Mirror Bound – Monica Sanz

Seraphina Dovetail closed the Ethics of Binding Spells grimoire on her lap and pressed her hands on the marbled leather cover to steady their tremble. She had much left to study, but how could she possibly read on when nerves knotted her stomach and made the words invisible to her eyes? Relax, Sera. You must relax. Hauling in a deep breath through her nose, she released it measuredly out of her mouth and rolled her shoulders. Her gray muslin dress stuck to her sweat-dampened skin, but she ignored this discomfort. She’d been through worse than a mere doctor’s appointment, a feat given her horrid treatment by physicians in the past. But surely she would survive this one. She had to if she ever wished to take the School of Continuing Magic entrance exam and, in time, become an inspector. She held fast to this thought, repeated it in her mind like a mantra until dread no longer spurred the magic in her belly and her frantic heartbeat ceased to overpower all sound. Yes, not even near death or expulsion from the Aetherium’s Witchling Academy had kept her dream at bay. Neither would this doctor. The office door groaned open. Magic rushed from Sera’s stomach and filled her veins with heat, and sweat sprouted like liquid fire from her pores. A stout man with a blunt nose and pockmarked skin walked in, thin strands of his gray hair combed over the bald patch atop his head. He wore a hard-set expression and a white, ankle-length robe with the name Samson stitched below the Aetherium crest on the upper-left breast.

He moved to a wood desk mastering the back of the exam room and never once looked at her. “Why are you here?” he asked by way of a greeting—a rather harsh, cold, and bestial one. “Speak quickly. I’ve other appointments.” He thrust down her medical file, and Sera’s mouth bowed at the reason for his unkindness. The thick, brown dossier was marked with a dark stripe along the length, akin to the seventh-born tattoo wrapped around her wrist. The thin black line telling the world she was the seventh-born daughter to a witch, her birth the cause of her mother losing her powers and, in turn, her life. Though used to the hostility impelled by her birth order, anger still prickled the underside of her skin, but she stifled the urge to set his paperwork on fire. At least not while her file remained on his desk. “Yes, sir, I know.

I have waited four hours to be seen.” “Then perhaps you should have made an appointment.” He set her file aside, plucked up another patient’s record, and, flipping open the cover, reviewed its contents. She folded her fingers into her palm, their tips itching with suppressed magic. “I h a d an appointment.” And she’d paid half of her wages to the secretary outside to attain it. He continued to scribble notes on the other file and never once spared her a glance. “Yes, well, be grateful I’m even here.” As grateful as I would be if I were trampled by a horse, she mused bitterly but cleared her throat. The faster she finished with this wretched brute, the quicker she could get back home to study.

“I require a physical examination for the Aetherium entrance exam.” He paused mid-script and finally looked at her from over his glasses, close-set brown eyes narrowed under a thick, reddened brow. “But you’re a seventhborn.” A blush gathered in her cheeks, but she held her chin a touch higher. “Yes, sir, I am. But the exam is open to anyone and everyone, should they meet the necessary qualifications. Given my extensive education during my time at the Witchling Academy, I will not be denied.” At least she hoped this was the case. Her approval letter had yet to arrive, though it was only two weeks until the exam. This didn’t matter.

It would come, and when it did, she would be ready. He scoffed. “And you need a recommendation from an Academy instructor to take it.” He rose to his feet, snatched up her file, and thrust it out to her. “Settle your payment with the secretary in the front, and next time, spare us your delusions. There are others here in need of real medical care.” Sera bolted to her feet, and the lamps flared. She snatched the file from his hand, pulled out her sealed referral, and slammed the folder down before him, the recommendation on top with its gold Aetherium crest prominently displayed. “Professor Nikolai Barrington has provided me with a referral.” Lips pursed, he plucked up the envelope and surveyed Barrington’s information on the front, from the emblem of his Invocation ring burned onto the page, to his signature beside it, to his school address, should anyone wish to inquire about its validity.

Sighing heavily, he stuffed the referral inside and perused her medical history quickly. With each moment of silence, Sera’s pulse quickened. So far, all other doctors authorized to approve Aetherium potentials had declined her appointment query. This beast of a man was the last one with an availability so close to the exam, and if he refused to see her, she’d have to ask Professor Barrington for help. He’d never deny her, this she knew. Yet, her soul wrenched. He’d welcomed her into his home after she’d been expelled and taught her magic beyond what she’d ever learned at the Academy. He took her on as his assistant for his private detective work, with generous wages certainly unlike those seen by a seventhborn. After learning of her horrible past, he taught her how to defend herself. Above all, he worked tirelessly to find her family.

And he’d never asked for anything in return, except for her trust. Heat roared up her body, and she pressed a hand over her stomach, which fluttered madly at the memory of him so close, his pale gray eyes fixed on hers when he said, Be a little mad and trust me, Miss Dovetail. I swear on my magic —I mean you no harm. Her blush deepened, and her heart seemed to forget its function, at once falling off rhythm. Through kindness and gentleness, he’d gained her confidence that day, and, shortly after, her heart, but she drew in a deep breath and tipped her chin. He’d done enough. She would deal with things on her own and wouldn’t burden him with her problems again. He turned the page, and his face contorted in disgust as he beheld the photographs of Sera’s scarred body, taken three years prior by cold and heartless doctors like him. She’d been forced to stand there as they poked and prodded her, looking at her flesh as though she were an animal at the zoo. No, even animals were afforded more courtesy than a seventhborn.

To them, she had been nothing, and though able to heal her, they didn’t even try. Regardless of the fact that she’d been drained of her magic for nearly a year by a warlock. Uncaring that she had just fought for her life. Doctor Samson closed her file. His frown deepened. “Very well.” Sera sat down, relief weakening her knees. “Is there anything I should know before we begin? Anything of concern?” Sera shifted in her chair. There were her constant headaches and nausea, and her reserves were taking a tad longer to fill, but then again, her best friend had betrayed her. The boy who claimed to love her had died proving just that.

And she’d killed a man using a power she didn’t know she had. Surely this was bound to destabilize even the strongest of magicians. “No, nothing. I’ve never felt better.” He moved around his desk, and Sera gulped. He unsheathed his wand, and she flinched, her hands yearning to snatch out her own wand. But she curled her fingers to fists and forced herself to settle. This was simply a health assessment, a requirement. Whatever her fear, she needed this done. Without it, her imminent approval letter was useless.

I will be an inspector. I will find my family. Though she didn’t remember them, she held fast to the phantom faces she imagined as those of her father and siblings as Doctor Samson clamped a hand on her shoulder and shoved his wand against her temple with the other. His cold magic rushed into her and wrapped around her bones. Sera hissed in discomfort at his manic approach. He was supposed to ease into her psyche slowly and travel her lifeline, seeking anything that might hinder her powers and ability to defend the Aetherium. Yet, he jammed his wand tip deeper against her skull as though seeking to exhume her brain and searched her lifeline quickly until a sour bitterness filled her head and throat. Sera’s powers roared within, a starved beast rattling the bars of a rusted cage as the doctor’s frantic inspection burned the underside of her skin. Wedged through her muscles. Searched every part of her with a careless brutishness, similar to the warlock whose savagery left her body riddled with scars.

His inspection now filled her head with a droning hum that stabbed into her mind like a web of lightning. Wild flames shot to her fingertips, ravenous for release. She struggled to hold them back but grimaced as intense pain radiated across her skull, akin to jagged knives serrating her brain in two. Still, she had to endure. If she wished to become an inspector and find her family, she could not break. Doctor Samson drew his magic back so fast, Sera was thrust sideways and slipped from her chair, down onto the dingy gray floor. She gasped wildly and skittered back against the wall despite the soreness in her bones. Back at his desk, Doctor Samson filled out her form in a few quick strokes, punched it with a stamp, and tossed it down at her feet. He walked out and slammed the door closed behind him. Breathless and hurting, Sera glanced down at her paperwork.

He’d deemed her fit to take the Aetherium exam, and yet, she clambered to the nearest basin. Her stomach twisted, and she retched into the ceramic bowl, over and over, until dry heaves wrung her insides and nothing else came out. Winded, she reached blindly for a towel and wiped her mouth, then ran a hand along her forehead and brushed away the chestnut strands that had clung to her face with sweat. Her fingers trembled, and she shivered, her skin so very cold, no doubt the effects of Doctor Samson’s cruel examination. But despite this, she thrust down the towel. She had survived him and was now one step closer to her dream. Sera stumbled back and, snatching up her file, drew her wand and aimed it down at the floor. Transferring required concentration, and a smooth landing demanded a precise amount of magic, both of which were now a struggle with the pain of Doctor Samson’s vicious exam alive in her veins. Still, she closed her eyes and forced herself to think beyond the ache. She was going home now.

To the peace of Barrington’s home on the moors. To him. Warmth spread through her in a wave at the thought of him, and her powers churned quicker. At his side, she would relish in their investigations and conversations and comforting quiet. He would never shun her or insult her. With him, she was safe, and at his side, she would meet no harm. Her magic sloshed within her like lava, fast and burning. With the coordinate ciphers to Barrington’s home fixed in her mind, she gripped her wand tighter and called on her powers. Raw heat rose through her veins, to her fingertips, and filled the fibers of her wand in red. One flick of the rod and the ground beneath her vanished.

Moments later, she crashed down into her apartment in Barrington’s manor, a chamber much larger than her old Academy room. There, she’d been relegated to a cramped space within the school’s tower, a clear desire to pretend she didn’t exist. Her room and furniture had been equally abandoned. But here, a gorgeous dark mahogany bedroom set was spread about, coupled with a burgundy carpet over the hardwood floors. There was a writing table and, above it, a shelf lined with books. She had never been allowed to read for leisure before, save for one dreaded tome, The Unmitigated Truths of Seventhborns. It was nowhere to be found now. She’d torn it apart page by page and burned it. Stalking to her window, she gripped the brass handles and shoved the panels open, the hinges’ loud squeals disturbing the quiet evening. Muted sunlight streamed across the rocky terrain, patches of heather and gorse shading the moors in brilliant hues of yellow and purple.

She dragged in a deep breath scented of vegetation and faint traces of brine, and a gentle breeze rustled the tall grass and cooled the sweat on her brow. Though a heat wave engulfed the Aetherium mainland, the northern provinces of the island nation had been relatively spared. And with Barrington’s home on the northmost isle, the moors had remained cool and damp. The relief was short-lived. Still able to detect the sterile stench of Doctor Samson’s office on her person and the feel of his magic in her veins, Sera peeled off her gray dress where she stood, kicked it aside, and rushed to her wardrobe. She dressed quickly, though with some difficulty; each step throbbed in her head, and her bones still ached. Nevertheless, she fastened her kit belt on her waist, slid her wand into the designated holder, and strode to the door. There was work to do and studies to pursue. And now, with her physical examination complete, there was soon an exam to take, and nothing would stop her. Not a headache or aching bones.

Not a cursed birthright or the unending cruelty of men. She pulled the door open. The quiet hallway was swathed in shadows, the sun set for the day. Faint bluish light cut through the darkness beneath the recurrent exposed beams along the corridor. Countless protection spells were etched onto the wood and glittered, telling of their power. The bars ran all along the house like veins, infusing the manor with magic. Some of the spells were for protection, others to conceal the house and the surrounding lands, but it was the newer ones that gripped Sera’s heart. Between the older beams were crossbars fashioned out of wood and milled black tourmaline—a repellant for ghosts. Ever since she summoned the dead to defeat the horrible warlock and maker of her scars, ghosts had taken to appear uninvited, something that happened more and more each day. Upon learning of her phantoms and the nausea, headaches, and dizziness they left in their wake, Barrington had worked diligently to create repellants and installed them in and around his home, but the phantoms quickly proved his expensive endeavor pointless.

She reached the workroom and, with the snap of her fingers, turned on the lamps. Golden light streamed across the chamber, warm and comforting. A long workbench mastered the middle of the space, its exterior marked with various burns, nicks, and pigments from the many experiments she and Barrington conducted on its surface. Shelves crowded the walls, some stacked with books and grimoires, others with tools necessary for their investigative work. A rhythmic rumble resounded from the back of the room. Sera walked around the workbench to find the Barghest asleep before the open window. In the months since she’d rescued the hellhound from his evil owners, his fur had grown out from under his scales and now covered him in a thick black coat. Tar no longer dripped from his fangs, and a patch of blond hair crowned his bear head, but he still had no name, and not for lack of trying. So far, he’d refused all of Sera’s suggestions, and she was forced to simply call him Barghest. Sera took a step, and a floorboard creaked.

The mountainous creature roused from his sleep. At seeing Sera, his amber eyes brightened, and she swore his jowls widened into something of a smile, though she knew it was probably because she was the only one with a weak will and fed him magic more than anyone else. She held her hand up, and a warm orb of smoke gathered in her palm. She flicked it in his direction, and, with a lick of his forked tongue, he caught it in his mouth. “Go on, then. I’m only doing paperwork, so no experiments right now.” The Barghest huffed, clearly underwhelmed. Dissolving into a cloud of black smoke, he swept out the window to wherever he could get some undisturbed rest. Sera turned. Noting the day’s mail on her leather-top mahogany desk, she snatched up the correspondence and greedily shuffled through it.

With each passed message, pressure gathered in her chest and her throat thickened. It would come. With only two weeks to go, her exam approval would be there. And with her health assessment now complete, she would have all the required paperwork for her test. Yet, upon reaching the last of the post, heat flushed through her and the air grew thinner and harder to breathe. The mail was all addressed to Barrington, her letter yet to arrive. Breathless, she thrust the envelopes onto the table and squeezed her eyes shut. She found no comfort in the dark, just an endless black that whirled the nothingness around her. Her stomach in knots, she gripped the edge of the table and lowered down into her chair. Clutching her knees, she inhaled deeply and emptied her lungs for some minutes.

She hadn’t received it today, but it would come. She was a talented witch, and perhaps there was a reason for the delay. There was still time. She meditated on this for long minutes, until the heaviness over her heart lessened and her pulse normalized. With one final and lengthy exhale, she wiped her palms on her skirt and moved to a neighboring oak file cabinet. She couldn’t break. She had to keep moving, working. So long as she did, panic and grief couldn’t find her. Opening the uppermost drawer, she thumbed through the records. Camden, Cardale, Carlisle… She pursed her lips.

The one case file she sought—Carlson—was missing. There was only one reason why.


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