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Cage of Fire: Parallel Magic Book 1 (Ebook)

Cage of Fire: Parallel Magic Book 1 (Ebook)

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Book 1 of 3: Parallel Magic


In the Court of the Dead, kill or be killed takes on a whole other meaning.

I'm Bria Kent, and ever since I escaped the deadly magical prison of the House of Fire, I've lived by three rules: always be ready to run, adapt to your surroundings, and do whatever is necessary to survive.

When my cover is blown and my best friend is kidnapped, I have little choice but to seek refuge in the one place my enemies will never find me: the Court of the Dead. The slight problem? Only one fire mage can earn the right to stay on as the Death King's official Fire Element, and the contest has been rigged from the start.

My only allies are also my competition --  and the rogue spirit mage partially responsible for getting me into this mess to begin with. Yet he might be my only hope to rescue my best friend and expose a conspiracy within the Court of the Dead before the Death King figures out my real reasons for being here.

It's kill or be killed… and I have no intention of losing.

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The moment when I saw the crate contained vampire chickens was when I started to question whether taking this job had been a good idea.

Tay, my best friend, wore a mirror of my own incredulity on her face when she looked at the red-eyed feathery contents of the crate that our boss, Starker, had left in the basement for us to pick up.

“He has got to be kidding.” I moved the cloth over the cage back into place and surveyed the scrawled note on top from the boss, telling us to deliver the crate to his ally, Sketch. Not his real name, obviously, but if I were picking a badass code name, I’d have picked something more impressive. Most of Elysium’s criminals were lacking in the imagination department. 

“He wants us to take this thing two miles across the city?” said Tay. “Why not hire a cab instead?”

“He’s a cheapskate,” I responded. 

Here in the Parallel, transportation was far spottier than in the non-magical world on the other side of the nodes, with cars being a rarity and public transport non-existent. Carrier services were more of the horse-and-cart variety, and with a crate of disgruntled livestock, the odds of drawing unwanted attention were too high.

We picked up the crate between us—which emitted a loud squawk of protest—and lifted it into the air. I was the more coordinated of the two of us, so I volunteered to walk backwards while Tay steered us towards the stairs.

“Why did he hide the damn thing in the basement?” I remarked.

“Because he didn’t want to be arrested for trading in illegal magical animals,” she responded. “You okay to climb, Bria? I’ll go slow.”


I had a decent enough sense of balance, but climbing up a staircase backwards with a box of cargo who were not thrilled at their abrupt transportation took more finesse than I’d been prepared for. Why did I sign up to this again? Oh, right, because we were broke, and it seemed vampire chickens were in high demand. Personally, I thought the chickens had the better deal. Tay was good with animals. Our boss wasn’t even good with people. The dickhead hadn’t even shown up to give us a hand, instead shoving a message under the door of our shared hovel. Yet another downside to living in the Parallel: the only way to complain to the boss was to use handwritten notes or wait for him to come back from wherever he’d skived off to. It was quicker just to take the damn chickens with us, collect our payment, and be done with it. 

“How did Starker even get these?” I said through gritted teeth, sweat trickling down my spine underneath my threadbare coat. 

“Don’t ask me,” said Tay. “He’d better have the payment ready when we get back. Did the note say where he was?”

“No, but it said, ‘don’t get bitten’,” I said. “Helpful. Wait, how do the chickens pass on the vampire virus, then? They don’t even have teeth.”

Her nose scrunched up. “I have no idea. Watch out, it’s slipping.”

“That’s because it’s heavy.” Not only that, the box kept shaking and it sounded like a flock of pigeons stuck in a washing machine. 

Sometimes I seriously questioned my life choices, but when life offers you nothing but a bag of crap, you could either deal with it or bury yourself alive in it. Or get pecked half to death by it, as the case may be. As we stepped over the threshold and out into the street, I halted to make sure the cloth covering the cage was firmly in place so we wouldn’t end up exposing our cargo to the public. The movement jostled the pendant around my neck, a fist-sized round stone tucked into the neckline of my jacket.

“Okay, step back and to the right,” said Tay. “There’s a corner up ahead.”

“Right.” I took a careful step back then right, and we continued on our way down the street. 

My arms protested at the cage’s weight, while Tay’s forehead furrowed in concentration as we navigated the winding streets and back alleys. At this hour of the morning, there were few people out, but the sun was high enough that the monsters stayed put. Vampire chickens aside, that is. The cage’s weight pulled at our arms while its contents screamed their discontent.

It was then that I noticed the man watching me. Tall and lean, he stood at the side of the alleyway, a knowing expression on his face that made it clear he knew I knew he was watching. Which was kind of distracting, to say the least. I did my best to ignore him as we walked down the street and around a corner… to find the exact same stranger standing across from us.

Had he walked through the wall? No, he must have taken another shortcut like we had. It wasn’t like I could put the cage down and check, and besides, Tay didn’t seem to have noticed him. I had bigger problems than being watched by an odd stranger. It wasn’t like he could possibly know what was in the crate, surely.

I continued to follow Tay’s instructions and walked on, rounding another corner until the stranger vanished from sight—yet there he was, waiting at the street’s end, again. This time, I knew I hadn’t seen him overtake us. He caught my eye and shot me a knowing grin, as though he knew exactly what I was thinking.

“Tay,” I said. “Don’t panic, but I think we’re being followed.”

She swore under her breath. “By who?”

“This random guy. He’s behind you.”

“Thanks a bunch.” Her steps faltered. “Does he know what’s in the crate?”

“I doubt it. Also, I’m the one who has to look at him and walk backwards at the same time.” I spoke in a low voice, quickening my pace until he was out of hearing distance. 

She snorted. “Why, is he good-looking?”

“Who even cares?” It wasn’t like I could see his face from this far off, but that knowing smirk reached me even at a distance. “I’m pretty sure he just walked through that wall, unless there’s a shortcut here I don’t know about.”

We rounded another turning—and there he was again, right behind Tay. There was no mistaking it: he definitely knew he had my attention. The weird part was how he was utterly ignoring Tay, even though her vibrant red hair stood out more than my tangle of muddy brown curls. I also wore a coat which swamped my five-six form, since it had belonged to a man of at least six feet tall before I’d stolen it. My eyes were dark brown, too, and the cantrip concealed in the pendant around my neck ensured anything less than ordinary about me remained hidden.

There was no reason for someone to single me out… unless they recognised me from my previous life. And nobody who knew me from that life was any ally of mine. 

I kept walking, trying to keep my breathing steady, though my hammering heart urged me to drop the damn crate and run before it was too late.

“Walked through a wall?” echoed Tay. “What, do you think he’s a mage?”

“Even mages can’t walk through solid objects.” Elves and vampires could move at speeds which left ordinary humans in the dust, but I hadn’t seen any pointed ears or fangs on him. Vampires didn’t come out during the day, while elves didn’t share their propensity for toying with humans and mostly wanted to be left alone. “You know, maybe we ought to—”

The man reappeared again, directly beside us. No pointed ears, no fangs, and… I could see right through him. Literally. I came to an abrupt halt.

Tay’s foot caught on a raised section of pavement, and the cage’s weight hit my arms all at once. Then it slid from my grasp. Shit!

Curses exploded from Tay as the cage hit the ground, the cloth falling aside and the door opening with a cracking sound. At once, the chickens surged to the exit in a chorus of loud squawking noises, tripping over one another in an effort to get out.

Tay dove to the ground and tipped the cage upright, trying to calm the chickens down. “What the hell was that?”

“Did you see him?” I pointed wildly, but the man had vanished, as though the chickens had finally scared him off. “The guy was right there.”

“No, because I was watching the bloody cage. Ow.” She recoiled as one of the chickens pecked her finger viciously as it struggled out and waddled away to freedom. “I bloody hope the virus can’t be passed on that way.”

“Me too.” I ran in pursuit of the chicken and caught it in both hands, careful to avoid putting my fingers near its beak. Unfortunately, by the time I got back to the cage, three more had escaped. The cage door hung from its hinges, and while Tay was attempting to tie a knot of rope to hold it together, every chicken that escaped was a stack of money we’d never see again.

Tay took the chicken from me and returned it to the cage. “I swear I didn’t see anyone. What did he look like, really?”

“He looked…” Transparent. Which brought up a whole lot of other issues, most of which called my sanity into question. “Definitely human, but I think he was a ghost.”

“A ghost.” Her tone dripped with scepticism. “Not that I don’t believe you, but the dead… they don’t usually look like you or me.”

“Believe me, he wasn’t a lich, either.” Liches—shadowy ghoul-like creatures who’d once been mages—were the closest to the ghosts of actual people here in the Parallel, but as far as I knew, all of them lived in the Court of the Dead. They also left their human faces behind along with their mortality. “How many chickens escaped?”

Tay braced her arm on the cage door to close it. “Three others.”

“I’ll get them. You hold the cage.” 

I ran, putting on a burst of speed when I was sure nobody was watching, and caught up to one of the chickens at the street’s end. Unfortunately, the others had run in opposite directions, and I didn’t know this part of Elysium’s warren of tangled streets. 

I returned with the chicken in a firm grip to find Tay struggling to re-tie the makeshift knot and restrain the other residents of the cage. “Striker is going to kill us. What am I supposed to say, a creepy man appeared and then vanished in front of us? He’ll think we’re bullshitting.”

“I’ll back you up.” I held out the squirming chicken, only to get pecked on my wrist for my trouble. Blood gushed out, and I dropped the chicken. “Ow!”

Shit. Would I turn into a vampire the way I would if it’d been a regular vamp who’d bitten me? I hadn’t a clue, and I’d bet Striker didn’t either. Cursing, I grabbed the chicken around the middle and handed it to Tay.

“Bloody menaces.” Tay pushed the squirming chicken into the crate. “I think we’re too late to catch the other two runaways. Look.”

I followed her gaze, and my heart sank. A node gleamed in an alley nearby, a current of energy surging from the ground to the heavens. The nodes were the only possible way to travel from the Parallel to the world on the other side. A world in which most people had zero idea about anything magical, and where they wouldn’t have a clue what would happen if they picked up one of the strange birds. Granted, I didn’t know either, but I had to put a stop to this before London had a sudden outbreak of vampiric chickens terrorising the public.

“Wait by the cage!” I urged Tay, then ran around the corner towards the node. I might be able to chase them down, but if there were ordinary people out on the streets on the other side, we’d be in even deeper shit than if we stayed put.

As I stepped towards the current of energy, its brightness grew, and a scream came from Tay’s direction. I wheeled on the spot, my eyes widening. The cage had burst open entirely, and the chickens fled in all directions.

“What was that?” I ran over to help her, but dodging the chickens was like trying to navigate a minefield. Worse, half of them were heading right for the node. Oh, shit.

“Where are you going?” she yelped.

“The node,” I returned. “If we can’t salvage them all, we can at least stop them flooding London.”

“Who cares about that? If we get caught, we’ll get arrested.” 

“We can’t just abandon ship.” We had nowhere safe to put the chickens now the cage had broken, true, but who even knew what kind of chaos they might unleash on the other side of the nodes? If they interbred with regular chickens… that was the start of a horror story there. We had to deal with them first. “Tay, can you stand here and stop any more of them from escaping through the node? I’ve got this.”

I veered around the corner and straight into the node’s path. The current of energy flooded me, blurred my surroundings, and spat me out into a dirty street drenched in rainwater. The overcast sky and grey buildings didn’t look familiar, but I hadn’t spent long enough on the other side to learn my way around.

Unfortunately, Tay was right. The vampire chickens had made a bid for freedom down the rainy streets of London, scattering in all directions. Nodes were the only sources of magic in this world, and to ordinary people, they were invisible… but we weren’t, and neither were the vampire chickens.

“For the Elements’ sakes,” I muttered, unable to believe our shitty luck. Whoever that ghost guy was, I hoped he stepped on a cactus.

Tay appeared behind me. “We’re too late, Bria. We should go.”

“We’re in trouble,” I murmured. “What if someone gets infected with the vampire virus?”

“Chickens don’t carry the regular vampire virus,” she said. “Now, I can’t say they don’t carry any other potentially fatal diseases…”

“Not helping,” I said. “We can’t let them run loose without at least telling…”

Tay backed up a step. “Telling the Order? No need—they’re already here.”

Sure enough, I spotted a group of people dressed in dark clothing which looked more like it belonged to the Parallel than the regular world. They crowded around the roadside, one of them holding a struggling chicken in his grasp.

“Guess someone was quick on the uptake.” Whoever had called in the Order of the Elements—the ordinary world’s go-to organisation for dealing with all magic-related drama, from megalomaniacal mages to runaway vampire chickens—surely hadn’t known we’d be coming, but if we stayed here, we’d end up taking the blame for their escape.

Tay had the same idea. “C’mon. We just lost an entire payment, but it’s better than getting locked up by the Order.” 

No kidding. As mages who didn’t fit into the usual mould, we ranked high on the Order’s list of potential troublemakers just by existing. Their punishments for mages who broke the laws weren’t worth sticking around for. “Then it’s their problem, not ours.”

I stepped through the node and back into the Parallel. At once, the rain vanished, to be replaced by overcast skies and dark alleys. This realm had been created as a mirror of the world on the other side of the nodes, a long time ago, but it’d grown and developed into its own entity and it was easy to forget that everything here was a creation of the mages who’d founded the place.

Tay swore bitterly when she caught sight of the wrecked cage. “I swear someone blasted the cage open while I was holding it.”

“What, the ghost?” I didn’t see him anywhere. If his intention had been for us to wind up in trouble with the authorities, then he’d bloody well succeeded. “I’m not sure we should head back home yet. He might be waiting for us there.”

“Screw that,” she said. “If we don’t go back, that shithead Striker will repossess everything we own.”

She had a point there. “All right, but we’re not sticking around. We’ll pick up our stuff and go.”

This would be the fifth hideout we’d have to abandon in as many years. One of the dubious perks of living in a city ravaged by a magical war was the number of empty houses vacated by ordinary folk fleeing the carnage, most of whom had never come back to the city or even into the Parallel at all. The previous three decades had brought little improvement, which left almost all of us worse off than the people in the world on the other side.

For some of us, though, living in the ordinary world wasn’t even an option. 

I walked home with Tay, trailed by guilt. Not only had we lost a major payment, I’d potentially put us on the Order’s wanted list, too, though it was highly unlikely they’d ever catch either of us. In the Parallel, the regular forms of identification were non-existent, and all semblance of infrastructure had pretty much crumbled after the war.

By necessity, that also meant most of us were out for ourselves alone. Yet Tay and I had found our way to one another anyway, and we weren’t about to let a shitty boss and a weird ghost cost us our friendship on top of our jobs. At least the ghost seemed to have quit tailing us, though he likely wouldn’t have risked following us through the node to Earth. Without the Parallel’s magic to sustain them, spirits simply disappeared. Pity I couldn’t say the same for the vampire chickens.

When we rounded the corner into our street, the stranger waited for us. Silent, transparent, and hovering above the ground not five metres from our house. A faint glow surrounded his form which hadn’t been obvious before. Of course. Now I understood. Assuming he wasn’t a lich—and given the absence of a creepy dark cloak and mask, I’d guess he wasn’t—he could only be a spirit mage. It’d been the spirit mages who’d started the war which had led to the Parallel’s collapse. No wonder he hadn’t followed us through the node. The Order would have arrested him on the spot.

Wouldn’t that be a pity.

I halted. “Tay, go ahead.”

“Why?” Her gaze found the transparent guy, and her eyes widened. “That’s him?”

The stranger tilted his head at me, then gave a little wave. Anger surged within me. All right. I’ll handle this. “Yeah. Stick with the plan. You go into the house and grab our stuff, and I’ll deal with him.”

“You can’t confront him alone. He’s a spirit mage.”

“He’s not here in person,” I reminded her. “He’s astral projecting. I’ll send him on his way.”

“All right, but you’d better not take long.” She went to the house, while I kept one eye on the stranger and beckoned him to follow me. We might be on the brink of abandoning our hideout, but that didn’t mean we needed to advertise it to a stranger. 

A stranger… and a spirit mage. Who even was he? I’d left no traces of my former life behind when I’d arrived here in Elysium, and I hadn’t known my family had had any links with the spirit mages. It made little sense for him to astral project rather than coming here in person, unless he wanted to make sure I didn’t punch him in the nose or set him on fire. Which I might have done, had he been solid. I’d just have to use my words instead.

I came to a halt when we hit a dead end. “What will it take to make you go away? You cost me my job and my home, arsehole, and I have no idea who you even are.”

“Vampire chickens?” he said. “You know they’re highly illegal, right?”

“Yes, I do,” I said. “What, did you work for the authorities when you were still alive?”

“I am alive.” He sounded insulted. “The name’s Miles.” 

I stepped around him. “Goodbye, Miles. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

“I want to talk to you,” Miles said. “I have a job for you, Bria.”

He has a what for me? 

“How do you know my name?” I said. “If you spoke to my boss, you’d better be ready to tell him it was your fault those damn chickens escaped.”

“I assume you mean that low-life calling himself Striker,” he said. “Forget him. I have something better on offer. Have you ever heard of the Spirit Agents?”

“Spirit Agents?” The name rang a bell, but it made no sense for a spirit mage to offer me employment. “I’m not a spirit mage. Besides, I have a job.” 

Or I had, before it’d gone up in a cloud of vampire chicken feathers.

“I know,” he said. “You’re a fire mage. A very good one, I’m told, though you’re wasting your talents running around carrying illegally bred hybrid monsters.”

I gave a shrug. “Thanks for the unwanted critique, dickhead. Now, if you don’t mind—”

Footsteps sounded nearby, followed by squawking. Oh, hell. The authorities, it seemed, had found some of the runaway chickens… and if they came here, Miles could easily vanish and leave me to take the fall. I wouldn’t be so lucky.

I backed out of the street and broke into a jog, hoping he’d get the hint this time around. Unfortunately, he floated alongside me as I ran. “Don’t you dare laugh at me. It’s your damn fault.”

“I’m not laughing,” he said. “Besides, I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to have something as illegal as vampire chickens in that crate.”

“Do you think insulting me is going to convince me to take you up on your offer?” I put on a burst of speed, knowing I was moving faster than most regular people and that it wasn’t wise to do so in front of him. I didn’t know how much he knew of my history. Maybe nothing at all. But I would not end the night in a prison cell. 

I couldn’t run forever. Once I was sure I’d shaken off any possible tails, I backtracked and went on a winding route home. By the time I returned to the ramshackle hideout where Tay and I had made our home, I was breathless and in dire need of a nap. Instead, though, I’d have to spend the rest of the day finding a new hideout while shaking off a spirit mage who didn’t know when to quit.

“Hey, Tay,” I said, opening the door. “Ready to leave?”

The house was deserted. No sign of Tay, nor anyone else.

“Tay?” I left the door partially open and advanced through the hallway. “You okay?”

Cold hands brushed my neck from behind. “Hello, sweetheart. I heard you fucked up the job.”

Hell. It was one of Striker’s notorious vampire bodyguards. Tall and slender, he bore the pointed fangs and chilled skin of the reanimated dead.

“Striker is a lying bastard.” I jerked away from his icy hands, my heart thundering against my ribcage. “He fucked up as much as I did by giving us a broken cage and then leaving us to take the heat.”

“Speaking of heat,” he purred, “I wonder if the House of Fire’s jail still has a place for you?”

Flames sparked from my hands, causing him to step out of the way. Vampires were highly flammable, as we both knew well.

“Don’t threaten me,” I warned. “Where is Tay?”

I wanted to ask how he knew I’d once been an inmate of the House of Fire, but I could guess. That bastard of a spirit mage had ratted me out so that I’d have no choice but to take whatever job he wanted me to do. Unless it was Striker who’d wagged his tongue to the wrong person. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had.

The vampire hissed in fury, his pale skin reflecting the flames dancing in each palm of my hand. “Put those away and I won’t throw you back in the dirt like the gutter rat you are.”

“You can try to hand me over to the House if you like.” Flames swirled, higher, forming a barrier between me and him. “I wonder what they’ll do when they find out about Striker’s trade in illegally bred magical creatures?”

The vampire’s eyes were flinty. “Go on. Run, and hope they don’t find you.”

I didn’t move. “Tell me where Tay is. I’m not leaving without her.”

He laughed. “That friend of yours already ran.”

A likely story. My hands clenched, the fire raging higher, threatening to break from my control. “Where. Is. She?”

From behind, another cold hand reached for me, and I recoiled instinctively, my flames lurching in that direction. The second vampire dropped his hand, but the damage was done. Flames licked up his arm, and he screamed as they ate through skin and bone.

The first vamp lunged at me with inhuman speed, but my fire burned brighter than ever, catching him in its orbit, too. In seconds, the flames devoured the pair of them until nothing remained but ashes.

Oh, damn. My cover was blown, Tay was gone… and I’d just turned two of Striker’s prized vampire bodyguards to ashes. 

Yet Tay wouldn’t have taken off on me with no warning. They took her. Someone took her. 

“Word of advice?” Miles appeared in the doorway as though he’d been watching the whole performance from a safe distance. “Get out of here before reinforcements show up.”

“You’re still here?” I whirled on him. “I told you, I’m not interested in working for you. Especially if you’re the one who handed Tay into the authorities.”

“Who, your friend?” he said. “I was next to you while you were running away, remember? I couldn’t have told tales. But if I had to guess, it was one of the people connected to the vampires you just turned to ashes.”

My gaze skimmed the hallway. Tay’s bag lay discarded on the floor, as though she’d been ready to run when someone had come in here and taken her. No blood, no signs of a struggle.

Who took her? Not Striker, surely. No, he’d sent the vampires to get the both of us and bring us back so he could read us the riot act, unless he’d already had someone hand her in to the authorities.

In other words, the House of Fire.

Unfortunately, Miles was right. I needed a hiding place, desperately, or I wouldn’t last out the week. And I needed allies. Because if Tay was where I thought she was, I’d never get her out of there alone.

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