BOOK THREE

Chapter 1

Jack Scatter crept through the dark woods, concentrating on the spell that guided him to place his feet where they would make the least noise. His opponent, unseen but nearby, was skilled and potentially lethal. She was also wonderful to look at.

Focus, Jack thought. If he let his mind wander, she’d have him cold.

He stepped over a fallen branch. His foot was only inches above the ground when a ghostly footprint appeared two inches to the left. The spell wasn’t perfect, but it was only giving him one choice. He shifted his weight to land directly on that pale mark, and sunk into a carpet of leaves without a sound.

Forty yards to the beach. That’s how far he had left to reach safety. He eased the other foot over the branch, but no marker appeared. She’s close. Time for another spell.

He twirled his wand in a circle near his ear and the music of distant crickets became a thunderous orchestra. Filter. The insects faded and were replaced by a chorus of tree frogs. Filter. He silently repeated that command until the only sounds were of grass and twigs stirred by the evening breeze. Of course, that’s exactly what someone approaching would sound like.

Back to the first spell, he glided a foot over the forest floor. A flicker of motion off to his right caught his attention. He glanced that way but saw nothing. When he looked down, he had a dozen footprints to choose from. Too many possible futures. He had to act fast. Picking the brightest, he dropped his foot and crouched at the same time. A twig snapped under his shoe.

An intense light illuminated the forest as a ball of blue plasma sped through the trees. Jack had barely enough time to raise a shield. The fireball splashed harmlessly against the invisible barrier.

He dove and rolled for cover behind a tree. Hugging the trunk, he pointed his wand at the attacker. A fraction of a second of the invisible flashlight spell revealed his opponent, twenty yards away and armed with a staff.

Ethan? I thought I dodged you a mile back.”

Ethan laughed and launched a blinding cloud of ice crystals from the silver ring on his right hand.

Jack deflected the assault with a small wave of his wand and then hurled a series of three orange fireballs. Ethan advanced casually. His natural talent—the ability to predict the next two seconds—allowed him to step aside to let each pass.

“You almost got past me this time,” Ethan said when he was close enough to speak without raising his voice.

Jack lowered his wand; he’d been caught. “Was that you I saw moving or did you use a spell?”

Ethan walked toward Jack at a natural pace; his footfalls made no noise at all. “I’ve been following you for a while. That was the shadow illusion you showed me this morning.”

“Well, it worked. As a distraction anyway. I’d have probably figured out that a shadow wouldn’t show at night if I’d gotten a good look at it.”

“What did you think of the extra footprints?”

“That was you? I thought the spell was breaking down.”

Ethan shuffled his feet, mimicking a popular dance move. As he did, pale, glowing footprints mirrored his movements in the grass in front of Jack.

“I should have noticed how big and clumsy they were.”

“To be fair,” Ethan said, “you’re playing with a major handicap. If you really wanted to get past me, you could have just sensed my rings or my staff.”

“True, but the point was to see if I could sneak past someone who had shielded their portal.” Jack’s talent was the ability to sense and control the flow of the energy present in all wormholes. That energy was the foundation of most of the “magic” spells he’d created. He looked towards the lake. “Do you think I can still get past Sarah?”

“I doubt it,” Sarah said as she stepped out from behind a tree.

Gah.” Jack stumbled as he spun away from her, but Ethan just laughed.

“I’m sorry.” She stifled a laugh. “I couldn’t help it. I tried to ignore my intuition but I knew what path you’d take. That’s one thing I still can’t control very well.”

“We’ll never be able to do this fairly,” Ethan said as Jack stood and brushed himself off. “Sarah will always know weeks or months ahead of time what path either of us will take, and you can come up with new spells on demand.”

“Your two-second warning will eventually be better than my two weeks,” Sarah said. “The more often we do this, the more paths I have to remember. But I used my invisible flashlight to watch you walk through the woods; you don’t make a sound.”

“That’s something else that’s not fair.” Ethan turned to Jack. “Can you ignore our beams?”

Jack shook his head. “No, that’s as natural for me as your two-second warning. Any time you use the field on anything external, I’m going to sense it. I think the next time we do this, I’ll—”

A snapping noise interrupted. Something was falling through the branches of a nearby tree.

“What was that?” Ethan raised his staff to a defensive posture.

Jack reached out. “It’s a portal crystal, for sure. About fifty feet that way.”

Sarah spelled an invisible flashlight from her wand, and Ethan did the same from one of the four gemstones on his ring. Jack kept his wand at the ready but had a good idea what they would find. He led them directly to the fallen object: a gold-plated coin with a shiny central gem.

“It’s a coin portal,” Sarah said.

Coin-mounting was one of the most common formats for portal crystals. They’d been used that way for decades in everything from power cells to phones. This one was different, though. It was one of Pieter Reynard’s Third-Eye crystals, which was entangled with an identical pair on Earth. He’d intended to bring them to Cirrus to monitor and control high-level government officials, but Simon, his chief engineer, had destroyed the cargo and launched the coins into orbit.

“How long do you think they’ll be falling for?” Ethan asked.

“Years, probably. There were ten million on the shuttle when it disintegrated. That’s almost one for every square mile on Cirrus.”

“Should we keep it?”

Are you serious? Dragons can sense these as far away as I can. There’s nowhere in the village we could keep it that they won’t find it.”

Ethan scoffed. “How often is a dragon going to come near Icarus?”

“I sensed one last month.”

Ethan paled. “What? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I would have liked to see one again,” Sarah said.

“It was swimming over to the island.”

Ethan shivered; he didn’t even like snakes. “Actually, I’m glad you didn’t tell us. I couldn’t sleep knowing one was near.”

“They won’t bother us as long as we don’t bother them.”

“Says the only person who can talk to them. Is that why Dusty was so anxious yesterday?” Ethan was referring to his golden retriever. “Did she know they were around?”

“I’m sure she knew a few hours before it showed up.”

Dusty, a golden retriever, was psychic. At least that’s how the three friends liked to think of it. She was in fact the canine version of a Traveller—a person who could remember their own future through interaction with an Artificial Intelligence. For human Travellers such as Sarah, these AI-derived memories provided cloudy glimpses of events they were to be involved in. Dusty used them to sneak up on squirrels.

“So, what should we do with the coin?” Sarah asked.

Jack levitated it with his wand. “I’ll get rid of it.”

He flew it at eye level to fifty feet away, near the limits of his control. Then, shifting slightly to line up with a break in the trees, he swung his arm over his head in a smooth arc. The coin—at the end of a fifty-foot invisible tether—followed his movement. By the time Jack released it, the golden disc was moving at supersonic speed. A whip-like crack signaled the beginning of a miles-long flight away from the village.

 

 

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