This all-ages novel is a sequel to A Sudden Outbreak of Magic (which is now available as a trade paperback and an ebook).
These books make up the Contagious Magic series of novels.
So, without any more needless banter, I give you the beginning of a new adventure:
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
Excerpted from Words of Magic, page 915:
In a village tucked into a rain-soaked valley in chill Snowdonia, I stood inside the shell of an old church and watched a dozen ragged children stumble through the early morning darkness. I’d been watching them for the past three mornings as I recovered from my exhausting activities of the week prior. Watching the barefoot boys and girls push through the mud and gather in front of the baker’s shack, their breath steaming in the cold, I felt a glimmer of hope that this journey to the soggy north lands of Wales would prove fruitful after all.
Because one of the children had caught my eye as a potential candidate.
And I knew better than any of my cohorts that we needed fresh conscripts. He always needed more apprentices to swell his ranks, while I needed to prove my loyalty to him again after I’d foolishly voiced aloud my concerns about his methods.
But that was neither here nor there.
The baker cracked open the door to his wooden shack, and the smell of bread and sweets reached me inside the musty, darkened church. My own empty belly rumbled, making me stand up straight and wince at the pain in my side. I couldn’t let my injuries distract me, however. The boy’s final audition was about to commence.
With a hearty laugh, the red-faced baker emerged from his shack with a pail in each hairy hand. Soon the gathered children were fighting for position to catch the moldy bread and dry crusts from the previous days of baking. The boy I’d been watching caught an entire loaf in one hand, and then spun to catch a crumbling pastry without crushing it. He had both stuffed into his shirt before the baker turned back to his kitchen with his now-empty pails.
“Eat hastily,” I whispered as the crowd of orphans and urchins dispersed with curses and tears from the less-fortunate. “You will need your strength where we are bound, my boy.”
I gathered my dark green robes around me and slipped from the shadows of the church into the stable next door. I knew the boy slept in the loft above the animals most days, safe from the rains and the cold.
With a wince, I noticed that the sun had at last forced its way through the gray-black clouds above us, poking like a fist through the mist-shrouded mountains surrounding us. The rest of the village would soon be waking. My time here was growing short, and—injuries or not—I could tarry here no longer.
I paused as I felt a sudden pain in the side of my neck, sharp as a bite. I plucked a fat tick from the spot and squeezed it until it popped with a tiny burst of dark red on my thumb and forefinger. I gazed at my own, stolen blood with disgust.
Always, there was blood.
I took a deep breath that made me groan, exhaled a quick Word to cleanse my fingers, and waited for the boy to come to me.
Patience, I reminded myself. Our work was slow and secret to the outside world, but it would be rewarded one day by the man I knew only as the Druid.
The flood of last week had been yet another reminder to me that our mystic leader required additional assistance. The rains had come down hard on these northern lands for nearly a month, and a majority of the crops had been soaked past saving for this fall’s harvest. The Druid had sent me, along with one of my more experienced young apprentices, here to Wales to reroute a branch of the flooded River Conwy and siphon off the overflow from the fields.
Having labored over the Words for thirty hours straight, the Druid had then taught us those Words to enable us to move water and earth to save the north lands. He had never attempted such a large undertaking before. Maria, my apprentice, stared wide-eyed from under her wet purple hood at the landscape as we finished speaking the harsh, alien syllables. The Druid’s Words had shifted both earth and water before our very eyes.
But despite the potency of his Words, the Druid hadn’t accounted for the angry reactions of farmers who found their old, familiar river either moved onto their neighbor’s land or now cutting through their own after we’d completed the rerouting.
I pushed down my own hood for a moment to run a hand over my hair, trying not to think about how thin it had gotten in recent years. Other than the lost hair, which had dropped into my hood like silk from an ear of corn as we worked on the swollen river, I had mostly recovered from using the Words last week.
But the damage from the beating I took at the hands of the farmers still lingered.
“No appreciation for all that we do,” I muttered, fingering the cut on my cheek, breathing shallowly to keep from irritating my broken ribs again. “There is so much you common people do not know.”
When I’d seen the angry farmers approach, shouting at me about what I’d done to their river, I’d immediately sent the terrified Maria home to our ancient castle. I’d pushed her halfway back there with a series of Words that had left me drained and almost defenseless against the men armed with clubs and pitchforks. I’d finally been forced to dive into the still-swollen river and swim without coming up for air for nearly fifteen endless minutes. Magic sustained me underwater, but the damage to my body had already been done.
I shook my head as I tightened the leather string for my ponytail and pulled up my hood again. I had to convince the boy to join me. Or else.
Short seconds later, I heard two pairs of bare feet slapping on the dirt road in front of the stable.
“Give us some,” a whining voice said. “You took that biscuit right from me hand, Johnny.”
“Did not,” the voice of the taller boy responded, without heat. “But I’ll share with you, if you keep your mouth shut.”
“Will do, will do! Haven’t eaten in two whole days, you see.”
Both boys moved into sight, the taller boy with his blue eyes squinting against the morning light. He walked in front of a thin, dirty-faced boy whose back looked permanently hunched, as if he’d been cringing away from a harsh hand all his life.
You should save that food for yourself, my little friend, I thought from my hiding spot. Your friend will not be long for this world if he already cannot fend for himself.
The boys sat down less than five strides from where I stood in the shadows, leaning heavily against the rough wooden wall. They had no inkling that I was there.
“I’ll give you half,” the boy named Johnny said. He held out a chunk of his loaf to the smaller boy, one dirty hand to another. “But never again. Instead, I’ll teach you how to work your way to the front of the line, and I’ll show you how to dodge the elbows of the others. You’ve got to give ’em a little shove, like this, see, when they’re off-balance.”
The taller boy demonstrated to the other. The smaller boy did not look convinced.
I gave them a few more seconds to savor their meal before I could stand still no longer. My injuries dogged me like bad memories, and my patience was wearing thin.
“I see you have a bit of the teacher in you,” I said, my loud voice shocking both boys to their feet. “Though I’m sorry to say you shall not finish your lesson today.”
“Warlock!” the smaller boy screamed, pivoting on his heel and running headlong out of the stables into the dirt road. The boy named Johnny sprinted off in the opposite direction, toward the fields, splattering mud and horse droppings as he ran. Neither boy was foolish enough to drop his precious bread as he ran.
Ignoring the smaller boy, I pointed a pair of fingers at young master Johnny, my ribs complaining at the movement. The stable blurred around me before I spoke.
The boy froze above a mud puddle, his right leg cocked in mid-air and his left foot planted on the dirt. A glob of mud dangled from his suspended right foot, and then fell with a loud plop.
I strode in front of Johnny. He was beginning to shake, nearly losing his balance as the effect of the Word already began to wear off. At the same time, I felt a wave of dizziness hit me, followed by a bout of nausea in my belly.
I made a fist in frustration. My powers were still weak—normally this Word would hold a person motionless for half an hour.
The boy’s bottom lip quivered, but his sharp blue eyes followed me as I paced back and forth in front of him. I did my best to not think about the acid filling my insides like increasingly hot lava.
“First lesson,” I said, throwing back my hood for theatrical effect. “Never run from an elder, no matter what the consequences may appear to be. Shows a marked lack of respect, my young Johnny.”
“Whhhh—” he said, trying to make his lips work.
I held up a hand, fighting the urge to smile at the boy’s spirit. His eyes remained clear and focused on me, instead of clouded by panic and fear. I’d chosen well.
“Second lesson: never interrupt. I’ve been looking for a young person like you for quite some time now.”
As lines of power swirled toward me from the inside of the stable, igniting my blood, I touched the boy on the forehead with the palm of my hand.
“You are released.”
With a sudden inhalation, the boy regained control of his body. He wobbled for a half-second on one foot, and then he tumbled to the dirt floor. He managed to catch himself with his hands before falling into the mud puddle, but he crushed his hard-earned food in the process.
With a frustrated shout, the boy threw his muddy piece of bread at me. The bread stopped in mid-air after I muttered another Word, almost without thinking. His mouth hanging open, Johnny looked from me to the bread floating above him. I had to smile at that.
“Who are you?” he whispered. With an effort he stood and began wiping the mud from his clothes with shaking hands. “You’re not from around here, I can tell by your accent. Are you the one who flooded the northern half of town?”
My smile disappeared at that. No appreciation at all, I thought, resting a hand on my roiling stomach.
“I know you have many questions. But first—”
With another Word, I gestured at Johnny’s clothes. An instant later, the mud and horse manure were removed from the boy’s pants, shirt, and skin.
Johnny grinned wide-eyed at his suddenly-clean hands and clothes. “How did you—?” He blinked twice and nodded, as if answering his own question. “Of course. You’re a Warlock. One of the Druid’s men.”
“Please,” I said, shaking my head with a short, almost bitter laugh. “Warlocks are… simpletons and amateurs. We prefer the term Sorcerer.”
“Sorcerer,” Johnny repeated. “Is that why you came for me today? To put a curse on me? Or,” he said, eyes blazing with the sudden realization, “did you come to take me with you?”
I nodded and laughed, proud of my future apprentice.
“The latter, of course.”
One of the horses in the stall behind us nickered, as if in agreement. The boy looked at the horse with a hint of longing on his face before turning back to me. He nodded, as if he had made some sort of decision with himself.
“What’s your name, Sorcerer?” the boy said.
I smiled and bowed low in front of the boy, ignoring the pain in my ribs and belly. A flood of hope canceled out my internal pains, diminishing them with each passing second. I looked up at the boy from the bottom of my bow.
“Michael Severson Azure. At your service, Johnny.”
The boy smiled at my overly grand manner. “Jonathan Archibald Masterson Brightwell, back to you, my lord. But please, don’t call me Johnny.”
“But of course, Johnny,” I said. I straightened up with a bit of effort and plucked a piece of mud off of my otherwise spotless, dark green robes. “Now we must leave. You need not bring anything but the clothes you are wearing. I know you have no family to say farewell to, so that simplifies the situation immensely.”
I clapped him on the back and inhaled sharply at the stab of pain in my ribs. He had to be the one, or I was surely doomed.
“Come along, son,” I said with what I hoped was a convincing grin. “The Druid will be waiting. And believe me, he is not a patient man.”
And, I added silently to myself as I led young master Brightwell out into the bright late-morning light, the Druid will never suspect either of us of plotting his downfall.
And that ends the Prologue of A Wild Epidemic of Magic. If you want to keep on reading, here’s Chapter 1.
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