Chapter 1: Allow Me to Introduce Myself

The room spun around Desonjia as she tossed back her fourth shot of tequila. The bass from a Lil Jon track shook the floor beneath her feet, and her unsteady surroundings made her lose her balance. She grabbed her nearest friend, pulling her down as she fell onto a long leather couch near the center of a classmates’ living room, and drew her into a one-armed hug. Smiling, she toyed with Arie’s untamed locs as another friend, Ziare, refilled her glass.

“You don’t think you should slow down a little?” Arie asked. She still held her first drink of the night—a water bottle she’d asked for two hours earlier. “You have to be functional tomorrow, and I’m not babysitting you. Ziare, she’s finished.”

Desonjia rolled her eyes and scanned the room. At least sixty other students from Cicely’s School for the Gifted had shown up to the party DeQuan Jackson threw the minute his parents left their mansion for a weekend away. Most of the faces she saw were familiar, though there were a few new ones, and some of them were far away from the best friend who didn’t seem to want her to enjoy herself.

“Sis, take the stick out of your ass for once and enjoy the night. Or at least let me enjoy mine.” Desonjia started to stand, but Arie yanked her back down by one of her two long cornrows. With a yelp, Desonjia sank back into the couch.

“Where are you going?”

“To find some weed.” Desonjia pulled her key chain out of her bra, shoved it into Arie’s chest, and snatched herself away. “Don’t worry; you’re driving.” She gave her shot glass to Ziare and strutted into the sea of partygoers.

She didn’t have to turn around to know that Arie was almost breaking her neck to keep an eye on her, as if she was seven instead of seventeen—a full six months older than Arie, at that. Desonjia wasn’t sure why Ziare had invited her, or why she’d even extended her personal invitation to him. Had they not been around, she would have been seven shots in and starting a game of spin the bottle.

As Desonjia walked, she waved at everyone she knew and gave slight smiles to everyone who knew her. Due to her having a large say in everything that happened at Cicely’s School for the Gifted, there weren’t many students who didn’t know her by either name or face.

A long, muscular arm landed on Desonjia’s shoulders, causing her to gasp. She looked up to see a face she didn’t know. It was attached to the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, though the owner looked a bit older than the high school crowd he was in. He was at least old enough to drink.

“How you doing, ma?” He smiled down at her from a full foot above her head. His straight white teeth were the perfect contrast to a complexion just one shade lighter than Desonjia’s espresso brown skin. “I’m Shawn. What’s your name?”

“Jia. Why?”

“Just wondering.” Shawn revealed his right hand, where he held a lit blunt. “Heard you thinking about this.”

Desonjia accepted the blueberry-scented wrap, pinching it between two manicured fingers. “What am I thinking right now?”

“Whether I wanna get to know you or get in you.”

“And which is it?”

“I gotta choose?”

Desonjia chuckled. “Nah.” She puffed the blunt and blew the smoke up at him. “You’re bold, Shawn. I like that.”

“Don’t know about bold. But I know a bad bitch when I see one, and you look like you like to hear that you’re a bad bitch. In fact, I know you do. It’s only right that I acknowledge it.”

“You gonna read my mind the whole time or are you gonna let me talk to you?”

Shawn raised his hands in surrender. “It’s your world, ma.”

“As long as you know.” Desonjia took another pull. “So how do you know DeQuan?”

“That’s a long story. Step outside with me and I’ll tell you all about it.” Shawn took Desonjia’s hand and tried to pull her toward the nearby patio door, but Desonjia didn’t budge.

She glanced over her shoulder to see that Arie had sparked up a conversation with someone from their physics class. “Let me go tell my girl I’m stepping outside. She’ll have a heart attack if she can’t find me. I left my phone over there too.”

“She your friend or your moms? We’re going right outside. She’ll be alright.” He snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her along as he headed for the back door.

Desonjia followed his lead with hesitant steps, reminding herself that they’d be right outside of a packed party and at least a dozen people had seen her with him.

They walked out of the dimly lit house and into the glow of a midnight moon. The moonlight glimmered on the spacious backyard’s lake, and Desonjia left Shawn’s side to stand by the water. She dropped her apprehension where she stood and allowed a strange sense of peace to wash over her. Being near water always reminded her of how powerful she was. The strength that flowed through her veins was as real as the blood that lived alongside it.

Desonjia’s head turned to the left, where Shawn was now standing next to her, and she frowned, knowing she hadn’t turned on her own. Shawn’s magic had made her do it. The urge wasn’t too strong, so she knew he wasn’t the most powerful Sage around. She wouldn’t have a problem guarding herself against his mind control if she had to.

Her eyes landed on a tattoo on his bare bicep—a red and black number nine. The sleek design didn’t look to be more than a few days old. She reached up to touch it but drew her hand back, dropping her blunt as soon as her index finger met the ink. She shrieked and stumbled backwards, her stomach now uneasy.

“What’s wrong?” Shawn asked. While his voice denoted concern, Desonjia noticed for the first time that his eyes were expressionless. They were cold and empty, like he’d been through too much of life to care about anything anymore.

Desonjia didn’t know how to answer his question. She’d never experienced anything like what she was feeling then. Her ancestry was rich and riddled with powerful women. They didn’t fear and they didn’t cower, yet she found herself terrified of Shawn at that moment.

“Who the hell are you?” Desonjia took another step away from Shawn. Nothing about him was frightening. He was beautiful and looked like more of a protector than a threat. He just felt evil. Her body told her she was afraid, but her mind told her she was being protected. His tattoo hadn’t done anything to her.

Her ancestors had.

“I’ll tell you. Come here.”

Just as Shawn moved toward Desonjia, she lifted both hands, bringing some water from the lake up with them. She aimed her palms at Shawn, and the water flew at him harder than she’d intended for it to. The impact knocked him off of his feet and over a yard away from his starting position.

“Who are you?” Desonjia asked, raising her hands again. She planted her feet firm in the grass and brought the water to a boil. Shawn’s magic may not have been strong, but her lineage guaranteed that hers was. The mind games he played paled in comparison to what she was capable of. “Answer me!”

“You’re a smart girl, Jia. Guess.”

“What?”

Desonjia started to search for the source of the unfamiliar voice, but the large hand that found her neck less than a second later kept her still. Surprised, she dropped the water. She scratched at the strange man’s hand as Shawn got off of the ground with a palm on his chest where the water had hit him.

Her feet left the ground, and what started as a firm hold on her neck soon became a death grip. The strength in her assailant’s grasp let Desonjia know she was dealing with a Battle Ace. Unlike his partner, whoever this man was had spent some time honing his magic.

Desonjia opened her mouth to whisper a prayer for protection to her ancestors, but she couldn’t take in enough air to get a word out. All she could produce was the lone tear that rolled down her right cheek. She hoped the effects of that would work just as well.

A raindrop landed on Desonjia’s forehead, followed by two more. The rain fell harder and faster with each passing second until it became a torrential downpour. Unable to defend herself from her own magic as she tried to free herself, Desonjia felt everything her attackers felt. The rain blurred her vision and hit her skin the same way she imagined a bullet would.

The man holding Desonjia cursed and released her. She landed on her knees and gasped for air. Before he could wipe the rain from his eyes, she rolled onto her bottom, raised a hand in his direction, and closed her fist.

He doubled over in pain, clutching his stomach. His mouth opened wider than Desonjia had ever seen a mouth open as she pulled the water inside of him out.

From the corner of her eye, Desonjia saw a bright light flick on inside of the house. The back door flew open seconds later, revealing her English teacher, Jay Williams, and Principal Lena Mason, whose glowers soon turned into looks of concern.

Lena ran to Desonjia’s aid and yanked the smaller girl toward her by the arm. “Stop the rain.” She grabbed the shirt of the man Desonjia didn’t know as Jay rammed a sneaker into Shawn’s face. “Get in the water. I’ll be back.”

Desonjia pulled back on the rain until the sky was clear again and stepped backwards into the lake. Instead of sinking into the deep water, she floated, her feet hanging just below the surface.

Lena reached down and put a palm on the ground, creating a new realm that she and Jay disappeared into with her attackers. Desonjia couldn’t see it—no one outside of who Lena had pulled into the new plane of existence could—but she didn’t think she wanted to see what was happening to those men.

“Jia!”

Desonjia’s head shot toward where Arie’s voice had come from, and the pair sprinted to each other, colliding into a tight embrace somewhere in the middle. Arie didn’t seem to care that her friend was soaking wet and trembling from either shock or the cold her storm had left behind.

“What the hell happened out here? Why are you out here in the first place?”

Arie tried to pull away but Desonjia held her in place.

“I was going to tell you I was coming out, but he said—”

“Who?”

“I don’t fucking know, Arie.” The tears Desonjia tried to hold in spilled. “People were trying to kill me, and I don’t even know who they are.”

Arie tightened her hold on Desonjia. “You’re okay. Principal Mason is going to kill you, but you’re okay right now.” She drew back and wiped Desonjia’s eyes and then used two fingers to lift her chin and observe the bruises on her neck. “You think they wanted to hurt you because you’re, you know… special?”

“Because I’m a Soul Searcher? How would they know that?”

Arie shrugged just as Lena and Jay reappeared next to them, the latter’s clothes bloodied and their faces twisted into frowns. At their feet lay two crumpled, unmoving bodies. The sight made Desonjia’s stomach turn.

“Did you… are they…” Desonjia couldn’t bring herself to ask the question, even though she already knew the answer. Shawn and his friend weren’t taking a nap. “Jesus.”

Jay stooped down and grabbed the men. With a grunt, he threw their bodies over his shoulders and carried them to the lake. He dropped the corpses into the water and turned back to everyone else. “Your parents will love this, Jia. Drinking, smoking, and almost dying? Go get in Lena’s car. Arie, did you have drugs or alcohol?”

Desonjia sucked her teeth. “Please, she’s Arie. And I already gave her my keys.”

Lena shoved Desonjia toward the house, prompting her to walk. “No one asked you anything. Arie, put an illusion on Mr. Williams’s clothes to hide the blood from the other students. Don’t talk about this to anyone. Not even Ziare. Jia, go.”

With Lena on her heels, Desonjia stormed through the near-silent mansion and out the front door, bypassing all the grumbling partyers who were likely wondering how the school’s staff knew to put an end to their good time. How they found out about DeQuan’s party was the last thing on Desonjia’s mind, though. She was just happy to be alive.

At the same time, she was jealous of everyone around her. Lena wouldn’t reprimand Desonjia’s classmates the way she would reprimand her. Where they got a phone call home, Desonjia would get a lecture that never seemed to end. She even envied her attackers, because they didn’t have to hear Lena’s mouth.

Arms crossed and wearing a scowl, Desonjia slammed the passenger’s side door of Lena’s car. To avoid her godmother’s piercing glare, Desonjia pretended to watch Jay shoo everyone out of the house, but her mind wandered back to the bodies sinking to the bottom of the lake. Sure, she was alive.

But they were lucky.

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