Magic at the Gate
An Allie Beckstrom Novel
Allie Beckstrom's lover, Zayvion Jones, is a Guardian of the Gate, imbued with both light and dark magic and responsible for ensuring that those energies don't mix. But Zayvion lies in a coma, his soul trapped in death's realm. And when Allie discovers that the only way to save Zayvion is to sacrifice her very own magical essence, she makes a decision that may have grave consequences for the entire world.
Sure, love can make a person do crazy things. But not me. No, never me. Still, there was nothing else to explain the fact that I had ended up in a battle between magic users over the disks my father invented while a wild-magic storm tried to kill us all. There was nothing else but love that would make me turn away from my injured, possibly dying friends, and step through a gate into death with no one beside me but my undead father and my gargoyle. Nothing but love would make me leave this world to bring Zayvion Jones' soul back from death.
I suppose if I had never met Zayvion Jones, none of this would have happened. Man had a knack for messing up my life. Truth was, I liked it. He'd probably say the same about me, if he weren't in a coma.
As I took that first step off of the grass of Cathedral Park, and through the gate into death, I braced for pain. I'd never stepped into death before, but I figured it was going to sting a little.
No. A pause of breath, then cool, soothing numbness settled over me, whisking my pain away. I had never felt better.
As soon as I put my foot down into death, that sense of well-being was gone, replaced with a sense of forboding.
Death itself had seen better days. Vacant, crumbling buildings, and slick pools of black oil stretched out along the sidewalk of what I was pretty sure was supposed to be West Burnside Street. The cityand it was very clear we were in some twisted version of Portlandlooked like a dump. If this was death, I wanted to meet the marketing team that had dreamed up both the fluffy-cloud golden harp thing and the eternal fires of burning hell shtick.
This place was broken and empty. Achingly so.
"Allison?" my father, who had his hand on my arm, said.
He was fully solid, no longer ghostlike. A little taller than me, gray hair, wearing a business suit with a lavender handkerchief in the pocket. Death didn't seem to bother him one bit.
And it shouldn't. He belonged here.
He squeezed my arm, his eyes flicking back and forth, searching the details of my face. "Can you breathe?"
Of all the dumb questions. "Of course I can breathe. Let go of me."
His lips pressed together in a thin line and the familiar anger clouded his eyes. He pulled his hand away from my arm.
There was no air. No air in my lungs and none to breathe. I tried not to panic, but hey, this was death. I'd be lucky to get out of here alive. And I had to get out of here alive. Zayvion was here, pushed through a gate by his ex-girlfriend Chase, and her ex-Soul Complement, Greyson. Zay's body was in a coma, but his soul was here. Somewhere.
This was my one chancemy only chanceto save him. I didn't think anyone got to walk into and out of death twice. I was just praying that Zayvion and I got to do it once. The very real danger of never feeling his touch or hearing his voice while those dark, beautiful eyes looked into me, suddenly sank in. The possibility of never being able to find Zay's soul set off a sharp panic in my chest.
Well, that and not being able to breathe.
Dad put his left hand in his pocket, tucking something away. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and watched me gasp. Stone cold, that man.
I shut my mouth and glared. I would not reach out for his help. Yes, I was that stubborn. My vision darkened at the edges.
Could you pass out in death? I was about to find out.
Stone growled and stepped toward Dad, fangs bared. That's a good gargoyle. Take a bite out of Daddy for me.
Stone's normally dark gray body was now black, shot through with lightning flecks of blues and greens and pink, like obsidian with opal running beneath the glassy surface. He practically shone, his eyes glowing deep amber. Death didn't seem to be bothering him, which wasn't all that strange, since he was made out of rock and magic, and wasn't actually "alive" in the traditional sense.
"Touch the Animate," Dad said. "You should be able to breathe again."
It was beginning to dawn on me that passing out and leaving my dad conscious might be a really stupid idea. I put my hand on Stone's head. Air, goodwell, if not good, serviceableair filled my lungs. I hacked like a smoker on a three-day bender. My lungs hurt.
"You are in death." Dad hit lecture mode from word one. "A living being crossing into death. There is so little chance you could have survived that, Allison. No one can step into death if they are fully alive. And yet, here you stand." His gaze searched my face. "What part of you is dead, my daughter?"
I didn't knowmy sense of humor maybe? My tolerance for his possession of me? Or maybe I could walk into death because my Soul Complement was in a coma and his soul was already here. Right now, I was too busy coughing and trying to breathe to get all philosophical.
He shook his head, dismissing the question as easily as he had always dismissed me. "To survive this place, you will need to stay in contact with something that is neither fully alive nor completely dead. Something that exists in a between state, like the Animate."
"Stone." I finally managed to exhale. "He has a name."
"Yes, Stone. He will act as a filter between life and death, and if you stay in contact with him, he will bear the brunt of the effects of death. But not for very long."
"You're dead," I said. "All dead. Why could I breathe when you touched me?"
"That answer is complicated. It involves choices I made years ago." He looked up and down the street, then at the building next to us as if getting his bearings. He started down the street.
I followed him, Stone somehow sensing the need to stay under my hand. There was no one on the streets with us, no wind, no rain. When I glanced up, it was nothing but terra-cotta sky and hard, white light.
"Tell me you're dead," I said.
"Very much so. That doesn't mean I'm not without resources in life."
Which meant part of him, some of him somewhere, was alive. Great. I did not trust my dad. I never had. For good reason. And that very calm, trustworthy face he was wearing made me twitchy.
"Where are you alive? Why?" I asked. "Who's helping you?"
He glanced back over his shoulder. "If I tell you those things, you will be at risk."
"I'm already at risk. I've been at risk from the moment I was accused of your murder. Probably before then. And now I'm in death. How can I be at more at risk than that?"
"If you walk away from this, out of death and into life again with information you should not have, you will end up back here. Permanently. My plans are not your concern."
"Yes, they are. What is your angle in all this, Dad? I've lost track of whose side you're on."
"I am on magic's side. To see that it falls into the right hands. Magic was once wholelight and dark used equally through the disciplines of Life, Death, Faith, and Blood. But when Leander and Isabelle became Soul Complements, everything changed. Magic was too dangerous to be used in its full form, and magic was broken.
"Guardians of the gates, such as Zayvion, are trained to endure the strain of wielding light and dark magic for short periods of time. No one else. But separating light magic from dark magic hasn't made anything better. I've been trying to tell the Authority that for years. The separation has caused a rot in our world, and has given the Veiled and other creatures cause to seek out the living in search of the light magic they hunger for."
That was more than I'd gotten out of him in months, maybe years. Death made him talkative. Good. I planned to use that to my advantage. "So why are you getting involved? You're dead. Why worry about the living?"
He gave me a look that could melt rock. "My motives are not yours to question."
"I'll question your motives until the day I die. Again. For reals."
"This is real," he said quietly. "Very real. If you are to survive, you need to put your stubbornness aside and listen to me."
"Oh, I just love that idea."
"Love it or not, your options are limited. Living flesh does not travel well in the world of death. I believe if you stay in contact with the Animate, it will filter the… irritants of death long enough for you to accomplish your task."
He made it sound like he was teaching me the ABC's and knew there was no way I'd ever make it to Q.
He stopped, glanced back down the street the way we'd come. "Faster would be better." He grabbed my arm and propelled me down an alley. I shook free, my other hand still on Stone's head, and looked over my shoulder.
Watercolor people, about a dozen or so, mostly men, wearing clothing in the style of the recent century. The Veiled were the ghosts of powerful magic usersor at least pieces of powerful magic usersimpressed on the flow of magic. Zay had once told me to think of them as a recording of a life caught on the film of magic.
I think he was wrong. These did not look like the nice kind of Veiled. Unlike the other Veiled I had seen in life, these ghostly beings barely resembled people. Twisted bodies, sagging facesthey looked like movie zombies more than ghosts. They also looked solid.
The Veiled heard him and turned our way, sniffing, scenting, crooked hands tracing half-formed glyphs, as if they could use magic to find us.
"Veiled?" I asked, just in case the mutated watercolor people were something else.
"Quiet," Dad said.
Stone's ears flattened. He stopped making noise, but his lips were pulled back to expose a row of sharp teeth and fangs.
Dad traced a glyph in the air and magic followed in a solid gold line at his fingertips. I wasn't using Sight, yet magic was clearly visible. That wasn't how it worked in life. Magic was too fast to be visible. Here, it was slow and fluid and gorgeous.
I hadn't seen him set a Disbursement, nor a Proxy. He was bearing the price of pain for using this magic.
He finished the glyph. Camouflage glittered in the air like a filigreed screen. He whispered a word and the glyph stretched and widened, creating a swirling shell around us. I swallowed, but couldn't taste the butterscotch scent of the spell. That was different than in life too. Magic didn't smell or taste here.
Or maybe I just wasn't dead enough to sense it.
The Veiled were almost at the mouth of the alley.
"This way," Dad whispered. He rolled his fingers, catching up the lines of the Camouflage glyph and balancing it on his open palm. He pushed his palm outward like a waiter carrying a tray, and the spell moved with us, keeping us hidden.
Dad's mouth set in a hard line and his eyes narrowed. Clearly, casting magic in death and maintaining the spell cost pain. Well, at least something about magic was the same. Dad stormed down the alleywaynot once looking backstrong, confident.
And for a second, just a second, I saw my dad as a heroic figure. The epitome of what a magic user should be. The mythic wizard who knew the hidden strengths of magic, in life or death, and the power of his own soul. Even in death, my dad stood tall and kicked ass.
"Walk or be eaten," he said.
Okay, so much for the hero bit.
I picked up the pace and Stone padded along beside me. I didn't have a clue where we were going, but Dad seemed to know the place a lot better than I did.
The Veiled stepped into the alley behind us and shuffled over to where we'd been standing. They didn't follow any farther. Four dropped to their knees, patting the sidewalk as if they'd just lost something, while the other eight ran hands along the brick walls, mouths open. They leaned against the building and sucked at the walls, as if they were starving for even the slightest drop of magic they might contain. The dead were hungry for light magic. I didn't see how this could turn out well.
It creeped me out. I walked faster, holding tight to Stone's ear.
"I did not want to enter this way," Dad said, "but bringing you along has changed my approach. Why must you challenge me in every way, Allison?"
"I'd be happy to help," I said as pleasantly as I could muster, "if you'd tell me where Zayvion's soul is so I can take him, and me, the hell out of here."
He stopped. We were at the far end of the alley. A crowd of mutant Veiled blocked our passageI gave up counting at twenty. A mix of men and women, they stared at us as if they could see right through the Camouflage my dad still held.
That wasn't good.
I put my hand on the hilt of Zayvion's katana, sheathed on my back.
"Don't draw the blade."
There wasn't a lot of room in the alley. I was behind Dad. I didn't know how he'd seen me reach for the sword.
"I'm not going to wait until they jump us."
And just like that, the Veiled rushed.
"Do you trust me?" Dad asked without looking back.
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