Chapter 1 Sometimes, things happen fast. Catastrophes and missed opportunities don’t adhere to the concept of time. They hit in seconds, coming out of nowhere like ninjas in a cheesy fantasy movie. And they can be anything from spilling a latte to a car accident to stumbling upon a demonic ritual meant to drag some horrifying monster into our world. I didn’t drive and I preferred white chocolate mochas but as a student of the Holstrom Sanctum for Witches and Wizards, the latter supernatural event definitely applied to me. Especially with my luck. It waved at good while painting the town red with bad. Anyone at school would’ve agreed. If someone had to experience something rotten, even odds I’d be the one. So when I took a shortcut to get back to the dormitory one afternoon only to feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up, I started seriously thinking about making a charm to ward off bad fortune. Chanting made my ear twitch. I recognized the corrupted Latin, part the normal language mixed with ancient demonic. Arcane Linguistics for the win, I suppose. The person screamed the syllables, making it hard to distinguish all the words but the obvious ones made it clear we had a problem in Seattle. Lord…arise…return. I didn’t need more. I’m not the bravest girl in the world. I’m probably not even in the top thirty but just then, something came over me. I had to do something. A quick glance around made it clear the Society wasn’t showing up. The fate of the entire world rested on my shoulders. Or at least that abandoned block. But hey, evil liked to spread. I crept closer to the sound, peeking through a broken window into the filthy room beyond. Lights flashed, making the shadows groove out like they were in a creepy dance party. The screaming intensified as if volume and zeal might rip the fabric of reality wide open at any moment. Portals class taught me enough to know he might succeed. Even a human carried the ability to bring about horrors on the world if they truly believed. And boy was this guy expressing some belief. I found a window with the least amount of glass and slipped through. Dust and cobwebs stuck to my plaid pants. Something tickled my ear on the shaved part of my head and I brushed at it frantically, biting my lip to keep from crying out. Spiders and I never got along so I really didn’t want a hitchhiker just then. Not when I was already scared out of my mind. I slipped down a hall, drawing ever closer to the ritual. When I knew he had to be around the corner, I pressed myself against the wall and drew several deep breaths. The moment of truth hovered on my shoulders. I needed to see what I’d be facing, determine just how over my head I might be. “What’re you doing here?” The high pitch voice made me jump but I clapped my hands over my mouth to keep from screaming. It came from behind me and I frantically looked around. There was no one there. “Down here!” I directed my gaze to the floor and saw an orange tabby cat with white fur on his chest and paws. He stared at my face, his narrow golden eyes judging me. His tail flicked to the left and right, an agitated motion suggesting he was ready for mischief or a fight. His right ear twitched and he tilted his head. “Did you…” I whispered, praying the weirdo in the other room didn’t hear me. “Did you just talk to me?” “Who else?” asked the cat. “It wasn’t the nut job calling on the forces of darkness to deliver him from his retail job. And you didn’t answer my question, pinky! What’re you doing here?” “I’m…” I motioned with my thumb to the other room. “I’m going to stop him.” The cat laughed, closing his eyes as he did. I shushed him but he ignored me. “You’re funny. Seriously. What exactly are you going to do, Punky Pie Pony? Tell him the plight of your people? Stand back and let a professional handle this.” “Excuse me!” I grabbed him before he could walk away. “In case you didn’t realize this, you’re a cat! And a not very old one either! What are you going to do?” “I’m a guardian, missy!” He nipped at my hand and I let him go. “Watch and learn!” “No, wait!” I cried as he dashed into the room, his ears pressed against his head. I hurried after him, pausing just inside as the scene overwhelmed me. The man stood with his arms raised in the air. A white robe, clearly stolen from a hotel, gathered around his biceps. The front hung open, revealing a potbelly covered in black hair. Blue striped boxer shorts finished off his cultist attire. Had it not been for the obvious power I felt in the room, I would’ve written him off as a weirdo and gone home. The cat lifted his head and hissed. He must’ve expected it to have some kind of impact because he cleared his throat a moment later. The sound drew the summoner’s attention straight to me. His dark eyes widened and he stopped shouting the incantation. Bewilderment contorted his features. Did he think he’d summoned me? “What…” He spoke tentatively, his speaking voice hoarse from shouting. “What’re you doing here?” “I…” I swallowed hard. “Um…” “She didn’t ahem,” the cat shouted. His high pitched voice sounded like a cartoon. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought a ventriloquist spoke for him. “Does the Hilton know you’re using their robe for nefarious magical purposes? Pretty sure they didn’t agree to that kinda publicity!” “You?” The man’s brows lifted. “An animal?” “Wow.” The cat turned to me. “Man’s about to summon a monster from beyond the stars but a talking feline turns him all skeptic.” He turned back to the summoner. “Yeah, me! I’m here to stop this scheme of yours, especially since you’ve got no idea what you’re even doing! A bathrobe? Stripy shorts? What self-respecting cultist wears that?” “Die, you little rodent!” I felt a surge of power from the cultist, something I recognized as an offensive spell. Blue energy formed between his hands, fingers flexed toward one another as if he created a tiny fleshy cage to formulate the attack. My cat companion didn’t move, just glared at his opponent. If he wasn’t going to react, I had to. Throwing my hands out in front of me, I erected a shield, pushing myself to ensure it protected the ornery, orange beast. The cultist tossed the energy ball and it collided with my defense, creating a spectacular spark that chased all the shadows away, revealing cracked walls and gathered filth. “So it’s your familiar!” The cultist pointed at me. “I see where the true power lies. You’ll regret wasting my time, witch! Your death shall help me awaken my master!” The cat let out a menacing howl to accompany his charge. He took two steps before bounding into the air, front paws leading the way. Claws sprung from his toes half a second before he slammed into the cultist, piercing his bare chest. The beast couldn’t have weighed more than eight or nine pounds. If he hoped to bring the man down, he didn’t. “Ow!” The cultist reached to scruff his tiny attacker. If he got his hands on him, he’d kill the poor thing. I couldn’t stand by and watch. Energy balls wouldn’t be covered until my next term but I’d seen them often enough to have a basic idea of how they worked. Providing I had any aim at all, I could at least save the insane cat. “Hey!” I shouted, hoping to distract him for the second I needed to conjure my attack. It took both hands and I had to tense up every muscle in my body but the energy flowed. It coalesced into a sufficiently solid form, making my hands glow. “Leave him alone, you creepy jerk!” I threw the ball and it struck the man in the face. If only I’d known what I was doing, the fight might’ve been over right there. Instead of a solid projectile, I hit him with what amounted to a glow globe, a flashlight. It dazzled him, making him stumble backward. I bought the cat a few seconds but instead of him leaping free, he crawled onto the man’s shoulders. Sinking his fangs into the man’s ear, the cultist shouted and swatted at his attacker. The cat jumped away, landing near the circle. He hissed again, growling as the fur on his body sprouted in every direction. His massive stripy tail made him look like a raccoon and his whiskers bristled with rage. “You…you bit me!” “I got more than teeth, pal,” the cat replied. “So put your pants back on cause this ritual’s over!” “It has just begun!” The cultist shouted three more demonic Latin words and the circle started to glow. “Ha! Witness the end!” The cat turned to me and charged, leaping from the floor to my shoulder. I yelped, convinced he would claw me to ribbons but he balanced on his soft, fluffy paws. “You can do this, witchy!” He shouted in my ear. “You can close it! Lock it down!” “What?” I stared at the glowing circle, frantically thinking through every spell and ritual I’d ever read about. Swift study: a ritual allowing one to comprehend a book while skimming. No! Clean sweep: a spell allowing one to tidy up one’s dormitory. No! Color swap: a ritual allowing one to alter their hair color. “I have no idea what to do!” “Stop thinking and start doing!” He nuzzled his cold, wet nose into my ear, purring loudly. It tickled and the sensation raced to my stomach. My limbs went numb, starting with my fingers and toes. The cultist’s laughter sounded miles away, down an aluminum tube. Mist seemed to rise around me, obscuring the walls and floor. I saw the portal, the magical pathway leading to an alternate dimension. Closing it seemed simple like I'd done it a million times before. Moving my hands created tracers in the mist. The cat said something else but I didn't hear him. The light mesmerized me as if staring at it granted me a profound understanding of the cultist's spell. You can close it. I knew how. Reaching out with both hands, I brought them together. Some invisible force resisted me, a tangible thing like a spring loaded box. Every inch beyond the first made me tremble. Magical energy flared about me, licking the ceiling as it flooded from the portal. Whatever wanted to come through tried to hurry but the opening was already too small. My hands clapped and something audibly clicked. All at once, the resistance vanished. The circle went dark. Sweat covered my face, making my shirt cling to my skin. I fell to my knees and the cat jumped down, standing between me and the cultist. Weakness gripped my limbs as the numbness slowly dissipated. “It can’t be!” The cultist dropped to his knees beside the circle, hands on his forehead. “Months! You’ve destroyed months of work! A freak and her talking cat! This cannot be!” “Sure, sure,” the cat said. “Everything sucks, it’s all our fault and you are not at all to blame for trying to destroy the world. Get out of here before you give us fleas.” “I should kill you both!” He stumbled to his feet. “Crush the life out of you!” “You want some more of me?” The cat lifted a paw, showing him his claws. “Cause I’m ready for another scratch down.” I lifted my head and stared into his eyes. I don’t know what he saw or how I looked, but he backed away. The rage he expressed a moment before melted to something resembling fear. He turned and fled down the hall, leaving us alone with his pants and the now inert magical circle that moments before might’ve ended the world. The cat stepped close, putting his paws on my chest. He pressed his nose against mine, staring into my eyes. “You okay, pinky? We shouldn’t stay here. It’s not safe.” “No…” I muttered. “We really shouldn’t. Are you…coming with me?” “Damn right!” The cat paced away, looking prissy. “Someone’s gotta look out for you and it’s clear you can’t do it yourself. Come on, doll. I know you got a home and I’ve got an appetite. Fish sounds good right about now, huh? Fighting evil always requires a nice piece of tuna or even cod…in a pinch.” And that’s how I met Blaise, the guardian cat who changed my life.