The wind whipping across my face made it feel as if I’d just scrubbed with camphor and bits of glass. My eyes watered and my nose ran. I sniffled and kept walking, my boots crunching over the ice and snow. Stars winked high above me like baby’s breath thrown into an inky sea, but the main light came from small umber streetlights tucked into the stone wall beside me. The Aster’s front gate was just thirty yards ahead. I tried not to think about how cold the walk home would be if they refused to let me in. Inside my pocket, I squeezed my letter, forever wrinkling it. I knew some people framed theirs. I didn’t care. I planned to burn mine.
The wall I’d been walking along ended and a massive iron gate rose up in its place. To its side was a call box. Giving the letter one final vicious squeeze, I withdrew my hand, opened the box, and turned the crank. It stuck at first and I had to wrench it free from a brittle crust of snow and ice. Finally I heard a pop and some clicking. But no one answered. I stood for another half minute or so, blowing breath into my cupped hands to warm my now frigid mouth and nose. I turned the crank again. It was too late for dinner and too early for bed. Someone would answer. After a while, Mrs. Aster did.
“Hello?” squawked the box.
“Evening, Mrs. Aster,” I said, trying to keep my voice pleasant. “It’s Nouiomo Onyx.”
A moment of silence passed as I tucked a strand of hair back into my hood. The frost on my mitten brushed my cheek. The spot burned as if someone had just nicked me with a metal rake.
“Good evening, Noon.”
“Is Peter home?”
“I haven’t seen him since dinner.” This may or may not have been true. The Aster’s house was as big as a castle and I knew Peter spent most of his time studying either in his room or in the family library.
“I need to talk to him about something,” I said, still managing to keep the impatience out of my voice. “Would you let him know I’m here?”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“No. I’m leaving tomorrow. That’s what I want to talk to him about.”
There was a long pause before she answered again.
“Noon, I have two hundred poinsettias, five holly trees, and a dozen live mistletoe sprigs in the house. You can’t come in. I’m sorry.”
I fought for calm and swallowed the lump in my throat. What had I expected? It was Yuletide and the Asters were Angels, for Luck’s sake.
“Can you tell him to come out?”
Another long pause and then, “He’s studying.”
I sighed. The lump was gone, replaced with resignation. I had lived next to Peter for twenty–one years, my whole life. And I could count on one hand the number of times this gate had opened for me. I cleared my throat, wanting my voice to sound stronger than I felt.
“Tell him I stopped by then, would you?”
“Of course. Good night, Noon.” The squawking stopped and then the static and the box went completely silent.
I turned and started crunching my way back, stepping carefully, and clutching my hood beneath my chin to keep the wind from my ears. I was so focused on how cold and miserable I was that it took me a while to notice the warmth spreading from the pocket of my cape. Just as I started to smell burning wool—disgusting!—warm turned to seriously hot and I glanced down to see that I had set my cape on fire. Brilliant. I hadn’t inadvertently set anything on fire since puberty. I waved a flat hand over the flames and quickly smothered the fire. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. Someone was.
Luckily, it was Peter.
He was leaning against the stone wall I had just walked along. The same stone wall that ran for miles along the Lemiscus, a lane as old as the Apocalypse which separated our families’ estates. The Asters had a wall running along their side. On ours? Nothing. My father, Karanos Onyx, was one of the most powerful Maegesters in the country. We didn’t need walls to keep our privacy.
Peter’s hood was down, his cloak unbuttoned, and his hands bare—obviously he’d rushed to meet me. In the deep twilight, his white blond hair was the color of snow and ash, nearly the opposite of my midnight colored tresses. He pushed off the wall with his shoulder, his lanky frame ambling over to my shivering one, and put his arm around me. His smile was friendly but his frost blue eyes were disapproving. He’d seen the fire.
“Shall we?” he said, motioning toward a small wooden door that was half–hidden in the wall.
“Is it safe?”
“As safe as it always is. I cast the spell just before opening the door.”
Huddled together we stepped through the doorway. Peter closed the door behind us and I stared ahead, remembering the first time I had stepped through that door. I’d been five and it was the first time I’d ever stepped foot in a garden. I’d been so in awe, so overwhelmed, by the life growing within these walls. The dark, destructive waning magic I tried so desperately to keep hidden deep inside of me had pulsed in response to the rich magentas, bright clarets, and cheerful fuchsias of the blooms and buds. Within seconds of my entry, I had killed three hydrangeas, two hostas, and a mulberry tree. Instantly, they’d become black silhouettes against the garden’s remaining ruddy colors.
It was the single most horrifying day of my life. And the most hopeful. Because a moment later Peter had cast a protective spell over the surviving plants so that I could walk among them—green, growing, living plants. I dared not touch anything now, but at least I could look.
The place would have been magical even without a spell. Yew topiaries shaped as Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, and Alecto warred alongside Gabriel, Michael, and Mary. They were all dormant now, the yews buried under an inch of fresh snow, but I could feel their presence. Alive and well, they waited for spring to resume their fight. Behind the wall, shielded by hedgerows and distant cypress trees, the snowflakes felt less like bits of glass and more like cold confetti. Peter and I sat down on a small cement bench, which was nestled back nicely in a cut–out niche of the hedgerow. He spread one side of his cloak around me and cast a spell of warmth over us. My shivering subsided.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
He’d seen the fire so I couldn’t very well say, “Nothing.” But I’d burned the letter so I couldn’t just shove it at him in way of explanation either.
“I’ve been accepted to St. Lucifer’s Law School.”
Peter’s face went still. It could have been surprise. It could have been anger. With Peter, you could never tell.
“Luck, Noon, did you apply there?”
I rolled my eyes. “My mom sent in the application for me. She swears she didn’t tell them about my magic. She thinks I should tell them. Her exact words were, ’It’s your power, you have to decide to use it.’” I snorted, remembering.
My power. As if it was something positive. People like me, who possessed waning magic, were a menace. Not only could I kill something just by touching it, my presence alone had the potential to harm growing things. Plants, pregnant women, gardens, greenery—all could suffer disastrous consequences if I came too near. Worse than that though, was what we were expected to become: Maegesters, or demon peacekeepers. Because waning magic was the only type of magic that could be used to control demons. Becoming a Maegester meant learning all of the Byzantine laws that Halja’s ruling demons idolized and then training to become their consiglieres, their judges, and even their executioners.
Worse than that though, was that I was the only female with waning magic that I knew of.
Unfortunately, I had to live with it, which was why I’d spent my whole life wishing I possessed the waxing magic of a Mederi healer, rather than the waning magic of a future Maegester.
“So are you going to go?”
I shrugged and made a helpless gesture. Ever since I was five, after that first disastrous entry into the Aster garden, Peter and I had been plotting a way to reverse my magic. Peter thought the answer was to find a rumored long lost Reversal Spell. But, so far, we hadn’t found it and my time was running out. Law and scripture required us to use our talents for the greater good. The demons who ruled Halja had no patience for rule breakers, and so under Haljan law, anyone with magic had to declare it by Bryde’s Day of their twenty–first year. That day, the day I’d been dreading my entire life, was now just weeks away.
“I don’t know, Peter. It’s a big gamble, not declaring by the deadline. I’ll be killedif they find out I have magic and didn’t declare it.”
Peter scoffed and I bristled.
“Peter!” I said, suddenly angry. The snow on the branches above us instantly melted and dribbled down on us, a chilling reminder of the combustible magic I was trying to hide. “You act as if the demons, the Council, and the law are of no concern.”
Slowly, he rubbed the back of his bare neck, swiping at the cold drops that had fallen there. He stared out into the snow covered garden, his lustrous blue eyes never meeting the soft smokey bronze of mine.
“Noon, I’m so close,” he said finally, turning to me. “You’ve got to trust me. I know I’ll be able to find the Reversal Spell before Bryde’s Day. Can’t you convince your mother to let you stay home for a few more weeks?”
I shook my head. “She kicked me out, Peter. My own mother.”
Peter grimaced. “Is there anyone else you can stay with? Just until I find the spell?”
I stared at him and then smirked. “I’d move in with you, but your mother hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you . . . Wait, you’d move in with me?”
“I . . .”
I didn’t know. Peter was my best (and only) friend, but I’d given up my adolescent dreams of anything happening romantically between us years ago. I’m not even sure Peter had known I’d felt that way about him.
“Peter, I need my own place. And I need a job. I need to figure out what to do with my life.”
“Well, I guess you could go to St. Lucifer’s temporarily, just until I find the spell. If your mother didn’t declare for you, your secret’s still safe. Some people might suspect, but I think they’re too afraid of your father to speak openly of it or to declare for you. Just enroll in the Barrister classes, not the Maegester ones. Instead of learning how to police demons like a future Maegester, learn how to help Hyrkes follow the Demon Council rules like a future Barrister.”
“There will be others with waning magic who are there to train as Maegesters. They’ll be in the Barrister classes too. There won’t be any way to avoid them.” Members of the Host who had waning magic could often sense one another. It was a magical remnant of the days when our ancestors had been Lucifer’s warlords.
“I can cast a cloaking spell over you that should last for a few weeks,” Peter said. “I’ll reinforce it when I get there.”
Peter was twenty–four. For the last three years he’d been attending the Joshua School, a prestigious Angel academy that shared a campus with St. Lucifer’s. Angels, whose power came from their beliefs rather than their birth, were different than waning and waxing magic users. They cast spells, instead of using innate power.
I raised my eyebrows at him. “You can cast a powerful enough cloaking spell to hide me from any Maegester at St. Lucifer’s?”
For the first time that night, Peter grinned. “Have a little faith, Noon. Have you ever sensed your dad’s magic before?”
I frowned. Not that I could remember. Peter nodded and smiled.
“That’s because he’s always cloaked. I can do the same for you.”
“Do you really think you can find the Reversal Spell in less than a month?” I said, still worried. “Most people think it’s a myth.”
“It’s not a myth!” Peter grabbed my arm as if I hadn’t heard his next words quoted from him a thousand times already.
“’He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away. And He who was seated on the throne said, “I make all things new. Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true. ”’
“Noon, somewhere out there is an ultimate spell of reversal, a spell that makes things the way they were meant to be. The old book of Revelation doesn’t give us the spell, but we know from it that the spell once existed. Someone wrote it down at His command and I’m going to find it.”
I stayed silent, not knowing what to say. Did the Reversal Spell really exist?
“What does Night think?” Peter said, cutting into my thoughts.
Night was short for Nocturo, the Maegester’s name my parents had given to my twin brother. Within a day of our birth, it became clear that our names were completely inconsistent with our magic. Because magic and gender were so closely related in Halja, our birth mix–up was something we Onyxes almost never discussed. The fact that I had been born with the waning magic of a Maegester and Night had been born with the waxing magic of a Mederi embarrassed my father, shamed my mother, and caused Night and me no end of grief.
“Night left two weeks ago to join one of the Mederi tribes,” I said.
Peter stared at the Alecto topiary, frowning. I brushed snow from my knees.
“That’s going to make it hard.”
“Tell me about it. My mom and dad weren’t speaking before. Now they can’t even stand to be in the same room with each other.”