It was hot outside. Malcolm was waiting off to one side, rummaging through a wooden crate.
He smiled at me, a knowing, secret smile. I scowled in return.
“What do you want?” I asked bluntly.
“I thought I would run some tests, see if I could learn anymore about your…condition.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fair warning. The last test I had didn’t end so well.”
“Oh?” Malcolm asked, still smiling. “What happened?”
“I exploded a PFNF machine and destroyed a secret underground lab at the CMR.”
His smile faded. “How?”
I shrugged. “You’ll have to ask Kevin. I don’t know anything about magic.”
Malcolm grimaced. He drew a book from the crate, stepping closer to me.
“You’re going to kill yourself if you keep repressing it,” he warned in a low voice.
I held his eyes. “Good. That will stop the end of the world.”
He made a disgusted noise and waved at me irritably. “Sit.”
I did. A line of color drew a circle in the grass, surrounding me.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
He grunted. “To protect me from you.”
I put a cautious hand out, feeling the air above the line. My skin tingled as it had when I had passed over the ‘security’ protecting this house. And like the line Kevin had drawn on his table, to keep the necromancy books contained.
I drew my limbs back, shivering. I felt dirty, contaminated, like I was something dangerous. I was something dangerous. I was the reason, the impossible, inexplicable reason the world was going to end. I hid my face in my knees and waited.
It was not very dramatic. Malcolm muttered to himself, moving around me. Every now and then he would reach across the line and feel my pulse or lift my head to look in my eyes.
After a while, he started writing things in the air. The light of it hurt my eyes. When I glanced away, I saw Kevin on the porch, leaning against one of the posts holding up the roof. He was watching narrowly, his arms folded across his chest.
He still had that slippery look, his eyes gleaming. I blushed and ducked my eyes once again.
Finally Malcolm gave a weary sigh. He waved his hand and the line encircling me vanished. He helped me to my feet. I was stiff from sitting hunched up so long.
“Well?” Kevin asked, coming down the steps to meet us.
Malcolm rubbed his face, taking his time answering. He gave me a long, considering look. He spoke slowly.
“There is a lot of magic inside you, Becca,” he said. I stiffened, ready to deny it. He went on smoothly. “From several different sources. Your curse-”
“You found it?” Kevin demanded. “Where? What is it?”
Malcolm shook his head. “I don’t know. I could just see…something. Something heavy. But it’s there. You are cursed. But that magic is battling with others. Powerful castings; some of the most powerful I’ve ever seen.”
Kevin’s face darkened. I knew he was thinking of Jeff. And the reasons he thought Jeff would want to keep me alive at any cost.
I sighed wearily. No matter how many times I said it, Kevin would never believe that there was nothing between me and Jeff. There was nothing.
Right? I asked myself. I didn’t have an answer. I looked at Malcolm, who was looking at Kevin’s face. Watching closely, his eyes narrowed.
I shivered, understanding. Malcolm thought Kevin was the one holding me here. Or that one of the castings warring inside me was his. Was it? How would I know if he put a spell or whatever they called them on me? How could I stop it if he tried?
How could I not feel them? If all that power and force was centered on me, how was I not aware of it?
Suddenly, I wanted to see it. I wanted to see the magic, see what had controlled my life since that day at my father’s farm. Maybe even since the day I was born; my curse.
“You’re tired,” Malcolm said, taking my elbow. “You should rest.”
“No.” I wiggled from his grip. “No, you go ahead. I want to be alone.”
Kevin opened his mouth to argue, but Malcolm interceded. “Stay inside the perimeter,” he told me. “Come, Kevin. I have some observations that might be helpful on her Quest.”
I watched them until they went inside and shut the front door. The house was still and quiet, no voices, no music. Anything less like a school for magic, I couldn’t imagine. But then, how different were they from the rest of us? The few magical people - practitioners, I supposed - were just normal people. Until they waved their hands and spoke strange words and did impossible things.
I turned from the house and walked directly to the security line. My leaving would no doubt alert Malcolm or Alva at once. Hopefully I could get far enough away to be alone for a few minutes. Really truly alone.
The heat intensified as I stepped back into the real world. I started sweating at once, the air clammy on my skin. I walked in the straightest line I could, hoping I could find my way back.
I stumbled on a little clearing, almost completely closed off from the swamp around me by trees and vines. I sank to the moist earth, kneeling.
I felt numb. Disconnected. This world was dreary after the life and energy of Alva, Elsie, Kevin. They had so much power in them. I had nothing. I was dead already. I should have died months ago.
And for the first time in my life, I wanted to be like them. If I knew anything about magic, I could find a way to stop this. I could find a way to give my life in exchange for all the crops. I would gladly be some sort of botanical messiah. What was my life worth compared to the billions that would starve to death when their food rotted on the vine? What about plankton? All the sea-life would die, the oxygen levels depleted. It would be the end of the earth, nothing left but dust. No one was worth that.
Especially not me.
I closed my eyes, listening to the silence around me. The air was still. I could heat a faint trickle of water. After some minutes, a bird call far away.
I let that stillness seep into me. Was it possible to will myself to death? If I sat here, wishing to be nothing, would my will overpower my heart and lungs and let me drift away. What would happen to the magic inside me? To the curse, Jeff’s magic, Kevin’s magic, and the magic Malcolm was convinced I had. Would they simply disperse, no longer anchored to me? Was I somehow holding them at bay? If I died would they backfire, causing an explosion like what had happened to the PFNF?
Would the shield around me let me die? Fury at Jeff nearly choked me.
How dare he work magic on me without my permission! How dare he take away my right to choose, my right to decide my own fate? I had the right to do what I felt I must to save the world, no matter what he felt for me.
My fingers moved over the ground, roving through the slimy leaves and twigs carpeting the mud. My fingers caught on a stone. I felt it carefully. It had a thinner edge, jagged.
I palmed it, closing my fingers around it. I could feel it biting into my skin. The fingers of my other hand trembled as I held it out, palm up. Taking a deep breath, I slashed the rock across my open palm.
Dark red blood sprang up at once, a few spots where the stone had scraped me deeper. I sat and started at the wound, waiting for it to heal.
I wiped the blood away, sure I was mistaken. It bled still, pooling and running down my wrist. It bled until it scabbed over, an angry red line across my hand.
I stared at it until I heard my name being called.
I didn’t have much time until they found me. I could hear Kevin’s voice, rough with worry. Had he put a casting on me? He would have had plenty of opportunities.
What would it look like?
Like his eyes, I decided. Bright, nearly clear blue. Like water, blue-green when seen from a distance, clear when viewed up close. Or the reflection of the sky on glass.
I relaxed, cradling my aching hand in my lap. What would the curse look like? Something dark and heavy, a cloud surrounding me.
My lungs tightened as the air around me dimmed. It pressed closer, seeking, searching. Trying to fulfill its purpose, trying to reach me and end my life. Kevin’s magic twisted through it. Jeff’s twined with his, where they touched, they strained away from each other, the brilliant gold of Jeff’s casting flaring when it came to close to me.
The curse writhed, swirling, still searching for a way to the center. When it came close, the brilliant light at the center cast it back, burning it. It wrenched away, wounded, but not defeated or diminished.
I blinked and it all faded. I stood shakily. There was one more thing I had to try before I went back.
The stone in my hand had changed. Now it was a keen double-edged knife. How, I had no idea, only that what I wanted most right then was a way to kill myself. End the curse and save the world.
I pressed the point of the blade over my heart, gripped the handle tightly and thrust with all my might.
A peel echoed through the clearing. The knife was wrenched from my grip, flung away from me. I whirled, expecting to see Kevin or Jeff behind me, furious and afraid. There was no one.
I clenched my fists, feeling the newly healed skin on my palm. I did not want to be here, be alive. I was not the one holding that curse back, not anymore. But no matter how I let it in, dimming the bright light within me, the other lines only strengthened. Pressing it back.
The blade was sinking into a thick tree dripping with lichen. The bark hissed and steamed as the knife was consumed, the blue and gold lines pulsing as they forced it away from me, destroyed it.
I turned and walked back to the house.
Kevin gripped my shoulders as I stepped through the security perimeter into his arms.
“Where the hell did you go?” he demanded, shaking me. He raged at me, his eyes terrible. I murmured apologies until he ran out of curses and pulled me against his chest. When I didn’t return the embrace, he stepped back, still glowering.
“Don’t you dare run off like that again,” he snarled. I nodded.
“Are you alright, Becca?” Alva asked, feeling my forehead. “You’re hot, a fever. Come lie down, dear.”
I wondered how long that would last, the heat burning in me. Would it grow and grow until I was consumed? Was that what they meant by ‘burning out?’ That my magic would destroy me from the inside if I didn’t acknowledge it, didn’t use it? Like a damn overflowing, bursting forth all at once and wiping away everything in its path?
“Malcolm?” I asked as they helped me up the stairs to Kevin’s old room.
“Can a magic person do a casting and not know it?”
He frowned at me. “What do you mean?”
“Can they cast a spell and not know they did it? Not recognize it when they see it?”
“Why do you ask?”
I looked across the room to where Kevin was fussing with my pack, arguing with Alva. “Can’t he see it?”
Malcolm sighed, kneeling to remove my shoes. “He doesn’t want to. He hasn’t accepted that you may have to die.”
I nodded, remembering the bitterness in his voice as we spoke in Malcolm’s office.
“And, if he refuses to admit that to himself, refuses to see what he’s done, there is no way he can undo it.”
I nodded again. “Thank you.”
Malcolm sighed. He stood, gesturing for Alva and Kevin to follow him out. Kevin resisted, hesitating by the door.
“Becca?” he asked.
I shook my head, not wanting to speak to him. I was afraid I would start hurling accusations at him. Something dark and dangerous crossed his slightly un-human features.
“I knew it was mistake to come here,” he muttered savagely. He shut the door.
I sighed, feeling the heat roiling inside me. Slowly, I willed it to stop. To recede. Will power was everything. How had I repressed it for so long? How had no one realized?
My thoughts drifted aimlessly. Like me. I needed to decide what to do next. I needed to complete my quest. Before Midsummer. Before it was too late.
The room turned around me, the first time in days I had been aware of the Seeking. Had I repressed that, too? Not truly wanting to discover the solution, the truth? Had I known that it would lead me here, tell me things I did not want to know?
The world slowed, feeling, searching. It stopped and I sighed. I knew where I had to go next. It was far from here, but I knew.
And Kevin could never guess.