THE DESERT ALPHA

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CHAPTER 24 - LUNA

“The thing you have to understand about magic,” Jessamy began, “is that it is infinite in its existence…like energy.” I perked up at that, remembering Knox had said something similar when he had first tried explaining magic to me. She noticed my reaction, her brows raising and a teasing smile spreading on her lips. “Looks like the Alpha told you some useful things,” she chuckled, waving a hand and summoning her floral tea set to rest next to what remained of our brunch spread, “so with that same thread, think about what you know about energy. All the different forms, the laws governing thermodynamics, we’re all made of matter and energy, blah blah blah. It all applies to magic, and the studies of basic magical components actually look a lot like the research done over time to define energy.” The teapot hovered, pouring two cups that drifted over to our respective hands of their own accord. I traded my empty mimosa for the tea, savoring the flavor through slow sips as I waited for Jess to continue. Chamomile, mint, and a hint of lemon.

“Some magical historians even suggested that early human physicists were actually describing magic in their reports on energy, even if they weren’t aware of it at the time,” she explained through sips of her tea. “Humans have always hungered for more, seeking answers to the things they do not understand, using science as a tool to rationalize the things they can’t explain.” Her expression turned thoughtful, and she gestured with a hand towards the opening to the library above. “I’ve found countless human and magical overlaps in my historical studies, major technological advancements and understanding of magical theories consistently showing up in parallels. Through all cultures, anywhere in the world, at any period of time…those who were searching for answers, for more, for explanations to the things they experienced…their studies often found them blurring lines between worlds without realizing.”

She paused to pick at a piece of melon, chewing it slowly as I nodded my acknowledgement. Licking her plump lips, she washed the melon down with more tea. “It makes sense, if you really think about it, as the processes of trial and error and observation are required for advancements of anything.” Reaching to the table at her side, she procured a leather-bound journal, the spine worn and pages wrinkled at the edges where notes had already been added. Jessamy tapped the cover with a painted nail.

“Sometimes, I’ve found it really helpful to break down larger magical problems the way I would an experiment. If you’re facing something unfamiliar, it stands to reason that falling back on something familiar - like the tried and true scientific method - could help clarify things.” Her shoulders shrugged, and she tucked the journal between her folded legs and the arm of her chair. “In the same lane of experimentation in any other topic, the limits of magic are truly up to the imagination of the user. Many great practitioners of magic have published personal notebooks just like mine, containing their studies and experiments into the limits of what can be done magically. Without these records, there’s a good chance that we would not have the ability to manipulate magic to our own whims today, and potentially even the access to use magic at all. Creativity is the spark that anything worth discovering requires, and it’s also the fuel for utilizing magic in ways you might not initially expect.”

Collecting her thoughts, her eyes seemed to spark with something like excitement. “The point is, in order to use magic to its fullest potential, you have to realize that magic and energy are just different interpretations of the same thing, therefore they exist in all the same places… all you have to do is look for it. Once you accept that and consider the implications of aligning both human and magical knowledge…magic is just science with higher intention.” She sipped her tea, popping a dark purple grape in her mouth.

“Magic can be channeled, transformed, contained to objects. You can use magic as a passageway, or a door that opens into anywhere in the world you desire. Magic can connect you to the mind, the very soul of a person. It’s all around us, it lives within us, and the stronger your belief in the idea that the lines between opposites are more blended than we might think, the stronger your power can grow.” Her look was pointed, as if her explanation contained no contradictions. I thought about what she said, about the blending of opposites, and squirmed at the strange feeling the sentiment gave me.

“There are rules to magic, of course,” she continued, “and laws regarding limitations. Learning these rules is equally as important as learning when to bend them, as well as understanding how to work within the crosshairs. For example,” she snatched a bright orange pillow from its spot next to me on the couch, placing it in her lap and running her fingers across the thread-bare fabric, “we’ve established that like energy, magic cannot be created or destroyed. The same applies to life…” she stilled her fingers and whispered something I couldn’t understand, the pillow shivering and stretching into an old orange tomcat. He leaned into Jessamy’s scratches, butting his head affectionately against her arm.

“Crispy here isn’t a real cat,” she explained, gently covering his ears so as not to give away the secret. He purred and nuzzled her, massaging her legs with his front paws as he curled into place on her lap. “Though he looks real, feels real, and acts like a real cat, he cannot survive without my magic. If my spell were to end, or I was to somehow die, he would immediately return to a somewhat cat-smelling pillow.” She looked a little sad at the idea, stroking her fingers in an affectionate way that suggested this wasn’t the first time the pillow had been a cat.

“Since he is not a ‘real’ cat, technically he cannot die, so if I wanted to make his transformation permanent my magic could sustain this old guy for the rest of my life. But that’s not something I would likely choose for him. Magic like that can be…unpredictable.” She left the cat on her lap, her eyes unfocused as she trailed her fingers through his fur. “So you get the gist, magic cannot create real life. Just as it cannot create real food without the ingredients, or real liquid without a source. You can use illusions to project the appearance of these things, or transform food to look like something else that is more appealing - but unless it contains a base component of something real, it won’t sustain you.”

I considered this thoughtfully, remembering that Knox had specified that all the Perimeter houses were stocked with any supplies you might need. In those houses, anything could be summoned, already existing somewhere within this world or the next. The food that was prepared with each stay came from something tangible, something that could be found in any kitchen in the world, and that thought brought me a sense of comfort.

Jessamy snacked on more grapes while she watched me process, only clearing her throat to continue when I nodded my encouragement. “Apply the same to death then. Nothing that has passed beyond this world can really return, even if summoned or animated. Powerful necromancers and others with magical connections to the afterlife have the ability to create reanimated beings that look and feel like the real deal, but they aren’t alive, truly. Most were not created to a high enough quality to have any semblance of human thought processing or decision making. Typically their creators made them for a purpose, to follow orders or to complete menial tasks.” The sick feeling in my stomach intensified at the thought of anyone being capable of re-animating the dead. From the look of curious interest on Jess’ face, I thought better of expressing any distaste for the darker ways magic could be used. But I hadn’t controlled my recoil enough, if the tight line of her mouth was any indication, and I worried that I may have somehow offended her with my unease.

“There are plenty of books in my collection I could recommend that can give a broader explanation of the rules and regulations regarding magic,” she assured me, “as well as several essay collections on the ethics of more specific magical practices. But those are the basics, and the main boundaries to be aware of when starting with magic.” She waved her tea towards her, lap too occupied with orange fur to reach for it on the table. Sipping thoughtfully, she stared beyond me at something I knew I wouldn’t see even if I followed her gaze. My mind was swirling with the information she provided, but I hoped she wasn’t finished. There was clearly too much to review, at least in one afternoon, but as she settled the teacup in the center of the orange donut that was the magical cat Crispy, I sensed a shift in the direction of our conversation.

“For some,” Jessamy began, “learning and using magic is much easier than others. Knox is a good example of that…someone with magical potential so raw it manifested at an early age, easily recognizable to his mother once he began to show the signs. Magic is inherent to him, amplified by his position of power within the Pack, cultivated by knowledgeable practitioners from the beginning. He’s lucky in that regard, gifted his own way, likely due to the combination of Lillith’s magic and whatever power his father possessed.” I wanted to ask about them, Knox’s parents, but it didn’t feel appropriate given our conversation. She would likely tell me to ask Knox myself, which I certainly would not be doing anytime soon, and I didn’t like the idea that she might report my questions back to him. Jessamy didn’t notice the direction my mind had gone, her focus locked on the teapot floating over to refill her cup.

With a small sigh, she continued. “Most people aren’t as fortunate, either due to a lack of community to foster magical learning, or due to any of the number of challenges a person typically faces when they are not like their peers. Magical education isn’t exactly an elective at school, unless things have changed dramatically since I was a kid, and those who attempted to seek out magical training in the past were often shunned from their communities.” She frowned at the idea, her perpetual empathy for others shining through the hard look in her eyes. “Humans tend to fear the unknown, the elusive ‘other,’ so you can imagine how much easier life would be if a person’s aspirations towards magic were simply set aside and forgotten. Years pass, they have children, their children have children, so on and so forth. If left unrealized, someone who once held great magical potential could have it erased from their family in a matter of generations.”

She shook her head, obviously saddened at the thought. “That reality was a lot more common than most realize, especially following the Great Culling, and has resulted in the slight peppering of individuals with traces of power around the country in the present day. Those individuals may never know they have the ability to tap into magic, since that power is generally very diluted in their bloodline. But many highly-intuitive people actually have a touch of magic somewhere in their ancestry, though they live out their lives without ever discovering where their sense of ‘knowing’ comes from.”

Pressing a hand to her chest, as if the recollection of this history was painful for her, she briefly closed her eyes. “So much magical knowledge was lost during the Culling as hunting parties moved throughout the country, burning and destroying countless magical records penned by all the creatures that did not turn into Wolves.” She looked at me, face full of regret. “What little remains is closely guarded by private collectors like Knox, in libraries that require special permission to access. My collection happens to be one of such spaces.” Inclining her head towards the upper level, I allowed my eyes to roam once again over the countless texts on display. In this room alone was more magical knowledge than most of the world would ever know, sitting and collecting dust on cramped shelves.

“You can imagine then, how difficult it would be for someone with slight connections to magic to know much of anything with the resources being so rare and inaccessible. In that way the magical world has grown pretty small, and remains scattered.” She seemed disappointed by this, a pang of loneliness hanging in the air between us. “There are other places around the globe that are more organized,” she explained, “with governments and councils to manage magic use, however the sheer land mass of this country and territorial natures of those that remain in power predisposes most magic users to separation.” With a shrug, she shook off her solemn mood, taking a breath and moving on.

“Access to magic alone, however, is not enough to maintain a powerful grasp on it over time. Even those with strong magical connections and training may find an eventual drop in their power if it is not utilized or fostered actively.” I raised my brows in surprise, taken aback by the use it or lose it policy magic seemed to employ. She nodded, inclining her face towards me. “If magic is like energy, using it is a bit like exercising a muscle. What happens to muscles if they go unused?” Jessamy paused, though her question was obviously rhetorical. “They weaken, whither… atrophy,” her voice was firm, unyielding.

“That said, the amount of power a person contains can impact how long their magic can sustain without use, and the same is true for how much magic they can utilize at a time. Unused magic can dissolve into nothing, just as overused magic can burn your reserves empty. Magic is always seeking balance, stability, and demands payment in some form for use. That payment either comes from your internal magic, or an external source, so for most who use magic this reality is the case.” I considered interrupting, asking her to explain further, but I caught myself, anticipating the answers to my questions might be an explanation away.

Jessamy reclaimed her teacup from Crispy, draining it and setting it to the side. “Of course, there are some exceptions to this. Many techniques exist to encourage magic growth, power expansion…there are rituals that can connect a person to power that channels through them, pulling from another source.” She hesitated, glancing at me inconspicuously. I braced myself for what was to come, nervous in response to the way her shoulders tensed. “So couple that with someone that may already have extensive magic…” she said, “these individuals can interact with the laws of magic a bit differently. Instead of their magic usage pulling from a personal reserve that requires replenishment, it acts as a drain on constantly generating power.” My brow furrowed, reading through the lines of her explanation.

“You mean Knox.” I stated, voice as calm as I could manage with my pulse pounding. She nodded.

“Yes - Knox is one of those slightly unique individuals.” she reached for the palm stone I’d seen her worry in her hands the last time we spoke, rolling the smooth stone between her fingers. “We already covered that his magic began to show at an early age, and he was already a master over many areas of magic before he became Alpha. His magic coupled with the Alpha bloodline…I don’t think even Knox anticipated how constant the magic would become within him.” The respect and adoration for his power was clear in her voice, laced with an affection I wondered at. “He always had his own magical reserves, but the power generated by the Pack and his massive territory…I’ll always remember the look on his face when he realized magic was no longer draining him, but he was draining the magic.”

She chuckled, and I wished silently that I could see the Knox she was clearly picturing. “He told me once,” she giggled, “that if he goes too long without doing something, even just summoning a glass of water or turning off the lights, he starts to feel like a shaken-up soda can, about to explode.” She laughed for real, that high tinkling sound of hers that made me smile. “I told him I would pay good money to see that.” I couldn’t help but chuckle with her, though the thought of seeing Knox explode his magic didn’t sound like something I would actually want to watch. He had been close enough during the confrontation of Draven, his shadows uncontrollable and consuming before we made our hasty exit.

Jess waved a hand dismissively, shaking her head clear. “But enough about your broody Alpha. He can tell you more about his magic when he stops hiding from you.” My cheeks flushed at her comment, at the possessiveness she granted me in relation to Knox, hand instinctively moving to the purpling bite at my neck. I desperately wanted to ask her more about him, about his magic and the way she’d been holding him back during the meeting. I wanted to ask her why he Claimed me only to immediately regret it, to send me away as soon as he could. I knew he was trying to avoid me, that much was obvious, but hearing that someone else had noticed too had me shifting uncomfortably. She had to know we hadn’t…well…

A brush of her hand over Crispy’s back was enough to draw me from those dangerous thoughts. Jessamy was smirking, watching me struggle for words while she patiently stroked the purring cat. “Well,” I managed, sipping on my tea to clear my suddenly-thick throat, “what about you? How do you use magic?” Her brows raised, but she allowed me to steer our discussion away from the Alpha that had my emotions twisting in my gut.

“You want to know about me?” she clarified, and I managed to nod. She studied me, her eyes still teasing, before accepting the change in our conversation. “I come from a long line of witches, though I no longer have any living family. I grew up around magic, not within the Pack of course, but I was aware of its presence inside me from my first breath. Through my work with Iana, I’ve reached mastery of a comprehensive list of magical techniques and practices…though there is always more to learn.” She grinned and tapped the side of one temple.

“I can light a fire,” the candles around the room blazed to life with a wave of her hand, “change any object into something completely different,” the teacup resting on her knee molded into a sharp dagger, only to return to its normal state. “I can make myself some toast without touching the kitchen,” she waved a hang and bread floated from her pantry, two slices slotting into her toaster with a crinkle, jam and butter and a knife floating to join a plate that appeared on the counter.

“Imbue any item with charms for any purpose,” she gestured to the stack of bones on the at her side, as if the movement alone explained their purpose, “bind my life in unbreakable servitude,” she raised her hands in front of her, backs facing me, and nodded her head to her blackened fingers, “use my blood to place protective wards…” her voice trailed off, hands falling to the cat on her lap, eyes surveying me for reaction. I sat quietly, busying my hands with my tea and dropping my gaze. Jessamy collected her thoughts in silence, tapping her chin and keeping her gaze locked on me.

Finally, to my relief, she continued. “Those are just a few examples and party tricks, but my main role is to serve and advise the Pack however they need. Often, I am a healer, a therapist, a potioneer, as well as a seemingly endless number of roles that help keep the Wolves in line.” Her soft smile was sincere, that affection she clearly held for the Alpha and his Pack obvious in her expression. “I consult with Knox on all matters magical, researching, tracking magical anomalies and hunting down lost works or artifacts for his personal collection. I prepare and facilitate all rituals that happen within the Territory, from matings to newborn blessings to conversations with the beyond. My assistance extends to anyone who requires my skills, within reason of course, though I do find myself to be more amenable to the requests of some Wolves if they bring something weird or rare with them.”

She smiled wide, looking around at her overflowing shelves cluttered with trinkets. I could spend an entire weekend here, cataloging the different items found within her home, and probably not come close to identifying all of them. My eyes drifted, focusing not on anything in particular but the space as a whole. Sitting here on Jessamy’s couch, learning more and more about magic and the role the witch played in this Pack…it felt a bit like sitting inside her mind. She was wise beyond her years, yes, but fun and charming in an almost child-like manner within the walls of her home. The colors of the room were so varied in the textures and patterns that it was almost overwhelming, but it felt like her.

“My most important duty, however, is to ensure the continuation of this Pack. I bound my life in servitude to do so, and that responsibility will mean different things at different times.” She paused, gauging my reaction, which I kept schooled to neutral interest. “Right now, that means helping Knox maintain the Pack in any way he requires. Once he takes a mate…my duty will be to assist in providing a successor.” The ever-present flush in my face returned, the room suddenly hot. The way she was looking at me had the bite on my neck itching, Knox’s Claim on me the giant elephant in the room we were yet to actually address. “It sounds a bit crass out of context, but really my job will be to assist whichever offspring or outside selection he names in their magical training, so they are fully prepared when it is time to perform the Alpha bloodline ritual.”

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