There is magic in the world, and it gives a champion the ability to hold his own on a mystical level.

Except me. I’m the mule of this circus. No wonder they keep expecting me to drop dead at any moment. I could feel magic. I know when it’s present. But trying to touch it myself is like grasping at smoke. It goes right through my fingers.

I picked up the clear crystal from my desk, turning it over in my hand. It was small, a perfectly shaped quartz. It was marred by a single milky flaw in its depths.

Ivan gave it to me years ago. He insisted my magic wasn’t gone, just dormant, and when I finally found a way to reach it, I would see some sign in the crystal. So far, it hadn’t even twitched. Day after day, it lay on my desk, flawed and inert-like me. Sorry, Ivan.

Sometime before I became a champion, back when I was still chasing cheerleaders in high school and sneaking beers from my parents’ fridge, a champion named Ivan Zelenko decided he was tired of fighting that good fight alone. Using the technology that was still in its infant stages then, he set about finding all who had fought Hell’s minions and won.

He found us through newspaper clippings, hospital records, village legends. I can only imagine what it was like for the first person he contacted, having this enormous stranger appear on his doorstep. I wonder, did he just come right out and say, “Excuse, please, you fight demons?” The thought always made me chuckle, but it was most likely the truth. Ivan wasn’t known for subtlety.

He worked for years, doing research, traveling, gathering us all. He connected men and women from all over the world with others who understood the things we could never explain to those closest to us. With Ivan keeping track, never again would a champion’s death go unnoticed, his soul lost to the blackest abyss. Never again would one of us die unremarked and unknown, our deeds fading along with our memory. We were tagged and catalogued, like any other endangered species, our names and locations held in one secured database called Grapevine. When one of us disappeared now, at least someone would know.

Ivan never talked about his life before being a champion, and you don’t really ask things like that. If I had to guess, I’d say he was military. The dramatic side of me says KGB, but there’s no way to know. I do know that he has survived longer than any currently living champion, with more kills under his belt than several of us put together. Now easily into his fifties (hey, I’m not asking him his age, but you can if you want), he doesn’t fight anymore. But he still watches after the rest of us, a combination of drill sergeant and father.

My fingers traced the framed picture on my desk. Frost-haired Ivan stood on one side of a bride and groom, towering over them both, his shoulders as broad as two of me. Mira and I stood on the other side of the dark- haired, dark-skinned couple. Both were smiling at each other more than at the camera. The photographer had captured Rosaline’s wedding veil fluttering in the breeze, as if it might suddenly spring to life in the photograph. Miguel gazed down at his new wife, dark eyes glowing in that way unique to a man in love.

“She is everything to me, Jesse. I could pass to Heaven happily, knowing I had been in her presence for only a few moments. To have her as my wife… God has blessed me.”

At the time, I had chalked Miguel’s poetic sense up to a young man’s true love. But now something seemed darkly prophetic about those words, and they settled somewhere low and cold in my gut. It was the place where disaster lurked, where misfortune was quite comfy. Mira called it premonition, insisting that it was my one claim to magic. I called it common sense, and I just couldn’t bring myself to believe in a happy ending for this one.

Leaving my den for the bedroom, I chose the day’s attire carefully, mindful that I was meeting a client. My blue jeans had no holes in them, and my black T-shirt said I’M A GEEK in big white lettering. The sleeves were short enough to show off the tattoos down both biceps, each one a string of kanji quoting the first two lines of the Tao Te Ching. “The Way that is spoken here is not the eternal Way. The name that is spoken here is not the eternal name.” The outfit was complete with the combat boots that had no visible bloodstains. Dress to impress; that’s my motto.

Mira had managed to capture Hurricane Annabelle, and the redheaded imp was currently seated at the kitchen table with chocolate pudding smeared from ear to ear. “Daddy! Hugs!” Those fudgy fingers reached for me, and I had to laugh despite the pall that had descended over my day.

“Not a chance, button. You’re a mess.” I did carefully lean down to kiss the top of her pigtailed head, though, then took a moment to wrap my arms around my wife and just hold her.

She tucked her head neatly under my chin, proving yet again that we were perfectly matched in every way. Her hair smelled like strawberries.

In the ten years I’d known her, she’d gone from a plucky, headstrong girl to the most elegant, graceful creature I had ever laid eyes on. Even after childbirth and eight years of marriage (which translates as eight years of putting up with my shit), she was not only beautiful in body, but in spirit. The mere thought of being without her was enough to make my stomach clench painfully, and I squeezed her tighter.

We stood for long moments in each other’s arms before she asked, “What’s wrong?”

That’s why she’s so perfect. I don’t have to tell her; she just. .. knows. “Ivan called. Miguel is missing.”

She leaned back so she could look up at me, her green eyes going dark with concern. “Oh goddess… Rosaline?”

“Ivan’s on his way. He’ll call when there’s word.” I offered her my cell. “I know-normally I say don’t answer it, but… If it’s not Ivan, just tell them to call back tomorrow.”

She frowned, eyeing the hated phone as if it might bite, but finally she nodded and tucked it into her hip pocket. “I’ll work a protection spell for both of them later. They gave permission.” My wife, the witch.

I’d known she was Wiccan long before I had ever known about the reality of magic. At one time, her offering to cast a spell would have been the same as someone’s saying, “Good luck!”-well meant, but ultimately useless. It was only later, when I wound up in the middle of this mess, that I realized how powerful her spells could truly be. If I had no magic, Mira made up for it in spades. She believes that’s why we were drawn together; that we are stronger together than we are apart. I kinda like that idea.

“You’re going out.”

“Yeah. Just a meet and greet, I should be back later.” The look on her face made me pause. “What?”

“It’s just… a little soon, isn’t it? It’s only been two months, and you were hurt so badly…” She worried her lower lip between her teeth.

“Hey, I’m fine! Bench-pressing cars and leaping over tall buildings, even.” I gave her what I thought was a rakish grin. “Besides, it’s just a meeting. I’m not going to whip out my sword and go to town right then and there.”

Somehow, I don’t think she was convinced of my prowess. Still chewing her lip, she took a wet rag in hand and went to try and uncover my child from somewhere under an explosion of chocolate.

We’d been over this before. I mean, Mira understands what I do, and she supports me. But I always worry that at some point, she is going to get tired of waiting for that phone call from Ivan, the one that says I’m not coming home. I guess I’m lucky she’s put up with me for this long.

She finally sighed heavily, indicating that her internal conversation was over. “Well, don’t forget you have to work this afternoon. And you still have to get a present for your mother’s party on Saturday.”

Crap. I eyed the schedule stuck to the fridge, and yes, she was right. Why do I even pretend to doubt her?

My mother’s birthday party was the event of the year in my family; never mind Christmas or Thanksgiving. The reigning matriarch of the Dawson clan would be celebrated, and woe to he who thought otherwise. And trust me, I don’t care if Evelyn Dawson is only four foot eight; I’m scared of her and you should be, too. She’s a short firebrand of pride and old- fashioned Scottish temper. She raised my brother and me with an iron fist inside a satin glove, and to this day I hold the highest respect for all women because of it (’cause if I didn’t, she’d know, and she’d find me).

“I’ll probably go to work straight from my meeting, then. I can go shopping after, and I’ll be home in time for dinner.”

Mira snorted. “Sure you will. You just don’t want to be here to help me with the house cleansing.”

Well… there was that, too. I grinned. “Sorry, honey, the life of a busy man and all.” If I missed the yearly smudging of the house with sage bundles, so much the better. I love my wife, and I respect her abilities and her religion. I just wish it didn’t involve so much smoke.

I was getting into my truck when she poked her head through the kitchen door, Annabelle settled on one hip. “Jesse?”

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