“PLEASE, SOMEONE. Kill me. Kill me now.”
“Aiden! Don’t say that. It’s dangerous,” Cassandra Koo snapped at him. She prodded his thigh with the extremely pointy toe of her boot, but he just shook her off without lifting his head from the pile of exam books scattered over his desk. She prodded him harder. “Aiden! I’m talking to you.”
“Ow!” Aiden Lobo snapped his head up to glare at her, rubbing his thigh where she’d jabbed him. Two exam books slid over the edge of the desk to flutter sadly to the worn wooden floor. “What was that for?”
Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Like that actually hurt, you big baby.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and crossed her arms in one practiced move. Her hair was jet black and so thick Aiden occasionally wondered how she didn’t snap her neck when she did that. “Be careful what you wish for, remember? Do you want someone to hear you and think you mean it?”
Aiden snorted and shook his head. “I’m sure that whichever deity happens to be listening can tell the difference between hyperbole and a genuine request, Cass.” He bent down and snatched the two exam books off the floor, then scowled at them before slapping them back onto the pile. “Mr. Sneddon here wrote a detailed essay on how the Diet of Worms, rather than, say, having anything to do with the Protestant Reformation, was apparently a meal fed to elder demons so they wouldn’t destroy Nuremberg in 1521.” He took off his glasses, then closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose, grimacing at the indent his glasses had left there. “How could he get the year right but nothing else? The first confirmed Crack only appeared in 1915.”
“Well, that was the confirmed one,” Cassandra said diplomatically. “You know there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from before that.”
“Not at the Diet of freaking Worms.”
“Fine, then. Was it funny, at least?” She tapped the equally large stack of her portion of the exam. “One of mine confused Archangel Michael with Michelangelo. That was kind of hilarious.”
“No.” Aiden slid his glasses back on, shoving his hair away so the lenses wouldn’t trap any of it over his eyes. It’d officially grown out of “too long” into “shaggy,” but he never had time to cut it. Unlike Cassandra, whose fair skin contrasted beautifully with her dark hair and eyes, Aiden had not terribly remarkable, almost-black hair that more or less complemented his light brown skin. He did think his eyes were cool, though. Cassandra said they were “whiskey colored like in a romance novel.” Tanner said they were amber, which Aiden liked even more.
But now his hair kept falling in his whiskey-amber eyes. “Hey,” he said, turning to Cassandra. “Do you know any haircutting spells?”
Cassandra didn’t even blink at his non sequitur. “I could conjure my spirit knife.”
“No, thanks.” He let out a long, frustrated sigh, then glanced at his watch and began to slide the books into a pile. “I can’t believe how late it is. I haven’t even finished half of these stupid things. Remind me to never agree to assist with a summer school course again.”
“Hey, you were an undergrad too, once,” Cassandra said very seriously, which she immediately ruined by smirking. “A long, long, long time ago. I’m sure you did badly on at least one freshman course. Oh. Are you leaving?”
“I’m twenty-three, which makes me exactly one year older than you. And I never confused the Diet of Worms for an actual diet.” Aiden managed to snap the three large elastic bands over the stack of exam books without getting more paper cuts, then carefully shoved them all into his messenger bag. “And yeah, I’m leaving. I can’t take any more marking tonight. Do you want me to walk you to your apartment first?”
“That’s such a kind offer.” Cassandra scraped her own stack into a loose pile and shoved it into her backpack, apparently unconcerned with crumpling the pages. The grin she gave Aiden was sly. “I’m sure you don’t have any ulterior motives, with a kind, gentlemanly offer like that.”
Aiden stopped strapping on his sword belt to frown at her. “I can be kind!”
“I know. Oh, don’t give me the sad-puppy eyes.” Cassandra came over and enveloped Aiden in one of her typically enormous hugs. “I know you really want to walk me home.”
“Well, not anymore.” Aiden tucked her head under his chin as he hugged her back. “Now I’m just going so I can see Tanner.”
Cassandra laughed. “Jerk.” She let go, then had to pull away the few of her hairs that had gotten caught on Aiden’s chin scruff. She stopped him before he could shoulder his messenger bag. “Hang on a sec. I want to redo the protection spell.”
She deftly fished under the collar of his T-shirt to pluck out the stone amulet he wore on a leather thong around his neck, then laughed at the carving of a happy face on it. “That kills me every time. You are such a hardcore nonsectarian.”
Aiden shrugged, grinning. “I needed some kind of symbol, right? You know what they say—’let a smile be your protection.’”
“That’s ‘let a smile be your umbrella,’ doofus.” Cassandra shook her head in obviously put-on exasperation. “I learned a new spell yesterday and I want to try it.”
Aiden lifted his eyebrows. “So I’m your guinea pig now? Is that even legal?”
“It’s a protection spell,” Cassandra huffed. “It’s not like I’m slapping wings on you or anything. And I practiced it loads of times, and the prof says I’m really good. So shut up.”
“Well, if the prof says you’re good, I guess it’s okay, then.” Aiden laughed when Cassandra scowled at him.
“It is okay, dumbass. Now stop talking so I can do this.”
Aiden grinned, but then waited patiently as Cassandra closed her eyes and began chanting. She had one hand closed around the amulet and the other holding his bicep. She mostly used Korean for her formal casting, because as her second language it meant she had to work at it, and the effort showed respect to the divine. But this time Aiden recognized some ancient Egyptian as well, when she chanted a prayer to the cat-goddess Bast, invoking her aspect as a goddess of protection. After that, Cassandra switched back to Korean to request the presence of Gwan-eum, the Korean goddess of mercy. He was sure she asked for help and protection from other deities as well, but magic and invocation in general were far from his realm of expertise. He did understand her request for intervention on his behalf from protective spirits residing in the places he might go, as well as his eudaemon—his personal guardian spirit—and his guardian angel.
He could see how hard she was concentrating on the spell, but Aiden had no facility with casting and no idea if it was working or not. Cassandra was very good, especially for a twenty-two-year-old in her last year of a master’s degree. But this spell seemed especially complicated and difficult.
It also took longer than Aiden expected; a good five minutes passed before Cassandra finished the spell with a final word of thanks and finally let go of him. “There.” She had a little bit of sweat at her temples, but she only looked satisfied as she dropped the amulet back behind Aiden’s collar then patted it through his shirt. The stone felt warm against his skin, but that could have just been from Cassandra’s hand.
Aiden quirked a grin at her. “How many different beings did you ask to look after me? I’m not that hopeless, am I?”
“Well, your protective symbol is a smiley face. I’m kind of at a disadvantage, here.” She sighed deeply. “Face it—you’re a lost cause. It’s tragic.” Cassandra belied her sad expression by laughing, then patted his chest again. “But even if I’d asked a thousand different deities and spirits to look after you, they’re all facets of the divine, right?” She shrugged. “A lot of casters don’t bother with the separate names, but since they’re always present, I think it’s better to ask. It’s more polite, you know?”
“And goodness knows you’re nothing if not polite.” Aiden smirked at her as he ducked his head through the strap of his bag, then grimaced as the bag slapped against his thigh. The exams weighed a ton. “But they’re not facets. They’re all one and the same. Like, why bother differentiating between a eudaemon and a guardian angel? They’re exactly the same thing.”
Cassandra snorted. “I’m a fucking pillar of virtue, and you’re lucky to have me as your friend. Especially when you talk blasphemy like that.” She shouldered her backpack. “That’s like saying a pickup truck is the same as a sports car, because they’re all cars. Sure it’s kind of true, but actually true? Not really. And eudaemons whisper advice in your ear, but don’t intervene. Like, your eudaemon would say,”—she dropped her voice to a whisper—“‘hey, don’t walk in front of that truck,’ but an angel might actually push your stupid ass out of the way.”
“I actually did get hit by a car riding my bike once,” Aiden said musingly as he locked the office door. “I don’t remember anyone telling me to stop or pushing me out of the way.”
“Obviously they knew it wasn’t going to do any permanent damage. Unless you weren’t wearing a helmet. In which case it explains so much.” Cassandra slid one of her bracelets down her wrist until she could hold her casting amulet securely in her hand. She’d made her scryPhone into her own amulet of protection—there were apps for that—but she said it worked much better to “go old-school” for casting spells.
Aiden just used a sword. He’d gotten straight As in sword fighting in high school, and his parents had given him his genuine, antique cutlass and scabbard as a graduation present. He practiced with it a few times a week, and knew he could defend himself with it.
He also liked how it made him look pretty badass.
“You’re not hopeless, by the way,” Cassandra said, as if she were worried he’d thought she meant it. She hit the button for the terrifyingly ancient elevator, but didn’t complain when Aiden tugged her toward the stairwell instead. “It’s just….” She made a face.
“Just what?” Aiden asked, when they’d gone down all five floors and she still hadn’t said anything. He stroked his hand over the head of the nearer lion statue at the foot of the stairs, thanking it for protecting the old building.
“It’s just, I hate the fact that you can’t do magic, okay?” Cassandra blurted, stopping in the vestibule. She tilted her head to look up at him. “I hate how vulnerable you are because of it. I just want you to be protected.”
Aiden blinked at her. “You’ve known that about me since we were little.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes. “No shit, Sherlock. And I’ve hated it since then. But I didn’t know a good enough general protection spell until now, or I would’ve used it before.” She flattened her lips, looking at him as if she hoped to see signs of his newly minted safety on his face. “It freaks me out that the only things you have to protect yourself with are an antique sword and an amulet with other people’s spells on them. It just sucks, that’s all.”
“Hey, my antique sword and other people’s spells work just fine, thank you very much,” Aiden protested, though he looked more carefully around them, suddenly a little nervous himself from Cassandra’s worrying. But the dark wood paneling and the fussy portraits of the long-dead department heads only looked the same. The two touch-smoothed wooden lions guarding the stairwell they’d just come down were glossy and still as always. He undid the snap that ensured his sword wouldn’t slide out of the scabbard anyway, to make drawing it faster, then touched the second lion. Just in case. “It is what it is, Cass—some people are natural casters, and some can’t do magic at all. I’ve never had a problem before.”
“Yeah. Let’s hope you stay that way.”
“Well, no problem unless you count the exams,” Aiden said, then grinned, pleased when Cassandra smiled. He started walking again, determinedly shoving his anxiety away. He held open the door for Cassandra and they went out into the night. It was fresh and clean on his skin, a perfect antidote for the stuffy History Department building they’d just left. Solar vines climbed the brick walls like ivy, glinting copper in the light from the building. He automatically put his palm out near them as they passed by, and could still feel the heat of the day’s sunlight radiating off the stems.
Cassandra stopped to top-up her scryPhone by holding it against one of the broad leaves.
“I think you worry too much anyway,” Aiden said when they started walking again. “I mean, you’re always worrying about me—you’ve been worried since we were tested for casting aptitude in grade two. But you’re the best caster I know. If you can’t keep me safe, no one can.”
“Bite your tongue.” Cassandra elbowed him lightly in the side then shook her head. “Man, you are just determined to bring doom down on you tonight. And while I am damn good, since I’m about the only caster you know, you’re not saying as much as you think.” She eyed him sidelong. “You know, Tanner is almost as good a caster as I am. Maybe you should stay at my place tonight. You know, just in case. I’m sure he’d be happy to… make whatever spell you want.”
“Stop it.” Aiden made a face, but Cassandra just cackled at him. Inwardly, though, he was quietly thrilled to think that might be true. Tanner Finn was big, gorgeous, smart, and kind—practically everything Aiden could want in a boyfriend. Aiden already considered Tanner a “friend” friend, and they’d been flirting for months, though Aiden rarely saw him outside the apartment Tanner shared with Cassandra and Greg.
Aiden wouldn’t use a ploy as transparent as Cassandra’s suggestion in a million years, but if her concern for Aiden’s safety was what it took for Tanner or him to take the first step… well, Aiden really wouldn’t mind that at all.
“Are you actually worried about me being a lousy caster right now?” he asked her as they turned left to go through the woods. Short stanchions holding large globes shed cheerful light on the path. Smaller solar vines wound around them, making them look like oddly shaped trees. “’Cause I’m not worried.” He arched his eyebrows at her behind his glasses. “So I’m wondering if this is a less-than-subtle scheme of yours to get me and Tanner together.”
“You’re a nonexistent caster, Aiden. So, yes, I’m worried right now. I’m always worried. But hey, if it works, you can totally give me credit.”
“You can be the best woman at our wedding.”
Cassandra scoffed. “Like I wouldn’t’ve been anyway.”
THE WALK across the Tallulah Lightman University campus to Cassandra’s apartment was short but a little unnerving. Cassandra had obviously spooked herself with all her talk about Aiden’s inability to cast spells, and kept darting glances around as if something was about to leap out at them from either side of the wooded path. During the day, the forest they were walking through was a quiet, pleasant way to get off the main campus for a while. Aiden liked to run there. But at night, or at least right then with Cassandra looking like she was expecting an ambush, even with the lights every few feet, it felt oppressively closed-in and sinister. Aiden found himself listening for something coming, but he couldn’t hear anything beyond the wind through the ancient trees.
He drew his sword anyway, though he fervently hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. Straight As and practice aside, he’d only ever had to fight with it once, against a goblin. Goblins were little homicidal maniacs, and this one had been vicious, but only about two feet high. Aiden had felt bad about killing the thing, despite how obviously it had been trying to kill him.
Cassandra’s apartment in the graduate residence was right on the edge of campus. It was a relief to see his friend relax when they were close to the traffic lights and other people hurrying home before midnight. 12:00 a.m. was nearly two hours away, but the sunset came earlier now that it was late summer, and everyone knew the Dark Things didn’t always wait. The big grin Cassandra gave him as they walked up the stairs to the building underscored how nervous she’d been.
“Maybe you really should stay,” she said as she slid her key into the lock. She’d been holding her casting amulet so tightly that Aiden could see red lines on her fingers and the imprint of the embossed drawing of Hecate, patron of witches, on her palm. There was a small statue of Hecate with her three heads next to the right side of the door, invoking protection over the entranceway, and a Korean carved duck on the left, to protect the (very) small village of the apartment. Cassandra touched them both with a murmur of thanks as they went inside, and Aiden did too. He didn’t believe in “splintering the divine,” as it was called in academia, but he would never ignore any aspect of it.
“I’m fine, Cass,” he said. “You’re the one who managed to completely freak yourself out over nothing.”
He smirked at her grumbled reply about terrible ungrateful friends as he stepped around the half-empty bowl of milk and the cookie crumbs on the plate next to Cassandra’s door. He was sure one of her neighbor’s pets had enjoyed it, rather than any fairies. He smiled more widely to see the two small altars when he went in, one on either side of the entrance, to appease the spirits in the apartment. His friend was nothing if not thorough.
“Hey! Anybody home? Aiden’s with me,” she bellowed, dropping her bag right in front of the door. Aiden put his bag and sword down a careful distance from the altars. Cassandra’s apartment was small and always untidy, but it was warm and welcoming. He could smell Greg’s incense and see one of Tanner’s potion textbooks on the coffee table, along with some beautifully sketched out alchemical symbols. On the other end was a graphic novel with the title of The Risen Dead. There was a picture on the cover of a guy in a sheriff-type uniform completely surrounded by zombies. It took Aiden a moment to realize that the character was holding some kind of large gun, not a large casting amulet or totem the way he’d assumed. Aiden smirked, wondering how the author managed to justify that.
The apartment walls were covered with an eclectic mix of Greg’s framed photographs and Cassandra’s commercial-art prints of mermaids, angels, and unicorns—sometimes all three in one tacky painting. She thought they were hilarious.
“You hollered?” Greg Petran came out of the room he shared with Cassandra. “Hi, Aiden.” He gave Aiden a quick wave—Greg was like Cassandra’s hugging polar opposite—though he did put his arm around his girlfriend. “I’m glad you’re home, Cass. I was getting worried.”
“You always worry,” Cassandra said, as if she hadn’t been quietly freaking out the whole way there herself. She didn’t exactly look upset about Greg’s concern, though.
Aiden discreetly turned away when they started kissing, only to grin at Tanner as he came in from the kitchen. “Hi,” he said, thrilled and a little nervous, the way he always felt around him. He gestured at the lip-locked couple. “I followed her home.”
“Cool. Can I keep you?” Tanner beamed when he saw the goofy grin Aiden couldn’t control. “Here.” He was holding four water bottles by the necks, two dangling from the fingers of each hand. His hands were large enough that he could have easily held eight. “Water, unless you want something else?”
“This is great, thanks,” Aiden said, taking the closest one, slick with condensation and nicely cold. Tanner always had water when he visited, and Aiden never missed how Tanner offered him the bottles first.
Cassandra finally pried herself away from her boyfriend. “You’re so sweet, Tanner. Thanks.” She took her own bottle, lifting an eyebrow at Aiden as if he somehow hadn’t noticed Tanner’s gesture.
“None for me,” Greg said. “Not that it’s not great to see you, Aiden, ’cause it is, but I was about to go read The Risen Dead in my room.” He scooped the book off the coffee table. “I need to find out if Glenn survives.”
“It’s terrible when he gets his head ripped off. I was inconsolable,” Aiden said, just seriously enough that Greg looked completely horrified before Aiden started laughing.
“Jerk,” Greg said without heat.
“You’ve never even read it, have you?” Tanner asked Aiden over his water bottle.
Aiden grinned at him, opening his. “Nope.”
“But I’m sure Aiden wants to,” Cassandra cut in cheerfully. She looked at him, all innocence. “You could stay and read it. Tanner has volume one.”
Tanner blushed, then clearly tried to cover it by drinking his water. “Actually, I was, um, kind of hoping I could walk you home. If you wanted,” he said after he’d swallowed a few times.
“Really? ’Cause, um, I’d like that. I’d like that a lot,” Aiden said. He didn’t even try to be cool, especially when he could see that Tanner wanted it as much as he did. He took a long drink as well, mostly so he wouldn’t fidget.
“Oh, yay. I knew you walking me home was a good idea!” Cassandra bounced and clapped like a little girl.
“Cass!” Aiden would’ve slapped his hand over his face except he didn’t want to hit his glasses. “I always walk you home,” he mumbled. He gave her a likely too-mild glare. “And you were the one who said you were worried about me, remember? You were crazy worried tonight, even.”
“What?” Tanner was instantly alert, his bright blue eyes big with concern. He put his hand on Aiden’s shoulder like a meltingly warm weight. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Aiden said seriously. “Cass was just being extra overprotective about the fact I’m not a caster.” He shrugged. “No big deal.”
“It is a big deal,” Cassandra muttered.
“Oh, okay. That’s good.” Tanner looked sweetly relieved. “So, it’s cool if we go to your place, then.” He took another drink.
“It’ll be fine,” Cassandra said, nodding quickly. “I mean, Tanner’s bed is tiny. Like, stupid tiny. He’d probably roll over and crush you.” She turned to Tanner. “And you should definitely walk him home, to make sure nothing happens.”
Tanner managed to inhale the water he’d been chugging.
“Okay, I think that’s really my cue to go back to zombies and improbable weaponry,” Greg said while Cassandra started thumping Tanner’s back and Aiden tried not to groan. “Come on, Cass—let’s stop tormenting our friends.” He put his free arm around Cassandra’s shoulder and began steering her out of the room. She rolled her eyes but went willingly enough. “Good night.” Greg waved at Aiden and Tanner, who at least was breathing now. “You’d better leave soon, it’s already ten thirty. You don’t want to risk being out after curfew,” he said, managing to look even less innocent than his girlfriend.
“Um, yeah. Good idea,” Tanner said weakly. He shook his head then ran his large hand through his shoulder-length blond hair. He chuckled, looking just as excited and off-balance as Aiden felt. He gestured vaguely over his shoulder. “I’ll just, you know, get a few things.” He turned away quickly and went down the hall to his room.
Aiden took another long drink of water as he waited, trying to calm his galloping heart. Tanner was going to stay over; after tonight they’d officially be a couple. It made for a pleasant kind of gallop, but still made it a little hard to breathe normally.
He was happy but not quite relieved when Tanner took almost no time at all to return. Tanner had his backpack on, and he was fastening his own weapon belt around his waist, this one with a ring to hold his war hammer. It was a large, brutal thing called a maul that looked like it could easily plant fence posts, with a long spike opposite the flat head. It would have pulverized Aiden’s goblin attacker in one blow. “You ready?”
“Absolutely.” Aiden gulped down the rest of his water, then almost knocked over one of the altars when he grabbed his sword belt off the floor.