Natural Mage by K F Breene, now you can read online.
“Penny, hurry up and come down. Half of them are already here.”
I froze in front of the full-length mirror on my walk-in closet door, listening to see if my new landlord, Callie Banks, would yell up any more instructions.
Not instructions, then…a warning posed as a question.
“Be right down,” I called, because otherwise she’d come up, grab me by the hair, and drag me.
I’d exchanged an overbearing mother for an overbearing trainer. My decision-making skills still needed improvement.
Taking a deep breath, I smoothed the faux-silk lilac dress down my stomach and breathed in deeply, trying to ignore the nervous tremors.
Tonight Callie and her husband Dizzy were formally introducing me to their large and influential magical circle. I was a real mage now, with a couple months of training under my belt and power enough to rival the best of the best. Or so they told me.
Truth was, power alone wasn’t enough, something I’d learned firsthand from working closely with Emery, the natural mage who’d gone rogue from the magical community. He was the best of the best…no, together we were the best of the best. With his power, experience, and know-how, and my…well, power and temperamental intuition, we’d pulled off the impossible—an attack on the Mages’ Guild’s stronghold in Seattle. Without him, I felt like a novice with a lot to learn.
My heart ached whenever I thought of the handsome natural mage who had woken me up in so many ways. We’d spent hardly any time together, but it felt like we’d known each other for a lifetime, and with him gone, a piece of me was gone with him. My mother thought I was foolish, and the Bankses thought I was naive, but it didn’t matter. The sound of his name, the memory of being ensnared in his magic and his arms, still affected me.
I’d let him walk away in Seattle, and at the time, everything in my person had thought he’d come right back. That he wouldn’t be gone a week. Couldn’t be, not after what we’d shared.
That was six months ago.
I needed to stop thinking about him. At this point, I looked every bit the fool my mother thought I was. But that didn’t change the fact that he was a benchmark for what I could be—what I should be, as a natural—and that I had a lot to learn…with no time in which to learn it.
The Mages’ Guild had rebounded from the break-in faster than anybody could’ve guessed. They’d changed their wards, repaired their buildings, and expanded their influence within Seattle and surrounding areas. They were creating a solid foundation with which to go after the naturals who’d escaped them.
Emery and me.
I had no doubt they’d move in as soon as they locked down their targets.
It was only a matter of time. Which meant I needed as many friends as I could get.
So tonight I’d slapped on a dress, curled my hair, and dabbed on some makeup, all in a play to make nice with the New Orleans magical community. I needed them to accept me. To stand by my side when the Guild came for me.
They’ll never be enough.
I gritted my teeth against my inner dialogue, trying to pretend I didn’t feel the truth in that statement. Because they would have to be enough. They were all I had.
“Penny?” Callie called up, and this time it wasn’t a warning. It was a threat.
I wondered how long it would take me to out myself as a socially awkward and seriously weird person…
My phone clattered against my desk on the other side of the room. I gritted my teeth, knowing exactly who it was. A quick jaunt over showed I’d been right.
She’d stayed behind to both give me my space (proof that miracles did happen) and to monitor the mood and tone of Seattle, all from the safety of a couple towns away. No one would admit it, but I suspected Darius, the vampire with his influence all over my life at the moment, wanted her out of the way so I could get training without a peanut gallery.
I had no complaints.
Her text read, “Don’t be fooled, the proof is in the pudding.”
I stared at it for a second. What the heck did that mean?
Not like I’d text back and ask. She’d turn it into a half-hour conversation about all the things I wasn’t doing that I should be, like flossing. And studying harder.
“Hey.” My bestie, Veronica, peeked her head into the room. She’d decided to make the move to New Orleans with me. Originally, she’d intended to get her own place, but Callie had taken control of the situation. She’d offered Veronica to stay at the house with us for cheap. She even got a break on rent when she straightened up Dizzy’s constant messes, which, being an organizational freak, Veronica was all too happy to do (much to Dizzy’s dismay).
At least I had one ally, even if a non-magical one.
“Wow, you look great,” I said. She was dressed in a form-fitting black dress that accentuated her curves and gave the viewer an eyeful of her bust. Would I fit into a dress like that? Maybe she’d be willing to trade.
“You better get going,” she said, looking me up and down. Her brow furrowed. “Why’d you pick such a hideous dress?”
“What?” I plucked at the fabric, putting the phone back. “What’s wrong with it?”
She tilted her head. “It’s just… It doesn’t suit you. You look like a flat stick that would break in a slight breeze. And the color…”
I smoothed the fabric down my legs. “What’s wrong with pastel purple?”
“It just…makes you look sickly. Like you have a brain tumor.”
“That’s specific.” This was a classic example of her inability to gently break bad news. “Also…a flat stick?”
“Flat-chested. You know what I mean.”
“And you’re an editor?”
“Give me a break. I fix this stuff, not make it up from scratch.”
“Penny Bristol, if I have to come up there—”
Veronica’s eyes widened. “Dude, you gotta go!” She hurried forward and grabbed my arm, leading me from the room. “She’s super stressed. She spent the morning yelling at Dizzy and the caterers. All the hiccups you’ve been having in training have put her on edge.”
“I wouldn’t say all the hiccups…” A heavy weight settled over my shoulders and my stomach flipped in anxiety.
I’d stayed in Seattle for a while after Emery had left, helping my mother get set up and waiting for Callie and Dizzy to be ready for me. A couple of months later, I finally made the trek, only to be knocked completely out of my comfort zone.
The dual-mages didn’t work with me the way Emery had. He and I had hung out in my magical bubble, a place of balance that made working magic easier, collectively weaving the spells from the materials we felt in our surroundings. My studies with Callie and Dizzy were so much more clinical. Standing at a distance, they would give me the recipe for the spell, I’d memorize it, and then I’d perform it like a trained monkey.
At first the change in technique had badly jammed me up, making me useless for a couple days straight. Finally I’d stopped for a moment, closing my eyes and tuning in to nature. Callie had thought I was cracked, but it was a compromise that seemed to work. After I got the hang of it, I could replicate the spells just fine, fast and effortlessly.
The problem happened when they threw something unexpected at me and wanted me to randomly choose a spell I’d learned and fire it back. Half the time, my mind shorted out and went blank. I stood there like an idiot, grasping at air. Eventually I could come up with something, but my reaction time was slow.
They said it would take practice, but I felt like I’d accidentally stomped on the brakes and couldn’t figure out how to shift my foot to the gas. I should’ve been further along by now, especially with the Mages’ Guild out for vengeance.
Something was missing…or maybe someone.
“Come on, hurry,” Veronica said, giving me a little tug, shaking me out of my nervous reverie. “You do not want to get on her bad list right now.”
“I’m on her bad list at least three times a day.”