Institute of Magic – Linsey Hall

The Edinburgh alley stank of dark magic and pee. Which made it perfect for one of the Academy’s obstacle courses. The Undercover Protectorate really liked to chuck its trainees into the deep end, after all. For a magical mess like me, this was whoa deep. I crouched lower in the alley as I waited for the race to start and searched the darkened street ahead. Rain pattered on the cobblestones that gleamed beneath the streetlamp. My competitors were hiding in other alleys, but we’d all begin as soon as the clock tolled midnight. “How’s it going, Ana?” Bree’s voice whispered out of the comms charm around my neck. “Oh, fab.” I grinned. “About to run into a death trap. My favorite way to spend a Friday night.” “It’s the only way we spend Friday nights.” “True.” If I wasn’t training to join the Protectorate, I was helping my sister Bree with one of her assignments.

They were always deadly, of course. She’d finished the Academy in record time and had graduated to taking on investigative cases. I, on the other hand, was taking my own sweet time. Some might call me overly cautious. I called it smart. The reality was that I had almost no magic. Which you kind of needed to get through a magical academy that fed into a prestigious institute dedicated to helping supernaturals in need. I squinted into the street ahead, but nothing moved. No clues about what was to come but also no cars. Then the clock chimed midnight, the bells tolling through the city.

My heart jumped. “Gotta go, Bree,” I said. “Time to run.” Literally. Whatever the Protectorate might throw at me on this course, I knew I’d be running for my life. “I’ll be here,” Bree said. I grinned and touched my fingertips to the charm, glad to have my sister at my side. Bree was a Valkyrie, with wings and everything. She hovered high above, keeping track of the contestants’ progress. She couldn’t help me, but she could update me a bit.

My heart thundered as I sprinted into the street. It was dead silent. I glanced left and right, spotting the three other trainees as they darted out from their alleys. We’d all take different routes through the city as we raced to capture the flags at the other side. Last one loses; incompetent ones might die. A deadly supernatural game of capture the flag. As I raced across the street, a rumbling underfoot made my skin chill. A second later, the cobblestones dropped away as the ground beneath me disappeared. I leapt and barely landed on solid ground, then sprinted ahead. All around me, portions of the street dropped away.

A scream sounded from one of my competitors, but I didn’t look. I couldn’t. Not if I wanted to keep my eye on the ground and save myself from falling into the earth. Yep. That was goal number one. I might not have enough magic, but I had a lot of practice trying to stay alive. I jumped from cobblestone to cobblestone as the street fell away around me. Sweat dripped down my back as I ran. Man, a bit of levitation magic would come in handy right now. At the Academy, the more magic you had, the easier it was to pass.

Not good news for me. My only magic was the ability to create an invisible shield to protect me from threats. I made the last jump to the other side of the street and kept running, sprinting toward another alley. Like my competitors, I’d memorized the map of the city and had already chosen my route—I just had to hope there weren’t too many obstacles. The Undercover Protectorate was an institute dedicated to helping supernaturals with problems that were so dangerous the magical government didn’t want to handle them. A lot of those folks lived here, in the Grassmarket, the supernatural district of Edinburgh. This area was hidden from humans by a spell called the Great Peace, and it was a haven for our kind. In return for our help, the residents of the Grassmarket kindly loaned out their neighborhood for the Protectorate Academy’s training runs. They even helped with the obstacles. Lucky me.

I ducked down an alley to the left. It was dark and narrow. Glowing green eyes peered out at me from a hole in the wall. I sprinted by, panting. Please don’t jump on me, creature. The little beast hissed, but didn’t lash out. A cat? I didn’t take the time to look closely. “How’s it going?” Bree asked from my comms charm. “Fab. Most fun ever.

” I panted, darting right, down a wider street. Shops and restaurants lined both sides, but they were closed at this hour. Light glowed from one up ahead. Shit. I crossed to the opposite side of the street and raced down the sidewalk, hoping I was making good time. A shadow filled the lighted doorway of the shop up ahead. Ah, crap. The figure hurled something at me. A small flash of blue caught my eye. Potion bomb! Shit, who knew what was in that? I flung out my arm, calling upon my magic to create a shield.

It swelled inside me, bursting forth to create a barrier of white light. The potion bomb smashed into the shield, shattering. The scent of dirty socks filled the air, a clear sign of magic meant to harm. Dark magic always smelled bad—just depended on what kind of bad. I sprinted faster, nearing the figure in the door. It was an older woman, a grin stretching across her face. She threw another potion bomb—a green one this time. Acid, if I had to bet. I kept my shield in place, and the bomb smashed against it, reeking like week-old tuna fish. I gagged and scowled at her.

It was all I could do, since she was one of the residents who’d agreed to help with the course. I couldn’t exactly nail her with one of my favorite daggers. Bad form and all that. “How am I doing on time?” I asked Bree. “Pretty good. Lavender looks like she’s in the lead, though.” Damn. I sprinted past the woman, who hurled one last potion bomb. It shattered against my shield, the scent of decaying flowers filling my nose. A block later, I stumbled out into a courtyard.

Six demons lingered there, lounging on benches around a fountain. Large oak trees dotted the space, their autumn leaves orange and bright. Moonlight gleamed on the demons’ large horns and the weapons hanging from their clothing. Crap. The real challenge. Demons were the Protectorate’s most common magical foe. There were hundreds of species, all originating from the different underworlds, and they usually worked as mercenaries. Occasionally, the Protectorate hired them as part of the obstacle courses. Bad news for me. These guys would shoot to kill, no holds barred.

No one ever said making it through the Academy was easy. A small demon with gleaming red eyes caught sight of me. He stood on spindly legs, pointing a long claw at me. “She’s here!” His voice sounded like it filtered through gravel in his throat. I drew a dagger from the ether, the magical substance that filled the air, invisible and soundless. They were my weapons of choice, and the magic that allowed me to store them in the ether had been expensive. Worth it, though, for someone like me. When all you had was defensive magic in an offensive world, you had to get good with steel. I hurled the dagger. It glinted in the moonlight as it spun end over end and then sank into a big green demon’s neck.

Blood spurted and he fell, crashing onto his back. His compatriots roared. The little demon flung out his hands, sending a bolt of lightning toward me. Thunder cracked as the light nearly blinded me. I lunged behind a dumpster, skidding on some slimy stuff that reeked of garbage, then scrambled to my feet, peering around the edge of the dumpster. The demons were advancing on me, five different species with five different types of magic. The red one looked like a fire demon, and the gray a smoke demon. Damn. My heart thundered. I was way outnumbered.

When the red demon hurled a massive fireball at the dumpster, my stomach dropped. It collided with the huge metal canister just as I lunged out from my hiding space. The dumpster flew backward against the wall, crashing into the bricks. The trash ignited as I sprinted along the side of the courtyard, drawing a dagger from the ether. I threw it, aiming for the fire demon’s neck. He dodged, and my blade sank into his chest. He stumbled, going to his knees. Damn it! Not a kill shot. It was always so hard to tell with demons where their heart would be. I drew another dagger as I sprinted for cover.

My magical shield worked both ways— nothing could come in, but nothing could go out, either. Meaning no weapons. If my options were cowering behind my magic or running and fighting, I’d take the latter any day. I pulled a dagger from the ether, aiming it at the smoke demon. Before I had a chance to throw, a blast of gray smoke shot from his hands, hurtling toward me. I dived out of the way, but not before a third demon threw a huge icicle. The frozen spear shot through the air and sliced across my thigh like a blade. Pain flared as I crashed to the ground. The ball of smoke hit a tree behind me, blasting away the leaves and many of the branches. I scrambled upright and drew a dagger from the ether, calling on the muscle memory of thousands of hours of practice.

I hurled it, taking out the smoke demon with a precise blow to the neck. It was really the only way to go—chests were too iffy and skulls were too hard. He gurgled, blood spurting, as he fell to his knees. The remaining three demons roared. The little lightning demon’s hands crackled with light around the claws—he was charged up and ready to hurl another bolt. A creepy white demon unhinged his jaw, opening it wide to reveal six-inch fangs. Please, don’t be super fast. I didn’t want him sinking those chompers into me. The ice demon’s skin glowed blue and pale, looking cold even from this distance, and the wounded fire demon was staggering to his feet. Flames blazed around his hands, and vengeance burned in his eyes.

Oh boy. I was in big freaking trouble and way outnumbered. I sprinted for cover behind another dumpster as I hurled my dagger at him, aiming for the neck. It sank into his flesh, sending him flying backward. Points for me! Except then the white demon with the long fangs split himself in two and became two separate demons. Then three. Oh crap. “Hurry up, Ana!” Bree said. “Lavender is getting close to the finish line. Angus isn’t far behind.

” Shit. I was losing and I was about to be killed by demons. The lightning demon raised his hands and shot a bolt at me. I called on my magic, throwing out my shield just in time. The lightning plowed into the shield, making the barrier flare white as it took the damage. My arms shook with the force of it, and sweat popped out on my brow. I squinted, trying to see through my whitened shield. What the hell? It looked like tiny figures were flying through the air. I dropped my shield, darting right as I pulled a dagger from the ether. My vision narrowed in on a small creature leaping from the top of a tree onto the lightning demon.

It landed on the demon’s chest and tore out its throat. The little monster was hairless with a long tail and big ears. A hairless cat? I hurled my dagger at the blue ice demon. It hit the mark and blood sprayed, but not before he fired one last icicle at me. I dived out of the way, my wounded leg singing with pain. As I crashed to the ground, I caught sight of a fluffy white ball of fur leaping out of a tall tree. It landed on one of the white demons, sending him crashing back into the fountain. Blood sprayed as the white fluff-ball tore out the demon’s throat. Holy crap, that was a cat! There were now only two of the white fangy demons left. One of them raced for me, unnaturally fast.

I drew a dagger and nailed him in the throat just as a third cat streaked across the cobblestone courtyard and leapt onto the last demon. The tiny orange cat mauled the monster, fangs and claws flying. A creature that small shouldn’t be able to cause so much damage! The white Persian was streaked with blood, and the black hairless cat looked like it was having a grand time surveying the carnage all around. Eight demon bodies were disappearing back to their underworlds, where they’d wake up eventually and try to get back to earth. “Ana! You gotta get going!” Bree’s voice rang through the comms charm. I gave the cats one last look. “Thanks, guys.” They stared at me silently, and I sprinted away, determined to make up for lost time. I didn’t know who my feline helpers were, but I didn’t have time to find out. No way I wanted to be last in a challenge again.

Eventually the Protectorate might just kick me out. I didn’t stop to retrieve my weapons. The expensive spell that stored them in the ether would do that for me. It wouldn’t clean them, unfortunately, so I’d have to take care of the demon blood myself, but I’d deal with that later. “I’m going through the graveyard,” I said. “No!” Bree shouted. “Too dangerous.” She was right. And sure, it wasn’t part of my original route since the shortcut went through one of the most deadly parts of Edinburgh, but I wasn’t willing to come in last. Normally I was a Plan B and C kinda girl—and this was Plan B.

Risky, but worth it. I raced toward the wrought iron fence that surrounded the ancient burial site. The gate was locked so I went to the left and scrambled up and over the iron fence. As soon as I hit the ground on the other side, a chill of fear raced over me. Mist hovered just above the ground, twining around the headstones that glowed pale gray in the moonlight. It was unnaturally cold here, even for Scotland in the fall. I sucked in a ragged breath and ran, cutting through the headstones and praying that no ghosts waited for me. When the temperature dropped to an unnatural chill, my heart thundered wildly. Oh no. The silvery blue glow rising up from the ground filled me with fear, acidic and sharp.

Phantoms. The silvery blue light coalesced to form figures—all of them dressed in old-style clothes, the styles of which spanned thousands of years. Fancy ladies with tall hair and knights in armor. Cave men wearing furs and monks draped in cowls. Their eyes were black pits that zeroed in on me as they raised their hands and drifted nearer. Phantoms were far worse than ghosts. I called upon my shield, praying it would work for this. The magic flared within me, shooting out to form a protective dome over me as I ran. But the crowd of Phantoms was too big. Their hunger too great.

They collided with my shield, unable to pass through. Their magic leached through the barrier, however, reaching inside my mind and going for my worst memories. “Protect your mind!” Bree cried through the comms charm. “Don’t let them in!” Tears filled my eyes as I fought their magic and failed. The icy tendrils of their magic slipped inside my head, weaseling into my brain. I stumbled, stomach lurching. “Failure,” one hissed. “Magical nothing,” whispered another. “Dead weight,” said a third. They were finding my worst fears.

They pushed harder inside my head, sending an icepick of pain through my mind. Phantoms didn’t speak like people—they reflected your fears back at you, using your mind. And fates, it sucked. “Think happy thoughts!” Bree cried. Ha ha. Right. All I could see was myself, failing and being thrown out of the Protectorate, having to leave Bree and Rowan, my sisters. Being forced into the outside world where my kind was hunted because we were capable of too much magic. A life on the streets, alone. I was a Dragon God whose magic hadn’t developed yet.

Supposedly, I would inherit the magic of dragons and gods—but I hadn’t. Not like my sister had, at least. Which left me vulnerable. The Phantoms grabbed onto that, magnifying the fear. “It never will,” hissed a phantom wearing the robe of a monk. “Powerless forever.” “Worthless,” whispered one to my left. I sobbed and pushed myself harder, running past the monsters. Sweat dampened my skin. I had to make it past the Phantoms! I couldn’t let these miserable, dead jerks take me down.

I focused on the thought, on the will to survive. To win. I wouldn’t be beaten. I wouldn’t give up. If they stopped me, they would win. My worst fears would come true. I’d lose my new home. Lose my sisters. Lose everything. My lungs burned as I ran, dodging headstones and the magical grip of the Phantoms.

But their magic slowed me, making my legs feel like they weighed a thousand pounds. A blur of movement near the ground caught my eye. Three little figures, racing alongside me. The cats? They hissed at the Phantoms, deep sounds of venomous rage that made my skin chill. The Phantoms fell back, just slightly. It was enough that I could pick up speed and push past them. The iron fence appeared through the mist. Almost there! I sprinted for it, leaping over it so fast I stumbled on the other side. The cats slipped through the fence bars, following me as I ran down a street. I was almost there.

Sweat chilled my skin and my lungs burned as I ran. I shot out into the courtyard that marked the finish line. Just in time to see another competitor race toward the last remaining flag and grab it off the post. My heart dropped. The three other members of my class already stood within the circle, each gripping a flag in their hand. There were no more flags left. I was last. Shit. I slowed to a walk, determined not to show my disappointment. Maybe I’d gotten unlucky and my route was harder? Or maybe I sucked at this.

But moping wouldn’t change anything. A stiff upper lip would do wonders, though. The ol’ pick-yourself-up-and-brush-yourself-off was my familiar friend. “Sorry, man,” Bree murmured from my comms charm. I looked up, catching sight of her hovering high in the sky. Her silver wings gleamed in the moonlight. I smiled up at her, then approached the group. My three classmates were all in their late teens and early twenties like me. Jude, the head of the Undercover Protectorate, was a striking woman in her mid-thirties. Her dark skin gleamed in the light of the moon and her blue eyes sparkled with stars in their depths.

Long braids stretched down her back. Jude ran the Paranormal Investigative Team, the unit that Bree had joined when she’d graduated from the Academy. Our other friends were part of that unit as well. It was the most prestigious, and Jude always oversaw the obstacle course. Since I wanted to join my sister in her unit—the PITs as they were laughingly called—I’d usually be glad to talk to Jude. Now that I’d come in last? Yeah, not my best moment. Skulking around in the shadows sounded good right about now. I stiffened my spine and stopped in front of everyone, keeping my eyes off the red flags gripped in their hands. Lavender shot me a victorious look, and I wanted to kick her. So I wasn’t a good loser.

Sue me. “Well done, everyone,” Jude said, but I swore her eyes gleamed with disappointment when she looked at me. Confusion, at least, since I was supposed to be an all-powerful Dragon God like my sister, but I was decidedly not. “You all did—” Her voice trailed off as her gaze drifted behind me, spotting something. I turned, seeing the three cats who’d helped me along the way. They sat about fifteen feet behind me. This close, the hairless black one—a sphynx—looked like a beat-up old tom who’d seen a lot in his day. A white spot marked his chest, his whiskers were frazzled, and his green eyes blazed at me. A matching emerald earring pierced his left ear. Magic filled the air around him, an unusual signature of green grass.

“Meow.” You are gazing upon the great Muffin of the Highlands! I shook my head. Was I hearing him in my head? Of course you are, you ninny. Do you think magical cats just meow? A magical cat. “But…Muffin?” I asked. What? Muffin is a fine name! He looked toward the white cat and muttered, I really thought she’d be more impressed. “I am!” He shot me a look that said he didn’t buy it, then nodded at the white cat. That is Princess Snowflake III. Next to him, the fluffy white Persian licked blood from her chops. Her fangs were unusually long—perfect for tearing the throats out of demons.

The fat diamond hanging around her neck was splattered with blood. She glared at me with an evil eye, belying her pretty face and fur. At her side, the small orange cat licked his butt. He looked up, cross-eyed and goofylooking. He wore no jewels, but then, he didn’t seem like the type. Muffin meowed. And that is Bojangles. For fate’s sake—Bojangles? Who the heck were these three?

.

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