A cold prickling on the back of my neck—premonition, or instinct
honed by years on the force—made me pull out my weapon. I eased
toward the door, holding the pistol in front of me. I also released the
spell, felt the warding settle over me like a blanket. I reached the door, stepped past it so that I could swing it open and enter the garage in one quick motion. That was the plan, anyway. I had forgotten about that vanishing money from Jessie’s account and the possibility that she was with a myste. Stupid of me. And nearly fatal.
As soon as I flung the door open, I sensed the spell. It wasn’t particularly strong, but it was an assailing spell—an attack—and whoever cast it had aimed it at me. I braced myself, hoped the warding would hold. It did, but the spell—it felt like an impact attack, meant, no doubt, to seem like I had been hit with a two-by-four—was strong enough to stagger me and to make the doorway shake. By the time I was moving forward again, I could hear footsteps retreating toward the front of the garage.
I followed, Glock ready, the power for a second spell already building inside me. This time I planned to cast an assailing spell of my own. I hate it when people use magic against me; makes me want to get even.
I hadn’t taken five steps, before I slowed, then halted. The smell would have been enough to get my attention—feces, urine, vomit, sweat, fear, desperation—there could have been a body rotting in here.
It was hard to tell.
But what I saw was every bit as bad. Worse, really. At least twenty college-age kids lay sprawled over the filthy cement floor, most of them unconscious. At least half of them were emaciated, their cheeks sunken, as if they’d been prisoners in this hell-hole for months. Others—the newcomers, most likely—might have been marginally healthier. But all of them wore stained, tattered clothing; all of them looked like they hadn’t bathed in weeks or longer.
I spotted Jessie Tyler right away, but I couldn’t help wondering how many of these other kids didn’t have anyone searching for them. I heard a loud crash at the front of the shop. Another glance at Jessie convinced me she wasn’t going anywhere. I eased forward,
gripping my weapon with both hands, considering what spell I ought to use. Assailing spells worked best with a precise target. I didn’t have one, at least not yet, and I didn’t want to hurt one of those kids. Unfortunately, the myste I was stalking didn’t have my scruples. Again, I felt the spell as soon as he cast it—the air was electric with magic. I sensed the heat before I saw the wave of flame rolling toward me. I backpedaled, scared, but also unwilling to ward myself and leave the kids to roast. Fire spells are rudimentary magic, but this myste, whoever he was, had poured serious power into this one.
The temperature in the garage jumped twenty degrees. The skin on my face and hands flushed, like I’d been sitting way too close to a campfire.
The flames were almost on top of me when I cast my spell. Three elements, because that was how spells worked: the kids and myself, the fire, and a wall of magic in between. I recited the elements to myself three times, allowing the magic to build inside me. On the third repetition, I released it, the way I would a held breath. The barrier winked into view and then shuddered as the attack hit it. But like my earlier warding, it held. That wall of flame passed over without burning any of us. There was nothing I could do,
though, to keep the guy’s magic from setting everything else in the garage on fire.