Lies. Falsehoods. Untruths. Deceptions. I felt like the heroine in some badly written paranormal thriller. What was I going to learn next? Was my father a demon? Did my blood hold the key to opening the gates of the underworld, where hoards of dark creatures waited, with baited breath, to storm the human plane and kill us all? Would-
“Kiera, are still with us?” Atlantia’s weary voice broke into my thoughts. “I know that look. You’re a thousand miles away, conjurin’ up some sordid tale of woe, aren’t you?”
I glared in the general direction of my mother, and ignored the inquisitive looks of everyone else at the table. “So what if I am?”
“Is this really the time for that?” Kenzie questioned me. “Like, really?”
“Nobody asked you, kid,” I snapped.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Sami interjected softly. “I understand, okay? We all have our own agendas, and, Kiera, I’m sure that much of this has been a shock to you, and I apologize, again, for my part in it.,” she rambled. “But if we’re going to figure out what we need to do to fix this, then we all need to be on the same page, or at least in the same book!”
I waved my hand at Book. “You’re welcome to try,” I quipped.
“Child!” Atlantia screeched. “Pay heed to-”
“Oh, bugger off,” I muttered, barely audible. My voice sounded thin, like I was speaking over a long distance, through magnetic interference, from the bottom of a well. “I’m tired. It’s a struggle just to hold myself to together,” I told everyone, being more candid than I had in…ever. My honesty raised some eyebrows, mainly my own, and I considered the possibility that it was a side-effect of my current situation. “That last spurt of spelling almost drained me dry. If we’re going to finish this conversation today, make it quick. I’m fading.” I held a nearly translucent hand aloft it in the air for everyone to see.
“Yeah, yeah. I just noticed it myself.” I examined my fading form, feeling strangely detached from it. It was freaky, how I could almost see the table through my sleeve-covered arm. Morbidly, I wondered if I would feel better if I faded a layer at a time, so that I could view my muscles and veins and gristle and bits. Maybe if I concentrated harder, I could-
“Master!” Sami squeaked.
“I’m right here,” I reminded my excitable apprentice. Except, I wasn’t really there, was I? I was dissolving, having used too much magic in such a short time, with no tried and true way to replenish it quickly. Book could probably tell me, but I didn’t trust it as far as I could throw it, and seeing as how I was fast becoming a shade of my former self and it was currently wearing a replica of my skin…yeah, not very much trust there. And Sami. Darling, lying, deceiving Samilla. What was I doing, binding myself to such a fraudulent spellcrafter? I could’ve been free, floating from place to place, maybe even leaving all of this drama behind for good. Vaguely, I felt something holding me down, tying me to Earth, and I struggled against it. How dare they-
“Anchor her!” I heard Atlantia snarl. “Sami, at least pretend you’re good for something! Kensington, focus!”
Focus? Focus! Crap. I stopped struggling, and settled back into the chair I’d started hovering inches above. I blinked away the confusion, dimly aware that some important information had been exchanged, and I’d missed it. I was losing my grip on reality, but reality was merely perception, and my perception had changed. The only thing tying me to this pesky existence was a silly, dark spell that could be easily broken. Perhaps that was a sign to just let go…
“OW!” I thudded through the chair and onto the floor. Solid again, my tailbone struck the cold tile and I winced. Kenzie leaned over me and peered into my eyes, whether it was because my eyes were pretty or rolled up backwards, I didn’t know. A thin layer of sweat covered the kid’s face. I flicked a glance to Sami; her skin had a greyish cast to it, and her breath was coming in short, sharp pants. Book was nowhere to be seen, and the disembodied voice of my mother filled the air, barking out instructions and demanding answers to her queries. “What just happened?”
“You almost died, Master!” Kenzie blurted out, then straightened up and turned away to hide heated cheeks and downcast eyes. “Again, I mean. And you almost took Assistant Master with you! You can’t die yet–again–okay?”
“Idiot child!” my mother roared from her perch on the table. “Don’t make me regret birthing you!” I could imagine her, pinching the bridge of her nose with one hand and shaking a fist at me with her other.
“The situation is more dire than I predicted,” Book intoned loudly for my ears only. “You must return home.”
“Oh, you’re back in my head again? And it was so peaceful while you were gone.”
“I had no choice but to return. Feel grateful; you would have been lost without me.”
“And what do you mean, return home? Why would I do a silly thing like that?” I drawled.
“So you can get your body back!” Kenzie hopped from foot to foot in excitement.
“Um, hello?” I pointed to my chest. “Dead, ghost, body go bye-bye, remember? Any of this ringing a bell with you?”
Sami spoke shakily. “The Hunters have…technology, for lack of a better term. They can engineer a flesh-shell from your ashes and spirit. Using the truce as a starting point, Head Mistress plans to negotiate some sort of exchange with them.” Without looking, she reached up and grabbed her phone from the edge of the table. She placed it face up on the floor, and sank down next to it. “I should have used the tablet for this,” she muttered, tapping the side of the screen to, I assume, check the battery life. Or her email. Or the weather on Mars.
I narrowed my eyes at her explanation. It sounded vague, and risky, and just a little bit shady. “How come I’ve never heard of this before? And what could they possibly agree to ‘exchange’ for this?”
“You need not worry about such matters,” Atlantia snapped. “As your mother and Queen-”
“Ex-Queen. You forsook me, didn’t you?”
“Is that a real word?” Kenzie whispered to Sami, who shrugged. “That can’t be a real word.”
Atlantia ignored me and continued. “-command you to return to The Academy-”
“Yeah? How ‘bout no?”
“-soon as possible. Your travel expenses-”
“I’m a gods-blasted ghost! I don’t have any travel expenses! And you’re only across town.”
“-those of your companions will be paid. Furthermore, we will undertake a voyage to our ancestral home, where we will await the return of Blue.”
I gaped at the face of my mother. I swiveled my head slowly, taking in the sparkly eyes of Kenzie, the pale, shaking form of Sami. I felt Book thumping in my head, trying to make me nod in agreement to my mother’s pronouncement. She wanted me to what?
“You want me to what?”
“The time has come.” Atlantia’s mouth was set in a hard, grim line.
I cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’re not going to tell me that my father is a demon or anything, are you? Or some thousand year old genes you scraped off a cave wall or something, right? Right?”
“Pack,” my mother ordered us. “I’m sending a car.” The screen flashed its colorful “call ended” sign, then blipped a warning that the battery was low, and demanded that it be connected to a charging dock.
Kenzie chirped, “It’s a good thing I haven’t unpacked yet!”
I shook my head. “We’re not doing this. I’m not doing this!”
Sami, taking it upon herself to be the voice of reason, said, “We don’t have a choice.” She hung her head. “I must atone for what I’ve done, and face my sentence, and if I can undo the damage before I die, well, that’s something, right?”
“You’re not going to die. Dying is my job,” I reassured her.
“How can you joke at a time like this?” Sami sputtered, her neck snapping up with a painful cracking sound so she could stare at me.
“How can you not?” I eased my sore butt over to one cheek and twisted my leg underneath it for cushioning. “Seriously, we can’t do this. I can’t be that close to my mother again. And…this…nonsense about her being over 600 years old, and Blue being her mother. I just…can’t.”
“So you’re scared?” Kenzie asked.
“I fear nothing!” I shouted.
This kid, I sighed to myself. Out loud, I said, “Look. The two of you are free to go if you like.”
“If I go,” Sami tossed out, “then you have no choice but to come along. Our bond won’t allow us to be that far apart.”
“Well…that’s…” I blinked, then released a string of profanities. I’d almost forgotten about being soulbound, that quickly. I glared at my two apprentices. “Can somebody at least make me some coffee first?”