A Wild Epidemic of Magic: Chapter 4

A Wild Epidemic of Magic (photo by Ron Chapple Studios) And here is chapter 4 of my new contemporary fantasy novel, A Wild Epidemic of Magic, the last of my excerpts.

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.

Here are links to previous sections:

A Wild Epidemic of Magic

Chapter 4

One second, Alexander the dragon was perched at the top of the shot tower, smiling down at Kelley with his wings wrapped around him like a white robe.

And the next second, he had unfurled those wings, leaped off the tower, and swooped down to snatch Kelley right off the ground.

Kelley could scarcely suck in a breath as she shot into the air in his clutches. She thought she heard a woman shout, somewhere far below her, and then the world spun away from her.

I never should’ve left my hotel room today, she thought.

She couldn’t have broken free of Alexander’s grip if she tried. Which was a good thing, she realized as she looked down past her feet dangling free in the wind. The shot tower and the rest of the city of Dubuque were now easily two hundred feet below them.

“Alexander!” she cried as soon as she was able to get her breath. “What are you doing?”

The dragon answered with a screech that sounded like a combination of the harsh wind in Kelley’s ears and fingernails running down a chalkboard.

What if he’s lost his mind, she thought, her body wracked with the shakes from the icy wind. Or what if he’s like me and forgets stuff, too? What if he forgets what he’s doing and drops me?

Kelley’s ears popped from the change in pressure as they continued to fly higher. She couldn’t see the dragon’s face—he held her close to his body, so all she could see was the world growing smaller and smaller below them. She had no idea what he might have been thinking. His smooth belly was hot against her skin, and she got a whiff of something metallic in her nose before the rushing wind blew the stink away. She could almost feel Alexander’s gears grinding together again.

The dragon slowed, just a tiny bit, in his mad ascent.

Even though she could barely feel her fingers or her nose from the bitter cold up here, Kelley tried to relax and think about a way to use some Words to get the dragon from carrying her right out into space.

Or I could just order him to stop, she thought, like I ordered him to leave the steamboat last November, even though we were surrounded by Blood Sorcerers determined to cook us all alive. But would that cause him to stop flying altogether, and we’d fall like rocks to the ground below?

With the frigid air now growing thin, Kelly couldn’t wait any longer.

“Alexander!” she cried, her head spinning. “I order you to slow down.”

Kelley felt the big dragon twitch, and to her relief, he began to slow even more. When they hit about two thousand feet, give or take a hundred feet, he stopped climbing. With a graceful arching of his smooth, muscled body, he unfurled his wings. They began to glide, high over the Mississippi River, with the state of Iowa on Kelley’s left, and Illinois and then Wisconsin on her right.

“Oh wow,” she whispered, but the cold wind ate her words. She didn’t care now that she could breathe again. This was incredible.

Instead of the rush of air in her ears from their climb, Kelley now could only hear her own heartbeat filling her ears as she floated silently above the world in the firm grip of her former windup dragon.

Dubuque Skyline, image by http://www.coffeeandphotos.com/betsyhern/

Far below to the left, she could see the railroad bridge and the shot tower, which was no bigger than a pinkie finger pointing upwards, and then the warehouse district and even the Fourth Street Elevator climbing slowly up its tiny track surrounded by snow. She caught a tantalizing glimpse of the construction site at the top of the bluffs where Mom and Dad’s builder had started putting together their new house from the ground up. The foundation was laid, and half a dozen workers swarmed like ants over the wooden framework of the three-story house.

Kelley had hoped to get a glimpse of her new bedroom, but Alexander was moving too fast for that. They were heading north, away from downtown, when Kelley suddenly felt exposed up there in the sky. She could’ve kicked herself for not realizing this sooner, but she’d been having too much fun flying.

“Alexander,” she called out, her voice sounding way too loud after the last few peaceful seconds of dragon-gliding. “What if someone sees us? It’ll be all over the Net and in all the papers.”

“Urm?” Alexander rumbled, though Kelley wasn’t sure if that was his stomach or his mouth talking. Then he twitched, and his scaly skin went hot for a second. Kelley flinched, expecting the worst, and when she opened her eyes, the dragon had disappeared.

Gasping and inhaling the smell of hot metal again, Kelley reached up to try and touch the dragon. He was still there, solid as ever as he caught an updraft and swayed side to side. He was just invisible. With another shock, Kelley realized that her own hand was invisible, too.

“Holy crap,” she said, and let out a convulsive giggle.

Maybe, she thought, I didn’t choose such a bad day to leave the old hotel room after all. Hope I remember this feeling and don’t lose it to my Swiss-cheese memory.

They did a slow sweep of the outskirts of the city, and then Alexander aimed for the tree-lined bluffs overlooking Dubuque. Kelley smiled when she figured out where he was headed—it had to be Eagle Point Park, a cute little spot high above the Mississippi that the parentals had taken her and Jeroan twice last fall to check out the changing leaves and to watch the barges float through the lock and dam far below them.

Kelley blinked away a sudden soreness in her eyes that came with an unexpected tightness in her chest. Those had been fun times, with the whole family. Even Jeroan had behaved, not even complaining about having to spend time away from his new friends in town to look at trees and barges. And Mom and Dad had only spent some of the day at the park on the phones, talking to clients and their fellow lawyers. She’d almost felt like she was part of a normal family on those visits to the park.

As the park drew closer, Kelley patted the dragon’s belly to show her appreciation for his wise choice of landing spots. The snow-lined parking lot and roads leading through the park were empty, except for a rusted and abandoned-looking scooter parked at the far edge of the campground. The place looked deserted. A perfect place to hang out with an invisible dragon for a few hours, at least until the cold got the best of them.

Just as Alexander was coming in for a landing on top of a log cabin restroom, he twitched again. A heartbeat later, a small figure streaked through the air in front of them, shooting up from the ground and into the sky with a squeal. The person would’ve smashed into the dragon’s snout, but Alexander pulled up with a harsh lurch and a sudden flapping of his wings, sending snow and dirt flying.

Touching the eGadget in her jeans pocket, Kelley looked around for the figure—was it some sort of attacker?—until she located the flying person high in the air above them.

It was a young white girl, surely no old than eight or nine, clad in bright pink boots, oversized jeans, and a purple sweatshirt. She wore a red bicycle helmet on top a mop of unruly dishwater blonde hair.

And she was no longer flying.

The young girl was now falling out of the sky, heading right for the parking lot.

“Alexander!” Kelley shouted, trying to think of a Word to use. But her mind was a complete blank. She couldn’t think of anything to say other than two regular words: “Catch her!”

The dragon was already moving for the girl as Kelley barked out her orders, and he snagged the screaming girl out of the air twenty feet before splatting into the asphalt next to the log cabin.

The girl was panting from fear, and her dirty face was beet-red as she looked all around.

“What the—what the—How did I…?”

We’re still invisible, Kelley realized. The girl—who looked vaguely familiar—had no idea who or what had just grabbed her. The girl dangled in the air, two stories above the ground, all by herself.

“Alexander,” Kelley whispered. “Can you just make me visible, but don’t make yourself—”

“Mags!” an older girl’s voice shouted, interrupting Kelley. The sound of footsteps crunching through snow grew louder and louder. “Oh God, Maggie! Where are you?”

I know that voice, Kelley thought as her hands and the rest of her became visible again.

“Polly?” she called out.

At the same time, the young girl started muttering a surprising series of obscenities as she tried to break free of Alexander’s iron grip. The footsteps in the snow twenty feet below them stopped.

“Dudes,” Polly Erdman said, looking up at the girl and Kelley, who were both floating in thin air above the parking lot. “What in the world is going on up there?”

* * * * *

“So you’re not mad at me,” Polly asked ten minutes later, for the third time. “Really?”

The three girls stood around a small but hot fire that Kelley and Alexander had built inside one of the grills in the picnic area of the park. Kelley hadn’t realized how numb Alexander’s flight over the city had left her ears. And her fingers and toes and nose. The fire felt good.

“No,” she told Polly again. “I tried calling you, but you never picked up. Same for texts and email and Friendbook updates.” Kelley gave Polly a sheepish look. “I actually thought you didn’t want to hang out with me, after all that happened. But I was heading to your place today, honest, right before our old friend here scooped me up.”

“Frickin’ dragon!” Polly’s younger sister Mags shouted, glaring up at Alexander. The white dragon had shrunk down to the size of a Great Dane, and he was now sitting on a picnic table and fastidiously cleaning his wings with a purple tongue.

“Hey,” Polly said. “That dragon saved your life, sis. What were you doing, anyway, letting yourself fall like that?”

Polly looked over at Kelley, rolling her eyes as her little sister stuck out her tongue at Alexander.

“I was giving her flying lessons. It was only our third try. She picked up the flying-up part pretty good. It’s just the landing part that she sucks at.”

“I woulda been able to land if stupid invisible dragon hadn’t got in my way.”

Alexander snorted at that, and it sounded like an annoyed snort.

“Easy, big guy,” Kelley said, and the dragon went back to his bath after a puff of black smoke from his flared nostrils.

Kelley threw a few more sticks onto the fire.

“So,” she began, “you triggered your little sister?”

“Accidentally,” Polly said, rapping her knuckles on Mags’ helmet. “It was the day after Christmas, and she was ragging on me about how I didn’t get any presents ‘cept for a couple sweaters, and she kept tossing her new football at me. So I froze her with that Gholt word your buddy Archie liked to use. Just for a few seconds. Next thing I knew, she was doing it back to me. Then she jumped off the roof of our apartment building. Little turkey thinks she can fly.”

Kelley nodded at that, hoping Polly didn’t see her shuddering at the thought of this eight-year-old leaping off tall buildings. Magic wasn’t for beginners, she thought. But that’s what we all are, really.

“Don’t judge, Kelley,” Polly said, watching Kelley closely. “It was an accident.”

Kelley nodded. “I know. And I’m sorry we didn’t get in touch sooner. I could’ve used someone to talk to myself.”

“Don’t get me started. My mom refused to get me a new phone, said my lucky pink phone was the last one she’d ever buy me, and then she couldn’t afford to buy a new computer when hers broke down. I guess I could’ve used smoke signals to talk to you. Maybe if I burned down my mom’s crappy old rental house for the smoke…”

This time Kelley did shudder, remembering the explosion that had shot out of her eGadget that decimated her family’s house last November. Her parents never even suspected her of that, even if it was technically an accident and not her fault. She still took the complete blame, at least in her own mind.

“That’s okay,” she said quickly. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad you’re still practicing, using the Words and stuff. I have a feeling if you don’t keep using it, it just sort of goes away.”

“You may be right. That would explain why all those people on the boat we triggered never really did anything impossible again. They just let their new power leave their bodies. Like getting over a cold, y’know? It gets out of your system after a while. Me, I try to practice a little every day—”

“Well, crap, then. I gotta go practice!” Mags shouted, backing away from the fire until she reached Alexander on the picnic table. “Come on, you frickin’ dragon. We gotta practice! Don’t wanna lose my magic!”

As Polly’s sister and Kelley’s dragon raced each other through the air and across the parking lot to the edge of the snow-filled park, Kelley caught herself grinning.

You don’t see that kind of thing every day, she thought. Makes me glad to be part of a world where dragons and incredible powers existed. Even if…

“Polly,” she said. “Have you ever felt any weird, um, side effects? Since that day?”

A shadow passed over Polly’s face, and it wasn’t caused by a cloud, a flying dragon, or a falling little sister. Kelley had her answer immediately.

“I dunno,” she said. “Maybe. But I always get headaches anyway.”

“Headaches?” Kelley felt a bit disappointed. She sometimes got headaches too, but the forgetfulness and missing memories bothered her even more.

“Yeah, and sometimes I, well… Never mind.”

Tell me,” Kelley said, inching closer.

“This is kind of embarrassing, but sometimes I forget what I’m about to do. And I have trouble remembering stuff that happened yesterday or a week ago. Or months ago. It’s like those memories are just fading away, if not erased altogether.”

Kelley suddenly needed to sit down. She left the warmth of the fire and crunched across the gray snow to the picnic table. Away from the fire, the cold was a welcome blast in the face. It helped clear her head.

“Crap,” she said. “You know what this means, Polly?”

Polly followed her over to the picnic table, hugging herself. Kelley realized how thin the other girl’s coat was, and how frayed and worn her jeans and boots were.

“Yeah,” Polly said, her breath clouding around her red face. “Magic’s bad for us. Just like everything else good that’s ever happened to me. There’s always a downside.”

Kelley nodded.

“It seemed to work fine at first,” she said. “We’d just have to keep charging our phones. Or camera. Nothing bad ever happened to us from using the Words. From doing magic.”

Magic. Just saying the word gave her a tiny thrill. She watched Mags and Alexander at the far end of the park, stopping to catch their breath near the overlook high above the river. Was Mags having headaches and forgetting stuff, too?

“I wonder,” Kelley said as Mags ducked under Alexander’s wing and hopped on his back. “Maybe that’s why your sister fell—she forgot the Words for flying or…” Kelley gulped, and then inhaled a cold lungful of air that matched the chill that had just entered her blood. “Or maybe, while she was flying, magic just… ran out on her.”

“Not cool,” Polly said, watching Mags trying to ride Alexander like a pony. She gave a laugh as Alexander bucked her little sister off and sent her tumbling to the snowy ground, then she paused and bit her lip until Mags got back up again. When she did, she exhaled with relief and looked back at Kelley.

“How can it just run out, though? It never happened to us that night on the riverboat. Luckily.”

“I dunno,” Kelley shrugged. She looked away from the dragon and the little girl and gazed at the orange and red flames of the fire in the grill. At the same time, gray clouds moved in front of the bright wintry sun above them.

Polly picked up some rocks poking up out of where the snow had melted and tossed them at the log cabin restroom twenty yards away. With each throw, she hit the side of the building with a dull thunk.

“So-o-o,” she said cautiously after tossing the last of her rocks. “Speaking of the bad side effects of magic… Have you heard from your brother?”

Kelley exhaled a plume of warm air that clouded her vision for a few seconds before breaking apart.

“He won’t talk to me. Too busy learning Azure’s style of magic, I guess. I’ve been sort of cut off from everyone, it seems.”

Polly gave her a sharp look, eyebrows lowered. “Tell me about it, girl.”

Kelley laughed and then winced. “I’m not sure how you survived the past two months without a phone or a computer. But yeah, Jeroan’s been out of touch. He’s okay, though, I think.”

“I didn’t ask that,” Polly said, not smiling. “I could care less about how you’re brother’s doing, that traitor. So how about that Jimbo guy? What’s he up to?”

“I called him for like the thousandth time today. He’s a lost cause. A total… lost cause…”

Polly peered closer at Kelley when Kelley trailed off. Something was trying to shake itself loose from the fog in Kelley’s head that kept trying to hide the events of the recent past. Something…

“What?” Polly said, a hint of panic in her voice. Mags’ laughing voice floated over to Kelley, along with the distant hum of a car engine.

A memory. Why were they so hard to call up these days?

At last, Kelley snapped her fingers. It was something she’d heard in the back room of a little book and gift shop. Not a “lost cause,” but a “lost soul.”

I do keep a lookout for lost souls, like you, Kelley.

Maria Haze had told her that. But in the past two months, the white woman with the intense blue eyes had been way too busy at her store to give Kelley the time of day. Kelley had stopped in three times back in late November and early December, hoping to chat more about what had happened, but the crowd of people filling the shop had kept Maria too preoccupied to say more than hello to Kelley, much less give her any tips about using magic.

And just like she’d done with everyone else she’d met her in Dubuque, Kelley had withdrawn from her. Gave up on her.

“I gotta stop doing that,” she said, thinking out loud.

“What’s that?” Polly said, distracted once again by her little sister and the dragon at the far end of the park. The sound of the car engine was getting louder.

“I think we need to take a trip down to the Haze Books and Gifts store and see if Ms. Haze has time to sit down and chat with us and her former windup dragon.”

“Ah, the old lady from the boat, right?”

Kelley nodded, smiling at last. She’d missed Maria and her stories and her wise blue eyes, not to mention her cozy little store. Hopefully the crowd wouldn’t be too thick in there today.

Her smile lasted only a few seconds, though.

“Polly!” Mags shouted, her voice sounding like she was half a mile away. “Someone’s coming!”

Kelley turned and saw Alexander ten feet off the ground, with Mags on his back. He seemed to grow larger with each flap of his wings, and he zipped across the parking lot like a small jet. Off to her left, Kelley saw a big green car roar up the entrance road, heading right for them.

“Go invisible,” Polly called, and the dragon and his tiny rider disappeared.

Slightly freaked out by that as well as the approaching car, Kelley turned back to the entrance and the car with its extremely loud engine. Her vision blurred for an instant, and she touched her freshly charged eGadget in her pocket. But before she could channel the energy growing inside her to attack, Kelley stopped herself.

I can’t just blast someone for coming to the park, she thought. I can’t get paranoid like that. Or I’ll be just as bad as Azure and his cronies.

With Alexander at her back, invisible but panting loudly, and Polly at her side, Kelley watched the car coming closer. It was an old two-door, the kind Dad would’ve called a muscle car. It was about a football field away from them now, and slowing down. She squinted through the windshield until she could make out the pinched, unsmiling face of the driver under a black baseball cap.

“Beyers,” Kelley spat. The off-duty cop had somehow tracked them here. “Alexander, get us outta here!”

The invisible dragon didn’t need to be told twice. The big green car spun out of Kelley’s vision as the dragon plucked her off the ground along with Polly. He set Kelley on his back behind Mags and Polly in front of her little sister. Then, just as the car was a few feet away, and Beyers was hitting the brakes, they shot into the air. Mags and Polly both screamed with what sounds like a weird mix of fear, surprise, and joy.

This time Kelley had an even better view of the city passing by far below them, because she could see right through Alexander. But her flight was also much, much scarier this time around because she not only had to hold on for dear life for herself, but keep Polly and Mags from slipping off the dragon’s invisible back. With each flap of the dragon’s huge wings, Kelley felt his back muscles rippling underneath her as his whole body lurched up and down. Kelley would’ve killed for a dragon seat belt.

She finally closed her eyes and let the cold wind turn her face numb again. But as soon as she did that, she saw Beyers’ contorted face again from behind the wheel of her big green muscle car. The woman that Mom and Dad had hired to keep her safe had looked mad and somehow betrayed. As if Kelley had let her down, somehow.

Or maybe the woman was just freaked out, watching Kelley leap into the air and disappear.

With Mags cackling like a maniac and enjoying every second of the flight, and Polly silently reaching back to hold onto both Mags and Kelley, they soon dropped smoothly down into the heart of Dubuque. Alexander deposited them in front of Maria’s book store, a place that made Kelley take at least four wrong turns to before finding. By the time she turned to thank the dragon, he had shrunk to the size of a small figurine.

And none of them were invisible anymore. Kelley felt strangely glad about that.

Mree?” Alexander said. He looked exhausted in his newly shrunken state.

“Nice work, little buddy,” Kelley said. She scooped him up and slid him into her coat pocket, where he curled up and went right to sleep.

Polly and Mags stood at the door of Haze Books and Gifts. Polly fiddled with the door, and Mags started swearing like a sailor when it refused to open.

Kelley looked up for the faded wooden sign for the store, but it was gone. She couldn’t see anything through the tiny, opaque window where the Open sign usually hung. There was just the heavy door with a small white sticker on it.

Maria never left her shop, unless it was some sort of emergency.

She moved next to Polly, who’d given up on trying to get the door open. Kelley’s sense of confidence after finally deciding to see Maria Haze fizzled and faded away when she read the delicate handwriting on the  white sticker:

“Closed Until Further Notice.”

And that ends chapter 4 of A Wild Epidemic of Magic, as well as my short preview of this novel. Look for the finished book in mid-2012 (if all goes well!).

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

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