Chapters:

Chapters 1-3

Boukair / SHADE /

-1-

Sometimes I wish I had the power to render myself deaf.

It’s a typical Thursday night at Scorch’s Grill and Pub, and the karaoke regulars are in full voice, complaining about the wait time between their turns in the spotlight. No matter how often I tell them as a bartender I have nothing to do with the rotation, the unlucky body behind the bar owns the shoulder to cry on when things aren’t going their way.

“I’m sorry Joe. Can I get you another beer?” I shout over the music to one such complainer. He gives me an exasperated nod and shrugs. As I reach into the cooler to fetch his beer, I feel my phone vibrate in the back pocket of my jeans. I have only one number set to notify me of messages: my partner at my other job.

I hand Joe his beer and pull my phone out to look at the message:

GARY’S AT IT AGAIN. MOVING AT 11:30. I’LL PICK YOU UP. -F

I roll my eyes and sigh. I sometimes hate my bartending job; I hate my other job just as much, if not more. I text back:

STOP SHOUTING AT ME, YOU’RE NOT MY MOM. See you later. -S

I smile to myself, waiting for the snide reply I know is coming, and am not disappointed:

YOU SHOULD CALL YOUR MOTHER. SHE WORRIES ABOUT YOU. -F

I laugh out loud at that, and respond:

SCREW YOU. -S

To which I immediately receive:

STOP SHOUTING AT ME. ;) -F

“Jerk,” I whisper to myself, my smile growing as I put my phone back in my pocket. My younger brother Flynn is also my partner at my other job. He can be a real pain in the ass at times, but he’s usually a sweetheart I can’t stay mad at for very long. I say usually because he does have his little brother moments where I want to strangle him.

With the beginnings of a karaoke-induced headache starting to creep into my skull, and now a pressing mission to tend to... I already know it’s not going to be a good night.

My name is Shade Blackmore though that’s not the name I was given at birth. My brother and I are mages. When we’re not working our day job (or for me, my night job), we are Regulators for the Mage Guild. I’m a shadow mage, and Flynn is an arcane mage. There are many different types of mages, too many to list. We mages aren’t exactly common, but we’re not that rare either. We look just like everyone else and hold jobs just like everyone else. The difference is we were born with magical abilities. We belong to an entirely separate world, hidden right alongside your “normal” world. Our job as Regulators is to make sure our world stays hidden. At all costs.

There are two other magic guilds: the Warlocks and the Creatures. I think the latter want to be called ‘Entities’ now, claiming the word ‘creature’ is somehow negative or something. To be honest, I don’t follow the politics too much. Warlocks are different from mages in that they use magic, whether it’s through a spell or a magical item, but they don’t possess natural magic within themselves. Creatures (or Entities - I’ll get it right at some point) consist entirely of magic and can’t be seen by non-magical humans. Occasionally we’ll hear a rumor of select humans who can see certain entities, but the general populace has no desire to believe in such things. Humans who see entities are invariably labeled as crackpots and lunatics, and human society deals with them as they do every other crackpot and lunatic in their world. Nothing much needs to be done on the Entity Guild’s part.

Each Guild has its own magic training, investigations, and regulation enforcement departments. There are only a few hard and fast rules that get top enforcement priority, the main one being DO NOT get yourself noticed by humans. In other words, don’t get caught using your magic. For some of us, this lesson is impossible to learn. No matter how powerful a person’s magic might be, you can’t fix stupid. There are varying degrees of punishment, depending on the offense. Allowing yourself to be noticed has a strict three-strike policy - strike three and you’ve earned the ultimate punishment: death. You’d think that a pretty strong deterrent to getting caught, but as I said - you can’t fix stupid.

I head to the back room to tell my boss, Mike, I have to leave early. He’s pretty good about it if I have a mission, but he hates karaoke night with a passion; so I know he won’t be happy. I find him hunkered at his desk in the small back office with a pencil jammed between his teeth. He’s pounding on an ancient adding machine; the paper tape curling over the edge of the desk and dangling halfway to the floor. His curly red hair is always unruly. It seems particularly chaotic today, sticking out in random spots; and making him look even more scatterbrained than usual.

“You know, they have these new-fangled things nowadays called computers that could make your life so much easier...” I say, knowing as I speak it’s going to ruffle his feathers even more. I quickly reconsider. “Sorry, just kidding.” I flash him an angelic smile before he can get too angry.

“Very funny,” he says aiming a sharp glare at me, but then his lips start to curve upward; so I know my smile worked. “What’s up?”

“Duty calls, I’m afraid,” I say, taking my phone out and waving it at him. “Flynn’s coming to pick me up shortly.”

“Really? On karaoke night?”

“I know, I know,” I say, empathizing with his misery. It isn’t my favorite night to work either, but I feel bad leaving him to cover my shift. “At least everyone’s only partially drunk, and they haven’t gotten to the Bon Jovi songs yet...”

“Boy, you really know how to comfort a guy,” he says, tossing his pencil onto the scattered papers on the desk. He sighs heavily before standing, resigned to his fate. “You tell your brother if I have to hear one, just one, bad Bon Jovi cover, I’m going to make him come and sing for the whole night next week.”

My eyes widen at the thought. “Can we make him do that anyway?”

“Good god no, he’s a horrible singer. On second thought, don’t tell him anything. Just go do your darned Guild business, and get out of my bar.” He shoos me away with exaggerated flailing arms, making me back out the door of the office to avoid getting smacked by a sharp elbow. Mike is an air mage, and I can feel a light breeze start to push gently against me as I exit.

“No need to push. Geez, I’m going. I’m going!” I say.

I grab the few bills that are in the tip jar by the register, wave a sheepish goodbye to a sour looking Mike, and head out the side door to wait for Flynn to pick me up.

With a little bit of time to kill, in the side alley where no one can see, I try to distract myself from the upcoming mission by practicing my illusion magic. As a shadow mage, I control both light and the lack thereof. I’ve been working on altering my appearance with subtle shifts of light and shadow, but it’s hard to do without a mirror or reflection of some kind to see the results of what I’m doing. For all I know I could look like I have one eye or no face at all. The thought unnerves me, breaking my concentration, and I wave the magic away. That’s one of the problems with illusion magic - it takes a lot of concentration to hold. With most shadow magic, it’s a quick thought or movement, and the light and shadows bend to your will. Crafting illusions is very detailed, though. It takes ultra-skilled precision, which is something I don’t yet have.

An illusion is considered neutral magic, meaning in itself it can’t cause harm. Theoretically, I could make myself appear to be someone else, go rob a bank or murder someone in broad daylight, and the person I impersonated would obviously take the blame. That would definitely be considered a dark magic purpose. Or, again theoretically, I could rearrange light and shadows to create a mobile for a baby’s crib to soothe his or her crying. That could be considered a light magic purpose. The act of creating the illusion is neither light nor dark. It just is. It depends on the magic wielder as to how it’s used. A lot of magic is like that. Neither light nor dark, but in the right or wrong hands, it can have different outcomes. And different consequences. All mages have the power to use light, neutral, and dark magic to varying degrees. It’s what keeps us Regulators busy.

I hear Flynn pull into the parking lot behind the bar. It’s not hard to miss him. Over the rumble of the engine, he’s got what sounds like Led Zepplin blaring from the car stereo, and he’s trying to sing along. ‘Trying’ being the key word. I jump into the passenger’s seat and quickly turn the music down.

“Dude, what decade were you born in anyway?”

“Don’t call me dude, dude.”

“Oh my god, grow up.”

“You grow up,” he grins as he pulls onto the road. I can’t help but roll my eyes. Brothers.

“So what’s Gary up to now?” I ask, trying to get us both focused on the mission ahead.

“Guess.”

“Not the lottery again...”

“Yuppers. The guy can’t help himself.”

“Please tell me this is only the second time...” my stomach drops as I say the words, realizing it’s not.

“Nope. Third time’s a charm,” Flynn says, his voice now flat, his eyes focused on the road ahead.

I shrink back into my seat, wanting to let it swallow me up whole. Subconsciously I start to pull the darkness from inside of the car around me like a shroud. It starts as odd angles of light and dark but then stretches and transforms into a cloaking mist around me, hiding me completely from the outside world. I haven’t done a third-strike since...

“Don’t worry about it Shade,” Flynn says. “I’ll handle everything. You just watch my back, cool?”

I don’t respond and keep the dark around me, hugging myself. My mind can’t help but flashback to the last time we had this sort of mission nine months ago. I was so confident then. So cocky, and high on my power. We were on our fourth third-strike that month, and I got sloppy. I had acted too fast, not caring about the consequences. I saw movement and struck without thinking...

-2-

“Shade!” Flynn’s voice is raised, the car stopped, the engine off. I peer through the black mist as it recedes slowly away from me, back to the corners where it belongs. We are stopped in front of Gary’s house. Several upstairs lights are on in the big white house. The front lawn sprawls, split with a driveway that curves around a gaudy fountain. When he’d won the lottery last time, the California Bureau of Credentials moved him here with a new identity and let him keep his winnings. I can’t imagine having all this, and feeling the need to win the lottery again. Had he blown through all his money already? You can’t fix stupid.

I look over at Flynn, my eyes wide, unsure if I can even move let alone get out of the car. Let alone go kill someone. All he did was win some money. No big deal. That’s no reason to kill him, right? Screw the Guild and the Bureau. Screw them all. This was insane.

“No,” Flynn says as if reading my thoughts, his face serious. “We have to do this. This is our job. This is what we do. I’ll do the heavy lifting, you just hang back and keep an eye out. I’ll take care of Gary.” I search his dark eyes that match mine, looking for some sort of escape route. Surely there’s a way out of this, some way we can let Gary live. Some way I won’t have to hurt someone else. But all I see is Flynn psyching himself up, getting himself prepared mentally to do our job basically without me.

Before the incident nine months ago I was always the one in charge; the one leading; the big sister. Since then I’ve become almost non-existent in the mage world. I let Flynn take the lead on our missions. I don’t want to hurt anyone else. Other than little practices here and there with illusions, I barely even use my magic anymore.

“I don’t know if I can do this Flynn,” I whisper, my voice scarcely making a sound.

“You don’t have to do anything,” he squeezes my hand lightly. “I’ve got this.”

My brother has been so supportive since that night, all through the trial, and through the probation that followed. He’s been there for me through it all, so I can’t allow myself to let him down now. I nod at him and give a slight smile I don’t feel, forcing myself to open the car door. Deep down I know he’s right, but I can’t shake the dread that lays heavy in the pit of my stomach. I glance around the neighborhood as we walk up the driveway, looking for nosy neighbors. Everything seems clear. The rest of the rich seem to be minding their own business. No witnesses at least.

“I can’t believe he’s still here,” I say quietly. “He’s got to know we’re coming. He knows the rules.” My unease grows as we approach the double front doors under the portico. The exterior lights are off, except for the rows of landscape lighting highlighting the architecture and grounds.

I catch a whiff of ozone and turn to see Flynn gathering his magic, readying himself for the upcoming confrontation. He starts pulling energy from the air around him, forming a ball of sparking electricity that pulses just above the palm of his hand. His face looks anxious in the strobing light of his arcane magic, and my heart seems to stutter for a moment.

“Get in the shadows,” Flynn orders, pointing to a corner of the entryway for me to hide in. His finger hovers over the doorbell as he waits for me to take my position. It takes me a second, but I obey and step into the shadows of the corner, stretching the darkness to reach around me; concealing me.

Once I’m in place, he nods in my direction, then presses the doorbell. I can’t help but hold my breath as Flynn moves into an offensive stance just to the side of the doors. I try to focus on remaining hidden, keeping an eye out to survey the surrounding area, but as I hear someone approach the door from the inside of the house, I freeze.

Everything seems to happen at once. The door opens, but the lights don’t come on. Whoever opened the door remains in shadow. Flynn says, “Gary?” to the person on the other side of the threshold, but I can’t see who it is from where I am in the corner. All of a sudden there’s a thundering crack as lightning flies from the doorway straight into Flynn, who barely has time to send his own magic into the house. He gets thrown back from the force of the voltage into one of the pillars holding up the portico and slumps to the ground. Smoke is rising from his chest where the bolt hit.

I quickly pull the darkness around me into the shape of a whip as I lunge from the corner into the doorway, my breath ragged. I lash the whip out in front of me, even though I can’t see anyone. The smell of ozone in the air is overwhelming now, making the hair stand up on my arms and back of my neck.

All of a sudden, the area just beyond the doorway starts to distort and warp, and I know that Gary is about to jump. Arcane mages are able to somehow alter the atmosphere of an area and use it to transport themselves somewhere else. It’s called jumping, and if I don’t act fast, Gary is going to get away. Our mission a failure.

I quickly throw the shadow whip at the distorted doorway, stretch it out to cover the other side of the opening inside of the house, and pull the remaining darkness I can get a hold of to it, making a solid barrier of shadow between Gary and the portal. But I’m too late. The portal winks out. Gary had jumped well before I even moved to make the barrier. I’d been too slow. He’d gotten away.

I realize then how quiet it is. It had happened so fast, surely only a few seconds has passed. I turn and see Flynn on the ground a just few feet away - not moving. I rush over to him, but can’t see clearly in the blackness of the night. I draw what light I can from around me to make a makeshift torch above my palm, and I gasp as I see Flynn’s injuries. There is a hole in the front of his shirt, the edges now burned away, and the skin beneath is black and charred. It’s only now that I notice the smell of burning flesh.

“Flynn,” I cry out, shaking his shoulder. His eyes are closed, and I don’t feel a pulse in his neck. “Flynn, wake up. Wake up. We need to go now.”

Nothing.

He doesn’t move.

I tentatively put my ear to his scarred chest, trying to hear a heartbeat, but I can hear nothing.

“Little brother, I order you to wake up right now!” I yell, still shaking him, not caring who hears me. My voice echoes around the tiled portico. “Flynn!”

After a few more attempts for a response with no reply, I fumble to grab my phone, dialing the first person I can think of. My heart is pounding so loudly and so hard, it feels like it’s going to jump out of my chest. I hold my breath as the phone rings and rings. Finally, there’s an answer.

“This better be important Tiffany, it’s almost mid-”

“Mom? It’s Flynn. He’s hurt.”

“I’m on my way.”

-3-

Less than a minute later I feel movement to my right. I turn in time to see my mother step through another portal - this time one she created. Luckily, she is also an arcane mage and is promptly able to jump here. It’s one of those only-mages things - mothers that are arcane are able to track and locate their children. Arcane fathers can’t. It’s very odd but apparently useful in times like these. She rushes over to Flynn, almost knocking me over in the process, and I notice that the portal has changed somehow, but I can’t say exactly how, and it still remains open. The air around it shifts smoothly in a random circular pattern.

My mother gives Flynn a quick once over, then nods to herself. “Help me get him through the portal,” she commands.

“Where are you taking -”

“Just grab his feet there, I’ll go in first.”

I rush to do as she says and grapple with Flynn’s heavy feet while my mother picks him up under his arms. We half carry, half drag him to where the portal swirls just a few feet away; my mother’s breath heavy from the exertion. She’s barely five feet tall, ninety pounds soaking wet, so hefting Flynn’s body is like picking up a car for her, but when she’s determined to do something, by God she finds a way to do it. She disappears into the portal pulling the top half of Flynn with her, and abruptly the rest of him is yanked out of my hands as if someone or something on the other side suddenly possesses superhuman strength.

I start to head into the portal after them, but my mother pokes her head out at me before I can step through. I jump back, startled. “Tiffany, we’re at Aubrey’s. She’ll be working on Flynn. Finish cleaning up whatever this mess is you’ve created here, and come meet us when you’re done.”

“But -”

The portal blinks out, and the silence that blankets me is deafening. I glance toward the street to see if the commotion has piqued the interest of anyone nearby, but all is still quiet. I look down at the spot where Flynn’s body had lain motionless, lifeless, just seconds ago and my shoulders sag under the weight of all that’s happened. My little brother. Sure, he was taller and stronger than me, but he was still my little brother. Should I be saying was, or is? What have I done? Aubrey is one of the best healers around, but can she revive Flynn? Even if she can, will he be okay in the long term?

I hear the motor of an oncoming car and duck inside the still-open door to the house. There’s a faint scent of ozone lingering in the air from all the arcane magic that recently occupied the area, and a chill runs up my spine as I remember the recent chaos. I close the front door silently behind me, venturing into the gloom of the empty foyer. Ordinarily, I’m most comfortable in the melancholy of the night, but for some reason the darkness of this house has a malevolent feel to it.

The sound of voices from upstairs catches my attention, and I slowly make my way to the grand staircase in the middle of the foyer to get a better listen. After hearing numerous voices and music, I figure it must be a television left on in one of the upstairs rooms. I slowly pull at the shadows around me as I quietly ascend the stairs, shaping them loosely in front of me, preparing for anything. Halfway up I realize that I should have searched the first floor before going up, but figure it’s too late now and press forward, occasionally glancing behind me for surprise attacks from below.

Once at the top of the curving staircase I see a light on in a room at the end of the hallway, and flickers of color on the wall that must be reflections of the TV. All the other doors in the hall are closed. I glance briefly to see if there is light under any of the other doors but see none. I tiptoe against the ornate banister, keeping away from the closed doors as I make my way towards the room with the light on. As I approach the open door, I hear a laugh track on the TV from the sitcom that’s playing and shudder involuntarily. Something’s not right here.

I get another slight whiff of ozone coming from the room beyond and crouch in the doorway, not wanting to rush in. I look behind me again to make sure I am still, in fact, alone in the hallway and see nothing. Craning my neck around the doorway I look around the room and my eyes fall on a pair of unmoving legs sticking out by the bed on the floor. On the still feet is a pair of maroon velvet slippers. Beyond the body is a pair of French doors left wide open to a balcony, the night breeze billows the white lace curtains. I examine the rest of the room from my vantage point, and other than the grossly ornate bedroom furniture and widescreen TV, see nothing and no one else.

Still keeping a low profile in case someone is watching beyond the French doors, I crawl over to the body on the far side of the bed. The smell of a thunderstorm is stronger as I approach, and the reek of the now familiar burning flesh odor makes me almost gag. The body is soaking wet as if they took a shower in their clothes; water soaks the carpet. The front of the pajamas are burned away exposing a charred chest, the skin melted away in gruesome, bloody cauterized splotches. Steam still rises from the burnt skin. Still trying to keep my dinner where it belongs I look at the face, now twisted and frozen in death as though he were crying out in pain.

It’s Gary.

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