THE DESERT ALPHA

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CHAPTER 27 - LUNA

The next several days at Jessamy’s house passed in a bit of a blur, as I lost myself to the stacks of books she had prepared for me to continue my magical education. She had led me up the spiral staircase to her library on my second morning in her home, chattering about her selections and showing me how to move the rolling ladders spaced on each wall of shelves. My eyes had felt ready to pop out of my head taking it all in, the morning sky bright through the enchanted ceiling and illuminating the overflowing shelves with a soft glow. For a moment, I had lost my sense of self, glazed eyes roving over the endless titles. The air had held a feeling of possibility, of opened doors, my fingertips itching to dive into the first from my pile.

I read of more magic than my mind could comprehend, eyes skimming over the pages in an attempt to glean as much information as possible. The stack didn’t seem to have a particular order to the books, as the subjects varied dramatically, so I flipped through the titles that stood out the most as a starting point. My reading led me to books on magical creatures, detailed with beautiful illustrations of elves, dwarves, pixies and sprites…goblins and trolls. There was even an entire heavy tome on magical variations of insects. One book contained information on creatures native to this region, my eyes blowing wide at the list as I wondered how many of them were now extinct.

I hadn’t been able to suppress a shiver at the illustration of one creature called the Sand Hydra, a large five-headed snake that was described to have “insatiable hunger.” The idea that something like that was real - even if it no longer existed - had me less enthusiastic about the idea of participating in another Run across the desert terrain. There were several other creatures that had me chewing my lip anxiously, and I made a mental note to follow up with someone about any beings I should be wary of out here. It was likely that there had been many similarly-terrifying creatures back at my old home, though I hadn’t ever thought to consider that something other could have been roaming the same woods as my Pack. But I couldn’t deny my fascination with the other societies of creatures I read about, my mind frequently going back to Amadrya and Amalthea every time I eyed a tome on dryads, ultimately deciding to save it for a later date.

After covering magical beings to my level of satisfaction, I spent almost an entire day on two books titled Mental Magic and Theory of the Mind. They contained passages on Visiting, which I devoured greedily, hoping to find out enough about the magic it called upon to try it for myself. The structure of the skill wasn’t too complicated, not when it was broken down in text, describing the different stages of Visiting across chapters. Every few pages or so, there were hand-written notes in black ink that had faded long ago. The print was barely-legible in most areas, too blurred with time to reveal to me the thoughts of whoever had scribbled them there.

The larger of the two books, Mental Magic, focused on the layers of connection that allowed for Visiting, the levels of perception one could access when telepathically linked to someone else. The beginning stages were simple enough, in theory, focused on establishing an awareness of presence within the mind…and grew more complex with stronger and deeper connections. Different examples detailed how one could develop the skill of Visiting, starting out with Visits in the form of flashes - or brief glimpses of environments completely foreign - like “a snowstorm in the middle of the summer” or “the smell of fresh-cut grass in a public restroom.”

With enough practice, Visiting could allow words to be spoken privately - directly into one’s mind - first practiced by speaking the desired words out loud, then eventually only internally… It could also allow one’s mental transportation to the physical location of another, giving one access to all of the senses the other experienced…sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.... The prospect of it all excited me, filling me up with something that felt a bit unfamiliar in its nature. Maybe it was how it felt to be truly intrigued, the topic one of my own choosing and not out of expectation. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was certain Knox had Visited me more frequently than he would ever admit…and I couldn’t prove what I didn’t understand.

Throughout my reading, I was both relieved and apprehensive - relieved that what Jessamy had said about Visiting not being the same as mind-reading seemed to be true, but apprehensive due to all the moments of strange familiarity I had picked up on between myself and Knox. He moved around me like he knew my thoughts in advance, anticipated what I needed before I could think to ask for it… I had shaken my head vigorously when thoughts of Knox began to distract me from the passages, intent on figuring this out myself. I couldn’t deny that the concept of Visiting was by far the topic of most interest to me…though I rationalized my interest away as being born from my desire to understand the capabilities of those with this power.

The book also touched on the topic of Sharing, which was apparently similar to Visiting, taking the intentions of the magical link a step further by encouraging the transference of knowledge, language and skills” from one person to another. There were descriptions of techniques best suited to initiate Sharing, one even addressing the possibility of giving access of the body over to the guest in your mind…though I wasn’t sure how I liked knowing that it was possible for someone to enter my head and control my actions. The inked notes in the margins referenced a title for another book I couldn’t quite make out despite my squinting, leaving me frustrated when further information on Sharing was not included in the remaining chapters.

Instead, the text pivoted to descriptions of what was called the psychic nervous system, which hosted the magic that established Visiting…the thing inside the mind that could be tapped into to connect with someone “telepathically and sympathetically.” That portion had caught my interest…the idea that a strong enough connection could immerse you in a person’s slightest emotions and feelings…it was incredibly intimate, in a lot of ways.

The second text, Theory of the Mind, was more vague in it’s descriptions, focusing more on the theory of psychic connections and ways to shape one’s thinking about how the brain works. It suggested that the mind was capable of far more than most realized, or could ever begin to access themselves, as inherent ability alone was not enough to maintain powerful connections. It touched on several organizational strategies that were recommended to compartmentalize thinking, which seemed to be a necessary step to take to clarify the intentions necessary to successfully Visit. I read through them with interest, jotting down notes in the leather-bound journal Jess had provided on the techniques I might try for myself.

There was something in me that felt fueled by the knowledge I had managed to acquire, even if I didn’t fully understand all of the things I was reading. Too many titles were referenced, both in the text and the notes in the margins, that didn’t seem to be in my pile. If I could manage to make out the script, I added them to my journal with the intention of spending one day searching for the other books to flush out my comprehension on the topic.

When my head felt like it was ready to explode after too many hours of thinking about how my brain thinks, I diverted to other options in my stack. I skimmed through a book on magical history, though the timeline covered in the text ended several decades before the Great Culling. It seemed strange to me that I hadn’t come across any information on the magical genocide just yet, though perhaps there weren’t many written records that detailed the time…at least that Jess would provide.

It was clear from the early publication years and worn yet well-kept conditions of the books that the magical library had been curated with painstaking care over some time. This realization only added to my reverence of Jessamy’s cluttered home, my eyes opening to more and more subtle magic around me the longer I read.

The pattern of the quiet days was a comfort, and I was essentially left to my own devices most of the time. Jess excused herself in the evenings, just as the sun was beginning to set, running off to wherever it was she sometimes disappeared to when she wasn’t cross-examining her notes against various texts. I didn’t ask where she went, and she didn’t make comments about how I had repeatedly turned down her offer to take dinner at the Pack house.

Our friendly though infrequent conversations happened in bursts, when I needed her to clarify something I had read or when she requested to perform the spell that revealed my magic. She was working on analyzing the auras she detected around me, one of which clearly belonged to Knox and had grown stronger since his Claim. His shadows wrapped around the colors and light, twisting and mingling and breaking ribbons apart with motions that carried a hint of aggression. They had reached for me, only to recede, pulsing to a rhythm I couldn’t place.

When I’d asked her why it moved like that - the first time she had revealed my magic after his Claim - Jessamy had turned a bit pink and thrown me a knowing stare. “Your connection is stronger now, due to…” she had glanced at my neck, “but it’s not…fulfilled.” With that, she had shrugged, turning back to her pile of notes and leaving me to my furious blushing. Her intention was clear despite her vague response, and the frantic swirling of his magic around me had been evidence enough that she was probably right. I knew how the Claim worked, knew that sooner or later Knox would have no choice but to succumb to our mutual desire due to the magic between us. Covering my burning cheeks behind a book, I had returned to my reading with a new determination to avoid topics of conversation involving Knox or the slowly-healing bite on my neck.

That resolve lasted until this afternoon, when I stretched in the armchair Jessamy had provided for me and reached for the next book in my pile. It had been another quiet and studious day, only interrupted by the occasional refill from a floating teapot or a tray of snacks appearing on the stacks at my side. Staying with Jess had become a refuge of sorts, a safe place to cower and hide while the bite on my neck slowly faded. I was enthralled by what I was learning, yes, but I couldn’t deny that I was avoiding Knox.

The Haze was a constant nagging in my mind, a burning in my core I could pretend to ignore with the weight of a book against my thighs. I consumed whatever I could, distracting myself from the pulsing desire to seek him out, to beg him to take me in every way I could ever imagine. The feel of the pages between my fingers and the smell of old leather would have to be enough to keep images of him out of my head. As long as my eyes were glued to a page, I could keep at bay the urge to reach between my legs and moan against the pressure…for a while at least.

He sent you away, I reminded myself repeatedly. He regrets even Claiming you in the first place. So in Jessamy’s house I would remain, until I worked up the courage to come face to face with the second Alpha to turn me away.

These thoughts were my constant companions as my fingers traced over the newest title I was to read, my eyes barely registering the text on the faded cover. I had the aged spine cracked open to the first page before I realized what I was holding, the word umbrakinesis failing to register until I reached the bottom of the page. Whether or not I actually whispered the unfamiliar word out loud, I couldn’t be sure, as Jessamy appeared at my elbow moments later. She propped herself against the tufted arm, peering down over me to see what I was reading.

With a laugh, she took the book from my hands and conjured a stool before me, settling and assessing me with teasing turquoise eyes. “I wondered when you would get to this one!” she said cheerily, flipping the book open and thumbing through the pages. “You’ll have to forgive me, though…it would be better to save this one for a later date.” The book snapped shut with a soft thump and disappeared from between her hands.

“Why?” I asked, adjusting in my seat to cross a leg casually, feigning disinterest in the subject I suspected the text to cover. Jessamy wasn’t fooled, her smile turning wicked.

“Umbrakinesis is a term for shadow magic, which I believe you’ve already worked out by yourself.” She quirked a brow and laced her fingers together, daring me to refute her claim. My cheeks flushed, but I kept my mask in place, pretending to pick at a loose thread on the armchair to justify my averted gaze. “You’ll want to learn about shadow magic from a true master,” she suggested, lifting her shoulders as if her intention wasn’t perfectly clear. “What is it they say, doll? A demonstration is worth a thousand words?” She grinned and I snorted, giving in and rolling my eyes.

“I believe it’s ’a picture is worth a thousand words,’ but point taken.” The message was direct enough - shadow magic would have to wait until I attempted to face Knox again.

“Speaking of our shadowy Alpha,” she continued, her tone suddenly more hesitant. “There’s going to be a party tonight, at the Pack house.” My spine stiffened, a shift I know she saw, as her next words were a bit rushed. “I know you haven’t been to the house yet, but this party happens every year to kick off the Haze season. Food, drinks, lots of people to keep between you and the Alpha…well I just thought it could be a good opportunity for you to see more of this place. I could give you a tour before the festivities begin, introduce you to some friends…” Jess trailed off, staring at me nervously and anticipating my rejection.

My instinct was to refuse, to keep myself hidden away until his mark was gone completely…in that way I could pretend that the Haze was something I could simply wait out, the confrontation between me and Knox forever postponed as long as I remained within the walls of Jessamy’s home. But I was intrigued by the idea of attending a Haze party, something I was never permitted back at my old Pack. What would the party be like, with crowds of individuals drunk on the energy of the Season? How would the magic behave, and would it be different from what I might have seen back home? I thought of Mira and her dryads, how it might be nice to have them help me dress in something other than the black sweats and Jessamy’s collection of oversized vintage band shirts I’d resorted to over the past several days.

But there would be others too, others I hadn’t met yet, and those I might like to keep my distance from, namely Janus. It was sure to be a wild event if the restrained excitement in Jessamy’s voice hinted at the revelry to come. My mind ran wild with the possibilities…of the way it might feel to finally participate in a Pack event, even if in a limited capacity. As much as I didn’t feel ready to see Knox, to face the embarrassment of his unfinished Claim that everyone seemed to know about…I found myself being swayed with each passing moment. Was this not an opportunity I would have begged my father for, only to be disappointed? Was I really the kind of girl that allowed men to keep me on the sidelines, forever out of step with the person I desperately wanted to be?

No more, I quietly decided, trying to tap into the magic I knew lay dormant inside me to provide me with the strength to get through the evening.

The moment I agreed, the sense of calm I had managed to curate over the last several days disappeared with a squeal. Jessamy clapped her hands together in excitement, immediately snatching my hand to drag me down the staircase and into her room to get changed. She chattered about preparations for the party as she had me exchange my sweats for a pair of flared jeans. A pair of pink cowboy boots were on my feet and we were out the door before I knew it, my hand clasped between her black-tipped fingers as she led me away from her house.

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