Computers were impervious to magic – that was the rule. Right until all the rules stopped applying, and dangerous spam emails carrying real spells with real consequences began to fly.
It is up to Thea Winthrop and her friends to find out what is happening… and it is Thea, alone, who will face some of the most difficult choices of her young life as she faces down her old nemesis, the grasping Alphiri who have always wanted a piece of her, and a new adversary… who is disturbingly like herself…
About the Author: Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with two cats, a one-eyed ex-feral street moggy rescue, and a retired international grand champion Maine Coon) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma and her books on her website, at her Amazon author page, on Twitter, at her Facebook page, or at her Patreon page.
The first hint of serious trouble came, as trouble always does, unlooked for, stealthily, catching everyone by surprise. It was the day that LaTasha Jackson suddenly turned into an Anatomy Teacher’s Aid.
Things came to a head during a free-study hour, individual work done in the comfortable, plush silence of the school library, each student to his or her own cubicle, doing whatever work felt most pressing or pleasing. For some, that meant finishing homework due for the very next class; others were reading college textbooks on chosen subjects, way beyond what the Academy was supposed to be covering. Still others sat furtively hunched over their desks, with loose hair covering contraband earphones, trying to hide a music-player-shaped bulge in their pocket. One or two, bored, drew cartoons or wrote snatches of deathless prose which they fondly imagined would turn into a novel someday. The incorrigible chatterboxes found a way to whisper and giggle softly to one another from adjoining cubicles, or pass notes with the occasional rustle of tearing and a scritch of pencils on paper.
But, on the whole, everything was quiet, and Thea liked it that way. She wasn’t doing anything particularly scholastic, but that wasn’t because she was goofing off–she usually managed to have most of her work done in reasonable time, and hardly ever needed to resort to trying to write an essay five minutes before it was due. What she used her free study periods for was simply reading. She would meander down the library stacks at the beginning of the hour, pulling out a book here and there to check it out as a title caught her eye, and finally settle on something that interested her. Her reading tastes were wide-ranging—the books that found their way to her cubicle ranged from almost pristine art history hardcovers to dog-eared fat fantasy novels that had passed through many hands.
She was engrossed in a book about the social customs of chimpanzees when a bloodcurdling scream rent the air from the coveted north corner of the library, where the bank of library computers slated for student use were situated. Thea jumped, dropping her book on the desk with a thump and losing her place, pushing her chair back on its castors to peer around the edges of her cubicle.
Dozens of other heads popped out from other cubicles, and they were all in time to watch in appalled horror as something ghastly leaped back from a computer screen, overturning the chair and sending it flying into a bookcase which staggered under the impact, and raced down the length of the library and out through the double doors at the far end.
The only reason Thea even remotely recognised this apparition was LaTasha’s trademark hairstyle, lots of tiny braids finished off by bright trade beads in garish shades of pink and mustard yellow. The face that she’d glimpsed beneath those braids, however, was something else indeed.
She looks like she’s been skinned! was the first thought that came swimming into Thea’s astonished mind. And then she shuddered as she realised that this, precisely this, was what LaTasha was. Skinned. Or at least giving a reasonably good imitation of it. But there was no blood, Thea followed up her own thought, frowning. Surely there should have been… but no… there was just…
That was it, in a nutshell. Instead of LaTasha’s skin, the colour of coffee leavened with a touch of cream, her face had been a striated, complicated mass of red muscle, striated bands of it coming down from her temples to wrap around her mouth, neat folds of it across her nose and cupping her chin, round orbs of it around her alarmingly protruding eyeballs, startling and somewhat unnerving glimpses of stark bone structure underneath it all. Her hands, held out in front of her, had been the same way–-a naked, tangled mass of tendon and sinew. But no blood. It was like her skin had just gone see-through, somehow, revealing the building blocks of the body which lay beneath, usually safely hidden away.
There was a swelling of noise in the library as students surged out of their chairs, clustered in tight little knots, the librarian on duty frantically whispering something into a telephone, her hand cupped protectively around the mouthpiece.
For some reason it was only Thea who finally backed away from all the pandemonium and edged almost furtively towards the computer LaTasha had been using.
She wasn’t sure herself what she expected to find there, but what she did discover left her blinking owlishly at the monitor for a few moments. The screen showed a webmail gateway, something that many students used while at school and away from easy access to their own home email accounts. An email was open on the screen, an email that LaTasha should have known better than to open–anything addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org should have been immediately suspect, at the very least as an advertisement, unwanted junk mail, spam. But what followed was fatal:
Having trouble keeping your skin blemish-free? Troubled by zits, lines, old scars? Try our incredible product for 30 days for FREE! We guarantee that we will leave your skin clearer than you could ever have dreamed of….
LaTasha was fourteen years old, and painfully self-conscious of the imperfections of her skin, which was cursed with large pores and periodic zit infestations that made her look like she was coming down with the measles–and that was without an unfortunate scar left behind by her brush with the real measles, which she had had as a toddler and which sat, a small but (to LaTasha) eye-wateringly obvious pit, underneath and to the side of her left eye.
“It makes my eye droop,” she had complained to friends, often. “Look, it makes me look like a Saint Bernard puppy, all mournful and woebegone. Who’d want to date that? They probably all think I’m going to bore them silly with family tragedies. Like I’d had a twin who was stolen by the Faele or something and never came home. Oh, it’s hopeless!”
Perfect skin. The thing had offered perfect skin. That would have been irresistible to someone like LaTasha, who blamed hers for all the injustice of her life– if she could only get perfect skin, she’d be happy, she knew she’d be happy…
Something surfaced briefly in Thea’s mind, and then submerged again before she’d had a chance to grab at it. Instead, she sighed and reached out instinctively to clear the screen, as though that email could be used as some sort of evidence against poor LaTasha. And even as her hand hovered above the red X that would close the email screen, that thing that had briefly come up for air suddenly did so again, and this time it had a word in its mouth.
Not perfect. The word was clear.
“Clearer than you could ever have dreamed of,” muttered Thea to herself as she hastily clicked on the red X. “Oh, my fur and whiskers…”
“But that is a spell,” Thea muttered to herself, frowning.