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keep a little fire

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Travis like, knows he’s not the best at magic.

Does he want to be? Well, yeah. That would be, all things considered, a good deal for him. Travis Konecny, the best witch in Volantes? It’s not like he’s never had that dream before. Attempting to manifest greatness during morning huddle? That would pretty much be his modus operandi. And when the manifesting never got anywhere? Well. Maybe he just needed some more candles.

(Was his room in the Niche fully covered in candles? Not fully. There was always some more room somewhere.)

Him not being the best at magic was definitely not for a lack of trying. Ever since he first felt the spark, ever since he first learned he was one of the few in Volantes who could practice, ever since he was conscripted by AV, all he did was try. Read the books, did the meditations, lit the candles, learned the spells and recipes and all the herb names and original names and uses and, and, and… Some of the stuff regarding magic made his head spin. Literally, sometimes. Beezer was really into physical magic, and shit had a tendency to get weird.

But he kept on. Every once in a while Claude came back from his councils with AV with a good word specifically for him, usually about his advances in emotional magic, or dreamspace, or another area Travis was trying to master. AV thought the emotional stuff came easy to him, and encouraged it. Travis never told him, Claude, or anyone else that nothing about magic came easy to him. It was long nights with his myriad of candles lit, it was holing away in Coots’ massive library, it was spending unhealthy amounts of time in dreamspace, sometimes just to get away from it all. 

Most of the time, magic exhausted him. But the spark, the pull behind his navel and between his eyes and in his fingertips when he practiced and when he felt the others practice, never dimmed, so he kept pushing. Kept trying, even when all it meant was a deep pain in his chest and an ache between his eyes. He’d left his family for this, after all. Rejected a life outside of the Niche. Volantes was at peace, sure, but if one of the surrounding territories decided to try something, she’d need her witches to protect her. That’s why AV trained them so hard, pushed them further and further. Encouraged them to be the best. 

And was inevitably disappointed when Travis fell short.

Not that he’d ever met the man. Claude was his messenger, and their leader by default. Claude, with his ginger beard trimmed to perfection and his tendency to sing while he mixed potions, was what Travis longed to be. He’d seen Claude levitate, he’d seen Claude control energy, he’d seen Claude scream at Frosty for leaving the lid off of his big jar of sage —again, how many times do I have to tell you, Morgan— and despite all that, Claude was a good leader. The best. Travis remembered his own dad, sure, but sometimes when he thought the word dad Claude’s beardy face showed up before his biological dad’s did. 

Travis crossed his legs. Thought about it, uncrossed them, and then crossed them a different way. The other foot on top, this time. He was in his small room, tucked away in the second corridor of the third floor of the Niche, with a metal 11 on the door. There were a few candles (a few of many) lit on the wooden floor in front of him, and his back was to his bed. One of them smelled like lavender. He inhaled and watched the flames sputter.

Closing his eyes, he slowly ran through the meditation exercise Coots had them do that morning during huddle. (Coots called it conclave, a lot of the older witches did. Travis liked huddle. They did tend to huddle during it; a lot of Volantes witches liked to touch and be touched. Travis couldn’t count the times he’d woken up in the middle of the night to Oskar in his bed, pressed next to him for warmth, or Beezer sprawled across his legs like a stupidly heavy throw blanket.) He was doing the exercise now because something had felt weird when he meditated during huddle, and he was just checking—

Shit. Yeah, right there. A little pain in his chest, not the normal pain, but different in some way, right on the nine count of his exercise. Pain was the wrong word, it felt more like someone had taken a melon baller and scooped a tiny bit of him out. An emptiness. Something gone. It felt cold. One of his candles winked out.

“That’s not ominous at all,” Travis said out loud to the empty room. As if to say fuck you, another candle flame disappeared, along with the strange feeling in his chest. Huh. Maybe he was allergic to lavender. God, that would suck— lavender smelled so good.

Whatever. Everything seemed to be fine now. He blew out the other three candles and went to find some lunch.



Claude was making tomato soup.

Aside from being their leader as well as their best potions mixer, hands down, Claude made some kickass tomato soup. There were four stools at the kitchen island’s bar, and three were occupied. Travis slid between Oskar and Scotty, accepting a bowl from the second and a side hug from the first. Oskar stuck his nose in Travis’s hair.

“Lavender,” he said. “Were you spellcasting upstairs?”

Travis pushed him away. He hadn’t washed his hair in a hot second, and no one’s nose needed to be all up in his business like that. “Meditating. Tried out a new candle, I think it’s defective.”

“Watch yourself,” Provy said as he leaned over Travis to grab two bowls. He kept one for himself and handed the other back to Nisky. A large space in the outer area of the Niche had been built just for candlemaking, a very specific kind of magical skill that Provy learned from Nisky, an older witch and his mentor. Like a lot of the Niche’s younger witches, Provy took what he learned and absolutely ran with it. His own little niche of magic, just like the Niche was the witches’ little niche away from the wider world. 

“Did the wick pop?” Nisky asked as he got in line behind Provy. “Do you remember how many times? It can have meaning, you know—” he elbowed Provy like he was seeing if he was listening. “If they flashed specific colors, too.”

“No popping,” Travis said and got in line himself, sandwiched still between Oskar and Scotty. Nisky shrugged like that was too bad, and more people poured into the kitchen, jostling and bumping shoulders and grabbing bowls as they got in the lunch line.

The Niche’s big kitchen (there were a few smaller ones scattered around, mostly for magical purposes— a copper skull plaque on any door meant eat things in here at your own risk, the risk being death usually) was a wide room with curved walls and a low ceiling. Vents funneled steam out and up, and the dark wooden walls kept the warmth in. It was a tight fit, only about fifteen witches at a time could even stand in the kitchen, and the rest of them spilled out into the center courtyard and dining area. Claude stood at a huge stove, a black apron tied around his waist, three giant cauldrons bubbling in front of him. Two were stirring themselves, and he had a long wooden spoon in his right hand and was serving from the largest cauldron first. Every time he shifted the pattern on his apron became clearer; eyes stitched with silver thread. Travis stared, watching the pattern move, and one of the eyes winked at him.

Two others were cooking with Claude; Bunny stood on the other side of the island, by the industrial sized sink, slicing a huge loaf of crusty bread, as Nic tore basil by hand into a serving bowl. Bunny hadn’t even spent a year at the Niche yet, and didn’t seem to have any particular magical affinity yet. Some of them didn’t. But it seemed like a strange thing, to not have any gut instinct pulling towards a specific subset of magic. Effortless, it looked like. The Niche was overflowing with effortless.

In front of him, Claude poured soup into Oskar’s bowl and reached out his hand for Travis’s. 

“How’s it going, TK?” he asked.

“Weird,” Travis answered honestly. There was absolutely no use in lying to Claude, he’d learned that the hard way. “I feel kinda, I don’t know.” He wiggled his hand in an accurate portrayal of his mental state. It wasn’t just the candle, or the feeling inside his chest that had disappeared just as quickly as it came. “Ever since huddle this morning.”

“Could be something negative.” Claude ladled more soup than normal into his bowl. “Meet me in the Lookout after lunch, okay?”

Fuck. Travis nodded, got some bread from Bunny, let Nic sprinkle basil on top of his soup, and went into the courtyard. There was no use disobeying an order from Claude, even though the Lookout definitely meant he was going to have to drink something disgusting and feel its effects for the rest of the day. The long table all the way to the left of the courtyard was already half full, but there was an open space between Sanny and Oskar, and he fit into it like they’d left it there just for him, which they probably did.

Travis had a lot of friends at the Niche; he’d go so far as to say he got along with everyone. Some people were unbelievably grumpy most of the time, like Scotty or Jake, and others liked to keep to themselves (a trait most of the defenders had, but not all of them, Sanny case in point), but there was no one who actively disliked anyone else. They were a good group, a good coven, and Travis loved them all. Oskar and Sanny, though, were probably his best friends in the whole world. 

As soon as he set his bowl down, Sanny flung his long ass arm around Travis’s shoulders and pulled him close.

“Heard you have to go to the Lookout,” he said. Travis let himself get put in a very gentle headlock. 

Damn, no secrets among witches, huh?

“Everything’s fine,” he managed to grunt as he wiggled free. “A little weird feeling during huddle, that’s all.” 

Oskar draped his cool hand across Travis’s forehead, pushing away his hair. Relaxation rolled down his temples, thick like syrup, and he exhaled for what felt like the first time since his room and the candles. Oskar’s magic always smelled clean, like freshly washed sheets and an open window on a windy spring day. He leaned onto Sanny’s shoulder, who immediately ruffled his hair and ruined the moment.

God.” Travis sat up, elbowed Sanny right in the ribs, and nudged Oskar with his knee to say thanks. They ate in silence for a while, the entire table murmuring about how good the soup was, or how good the bread was, or, again, the soup. It was good, like always. Claude sat at the head of a different long table, listening intently as Coots told him something, hands in the air as he illustrated his story. Travis couldn’t tell for sure, but it felt like one of the eyes on Claude’s apron was focused right on him.

He wanted to eat slowly, savor his lunch, give himself some breathing room before the Lookout, but Claude’s soup was practically meant to be inhaled. It felt like five seconds before JVR was going around and gathering bowls; Oskar jumped up to help and Travis made like he was going to follow them back into the kitchen (he normally wouldn’t like, want to do dishes, but almost anything was better than—)

He caught the barest glimpse of Claude through a gap between Raffl and Moose, saw his eyebrow raise the tiniest bit, and that was all it took. He let Sanny put him in another headlock, took the rest of Frosty's bread right out of his hands, and left the courtyard. 

The Lookout was, like the name suggested, the very top of the Niche. A spiral staircase took him up the tower, and yeah, sure, he was in pretty good shape, but his calves were on fire by the time he got to the top. He knocked, and the door swung open of its own accord.

The Lookout was Jake’s area. Coots, because he ran the garden and was the resident herb expert, was up there a lot, too, and of course Claude, but everyone knew the Lookout was Jake’s space. No one messed with Jake’s space, or really even thought about climbing the staircase unless they’d been invited.

“Jakey,” Travis called into the cluttered tower. “Claude said—”

“I know what G said.” Jake was by the farthest window, sitting on a tall stool with his back to the door in front of a high table. An empty bowl with the remnants of tomato soup was pushed off to the side. Across the room Beezer sat with his legs crossed, lost in some medicinal book that Jake no doubt was making him read. “Get over here, TK. Tell me what happened during conclave.”

Travis took the stool beside Jake; he had to put his foot on the first rung and kind of heave himself up onto it. The table was covered in herbs, and he accidentally put his hand into a pile of dried vetiver. Jake gave him a look drier than the herbs.

“I just had Frosty up here, so I’d rather not have to clean up after another disaster witch, thanks.”

“I’m not as bad as Frosty,” Travis argued, shaking the vetiver off of his hand. Jake hummed, as if to say that’s true, and Travis took it as a victory. “And nothing much happened in huddle. Like I told Claude, I’m feeling kinda weird. Off, maybe. He said it might be something negative. There was a weird pain in my chest when I meditated on my own, but it went away quick and it hasn’t—“

Travis choked to a halt as Jake took his chin in his hand, turning his head from left to right as he looked into his eyes. He put both of his huge palms over Travis’s ears, and they began to warm up. 

Travis closed his eyes and focused on breathing. In, out, in, out. There was no use rushing Jake when he really got into it. There was really no use rushing Jake ever, in general. 

He didn’t know exactly how much time had passed before the pressure and warmth released. Travis opened his eyes to both Claude and Jake surveying him, heads tilted opposite ways like two of the Niche's many cats looking at the same food dish. Claude nudged Jake with his elbow. 

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” Jake said as Beezer closed his book and ambled over, peering over Jake’s shoulder. “No negativity, no strangeness, no hitch in his aura. Normal all around.”

“Huh.” Claude crossed his arms. “Well, that’s a good thing, I guess.”

Jake crossed his arms, same as Claude. They’d practiced together for so long they sometimes moved in sync. “Normal Konecny is either a blessing or a curse, depending on which way you look at it.”

“Hey!” Travis protested, and Claude grinned. 

“Glad you’re ok, bud.” He rubbed Travis’s shoulder before turning to leave. “Anything else comes up you let us know, yeah? If it comes back we’ll run some tests with the defenders or something.” 

“Sounds good.” Travis rolled his shoulder back, feeling the warmth and comfort from where Claude had touched him spread across his back. He turned to Jake. “I don’t have to—“

Jake gave him a look. “ No you don’t have to drink any potion. They’re not that bad.”

Travis fought the urge to tell Jake just how excruciatingly bad they were, but decided not to push his luck, especially with Beezer pretending to choke in the background. He scraped the vetiver he’d messed up into a neater looking pile and hopped off his stool. 

“Thanks, Jakey,” he said. “If anything else happens, I’ll—”

“You’ll come here immediately,” Jake finished for him. “Maybe you should take the rest of the day off, just in case. Who are you with?”

“I told Coots I’d help him out this afternoon,” Travis said, “and I think I’m supposed to do a practice session with Scotty.” Jake winced.

“Don’t do that last thing,” he said. “I’ll let Laughts know he needs a new partner. If you’re dealing with any sort of negativity…” He trailed off and Beezer made a dead corpse face behind him. Travis laughed, the loud noise echoing around the Lookout. Jake frowned and Travis composed himself.

“Probably a good idea,” he said. “Bad vibes and Scotty go hand-in-hand. I’ll hang out on the fifth lawn and watch the defenders this afternoon, or is that too much?” Jake rolled his eyes.

“Just don’t get under anyone’s feet.”

“That’s my specialty.” Travis threw Jake a salute, winked at Beezer, and left the Lookout far behind him as quick as he could. The Niche was huge, a sprawling ancient compound made up of dormitory rooms, kitchens, training rooms, gardens, greenhouses, observatories, the planetarium, and Coots’s huge library. The Niche was warm and inviting and home, and Travis knew it like its layout was etched onto his bones. 

He headed towards the gardens. He was late, but Coots knew everything that happened in the Niche. He was sure his weird feeling during huddle and subsequent trip to see Jake was common knowledge by now.

The sun hung in late afternoon position; it was three, maybe three thirty. Mud squelched under Travis’s boots as he trekked around the planetarium’s curved rock wall. It had rained the night before, a late spring shower that soaked everything and was still hanging around. It wasn’t too cold, but there was still a bite in the air that made Travis regret his short-sleeved shirt. Coots was always in cardigans, maybe he had an extra laying around the garden shed.

He had company, he saw as soon as the wide expanse of the gardens came into view. Coots knelt by the mint bushes with Nic, and farther down, by the sunflowers, Kevin was pruning something. As soon as he caught sight of Travis, Coots threw him a pair of garden gloves.

“Everything okay?” he asked. Travis tapped his forehead. 

“All good up here.”

“Yeah, besides the usual stuff,” Kevin yelled from behind the sunflowers. Travis tugged on the gloves; they molded to his hands like a second skin. Garden magic, man. Coots knew what was up.

“Shut up, Hayesey,” he yelled back, and Coots pointed him towards the blackberry brambles. No matter the season, Coots could coax whatever he wanted out of the ground, and the blackberries looked just about ripe. Travis picked up a container, tugged the gloves up as far as they could go, and began extracting the berries from the tangle of prickles. Half listening as Coots explained to Nic how to infuse the mint soil with some property to help them grow quicker, he fell into a rhythm picking berries and hearing them drop into the container. 

As soon as Kevin dropped off his sunflower prunings beside Coots’s half-full wheelbarrow, he grabbed a pair of gloves for himself and joined Travis by the brambles. His big hands weren’t as good for picking berries as Travis’s, and he muttered curses, some magical, some not, every time he squished one, dropped one, or got pricked.

“You suck at this,” Travis eventually commented. Kevin pushed him. He had a blackberry juice stain around his lips.

“Came to keep you company, anyway,” he returned in his deep rumble. “Heard you got hit with some curse earlier today.”

“Is that what the rumor is, now?”

“Ask Sanny.”

Travis rolled his eyes. “If you’re going around believing whatever Sanny tells you, you deserve to be cursed.” Kevin laughed his loud, goofy laugh and ruffled Travis’s hair.

“Glad you’re okay anyway, Teeksy. Now get those last berries so I don’t have to.”

Travis finished picking the berries as Kevin made sure Coots and Nic didn’t need help with anything else. As soon as Travis told him that the rest of his afternoon plans included watching the defenders, Kevin was in. He then wrangled Travis into helping him practice spellcasting while they watched, but Travis was fine with it. He didn’t think Jake would mind, either; Kevin’s magic wasn’t harsh or dark, he was the Niche’s resident rituals witch and took his job very seriously. Little things Kevin did that seemed normal were actually very intricately designed rituals, and he took his time weaving each one with specific magical properties. 

Like his nicknames. He had a myriad of different names for each witch in the Niche, but everyone had one special name that Kevin had boosted with magic. Every time he said it, the magic worked. He called Travis TK, and Konecny, and Teeks like everyone else, but when he said Teeksy it was like a wave of calm. It made Travis feel grounded and secure, exactly what he needed to feel whenever Kevin said it. Before or sometimes after a particularly difficult group session, Kevin liked to stand at the door to the largest training hall and call out names as they entered. Beezy, Leaf-Eater, Osky, Ghosty, Pigeon, Raff, Moooooooose! The room would hum, the hairs on Travis’s arms would stand on end. Names hold power, he remembered hearing Claude say once. Even without Kevin’s magic weaving through them. Give someone your name, you give them power over you.

Be careful.

First names were strictly a Niche thing, anyway, and any time they went out into Greater Volantes they used last names only. It was kind of a tradition in Volantes; parents usually held onto their kids’ first names until their first birthday, and by that time it was clear if they were able to practice magic or not. If yes, they would keep the first name as a close family secret, if not, that was their name day.

Visiting families and testing their kids was one of Claude’s jobs under AV, even though the amount of kids who were able to practice were few and far between nowadays. On their twelfth birthday they would be able to be conscripted, and sent to the Niche if they wanted to unlock their abilities and really learn how to practice. If not, and that was rare, they were taken by Claude to AV, who would strip them of the responsibility of magic forever. No one at the Niche, besides Claude, knew what that process was even like.

If the first birthday was name day for non practicers, the twelfth birthday was name day for witches. Travis would never forget walking into the Niche on the day he turned twelve, and telling a group of people who weren’t his family for the very first time that his name was Travis Konecny, and immediately learning that there was another Travis in the group. He resented Sanny for about five whole seconds before other Travis (as he referred to him for about a month, and still did every once in a while when he was pissed off) put him in a headlock. They were pretty much inseparable after that. 

Before heading to the fifth yard to watch the defenders, they stopped by Kevin’s room, a few hallways down from Travis’s. The door had a metal 13 bolted to the outside, and was an absolute disaster inside. Kevin dug in a pile of clothes as Travis rooted through his closet for a jacket (the only one that wasn’t a floor-length duster or had some sort of feather pattern was a quarter-zip pullover made of the softest dark green fleece; it hit Travis about mid-thigh and he silently vowed to never return it) and as soon as Kevin’s arms were full of books, papers, and a small bag (spellcasting items, if Travis had to guess, or maybe snacks), they headed to the fifth yard.

The defenders were a tight-knit group of witches who practiced physical magic. Sanny was one, and so was Provy, and Nisky watched over them closer than the hens who wandered the Niche’s yards watched over their chicks. They had one job on missions or if Volantes was ever attacked— they defended the protectors. 

Volantes had three protector witches; Lyon was good but not great, Moose was a veteran protector and, like Nisky, watched over his protégés, and Carter… Well. 

Travis and Kevin walked onto the fifth yard in time to watch Moose heft a hand cannon that shot harmless (but heavy enough to knock over an unsuspecting witch) foam rockets onto his shoulder. He aimed it right at Provy, who had been enlisted to help with the exercise as his fellow defenders hung out near the entrance, waiting their turn. Moose fired the cannon.

The light purple rocket shot from its home, ready to serve its purpose of knocking Provy right onto his ass, when it halted, midair, a hands’ width away from Provy’s heart. A force field, invisible except for a slight shimmer and a ripple in the air, just as big around as the rocket, floated between it and its target. The force field sharpened and the rocket shuddered as it was torn in two. Travis winced. There —the pain in his chest, the melon-baller feeling— shit

The rocket fell, halved and useless, to the ground. A few paces away, Carter stood, his own chest heaving, with his hand outstretched and his eyes covered by a thick blindfold.

“Whoa,” Kevin breathed out. Carter lifted the blindfold above one eye.

“I got it, right?”

Across the yard, Lyon whooped. Provy, not shaken in the slightest, picked up the foam pieces and threw them, one by one, into the bin by the entrance. He turned to clap Carter on the shoulder as the other defenders swarmed them, taking turns yelling out compliments and praise until his ears turned a violent shade of pink. Moose berated him a little bit, for tearing the rocket, which apparently he had never done before that afternoon. Even that was tinged with praise, though, because holy hell, Hartsy, how powerful did you have to be to tear through tangible objects with a force field, etcetera, etcetera. 

All of that leaned a bit towards overkill, but, according to Claude, Volantes hadn’t had a prodigy protector in decades. Carter was young, he was strong, and when all was said and done, really had Volantes resting on his (admittedly broad) shoulders. That was power. That was responsibility. AV trusted him, trusted Moose to train him. Just thinking about it made Travis a little queasy, and he never knew if it was because of discomfort from even thinking about the sheer weight of Carter's role in the coven, or jealousy that he was never going to be in a position like that.

Kevin settled on one of the open window sills that split the inner corridor from the fifth yard. The windows didn’t have any glass panes but just soared upward into an arch, leaving a wide space at the bottom that made a perfect bench for two people to sit, leaning against one side of the arch each and tangling their feet in the middle. That’s what Travis did, hopping up onto the other side and slotting his feet firmly under Kevin’s crossed legs. He balled his fists into Kevin’s fleece (his fleece, now) and got comfortable as Kevin arranged his papers. 

In the yard, the defenders fanned out around Carter. Nisky, Moose, Lyon, and Nic, who Travis had heard volunteer as he and Coots walked back from the gardens, each grabbed one of the foam cannons. 

In a real altercation, or fight, or full-scale battle between witches, the protectors were in the rear of the charge, well, protecting. They used their force field protection magic to block the forwards from spells and curses and all sorts of nasty stuff as they did what their name meant, and moved forward to attack. 

Claude was a forward like many of the Niche’s witches, but he was also the leader. It was important for him to know exactly what each witch in his coven was capable of, so he could send them where they needed to be. The defenders stayed in the middle, the last line of, well, defense between the enemy and the protectors. Protectors were rare and defenders, were, well, not. A lot of witches had an affinity towards physical magic, and maybe one in a hundred could even practice protection magic, let alone become great at it.

And the protectors shielded the forwards (and the defenders, if they needed it) with their own special brand of magic. A good protector could shield one, or maybe two forwards at a time. A great protector could switch between who he was protecting quick enough to protect his entire coven. In his last session, Travis had seen Carter protect three people at once, and then switch to protecting three others, all without breaking a sweat. Greatness. It was so apparent in him, and in Claude, and in Coots. Provy, Jake, Oskar, Scotty. Even Kevin, scratching a pencil down his temple with his tongue between his teeth, was a natural. He understood magical theory, equations, and rituals like no one Travis had ever met. 

In the fifth yard, Moose and the rest of his group pelted the defenders with foam rockets as they blocked them from reaching Carter. In a real battle he’d be using his protection magic and could help his defenders if they needed it, but this was a drill so he was sitting, legs crossed, in the grass. Knowing him, he was probably getting some meditation time in.

Provy uppercut, and a rocket exploded into shreds of purple foam. 

Travis sat for a while longer, watching the defenders work and listening to Kevin mutter incantations back and forth, his notebook paper steaming under his pencil, but soon he got sick of burnt graphite smell and foam fragments pelting the right side of his body. He stood, made an excuse to Kevin that he might not have even heard, and headed back towards the center of the Niche. Grunts and yells and Nisky shouting instruction and encouragement —back up, Myers! Ghost, good position! Braun, fix your stance before I fix it for you!—  faded behind him as he walked, a little faster than usual.

The pain hadn’t come back, his chest felt normal and not at all empty. But he kind of did. Felt empty. Or maybe too full; unused and unneeded. 

The last thing he wanted to do was go back to his room, or go find a quiet corner, or carve out a spot for himself in the library, and try. That’s all he ever did. Burn his fingers on candles and fill his lungs with smoking herbs and stare at spellbooks until his eyes ached. I’m going to be great, he remembered thinking before stepping foot into the Niche. 

I’m going to get through this without being a safety hazard, was his most recent thought. 

If he talked to anyone, like Claude or Oskar or Kevin, they wouldn’t understand. They saw him perform, they saw him do magic. He was fine, he was even good on a good day. They didn’t see the work, the stress, the struggle. Gaining new magical skills felt like he was clawing his way up a wall. It was draining. He felt drained

“God, this fuckin’ sucks,” he muttered to himself, and opened the double doors that led outward, to the winding road that would eventually lead into the heart of Volantes. He meant to head towards the weeping willow by the lake, sit in the little space between the curved, low-hanging branch and the tree’s sturdy trunk, maybe practice some spark conjuring until he felt less like a piece of shit, but in front of him, on the large oak slab that served as the Niche’s front stoop—

A cat.

Not just any cat. This cat was well-groomed, a brown that looked almost black, the color of the darkening sky, and larger than the normal cats that roamed the Niche, Travis would know. He made a point to make friends with all of them in case he ever needed to summon a cat army to attack Sanny or something. He’d never seen this cat before.

New cat looked up at him, and Travis took a step back.

Its eyes shone in the near darkness, a gray that was sometimes blue, sometimes green, depending on which way the light hit it. The cat’s eyes looked like the ocean, looked like a slate mountainside, looked like the labradorite bowl that Kevin made herb mixtures in whenever Travis had a headache or a hangover. Travis knelt and offered his hand to the cat.

“You have pretty eyes,” he said, and then tilted his head and frowned like he wasn’t exactly sure why he’d just said those words to a cat. The cat shied away from him, like it was too good to be pet by Travis’s admittedly unwashed hand, and Travis, right back to being embarrassing, made a little kissy noise at it.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, bud,” he said. The cat’s brow furrowed (did cats have brows?) and it finally took a step towards Travis.

It bumped its head onto Travis’s knuckles, and the moment his skin made contact with fur—

A scream. An absolute howl ripped through Travis’s mind, loud enough that he fell backwards, sprawled onto the wet grass in front of the Niche, clutching his head in agony. It echoed like cannonfire.