fires and explosions? I was stuck on the subway and we couldn’t get any reception down there. What happened?”

“Do you want to make sure your attempts at terrorism were successful?” the investigator snarled.

“I told you I had nothing to do with it.”

“Then why do you want to know?”

“Because I’m a human being?” Levi fought the urge to shout. “And she thinks I should have saved the world. Just wondering who else I was supposed to protect other than the people on that subway car who are probably already lining up to watch me get burned at the stake.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she mumbled.

“This interrogation has officially gone off the rails.” The investigator stood and made a big show of smoothing out the wrinkles in his suit. “And I’m late to dinner. Take the suspect back to his cell.”

Without another word, he punched a few numbers into the keypad and left the interrogation room.

“Asshole,” Levi muttered. He didn’t resist when the guards took his arms and lifted him. To his surprise, his legs barely held his weight. Someone supplied a wheelchair, and they dumped him into it. He hunched over. Linoleum tiles glided beneath his bare feet. If he pretended hard enough, this could be a really awful hospital visit, not a trip back down the elevator to the small cell that contained nothing but a metal toilet.

The female guard kept her hand on his shoulder. It was warm. He wasn’t sure if she was restraining him or supporting him, but he appreciated the touch. “I’m not one of those terrorists,” he said quietly.

Her hand tightened on his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter.”

 

Chapter Four

A Normal Man

It hadn’t taken the tabloids long to find Levi’s Twitter account and embed tweet after tweet in articles alleging Levi’s sordid history as a rogue mage. But none of his tweets were substantially incriminating.

Byron knew because he’d spent hours reading back through years of tweets. Thousands of them. As Byron scrolled, Levi’s number of followers grew with rubberneckers flocking to his pseudo-celebrity status.

None of Levi’s tweets referenced magic or terrorism or anything that could be remotely construed as radical. His only political leanings seemed to be related to better bike lanes and affordable health care. As the news had reported, he appeared to have been involved in the local LGBT scene, but not as an activist. The most aggressive thing he’d posted was an angry message at his internet service provider for repeated outages.

Levi’s social media presence painted the portrait of a very average, somewhat aimless young man.

Sitting in bed with a laptop, Byron found himself chuckling at Levi’s rage over the spoilers from last season’s big dramatic finale of a popular cable show about an alien FBI agent. He nodded in agreement with Levi’s assertion that Hide-Chan Ramen had the best noodles in the city. He cringed when Levi lost job after job when new restaurants opened and subsequently closed.

Byron noted a nine-month series of tweets that indicated Levi had been in a relationship with a club owner named Sam two years before. Byron recognized the broad shoulders of the man whose face had been blurred out on the news report.

It didn’t take much searching to figure out that Sam was Sam Johnson, a former attorney who had abruptly switched gears from social justice advocacy to the hospitality industry. His club, Summons—a hybrid between an art gallery and a dance club—had remained a steadfast hotspot in the gay community for several years. Levi’s Twitter account didn’t get into the details of their breakup, but they still tweeted at each other occasionally. Sam was Byron’s best chance to learn more about Levi, but the cops were probably way ahead of him.

Levi’s last tweet was dated September fifteenth, right before midnight. Do you ever wonder what your purpose is? #navelgazing.

It was the most oft-cited tweet used to characterize Levi as a radical willing to terrorize in the name of magic. It was a stretch at best, and slander at worst, to use such a vague statement as evidence. But Byron understood needing to blame someone, to put a face to terror. Specifics, inaccurate or not, were better than facing down the possibility that bad things happened for no reason.

It was a similar tug that pulled him deeper into Levi’s timeline until it was clear he wouldn’t learn enough there. He needed to know more than what any curious person could find online.

It was surprisingly easy to gain access to Levi Camden’s apartment.

He told the police chief he was working on a public statement from Cole Industries—a deeply personal message from the perspective of a would-be victim of the terrorist attack. The chief gave him a spare key.

“We’ve already documented everything in his apartment, and the Bureau found nothing of note there,” he said warmly, taking Byron’s shoulder in a fatherly grip. “So don’t worry about prints or moving anything. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you took a dump on his living room floor after what he’s done to this city.”

“I assure you, that won’t be on my agenda,” Byron said, smiling through a wave of irritation.

It had never escaped Byron’s awareness that being part of the Cole dynasty afforded him many privileges. Until the police chief bent the law for him, it had never occurred to him how easy it would be to take advantage of that.

Not that he was complaining. He needed to learn more, and there was no better place to get started than Levi Camden’s studio on the third floor of a building in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The apartment was tiny, but bright-yellow walls warmed it. The scuffed floors bore the marks of decades of tenants. Byron locked the door behind him and realized he didn’t have much of a game plan or any idea what to look for.

Fat flies buzzed around a sink full of dirty dishes. He turned on the hot water and began to wash them.

Levi’s dish soap smelled like lemongrass. The dishes were mismatched—a deep-blue plate, a floral teacup, and a red cereal bowl. He smiled as he scrubbed at dried pasta sauce. Something about the bright colors made doing dishes suck less.

It didn’t take long to wash and dry the dishes with a tea towel covered with foxes. The reality of what he was doing in the apartment crashed back into his mind as soon as he was done.

Not only was he spying on someone’s life, but he was compromising his ability to do his job. He’d lied to the police chief, but the truth was he’d likely be tasked with writing something for Cole Industries, and the more he dug into Levi’s life, the more biased he’d become. What could he possibly come up with to villainize Levi?

This didn’t look like the apartment of a terrorist—though what did a terrorist’s apartment look like? Surely not covered in propaganda posters and machine guns and bombs.

While terrorist behavior was inhumane, those who killed for their beliefs—however misguided and cruel—were still people. They weren’t robots. Maybe they all had colorful dishes and bright-yellow walls in sunny little studios in Brooklyn.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Byron said to himself, uncomfortably filling the silence. He opened a window to let the sound of the street in so the apartment felt alive—and not like a mausoleum.

Levi’s single bed was unmade. Above it, a mismatched gallery wall displayed drawings and small photos with saturated Instagram filters. Byron climbed onto the bed for a closer look. He took his shoes off first.

It was impossible to ignore the faint smell of another person. It wasn’t a bad smell—skin and citrusy soap. Byron exhaled heavily and turned his attention to the gallery: a scrawled drawing of a cat, a photo of Levi and a middle-aged woman with shockingly white hair, a photograph of the NYC skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge, a grinning selfie of Levi in the woods, and a picture of him in a green feather boa with his arms around two beautiful drag queens.

Byron grinned automatically, charmed by Levi’s candid expressions. His hair was mussed and curly in each picture, as if he’d never met a brush in his life. His dark-brown eyes squinted and deep laugh lines formed around his bright smile.

The final frame held an elaborate abstract drawing that seemed to have been done with ballpoint pen on a cocktail napkin. The intricate, swirling lines were familiar, but he couldn’t quite place them.

He left the bed unmade.

Nothing in the room screamed magic and intrigue. The desk beside the bed held two computer speakers and a mouse, but no computer—the cops must have taken it. The bookshelf contained a few graphic novels, gourmet cookbooks, and photo books; it didn’t seem like Levi spent much time reading. He didn’t own a television. Three framed posters hung on the wall above Levi’s desk. Byron squinted at them for a few minutes until he figured out they were modern art renderings of popular film posters.

Byron opened the fridge and found a mix of takeout boxes, craft beer, and jars of vegetables with hand-drawn labels. He recognized the brand from the farmers’ market at Union Square. No eyes of newt or lizard tails to be found. Magnets on the fridge door held a list of phone numbers and names, a well-worn transit map, a business card for an acupuncturist in Williamsburg, and another photo of the woman with white hair. In this picture, she smiled with the same unguarded grin Levi had.

“Cynthia Camden,” Byron said out loud. What would happen if he called her? How would he introduce himself? As the man who had stood idly by while Levi was punished for saving lives? As the nephew of the face of mage persecution?

“Containment,” he corrected himself. Persecution? That sounded like something the radical mage-supporters said on websites run on overseas servers where the United States couldn’t shut them down quickly enough. Byron had to read those sites for work to understand what kinds of social conversations involved the Cole Industries brand. Public relations was nothing more than influencing the narrative—burying the bad and amplifying the good. Maybe all the radical things he’d read were starting to get to him. Maybe he was losing his mind.

Byron sat down at the little bistro table between the kitchen and the bed, and studied the circular rug. It was covered with gray cat hair. He spotted a litter box and bowls for food and water, but the box contained no litter and the bowls were empty.

“All right, Nancy Drew,” Byron said with a sigh. “This is getting you nowhere.”

What had he expected to learn in the first place?

Restless, Byron stood back up and peeked into the tiny bathroom. He knew why he was here. It wasn’t to find signs of magic. No one living in a city on high terror alert was going to be stupid enough to leave evidence in plain view. At least, not someone with the unmistakable cleverness Byron had seen in Levi’s eyes.

He’d come here to prove the point that stung like a sore: Levi was a normal man—a Brooklyn waiter with a tattoo and expensive beer with unpronounceable names in his refrigerator. He was a twentysomething who kept pictures of his mom around and stayed on good terms with exes. He liked art and colors, and he wasn’t an animal.

Levi would be better off as an animal than a rogue mage. The thought struck Byron like a blow, stole his breath.

At least people supported animal rights.

They walked dogs in strollers. They picketed against leather at fashion shows and rallied against hunters. They sank whaling ships.

Suddenly weary, Byron sat on the edge of Levi’s bed. He knew how things were going to go, because he was part of it. No one was going to stand up for Levi.

Anyone who spoke up for Levi would be labeled an extremist, no matter how bad things got for him. Too many people saw mages as subhuman whether they realized it or not—and legislation reflected it. Mages had already lost the right to vote. The right to raise their own children. It would seem absurd to advocate for Levi. After all, what was one more mage incarcerated—and a terrorist no less?

Byron had grown up with the privilege of ignoring mage rights. He’d never had anything at stake. Beyond losing his parents, he’d never known a moment’s real struggle. His entire life had been a preordained path of success.

Until now, he’d never considered that success might leave him on the wrong side of history.

He ran his hands across Levi’s sheets, smoothing the wrinkles he’d made. His fingers twitched, and he couldn’t shake the sticky thought of the press conference he’d been commuting to the morning Levi saved his life.

“What am I doing?”

The Harvest Initiative press conference—the speech he’d written—all of that had been theoretical. He didn’t know what the project’s machines really did. He hadn’t pressed, choosing instead to embrace his family’s legacy. A legacy of national security and innovation.

Witnessing the crime of magic in person had broken Byron’s resolve. He couldn’t muster the unwavering beliefs that made CALM a household name and the grim reality of anyone born with the scourge of magic.

For Byron, magic was no longer something that happened to other people. It was something that had saved him from certain, horrific death. Magic flourished inside a man Byron had touched—and been undeniably attracted to.

“Talk about navel-gazing,” Byron said with a sigh, recalling Levi’s tweet. He touched the outline of the metal pendant he wore beneath his shirt—the antiglamour device his uncle’s security detail had given him over a decade ago. If it wasn’t for the protection it gave him, he’d wonder if Levi had enchanted him.

He couldn’t stop thinking of Levi’s smile and the fall of hair that almost obscured his playful eyes.

“You’re not evil,” Byron said to the square photo on the fridge. It was another group photo—several men and women crowded close to get into the shot. They were laughing and smiling. Levi had his head on a woman’s shoulder and his gaze on the camera.

It was safe to bet that Levi posed no danger to anyone—that he didn’t deserve to be tortured and executed.

Dread settled in his gut. It was one thing to have an opinion. It was another thing entirely to do something about it.

Was he willing to bet his life?Chapter One

Some Sign of Life

Byron Cole was well into his personal best score at Trivia Dash. His phone blinked with the next question, bright against the darkness around him. Another distant explosion shook the subway car, and the little boy across the aisle began to cry.

The trivia timer was already winding down. Byron clenched his jaw and skimmed the question and answers.

What year did Charlotte’s Law pass? It was ninety-eight or ninety-nine. A girl in his second-grade class had been sent to foster care that year, when magic users were first forbidden to raise their own children.

He went with ninety-eight, and his run of correct answers ended. Sighing, he tucked his phone back into his messenger bag and rehearsed his speech silently.

Thanks to our nation’s vigilance and dedication, the United States has incarcerated those mages who pose a threat to our freedoms. And now Cole Industries has developed a system to relieve the tax burden of these rogue mages by using them to generate electricity to sell back to the power companies. Magic is an untapped resource and can produce the kind of clean energy America needs.

He ran through it again, wishing he’d emailed himself a copy. He’d written the speech himself, so he shouldn’t have been nervous about messing up, but this was his first assignment in front of a microphone. And he wasn’t prepared for follow-up questions he couldn’t answer.

No one had explained to him how exactly mages were going to generate electricity.

At the moment he was picturing thousands of stationary bikes. That was better than tuning in to the restless chatter around him. If his uncle hadn’t advised him to take the subway instead of a town car, he would have been at the press conference by now. But he agreed with the reasoning: He needed to humanize Cole Industries, give people someone to relate to. Someone who took public transportation.

And got stuck on public transportation.

“The police will be here soon,” the young woman sitting beside the sniffling boy was saying. She wore cut-off shorts and sparkling tennis shoes. An older sister or a nanny, maybe.

“How do you know?” he asked between shuddering breaths.

Byron felt a pang of remorse for ignoring the boy until now. Adults had a way of doing that to kids when terrible things happened. “The sirens. Hear them? They’re close,” he said, hoping no one else realized that didn’t mean a thing.

The dim emergency lights were still working, and the car wasn’t on fire, so the likelihood of being rescued any time soon was slim. Judging by the number of explosions that had gone off like thunder, nearby first responders had too much on their hands to deal with a stalled subway train. Thankfully, the boy gave a shaky nod and wiped his nose against his sleeve, apparently satisfied with Byron’s answer.

“Do you think it’s the terrorists?” an older woman asked. She sounded more hopeful than afraid, as if a terrorist attack was the best possible reason for the subway to have lost power in the middle of a pitch-black tunnel. It took Byron a long moment to realize she was addressing him, and by then others were watching him questioningly. They obviously didn’t realize he was only twenty-two.

He shifted in his seat, and his name badge for the press conference he was now incredibly late to caught on his sleeve. The Cole Industries logo gleamed. No wonder they expected him to know something. He plucked it off and shoved it into his pocket.

The woman’s voice went shrill. “Well?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if our delay is related to an act of terrorism.” Byron kept his tone low and even. “The alert level is pretty high right now.”

“Animals.” She made the sign of the cross hastily.

“I’m sure we’re safe. If they wanted to hurt us, they would have already.” A small part of him enjoyed the brief thrill of authority. At work, his colleagues—seasoned bioengineers and the pioneers of occult nanoscience—were more likely to ask him for a cup of coffee than his opinion. “All we have to do is wait for first responders.”

The woman sank back in her plastic seat, shoulders sagging with relief, but he had no real basis for reassuring her. Cole Industries was about to make a massive announcement regarding the next generation of their patented suppression technology, CALM. If anything was going to rile up the local cells of mage-rights extremists, it was a bigger and better way to control magic. For all he knew, they were about to die.

“Maybe it’s only construction,” a guy said softly. He’d been in the corner, seemingly asleep. But now he crouched by the boy, offering him a small package of crayons—the cheap, waxy sets of four they distributed at restaurants. He wore a white T-shirt and black slacks. A server, probably. Not at an upscale place, judging by the swirling edges of a tattoo peeking out from beneath one short sleeve.

“What do you say?” the nanny prompted, patting the boy’s shoulder.

The boy tore the package open with his teeth. “Thank you.”

The server smiled. “We’re safer down here than up there.”

“But my daddy’s up there,” the boy said. The tears returned, silent and fat.

“Um.” He sank back on his heels and looked up at Byron helplessly, as if he’d reached the extent of his ability to soothe children.

“I’m sure your father is fine,” Byron said absently, his gaze stuck on the guy’s shaggy mess of brown hair. He’d never considered himself the type to have a type, but after today, he wasn’t going to rule out pale boys with pretty curls as a front-runner.

The young man met his eyes in a bemused way that highlighted the charm of his thick eyebrows and dark-brown eyes. Byron turned away, his chest warming with a jitter of attraction.

“Late to work?”

Byron glanced back at him and yep—he was still incredibly attractive. He wanted to say something to that end, but he was out of practice when it came to flirting. “Sort of. I have a thing to go to.” This was why he preferred engaging in public relations from the safety of his own computer rather than having to act professional in public. His words had a way of jumbling up and making him sound young and foolish when he needed to seem anything but.

A soft smile didn’t make the server any less appealing. He gave Byron a look that held enough significance to make Byron’s pulse quicken. The plain, shameless interest didn’t calm Byron’s nerves. Nearly an hour trapped underground in a broken-down subway had been boring. Being flirted with by an adorable guy? Kind of terrifying.

He didn’t have to worry about his predicament for long though; the police abruptly pried open the door and shouted for everyone to stay calm and follow evacuation orders.

Byron gathered his messenger bag and waited for the little kid and the nanny to walk out first. Seven years at a high-profile boarding school had given him plenty of practice with evacuation drills, and it was second nature to fall in line and follow the light. This was a lot easier than trying to carry on small talk with a flirty, tattooed boy.

The burning smell from what should have been fresh October air above them made it hard to focus though.

The group quietly ascended the emergency stairs from the subway tunnel to the next level. Then it only took a few minutes of walking through a damp, narrow hallway to get to a ladder leading to the surface. Byron lined up behind the child, so he could catch him if the boy lost his grip. The kid climbed twice as fast though, clearly more accustomed to ladders than he was.

When he’d surfaced and picked himself up, Byron reached back for the evacuee behind him and found his hand clasped in the warm grip of the server with curls. Despite the thrum of helicopters overhead and the air thick with sirens, it occurred to Byron that this might be his only chance to ask the guy out. What harm would it do to break the grinding routine of entry-level PR work and catching up on baking shows on Netflix?

He should probably evaluate his coping mechanisms. Police in riot gear were dodging around abandoned taxis a few blocks away. A fire raged in the distance, smoking and steaming under the ministrations of several fire rigs. All signs pointed to an act of terror, and he was focusing on a server’s ass hugged by inexpensive slacks.

“Thanks.” Their hands remained entwined a moment too long. The man blurted, “Levi,” just before Byron could manage an introduction.

“Who’s Levi?” Byron asked.

“Me.”

“Oh, right.” He shook his head, flustered. “Of course. I’m—”

The storefront beside them exploded.

I’m going to die.

Would it be like the plane crashes and car wrecks that haunted his nightmares? But this time he wouldn’t wake up in a sweat. This was it.

Nothing happened.

“Shit.” That was Levi beside him, crouching with both hands raised as if to ward off the explosion.

“Oh God,” Byron whispered.

“I’m sorry.” Levi’s eyes were huge and scared. “I didn’t . . . It was an accident. Shit!”

Levi had warded off the explosion. With his hands—with magic. A shimmery barrier encircled all of them: The men and women from the subway car. The little boy. The police officers who already had their guns trained on Levi’s trembling form. The first responders who had been jogging toward them and now stood still and stunned.

“Lower your hands, mage,” one of the officers barked out.

“Dude.” Levi’s voice broke and his shoulders hunched in on himself. He flinched at the sound of boots scuffling closer. “If I stop, we’ll burn. We have to move away from the fire first. Can’t you see the flames?”

Most of the officers remained stalwart, advancing slowly—but a few looked up and around. Levi wasn’t exaggerating. Angry licks of fire were dancing along the perimeter he’d created.

Byron wasn’t about to wait on the decision-making skills of a group of rookie officers who’d been given evacuation duty. He began ushering the others to the far end of the bubble, away from the fire. He only had to gesture. Everyone shuffled with the wooden movements of people in shock. Levi remained still, clearly stricken with fear too raw to be fake.

Hadn’t it occurred to him that he could probably stop bullets with the same magic that shielded them from the explosion’s shrapnel and heat?

If he was really that clueless, he couldn’t be dangerous.

“I’m going to take a few steps back,” Levi said, swaying. “Okay? We’re all stepping back.”

When the entire group was out of the reach of the flames, the shield disappeared with no fanfare. It was simply there one moment and gone the next.

The others from the subway took off running down the street, toward the riot squad and the ambulances. But Byron couldn’t move. A sharp chill ran through him despite the pressing heat from the burning building across the road.

Levi’s shoulders sank like he wanted to curl in on himself and disappear too. Byron was startled to find himself wishing he would.

The punishment for unsanctioned use of magic was life in prison at best. For the powerful mages, it was execution.

Levi had to be strong. He’d stopped the raw force of an explosion. There were rumors that powerful mages could transform into small animals or bugs. Surely he had enough magic left to escape with his own life?

Byron clearly wasn’t the only one wondering if Levi could flee. One of the approaching officers hit Levi with a baton, driving him to his knees. Byron flinched and reached out as if he had the authority to stop them.

“Please. I didn’t mean to.” Levi made soft, pained sounds on each ragged breath. “It was an accident.”

They began to beat him, batons thudding against his back. He fell forward, bracing himself with his palms on the pavement and crying out.

He’d performed powerful magic by lifting his hands, but now he did nothing to defend himself from the blows that accompanied each demand that he keep his hands down on the ground.

“Mr. Cole.” One of the officers took Byron by the elbow. “Are you hurt?”

Levi’s pained expression gave way to betrayal that sent a lance of unreasonable guilt through Byron’s middle.

“Yes. I’m fine,” he said. Thanks to Levi.

“I recognize you from the Police Foundation gala. The magic containment unit is en route. Cole Industries vehicles. Let me escort you to an ambulance.” Fresh-faced and eager, the officer couldn’t be much older than Byron. It was a wonder none of them had put a bullet or ten through Levi’s skull yet. No one would fault an officer for killing a mage in self-defense—and that’s what it would be called if Levi so much as twitched his fingers in the wrong direction.

“I’ll stay,” Byron said, noting the officer’s name badge. Madison.

He didn’t need to stay. But he could explain his presence away easily enough: he’d never witnessed Cole Industries’ equipment in the field firsthand, and his curiosity had gotten the best of him. Even his uncle would believe that.

“Are the terror suspects in custody?” he asked, gesturing at the blaze. Half a dozen ladder trucks idled a few blocks over, likely waiting on an all-clear after Levi’s display of magic.

“Only this one.” Madison jerked a thumb toward Levi. His hand trembled.

Anger flashed across Levi’s face. He tossed his hair out of his eyes. Blood ran down the side of his face. “Seriously? If I wanted to kill people I could have let them die. In the giant explosion.”

The air seemed to stir.

“You said yourself saving them was an accident,” one of the officers near Levi said, gun trained on his back. “You didn’t really mean to protect anyone else but yourself.”

“So I rigged an explosion and then saved people from it? Super logical. I’m a criminal fucking mastermind.”

Christ, Levi. Stop talking. All of this was on tape thanks to the officers’ body cams. Angry sarcasm or not, that would hold water as a confession. The best Levi could hope for now was a quick death, and he wasn’t even going to get that if the public thought they had a terrorist to burn.

A special unit vehicle hurtled down the street like a tank on steroids. Byron had seen plenty of videos of test runs, but surround sound didn’t compare to the angry roar of the engine. It was the size of a monster truck. Embarrassingly bulky.

Levi was so small in comparison.

The vehicle skidded to a stop, and half a dozen men and women in hazard armor poured out. One of them hit Levi with a long-range stun gun without a word of warning.

Levi fell onto his side and convulsed, eyes blank with pain as the current ran through his body. The regular police officers shuffled back, unabashedly staring.

Madison rubbed his jaw and frowned. “I’ve only seen magic, you know, on TV.”

Every season some new show featured a villain using special-effects magic to rob banks or go on a killing spree. “Magic on TV isn’t real,” Byron said, voice tight.

Levi gasped on the hot concrete. That was real.

“Think they can stop him?”

“Stop him from what?” Byron snapped. It wasn’t like Levi was threatening anyone. And in a moment, he wouldn’t be able to use magic at all, thanks to Cole Industries.

A woman from the containment team nimbly clasped CALM bands around Levi’s wrists while he lay on the dusty concrete struggling to breathe, tears streaking down his face.

Byron tried to shake the feeling that all of this was wrong. He’d spent his entire life listening to his uncle justify magic control. Thanks to a minor in ethics with a concentration in occult theory, he understood better than most the reasoning behind keeping magic heavily regulated. CALM bands gave mages the opportunity to live normal lives, and they protected the general public inexpensively—a fact that tax payers loved.

“Stop him from doing magic.” Madison shuddered. “The Devil’s work.”

Byron’s teeth clicked together as he swallowed back a sharp reply. He wasn’t one of the uneducated bigots who hated all mages—even bound mages—because magic was “Satanic.”

“Yes,” he managed, watching a containment unit officer reach for the button that would activate Levi’s CALM bands. “I think they can stop him from doing magic.”

Garbled orders sounded from the radio at the officer’s hip. She pressed the button.

Levi began screaming.

It was awful—like nothing Byron had ever heard in his life. He knew in an instant that he would never forget the mindless, raw sound.

Madison turned to Byron, eyes wide. “Is that normal?”

“No. We don’t manufacture torture devices.”

Do we?

Levi’s screams died down, and then choked off.

He stopped convulsing.

He stopped moving at all.

Byron held his breath in turn, waiting for a twitch. A gasp. Some sign of life. But nothing happened. Levi lay there pale and contorted, with rivulets of bright-red blood streaking from his nose and ears.

The woman who had activated the bands crouched and touched Levi’s chest, hand inching out like she was reaching into a basket of snakes. “He’s not breathing.”

“Perform CPR!” Byron shouted. No one moved. “Listen to me, there’s a project. It’s part of the announcement today. We’re searching for mages like this man, untapped potential. If my uncle finds out we lost a prime candidate . . .” He let the empty threat hang.

After a long pause, two of the containment unit techs began resuscitating Levi. Byron sat down hard on the curb, his legs numb. Helicopters circled above. He could already see the headlines. Billionaire’s heir narrowly escapes death at the hands of a rogue mage.

When Levi’s chest began to rise and fall again, Byron didn’t feel any relief. Dread, thicker than smoke, caught in his throat—and he remained at the curb long after they had carried Levi’s limp form into the special unit vehicle and driven him away.

He didn’t even know Levi’s last name.

But he would soon.


Chapter Two

A Minor Moral Crisis

 

Cole Industries canceled the press conference.

After being checked out by the paramedics and giving a statement, Byron had been allowed to head home. He’d ridden in silence in the backseat of a town car for two hours in the horrendous traffic clogging up the city in the wake of the terrorist attack. All the Trivia Dash had left him with a dead cell phone.

Now Byron sat on his couch watching the news replay an overhead shot of Levi being loaded into the containment unit. He’d called his supervisors at the office under the guise of letting them know he was all right, and they’d confirmed what he’d hoped for—and dreaded.

Cole Industries had already requested custody of Levi. It was essentially a stay of execution. Cole Industries had access to all incarcerated magic users, and carte blanche to use them however the organization saw fit. It was part of the intricate, unprecedented contract Cole Industries had with the United States government to develop magic-containment technology.

“This isn’t how I pictured seeing you on TV today,” Eleanor said.

His roommate—and best friend—taught high school downtown, and the school was close enough to the explosions that it had been closed for the rest of the week.

“You wouldn’t have seen me on TV today anyway.” Byron sank back against the cushions and rubbed his eyes.

“Actually, my tenth graders were supposed to watch the press conference in ethics class. Several of them are writing their term papers on Cole Industries’ role in the private prison system and suppression devices.”

“I’m surprised the superintendent is letting that fly.” Even top universities struggled to fill seats in classes that debated magic control. Students trying to attend those classes had to run a gauntlet of antimagic protestors and smaller groups of students protesting mage registration.

“We have the highest percentage of registered, bound-mage students in the district. These issues are relevant to my kids.”

“Still ballsy, E.” Byron had seen enough drama on Eleanor’s Facebook wall to know that parents were looking for blood, furious with kids having the freedom to discuss radical ideas.

It was only lunchtime, but Byron felt like he’d been awake for days. He slipped his tie off and draped it over the side of the couch. Eleanor leaned against him, as if she instinctively knew he craved the contact.

“Obviously I have big balls.” Her breath huffed with a silent laugh as she nursed the dregs of a lukewarm cup of coffee. The power flickered briefly, but not enough to turn the TV off.

“The biggest.” It had been a running joke since they were little. She’d been the cooler, older kid on weekends at the shore—their parents slinging back cocktails at sunset while Eleanor dared Byron to sneak mini-bottles of vodka out of the cooler.

He’d always refused.

“The CALM kids are just as afraid of terrorists as the rest of us.” She sobered. “They didn’t ask to be born with magic. It isn’t fair to lump them in with terrorists taking innocent lives.”

“Careful,” he said halfheartedly. “Your reputation will go from liberal to radical before you know it.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about my reputation. It can’t get any worse than how pissed my parents are about me teaching.” Her words had no force behind them though. They both knew she couldn’t afford to lose her job.

“I’ve seen how rabid those parents are on your Facebook wall. People are looking for blood. You could get fired for standing up for CALM kids.”

“They need someone to stand up for them. It isn’t safe at school anymore. Two more kids in my homeroom got beat up this week. Their parents are going to homeschool them now.”

“They’re probably better off at home.” Byron ignored her gasp. “They won’t get into college anyway. Most employers won’t hire them.”

“Oh, okay.” Her coffee sloshed around in her Nyan Cat mug. “We just give up on them, then. Lost causes.”

Any other day, Byron would have been up for a debate with Eleanor. But the argument didn’t entertain him the way it used to. The argument now had kind brown eyes and a warm, solid hand. And a name. Levi Camden.

“They’re harmless,” he said absently.

Eleanor sighed and turned the volume on the TV down. She pushed her chin-length hair behind her ear. This month it was a reddish brown. Last month it’d been dirty blond. She referred to her color indecision as a midlife crisis, though she was only twenty-six. “Seriously. What is going on with you?”

“That man . . .” Byron blinked away the memory of Levi’s brown eyes.

“The terrorist they caught?”

“I’m not sure he was a terrorist. I met him on the subway, and he used magic to stop the explosion from killing over a dozen of us.”

“Did you hit your head?” Eleanor caught his gaze. “I don’t want to be a dick here, but generally you toe the line pretty hard. Terrorists use magic and mages are terrorists and Cole Industries has ’Murica’s best interests at heart, and all that.”

Byron pressed his fingers against his eyes.

“Well?” she prompted. “Wasn’t that going to be the gist of the press conference today?”

“He didn’t strike me as the type of person who’d destroy things and kill people.”

“Ignoring the fact that you’re making a really random judgment call there, can’t rogue mages warp perception?”

“You know how Warren is. I’ve been wearing an antiglamour device since I was ten. Even if Levi had been using perception-based magic, it wouldn’t have worked on me.” Byron glanced up at the TV. “Hold on. Turn it up.”

A middle-aged anchor was speaking gravely beside a graphic with a photo of Levi that looked like it had been pulled from Facebook. Levi smiled broadly from a booth in a bar, his arm around a black man with his face blurred out. Two half-empty beers in glasses sat on the table in front of them.

“Authorities say twenty-one-year-old Levi Camden of Brooklyn has been arrested for unsanctioned use of magic. The suspected rogue mage is not registered with the Department of Occult Supervision and was not outfitted with CALM devices at the time of the incident. Investigators are contacting Camden’s immediate family, coworkers, and friends to determine whether or not there were prior indications of magic capabilities. Under the Homeland Security Act, any individual knowingly harboring a rogue mage may be sentenced with up to five years in federal prison.

“The Keep CALM Alliance published a release distancing the activism group from any and all known terrorists, reiterating that KCA’s focus remains on facilitating peaceful relations between bound mages and the general public.”

“They shouldn’t have to say that,” Eleanor muttered. “Of course that’s their focus.”

“The manager at Café Ciccone, where Camden was a member of the wait staff, has released a statement condemning magic use. According to investigators, there is strong reason to believe that Camden is a member of the terrorist cell that triggered explosives killing eighteen people in New York City early this morning.”

“Levi should have kept his mouth shut,” Byron said.

Eleanor glanced at him, her blue eyes questioning beneath her delicately arched brow.

“Camden’s mother, fifty-one-year-old Cynthia Camden of Taunton, Massachusetts, did not respond to our calls. According to a public social media profile, Camden was active in the local arts and LGBT communities. He had no known ties with magic rights organizations.”

“He’s cute,” Eleanor said.

“I didn’t notice. I was busy almost dying in a horrific explosion,” Byron said, turning the TV off.

Eleanor nudged him. “You thought he was cute, admit it. Is that what this weirdness is about? Don’t feel guilty. You had no way of knowing he was a mass murderer.”

“He’s not— I didn’t— Damn it. No. I didn’t flirt with him. And I’m not being weird.”

“You’re definitely being weird. You never watch the news unless Warren’s bloviating about saving the universe.”

Byron ran his fingers through his hair. They caught in the tackiness of the styling cream he’d used to keep the stick-straight black mess in some semblance of the eighty-dollar haircut only his stylist could tame. It was all so absurd. Hair cream and a suit worth a month’s salary and Eleanor jabbing him about flirting.

Everything was trivial in the face of Levi going into cardiac arrest in the middle of the street because the CALM bands had done something very bad to him they’d never done to anyone else.

Or maybe Byron had never been made aware of CALM bands doing that to anyone else.

“I’m teasing you,” Eleanor said quietly, interrupting his thoughts. “I know you didn’t flirt with that guy. He is cute, though.”

Byron sighed. “He saved my life. And not only me—all those people. And he seemed surprised by his own magic. Do you think he really was? Is it possible to live for twenty-one years without knowing you’re a mage?”

“That’s a question for your coworkers, not for me.” When Byron remained silent, eyeing the high ceiling of their apartment, she went on, “But I think it’s interesting you’re entertaining the notion that he didn’t know he had magic.”

“Why is that interesting?”

“Because you seem determined to defend this guy.”

A traitorous flush heated his neck. “Think about it though. He was scared. Genuinely scared.”

“Jesus, Byron. You’re obsessed.”

“I guess I’m having a minor moral crisis. Maybe I’ll help you grade those ethics term papers. Learn something from your students.” He let out a weak laugh, trying to lighten the mood.

Eleanor gave him a long, unamused look and stood up, taking her coffee cup and his. She headed into the kitchen with her phone in her other hand, thumb already unlocking the screen.

Left in the silent living room with the blank TV in front of him, Byron wondered what else the news was saying about Levi. He couldn’t bring himself to turn it back on and face it.

One thought played in his head over and over, a little more treacherous every time: If he had the ability to stop destruction and death with the wave of his hand, he’d risk his life to keep that power. He wouldn’t give it up. Not for the law. Not for anyone.

If he’d had magic—some way to predict the future or see in the dark or travel great distances in a blink of an eye—he could have saved his parents. He would have.

He would have used magic without hesitation.

It was easily the most treasonous notion that had ever crossed his mind. How did one server from Brooklyn have the ability to unravel the values Byron had wholeheartedly subscribed to his entire life?

It was giving him a headache, and even that gave him pangs of guilt. Yes, his head hurt, but he wasn’t frightened or in agony. He wasn’t all over the news being called a mass murderer. He wasn’t in danger of being put to death for using an innate gift.

The practice of magic had always been abstract to Byron. Sure, he’d been around bound mages, but they couldn’t pull off a party trick, let alone legitimate magic. Not with CALM bands on. And the rare rogue mages who got caught using magic were only characters in the newspaper. A lawyer in Scottsdale. A stripper in Reno. A truck driver in Alaska. Distant threats immediately neutralized by the most foolproof method available—execution.

Levi wasn’t abstract. His hand had been warm and human, and he’d been so frightened, not of the deadly shrapnel and fire, but of the men and women he’d saved.

Byron needed a beer, not another cup of coffee. “Shit.”

Chapter Three

Off the Rails

“Did you knowingly and willingly use magic on the morning of Thursday, October second, at 9:16 a.m.?”

Levi wondered how many days had stretched between the beginning of October and now. A week? A lifetime? At least several days judging by the scruff on his jaw.

An investigator sat across from Levi, flanked by a man and woman dressed like cops from a bad sci-fi movie. They held menacing batons and wore black bodysuits with armor sleeker than any bulletproof vests Levi had ever seen. Not that he’d ever seen a bulletproof vest outside of TV shows.

The investigator was a tall guy, with the sallow complexion of a lifelong smoker and the tight expression of someone clenching their butt with fear.

“I didn’t check the time on my phone before everything blew up,” Levi said.

“Unlawful magic use is punishable by death.” The investigator squinted until the protruding bags under his eyes obscured his gaze. “Do you think this is funny?”

“No. I think it’s funny that you think I have a magical time stamp.”

“But you admit to using magic.”

“Whatever happened is probably on fifteen security cameras. Why don’t you review the footage and tell me?”

Talking about magic came surprisingly easy now that he had nothing to lose. After waking up on a gurney in a room too cold and sparse to be a real hospital, he’d tried to use his magic in a panic. A blistering flare of pain had immediately rendered him unconscious. The next time he’d risen out of the darkness, he’d had a breathing tube down his throat. That alone had been unpleasant enough to stop him from trying again.

Now his ribs throbbed with every breath, his head ached like he’d had three bottles of wine for breakfast, and his magic was all wrong.

It was still there. But his magic was a tightness inside of him, like a breath held too long. It hurt.

Whatever the CALM bands on his wrists were doing made his entire body sore like one big bruise. The bands weren’t heavy, but they weighed him down every waking second.

“Believe me, the security footage will come into play during your trial,” the investigator said.

“Will my trial take place in the town square? Right before the bonfire?” Levi waved his fingers like smoke and flames rising from his body.

The investigator flinched.

Levi sighed. Inspiring fear was a new, shitty experience. He hated killing spiders and felt marginally bad for killing cockroaches. He’d never been in a fight. He didn’t even leave bad reviews on Yelp.

“What will make this quicker?” he asked. “Can’t you tell me that much?”

“What do you mean?”

“What’s the path of least resistance here? The fast track to execution.”

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Occult Supervision want a thorough report on this incident and on any instances of magic use that may have occurred before the alleged unlawful use on October second,” the investigator said. Levi had already forgotten his name. There were too many bad guys to keep track of.

“So no matter what, I have to deal with all this bullshit before they end up killing me anyway?”

“No, you have to deal with all this bullshit before we turn you over to Cole Industries’ people.” For the first time, the investigator smiled. “They have a use for you.”

Levi folded his arms and shrank back in the cold, hard chair he’d been sitting in for three hours of interrogations. He’d always told himself that a violent death was inevitable—and pretended not to care. It was the risk he’d taken when he’d decided not to submit to registration and wear CALM bands. But that was an epic load of bravado. Execution wasn’t the way he wanted to go out. It wasn’t something he wanted his mother and friends to see.

And being poked and prodded by magic-hating scientists sounded even worse than being executed.

“They can’t experiment on me.” Levi’s voice tripped in his sore throat. “I—I have rights. Human rights. It’s torture.”

“You forfeited those rights when you failed to identify yourself as a mage and submit yourself to the CALM program,” the investigator said.

“That’s fucked up,” Levi said, glancing from him to the guards. They were people. People in scary outfits. Nothing more. “You know it is.” Desperation thinned his voice. The room swayed.

The investigator closed his leather notebook with a snap that startled Levi’s attention back from the panic whittling away at his composure. “I will repeat the question again. Until you give me a straightforward answer, we’ll keep this up. I have all night.”

“Can we order a pizza?” Levi shot back.

“Maybe you can conjure yourself something to eat.” The investigator cleared his throat. “Did you knowingly and willingly use magic on the morning of Thursday, October second, at 9:16 a.m.?”

Blanketed with weariness, Levi couldn’t come up with another deflection. He wanted to go back to the cell. He wanted to sleep. Sleep was his only escape, and he’d been up for longer than he could keep track of now. Maybe he’d be able to nod off despite the way his magic was beating at his rib cage like a frantic bird.

“I used magic that morning. It wasn’t willingly or knowingly.” Levi ducked his chin, feeling like a coward. “The explosion scared me, and I made a shield without thinking. I could have stopped myself after that, but it would have meant murdering all of them.”

“When you say ‘shield,’ are you referring to an incantation?”

“I don’t know any enchantments or spells or incantations.” Levi didn’t try to mask his bitterness. Magic existed within him, but he didn’t know how to use it—how to control it. Until that morning, he’d been more likely to short out a toaster than create a life-saving bubble. “It happened on its own. It was an accident.”

“Were you aware of being a mage prior to October second?”

Levi closed his eyes and pictured his mom in her little second-floor apartment. He saw her small hands wrapped around his wrists and the tears in her eyes as she’d made him promise to never, ever let his magic out. He’d been six years old and so angry at the bulldozers tearing down the complex across the street where his friends had lived. They’d had to move to make room for a big store. He’d wished so hard that the construction men would go away, and one of the bulldozers had tipped right over, like a toy. It had been easy.

So much easier than lying every single day of his life.

“No, I wasn’t.” Levi opened his eyes and met the investigator’s beady gaze. “I’m sure you can imagine my surprise.”

“I’m sure you can imagine my skepticism, Mr. Camden,” the investigator said, parroting his tone. “I’m no expert on magic use, but what I saw on those tapes didn’t resemble the work of an amateur.”

“No one’s an expert on magic use.” Levi gave a soft, hysterical laugh. “Because it’s outlawed. Because you shackle us and clip our wings. You take our children away. And burn us and torture us. No one knows what magic can do because you’re all so fucking afraid.”

“And you’ve developed those strong opinions this past week? In the six days since you suddenly and shockingly discovered you had magic on the morning of the terrorist attack?”

Levi scrubbed one hand down his face. “I read blogs,” he said lamely.

“How long have you been involved with the terrorist group responsible for the attack?”

“I’m not a terrorist. If I had known about those explosions, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near them.”

“Really? You wouldn’t have stopped the terrorists?” the female guard asked abruptly. The investigator made a big show of turning to glare at her, but she continued to watch Levi steadily. “If you’d known?”

The question stole Levi’s breath. A long moment passed before he found his voice. “I don’t know.” When he blinked, the exhausted tears he’d been fighting for hours fell. They felt good against his face, and he didn’t bother wiping them away. “I’m not a superhero. I don’t owe anybody anything.”

After a brief frown, she steeled her expression. “Pardon me,” she said with a nod to the investigator. “It wasn’t my place to question the suspect.”

“Did people die?” Levi asked. “In the fires and explosions? I was stuck on the subway and we couldn’t get any reception down there. What happened?”

“Do you want to make sure your attempts at terrorism were successful?” the investigator snarled.

“I told you I had nothing to do with it.”

“Then why do you want to know?”

“Because I’m a human being?” Levi fought the urge to shout. “And she thinks I should have saved the world. Just wondering who else I was supposed to protect other than the people on that subway car who are probably already lining up to watch me get burned at the stake.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she mumbled.

“This interrogation has officially gone off the rails.” The investigator stood and made a big show of smoothing out the wrinkles in his suit. “And I’m late to dinner. Take the suspect back to his cell.”

Without another word, he punched a few numbers into the keypad and left the interrogation room.

“Asshole,” Levi muttered. He didn’t resist when the guards took his arms and lifted him. To his surprise, his legs barely held his weight. Someone supplied a wheelchair, and they dumped him into it. He hunched over. Linoleum tiles glided beneath his bare feet. If he pretended hard enough, this could be a really awful hospital visit, not a trip back down the elevator to the small cell that contained nothing but a metal toilet.

The female guard kept her hand on his shoulder. It was warm. He wasn’t sure if she was restraining him or supporting him, but he appreciated the touch. “I’m not one of those terrorists,” he said quietly.

Her hand tightened on his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter.”

Chapter Four

A Normal Man

It hadn’t taken the tabloids long to find Levi’s Twitter account and embed tweet after tweet in articles alleging Levi’s sordid history as a rogue mage. But none of his tweets were substantially incriminating.

Byron knew because he’d spent hours reading back through years of tweets. Thousands of them. As Byron scrolled, Levi’s number of followers grew with rubberneckers flocking to his pseudo-celebrity status.

None of Levi’s tweets referenced magic or terrorism or anything that could be remotely construed as radical. His only political leanings seemed to be related to better bike lanes and affordable health care. As the news had reported, he appeared to have been involved in the local LGBT scene, but not as an activist. The most aggressive thing he’d posted was an angry message at his internet service provider for repeated outages.

Levi’s social media presence painted the portrait of a very average, somewhat aimless young man.

Sitting in bed with a laptop, Byron found himself chuckling at Levi’s rage over the spoilers from last season’s big dramatic finale of a popular cable show about an alien FBI agent. He nodded in agreement with Levi’s assertion that Hide-Chan Ramen had the best noodles in the city. He cringed when Levi lost job after job when new restaurants opened and subsequently closed.

Byron noted a nine-month series of tweets that indicated Levi had been in a relationship with a club owner named Sam two years before. Byron recognized the broad shoulders of the man whose face had been blurred out on the news report.

It didn’t take much searching to figure out that Sam was Sam Johnson, a former attorney who had abruptly switched gears from social justice advocacy to the hospitality industry. His club, Summons—a hybrid between an art gallery and a dance club—had remained a steadfast hotspot in the gay community for several years. Levi’s Twitter account didn’t get into the details of their breakup, but they still tweeted at each other occasionally. Sam was Byron’s best chance to learn more about Levi, but the cops were probably way ahead of him.

Levi’s last tweet was dated September fifteenth, right before midnight. Do you ever wonder what your purpose is? #navelgazing.

It was the most oft-cited tweet used to characterize Levi as a radical willing to terrorize in the name of magic. It was a stretch at best, and slander at worst, to use such a vague statement as evidence. But Byron understood needing to blame someone, to put a face to terror. Specifics, inaccurate or not, were better than facing down the possibility that bad things happened for no reason.

It was a similar tug that pulled him deeper into Levi’s timeline until it was clear he wouldn’t learn enough there. He needed to know more than what any curious person could find online.

It was surprisingly easy to gain access to Levi Camden’s apartment.

He told the police chief he was working on a public statement from Cole Industries—a deeply personal message from the perspective of a would-be victim of the terrorist attack. The chief gave him a spare key.

“We’ve already documented everything in his apartment, and the Bureau found nothing of note there,” he said warmly, taking Byron’s shoulder in a fatherly grip. “So don’t worry about prints or moving anything. And honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you took a dump on his living room floor after what he’s done to this city.”

“I assure you, that won’t be on my agenda,” Byron said, smiling through a wave of irritation.

It had never escaped Byron’s awareness that being part of the Cole dynasty afforded him many privileges. Until the police chief bent the law for him, it had never occurred to him how easy it would be to take advantage of that.

Not that he was complaining. He needed to learn more, and there was no better place to get started than Levi Camden’s studio on the third floor of a building in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The apartment was tiny, but bright-yellow walls warmed it. The scuffed floors bore the marks of decades of tenants. Byron locked the door behind him and realized he didn’t have much of a game plan or any idea what to look for.

Fat flies buzzed around a sink full of dirty dishes. He turned on the hot water and began to wash them.

Levi’s dish soap smelled like lemongrass. The dishes were mismatched—a deep-blue plate, a floral teacup, and a red cereal bowl. He smiled as he scrubbed at dried pasta sauce. Something about the bright colors made doing dishes suck less.

It didn’t take long to wash and dry the dishes with a tea towel covered with foxes. The reality of what he was doing in the apartment crashed back into his mind as soon as he was done.

Not only was he spying on someone’s life, but he was compromising his ability to do his job. He’d lied to the police chief, but the truth was he’d likely be tasked with writing something for Cole Industries, and the more he dug into Levi’s life, the more biased he’d become. What could he possibly come up with to villainize Levi?

This didn’t look like the apartment of a terrorist—though what did a terrorist’s apartment look like? Surely not covered in propaganda posters and machine guns and bombs.

While terrorist behavior was inhumane, those who killed for their beliefs—however misguided and cruel—were still people. They weren’t robots. Maybe they all had colorful dishes and bright-yellow walls in sunny little studios in Brooklyn.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Byron said to himself, uncomfortably filling the silence. He opened a window to let the sound of the street in so the apartment felt alive—and not like a mausoleum.

Levi’s single bed was unmade. Above it, a mismatched gallery wall displayed drawings and small photos with saturated Instagram filters. Byron climbed onto the bed for a closer look. He took his shoes off first.

It was impossible to ignore the faint smell of another person. It wasn’t a bad smell—skin and citrusy soap. Byron exhaled heavily and turned his attention to the gallery: a scrawled drawing of a cat, a photo of Levi and a middle-aged woman with shockingly white hair, a photograph of the NYC skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge, a grinning selfie of Levi in the woods, and a picture of him in a green feather boa with his arms around two beautiful drag queens.

Byron grinned automatically, charmed by Levi’s candid expressions. His hair was mussed and curly in each picture, as if he’d never met a brush in his life. His dark-brown eyes squinted and deep laugh lines formed around his bright smile.

The final frame held an elaborate abstract drawing that seemed to have been done with ballpoint pen on a cocktail napkin. The intricate, swirling lines were familiar, but he couldn’t quite place them.

He left the bed unmade.

Nothing in the room screamed magic and intrigue. The desk beside the bed held two computer speakers and a mouse, but no computer—the cops must have taken it. The bookshelf contained a few graphic novels, gourmet cookbooks, and photo books; it didn’t seem like Levi spent much time reading. He didn’t own a television. Three framed posters hung on the wall above Levi’s desk. Byron squinted at them for a few minutes until he figured out they were modern art renderings of popular film posters.

Byron opened the fridge and found a mix of takeout boxes, craft beer, and jars of vegetables with hand-drawn labels. He recognized the brand from the farmers’ market at Union Square. No eyes of newt or lizard tails to be found. Magnets on the fridge door held a list of phone numbers and names, a well-worn transit map, a business card for an acupuncturist in Williamsburg, and another photo of the woman with white hair. In this picture, she smiled with the same unguarded grin Levi had.

“Cynthia Camden,” Byron said out loud. What would happen if he called her? How would he introduce himself? As the man who had stood idly by while Levi was punished for saving lives? As the nephew of the face of mage persecution?

“Containment,” he corrected himself. Persecution? That sounded like something the radical mage-supporters said on websites run on overseas servers where the United States couldn’t shut them down quickly enough. Byron had to read those sites for work to understand what kinds of social conversations involved the Cole Industries brand. Public relations was nothing more than influencing the narrative—burying the bad and amplifying the good. Maybe all the radical things he’d read were starting to get to him. Maybe he was losing his mind.

Byron sat down at the little bistro table between the kitchen and the bed, and studied the circular rug. It was covered with gray cat hair. He spotted a litter box and bowls for food and water, but the box contained no litter and the bowls were empty.

“All right, Nancy Drew,” Byron said with a sigh. “This is getting you nowhere.”

What had he expected to learn in the first place?

Restless, Byron stood back up and peeked into the tiny bathroom. He knew why he was here. It wasn’t to find signs of magic. No one living in a city on high terror alert was going to be stupid enough to leave evidence in plain view. At least, not someone with the unmistakable cleverness Byron had seen in Levi’s eyes.

He’d come here to prove the point that stung like a sore: Levi was a normal man—a Brooklyn waiter with a tattoo and expensive beer with unpronounceable names in his refrigerator. He was a twentysomething who kept pictures of his mom around and stayed on good terms with exes. He liked art and colors, and he wasn’t an animal.

Levi would be better off as an animal than a rogue mage. The thought struck Byron like a blow, stole his breath.

At least people supported animal rights.

They walked dogs in strollers. They picketed against leather at fashion shows and rallied against hunters. They sank whaling ships.

Suddenly weary, Byron sat on the edge of Levi’s bed. He knew how things were going to go, because he was part of it. No one was going to stand up for Levi.

Anyone who spoke up for Levi would be labeled an extremist, no matter how bad things got for him. Too many people saw mages as subhuman whether they realized it or not—and legislation reflected it. Mages had already lost the right to vote. The right to raise their own children. It would seem absurd to advocate for Levi. After all, what was one more mage incarcerated—and a terrorist no less?

Byron had grown up with the privilege of ignoring mage rights. He’d never had anything at stake. Beyond losing his parents, he’d never known a moment’s real struggle. His entire life had been a preordained path of success.

Until now, he’d never considered that success might leave him on the wrong side of history.

He ran his hands across Levi’s sheets, smoothing the wrinkles he’d made. His fingers twitched, and he couldn’t shake the sticky thought of the press conference he’d been commuting to the morning Levi saved his life.

“What am I doing?”

The Harvest Initiative press conference—the speech he’d written—all of that had been theoretical. He didn’t know what the project’s machines really did. He hadn’t pressed, choosing instead to embrace his family’s legacy. A legacy of national security and innovation.

Witnessing the crime of magic in person had broken Byron’s resolve. He couldn’t muster the unwavering beliefs that made CALM a household name and the grim reality of anyone born with the scourge of magic.

For Byron, magic was no longer something that happened to other people. It was something that had saved him from certain, horrific death. Magic flourished inside a man Byron had touched—and been undeniably attracted to.

“Talk about navel-gazing,” Byron said with a sigh, recalling Levi’s tweet. He touched the outline of the metal pendant he wore beneath his shirt—the antiglamour device his uncle’s security detail had given him over a decade ago. If it wasn’t for the protection it gave him, he’d wonder if Levi had enchanted him.

He couldn’t stop thinking of Levi’s smile and the fall of hair that almost obscured his playful eyes.

“You’re not evil,” Byron said to the square photo on the fridge. It was another group photo—several men and women crowded close to get into the shot. They were laughing and smiling. Levi had his head on a woman’s shoulder and his gaze on the camera.

It was safe to bet that Levi posed no danger to anyone—that he didn’t deserve to be tortured and executed.

Dread settled in his gut. It was one thing to have an opinion. It was another thing entirely to do something about it.

Was he willing to bet his life?


 

from Kirkus

***STARRED REVIEW***

A powerful, thought-provoking, and spellbinding debut