Darkness surrounded me as I fell into consciousness. To shake off the fog in my head, I tried to stretch. Hard, unyielding walls inhibited my movement. I was trapped in a small space.
A deep voice, as large as a world, rang within my prison. “Has the future changed?”
It happened again, the horrible question I’d been asked thousands of times—the reason I remained in this prison worse than any grave. What happened to me? Where was I? How did I come to be here?
“Let me out,” I yelled. Unused to speaking, my plea grated and cracked.
A force lifted my small prison and rattled me inside it. Knees, elbows, and head battered against the walls; weakness prevented any protection.
“Answer me,” raged the powerful voice.
“Stop,” I cried, pain stinging my bones. “I’ll see.”
The shaking ceased. All tears cried out long ago, my lids closed with a raspy scrape, and I retreated into my only remaining comfort, my own magic.
Show me the future, I whispered in my mind.
A vision filled the darkness. I saw a universe full of planets—and planets full of people. Each life was precious beyond measure, and blissfully unaware of the doom advancing across the universe. Like smoke spread by the wind or the plague spread by touch, the shadow smeared across populated planets. It reached into every gap and cranny, enclosing them gently into its grip.
Glimpses of brightness gleamed in the doom. Brave beings whose mercy prevented the plague from sealing its hold. A cluster of golden stars in the center of the universe radiated strength. Galaxies away, a star with a purple hue shone with steady wisdom. One mysterious glimmer of green traveled from planet to planet, bringing justice and healing. Countless flickers of love dotted the black expanse. They gave me hope. I cast my focus to the planet of flame. It had burned for eons in unwavering order, but now shadow crept between the dancing embers, quietly weakening the united light, and I despaired.
No. Had the child fallen?
In the darkness, I searched for a light shining brighter than the rest, a white light of pure, innocent power. It yet remained. I’d foreseen it millennia ago, and I desperately searched its future. Nothing had changed. This human child, little more than a speck of dust in the grand scheme of existence, stayed rooted in goodness, a sliver in the hand of my captor’s shadowed fist.
A hint of connection warmed my gift. Silently, I called to the child, pleading for help. But why? The white light shone on a planet on the other side of the universe. None knew I still existed. None knew of my plight. None heard my pleas.
Anguish overcame me, and I retreated from my vision.
“The future holds its course,” I reported to my captor.
He bellowed in fury, and an insurmountable fatigue washed over me. As I drifted away, the hint of connection sparked a theory. It required pondering, but for the first time in my memory, I had a reason to fight the spell that took away my mind. It was worth the pain.
The small cell no longer squeezed my joints—only a cold, hard surface pressed against my forehead, conveying the steady hum of tires on the road.
Heavy rain clouds drooped to the horizon, and blurred, wet rooftops slowly came into focus. For some reason, I blinked several times to moisten my eyes, but they weren’t dry. Weird. They were dry a second ago.
“Hey, are you awake?”
“Yeah,” I heard myself say. “I’m awake.”
“What are you staring at?”
I didn’t know. Shakily, I lifted my head from the window and shifted the seatbelt strap away from my jaw. It was wet with drool. Gross. I wiped the corner of my mouth on my coat sleeve.
“You okay, babe?”
My best friend, Sadie, sat next to me, her blond hair curling inches from my face. In front of us, the backs of three heads, Dr. James Buchanan, Sadie’s grandfather and my mentor, Dr. B’s assistant, Ms. Chippy, and my mom, swayed in unison as the airport shuttle zoomed around a curve in the road.
“Agnes?” Sadie asked again. “We were talking, and you just kind of slumped against the window. You okay?”
“I think so.”
I rubbed my thighs. They burned with nerve pain. I didn’t know why. I didn’t do anything to aggravate my neuropathy beyond sitting for an hour.
“Are you nauseous, sunshine?” Mom asked over her shoulder. “You haven’t been car sick for months. Remember our old Volkswagen bug convertible? I miss that old heap.”
“I’m not nauseous,” I said. “I think I fell asleep. I had this short, really intense dream.”
“Creepy.” Sadie leaned away a few inches. “Your eyes were wide open and staring out the window.”
Dr. Buchanan’s rich, tenor voice joined in. “Sleeping with the eyes open is not unheard of. As a blind person, I suffer from it myself occasionally. My ophthalmologist recommended a complex treatment involving taping my eyelids closed while I slept to fix the dryness.”
Dry eyes. That was in my dream. My magical gift of truth made telepathy easy for me. Did I drift off and accidentally access a memory from Dr. B? But why dream about a painful prison? And why suddenly start sleeping with my eyes open?
Sadie put the back of her hand against my forehead, feeling for a fever. “You look pale, Ags.”
“I do feel kind of freaked. That dream—so strange.”
“Almost there,” she said, her phone’s navigation app glowing on her perfect skin. “Five minutes is all. Can you hold on?”
She still thought I was car sick, but I wasn’t. Outside the window, an early April storm coated everything with gray: sky, roads, buildings—everything. Only the occasional billboard popped with color, but even the flashy advertisements faded in the cloud-muted light. I was so ready for summer.
In the airport’s covered drop-off zone, the driver hurried to open the doors and help us with our bags. The lighted, red lettering of the marquis just inside the sliding glass door glowed “Welcome to LaGuardia” in a pleasant display of color. The wheels of our carry-ons rattled over the grating, and we merged into a throng of passengers hurrying to the boarding desk.
“Everybody have all their stuff?” Mom asked, huffing with the quick pace. “Tickets? Phones? IDs? Money? Luggage?”
Dr. Buchanan, Sadie, and Ms. Chippy patted their pockets and dug into their bags to see. I unzipped my coat and slapped my thigh through my long, flowing shirt. My Aether pouch, strapped over my leggings, bulged with the familiar shapes of my seven Aether Stones, my arch mage crest, and my cell. Red armor, PJs, and a couple of outfits were folded neatly in my carry-on, and around my neck hung a cat pendant of snowflake obsidian.
Check, check, check, and—dang it. I left my makeup bag with all my toiletries on the vanity at home. Oh well.
“I’m good,” I said.
“Me, too.” Sadie stuffed her designer pocketbook under her coat.
Ms. Chippy snapped open Dr. Buchanan’s briefcase and rifled through tidy folders bearing The Bounteous Life logo, a yellow sheaf of wheat growing out of a black crack in the ground. Dr. B had started the nonprofit group to help people recover from the earthquakes in February. Well, Dame Maudine actually started it—disguising herself in scrubs and helping the wounded—but Dr. B took over and turned it into an official foundation. Satisfied with the paperwork, Ms. Chippy secured the locks and glanced at the boarding desk.
“Aye. The lines are so long. People are starting to travel again, yes?”
“Lend me your arm, Ms. Chippy,” Dr. Buchanan said. “We can save a place while Agnes says goodbye.”
“Wait, wait, I have to say goodbye too.” She bustled over and wrapped her plump arms around me. “I still think you are too young for a job that makes you travel alone,” she said into my shoulder. “What idiot government sends a child into the mountains to look for wild animals?”
“Endangered species,” Dr. Buchanan corrected. “We’ve covered this already. This is a good opportunity. She was lucky to get selected.”
My internal lie detector buzzed, but since Dr. Buchanan lied for me, I ignored it. Technically, I was looking for rare animals, just not on this planet. And finding sun larvae in molten cores was way more dangerous than hiking in the mountains. I hated lying to Ms. Chippy, but it was far easier for her to believe the government hired me to report on wildlife. There was no way she would understand a magical, gigantic sun larva’s hunger meltdown nearly exploded the entire planet.
Ms. Chippy’s energetic gaze conflicted with the bags under her eyes. “Come with us to Illinois. You can report to the government that the cow population survived the quakes.”
“I’m proud of Agnes,” Sadie said. “She’s doing important work.”
“Our volunteers do important work,” Ms. Chippy argued. “She can work for us.”
Dr. Buchanan tutted in disagreement. “The key word, my dear assistant, is volunteer. With my financial empire massively depleted after the Great Quakes Calamity, she is wise to earn money at every opportunity. Government jobs are rare, with so many resources assisting countries that suffered far more than ours. Agnes will be fine. Even you have to admit she’s getting stronger.”
Someone noticed. I started with squats.
Ms. Chippy pursed her lips in protest, but harrumphed through her nose and gave in. “Yes, yes, she is. I am so proud of my good girl,” she stroked my cheek. “You take care, chiquita. Don’t get eaten by a puma. Oh! I almost forgot.” She pulled a plastic baggie full of homemade donuts from her oversized coat pocket. “In case you get hungry.”
“Donuts? Yes! Thanks, Ms. Chippy. I’ll be careful.”
“I know you will,” she said.
Dr. Buchanan reached out a hand, and when it felt my shoulder, he scooped me in for a one-armed hug. Of all the people on my planet, only the four of us knew his sight had been restored, and only three of us knew the cure was magic.
“You have the compensation contract, right?” he whispered into my ear.
“In my bag,” I whispered back.
“Wonderful. Then let Operation Bounteous Harvest begin.”
He released me and held his arm straight out from his shoulder. “To the everlasting line, Ms. Chippy.”
“See you in a few days.” Ms. Chippy placed his outstretched hand on her shoulder. Still believing his restored vision might be temporary, she helped him pull off his blind act, in case one of his millions of fans happened to be watching. “This way, Doctor.”
A man in a business suit ran into Sadie, knocking her off balance.
“Oh, sorry,” he blurted, still walking full speed. Then he nearly broke his neck wrenching it around gawk at her.
No surprise—Sadie was especially gorgeous today.
“I miss the private jet,” Sadie muttered.
“What do you expect when you’re so pretty?” I asked.
“It’s the cream you magicked.” Sadie touched her smooth, perfect face in pure satisfaction. “I don’t even wear foundation anymore. Your clear skin spell is miraculous.”
“All those ripped farm boys will go crazy over you.”
“There’s a door.” Mom pointed out a janitor’s closet behind us. “Come on, girls.”
We rolled our luggage over. I pulled my solid-gold arch mage crest from my Aether pouch, then hid it behind my back as a group of young New Yorkers laden down with ski equipment passed. One young guy with an “Xtremeski” beanie slouched over his ears stared at my scars.
“Whoa, wrong face,” he sneered. “Ever hear of plastic surgery?”
I’d heard a lifetime’s worth of inconsiderate comments, but it still stung. A soft hiss rose from my pendant, and I clutched it gently out of habit. Sadie judged him with that scathing stare popular girls used to control the rabble.
“You clearly haven’t. You go skiing and faceplant into an ugly tree?” She turned away but wasn’t done. “Extreme posers, you mean.”
The guy strutted into the center of his crew, still laughing at me. “What a deformity.”
Mom tensed up, preparing to chase them down and slap the sass out of them.
“I’ve got this, Mom,” I said.
Accessing my magic, I opened my hand and shot a magical beam of white light near the ground right in the path of beanie boy.
“Harden,” I whispered, closing my fist.
My spell worked perfectly. Two months of intense illusionist training with Mistress Glaydn and Chiri enabled me to solidify my light into a dense block. Xtremeski kid tripped dramatically over the invisible block, and the weight of his skis tipped him forward. In a cascade of flailing arms, he and the heavy bag hit the ground. His buddies scrambled to avoid him and quickly shifted their mocking from me to their unfortunate friend.
“Instant karma, bra,” one taunted, slapping the poor kid’s head as he walked past.
“Shut up,” he yelled back, snatching his beanie from the airport floor and pulling it over his shame-reddened ears.
“Did you do that?” Mom asked me. Other people couldn’t see my magic light unless I wanted them to.
“Yup,” I said proudly.
“Well, he had it coming,” she approved. “Count that as homework for Mistress Glaydn. Frankly, they’re lucky I didn’t get hold of their punk rears.”
“They’re just dumb kids, Mom,” I said. “Let ‘em live.”
“Fine way to treat someone who saved the whole world from tearing apart.”
“I’m glad they don’t know,” I admitted. “I hate being famous. At least here I can live a relatively normal life.”
“True,” agreed Mom. “I hardly see you as it is.”
“I’d love being famous,” mused Sadie, “if I had a handsome bodyguard to chase off stalkers.”
“Like Nemantia and Jenz?” I asked her. “Illinois isn’t exactly your scene. You could come with me. Nemantia is asking for a visit. She hasn’t been shopping in weeks.”
“Oh, neither have I.” Sadie’s manicured fingers twirled a blond lock longingly.
Sadie loved First Earth. My amazing boyfriend, Prince Temnon Odonata, matter-shaper extraordinaire, and his cousin, the necromancer Princess Nemantia, always treated Sadie like a visiting dignitary.
“I’m tempted,” she said. “I need a good pampering, but I’ve got negotiations to conduct.”
“With farmers? What are you up to?”
“Don’t worry about me. You’ve got your own work.”
That was mysterious. It wasn’t like Sadie to brush me off, but I let it go. It was probably about her grandpa’s foundation. She had a knack for making herself indispensable.
Sadie kissed my cheeks European style. “Love you, Ags. Be safe.”
“You too, and watch your step in Illinois,” I teased, but kind of not. Her shoes were worth more than my whole outfit.
Mom hugged me, nearly smushing my donuts. “These goodbyes never get any easier.”
“Mom, I’m an arch mage, not a baby,” I reminded her. “I have responsibilities.”
“I do, too,” she retorted, “and my most important responsibility is making sure you reach adulthood in one piece. Your part-time job makes that a lot harder.”
“Why are you so worried? I’ve survived five cores already. Dr. Buchanan isn’t complaining.”
“Of course, he isn’t. Your fees help his foundation with earthquake recovery. But isn’t there a safer way to do it? Just ask your truth magic if there’s a sun larva. You can’t lie. That should be enough for the government types on these planets.”
“I’m a Wielder of Truth, not an all-knowing psychic. My magic doesn’t work on stuff I’m not in contact with.”
“But what about when you . . .”
“Okay,” I admitted, “occasionally I know universal truths that apply to everyone and never change, but I haven’t figured out how to control that part of my gift. I can ask about outside truths that affect people I know, but I can’t just ask my magic any random question and expect an answer. I have to look for the sun larva myself.”
“It’s not just the sun larvae.” Mom argued. “Remember Fourth Earth? They didn’t like your report and things got heated.”
Stupid Chief Galdor. The leader of the centaur clan tried to make the condition of their sun larva my fault, as if my tiny mission into its brain caused centuries of malnourishment. Really? They’d known about the planetary magic shortage forever, so yeah, blame me, that made sense. Still, I shouldn’t have called Galdor stubborn, or brainless for that matter. Thank goodness Arch Mage Claude stepped in before I called him a ‘roid rage nag.
“Okay, so I didn’t handle that in the most mature manner,” I admitted, “but even presidents say things they regret.”
“I’m just not sure you’re ready for this kind of responsibility,” she said, “And about the contract—Operation Bounteous Harvest—can’t Temnon . . . ?
I knew what she was going to ask. “Sure, Temnon can shape dirt into whatever I ask for, but that doesn’t mean he should. These missions are about more than sun larva. They’re also about building good relationships with other planets—trading and alliances and political stuff. I’m trying to do things the right way.”
“Most sixteen-year-olds work in a burger joint to learn people skills. Maybe you should try that while you’re training your magic.”
Fighting to keep my tone positive, I said, “Most sixteen-year-olds aren’t arch mage of a planet, but if you really want me serving slabs of processed meat fillers to crackheads and handsy pedophiles . . .”
Mom glared. “You know that isn’t what I meant,” she said with a stern edge.
I laughed. “I’m only teasing. I do have a lot to learn, but I’m not in this alone. My team takes good care of me.”
My pendant shifted against my neck.
“I know, I know,” Mom kissed my forehead. “It’s just that, as soon as things calm down for us, some huge, unconquerable disaster happens, and you nearly die again.”
“Don’t jinx me.”
“You’re right. Sorry, sunshine.” Mom put both hands on my shoulders. “Call us when you get back, and we’ll send you the coordinates so you can transport to Illinois. All clear on the plan?”
“Got it,” I said and emphasized it with a firm nod.
“Good, see you soon. Say hi to Tem and his family. Love you, hon.”
I held my crest against the janitor’s closet and wished for the Apex. I opened the door a crack, trying to conceal the bright, early morning tropical sunlight pouring from the door.
“Stay safe,” Sadie said.
“Thanks, Sades. Have fun in farmland.”
I closed the door behind me. Instantly, I went from being with Mom and Sadie in New York to over 5,000 miles away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Magic was so cool.
Now, on to Earth 22.