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
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.
retreated to a quiet corner of the library and sent Cass a message.
“Heard you were sick. Hope you’re OK?”
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.”
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
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
“I’m ready to test something,” I
“My mom?” Cass’s message appeared almost
“Not quite. Like I told you, this is new for
me. I need to check something first.”
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.
said, way too enthusiastic. My voice echoed in the space between the shelves and
I screwed up my face in embarrassment.
hi,” she replied. “Can you talk?”
I’m just in the library,” I said, lowering my voice to a more appropriate
you mean—check something?” she asked, getting right to the point.
within your own lifetime is a much bigger risk. You could end up changing all
kinds of things,” I said.
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.
breathing sped up. I waited, powerless to help her, holding my phone so tightly
it creaked with the strain.
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.”
wasn’t your fault,” I said before I could help myself.
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.
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?”
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.
what?” she asked eventually. I leaned against the shelves, weak with relief.
how about we go back to one of the times you had a blackout and see what really
That’s… not a bad idea.”
I mean—good. That’s good. Do you think you’ll be back at school on Monday?”
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
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.
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.”
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.”
to you,” I added. “Whatever.” Stop talking, Luca.
mean… yes. Let’s do it on Monday.”
I did my
best not to sigh too loudly with relief.
I agreed. “Er… I hope you feel better.”
She disconnected the call.
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.
just have to be the first, won’t I?
paths were unique in the combination of lessons and potential outcomes they
contained. There were hundreds of lessons and thousands of scenarios.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to discuss a contract,” I said.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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,
Spell Tracker tilted his head as if considering a strange new species. “Are you
going to resist your contract? Because that would be wonderful.”
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.
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.
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?”
just want to discuss a contract. I want to enter into one. With you.”
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
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.
well. I’m intrigued. Let me just set things up with Christopher here, then I’ll
listen to your proposal.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
said the Spell Tracker. “Very… interesting. He is one of mine, you say?”
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.
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?”
time,” I admitted.
thought so. Go on then. Show me.”
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.
down again, waiting while he examined the energy signature I’d identified. “What
is this magician to you?”
to know everything, Luca. If this opportunity means that much, you’ll
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.”
was the reason I became a guardian.”
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.
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.
accept,” he said. “Maximum penalty. And I’ll do my best to ensure you pay it.”