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Alchemy of Souls

Alchemy of Souls

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Book 3 of the Hundred Halls series

As Aurie's third year at the Hundred Halls begins, a sinister force is stealing souls, leaving victims as lifeless husks and threatening the safety of even the professors. With the forbidden power of soul magic at play, Aurie and her sister must stop the thief before the magical university is changed forever.

Synopsis

In the Hundred Halls, students experiment with all manners of magic: catoptromancy, lexology, verumancy, rune spells, demonology, shape changing, and a thousand other arcane techniques. Every magic is encouraged. Every magic, except one—soul magic. As Aurie's third year begins, students are found without their souls, ripped from their bodies, leaving them empty husks. Someone, or something, is stealing them for a nefarious purpose. With that kind of power being collected, not even the professors are safe. If Aurie and her sister cannot stop the soul thief before the end of the year, the Hundred Halls will never be the same.

Chapter One Look Inside

Chapter One

Aurie knew days like this weren't meant for her. Yet it hadn't been one solitary day, but a whole summer of them, one after another like train cars, all in a row. She'd kept expecting the hammer to drop, but every day the clinic had stayed open and the number of patients had increased. By mid-July, everyone in the district knew her name and greeted her with a wave and a smile as if she were family, even if the smile was a mouth full of jagged teeth, or the wave was attached to a set of glistening claws. Here she was, the last day of the summer before classes started, and nothing had happened. It was a miracle.
As the end had approached, she'd decided to hold a Farewell to Summer party, giving everyone a last chance for treatment before she was buried in class work. During school year, the clinic would be open on Sundays, but it just wouldn't seem the same.
Much to her embarrassment and surprise, the district used the occasion as a little festival. Colorful tents filled the square, around which Hannah was being chased by a throng of laughing children with enchanted wands that changed her hair color every time one of them touched her with one. Hannah's hair was currently bubble gum pink with flame-orange tips.
Annabelle, Nezumi's daughter, her thick tail sticking out from her little overalls, jumped out of a stall to tag Hannah with her wand.
"Rocket ships!" yelled Annabelle with a slight, but thoroughly adorable lisp. Her teeth were still coming in.
It wasn't technically a color, but the spell interpreted it anyway, changing Hannah's hair white with black bands.
After a few rounds of the game, Annabelle came to see Aurie and threw herself into her arms. She smelled like clover and cotton candy.
"Hey, Ladybug," said Aurie, laughing. "Don't wear yourself out too much."
"No wear out," said Annabelle.
"I got you something," said Aurie, pulling a bracelet from her pocket. She showed it to the little girl, who bounced on her heels, clapping her hands. "It has your name on it."
"Magic?" asked Annabelle.
"Yes," said Aurie, slipping it on the girl's wrist. "Special magic to protect you."
"Th...th...thank you," said Annabelle, getting the th sound right on the third try. "I love you, Auriebella."
Annabelle threw herself into Aurie's arms for another hug. She loved the way Annabelle didn't hold anything back. Aurie squeezed her tight and kissed her on the forehead. Annabelle rejoined the game, squealing with delight.
The parade of laughter disappeared into the tents, leaving Aurie ready to attend to her last patient.
"She's a treasure," said Ms. Cartagena, smiling from beneath her cowl.
"I'm sorry," said Aurie, turning her attention back to the old woman. "Before I got distracted, you were saying that your elbow is hurting? My spell showed it checked out as pretty healthy, like twenty-year-old kind of health."
The woman beneath the cowl smiled. She wore a full-length black dress with a veil as if she were the wife of the deceased at a funeral. Only a pale arm was sticking out.
She chuckled knowingly. "I must confess, I only got in line because I wanted to say thank you for what you've done for the district."
"You didn't have to do that," said Aurie.
"But I have," she said. "Besides, it was an excuse to get out on this wonderful day. Nothing but blue skies and the kind of clouds you can spend an afternoon daydreaming by."
Aurie looked back over the city. The warm sun on her face made her wish Pi hadn't left, but she was getting together with Ashley, her old friend from Coterie, and Aurie didn't want to get in the way of that.
"The summer has been too perfect," said Aurie. "Almost like it can't be real. It makes me worry that doom is around the corner."
The old woman tapped a bony finger on Aurie's hand. "Doom is always around the corner. No one escapes it forever, but when the good days come, enjoy them and don't look back. You never know when the next one will come."
An ache formed between her breasts, as if something was pressing against her. She tried to sigh and make it go away, but it had caught fast.
Annabelle came running up, pigtails bouncing, a giggle at the edge of her lips ready to burst forth like bubbles.
"Ms. Aurelia. Ms. Aurelia," said Annabelle, tugging on Aurie's sleeve. "Can you come play with us?"
"Maybe after a little while," said Aurie, forcing a smile. "I'm chatting with Ms. Cartagena. But don't go too far. Your dad said to stay near the clinic."
Nezumi, Annabelle's father, had gone in search of undercity mushrooms to bring to his wife, who was a fine chef. He'd been Aurie's biggest cheerleader since the clinic had reopened at the beginning of summer and had her and Pi over for dinner weekly, though Aurie wasn't sure he really liked Pi. Aurie had seen him sniffing the silverware after meals to see if she'd cursed them.
After Annabelle left, Ms. Cartagena said, "She's a sweet kid."
"She's been through a lot, though you can't tell. Nezumi tells me that she has nightmares about what happened last year and wakes up screaming a couple times a week," said Aurie, the ache in her chest squeezing tighter. While it'd been Patron Frank Orpheum who'd hypnotized the district and turned them into zombie-like thralls, she'd been the one to get Nezumi and his family mixed up in it. Aurie watched Annabelle for them when they worked. She liked to think she did it because she was a good kid, but Aurie knew there was a locomotive full of guilt driving it.
Ms. Cartagena clucked her tongue. "Good riddance to that jackass Orpheum. I never did like his Orpheum Vaudeville Traveling Show. Pompous ass probably hypnotized people into thinking they'd had a good time."
"Vaudeville show? He hasn't done that for—"
Ms. Cartagena hushed Aurie. "No math, young lady. You're not supposed to know how old I really am."
Aurie was well aware that Ms. Cartagena was the type of supernatural creature that lived a long time, but she wasn't rude enough to ask which one.
Before Aurie could say anything, Ms. Cartagena tensed, her eyes glowering. She clucked her tongue again.
"You have a visitor," said Ms. Cartagena loudly, then in whisper, "Careful with this one."
To Aurie's unfortunate surprise, Camille Cardwell was standing outside the booth wearing a fuzzy turquoise jacket and a big chunky necklace around her neck. The woman was the owner of the Herald of the Halls, and the mother of Aurie's rival, Violet Cardwell, a pretentious blonde twit she had the unfortunate experience of sharing a Hall with.
"I'll be taking my leave," said Ms. Cartagena, sliding away spryly.
"I'm only taking charity cases, though I have heard the Herald's sales are down," said Aurie, right as she noticed a young man with Camille wielding a tiny and expensive camera. Aurie muttered a curse word under her breath.
"Such is life," said Camille, sighing, "but my misfortunes shouldn't keep me from being generous with my wealth."
Aurie felt like an ass for the comment, especially when she knew that Camille gave extensively to Golden Willow and other charities. It was Violet she had a feud with, not the mother.
"My apologies," said Aurie, glancing at the camera, silently wishing that neither it nor Camille was there. "That was rude of me. How can I help?"
"It's not how you can help me, but how I can help you," said Camille. "I got word of the good works you've been performing here in the Enochian District, and came to offer a helping hand. Financial of course—actual work is hell on my nails."
She was a charming old socialite, and Aurie found herself liking Camille a smidge, even if she'd gotten her kicked out of Golden Willow and had birthed a blonde monster. Aurie just wished the mother didn't wear the same musky plum perfume as her daughter. It always made Aurie want to gag.
"I appreciate the offer, but..." said Aurie, eyeing the guy with the camera.
Camille noticed her staring. "Oh, silly me, I forgot about him. Dave's just taking footage for the article in the Herald. As you said, paper sales are down, but online is up, up, up. We're going to do a few posts on the district with the highlight being your clinic. After all, you're quite the hero after winning the contest last year, and not even with a full team. Fighting those giant bugs must have been awful, just awful. And now this work with the clinic will make you a hit with my readers. I know it feels a little exploitive, but it's good for the district."
Aurie's face warmed with embarrassment. Despite her feud with Violet, the Herald of the Halls had written glowing articles about the Harpers winning the contest. A beat reporter had interviewed both Pi and her earlier in the summer. Aurie had never expected Camille herself to stop by. She'd been preparing to decline the help, but realized pettiness was driving it and changed her mind.
"The district would be happy to take any help you can provide," said Aurie, realizing that Camille was making a lot of sense. "And thank you for your support of Golden Willow. Your generosity has helped a lot of people."
Aurie took a deep breath. The musky plum perfume wasn't as bad now that she was used to it. In fact, it was becoming more lovely by the second.
"There, there. You see, you're coming around," said Camille with a wink. "The district is thriving now because of you. You're protecting them, defending them. Keeping them safe."
Aurie was feeling lightheaded, and a part of her was aware that this was unnatural, but the part of her in control didn't care. Whatever Camille was saying seemed to make a lot of sense—it wasn't like she hadn't spent last year fighting off a patron. Why shouldn't the district benefit?
"Dave, darling," said Camille, gesturing at the tents. "Get a few wide shots of the area. I want to make sure we have good scene setting."
"I really must be going," said Aurie, feeling drowsy. It had to be something in the perfume that was doing this. She needed to get away.
Camille reached out and grabbed Aurie's bare arm. A tingling sensation traveled through her limbs, until Aurie felt like she could jump over a three-story building in a single bound.
"Yes, darling. You're a great hero, who does heroic things," she said, then pulled her hand away, peeled a layer of fake skin from her palm, torched it to ash with magic, and winked. "Good luck."
Despite the feeling of invincibility coursing through her veins, doom started rotting in her gut. She could taste it like bile.
As Camille and Dave the camera man walked away, a shout went up from the street. Screams erupted as tents fell like leaves. Desperate to see what was going on, Aurie leapt onto the dragon fountain.
What she saw brought denials to her lips. It couldn't be. They'd left them in the contest last year. A half-dozen deadly bugs marched through the festival, slicing through tents, advancing on the fountain. At first she thought they were an illusion, until she remembered she couldn't be fooled by that kind of magic because of her skill with mendancy. Once she knew they were real, rage filled her. Why had these bugs entered her world, threatened her friends? Aurie summoned a piece of the sun to her fist, ready to unleash it.
Racing between the tents, barely ahead of the bugs, was Annabelle. She'd dropped the wand. Her face was etched with fear, a high-pitched scream issuing from her lips in one long siren.
"Get behind me!" Aurie screamed, mentally urging Annabelle to run faster. The nearly eight-foot-tall bugs were right on her tail, so close she didn't dare use destructive magic, so she threw a bolt of force with her other hand to knock the bugs back and give Annabelle room.
The little girl scrambled past the fountain. With Annabelle safe, Aurie tapped into her well of magic, going deeper than she'd ever gone. As the faez flowed out, like water priming a pump, it connected with a second well—the dragon fountain. Power raged through her.
The bugs had stopped advancing, but the power kept flowing. Like a double helix, the twin wells of faez flowed up and out of her, spilling out around her in golden destruction. To Aurie it felt like she had a sun bursting from her chest. Nearby tents charred to ash in moments. The giant bugs teetered backwards, and she realized they were costumes. Frightened human faces stuck out of the bodies of the olive-green bugs. The limbs were held by wire and only appeared to move.
But the power kept flowing, filling the fountain with faez. She felt like she was holding a nuclear bomb inside her chest. She couldn't stop it, like a river rushing over its banks: faez, sweet golden faez, power without measure came out of her. A part of her realized that if she could harness it she could become a god.
It was like drowning and ecstasy all at once. She'd never felt so alive. Straight up into the sky, Aurie threw a beam of fire. Like a pillar of god, the fire went through the clouds, a signal to the world of her existence.
She was ready to claim her place in a new pantheon centered around her, Aurelia Maximus Silverthorne, when she heard a terrible cry of pain from directly behind her.
Annabelle hadn't kept running. She'd hidden by the fountain, and now she stood a few feet away, her overalls crisped black, flame dancing around her like a thousand bright devils, screaming. Other figures were lying in crumpled heaps, clothing smoldering.
The magic ceased, a cornea of unspent power rippling into the sky. Before she could call upon a spell to repair the destruction she'd unleashed, someone tackled her from the fountain.

Main Tropes

  • Urban Fantasy
  • Magical Academy
  • Found Family
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