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The Legacy of Androva Series

The Spell Tracker has arrived, and he intends to collect what he's owed. Luca is out of time. So is Cass, though she doesn't know it yet. And Devin's attempts to save them both only serve to give the Spell Tracker more leverage. Chapter twenty-six is the penultimate chapter. One way or another, the story is about to end!

You can catch up on chapters one through twenty-five via the New series label at the top of this post, and thank you very much for reading 💕.

26 A Sacrifice

I recognized his energy signature from our dealings in the magical dimension, but I would never have connected it to the lanista without the visual cue. He normally looked very different. No wonder I had felt so uneasy around him.
“Nothing to say, Luca?”
“Who’s Luca?” asked Devin.
“Your boyfriend’s real name. Very little of what you know about him is true.”
I gave Devin a helpless look. My fear expanded in a sudden rush, as if my emotions had just caught up to the situation. It’s happening. I’ve failed. I turned to the Spell Tracker. “He’s got nothing to do with this. Let him leave.”
I got a nasty smile in response. “Nothing to do with this,” he repeated slowly. “How so? Are you not connected?”
“You don’t have a contract with him,” I said, raising my voice.
“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” asked Cass.
“I’m not leaving,” said Devin. He took a step closer to me, keeping one hand on Cass’s shoulder, and the Spell Tracker’s smile widened.
“An audience. My favorite thing.” He opened his hand, palm facing upward, and slowly closed his fingers to create a fist. Cass let out a scream of pain and shock. Her back arched as her body tried to escape what the Spell Tracker was doing to it.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
With his other hand he created a wall of magic to trap Devin and me. Struggle though we might, we could not get past it to help Cass.
Rescindo. Rescindo!” I said frantically. Of course, nothing happened. The Spell Tracker was no fool. The terms of the contract between us meant I was unable to use magic against him. I knew that, but I kept trying anyway.
“This,” he went on, “is me collecting what I am owed.” He lowered his hands and Cass slumped forward, head bowed and shoulders heaving as she took in gulps of air. As I bent over her, murmuring the healing spell, Devin launched himself at the Spell Tracker. I had no time to remind him not to touch the skin. His fist barely grazed its target before he recoiled with a gasp.
“I wonder why Luca chose you to connect with,” said the Spell Tracker, dismissing the attempted punch with a shrug. “It obviously wasn’t because of your intellect. Try that again and your sister will pay for your stupidity.”
Cass raised her head slowly. “Now that you have our attention, what do you want? What kind of twisted game is this?”
“No game,” he said. “You’ve already lost. You belong to me. As Luca belongs to me.”
No,” I said. “You can’t take her.”
A short laugh. “Do tell me why not, Luca.”
The lines of our contract tightened against my magical core and I did my best to keep the pain from showing on my face. Devin lifted a hand to his own chest, obviously feeling an echo of what was hurting me.
“Avi?” he said. “Who is he?”
“She might still accept her life lesson,” I said. “Give me the time you promised. She’s so close.”
“I know she’s close. Why else do you think I’m here? And I didn’t promise you anything except failure.”
“What’s a life lesson?” said Cass.
“All in good time,” said the Spell Tracker. “Have you remembered who I am yet?”
“No. And just for the record, I don’t belong to anyone.”
“By all means put it on record while you still can,” said the Spell Tracker. He tilted his head, looking her up and down with an impassive expression. “Pain and fear have the tendency to reduce a person’s vocabulary quite dramatically. And, of course, the dead say nothing at all.”
Cass lifted her chin. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m not afraid of dying.”
“No, you’re not,” he agreed. “Dying is not your worst fear.” He lowered his voice. “But I know what is. Timor pessimi.”
Her defiant expression faltered. I had no idea what he’d shown her, but from the way she was holding up two shaking hands to ward it off, he hadn’t pulled any punches.
“Hmmm. Not so brave after all,” he said. “What a shame.”
“You sick bastard,” she managed, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. “Subjecting me to a disgusting hallucination proves nothing. Bravery and fear aren’t mutually exclusive.”
“Better,” he said, nodding.
Stop. Just take me and leave them alone. Aren’t I enough?” I said, squaring my shoulders against the pain. “I won’t resist. I know how much you want the magic of a Light Mage. Cass and Devin are nothing to you. Are you so petty you would insist on killing all of us?”
Cass and Devin turned to me with identical expressions of shock. The Spell Tracker laughed. “Oh, Luca. Well done. I think they’re finally paying attention.”
“Avi,” said Devin. “What’s going on? If he’s not the lanista, then who is he?”
“I believe you called me ‘the thing that’s worse than hell.’ I think that was it. Am I right, Luca? One can never be certain of the nuances.”
Devin pressed his lips together. Through the connection I felt his fear rise, but he swallowed it back down before he spoke. “So you’re an eavesdropper, too? Classy.”
The Spell Tracker smiled. “I should interact with my victims in their earthbound covering more often. Your defiance is rather entertaining. I wonder how much you’ll regret those brave words when I restore your magic and you recognize me for who I really am.”
His face twisted with anticipation. “Would you fall to your knees and beg for mercy? Would you renounce everyone you’ve ever loved if I asked you to?”
“What?” said Devin, backing away. “I don’t… I don’t have any magic.”
“Just let them go,” I said. “Devin isn’t even tied to one of your contracts. You’re threatening him for your own amusement.”
The Spell Tracker smoothed a fold of his cloak. “Are you sure about that?”
“No,” I said, horrified. “Y-you… that’s impossible.”
He smiled and waited before answering me. “How quick you are to doubt yourself. Unfortunately, you are correct.”
“And Cass?” I said angrily. “What’s your excuse for denying her the extra time? I get why you want me, but you don’t need us both.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” He scowled. “Do you know how long it took me to qualify to be the Spell Tracker?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Do you know?” he repeated.
“I don’t give a shit,” I replied.
His scowl deepened. “It was all I ever wanted to be. As soon as I understood what it was—the pinnacle of achievement for a Shadow Mage—my mind was made up.
“I was on track to be the fastest qualifier in history. I was going to be the best Spell Tracker the High Council had ever appointed. Until you.” He pointed at me, then at Cass.
“What is he talking about?” said Cass. I shook my head. I have no idea.
“I’m due to step down next year. And I finally have a chance to even the score.”
“What score?”
I didn’t particularly want to know, but at least if he was monologuing, he wasn’t killing us.
“I failed my life path. This branch of my life path,” he added, gesturing to the Roman clothes he was wearing. “Because of you, Luca. Not only had I allowed… love, but it had flourished to such a degree that a new guardian was created too. I couldn’t be the Spell Tracker with that happening right under my nose. They suspected me of compassion.” He practically spat the word. “It took several more earthbound lives to convince them I possessed the right qualities for the position.”
“I thought you weren’t allowed to see my life path,” I said. “You couldn’t have known it was me.”
“I didn’t,” he agreed. “But I knew it was her.” He pointed at Cass. “She was saved by a guardian’s sacrifice. The only magician in my personal life path with that honor. When I became the Spell Tracker I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out she was bound to one of my contracts. I’ve been watching her. Watching and waiting. Supporting her failures, shall we say.”
“You’re the reason for the blackouts,” said Devin, catching on first. “You hid the notes. God, you really are despicable.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I try.”
“But… you never…”
“What’s that, Luca? I never mentioned any of this to you when we agreed our contract? No. I did not. Allow me to rectify that oversight.”
The Spell Tracker came closer. He reached inside the illusion of my physical covering to put his hand around my heart and my magic. The pain was excruciating. The edges of my vision grayed out.
He pushed Devin and Cass away with a spell when they tried to rescue me. I swallowed down a sob. The blade in the Colosseum hurt less than this. I wished I could tell them to run, but there was nowhere in the earthbound dimension he wouldn’t be able to find Cass. And Devin wasn’t likely to leave either of us.
“I will be taking you, and the girl, and enforcing your contracts because you are the reason I will be remembered as an ordinary Spell Tracker rather than an extraordinary one. I trained you both to die when I was your lanista, and you will finally make good on your obligation.”
He removed his hand and I dropped to my knees, gasping.
“I will enjoy every second of your torment,” he went on. “Especially when she knows you for who you are and realizes you failed to save her.”
Devin rushed over and put his arms around my shoulders. “Are you OK? Avi, say something. It hurt so much,” he said. “I can only imagine what it was like for you.”
“How sweet,” said the Spell Tracker. “It seems you’re still inspiring love, even now, Luca. What a great loss to guardian-kind you’ll be. Say your goodbyes. It’s time to leave this dimension.”
Love? Devin looked me in the eyes and didn’t deny it. I held onto his arms and focused on the connection. Me too. He smiled. Then he spoke, and it was like the Spell Tracker’s hand was clutching my heart again.
“Take me,” said Devin. “Take me instead.”
No.” Cass and I spoke at the same time. Devin ignored us.
“Avi is much more valuable to the world than I am, and my sister deserves a proper chance.”
Cass and I continued to protest, but the Spell Tracker held up a hand and silenced us. I got to my feet and curled my fingers into fists. Cass stood next to me, radiating anger. Before I could take a step toward him, the Spell Tracker smirked and immobilized us both.
“This is unexpected,” he mused, looking at Devin. “I wonder… Yes. It might work very well. The knowledge of what you suffered will be a burden to them the likes of which I could never hope to replicate. However…” He paused. “However. You can only save one of them. I will exchange one contract for another. One name. That’s all.”
The anticipation had returned to his expression when he faced me. I struggled against the magic holding me prisoner but failed to overcome it.
“I can only imagine what you’re trying to say, Luca. What if he saves you? Leaving you all alone while I do my worst. I wonder how many assignments you’ll fail after that. All of them, probably.”
I ground my teeth and he laughed. “More likely, he’ll save his sister. Is that what you want, Luca? Are you sure? Look at her.”
He forced me to turn. Cass was watching both of us with tears falling down her face.
“How long do you think she’ll last once I start torturing her brother? I imagine she won’t be able to live with herself. The guilt will cling to her life path and she’ll never escape it. You and he are all she has left, aren’t you?”
“Are you done?” asked Devin, sounding remarkably calm. My anger was rising and rising.
“Are you?” countered the Spell Tracker. “Do you have a name for me?”
“I’ll tell you the name once the agreement is in place,” said Devin. “I don’t trust you. I want Avi to check everything. He obviously knows how magical contracts work, and I don’t want you to be able to twist your way out of it.”
“As you wish.” I was released from the restraining spell with a flick of his fingers.
“Don’t do this,” I said immediately.
“I’m doing it,” said Devin. “You might as well help me; otherwise, he’ll kill us all.”
For a few moments we had a silent almost-conversation, our emotions swirling eloquently between us. Devin wasn’t going to change his mind. I pulled my emotions back before I revealed too much about the direction my thoughts were headed.
“You have to save Cass,” I told him.
The Spell Tracker laughed. “So predictable.”
You don’t know as much as you think you do, Spell Tracker. Devin is a Light Mage. If he sacrifices himself for his sister, he’ll graduate his life path and your contract with him will be void.
“I will. I promise,” said Devin.
The Spell Tracker weaved the four of us into a new contract. I checked the symbols carefully but he did not deceive us. As soon as Devin spoke his chosen name, that magician would be released from their contract for Devin to be bound in their place.
And when the Spell Tracker stops the heart of Devin’s physical body, Devin will become a guardian and Cass will have another chance.
“The contract says Avi, doesn’t it? Not Luca?” asked Devin.
“It does,” replied the Spell Tracker. “I have to use earthbound names because that is our current dimension. Not that it matters if you stick to your original choice.”
I frowned. “You promised,” I told Devin.
“I know. And I’ll keep my promise. It’s just… the name is important to me. I don’t care if that makes me sentimental. To me, you’re Avi.”
The Spell Tracker gave sigh of irritation as he finished what he was doing. He felt as uncomfortable in the presence of love as I did in the presence of fear. “The contract is complete. Get on with it.”
I checked again and nodded. “It’s ready.”
He wouldn’t release Cass so that Devin could say goodbye to her properly. Damn him. He’s so determined to make this as difficult for her as possible.
“You’ve kept me waiting long enough. I’m allowing this change as a favor, in case you’ve all forgotten. Get on with it.”
Devin looked at me and Cass, one after the other. He smiled. “I love you both,” he said. “I promise you this is my choice. I want to do this. You’ll make me very happy if you accept that. Look after her,” he added to me.
“What? How can I…?”
He didn’t answer, turning to the Spell Tracker.
“Cavi,” he said.

A new season is well and truly here. Although I've been writing for most of the weekend, it's impossible not to notice how much the view from my window has changed in the last couple of weeks. The woods next to where I live are the deciduous kind, and the leaves on the trees are already turning gold. The sunlight seems more golden too, and the days are unmistakably shorter.

To celebrate the arrival of autumn in all its beauty, here are a few quotes from some amazing writers alongside photos I took in the gardens next to my local university. I hope your October has gotten off to a great start, and thank you very much for visiting my blog today 🍁.

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
― Albert Camus

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.”
― Jim Bishop

“Come, little leaves," said the Wind one day, "Come to the meadows with me and play. Put on your dresses of red and gold; For Summer is past, and the days grow cold.”
― George Cooper

“That season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness―that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”
― Jane Austen

“I guess it's something about the air. Fall air always smells like possibility.”
― Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera

“The air smells divine, like old leaves and wet bark, and ripe apples. Have you ever noticed that each month has its own smell? May and October are the nicest-smelling months, in my opinion.”
― Lisa Kleypas

“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolour, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.”
― Stanley Horowitz

“And the sunsets of Autumn—are they not gorgeous beyond description? More so than the brightest dreams of poetry?”
― Charles Lanman

“If a year was tucked inside of a clock, then autumn would be the magic hour.”
― Victoria Erickson

In this chapter, Luca finally gets to take Cass back in time to confront a past event. An event that might not have happened the way she remembers. It brings her closer to understanding her life lesson and accepting Luca's help, but it also attracts some unwanted attention. The Spell Tracker won't wait forever to enforce the terms of his contract...

You can catch up on chapters one through twenty-four via the New series label at the top of this post, and thank you very much for reading 💕.

25 A Revelation

Devin came to visit me during the weekend. I was grateful for his company. Now I had a plan to help Cass, I was eager to get started, which naturally meant the time between Friday and Monday slowed to a crawl. It was hard to believe I’d only known Devin for a month. Our connection, and the fact we were both Light Mages, strengthened our feelings without us even trying.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s the best kisser I’ve ever met.
“How’s this going to work?” he asked me. “Once you’ve shown her some of what she’s forgotten, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Recognizing the lesson is just the start of the process. Assuming we’re right about what the lesson is.”
He shifted position so we were facing each other. The backstage area was a terrible place to meet, really, but it felt like it was ours now. And it was also unlikely any teachers visiting the school out of hours would disturb us.
“Once she understands it, though… Why wouldn’t she try to learn the lesson?” said Devin.
“She still has free will,” I replied. “Gabe didn’t have to come out, did he? He chose to. He could also have chosen to stay in the closet his entire life.”
“But… that would have been ridiculous.”
“In your opinion,” I pointed out.
“In the opinion of any sensible person,” he retorted.
“It’s his prerogative, though. It has to be. And it’s not for you to say what’s right or wrong for him.”
Devin scowled. “Is that my lesson, then? To support my friends even when I don’t agree with them? That’s… well…” He trailed off. “I suppose it doesn’t sound so stupid now I’ve said it out loud.”
I grinned. “No. It’s not black-and-white though. You have a tendency to assume responsibility for the people you care about. It will probably be an ongoing theme for you.”
“Have you looked at my life path?”
I shook my head.
“But… Elizabeth? How did you know where to find her?”
“I haven’t looked forward.” I was scared of what I might find. Light Mages were given the opportunity to graduate as guardians at least once in each incarnation. I don’t want to know. Leaving him would be difficult enough as it was.
“I’ll help. With Cass,” he said. “Just tell me what to do.”
“Thanks. I’m afraid I’ll be making it up as I go along, though.”
“I trust you.”
He leaned over to kiss me. I lifted my hand to his neck and closed my eyes, allowing myself to be distracted from the fear I would let him down. I could only do my best. Unfortunately, there was an excellent chance my best would fall wide of the mark.
On Monday, Cass made me wait until the end of the school day before she would even talk to me in private, let alone allow me to take her anywhere. I became increasingly afraid she’d changed her mind.
When the bell rang, she followed me to an empty classroom willingly enough, trailing her backpack on the ground behind her. I offered to carry it and she gave me a scornful look. A second later she sighed and handed it to me.
“You OK?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I feel like shit, but it’s nothing specific. Ignore me. I’m being a lightweight.”
The darkness surrounding her was verging on impenetrable. It was no wonder her energy had plummeted. I hoped I was doing the right thing. Without her former anger to sustain her, she was closer to confronting her life lesson, but also more vulnerable.
Devin was waiting. Cass turned around to frown at me. “What’s he doing here?”
“He’s just going to make sure no one disturbs us,” I said.
“Does… does he know about all of this? Any of this?” Cass took a step backward, then another.
Mihi crede,” I said, more fiercely than I needed to. She paused. “He’s your brother,” I went on. “He loves you. You’re behaving like you’re all alone in the world.”
She folded her arms. “You do not get to tell me what to do.”
“No. And I’m not. I’m stating the facts,” I replied.
Cass opened her mouth and closed it again. She looked at Devin, who stared back at her with a faint smile. Cass dropped her gaze first.
“OK. He can stay,” she muttered.
Devin went to stand outside and I locked the classroom door behind him. I lengthened my sleeves and reached for Cass’s hand as I’d done before.
“Wait,” she said. “Don’t you need me to tell you where and when?”
I glanced at the door and she immediately understood. Her expression became terrified. “You’re not… you’re not saying h-he… No. He’s wrong. I need him to be wrong.”
“Let’s see,” I said, ignoring her panic. The sooner we got this started, the better. I took hold of her hand. “It will be dark, and we have to stay silent. I’m going to use a spell to make sure of it. You won’t be able to talk to me. Squeeze my hand three times if you want to leave. OK?”
She nodded. I said the date and location and our surroundings transformed. It wasn’t as dark as I’d feared thanks to a chink of light from where the doors of the wardrobe we were standing in didn’t quite join. I wobbled, stepping sideways to avoid what felt like a book under my right foot.
Cass reached out her free hand to trace the pattern of wood panels on the door, stopping at the handle. Her grip on my hand relaxed a little. We waited, with only the sound of an occasional car passing on the street outside for company.
After a few minutes we could hear voices, becoming louder and louder, until Cass’s bedroom door was pushed open so forcefully it banged into the wall behind it.
“You’re not listening to me!”
It was Devin’s voice, sounding younger and furious.
“I am listening!” shouted back the thirteen-year-old Cass. “But I don’t want to talk about it. Just because you lost your father too doesn’t mean you know anything about what it’s like to lose your mother. All this bullshit about it not being my fault is…” There was the sound of something being thrown against the wardrobe door, and the older Cass and I both jumped.
“It’s bullshit!” she continued. “You’re like my therapist, telling me I should allow myself to move on and my mother was ill and yada, yada, yada. How can I move on? She left me. She left and she never—”
“You’re still not listening,” interrupted Devin in a low voice. There was silence for a moment. A shadow moved in front of the light between the doors.
“Fine,” said Cass, sounding calmer. “Tell me again. But if you mention the five stages of grief, I swear to God I will punch you.”
“It wasn’t your fault… and if you let me explain,” said Devin, his voice rising, presumably to stop Cass from interrupting, “I’ll tell you how I know.”
“How?” asked Cass.
“I have a note.”
More silence. Cass, next to me, froze.
“I don’t believe you,” said the younger Cass.
“My mom found it under the mat. It must have been there since…” Devin trailed off, sounding embarrassed. “Anyway, my mom found it and gave it to me this morning and I’ve been waiting to speak to you. I didn’t want you to read it at school.”
“Have… have you read it? What you said about it not being my fault…”
“I’m sorry. There’s no envelope, so I couldn’t help—”
Cass squeezed my hand three times. It was completely unexpected and when I didn’t react straight away she carried on, using more and more force. “Rescindo,” I said, pulling my hand away as soon as the classroom reappeared.
I got no further. Cass pushed past me, turning the handle on the door. She looked back when it didn’t open, her expression frantic, and to my shame, I debated with myself for a few seconds about whether I should unlock it. If she runs away now, I doubt I’ll have another chance.
“Open the door. I want to speak to Dev,” she said.
“Oh. That’s not what… Resero.”
Cass pulled Devin inside the room and shut the door. He gave me a look as if to say, “What’s going on?” but before I could answer, Cass spoke to him.
“What did it say?” she asked. “What did it say?
“But… you made me read it to you,” he replied.
“We… er… we missed that part,” I said. “Cass wanted to come back.”
Cass made a noise of frustration. “Because we were stuck in a stupid wardrobe. I didn’t think we’d be able to see what was in the note. God! Can we go back? Can you remember it? Can—”
Mitescere,” I said. “Please, Cass… sit down and listen to me. We can go there another way. As long as you’re prepared to let me find it.”
“You’re talking in riddles. That’s so… so unhelpful.” As the magic settled she was forced to grab a chair. I hated using the spell, but as an insurance policy against the Spell Tracker claiming her right this second, I considered it worthwhile. I was relieved to see her agitation reduce a little.
“We can access your…” I stopped. I didn’t want to tell her about life paths. “We can access your memories,” I said. “Visiting memories is different. We’ll be shadows. No need to hide in the wardrobe.”
“Why didn’t we do it that way in the first place?” she asked. “All this time I’ve been asking you about seeing my mom…”
“Because… well, firstly, we’d be shadows. You wanted to talk to her, didn’t you? And secondly, I can’t access your memories without you noticing. I can’t… I won’t do it without your permission. I had planned to use a spell, but… anyway. I changed my mind. And until now, I didn’t think you were ready to give me that permission.”
“I… I might have.”
“Yeah, right. I couldn’t persuade you to stay after school for even five minutes until today.”
“You were so needy. I told you I wanted some space but you kept—”
“As I said,” I interrupted, before she could go into any more detail about how hopeless my attempts to help her had been, “I didn’t think you were ready. And you have to admit the note is a bit of a game-changer.”
“It’s not so bad. It feels like spiders inside your head,” said Devin.
“What?” said Cass.
“When he looks at your life… memories.”
“It might be a bit worse for you,” I warned her. “You… er… you’re quite closed off.”
“Yes,” she agreed, unapologetic.
“So, can I?” I checked.
“Yeah. I want to see that note more than anything right now.”
I tried to remain calm. I was about to look at her life path, something I’d been wanting to do since the day I arrived. As soon as my magic touched her, she shrank into the chair. I gave her an anxious look.
“No, don’t stop,” she said. “I’m going to read that note if it’s the last thing I do.”
Gods. Don’t even suggest such a thing.
I continued, lifting the armor one layer at a time. Without any connection between us it was painfully slow. Eventually, I made it to the energy map. At last. I can see it. She did set out to be a Healer. I’d guessed correctly. And the lesson causing her so many problems was… forgiveness. OK, that makes sense. Compassion is a pretty non-negotiable Healer quality.
“It’s not like spiders,” she said to Devin, wrapping her arms around her body. “It’s more like a tiger is casually sorting through my head with his claws extended.”
He pulled up a chair next to her and put one arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him. I didn’t stop what I was doing. I couldn’t. Not now I was so close to finding out.
I wanted to know who she needed to forgive in this life. Her mother, I assumed. Or her father. She’d cut herself off from any close relationships since she’d lost them. Even her own brother. It looked like a classic case of self-preservation—to make sure she never loved anyone else.
Except it wasn’t. I found the promise she’d made when she turned her back on her life lesson for good. “I’m never going to do to someone else what my mom did to me.” It was the other way around. She wanted to make sure no one ever loved her. Which meant… it was herself she needed to forgive. And, more than that, in order to be a Healer, she had to accept that she couldn’t save everyone.
It’s a major lesson to learn in eleven days. Reeling from the discovery, I forced myself to carry on and locate the moment Devin handed her the note from her mom.
“What is it?” said Devin. “I can feel your…” He glanced at Cass, but she was too preoccupied with the pain inside her head to notice what he’d said. “You look terrible.”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “I’m fine. I’m ready when you are, Cass.”
She looked at Devin. “Will you…?”
“Sure. If you want,” he said, his face breaking into a smile.
“I do.”
I took that as my cue and put my hand on her shoulder, making the connection. We watched as the younger Cass read the words her mom had left behind. However her mom had managed to convince herself death was her only way out, it was clear that Cass was her one regret and the reason she’d waited as long as she had. She hoped Cass would stay close to her brother and be happy.
The older Cass started to cry, and my hand on her shoulder tightened. It was heartbreaking. Her mom had obviously expected Cass to get the note before she went home that day.
“There was a second note for my mom and my stepdad,” said the younger Devin. “It asked them to call the cops and look after you.”
The younger Cass put one arm around him, clutching the note in her other hand. “Please let me look after you,” he said.
She leaned back to look at him. Her cheeks were wet. “Maybe we could look after each other?”
“Maybe we could,” the younger Devin agreed.
Rescindo,” I murmured. I knelt down to speak to Cass. “Give it a few minutes before you try to process what you’re feeling. You’re probably in shock.”
“I’m not in shock. I’m furious. I turned my room upside down looking for that note when Dev told me about it afterward. I wanted him to be telling the truth. I wanted… so much.”
She put her hand on his arm. “I pushed you away because I was terrified. There was no note,” she said fiercely. “What was I supposed to think when your parents conveniently misplaced theirs too? You were lying to me. All of you. I thought you were lying about our friendship and… everything.”
Devin started to protest, but she talked over him.
“I thought maybe you were getting revenge on me for our dad. I… I don’t understand. Where did the notes go? Why did I get those blackouts?”
A beat of silence.
“Not to worry, my dear. I can answer both of those questions for you.”
We all turned to face the direction the voice had come from.
“Who the hell are you?” said Cass.
“It’s the lanista,” said Devin incredulously.
No. It’s the Spell Tracker.

Writing can be an unpredictable pastime. You never know until you sit down to type whether it's going to be a good writing day or a bad one. And if it becomes a bad one, my experience is that I never manage to turn it around. I'm better off picking up a book, going for a walk, or carrying out some research instead. However, my chances of getting things off to a positive start are much improved by writing in a place where I feel happy and surrounding myself with things that encourage me.

Today's blog post contains a few photos from my writing space. For better or worse, this where I've written each of my nine books 😊. Thank you very much for visiting my blog today, and I'll be back next week with another chapter of Spell Tracker. (Chapters one through twenty-four are already posted, and you can access them via the New series label.)

The view 🌳
I write outside occasionally, but most days I have to rely on the view of the woods from my window.

The desk 💻
I can write on the laptop, but I prefer a bigger keyboard and monitor. I have a very inquisitive cat, and I'm also a Loki fan 😏.

The accessories 📚
Books, bookmarks, and notebooks! And I have a few objects from the Androva world to help my imagination. The photos on the left are of a Portal Remedy and a Xytovian amulet (more on the amulet and Xytovia when the new Beyond Androva series kicks off later this year.)

In this chapter, Luca tries to convince Cass to make a trip into her past. Devin has helped him by providing a date, time, and place of particular significance. Luca also recalls when he made his own contract with the Spell Tracker, and we get a better idea of the penalty that's in store for him if he fails to meet the terms.

You can catch up on chapters one through twenty-three via the New series label at the top of this post, and thank you very much for reading 💕.

24 A Contract

We returned to the exact moment we’d left. Devin went to class reluctantly, saying it was only the thought of his college application forms making him do it.
I retreated to a quiet corner of the library and sent Cass a message.
Heard you were sick. Hope you’re OK?
She didn’t reply for a long time. Well, she didn’t reply for twenty-three minutes, which felt like an incredibly long time from where I was standing. Excuse me, pacing.
No. Sick. Like you said.”
It wasn’t the best of replies, but it wasn’t the worst either. She hadn’t told me to go away.
When do you think you’ll be better?” I asked.
I hesitated. I didn’t want to promise something I had no intention of delivering, but I had to convince her.
Why?” she asked again. At least she’s interested.
I’m ready to test something,” I replied.
My mom?” Cass’s message appeared almost instantaneously.
Not quite. Like I told you, this is new for me. I need to check something first.”
She made me wait again. I put the phone back in my pocket, hoping it would be more likely to buzz if I weren’t looking at it. I stared at the nearby book spines for the hundredth time. When my phone came to life it carried on buzzing. She’s calling me. Shit.
“Hi!” I said, way too enthusiastic. My voice echoed in the space between the shelves and I screwed up my face in embarrassment.
“Er… hi,” she replied. “Can you talk?”
“Yeah. I’m just in the library,” I said, lowering my voice to a more appropriate volume.
“What do you mean—check something?” she asked, getting right to the point.
“Um. Traveling within your own lifetime is a much bigger risk. You could end up changing all kinds of things,” I said.
“Duh,” she said. “That’s the point.” She paused, and I heard the sound of a door closing. “Look. Without wanting to sound pathetic here, I’m not doing so well. I feel like everything is closing in on me. All my usual coping strategies aren’t working.” Another pause. “I want to…” She trailed off, then tried again. “I…”
Her breathing sped up. I waited, powerless to help her, holding my phone so tightly it creaked with the strain.
“I want to see my mom,” she said in a rush, her voice wobbling. “I don’t want to check anything or test anything. I’m not going to demand an explanation. I just want to see her and ask her what I need to do to get her to stay with me.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said before I could help myself.
“And then I’ll fix it,” she went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “I’ll fix it, and I’ll keep it fixed, and everything will be OK again.” Her voice took on a defiant tone at the end as if daring me to disagree.
“Well…” Don’t mess this up. “I get all that. I do. But I also want it to work. Wouldn’t it be safer to try with something less important first?”
A short silence. My own breathing was coming shallow and fast. I was terrified for her. She was so close to having her contract enforced. I didn’t know what to say to keep her on the right side of its terms. Don’t take her. Don’t take her yet. Please.
“Like what?” she asked eventually. I leaned against the shelves, weak with relief.
“Like… how about we go back to one of the times you had a blackout and see what really happened?”
“Oh. That’s… not a bad idea.”
“Great! I mean—good. That’s good. Do you think you’ll be back at school on Monday?”
Cass sighed. “Yeah. Assuming I feel less like a walking corpse by then. But… the work on the house isn’t done. It will be another week before I can stay behind.”
“I know that.”
I had a counterargument ready. Thanks to Devin, I didn’t need to use concesso. I didn’t need to look at her life path. Our trip to Rome and his conversation with Leander had given me enough clues for now. Devin was also going to give me the date, place, and approximate time of the most important conversation Cass denied she’d ever had with her brother.
“I might have shouted the information at her a few times to get her to remember,” he’d admitted. “It didn’t work. But at least it means it’s engraved on my memory so I can tell you.”
As I spoke to Cass, I did my best to sound relaxed even though my hand was aching from clutching the phone so tightly. After our shouting match by her locker the day before, the last thing I wanted was for her to feel under pressure. “I know that,” I repeated. “But it will be like when we went to the Globe, remember? We’ll return to the exact same moment we left.”
“It’s up to you,” I added. “Whatever.” Stop talking, Luca.
“OK. I mean… yes. Let’s do it on Monday.”
I did my best not to sigh too loudly with relief.
“Monday,” I agreed. “Er… I hope you feel better.”
“Thanks.” She disconnected the call.
I sat down on the floor and leaned my head back against the shelves. I wished I were in the guardians’ library so I wouldn’t have to steer my way through the life lessons from memory. I was an experienced guardian, but I wasn’t infallible. It was unheard of to complete an assignment without support.
I’ll just have to be the first, won’t I?
All life paths were unique in the combination of lessons and potential outcomes they contained. There were hundreds of lessons and thousands of scenarios.
However, the criteria for success were hard-and-fast. The magic did not permit deviation. No matter how chaotic the earthbound dimension might appear, there was an underlying logic and system of rules no magician could escape. Succeed, and you are rewarded. Fail, and you pay a penalty. A penalty you signed up for by engraving its terms into your magic.
Most penalties weren’t too bad and were also rarely paid. Magicians following regular life paths usually graduated. If they failed in one incarnation, they would likely succeed in one of the subsequent ones.
It was the extraordinary life paths that had a higher failure rate. In order to practice as a Spell Master or a Healer, a magician had to prove his or her worth by risking everything. Those professions were revered for good reason. The potential penalty was severe when you made a deal with the Spell Tracker. It was supposed to deter magicians more concerned with reward than sacrifice.
Of course, rules were no more infallible than I was. Loopholes inevitably existed. The High Council had no spells in place to prevent what I had done because they never considered a guardian might choose to do such a thing.
I had willingly contracted with the Spell Tracker, the enforcer of life-limiting contracts. I had offered myself in exchange for one chance, on his terms, to save Cass. I didn’t regret it. No matter what.

      *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“I want to discuss a contract,” I said.
He raised one eyebrow. “The pleasing thing about my contracts, Luca, is that there’s nothing to discuss. The terms are fixed. And I enforce them.”
The Spell Tracker turned back to his map, signaling that he was done talking to me.
Most of the wall behind him was covered in dimension-fabric, glowing with dots of colored light. As he moved his hand across a section of the map, threads extended outward from the lights toward his palm. He frowned, closing his thumb and slender forefinger on a particular thread and pulling on it.
“Hmmm. Sooner than I’d expected,” he murmured. The dot of light at the end of the thread was flickering. Faint. A magician about to fail his or her life path. “Let’s see,” he continued, stepping back. His surroundings shimmered. The earthbound dimension became visible as an overlay of energy, surrounded by symbols from the underlying spells. The magician whose contract he’d been checking had no chance. One casual gesture from the Spell Tracker and his earthbound covering collapsed.
While I watched, magical energy escaped from the earthbound body. As soon as the heart stopped beating for long enough, the binding spell lifted. The transfer from one dimension to another was disorienting but relatively fast.
It never failed to impress me. Magical dimensions operated on a much higher frequency, and the covering acted as an anchor to keep us earthbound and oblivious. As soon as that anchor detached, our consciousness and our magical form were free to return.
For a split second, the magician was filled with joy at the reminder of where and what he was. Then he saw the Spell Tracker. “No,” he said, backing away. “Please, no.”
The Spell Tracker tilted his head as if considering a strange new species. “Are you going to resist your contract? Because that would be wonderful.”
The magician continued to move backward. When he reached the doorway his expression flickered, hope and fear mingling together. He was so close. Two steps and he’d be outside. Has he forgotten? The Spell Tracker’s chambers had only one point of entry and exit. Just one doorway. Except… not just a doorway. It was filled with a thin layer of the Spell Tracker’s magic. Harmless to most magicians, myself included. But if you belonged to him you could not pass through it.
The magician stepped into the doorway and screamed. His body struggled, trapped inside the magic. It went on and on. Pain and terror swirled around me and I made a small noise of protest.
“Luca,” said the Spell Tracker. “I didn’t realize you were still here. Please leave. I have work to do. Christopher wasn’t even one of your assignments, was he?”
“I don’t just want to discuss a contract. I want to enter into one. With you.”
The Spell Tracker blinked. He huffed a short laugh. “Is this a joke? A test? Can I expect one of the Master Mages to walk in and rank-strip me for even entertaining such a thing?”
“I’m serious. I need a physical covering and I need to be invisible to the other guardians. You’re the only magician with the skills to enable that scenario.”
 I also knew that the magical core of a Light Mage was the one prize he wanted most and also the one prize he was unlikely to acquire. He considered my words while his victim continued to suffer behind us. I wanted to intervene, but I knew I would make things worse if I did.
“Very well. I’m intrigued. Let me just set things up with Christopher here, then I’ll listen to your proposal.”
“Setting things up,” as he so casually put it, involved taking Christopher into one of the holding cells and transforming it into his worst fear. This fear would then play out on a kind of magical loop, over and over, refining itself based on feedback the terrified Christopher would unwillingly provide.
The construct was unique for each victim, usually involving extreme physical and emotional pain, followed by death. Or not. Depending on which the magician feared most. Sometimes they had to watch it happen to someone they loved. Other times someone they loved would appear as their executioner. If a magician didn’t know what their worst fear was—if they were kidding themselves they didn’t have one—no matter. The Spell Tracker, as a Shadow Mage, knew how to find it and bring it to life.
Occasionally, magicians attempted to resist the illusion, believing their mental strength was equal to the task of repelling the Spell Tracker’s magic. But his particular brand of personalized torture overcame all obstacles. He loved the fear. He savored it. It was his reward for taking on a job the High Council had decided to delegate almost as soon as they’d created it.
The rewards for graduating as a Spell Master or a Healer were many, and the associated life paths had to be tough to ensure only magicians with the right qualities succeeded. Magicians on the make paid the penalty. In the earthbound dimension, without magic or memories, no one can fake it.
That penalty was the forced removal of a magician’s magic, and there was only one method with a one hundred percent success rate. Enter the Spell Tracker. He weakened the conscious mind to the point of surrender so the bond between magic and magician would be faint enough to shatter.
Of course, no magician’s life lasted very long without their magic. It was a death sentence in all but name—something the High Council refused to openly acknowledge. The harvested magic was recycled and the victims were returned to their families to die.
We sat in front of the dimension-fabric. I refused the Spell Tracker’s offer of refreshment. The holding cells were at the other end of the hallway leading off the main chamber, but I could still hear Christopher’s sobs, and they were escalating. He was pleading for mercy, not yet accepting there was none to be had.
“Interesting,” said the Spell Tracker. “Very… interesting. He is one of mine, you say?”
He glanced at the map and I nodded. “I came across his energy signature in the life path records.”
The guardians’ library contained copies of all life paths. We were permitted to cross-reference our assignments when their lessons were codependent on other magicians’ choices.
“Came across?” he repeated, smiling. “Don’t lie to me, Luca. There’s no point. Our contract will not permit it. How many years have you been searching for him?”
“A long time,” I admitted.
“Yes, I thought so. Go on then. Show me.”
I stood up and reached out to his map with my magic. We had our own map in the guardians’ library, but, in the same way his showed only those magicians contracted to him, ours was customized to ensure each guardian could only use it to locate their own assignments.
There. I found him quickly. A school in North America. I closed in, exploring the layout and committing it to memory. I wanted to take a look at his physical covering, but the Spell Tracker stopped me. “That’s enough,” he said.
I sat down again, waiting while he examined the energy signature I’d identified. “What is this magician to you?”
“I don’t understand…”
“I want to know everything, Luca. If this opportunity means that much, you’ll tell me.”
I hesitated. His eyes narrowed. “You know the High Council does not permit me to access the life paths of guardians.” His voice took on a sarcastic tone. “We must protect the delicate Light Mages from the big bad Spell Tracker.”
“He… he was the reason I became a guardian.”
The Spell Tracker lifted a finger to his lips as if to press away the faint smile that appeared. “Indeed? This is too perfect,” he murmured.
He stared at me with an expression I couldn’t decipher. Excitement? Anticipation? I pushed away my misgivings. His reaction was to be expected. This was the contract of his dreams.
“I accept,” he said. “Maximum penalty. And I’ll do my best to ensure you pay it.”

My stories are all based on the existence of magic. Although the rules and worlds are different in both series, there is an underlying premise that magic is real and for various reasons it is hidden from view or protected somehow. I've always enjoyed the idea of secrecy and magic, ever since I first read about Narnia and Neverland as a child. It was appealing to think there might be worlds just beyond my reach where spells and enchantments were commonplace, where animals could talk, and people could fly.

Now I'm an adult, I'm less inclined to think the back of the wardrobe could be a magical doorway. But I still believe in the power of imagination. Stories can be so many things: a way to escape, or a learning experience, or a comfort, or an inspiration. And the power of storytelling comes from the willingness of our minds to accept an alternative reality. Today's blog post is a short collection of quotes that describe the meaning of magic in a way that resonates with me. I hope you enjoy them, and thank you very much for reading 🙂.

“M is for magic. All the letters are, if you put them together properly. You can make magic with them, and dreams, and, I hope, even a few surprises...”
― Neil Gaiman

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
― W.B. Yeats

“I believe that there is luminosity hiding in the shadow of the mundane. And things that hover at the periphery of our vision. If that’s magic, then I believe in it.”
― Natasha Mostert

“You know what the issue is with the world? Everyone wants a magical solution to their problem, and everyone refuses to believe in magic.”
― Lewis Carroll

“Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same thing, and even today words retain much of their magical power.”
― Sigmund Freud

“When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.”
― Hilary Mantel

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King

After the events of the last chapter, Luca/Avi wants Devin to go and talk to Leander. Luca can't do it himself because Leander thinks he's dead. And it's still a risky plan given that Devin is from the twenty-first century. But there's a good chance the events in the Colosseum have some bearing on the current day and the reason Cass is struggling with her life path. Both Luca and Devin think it's worth a try.

Warning: there is reference to gladiatorial combat and character death in this chapter.

You can catch up on chapters one through twenty-two via the New series label at the top of this post, and thank you very much for reading 💕.

23 A Coincidence

“What? How?”
“Er… with a sword?” I said.
“No. I don’t mean that. I mean… she’s a boy. How is she a boy?”
“The same way you are. Because her life path says she is.”
“You mean…?”
I nodded. “You could be a girl next time. Most lessons have to be learned as more than one gender.”
“I suppose that makes sense.” He looked back at the arena. “She got a bad deal, didn’t she? It looked like you were allies. I hope some of her other lives were happier.”
“It depends,” I said.
“On what?”
I sighed. “On whether the lesson she won’t learn can be traced all the way back to my death.”
That’s what I was afraid of. If it were true, it would mean her current situation was partly my fault. I’d thought I was saving her, not condemning her. I pushed down the guilt before it could take hold. Irrelevant, Luca. This is not about you.
“Is that possible?” asked Devin.
“Yes,” I admitted.
“How can we find out?”
“Well… you could talk to her. Ask her some questions.”
He frowned. “How can I? She doesn’t know anything about this.”
“Sorry. I meant, you could talk to him.”
Devin’s eyes widened. “You want me to talk to the gladiator? Could… could I do that?”
“Well, I can’t,” I said. “I’m dead, remember?”
He looked at me, then back down at the body in the arena. The sword had been removed, along with the helmet, and there were rose petals strewn everywhere, hiding its injuries. Its hair was dark with sweat and a line of blood ran from its lips halfway down its neck. Cass took a feather from her own helmet and kissed it, before placing it on the body.
Devin put his head on my shoulder for a second as if making sure I was still there. “Avi. That boy down there with you. Did he… did he love you?”
“We never said it. We promised we wouldn’t. Not until we’d won our freedom.” We shouldn’t have waited.
“Avi,” said Devin again, his voice low. He put his arms around me and I leaned into him. Then I felt ashamed at how selfish I was being.
“It happened a long time ago,” I said.
“No, it’s happening right now,” he argued.
“Yeah, but we can’t change it. The best we can do is understand it. Look, the congratulations are over. Cass is leaving. We need to follow.”
I assumed she would be returning to the Ludus Magnus, at least for tonight. There was a tunnel connecting it to the Colosseum, allowing the gladiators and animals easy access on games days. When we stood up, Devin made a noise of surprise.
“What?” I asked.
“I… er… I’m not wearing any…” He looked down at the toga.
“No,” I said, smiling at his embarrassment. “Underwear is a relatively new earthbound custom.”
“I thought it felt weird when we arrived, but then I got distracted. Are…?” He stopped.
“No, I’m not,” I said.
He blushed and did a terrible job of trying not to look. “Can we leave now?” he asked, finally succeeding in averting his gaze.
Devin and I remained unnoticed under my non video as we made our way through the press of bodies, apart from when he trod on his toga and nearly tripped us both up. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s these sandals. They’re impossible to walk in.”
I muttered a spell to shorten his toga slightly, putting my hand on his back to guide him in the direction I wanted us to take. I knew the Colosseum better than any casual spectator, and soon enough we were in the tunnel itself. It was hot and filthy with barely any natural light. Years of destructive emotions swirled in the air like an invisible but cloying fog. It would take a lot of guardians a long time to remove them.
I concentrated on what we were there to do. Life lessons were pursued in increasing order of difficulty, each magician advancing through the levels in sequence until they passed—or not—their final test. The path was predetermined according to their own choices and desired profession.
There was an earthbound equivalent for every role in the magical dimensions. Spell Masons, for example, were the broadest and could be matched to a variety of jobs from bricklayer to architect. Spell Weavers to painters, writers, and composers. Animal Mages, Spell Brewers, Spell Techs, Spell Masters, Healers… it didn’t matter. There was a path for all of them.
Even for him. Even for me.
I pulled Devin to a stop. “I’m going to create some aurei so you can pay the lanista. Look, that’s him over there, with the fat face and bandy legs. When you ask him for a private audience with Cass, you’ll have to pretend to be… er… interested in her.”
“What? Yuck. She’s my sister,” he said.
“I said pretend, didn’t I? She might think there’s something familiar about you, but she won’t actually know who you are.”
“Wait, how am I going to talk to her? She’s, like, Roman, isn’t she?”
“Cass considers herself Germani,” I replied, smiling at the thought of her outrage at being referred to as Roman. “She hasn’t been in the Roman system for as many generations as my ancestors. But, yes, she does speak Latin. Don’t worry, I will make sure you understand each other.”
“What do you want me to ask her? This life lesson thing… can you tell me any more about how it works?”
I sighed. I’d been debating with myself how much I could safely share with him. As long as I don’t mention magic…
We stepped a little closer to the wall. The tunnel was busy. Retiarius and secutor gladiators were lining up for the next spectacle even as the remains of the previous fight were being cleared away. Gods, Luca. Don’t look.
Devin reached out a hand to lean against the wall, then recoiled when he touched it. “I wouldn’t,” I said. “There’s a lot of stuff on there, and blood is probably the least offensive substance.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I feel so much better for knowing that. What about the life lessons?”
“Well,” I said, “there are all kinds of lessons. Talents and skills and stuff, but also personal development. Being a good father, for example. Or a good friend. And navigating successfully through the spectrum of emotion between fear and love. Making the right choices.”
He made a face. “That’s… kind of broad.”
The most prestigious professions demanded the most difficult life paths and had the greatest penalties for failure. I’d already narrowed it down to either Spell Master or Healer. The former required impeccable moral integrity alongside its professional skills. The latter required emotional strength. Objectivity without the loss of empathy.
I’d seen no evidence of any issue with Cass’s moral compass. Aside from her “I hate the world and everyone in it” vibe, she was a decent person. Which had left me with the more difficult of the two scenarios. Of course.
“I know it’s broad,” I said. “But we have to start somewhere. I want you to find out how she’s feeling and what she’s going to do next.”
Devin looked uncomfortable. “Isn’t that a bit insensitive?” he asked.
“You won’t help Cass by making friends with her in this life. The present-day Cass is the one in trouble.”
“OK.” He nodded. “Are you coming with me? You could hide your face.”
“No.” I don’t trust myself. And it’s not just my face. I am Avi. If she recognizes me… I can’t do that to her. Not to mention it would be a bad idea to get within striking distance of my former owner.
I tore off a piece of my toga and filled it with gold coins, before twisting the cloth into a knot and handing it to Devin. I removed the non video as he turned to go. “Latine,” I murmured.
The lanista agreed straight away. His eyes gleamed as he counted the coins. Yes, you greedy bastard, that’s even more money than you got for my life, isn’t it?
I told myself not to be so judgmental. I was supposed to be a guardian. Without life paths like that of the lanista, lots of other magicians would be denied the chance to learn. It pained me to admit it, but Shadow Mages had their place.
For most magicians, the core of their magic was in their heads, aligned with their intellect. Light Mages, like me, were something of an anomaly. The core of my magic was located in my heart and aligned with my emotions. Shadow Mages were just like Light Mages, but their power came from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.
It felt like I waited a long time. The tunnel cleared and the roar of the mob started up again. It was really hot. I played a macabre game of counting down the fights in the arena death by death, guessing from the noise made by the spectators. Twenty gladiators had entered to duel against each other, and if they were lucky, ten would return.
I’d reached death number six when Devin reappeared. He grabbed hold of me in a hug. His heart was beating very fast. “Avi, tragicus est,” he began. I pulled back, shaking my head.
“Wait. Rescindo,” I added, lifting the spell that was turning his words into Latin. In the unlikely event anyone overheard us, I didn’t want them to understand what we were saying. It was probably overkill, but I reinstated the non video too.
“We should return to your time,” I said. “Tell me while we walk back to the seats where we came in.”
I hoped that if we walked and talked at the same time, the telling of it would be easier on him and the hearing of it would be easier on me. I don’t deserve easy.
“She said she wanted to die with you. Did you know that?” began Devin.
Yes. I remained silent.
“It was close, at the end,” he went on. “When I watched you both… I could tell. It could have gone either way. But you were bleeding out, even before she… used her sword. Your strength was bound to fail. I tried to tell her.”
“Does she blame me for the fact that she’s still alive?” I asked.
“No. God, no. She blames herself. It’s, like, major survivor guilt. It was heartbreaking to watch. She kept forgetting I was there and going to some little altar thing and begging for your forgiveness.”
My eyes were stinging. I thought she would be angry with me for leaving her. This is much worse.
“She asked me to make sure they put a coin in your mouth to pay the ferryman. I don’t… I don’t know what that means, but I promised her anyway. She…” He trailed off. “She told you she loved you. In the arena. At the end. She asked me if I thought you’d heard her—” Devin’s voice broke.
I hesitated mid-step. She was so close. I could turn and run to the Ludus Magnus right this second and tell her it had been my choice. It wasn’t her fault. I’d be breaking almost every rule in the earthbound dimension, but I was finding it difficult to care.
Damnit, she’s the reason I became a guardian. I could never have helped all those other assignments without her. Doesn’t she deserve something in return?
When a Light Mage loves someone enough to willingly sacrifice their own life and thereby provide the ultimate proof of their selflessness, they graduate their life path and become a guardian. As I had done when I’d saved Cass.
I don’t give a damn about the rules. I’m going to find her.
Devin put his hand on my chest to stop me. “Don’t. I can feel what you’re feeling and I hate it too, but you said it yourself. This Cass isn’t the one who’s in danger.”
“Leander,” I whispered. How could my heart be breaking when I didn’t even have a heart in this dimension?
“Listen,” said Devin, “some of what she said was familiar. We should focus on that, shouldn’t we?”
With effort, I turned my mind to what he’d said. “How do you mean, familiar?”
“The survivor guilt thing. Blaming herself. I learned the term after Cass’s mom slashed her wrists. Cass told me her therapist said she was a textbook case.”
My mouth opened. “How do you know so much about it?”
He started walking again and pulled on my hand to get me to join him. “We were friends, once. She helped me get over our dad. I trusted her because she lost him too.”
“I know you were friends in junior high, but that was before her mom died.” I frowned, trying to remember the timeline I’d followed the night before.
“We were friends after her mom, too. She told me…” He gave me a sideways glance. “Didn’t you think it was a tiny bit similar to her mom—all that blood when you died? She hates blood, you know. Even the smallest cut. She can’t bear it.”
“No, I didn’t know. Why aren’t you friends now?”
He scowled. “I wish I had the answer to that. She claims we weren’t ever really friends. She accused me of making it all up. She said she had blackouts or something. It… it hurt. It still hurts. But I gave up trying to convince her. You can only bang your head against the wall for so long.”
“She did have blackouts,” I said, feeling the need to defend her.
“I know,” he acknowledged. “It’s just an unlucky coincidence they seem to cover every single happy memory she made with me.”
Yeah. That is a coincidence. Except… there’s no such thing. The Master Mages eliminated it from this dimension.
I walked faster, keen to get back. It felt like I might have found a way forward at last.