“Come on, Lily,” I urged. “You can hit me harder than that.”
My best friend glowered at me, the light boxing gloves looking absurdly large on her slim wrists, but she tried again, poking her right fist into the palm I held up for her. When I worked with her brother Simon, I put on defensive gloves to protect my wrists, but it wasn’t really necessary with Lily. She may have been a fairly powerful witch, but her physical interests leaned toward yoga and Pilates, not violence.
Violence was more my thing.
We were in the basement of my little cabin just outside Boulder, Colorado, which I’d turned into a reasonably sophisticated home gym. It was after nine on a Tuesday in May, but Lily was a night owl and I was pretty much nocturnal these days. That’s what happens when your boyfriend and your boss are both vampires.
“That was an okay jab,” I said, trying to sound encouraging. “But if you really want to hurt someone, you’ve got to get your shoulder behind it.” I turned around so I was lined up next to her, demonstrating with my own right arm. “See how I’m putting the whole weight of my body behind the punch?”
I resumed my previous position, and she made another flailing attempt at my hands. “Better,” I lied. “Why don’t you go work on the heavy bag for a while?”
Lily trudged to the corner and began smacking the heavy bag I’d attached to the exposed rafter, looking tired and frustrated but determined. Behind her, my eye caught a flicker of smoky light, but I forced myself to look away. Ghosts fade over time, and this one was so ancient it was no more than a little flare of death magic. I was actually lucky that this was the only part of my house that seemed to be haunted.
Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself.
While Lily beat ineffectively on the heavy bag, I picked up a jump rope from a weight bench and began skipping rope, calling out occasional words of encouragement that had little effect on Lily’s form. Lily had an inherent grace thanks to childhood ballet and lots of yoga, but that grace didn’t seem to translate to coordination. I tried not to wince as I watched her throw weak punch after weak punch.
The previous fall, Lily’s life had been threatened—by her own older sister, of all people—and she’d had to use combat magic to escape. Lily had done everything right, but the whole experience of using powerful apex magic to hurt someone had really scared her. Moreover, Morgan had gotten into her little sister’s head. Her taunts about Lily’s flightiness and naiveté to the real world had created wormy little holes in my friend’s self-confidence.
I hadn’t understood how much it was bothering her until a few weeks after Morgan’s banishment, when Lily turned up on my doorstep and begged me for lessons in physical defense: shooting, fighting, the whole deal. Teaching Lily seemed only fair—she and her brother had been giving me magic lessons since I’d first found out I was a witch back in September.
Despite five months of training, Lily hadn’t made much progress, but then, I knew that this wasn’t really about being able to handle herself. It was about feeling like she could handle herself.
After a few minutes, Lily paused, panting, and turned to glare at me. “I’m sweating like Ted Striker, and you’re not even breathing hard,” she grumbled.
I managed to laugh without letting it break my rhythm. I mostly preferred older movies, while Lily watched all the new stuff, but we’d found common ground in our love of Airplane!
I put down the jump rope, taking pity on her. “Speaking of movies, how about we stretch and then go upstairs?” I suggested. “I got more of that popcorn you like.” Lily and Simon’s magic lessons had petered out recently—there was only so much they could teach me, a boundary witch—so the siblings had taken it upon themselves to start teaching me the history of magic instead. For Simon, this involved lectures and the occasional assigned reading. Whenever it looked like my attention was wandering, he would bark at me to use my magic, trying to improve my reflexes.
For Lily, though, it meant watching her favorite movies that contained witchcraft so she could critique them for accuracy. I strongly suspected the whole thing was a ploy to eat popcorn and trash movie witches.
Lily’s face broke out in a broad grin. “I really think you’re gonna like tonight’s pick,” she said, unstrapping her gloves.
“As long as it’s not fucking Suspiria again,” I warned, not really kidding.
“Hey, it was just a little gore,” Lily protested. She hesitated for a moment, rubbing her hands where the tape had been. “Any word from John?”
A month ago, I’d finally gotten up the nerve to tell my brother-in-law about the Old World.
It was probably the hardest conversation of my life. I’d had to explain that his only daughter was a null, a coveted asset in the supernatural world, which would put her in danger for more or less her entire life. Nulls negate all the supernatural power in a given area, which makes them terribly useful to vampires, witches, and werewolves, for a number of different reasons that range from innocent to atrocious. Theoretically, Charlie would now be protected until adulthood, thanks to my deal with the state’s cardinal vampire, Maven, but there would always be some risk. She would always be vulnerable.
John had not taken this news well. In fact, when I finally convinced him that I wasn’t schizophrenic, he had pretty much thrown me out of his house. Since then, he hadn’t returned any of my calls or texts, and he’d stopped going out with his work friends on Fridays, which was my usual night to babysit. When we were in the same room at a family function he treated me with polite cordiality, but that was it.