A moment of your time…
On Friday August 10, Semester Aboard was free for a day on Kindle. I watched it climb the Amazon free list and…honestly I’m not sure what numbers I expected. Maybe 100 copies or something. I was stunned, absolutely stunned, when my publisher texted me to let me know it had passed 500. Then, less than 3 hours later, she sent me other message to say it was over 800. Eight. Hundred. I have no shame in saying that I did a rather embarrassing happy dance. Then, the magnitude of that number hit me. 800 is more than the number of Facebook fans I have. It’s more than the number of total books I’ve sold in the year since Semester Aboard was published. Total, from any venue. It’s 8 times the number of people who have added it on Goodreads. Mind boggling. Exciting. Rather overwhelming.
So, I decided, why the heck not, and posted a challenge. If the number of free downloads hits 1000, I’ll post the first chapter from the sequel. I thought maybe I’d get up to 900, it was getting close to the end of the day.
1173. I don’t even think I can do the math for that one (that’s why I’m an author after all). Suffice to say, it’s a good 1000 more than I expected to get that day. 1000 more than what I have on Goodreads. Let me just say this to wrap up – thank you. Thank you! That’s to everyone who downloaded it, everyone who had it before, and everyone who spread the word about it. You’re why I write. And now, as promised…
More than Magic: Snow Bound
Warning – Spoilers
If you haven’t read Semester Aboard, this chapter will be jam-packed with spoilers. If you’re looking for something to read, I suggest you go here instead!
It was almost beautiful. The pines lining the sides of the road were covered in snow, and when the bus slowed down I could almost see each needle encased in ice. In fact, it had been beautiful … four hours ago. It had only taken two to start getting sick of the scenery. The only thing that had changed about the landscape, since I’d boarded the bus from the airport, was the color of the snow. The sun was just starting to set; now everything was green and sunset-pink, instead of green and white. I shifted my weight and tried to stretch my legs.
“Seventeen minutes to Winter Valley,” Bill called.
Bill was the bus driver. He was turning sixty-one in March and had been driving the bus between the airport and Winter Valley Ski Resort for almost forty years. He also, I had learned, was a very talkative, overly-friendly man. There were four other people on the bus with me and none of us had gotten a word in over Bill’s life story.
“How’s your panther, Sailor?” Bill asked with a laugh. He also thought he had a great sense of humor and had given everyone on the bus a nickname. Mine, thanks to the embroidered ship on the sweatshirt I was wearing, was Sailor.
I looked into the cat carrier next to me. All I could see was a ball of black fur. To be fair, Rak was on the larger side for a cat.
“He’s fine! Thanks, Bill.”
The fur moved and I caught sight of a bright yellow eye. “Actually, his tail is cramping and he’s hungry,” Rak said.
Nobody else on the bus could hear him, so he spoke at a normal volume. I, on the other hand, had to cover my mouth to hide my reply. “It was the biggest one I found that I could carry-on the plane.”
Rak sighed and shifted his weight again. “I could have stayed home.”
He hissed in disdain. My little half-sister was fond of stuffing him into dresses.
“Besides, we’ve only been bonded since August. If I’m going to live on campus next semester I want to spend as much time with you as possible,” I added.
He purred in agreement and I leaned back against the window. If six months ago someone had told me where my life was heading I would have thought they were crazy. I had spent the summer studying abroad on a cruise ship. I had taken classes and visited different countries all along the west coast of Latin America. In fact, the sweatshirt that had earned me Bill’s nickname was a souvenir from the trip. But the cruise hadn’t exactly been what I had expected. By sheer dumb luck I had been in the right place at the right time and had met a few students who weren’t exactly human. They were magical beings and, much to my surprise, I was one too. Specifically: a witch. My parents were non-magics and I had gone the first twenty-one years of my life without even knowing that magic existed. Once they realized what I was, I became good friends with all five of them. Then, just when I thought my summer couldn’t get any more incredible, I arrived home to find my familiar waiting for me.
And I had never been happier to get home. Through chance or bad luck, there were other magics on the ship with us; vampires to be exact. My new friends and I almost hadn’t survived the trip. It was going to be nice to finally just relax with them.
“You should probably call Thomas to let him know we’re almost there,” Rak said.
I fumbled around in my purse for my phone, spotting my wand as I did. There were a number of different ways to carry a wand around and I had yet to find one I really liked. Someday I’d be able to reliably shrink it, but for now, I had to rely on less magical means. So far, my purse was the easiest place to keep it handy. Rak insisted that it wouldn’t break easily, so I wasn’t worried about it banging around in my purse. I pushed it aside and pulled out my phone.
“No service,” I groaned.
“Maybe that’s why Thomas didn’t answer before.”
I sighed and put my phone back in my purse. I had called Thomas as soon my plane landed, but had had to leave a voice mail. If he didn’t get service up here either, there was a good chance I’d end up stranded at the bus stop. Then again, there were worse situations to be in than stuck at a bus stop near a ski lodge. I stretched again and settled back to watch the darkening landscape fly by. Now that I was minutes away—I hoped—from seeing my friends again, I could feel the excitement building. We had all kept in touch with email, but this would be the first time I had seen any of them since we had gotten off of the ship back in August. I couldn’t wait to spend the next two weeks with them.
It wasn’t just the prospect of seeing them again that had me excited, they were the only other magics I had ever really spent time with. Now that I knew what some species of magics looked like, I had started spotting them now and again. Unfortunately I had yet to see one in a situation where I could talk with them. There was also the fact that I lived with my stepmother and Emily. They were both non-magics, which meant it was illegal to tell them anything about my new life. That itself was frustrating, even though I had been prepared for it. What I hadn’t expected was just how much trouble it would be. Non-magics couldn’t hear Rak’s voice, so he was free to talk to me whenever he wanted, but I couldn’t always reply. We’d figured out a simple system of gestures that I could use when nobody was looking, but it was still frustrating to not be able to talk to him whenever Rachel or Emily were around. Fortunately, over the past few weeks our bond had strengthened to the point where we could sense each other’s emotions from time to time. It was still faint, but it had started to make our stealth conversations easier. Poor Rak had it harder than I did. He had to periodically use the litter box to keep Rachel from getting suspicious; despite the fact that she usually asked me to clean it. Even though he complained about having to use it, he grudgingly admitted that it was nice to have a litter box around if someone left the toilet lid down. We were both looking forward to spending some time alone with other magics, which was something we’d never gotten to do together.
Even as my excitement grew, there was still one issue I couldn’t shake … Shannon, my best friend and cousin. We had grown up together and hadn’t ever really been apart until college. Even then, we had spent all of our vacations, and most of our weekends, visiting each other. This summer had been the first time we had split up. We had calculated that it was the longest single stretch of time that we had been apart since we were little kids. We kept telling ourselves that we’d have winter break … yet here I was. Luckily, she’d gotten an invitation to go skiing in Colorado with some college friends. As much as I wanted to see my magic friends again, if Shannon hadn’t been able to make plans I probably wouldn’t have left her. I certainly wouldn’t have gone for two weeks. But I still felt bad that we weren’t spending winter break together and I knew that she did, too. I also still felt guilty that I had had to lie to her about most of my summer adventures or at least downplay them. Even though I was hoping to experience some new magical things on this trip, I’d have to lie about those to her, too.
That, I supposed, was something I’d just have to get used to as a magic. I tried to turn my thoughts back to how exciting it would be to see everybody again. It worked, but I started to feel a nervous knot forming in my stomach as the minutes ticked by. As much as I was looking forward to seeing Thomas, I was also worried about it. I had developed a massive crush on him over the summer, and halfway through the trip he had kissed me. Then he had never mentioned it again. Just to make things more complicated, the kiss had happened while there was a very good chance that a vampire was about to kill us both. Given the situation, the reasons behind the kiss were that much harder to analyze. As if that wasn’t enough, everyone else insisted that Thomas did like me; he just moved slow. It didn’t make me feel any better.
Suddenly, the trees parted and we were out of the seemingly endless forest. The bus pulled into a large parking lot covered in road salt. We drove past a row of small shops and stopped by a little glass shelter.
“Well, we’re here,” Bill announced. He waited patiently as everyone got off of the bus and then started pointing out the sights. “Down the street there is a grocery store, a great shop that will fulfill all of your winter sport’s needs. Next is a pizza place; Don is a good friend of mine, the food is great. Finally the rental agency for the cabins is over there. The lodge is up those stairs there; do be careful, there’s usually ice. Gear rental is on the other side with the slopes. And the hotel is that large building there!”
When the bus was unloaded, three of the people I had been with went straight for the hotel and the fourth started for the shops. Bill helped a new group load their suitcases onto the bus and soon I found myself standing by the shelter. I had my suitcase on one side, Rak’s carrier on the other, and my skis resting against my shoulder. I checked my phone again, but still had no bars. I hoped someone would come along soon. It was a lot colder than it had been in Maryland and the fact that it was rapidly getting dark wasn’t helping.
“You know where you’re off to, Sailor?” Bill asked.
“I’m being picked up.”
“I’d be happy to wait with you … but I do have to get back to the airport on time.” He glanced at the bus and the people settling down inside.
“Go on ahead, I’ll be fine. Thank you for driving me.”
Bill beamed. “Not a problem! I’ll be back to take you down again. Two weeks, right?” I nodded. “See you then, Sailor!” He bent down and waggled his fingers at Rak’s carrier. “Bye, Panther!”
Rak muttered a goodbye as well and then it was just us. I made sure that there weren’t any non-magics close enough to see, and then slipped my wand out of my purse.
“Mar,” I whispered, casting a spell to give me night vision and warm me up. My night vision would have been stronger and I would have been warmer if I had cast them separately, but doing two-in-one was a little more advanced. I considered it good practice. I glanced around again to make sure nobody was watching, and then aimed my wand down at Rak’s carrier. “Ahn.”
The door clicked open and Rak pushed his head out. He gingerly set one paw on the pavement and I felt an odd, distant sensation of cold and damp on my left palm. He leaned out far enough to turn and see the top of his carrier, and then avoided touching any more snow with a trick he referred to as: jumping. Every species of familiar had their own unique ability. In fact, one of the first magical things I had ever seen was a raven using a power that lets them transform into any other type of bird. Cats were able to teleport themselves anywhere that they could see, provided there was nothing between them and their destination; although Rak had wrinkled his nose in disdain when I had used the term teleport.
The distance between where he was and the top of the carrier was so short that I didn’t even see him vanish. The only sign of his jump was the wisps of black smoke hanging around the carrier. He stretched gratefully and yawned, then sat down to clean the paw that had touched the ground.
I turned just in time to see a blur of motion. Suddenly, someone slammed into me and lifted me completely off the ground in a bone-crushing hug.
“Jen, Jen, Jen, Jen, Jen! I missed you! It’s so grand to see you!” I recognized the gravelly voice and the hint of an Irish accent instantly. Nevertheless, I would have known who he was without a single word. The sheer size of him would have been a dead giveaway, even if he hadn’t punctuated how glad he was to see me by licking me from chin to temple.
“I missed you too, TS,” I said, trying to dodge his tongue. That was one of his habits I didn’t think I’d ever get used to.
He gave me another squeeze and then set me down, grinning. It was the same old, familiar grin: wide, goofy, and almost adorable, with his tongue partially lolling out. It was good to see him. Then I noticed that even though his hair was just as shaggy as usual, it was a shockingly light gray.
“What did you do to your hair?”
He looked confused for a moment, then laughed and scratched at it. “Nothing, it’s my winter coat.” A few strands of his original brown fluttered down and he scratched more vigorously. “Still shedding, it really bloody itches.” As he spoke I realized that he had also shaved off his goatee, although I could see gray stubble that looked a couple of days old.
“It looks good,” I offered, not sure if laughing would offend him.
It was almost surreal to be standing next to TS. I had been looking forward to seeing everyone again since the summer, but now that I was here I couldn’t quite believe it was finally happening. The butterflies that had formed in my stomach on the bus were still eagerly fluttering and I was sure that I was grinning like an idiot. I hesitated before introducing Rak. TS was less than fond of cats. I hoped it wouldn’t be too awkward.
I took a deep breath. “TS, this is Rak.”
TS hardly even glanced down at him. “Hi.”
Rak curled his tail around his ankles and replied with an equally unenthusiastic, “Hello.”
I had just enough time to think that this hadn’t gone as badly as I had been expecting when TS said, “You know, you could trade him in for a jackal.”
Never mind. But I was ready with what I hoped was the one response that would get TS to accept, or at least tolerate, having a cat around. Werewolves were among the few kinds of magics who could form magical bonds the way witches and familiars could. And werewolves took their bonds very seriously.
“Rak and I are bonded,” I said firmly.
TS winced. “Right. Sorry, I was just kidding,” he muttered. Then, to my surprise, he bent down and held a hand out to Rak. “Nice to meet you.”
I felt a faint sense of surprise from Rak as he lifted a paw and shook TS’ hand. “You too.” It was a very brief handshake. When it was over TS wiped his hand on his pants and Rak looked like he was considering cleaning his paw.
“Feels weird having a cat in my pack.” TS looked at his hand and wrinkled his nose.
TS considered me a good enough friend that he had bonded to me, which made me part of his pack. It was a weak bond and I was unable to sense it at all, but werewolves felt a magically enhanced sense of loyalty and affection to packmates. Since he had bonded to me, TS would always faintly sense how I was and he’d know if anything ever happened to me. I had wondered if that bond would automatically extend to my familiar; it seemed like it did. I couldn’t help but feel a little bad for TS. It would be weird to hate cats, but be compelled to care about one.
I reached out and scratched TS’ back to comfort him. “You’ll get used to it.”
He leaned into my hand and sighed. “I sort of hope not.”
Given that he was bonded to me, I wasn’t at all surprised that TS had come to pick me up. But I hadn’t expected him to be alone. For one thing, Thomas had said that he’d meet me at the bus stop. For another, he was part of TS’ pack. Thomas wasn’t just any packmate, TS had formed a much rarer bond with him; one as strong as mine would be with Rak. It was a little odd to find TS without Thomas around.
“Where is Thomas?” I couldn’t resist asking. Eager as I was to see him again, I was also concerned about his health. Thomas had been sick, extremely sick, during the summer. Even though he had assured me that he was better now, I wanted to see it for myself. That, and a silly voice in the back of my mind wondered if he was avoiding me because of the kiss. I mentally rolled my eyes at my reaction. I still couldn’t quite believe I had developed such a massive, ridiculous crush on him.
“Stuck doing MES business. We only get service at the lodge and he checked his voice mail to see if you called earlier. Some useless bloke from the office called at the exact right moment and Tom’s been on the phone with him for an hour.”
“Oh. Is it serious?”
They all worked for the Magical Enforcement and Security Agency. When they first told me about MES I thought of it as a magical FBI or something like that. I wasn’t too far off, but I had since learned that MES did quite a bit more than that. There were countless different jobs, some fairly mundane sounding, within the agency. Just about any magic, regardless of what they studied, seemed to be able to find work with them. And, since MES kept an eye on pretty much everything magics did, it was impossible to not find yourself involved with them.
An agent had actually shown up at my house to give a little “welcome to the magical world” spiel. It had been kind of nice. He’d walked me through registering as a new magic—something I was rather old to be doing—and applying for my own magical ID. He had also referred me to some local businesses that catered to magics and given me a crash course in magical laws. Thomas had seemed adorably jealous when I told him about it. He said if he had known he would have come down to visit me and done it all himself.
But it wasn’t all paperwork and red tape, even though most of the emails they sent me mentioned something tedious they’d done at work. Some aspects of MES were much darker. Everyone except Mariana, who was just an intern, was certified to deal with “dangerous” magics and had arresting authority. As I had learned firsthand, they were even expected to use deadly force if necessary. I wondered if Thomas would have to cut the vacation short if something really serious was going on.
Before I could worry too much, TS shook his head. “Nah, it’s nothing. He’s a wisp. And wisps are all mental. It’s a wonder they don’t sack him.”
Rak knew that I had no idea what a wisp was. “Air elemental.”
A few months was hardly enough time to learn everything there was to know about magics. Luckily Rak had assured me that you never really learned everything. I felt a little embarrassed that it had hardly been five minutes and I’d already learned something new. Then again, I supposed that was part of what I had been looking forward to. There were probably countless things I had just never wondered about because I couldn’t spend enough time around other magics. I’d probably learn more in the two weeks with my friends than I could in a month with just Rak. He had, regretfully, explained that familiars weren’t some sort of all-knowing being designed to teach witches and wizards all about magic. He knew a lot about our world because he had grown up in it, but he wasn’t prepared to sit me down and teach me everything he knew.
“What’s the difference between a sylph and a wisp?” I really was curious, but I also wanted to remind TS that I wasn’t quite as clueless as I had been over the summer.
“Erm … sylphs are normal and wisps are mad?” TS offered. Unfortunately, my friends weren’t exactly ready with Magic World 101 either.
I decided to just wait and ask an elemental instead. “So, do we wait for Thomas?”
TS cocked his head thoughtfully. I knew he was trying to sense Thomas and wondered if I got the same expression on my face when I tried to sense Rak. It was going to be interesting being around them now that I had a bond of my own.
“Still talking,” TS announced. “And bored as hell. That agent talks as much as Bill.”
“The bus driver?” I giggled.
“Right. He’s a nutter, that one.”
“He’s a lonely, old man.”
TS snorted. “He’s only a few years older than me. And he talks just as much as he did forty years ago when he was a young nutter.”
That was the one thing about magics I still had trouble with. I knew we were immortal—it certainly wasn’t something that I could forget—but it was still something that I couldn’t quite keep my head wrapped around. Even though I knew that I was thirty years younger than TS, it was hard to see a guy who looked my age and keep his real age in mind.
“At any rate, I don’t think Tom’ll be done any time soon, so we might as well head to the cabin. He’ll catch up.”
“I thought we were staying in the lodge,” said Rak.
“So did I!”
TS laughed. “What, with a bunch of non-magics? We’ve got a little cabin all to ourselves.” He picked up my suitcase and started walking. “Come on.”
Rak hopped off of his carrier and started gingerly trotting on the snow after him. I grabbed my skis and the cat carrier, slowly trailing behind them. TS led us down the road, but abruptly turned and headed into the trees. The sun was fully down and I was glad I had already cast my night vision spell. Even so, it was still a little dark and creepy in the woods. The snow was deeper than it had been on the road. Rak paused and turned in my direction. He bent to leap and I braced myself as he jumpedup onto my shoulder to escape the snow.
“Where is the cabin?” I asked.
“About three miles this way.”
“Three miles?” I stopped and looked down at my shoes. They were warm for now, but I wasn’t sure if they would hold up to three miles of hiking, especially in snow. My snow boots were somewhere at the bottom of the bag TS had. I also hadn’t planned on lugging my skis that far and they were already digging into my shoulder.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be walking.”
TS kept going and I hurried to catch up. We only hiked for another minute or two when TS stopped next to a sled, dropping my bag into it. He gestured for me to add my skis and I gratefully slung them down into the plastic sled. TS lashed them in place with a rope, and then picked up another one tied to the front of the sled and started untangling it. There was a lot more to it than a simple rope for pulling kids up a hill. He set it back down, stretched, and changed into a wolf.
“Whoa,” I breathed. He hadn’t been joking about his winter coat. I’d seen him turn into a wolf a hundred times, but he’d always had his brown summer coat. Just like his hair, his fur was now a mix of silvers and whites. He shook and sent out a shower of brown strands. TS was much bigger than a non-magic wolf, but his thick winter coat made him look even larger than I remembered.
TS stuck his nose under a loop of the sled’s rope and wiggled into it. I realized that it was a harness. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder, tongue lolling out in a big doggy grin.
“Want a ride?”
I smiled back. “Sure.”
Rak jumped off of my shoulder and onto my bag. I walked over to TS and he crouched down. I had ridden him before, but it was still a little odd to be riding a werewolf. His coat was definitely a lot thicker than it had been. It was kind of like sitting on a fluffy horse.
“Okay, I’m ready.”
“The cat can ride too if he likes,” TS muttered.
“Oh. Thanks.” Rak sounded just as resigned about it as TS. I couldn’t see him, but somehow I knew he was about to jump and was ready for it when he landed on my shoulder. He hopped down in front of me and settled in on TS’ back.
Then TS started walking. A moment later he broke into a brisk trot. I leaned forward a little to escape the wind and wished that I had worn my hat.
A light off to the side caught my attention and I squinted into the trees, trying to figure out what it was. I realized after a moment that the light was from a cabin.
“Hey,” I called to TS. “Aren’t you worried someone will see you?” We were awfully close to the cabin and a giant wolf being ridden by a person wasn’t something we wanted non-magics to see.
“Not really. They put out a warning if there are non-magics renting the cabins and there aren’t any right now,” TS explained.
“So, is this a magic resort?” I asked in surprise.
“Sort of. It’s run by magics. There are a ton of non-magics around, but this place is fairly magic friendly. To be honest, the slopes aren’t the best, but there are enough perks for us here that it’s worth it.”
“What sort of perks?”
TS stopped by a little wooden sign with numbers and arrows on it, then turned sharply and started trotting again. I realized that we were on a small path. The lights from a different cabin glowed in the distance. I spotted another little sign and footprints leading down a path that led toward the cabin.
“Well, the private cabins for one,” TS said. “They also try to give you cabins based on what sort of magic you are. And I’m allowed to hunt if I want. Got a moose a few years back. Now that was brilliant.”
“Have you really known Bill for forty years?”
“So, you come a lot then?”
“All the time. Tom and I have been coming here since I was a puppy.” He turned down a fork in the path. “Just another mile or so. Mind if I run?”
I slipped a hand under the rope harness and tightened my grip on his fur. “Go for it.”
TS broke into a much smoother run than I had expected. Rak burrowed back against my stomach and I wrapped an arm around him, hoping one hand was enough to hold on. The wind whipped by and stung my cheeks. It was actually sort of exhilarating.
“If you can do this any time you want, is skiing even fun?” I asked.
“Anything fast is fun!” TS called over his shoulder.
Even though Rak growled and huddled closer to me, I could faintly sense that he was also enjoying the run. A minute, at the most, had gone by when TS slowed back down to an easy lope. I was about to ask what was wrong when we turned off of the path and down a smaller one. Had we gone a mile that fast?
“This is us,” he announced.
He went a few feet down the path, and then abruptly stopped right next to a tree. He leaned so far to one side that I had to clamp my legs around him to keep myself from sliding off.
“What are you—” Then I heard a very distinct sound. “Oh my God, TS!” I cried.
TS lowered his head and flattened his ears in embarrassment. “Sorry. There’s another werewolf in the next cabin over. I can’t help it.”
“Dogs,” Rak hissed in disgust.
“Don’t give me that,” TS said. “Cats mark their territory too.”
“We’re decent enough to do it in private.”
TS didn’t answer. Instead, he moved back onto the path and started trotting again. A moment later the trees parted and the cabin came into view. I smiled; it looked like something out of a movie.
The cabin—an actual log cabin—sat in the middle of a snow covered clearing. A thick plume of smoke billowed out of the chimney and too-bright lights from the windows cast a warm glow on the frosted ground. TS stopped near the door and I eagerly slid off of his back.
“Here we are then,” he stated, opening the door.
Rak jumped from my arms and right into the cabin, TS and I following him in. The interior of the cabin was really cute and cozy looking. From the outside it had looked like a two-story cabin, but inside there was a huge, vaulted ceiling. The logs and rafters were all bare and rustic looking. A massive stone fireplace with a chimney went all the way up one wall. A stack of firewood, taller than me, was piled up next to it with a large fire burning away inside. A big, flat-screen TV mounted on the fireplace sort of took away from the ambiance, but it looked like it would be a great place to curl up and watch a movie. There were two big, comfy looking couches with thick blankets draped over them, and a large dining table with matching chairs made out of branches. There was a door in the back wall, directly across from the front door, and another door next to the fireplace. The only sound was the crackling from the fire. I had expected to see the rest of my friends, but it looked like the cabin was empty.