And here’s chapter 1 of my new contemporary fantasy novel, A Wild Epidemic of Magic, a sequel to A Sudden Outbreak of Magic.
In case you’re just dropping in today, here’s a link to the Prologue.
Finally, before you dive into chapter 1, here are five facts you ought to know from book 1, A Sudden Outbreak of Magic, if you haven’t read that yet:
- Magic is contagious, and twin teenagers Kelley and Jeroan Strickland both got “infected” in book 1.
- Before book 1, Jeroan got into all sorts of trouble in Chicago, so he and his family moved to Dubuque, Iowa, to get a new start.
- At the end of book 1, Kelley stayed in Dubuque to ward off an ancient Sorcerer named Michael Azure.
- Jeroan, meanwhile, accepted Azure’s offer to train with him at Azure’s far-off Center, accompanied by Azure’s operatives York, Mexico, and Orleans.
- And Azure… well, he disappeared at the end of book one. Okay, fine, a dragon carried him off, if you really wanna know. But you really had to be there (or read the first book)…
A Wild Epidemic of Magic
Before coming here, Jeroan Strickland had never read a book voluntarily in his life. That was his sister’s area of expertise. He considered himself more of a street-smart kind of guy, not a book-smart nerd like his twin sister Kelley. Even if most of his street smarts were faked in a constant attempt to impress others.
But here at the Center, all of that was behind him. Another life.
He kept finding the most amazing books to read at the Center, and not enough time to devour them all. He never had the time because he was constantly getting pulled from his reading and his self-propelled education—one book from the Center’s three-story library at a time—by York, Mexico, and Orleans.
Today it was looking like a sneak attack at noon.
With a sigh, Jeroan closed the impossibly small white book with the blank cover and the strange, squiggly symbol on its spine. He’d been sitting on the hard floor all morning, reading the book in one of the many empty office cubicles of the first floor, all of which were made up of three beige walls five feet high and nothing else. No desks, and not even a chair to sit in.
He had been focusing all his reading in this book (and countless others) on stories about the man responsible for his arrival here: Dr. Michael Azure.
The trick was figuring out which stories were Azure’s, because for some reason all the stories in the History section of this book were in first person. So Jeroan had to read closely—but not too closely, because each of the book’s stories held a strange power over him. He’d glance at the first sentence or two to see who or what it was about, and then he’d get sucked in and lose hours reading. That had never happened to him before.
This morning he’d ended up reading about some crazy dude from the Ukraine talking about the ins and outs of Blood Sorcery, and then a woman from the Revolutionary War who’d been apprenticing with the renegade magic-user Ben Franklin. He’d finally hit upon this latest story about the absent Dr. Azure in some place called Snowdonia. The hints about the Druid had fascinated Jeroan, and he had to find out more.
Something shifted on the other side of the long, twisty hallway lined with dozens of cubicles. Jeroan slipped the book into his back pocket without a sound, and he saw to his surprise that the sun outside was now high in the sky. He’d started reading when it was barely light out that morning. On the other side of the floor-to-ceiling window of one-way glass next to him, the gently rocking water of the Cape Fear River reflected bright sunlight onto a dozen boats as well as the tall buildings built right up to the water’s edge.
That was totally a footstep, Jeroan thought, moving from a sitting position to a crouch in a flash. His pulse quickened, and his vision went unfocused for a moment, just like in the books. In the air around him he could vaguely see the shimmering lines of power that the book was always talking about, the lines blurring the walls of the tiny cubicle where he’d been hiding out, reading.
Reading, and avoiding the daily lesson from Azure’s operatives. Sometimes it was just one operative, occasionally two (usually greasy-haired York and big-afroed Mexico), but sometimes he had to take on all three of them. Orleans was a particularly nasty piece of work who never smiled and didn’t take kindly to having to train newbies.
“In the wrong career path,” Jeroan muttered as he tiptoed out of the cube, holding his breath. Mom had always been talking to him about career paths, he realized, nearly tripping on the industrial green-gray carpet at the memory. A wave of homesickness hit him then, so strong he could barely breathe or swallow.
They haven’t even tried to get in touch with me, he thought. And I’ve been gone over two months now.
At first, Kelley had been constantly trying to text or call or email, but he’d let his eGadget’s battery go dead weeks ago and never bothered recharging it. There was no place for gadget magic here in any of the thirteen stories of Dr. Azure’s International Center for Magical Study and Containment.
And Azure himself still hadn’t shown up here to actually teach Jeroan something. It had just been Jeroan and the Three Big Stooges, ever since he’d agreed to join Azure’s team last November.
So Jeroan had been reading and learning all he could on his own. Azure’s operatives seemed to like it better that way, instead of actually having to teach or train him. They were only responsible for Jeroan’s daily “review” sessions.
Hunched low, Jeroan crept down the zigzagging maze of drab, colorless cubicle walls, checking each cube he passed to make sure it was completely empty. He heard no more furtive sounds.
He wiped sweat from his forehead and grimaced. That had to be Orleans’ handiwork—he liked to crank up the heat in the building during a lesson to get Jeroan all off-balance. Orleans was a real pain in the butt about stuff like that.
Jeroan made it to the Fishbowl, the big rectangular conference room with glass walls just outside the elevators, without anyone dropping down on him from the ceiling tiles or sneaking up behind him. The henchmen couldn’t actually use magic, not in the way Jeroan had been doing since that day in November in Dubuque with that old guy Archie and his former friend Polly. But all three of them were big as houses and knew their way around the huge Center, while he still got lost about every other day.
And all three operatives could pull out their dampeners if Jeroan got too cocky with the latest Words he’d learned.
Jeroan patted the book in his back pocket, reassured a bit by its warmth. The office had grown warm as well, uncomfortably so, even with the cold and rainy winter weather outside. He lifted a sweaty hand to punch the Up button for the elevator, but then he remembered Mexico ambushing him inside the elevator last week. He thought better of it and tiptoed back from the elevator doors. He could scarcely believe that he’d made it to lunchtime today without a lesson.
Maybe they’re tired of getting kicked around by the new kid, he thought.
And then the lights went out.
Jeroan’s first instinct was to speak the Word for light, but he quickly thought better of it. No sense announcing where I am, he figured. Instead he kept on inching backwards in the dark, slowly, slowly, until he touched the glass door to the Fishbowl. The big one-way windows looking out onto the river and the rest of downtown Wilmington had gone opaque at the same time the lights had gone out.
Three questions, Jeroan told himself as he slipped inside the Fishbowl in complete darkness. I just have to answer three questions.
The only sound was the tiny creak of the glass door as he closed it behind him.
He forced himself to relax, even though his heart was hammering. His gaze flickered all over the place, trying to detect movement as his eyes adjusted. He held his breath and listened. He’d originally thought that guys as big as York, Mexico, and Orleans would be loud as bulls, but somehow Azure had trained them to move as silently as musclebound ninjas. Jeroan’s best defense had been smelling them—Orleans smelled like sweat, York like fried food, and Mexico like the old-fashioned cologne Dad always wore.
Thinking about Dad made Jeroan tighten up again inside, just for a moment. Even though he and Kelley barely used to see Mom and Dad—the parentals were always working at their law firm—Jeroan still missed them. They should’ve contacted me by now, he thought, the tightness in his chest spreading through his body.
Pull it together, he told himself, but then it was too late. He smelled sweat and fried food. His heartbeat quickened and his blood turned hot as he let the power flow into him in an instant.
“Quarzinck!” Jeroan shouted, and the Fishbowl filled with a brilliant red light.
Mispronounced it, he thought, and then he dove under the conference table as two huge men in black suits punched their way through the thick glass walls of the Fishbowl. The room exploded with fist-sized shards of glass that rained on top of the table and fell to the floor next to Jeroan, glowing red.
“Light’s supposed to white, not red, my friend,” said the big white guy with the slicked back hair and droopy mustache. That would be York.
“Who’s been teaching you, newbie?” laughed an equally big man with light brown skin, a long black ponytail, and no hint of a smile on his round face. Orleans.
The men split up and circled the table, heading right for Jeroan.
“Is that your first question?” Jeroan said, getting to his feet on the far side of the conference table. He crunched on bits of glass with each move he made. His face was slick with sweat, and he felt a little light-headed from the blood-rush of speaking his Word. “Easy. The answer is nobody. Nobody’s been teaching me.”
“Good one, Orleans,” York said, just a few feet away on Jeroan’s left. “Way to waste a question—”
“Yeaarggh!” Orleans interrupted, charging at Jeroan in frustration.
Jeroan slid a rolling chair in the big man’s way and headed to the corner of the big conference room, away from York and the busted glass walls.
“Rasputin,” York called out, coming fast now toward Jeroan as Orleans pushed the chair out of his way and then tripped over another chair. They could only take a swing at Jeroan after a question was asked, but York liked to get in position ahead of time, while he was doing the asking.
“What are the Words Rasputin created to animate the dead?”
Jeroan had his hand on the cold metal knob to the second glass door leading out of the Fishbowl. The red light from his Words was starting to fade, so he had to hurry. With a swirl of energy blurring his vision, he did what always worked best for him in the past: he said the first thing that popped into his head.
A pair of roaches a few feet from Jeroan flipped from their backs to their tiny feet and skittered through the bits of glass that glowed red next to the table.
“Yes!” Jeroan exclaimed, now gasping for breath from this second set of Words. He thought he saw a nod of approval from York at his correct answer, even as the big man threw a punch. Jeroan ducked, just in time.
One more question to go.
But Orleans wasn’t asking anything. He let York do all the work while he pushed chairs out of his way and crunched toward Jeroan. At some point he’d pulled out his black, tablet-sized dampener, and he was brandishing it in one big hand. The conference room was stifling hot now, and sweat dripped into Jeroan’s eyes.
Can’t use the Words on Orleans directly, Jeroan knew, flipping through his mental list of Words like shuffling playing cards. His dampener will just cancel it out.
“Who was,” York asked from just a foot away, exasperated by his partner’s actions, “the rogue magic-user responsible for—”
Jeroan ducked again as Orleans took a swing at him, breaking the rules of their so-called training. Jeroan didn’t want to run out the door just yet, not when he was so close to finishing his daily questions. Plus, Mexico might be out there waiting in one of his patented ambushes.
So he focused his energy on the two roaches trying to escape under the table. The room went all blurry and grew even hotter as he pointed two shaking fingers at the brown bugs. Filled with the rush of magic, Jeroan’s vision cleared, and his hands were no longer shaking. The Word came to him in a flash, and this time he didn’t mispronounce it.
“Fyorotufall!” he shouted as his two fingers changed targets, switching from the bugs to Orleans.
The pair of cockroaches flew through the air right at Orleans’ wide-eyed face. If the big henchman hadn’t shut his mouth, they would’ve shot right into his mouth. Instead, they went for his eyes. With a yell and a crunch of glass under his shiny black shoes, Orleans slapped at his face, slipped on the debris, and fell back onto the big black conference table with a heavy thud.
Jeroan let out the breath he’d been holding and nearly fell over from exhaustion. He’d never used so many Words this quickly before, and he felt a bit like throwing up. His stomach kept doing flips.
On his left, York cleared his throat with a sound that almost sounded like a laugh.
“Final question, once again. Who was the rogue magic-user responsible for the San Francisco earthquake of 1906?”
As soon as he finished asking the question, York tried to distract Jeroan by launching the big speakerphone from the conference table at him, but Jeroan had seen it coming. Tired as he was, he still managed to block it with his right hand, but the force of the throw knocked him backwards and nearly broke his wrist.
And he couldn’t think of the name of the rogue York had been asking about.
“I don’t study terrorists,” he yelled in frustration. He gripped his sore right wrist with his left hand and backed up until he hit the warm glass of the door behind him. Orleans had finally crushed the unlucky pair of reanimated cockroaches and gotten back to his feet. The Fishbowl was like a sauna now, and Jeroan couldn’t concentrate.
“Let’s hear your answer,” York said, just a few feet away and creeping closer.
“He don’t know it,” Orleans said. “He ain’t got a—”
A loud buzzing interrupted him, a sound louder than any alarm clock, just as the dampener in Orleans’ hand suddenly burst into bright green light. Despite the buzzing, Jeroan heard tiny skittering sounds as the two reanimated roaches peeled themselves up off the floor and fled.
“What is that?” Jeroan said, pointing at the glowing dampener and leaning away from Orleans and his sweaty odor. His legs still felt wobbly. “Can you turn off that alarm already?”
Loud footsteps approached from the hallway. The buzzing must have masked the sound of the elevator doors opening.
Orleans was looking at his dampener, his wide face green and confused.
“Is this what I think it is?”
The footsteps stopped outside the Fishbowl. The fading red light from Jeroan’s mispronounced word—mixed with the unhealthy green light from Orleans’ dampener—illuminated a big puff of curly black hair atop a six-foot-five frame decked out in a black suit. Jeroan got a whiff of cheap cologne.
“It’s his distress code,” said operative Mexico in his deep, rasping voice.
He poked his dark brown face into one of the holes in the glass walls that York and Orleans had made earlier and glared at Jeroan and the other two operatives. Mexico shook his head and glared at the three of them.
“Kindly clean up this mess and get yourselves upstairs, jokers. Dr. Azure has returned.”
And that ends chapter 1 of A Wild Epidemic of Magic. If you want to keep on reading, here’s Chapter 2.
Thanks, as always, for reading! If you enjoyed what you read, feel free to make a donation via PayPal: