My concentration sucked.
Okay, so it had been a busy year. First, Jazz Corey, Queen of the Witches, kidnapped me and I found out I was a legendary witch-hero called the Shadowalker, a warrior destined to free the witches from the most evil being in history. Next, my mother turned out to be Nire, otherwise known as the most evil being in history, and I had to send her to live with the dinosaurs. Then Jazz got killed, I had to go save Jazz from death’s haven, I lost two fingers off my sword hand in a harpy attack, and I made an enemy out of a child-eating shapeshifter called the Erlking, who kidnapped my younger brother, Todd.
And oh, yeah. I got made King of the Witches.
Not much to think about, right?
My concentration sucked worse than usual.
I gave a frustrated huff. No matter how hard I tried to focus I couldn’t get my mind off the one thousand other things I needed to be doing. Working out with Rol, feeding Todd’s animals, figuring out how many other half-brothers good old Mom might have left in different times and places in her attempt to breed the Shadowalker, talk to Jazz, track that kidnapping evil freak of an Erlking—the list never seemed to end.
Dad stared at me across the wide, empty barn we had used to store a bunch of ticked off harpies last year. His brown hair and beard looked neater than usual, probably because his girlfriend was standing beside him with her arms crossed. Dame Corey’s black and silver hair was way past neat, just like her black blouse and black slacks. Her disappointed expression bugged me, though. I tried to glare at her, but I just couldn’t. She was my girl Jazz’s mother, after all.
In between the three of us sat a sawhorse. I was supposed to make it vanish with magic and then make it reappear again. I could hardly believe Dad had done it with his new power, left over from a wild surge of magic Jazz had turned loose when she defeated the evil half-brother I did know about—Alderon—in the Battle of L.O.S.T. It had been an accident when Dad made a footstool vanish, but then he practiced up to bigger things. He still couldn’t make himself disappear. Dame Corey didn’t even want him to try magic that advanced.
Morning light filtered between boards in the loft, making dust sparkle. What dust Dame Corey hadn’t zapped to oblivion, that was. She had way too much in common with Jazz, except Jazz was getting a little better about the dirt thing.
I wasn’t getting better with my focus, though.
“Why do I have to make a sawhorse vanish?” I grumbled. “Why can’t I just jump straight to the part where I make myself disappear?”
“Do you wish to end up vanishing yourself to another realm?” Dame Corey said with a touch of irritation in her voice. At my look of resignation, she added, “I thought not.”
I drew my sword with my right hand and wished it didn’t feel so clumsy. As I lifted it, my left hand twitched. I used to be left-handed before that harpy attack that cost me two fingers. “Fine. I’ll do it, no sweat.”
Jazz wasn’t able to appear and disappear, but Dame Corey said it was because Jazz could leave her body in spirit form and travel as a hawk. Dame Corey figured since Dad could make things vanish and bring them back, that it would be a talent I should have, too.
She also suspected that my Dad had a touch of witchcraft in him. She didn’t think my mother, I mean Nire, the Shadowmaster, would have chosen him to father me if he didn’t. Best we could figure from old texts and reports of rescued witches, Nire had used the Path, a ribbon through time connecting Sanctuaries designed to keep witches safe from persecution, to try to fulfill her dark plans. She had walked the Path from place to place and time to time, picked out men, and had babies. She hadn’t stayed very long in any one place or time until I was born.
Guess she realized I had the power. My brother, Todd, probably had it, too, but she couldn’t have been totally sure until we proved ourselves, so she probably had a few more kids after Todd and me. Insurance. Extra chances. Half-brothers, lost in time somewhere, and I didn’t know if they were good or evil. Evil like Alderon. Good like Todd and me.
Nire finally got what she wanted, only I wouldn’t join her. I fought her, defeated her, and exiled her. My father divorced her, too, after everything that had happened. But right now I didn’t want to think about that.
I gripped my sword tighter and pointed it at the sawhorse. Silver magic surged down the blade as I called my own power. Silver, because I was Nire’s son. Silver, because the magic I got from her was stronger than most witches, except for Jazz. A touch of Jazz’s gold magic wrapped around my silver because we had blended our powers when I saved her from death’s haven. Sparks shot from the sword and hit the wood.
The sawhorse exploded.
Dame Corey raised her arms in a hurry and twisted both her hands. A golden bubble formed around her and my father. Pieces of wood and dirt rained against it.
I wasn’t so lucky and ended up with a splinter in my scarred cheek. It burned as I yanked out the needle-thin piece of wood.
“I am trying to teach you control and finesse, special abilities the King of the Witches should have,” she said a little too calmly. “Brute strength and raw force will not always serve you.”
“It’s served me fine so far.” I lowered my sword and sheathed it. “But, sorry about the dirt and stuff.”
“Let’s stop for the morning.” Dad jerked his head in the direction of his office. “I have a lot of work to do on my computer program.”
Dame Corey sighed as she dropped her shield. “He has to practice, Mac. The day will come when he needs these skills.”
Mac. Jeez. My skin crawled. I still hadn’t gotten used to this whole Mac and Winnie thing between Dad and Dame Corey. Jazz got disgusted even faster than I did, but at least she didn’t have to deal with them to practice oldeMagic every morning. This appearing and disappearing thing would be cool, but I was impatient and not in the mood to practice on a sawhorse.
“His mind’s too far away,” Dad explained, sticking up for me. Go, Dad. “I can tell this morning just won’t work.”
Winnie-baby looked like she was winding up for a serious bunch of arguing. A few golden sparks coursed across her shoulders and danced down to her fingertips. I took that as my cue to split, and I hit the big wooden doors in a hurry. As they closed behind me, I heard Dame Corey say, “Do all males find it necessary to support each other in folly?”
Support each other in folly?
I was free!
Well, sort of. Judging by the sun, it was still early morning and Rol and Sherise would be working out in the training yard. The big guy wouldn’t go easy on me for being late, but I was in the mood for a good fight. After that, I had the zoo to take care of, and lunch with Jazz, then back to the old scrolls trying to find out anything I could on the Erlking.
Just the thought of him made me blow out another frustrated huff. No way was I going to accept that I had to wait around for the red-haired shapeshifter to decide to show himself, even though it had been months and I’d come up with nothing to help me. I had to find him and it was driving me nuts that I hadn’t even hunted down a single a clue.
The Erlking had my younger brother hostage. The Erlking was trying to free my mom—I mean Nire—from the Sanctuary where I’d exiled her, the Sanctuary I had severed from the Path. There had to be some spell to stop him. I just hadn’t read through enough dusty old books yet.
I passed by some huts on the edge of L.O.S.T.—Live Oak Spring Township. I was in the oldeTowne section and I heard the unmistakable hissing and grumbling of upset hags.
A bunch of curse words flashed through my brain, but I didn’t say them out loud. A guy would have to be an idiot to stir up trouble when oldeFolke were involved. Part of me wanted to keep right on going to the training yard, but I was King of the Witches. I couldn’t just walk by and ignore something that had obviously upset the hags. They had a really hard time keeping their pledge not to harm other witches, and they still didn’t act like they were a part of the Path.
Rol would make sure he took these extra minutes out of my hide. I’d just have to deal with it. At least the old crones had gathered on the path between the training yard and me. Maybe I wouldn’t lose too much time.
When I got a little closer, my fists clenched and I ground my teeth.
About ten hags, a klatchKeeper, and a coven of klatch witches had bunched around a building I recognized. Rol’s old training shed—my home.
“What’s going on?” I demanded as I sped up, closing the distance as I gripped the hilt of my sword. I didn’t want to have to spell oldeFolke, but if they were messing with my pad, all bets were off. “What are you doing?”
The hags grunted and moved back when I got to them. Snake-like hag-spirits swayed around me, hissing like crazy and acting kind of weird. What? Were they mad? Scared? A few beautiful klatch witches started toward me, arms outstretched.
“Don’t even think about it.” I tightened my grip on the sword and almost drew it. “I know what you really look like, remember?”
The klatch witches scurried back to their Keeper, who didn’t bother trying her hypnotic song on me. By now, they all knew I could resist them. Besides, they looked a little afraid. The hags were another story. Hags weren’t afraid of anyone or anything, and I still didn’t trust most of them. Almost a year ago, when Nire’s Shadows attacked Jazz’s stronghold in Shallym, a lot of the hags had ended up fighting on the wrong side. If I’d had my way, I’d have thrown the bunch of them into a Sanctuary and cut them loose just like I did Nire. But of course, with Jazz and Dame Corey and Rol and Acaw around, I didn’t always get my way.
Sometimes being King of the Witches was for the birds.
Like now. When a bunch of gnarled-up freaks and irritated eggplants in pretty-girl suits wanted to mob my house.
“Back off,” I growled. I stepped toward the front door, relieved that it was still closed. My protection spells were better than they used to be, but what was that dark stuff all over the wood?
“A message,” croaked the nearest hag. She pointed a bony finger at the dark lines. “You must inform Her Majesty Jasmina immediately.”
“Why? Whatever it is, I can handle—” I froze.
Closed my mouth.
Everything inside me went cold as I took in the words scrawled in still-wet, running blood.
Light the fires. Nire comes!
I barely heard another hag telling me that my brother’s shims had escaped. According to her, my brother’s man-eating quail had killed a goat in oldeTowne, and the message had been written in the goat’s blood.
“Light the fires. What does that mean?” My mind raced through the possibilities and the only logical one hit me like a hammer because I’d heard a couple of our event-planning witches discussing what L.O.S.T. would do to celebrate the Celtic May Day.
“Beltane?” The cold inside me froze solid. That was what, two weeks away? A day of power with lots of big bonfires. Only two weeks? “He’s going to free Nire at Beltane?”
A hag-spirit gave off a menacing rattle. Reflex made me snatch my sword from its leather sheath. I whirled on the hag, blade raised, silver-gold light flashing.
The old biddy didn’t even back up a step. She just glared at me with her ink-black hag eyes. The other hags and the Keeper and klatch witches gathered behind her.
“We have not forgotten that Nire is your mother,” she said in that awful, raspy hag-voice. Her hag-spirit kept on rattling. The other hag-spirits rattled, too. “Have you forgotten that your mother is Nire?”
Silver and gold sparks poured out of my sword as I fought back a hot surge of fury that melted the ice in my chest. I wanted to make her vanish like I was supposed to be learning to do. Or better yet, make her explode like the sawhorse.
“I haven’t forgotten anything,” I heard myself say. “Especially the fact that I defeated Nire the first time. I had to draw a blade on my own mother and strand her forever in time, but I did that for the world. For all witches, and for Jazz, too.”
The hag hissed at me worse than her hag-spirit. “You should have put Nire to death. If the Erlking succeeds in freeing her, will you fight her or stand by her side? What will you choose this time, boy?”
“He is not a boy,” said a firm voice from somewhere around my right elbow. “But he is your king.”
Acaw the elf had appeared seemingly from nowhere. His crow-brother flapped off his shoulder, diving at all the hag-spirits close to me. The hags made signs against evil and drew back.
“Queen Jasmina must see this message,” sang the Keeper as she shooed her charges through a group of huts and back toward the main section of oldeTowne.
“No kidding,” I yelled after her. My heart pounded so hard I thought it might split in two. Sparks still jumped from my sword. Some of them caught the dry grass around me on fire.
Acaw twitched his fingers and put out the small patches of blazing orange. “You must not let them get to you so easily,” he said in that elf-calm way of his.
“Somebody wrote on my house,” I snarled down at him. “In blood. About Nire coming back.” More sparks poured out of my sword. My roof caught fire, but Acaw put that out, too.
“I will perform magical tests on this message.” The elf maintained his irritatingly calm expression and held his hands behind his back. “And I will inform Her Majesty of its contents. Perhaps you would do better to spend some of your anger in combat?”
“No way.” I finally lowered my sword, but it kept flaring bright silver-gold. “Jazz’ll be upset when she sees this. I need to tell her myself.”