A Wild Epidemic of Magic: Chapter 3

A Wild Epidemic of Magic (photo by Ron Chapple Studios)I’m pleased to share with you chapter 3 of my new contemporary fantasy novel, A Wild Epidemic of Magic.

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.

In case you’re just dropping in today, here are links to previous sections:

A Wild Epidemic of Magic

Chapter 3

The office at the top of the Center took up the entire thirteenth floor of the building, and the building took up most of a city block in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. Unlike the empty cubes of the first floor, this space was jam-packed as full as the library that ran from floors six to eight of the Center.

But instead of stacks and stacks of books, this huge room held black, humming servers lined up like soldiers all around its perimeter, with thirty-inch flat-panel monitors set above them at stand-up workstations. Keyboards, mice, smart phones, tablets, laptops, and MP3 recorders and players filled the high black desks, along with other less-familiar gadgets that nobody had taught Jeroan how to use.

The office had no chairs. But long before Jeroan had ever shown up here, Mexico had smuggled in half a dozen, four-foot-wide bean bags that now sat in the far corner of the office, right in front of a sixty-inch flatscreen and a pair of big black speakers where the operatives had set up half a dozen gaming consoles, just a few feet away from the soda coolers and the cappuccino maker.

Jeroan loved this room. He could live in this room.

Only about half of the four dozen monitors ringing the room were showing anything on them. The rest usually remained dark, though the computer attached to it was most likely running some obscure program that Orleans, the computer genius, had launched to track magic use or to gather data on some natural disaster or other suspicious activity in a region. There was always a buzz of activity up here at the top of the building, and Jeroan liked looking out of the three floor-to-ceiling windows next to all the high-tech equipment, taking in the calm city and the quiet riverfront a hundred and fifty feet below them. Nobody down there had a clue what went on up here in the Center’s office.

And right now, the office was in utter chaos.

An alarm beeped angrily, coming from one of the servers half a room away. All the server fans had kicked in, loudly, while the AC had dropped the temperature in here to what felt like forty degrees. Three of the printers close to the windows were overflowing, spitting paper onto the floor. An old-fashioned phone rang somewhere, and the five TVs mounted from the ceiling in the middle of the room blared updates from five different news channels. A burning smell filled the air, like melting plastic.

Orleans stomped in front of Jeroan without even acknowledging him, growling something about emergencies and always being the last to know.

Mexico jogged past Orleans, on his way to pick up the ringing phone on the other side of the room.

“Jeroan,” Mexico called, slipping on the paper piled up on the floor. The big man caught himself with a movement so fast Jeroan could barely follow it. His afro bobbed and wobbled like a huge hat. “Go give York a hand, if you could.”

Jeroan looked around, trying to find York and his droopy mustache in the middle of all this mess. Every one of the monitors against the walls had flickered to life, displaying images from the hidden cameras that Azure and his operatives had set up all over the planet. Jeroan saw the aftermath of a factory explosion in one, a wildfire in another, a train wreck in yet another, and a bank robbery taking place in a fourth. He blinked and shook his head, trying to clear the violent images from his brain.

Sixty feet from the alcove where the elevators were, Orleans stood at what looked like an illuminated whiteboard that was taller than he was and wider than all three operatives put together. Orleans called it his smart wall. Jeroan found York next to the smart wall, typing into two tiny laptops at once. The screens of York’s laptops swam with line after line of indecipherable code, with the occasional flash of green.

Jeroan looked from York—coding old-school on his laptops—to Orleans—zooming in on the various digital maps displayed on his smart wall, tapping and pinching and dragging his big fingers all over the place. Soon the maps on the wall were covered with green lines, connecting cities and crossing rivers and lakes and even crisscrossing the Atlantic at one point.

And I’m supposed to help these guys how? Jeroan wondered.

“Hey,” Orleans yelled over the roar of the servers and York’s frenetic tapping. “Where did the distress call originate?”

“Not sure,” York said in a distracted voice, still typing away. “It was all… jumbled. My dampener said somewhere close to London, but Mexico’s said southern Russia. And yours said… what did yours say again?”

Orleans had left his dampener on the desk next to his smart wall. He’d always complained about the size of the gadget—too big to fit in his pocket, too small to carry in a bag by itself.

Duh, Jeroan thought. It was the size of a hardcover book. Just the right size, he figured as he peeked at the dampener’s green-glowing screen, for reading.

“Newfoundland?” Jeroan said out loud, answering York’s question without meaning to do so. “Where the heck’s Newfoundland?”

Orleans and York both stopped what they were doing to stare at Jeroan.

“What is he doing up here?” Orleans shouted, noticing Jeroan for the first time. “We’re in crisis mode here, York. This is no place for a newbie.”

Jeroan took a quick step back as he set down Orleans’ gadget. He gave the two operatives what he hoped was his most charming smile.

“Don’t worry, guys. I won’t get in the way. So… how can Azure be in so many places at once, do you think?”

Orleans went back to his wall, grumbling something about not being paid to be a babysitter. With an angry swipe of his hand, he erased all the electronic maps and the green crisscrossing lines from his wall and started over. Meanwhile, York tapped one last line of code onto each keyboard, pressed two different Enter buttons, and then stepped away from his laptops.

“He’s traveling fast,” York said to Jeroan. He buttoned his black suit coat and stretched, once again giving off the scent of fried food. It was better than the stink of burnt plastic Jeroan had smelled when he walked in here earlier.

York pointed at the big map of the world that Orleans had just stretch across his smart wall. “So fast we can’t get a reading,” he added.

“Could be,” said Mexico in his deep voice, making Jeroan jump. He hadn’t even heard the big dude with the killer ‘fro come walking up. “Or it’s possible that he’s gone to ground.”

Mexico handed York a colossal green mug of coffee and set another mug on the desk next to Orleans. Both mugs had the same funky, squiggly symbol engraved on them that Jeroan’s little white book had on its spine.

Mexico passed Jeroan an energy drink in a black and green can, and he held his own big white mug that said “Magic’s in My Blood” in red letters in his other hand. Jeroan didn’t know how he’d managed to carry them all across the room without spilling them or making any noise, but he knew better than to ask how-did-you questions with these dudes.

Instead, he popped the top of his drink and watched Orleans add green dots to his smart wall for southern Russia, London, and someplace way up at the top of Canada that must’ve been Newfoundland.

“Gone to ground, huh?” Jeroan risked asking Mexico. Unlike York’s distracted friendliness, the big black guy’s moods could be hit or miss, depending on his level of stress. But Jeroan had to know. “That, um, can’t be good, can it?”

“It depends,” Mexico said. He was intently watching Orleans work his smart-wall maps. “After two months of complete silence from him, it’s certainly a good sign that he was able to get in touch with those distress calls.” He looked over at York. “We’d better get ready to hit the road in case we need to do a retrieval—”

“Hold on!” York boomed. He was looking up and pointing at the TVs in the middle of the room. Coffee sloshed from his big mug onto his shiny black shoes. “Look at this!”

One of the five TV screens in the middle of the room now showed a mountain covered in fiery lava. Jeroan hurried closer until he could read the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

“Mount Etna lights up with its strongest recorded eruption,” he read out loud. He turned back to York. “I don’t see what the big deal—”

And then he heard the voice.

This was a voice that had haunted his every thought for his first few weeks of self-education and daily attacks by York, Mexico, or Orleans. A deep and clear voice, sharp with confidence.

Azure’s voice.

And Jeroan was hearing it from the TV above him.

“I simply happened to be in the area, Pam—may I call you Pam? And I knew I had to get just a little bit closer. Something like this doesn’t happen but once in one’s lifetime. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“What the…?” Jeroan began. The voice was right, but when he looked up at the TV screen, he wondered if the camera had malfunctioned.

Because even though the guy talking certainly looked like Dr. Azure, his clothes were all wrong. Azure was a guy who wore suits. He wouldn’t get caught dead in this outfit: bright yellow and green plaid shorts, a faded green shirt with a cartoony map of Italy on it, and—Jeroan couldn’t believe this—a big floppy tan hat that nearly obscured his face.

Azure’s evil tourist twin was standing about half a mile from an erupting volcano that was now dripping orange and red lava down its side like a melting cone of ice cream, sending plumes of smoke into the air.

“Eyewitness to the Mount Etna eruption” the caption said at the bottom of the screen.

“Maybe it’s someone else,” York said as he walked closer to Jeroan, staring up at the TV and cracking his huge knuckles absent-mindedly. “Has to be, with those clothes…”

Azure’s voice, meanwhile, droned on and on to the reporter, saying something about how he’d seen the volcano light up an hour ago while he was hiking up a nearby mountain.

“Maybe,” Mexico said, slurping down a big gulp of coffee without ever taking his eyes off the screen. “Maybe not.”

At that moment, the man with Azure’s voice took off his floppy hat and wiped his head—his utterly bald head—with a light blue handkerchief. He looked right into the camera and smiled. As the distant volcano behind him shot another puff of smoke into the air with a low rumble, Jeroan swore he saw a glint of green in the bald man’s eyes.

“I find myself in awe of such uncontained power, Pam. So very… out of control.”

“Dudes,” Jeroan said, snapping his fingers. “That’s Azure all right.”

Orleans was suddenly right next to him. “Is he sending us some sort of… message?”

Mexico finished off his coffee. “Or perhaps he’s just letting certain people know he’s still alive and kicking.”

Jeroan focused on Azure’s eyes. There seemed to be something missing there. First off, the guy had actually smiled at the lady interviewing him, and meant it. And second, he really did look like a tourist who was having the time of his life despite the natural disaster taking place behind him. Jeroan exhaled, feeling disappointed in Azure, somehow.

This is what he’d been doing the past two months? Sightseeing?

“Something must’ve happened to him,” he said, “when that dragon took him away back in November. Remember that sonic boom after they went straight up? Who knows what that did to him.”

And the old guy, too, Jeroan added silently to himself. Archie.

The dragon had snatched up Azure in one big paw, and the homeless bum who called himself Archie in the other, like an oversized kid playing with action figures. All three of them had disappeared after that boom, without a trace. Until today.

“Well crap,” Orleans said as he spun on his heel and turned back to his smart wall, “it’s time we got him back and straightened him out. This is ridiculous.”

“Agreed,” York said, grabbing Mexico on his way back to the smart wall. Their angry footsteps pounded across the uncarpeted floor like a trio of nailguns.

“Wait…” Jeroan began, but the operatives had already started working again at their various stations. The smell of something burning quickly filled the air once more.

Alone again, Jeroan stared up at the footage of the volcano in Italy that had replaced the interview with the vacationing Dr. Azure. He learned that this volcano was active a lot. Like ten times a year active, if not more. So active that people had webcams aimed at it, and the first bit of blurry footage had come from one of them.

Jeroan watched the replay of today’s eruption. It was a doozy, sending blackened bits of mountain into the sky in a cloud of dust and smoke. They showed the explosion from a couple different angles, each one blurrier and shakier than the previous one.

Jeroan was about to turn away when he saw something in a blurry webcam video that froze him in his tracks.

A person was flying through the air next to the volcano, right after it exploded.

The footage had already changed to a live shot of the volcano and the still-dripping lava as it reached for the mountains around it. But Jeroan knew what he’d seen.

Ignoring the stink coming from Orleans’ corner of the office, he ran to the closest computer and got on the Internet. As he tried to figure out the best search terms, he had a sudden wish for Kelley to be there with him. She was a mad googler, and she could always find stuff online ten times faster than he ever could.

“Too bad her search skills come with all her other baggage,” Jeroan muttered as he typed in the name of the volcano and the words “web cam.” He could never remember if that was one word or two.

Kelley would know, he thought. And she’d never let me forget it, either.

Twenty feet away, Azure’s operatives swore and slammed their equipment around. They weren’t having any luck getting in touch with their fearless leader.

I got this, guys, Jeroan wanted to call out to them.

He’d never seen the three of them this serious before, except for maybe that time York and Mexico had chased him and Kelley and Polly and Jimbo up the Fourth Street Elevator in Dubuque, and they’d hit him with their Pincers, and…

Best not to think about that, Jeroan thought, pressing Enter and holding his breath.

In less than a second, he had a list of over a dozen website dedicated to the volcano in Sicily, Italy. He started flipping through the sites as fast as he could, looking for more footage of that flying man.

“Come on,” he muttered, feeling a sudden wave of heat enter him as the images on his computer screen blurred, just for an instant. “Show me.”

His screen flashed, and when he clicked the Refresh button, Jeroan hit the jackpot.

“Guys,” he said, staring at the impossible scene in front of him, but his voice was just a squeak. He felt a sudden burning in his gut, like a tiny volcano was going off inside him. He swallowed hard and tried again.

Guys! Come look at this!”

Jeroan had watched the short loop of archived webcam footage four times before Mexico and York were able to pull themselves away from their work to join him.

“This better be good, bro,” Mexico said, stomping up to him and loosening his dark green tie. “I believe I had a lead on him. Maybe.”

“Oh, it is good,” Jeroan said, touching the screen in front of him. “Look.”

On the screen right next to his finger was a tiny man in a bright green shirt and shorts who appeared to be suspended in front of the volcano. In the webcam image, Etna hadn’t exploded yet.

“Whoa,” York said, running a hand through his slicked-back hair, messing it up even more. “Azure.”

Jeroan glanced back at him and nodded. He noticed that Orleans hadn’t joined them. The third man was still frantically working at his smart wall, which was now glowing green and giving off small tendrils of smoke. That was where the smell was coming from. His wall must’ve been shorting out.

“And those,” Mexico said, tapping a long brown finger on the three shapes surrounding Azure, “look like rogue users.”

Jeroan flinched at that. He knew all too well what happened to rogue users. Just ask Archie, he thought. Or Kelley. Or me, for that matter.

“Let me run those images through one of my filtering programs,” York said, smacking Jeroan in the shoulder hard enough to knock Jeroan. His voice had grown sharp at the mention of rogues, and the sound of it made Jeroan felt like sneaking away. He jumped again as a rain of blue and green sparks shot out from Orleans’ smart wall along with a big puff of black smoke, followed by more cursing from Orleans.

“Got it,” York said from one workstation over. “Putting it onscreen.”

Mexico gave Jeroan a knowing look as they walked over to where York stood in front of a big flatscreen.

“You were probably wondering why we never had time to properly train you,” Mexico said over the sizzling sounds coming from Orleans’ wall. “We’ve been working in here non-stop, trying to keep up with Azure’s work without him. And on top of that, we’ve been working twenty-four-seven to locate him as well.”

Jeroan just nodded at Mexico, afraid to say anything, painfully aware that two months ago, he and his sister were the ones being tracked by York and Mexico.

“Here are the culprits,” York said, slicking back his hair once more. He nodded at the screen, where he’d cleaned up the images of not just one, but four human shapes floating in the air in front of still-dormant Mount Etna. He’d also zoomed in close enough to make out faces. That was a good filtering program, Jeroan thought.

Azure hovered in mid-air in his bright T-shirt and plaid shorts, face red with rage as he shouted silent Words and sent bolts of green energy out of his open hands. Maybe twenty feet above him was a dark-skinned man in white robes and a black turban, arms spread wide as he looked down at Azure. On one side of Azure was a pale woman in torn jeans, a flowery shirt, and black boots, and on the other side was a tall white man with a red beret, blue T-shirt, and black jeans.

Mount Etna: There she goes again (image from National Geographic)

All three of them floated in the air close to the volcano, and Jeroan could see the tell-tale blurry signs of magical energy building in the air around them, connecting all three of them as they channeled it through one another before attacking Azure. They must’ve caused the volcano to blow during the battle that came after this webcam image was taken.

“Blood Sorcerers,” Mexico spat. “That’s Rashad, Yu, and Dominic, if I remember correctly. Why am I not surprised? They’ve turned traitor.”

“Who? What?” Jeroan said, a million questions shooting into his head.

But neither York nor Mexico had time to answer, because at that moment something exploded inside Azure’s office. Everything went gray as the blast sent Jeroan flying through the air. He landed, gasping for breath, on one of the bean bags on the far end of the room.

When his ears stopped ringing, he pulled himself out of the bean bag and headed on unsteady legs toward where the smoke was thickest. York and Mexico were a few steps ahead of him. They all staggered over to Orleans and his smart wall.

Orleans’ face was coated in black soot and his dark hair had broken loose of his ponytail, but he was cackling happily as Jeroan approached. The stink of burnt plastic was quickly being dispersed thanks to the three now-broken windows in the middle of the office. Cool air blew away the smoke to reveal another person sitting in front of the smart wall, wearing a floppy gray hat and glowing in a mystical green light.

“I found him,” Orleans said, still laughing. “Azure. I was able to pull him back here with my wall!”

“You never told me that thing could do that,” York said in a shocked voice.

“I’ve added some, ah, enhancements,” Orleans said, exchanging a fist bump with York.

Jeroan and Mexico walked up to the man they’d been trying to find for the past few weeks. The green light had faded from the man’s body after his sudden teleportation here via Orleans’ amped-up smart wall.

Jeroan could tell something was wrong even before the man looked up at them and his floppy hat rolled off his head.

A shock of white hair sprang loose from under the hat, hair that perfectly matched the snowy white beard that reached to the old man’s chest. Definitely not Azure’s bald, beardless self.

“Ah, Orleans,” Mexico said as he slapped his own forehead. “You didn’t…”

Jeroan groaned when he saw that the bearded man’s were actually glowing a brilliant shade of light blue. It was a blue that Jeroan had hoped never to see again. Seeing it made him think of a cold morning in November when everything that could’ve gone wrong had done just that.

Lovely to see you fellows again,” the old man said as he slowly got to his feet without any helping hands from Mexico or Jeroan. He bowed his hairy white head at the three operatives now gathered around him, and then he tipped a wink at Jeroan with a smile. “Jonathan Archibald Masterson Brightwell, at your service.”

And that ends chapter 3 of A Wild Epidemic of Magic. If you want to read more, here’s the last chapter from my free preview, chapter 4.

Thanks, as always, for reading! If you enjoyed what you read, feel free to make a donation via PayPal:

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