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Arcane Betrayal (Arcane Talents 6)
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2023 Angela Knight
“It’s all right,” the voice said, low and soothing, though its owner smelled of fear. “You’re fine. You’re home. Nobody’s going to hurt you. Wake up now, honey… Come on, you’re scaring your mama.”
Disoriented, Margay Whitfield blinked. For a moment, she had no idea where she was. At last, misfiring synapses got it together, and she realized she was standing in the apartment’s living room.
Home. I’m home. Relief blasted through her, so sharp and fierce her knees almost buckled. Home. Home in Ashburg, SC. Not on the Charivnyk military base, where her whole damn life had exploded, leaving her career and sanity in flaming ruins.
It had only been a dream.
Her mother stood planted in her path, evidently trying to stop Margay from doing… whatever she’d been about to do while her sleepwalking mind was out to lunch.
“I know it was a bad one,” Jocelyn Whitfield said, her voice with its soft southern accent low and soothing. “But all that’s over now. You’re home and safe.” Comfortably plump, she was several inches shorter than Margay. Though fifty-six, Mama was still lovely, with round, prominent cheekbones, big dark eyes, a regal nose, and a generous mouth that usually stretched in a smile, despite its current tight, anxious line. Her yellow silk bathrobe seemed to glow against her dark skin, a match for the silk scarf wrapped protectively around her thick box braids. She was illuminated by the kind of soft golden glow Margay associated with magic. And that meant…
Oh, hell, I’m manifested. Sure enough, Margay realized she was peering at her mother through the glowing feline mask of her cat spirit. Her body was cocooned in the tiger-shaped magical shell she and her Familiar had conjured in her sleep. Razia rumbled, the sound reverberating in her bones. The spirit’s anxiety made Margay want to jump out of her skin. No wonder Mama’s looking paranoid.
“She’s not growling at you, Mama,” Margay said, willing Razia’s magic to disperse. Raz fought her, the manifestation’s long striped tail whipping back and forth so hard, it hit the coffee table and sent it skidding across the hardwood floor. Something -- presumably the nightmare they’d had -- had the tiger seriously stirred up.
Which could be bad. Margay sniffed but didn’t scent any blood with her cat’s keen senses. Nor did Jocelyn seem to be bleeding. “Did I hurt you?”
Her mother relaxed, apparently reassured Margay was finally tracking. “No, honey, you just had a nightmare. Everything’s fine. Why don’t you go back to bed? It’s only four in the morning.”
She felt her muscles pull tight. “What did I do?”
Even the fake smile fled. “You were screaming about the bomb.”
“Oh. That one.” There were other nightmares -- the girls’ school, the Marine convoy attack -- but it was the bomb that most upset Raz. Which probably stood to reason, given that was how the tiger died. “Sorry I woke you.” Again.
Her mother smiled, and this time it looked more genuine. “Don’t worry about it, honey. You know me, I can always nap. But you really need more rest. You don’t sleep enough, and it’s not good for you.”
And risk that dream again? Hell, no. “I’ve got to burn some of this adrenaline off -- Raz is really wired.”
Mama frowned. “You can’t go running like that, honey. Somebody’ll see you.”
And the last thing they needed was to get Ashburg’s Humanists stirred up. Margay concentrated, and this time Razia acquiesced with a feline grumble. The tiger manifestation disappeared, leaving the room illuminated only by Christmas lights from the seven-foot artificial tree standing beside one of the apartment’s arched windows, decorated with the Hallmark ornaments Mama had collected for years.
The living area still smelled of cinnamon, apple, and nutmeg from the fresh batch of Christmas cookies her mother had baked that evening. And faintly, Mama’s alchemical magic.
That scent alone was enough to make Margay’s jangled nerves settle. Razia’s restless rumble subsided.
Jocelyn studied her, frowning in concern. “You sure you don’t want me to brew you something?”
It was a tempting thought. Her mother’s alchemical Talent might not be strong enough for a pharmaceutical job, but any tea she brewed would put Margay right to sleep. But… “Honestly, I’ll probably have another nightmare if I don’t run some of this off. But you’ve got a lot of hungry people to feed -- you should try to get another couple of hours at least.”
“All right.” But Mama still didn’t look happy. “Be careful out there. It always makes me nervous when you go running at night.”
“I’m bulletproof, remember? Besides, Ashburg isn’t exactly Falluja.” Or Charivnyk, for that matter, not that she could ever breathe a word about that.
Judging from the look her mother shot her, Jocelyn wasn’t reassured. “Fine, but if you run into Jimmy Miller again, keep your temper. We don’t need that kind of trouble.”
* * *
Dressed in thick black leggings, a gold U.S. Arcane Corps Academy sweatshirt, socks and running shoes, Margay headed down the steep, narrow stairs to the street. They’d lived over Mama’s Spoon -- the restaurant her grandmother had founded in the 70s -- since she’d been a kid. When she opened the door that led to the street, she found the December night clear and cold beyond it.
Combat-trained habit had her scanning her surroundings. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the street was lit by ornate black streetlamps wreathed in Christmas lights.
The restaurant’s plate-glass window stretched off to her right, the words “Mama’s Spoon” painted in an elaborate script over a cartoon of a serving spoon steaming magical sparks.
Across the street, Ashburg’s town park lay still under a starry night sky, its oaks, pines and maples dark silhouettes around the shapes of playground equipment. In the center of it all loomed a towering cedar, swathed in Christmas lights blinking on and off in slow, hypnotic patterns.
Farther down, brick storefronts lined either side of Main Street, the buildings shoulder to shoulder, each one as familiar to Margay as an elderly aunt. Plate-glass windows displayed manger scenes, Santas, or mannequins in their holiday best, trying to pull in procrastinating shoppers in these last few days before Christmas.
The Ashburg Savings and Loan loomed next to the Standard, a department store that dated back to the Fifties. Next came the clothing consignment store, A Second Chance at Style, followed by Shear Elegance, the beauty salon her mother frequented. Across from them stood a furniture store, an office supply, a pizza joint called Billy’s, and Six Shooters, a bar. There was even a comic book shop named Tangled Web that Margay and Grant Sawyer had spent most of their teen years haunting.
The Great Recession had closed many of the other businesses Margay remembered from her childhood, but Ashburg was undergoing something of a renaissance. None of the shops were boarded up now, and there was even a Food Lion and a Burger King at the end of the main drag.
No people, though. Ashburg’s version of the morning rush wouldn’t start for several hours yet. She had the dregs of the night to herself.
Margay turned to brace both hands against the Spoon’s brick wall and leaned in, stretching out her hamstrings.
Razia rumbled, making the air vibrate around them.
The tiger had been far more skittish than usual lately. During the wars, Margay would have started looking for snipers. The cat’s ability to sense incoming bullet storms had always been considerably better than hers.
The trouble was, the cat spirit communicated in images and emotion, and sometimes it was hard to determine exactly what she was worked up about. We aren’t at war anymore, Margay told her. Nobody’s trying to kill us.
Raz growled, apparently disagreeing.
As if on cue, she felt the world drift sideways under her feet -- and she was back in Charivnyk.
It glowed on the concrete floor just beyond the bars, reeking of petrochemicals and the ozone stink of magic. In the cage next to Razia’s, Czar roared, the sound wild with helpless terror and frustrated rage…
This isn’t real, Margay told herself fiercely, though she could see the bomb right in front of her. Not a memory -- a razor-blade-sharp hallucination. She squeezed her eyes shut as every muscle in her neck jerked tight. Leaning hard into the Spoon’s wall, she used the sensation of rough brick under her hands to ground herself in the present and fight off the flashback.