Chapter One

 

IT’S KILLING him. We have to end this.

Too cruel to force him to keep struggling.

I don’t understand. He should be finding a minor channel at least. Something. He shouldn’t be at this level of physical distress and still be able to throw so much.

We can’t condone pushing on. Dangerous for him and for everyone in a five-mile radius. We’ll have another Darius situation on our hands.

You’ll tell him?

As soon as he’s able to hear it, yes.

Toby drifted from gray misery to scarlet agony, the voices floating to him in fits and starts. His instructors, the director—they were talking about him and they sounded done with him, just like the previous six guilds that had tossed him to the curb. Wild magic. Unplaceable on the web of Arcana. Unsustainable and eventually deadly. The only remaining bets anyone could make now were how many people he took with him when he went out with a catastrophic bang.

Hands lifted him. The familiar sensations of stretcher and rolling followed him down into the dark.

 

 

“WHAT’S THIS?” Toby peered at the papers on the rolling tray, not quite up to focusing through his pounding headache.

The director pulled a chair close and cleared his throat uncomfortably. “We discussed that this might be a possibility someday, Tobias.”

“We’ve talked about a bunch of stuff.”

Director Whittaker let out a sharp sigh.

“Not saying it to be a smartass, sir. I can’t get my eyes to read this just yet.” Toby shifted on the infirmary bed. His fifth stay in this wing of the guildhall and the mattresses hadn’t managed to grow any more comfortable. “Couple hours I should be able to.”

“Ah. My apologies.” The director returned to a concerned parental pose, hands clasped between his knees as he leaned forward. “These are your separation papers from the Montchanin Guildhall.”

Toby swallowed hard. “You’re giving up on me? Already?”

“I’m so sorry, Tobias.” Director Whittaker patted his arm. “The Kovar method is nearly infallible—”

“Nearly. You said nearly.” Despite his pounding head, Toby sat up, hanging on to the director’s hand as hard as he could. “Please don’t do this. You said you’d help me.”

“We said we would do the best we could. Wild magic…. It’s unusual, certainly, but cases of unplaceable wild magic like yours aren’t unheard of. We should have seen some sign of channeling by now. Some directed trickle that would have let us help you find your place in the web.”

Toby let go to fall back against the pillows, hurting, nauseated, and dizzy. His uncontrolled magical explosions, each one harder on him than the time before, had only been getting more volatile and unpredictable. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. Can’t I stay here? Until, well, until….”

“It’s too dangerous for the other students. For the staff and other guild members.” Director Whittaker took his hand again. “Tobias, you blew a hole in the guidance room’s wall today.”

Ten feet of weapons-grade Kevlar and steel—that shouldn’t have been possible. Holy crap. “Did I hurt anyone?”

“Not today. But I can’t risk lives any further. It’s reached that point where we’ve tried everything we could. When you feel up to it, read the packet. There are several wonderful hospice options nearby. Beautiful places where you’ll be cared for and made comfortable. The guild will take care of you and cover any expenses.”

Drugged to the eyeballs so I won’t do any more damageAllowed to starve to death in the nicest possible surroundings. Toby closed his eyes, his exhausted brain banging up against walls of possibility, trying to find him a way out. All this time he’d been sure one of the guilds would find a way. They were the experts. Now? Now he was terrified. The experts were telling him he needed to accept his impending death. No, no, no, fuck that. “Sir, who’s Darius?”

“Ah, you heard that, did you?” The director sat back and pulled out a microfiber cloth to give his glasses a meticulous cleaning before he went on. “Darius Valstad caused one of the greatest magical disasters in recent memory. He nearly destroyed Pittsburgh. He pulled magic too far from his channelings, the result much like a wild magic accident. The catastrophe was narrowly averted.”

“Oh. That sounds about as bad as it gets. What happened to him?”

“He nearly died. His guild status was revoked, his teaching of any more students forbidden.”

Toby turned that over a few times, his brain fumbling and dropping concepts along the way. “So, but he’s still alive?”

“As far as I know. He lives in isolation, oh, not far from here, with the promise that he will no longer attempt anything beyond personal magic.”

“But he was once like me? And he lived?” Toby knew it was conclusion jumping, but he was desperate enough to reach for anything.

The director’s sigh was slower this time, more melancholy. “Tobias, he found his channels long ago, both his major and minor Arcana. Yes, he lives because as long as he respects the web, his magic won’t tear him apart. He had some early success with teaching unplaceables, but Pittsburgh was the ultimate result of his unorthodox methods.”

“Yes, sir. Of course.”

Director Whittaker rose with one last pat to Toby’s shoulder. “Get some rest. We’ll talk again in the morning. Please keep in mind we’re not simply turning you out onto the street. We want to be certain you’re looked after properly.”

Toby nodded, no longer trusting his voice. He didn’t turn his head to watch the director leave, staring at the white ceiling tiles instead. Ugly ceiling tiles. Places where you have to lie in bed like hospitals and infirmaries should have nice ceilings with meadows and bunnies painted on them. I don’t want to die. Oh gods… I don’t want to die.

When he finally felt like he could parse written words without his head exploding, he skimmed through the packet. He would have to face it eventually. Not looking at the papers wouldn’t change the guild’s mind. Not looking wouldn’t mean he was in any way preventing the inevitable, which wasn’t going to happen because he was going to find a way, dammit.

The first two pages contained the separation agreement. He’d certainly signed those before. Tobias Kingston Freelander Jones agrees blah-blah-blah never to practice magic within the guild’s district blah-blah agrees that access to guild facilities and resources have been revoked except for provision stipulated in Appendix D. His hands shook as he turned the papers. The appendices were on the third page, D being the one providing for his hospice funding.

Unless they had this packet ready as a standard document, just in case, the guild officers had been considering all this for some time. Maybe since the day he first wrote to the Montchanin Guildhall asking for help.

The rest of the packet contained information on three hospice facilities. If he’d wanted an end-of-life option, they all would have been wonderful choices—quarters that resembled apartments more than hospital rooms, with gardens and solariums. The one where the rooms all had views into a central courtyard garden would have been his first choice.

If he was willing to sit around waiting to die.

A seed of an idea germinated in his tired brain, insisting on pushing up through the dark mental soil. It was a stupid idea, probably, and one he had little hope of bringing about, but it persisted with its little green shoot emerging, waving its cotyledons around shamelessly.

When Margie, the older infirmary nurse, brought his dinner tray, he asked her, “Did my tablet come in with me?”

“Should be in the drawer next to you. You youngsters and your having to stay connected.” She winked at him as she took his wrist to check his pulse. “How do you feel? Think you can manage a little?”

“Better than an hour ago. Maybe? Some?”

“You need me to stay?”

“Nah. Thanks. I think I can manage to eat like a big boy.”

With a soft laugh, she patted his shoulder and left the room. The nurses here were always so attentive and friendly, he’d wondered sometimes if he’d been their only patient over the last few months. Probably. He blew out a sigh when he uncovered the tray. Bland chicken and rice. Something that might have been green beans before they’d been boiled beyond recognition. He picked up the brownie and nibbled on a corner while he retrieved his tablet. The desserts weren’t usually half-bad.

Darius Valstad….

A quick search brought up a bio on a mineralogy article from the late ’90s, complete with photo and contact links that were either dead or hadn’t been used in years. The Darius in the photo was handsome, blond hair pulled back in a professor ponytail and bright blue eyes the color of a Siamese cat’s. No other articles, though, nothing more recent. Sometimes Toby wished magic users had their own news sources, like in Harry Potter, but even the craziest mage didn’t want exposure to the rest of the world by posting magic articles online.

All right, Mr. Valstad didn’t want an online presence. He was one of the outcast mages. Toby supposed that made sense. Next he tried a selection of nearby zip codes, Valstad, and property transfers.

Ha. There you are.

It was a Centreville address, so probably hoity-toity, or maybe just isolated enough for a recluse, and Darius Valstad had acquired the property fifteen years earlier from another Valstad.

Address. GPS. I can do this. Am I doing this? When I can barely walk?

If he delayed, he might find himself sedated with his parents making decisions for him. They’d be devastated, but they wouldn’t fight what the authorities would tell them was necessary. Separation papers from seven guilds and rejections from all the others Toby had contacted, every single guildhall on the continent, had scuttled all hope that he could be saved. No one would take him now, and he was a powder keg waiting to commit magical suicide, possibly taking out a small town or two in the process.

Be a stubborn, irresponsible, persistent bastard—or die.

All things considered, Toby preferred to persist. There was too much he hadn’t done, too much of the world he hadn’t seen yet. Maybe being scared of dying was overstating it…. No, it wasn’t. He was petrified, and waves of anguish closed his throat and made his eyes sting if he thought about it too hard. He signed the separation forms and prepared himself for pretend sleep so Margie would leave him to rest and he could slip out the window before the change of shift at eleven.

 

 

THE WEEPING cherry threatened to choke the koi pond. He should trim it back. The koi shouldn’t suffer. In the morning. Plenty of time in the morning. Nothing but time.

Some things should be seen to.

The pool, for one. He’d had thoughts in February of opening it again, cleaning it. Now the snow had vanished and taken the desire to do so with it. The cover needed tightening down. That, at least. No more living things would die because of his neglect.

Darius stood at the back window of the sunroom staring down at the pool terrace, then into the gathering shadows farther down the hill. The darkness reached for him. Beckoned. Even its promise was too much effort. Instead, he wrapped his hand around one of the steel support poles for the raised upper level of the sunroom. The iron hummed to him, soothing his soul while it jarred his bones.

Reach, reach, through the pole down to the stones and earth below, his thoughts sliding easily into the streams of connections, crystal structures, organic molecules, this symphony of notes that existed in no other major Arcana.

It used to bring him joy. Now it brought only information as he expanded his lattice of awareness out to the edges of his property. Squirrel. Fox. Owl. Mouse. Worm. Cricket. All part of him in that moment. Still, amid the riot of life, all was quiet. Nothing invaded his sanctuary uninvited.

Nothing…. Wait. He halted his aimless wandering of the lattice and focused his listening through the dendritic channels of earth. Footsteps. Bipedal. Their rhythm a broken syncopation. At the front edge of his property, coming up his drive. The intruder had climbed the fence, which irritated him. The steps came up the curving drive, though. Stealth couldn’t be the goal. If it was, supreme incompetence was involved.

Or he could be high as a kite.

The impression of male came through quite strongly, echoing into the stones of the driveway with every footfall. He wanted to ignore the intrusion, let the trespasser do whatever he came for and stumble on. A kernel of possessiveness overrode his desire for inaction, though. This was an invasion of his land, his house, his privacy. With a slow intake of breath, he released the pole and shuffled toward the front door.

Another homeowner might have gone for the gun cabinet. Darius didn’t need it.

He flipped on the outside lights, the ones on the front porch and the floodlights lining the drive. A human silhouette flinched and staggered at the sudden illumination, righted itself, and stumbled on. The sharp gradient of the drive seemed to be giving the intruder issues, each step slower than the one before. Darius reevaluated his initial assumptions as the young man reached the circle of lights from the porch. He was gasping, frost-white, and weaving on his feet, close to collapsing from exhaustion rather than from some illicit high.

“Go away!” Darius called out, more roar than shout as his disused larynx fought him for modulation and pitch.

Instead of turning and walking away like a sensible person, his intruder fell to his knees, hands held up in supplication. “Please. Mr. Valstad. You’re, like, my Obi-wan here. My only hope.”

Darius growled wordlessly, but that did nothing to dissuade his unwelcome visitor.

“Please. My name is Toby Jones. I’m an unplaceable. Montchanin just refused to keep trying. They were the last guild who would take me.” Jones shook his head, the white streak through the middle of his black hair blinking in and out of the light like a strobe.

“No.”

“Mr. Valstad, I’m dying. My own magic is killing me. I’m desperate. Any terms, any—”

“No! I can’t!”

“You taught others. Unplaceables like me.”

“Go. Away.”

Jones stared at him, stricken. He put a palm down on the paving stones and tried to get his feet under him to rise. Instead, he fell flat on his face and lay there unmoving.

Dammit. Darius debated leaving him out there, but the boy looked like he was on his last breaths and it was starting to rain. He could no more turn his back on a failing young man fainting in his driveway than he could let his koi suffer in a choked pond.

With an aggravated sigh, Darius pulled his cardigan closed and shuffled out into the rain in his worn corduroy slippers. He shook the boy by the shoulder first. That got him nothing except wetter as he waited for a response. Finally, he slid his arms under Jones and carried him inside, disturbed by how little he weighed. Not that he was big to begin with, but he was too thin, his bones painfully visible at his wrists and clavicles. This was a young mage in the final stages of self-destruction. Old anger rose in him at the realization that the guilds had failed another one. Even if Darius had been able to teach him, it would most likely have been too late.