chapter 1

meet the Steins

They're delicious, these blissful moments when you're not quite awake, yet somehow still aware that you're cocooned in a soft, warm duvet. Vivid dreams entrance and entertain as you teeter on the edge of waking. Kate lay, caught in the eddies of her dreams, wandering through vistas of blueness and butterflies, her own place of magic.

The thought of magic shocked her awake like a wave of cold water.

Her eyes snapped open. Instantly awake, she found herself nose to nose with a furry, moon-round face. Schrödinger, their enormous tabby cat, always slept with her and usually got cuddles and hugs first thing, but today, Kate literally threw the poor feline from the bed in her haste to get up.

Magic! Today was going to be magic!

Today was her first day at Messrs Pope & Bear Magical Academy, "a school for little witches and warlocks", according to the battered brochure scrunched under her pillow.

Of course nobody called it Pope & Bear Magical Academy, what a mouthful.

No, those who thought they were important called it PopeBear's, but practically everyone else called it Jasper's on account of the fact that Mrs Jasper, the personal secretary to headmaster Snowmaine, ran the school with an iron fist and everyone was scared of her.

Jasper's produced the best magicians in the world and Kate just couldn’t believe that after all the waiting, she was finally going there!

She felt like one of those unraveling balls of yarn Schrödinger liked to chase: all tangled up with excitement and nerves. It wasn't the best for the first day of school, and she wasn’t even sure she could manage breakfast.

PopeBear's, Jasper's, whatever you called it, it was beyond cool. Rumour had it that they even had a vampire in the dungeons, and who ever heard of a school with dungeons?

Vampires didn't really worry her. Well, as long as they brushed their teeth (nothing was worse than a vampire with coffin breath — ugh), but you had to admit, it sounded awesome.

Kate hurried around her room throwing random bits of magical equipment or "apparatus" as a magician would say, into her satchel.  

She'd been homeschooling herself in magic for the past four years, since the day she learned she had the talent. It wasn't strictly legal, but truly, sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty to get anything done.

Slowly but surely she'd built up quite a collection, her very own alchemical laboratory. She'd spent hours there each week practicing new constructs — the more fashionable word for spells.

Kate loved magic, it was totally her thing. When she was born, her parents had expected her to take after her mother. Neither of them expected that after her fifth birthday they would be the parents of a young magically-abled person: a witch.

For Kate, the world had changed overnight. Just imagine waking one morning when you're five and finding out that you can really, truly do magic!

Now she was totally addicted. She'd already bought herself a copy of Potions & Poultices by Messrs Brand & Torch and read the whole thing cover to cover, twice. She even brewed some lullaby tea, although it was a bit flat.

Her dad, Bernard Stein, loved that she was a magician and constantly encouraged her to do her best, even promising to get her tickets to see her favourite band, "Fae Fury" if she aced her first year.

His thing now was to spout random facts he had researched about the magical world, like that mages made up only 0.0002% of the world's population, and of that small figure, only 5% spontaneously developed magical talent.

But no-one, absolutely no one, was quite like her...

The air shimmered around her, and a sibilant voice whispered, "Kate, sweetheart. Come down for breakfast now or you'll be late."

"Just a minute, Mum!" she answered. She regarded herself in the mirror, to make sure there were no tell-tale smudges. She saw a fairly normal looking silver haired girl with sage green eyes, a wide mouth and a reasonably chiseled nose. When she smiled you'd find a dimple on one side of her mouth and slightly long incisors pointed at the end. There was a narrow gap between her front teeth that she loved to squirt water out of when she took a bath.

She held up her hands, which were thankfully also human looking, with four fingers and an opposing thumb. If she'd inherited her mother's hands, there would be no pretending to be fully human. Everything looked good. She tied her hair into the usual ponytail, then picked up her bulky schoolbag and bounced out the door and down to the kitchen.

Kate found her mother rinsing dishes in the sink. A small tornado was sucking up dust from the kitchen floor and carrying it outside, proof of her mother's innate ability to control the wind.

On her way to hug her mother, she quickly reached into the small whirling dervish to extract her favourite stuffed toy, affectionately called "Roadkill" given that most of the stuffing was missing and, well, that's what it looked like.

In the sunlight, her mother's skin gleamed azure blue. She turned to accept Kate's kiss, her long white mane swinging with the breeze from the window. Kate thought she was beautiful, but she knew many people felt otherwise about her kind.  

Her hands captivated Kate as she proceeded to make breakfast. Unlike Kate, they had three long slender fingers, two thumbs — longer and more delicate than a human's — and an elongated palm. Naturally her mother's feet also had five toes, two of which slightly opposed the other three, and which were slightly longer than human toes. It was for this reason that humans often derogatively referred to Fae folk as Singe or Monkeys. Her mother hated to wear human shoes and never did around the house.

"You certainly took your time," she teased Kate. "Did you leave us any hot water?"

"What? Mum it's my first day. I don't want to look like a scruff."

Her mother smiled, but Kate caught the worried look in her eyes. "Uh oh", she thought. “We've got incoming!”

"Kate—" her mother began, but then her dad bustled into the kitchen.

"There's my Witch of the Year!" he cried, gathering Kate in his arms. "What are you waiting for? Eat your breakfast before your ride gets here!"

Finding she did have an appetite, Kate plonked herself down at the kitchen table and helped herself to some cereal. Her dad took his seat across from her, while her mother hovered just at the corner of her eye.

"Heat this would you darling, it's a little cold", her dad murmured while vaguely perusing the paper.

"Sure." Kate was fairly certain there was nothing wrong with her father's tea, he just loved to watch her do her thing.  

She reached into her bag and pulled out a small object a little like a magnifying glass, but with three lenses connected in a triangle and bent slightly down at the edges. It was held together with fire salamander gut, wrapped in something with a blueish tinge. Kate didn't really want to know what it was. Magic things could be icky.

The trick, she found, was to focus her mind not on the tea (water was hard to get hold of) but the inside wall of the cup.  She carefully aligned the seeing lenses with her eyes, and the slightly larger mind lense with her forehead, then concentrated, focusing her energy through the lensinometer. Within seconds the tea started to steam and then vigorously boil.  

"Okay, okay!" Her father hastily retrieved his cup. “I said to warm it, not vapourise it,” he chided, but he was smiling all the same.

Kate was about to try vapourising the milk in her cereal bowl when her mother started a very familiar conversation.

"Bernard," she began. "Perhaps we should rethink Kate going to Jasper's. I can homeschool her properly, the Fae way."

"Mum, please," Kate cut in. "We already went over this so many times and you said yes. No taking back."

"Yeah, Sera, what's there to think about?" said her dad, munching on his muesli. "Kate's been certified magically-abled, she has to go to Jasper's. That's the rules of the mage world, isn't it? Speaking of which, did you know that the mean age for spontaneous demonstration for magical ability among girls is..."

"Seven. Yes Dad, I beat it by two years when I turned five." Kate rolled her eyes. "You mentioned it last night, and the night before, and last week and—"

Sera put a hand on Kate's shoulder. "It's just that she's already nine and she's starting at Jasper's so late compared to the other children. And — and none of them know she's half-sylph."

About this, Kate knew she was right. Her mother was a sylph, an air elemental who had fled from the Faerie lands. The Faerie kingdom had a tempestuous relationship with humans, and one of their kind crossing over and marrying a human would be considered, well, a scandal.

But a half-Fae offspring that showed human magical powers? They didn't know what attention that might bring, and Kate's mum was terrified of what some people might do. For this reason they'd held off sending Kate to Jasper's for four years, but they really couldn't any longer.

The real problem was that Kate kept practicing her magic on everything and everyone around her, especially their cat Schrödinger. Last month, she'd given the poor feline gills and they'd had to leave it in the bathtub for a week while she worked out how to reverse the spell! Now Schrödinger could breathe air again, but seemed to be stuck with the tail of a goldfish.

There was no way they could continue to hide Kate's abilities, so they had to send her to Jasper's. The law was quite clear on that.  

And as for the wizards themselves, what would they think of a half-sylph witch? Would she be considered just a curiosity, or a threat?

Kate didn't really understand the fuss and was more than willing to give it a shot. Adults could be odd, specially her mother who had spent all these years as a resident of the human world, but kept to herself and disguised her nature with makeup and magic.

If Kate could become a great witch, even make it to the magician government, she could show her mother that there was nothing to fear.

Kate put down her spoon and started counting on her fingers. "Mum, one: school starts today — it’s a bit late. Two: you know I won't do anything to make you worry. Three: I promise I'll stay out of trouble and make you proud, just like you want."

Her mother sighed and placed a hand on Kate's head. "You have your concealer with you?"

"Yes, it's in my bag," Kate replied. She had inherited a tinge of blue on her skin, so she used some makeup to hide it. It annoyed her lots. She didn't like the feeling she was lying to people. Her mum always said it was just to keep people from asking too many questions, but it still felt like a lie.

Sera could weave Fae magic to help conceal her own identity — sylphs were experts at illusion — but Kate couldn't use Fae magic, it was completely different in nature. They didn't know if or when she'd get the talent.

"And you promise you'll choose your friends carefully?"

"I promise, I promise!"

Her father clapped her shoulder. "When's our Kate been anything less than super, eh? I'm sure Jasper's will be a cinch for her." He paused, frowning. “But no boys.”

"Dad!"

Just when Kate was thinking that she would never escape her parents' fussing, they heard the flapping of enormous wings, a great gust of wind disturbed the chimes outside their front door, and something heavy seemed to land on the road beyond their yard.

"Your ride's here!" cried her father. “Don't forget her fee!”

As Kate gulped down the rest of her milk, her mother reached into the fridge, retrieved a package wrapped in foil, and handed it to her. "Take care, angel," she said, planting a cool kiss on Kate's cheek as she sprinted for the door.

Kate found the dragon sitting in the middle of the lane, long forelegs crossed in front like a giant cat and tail raised high like a question mark.

A car had come to a sudden halt behind it as it landed and Kate could tell the driver was impatient, but no-one, seriously no-one, beeped their horn at a 22 metre dragon with a head the size of a Range Rover, and a mouth full of teeth so hard and sharp they actually could eat a Range Rover.

What a magnificent creature!

Kate had seen dragons before, but only in flight and never this close. Scales like dinner plates glimmered in rainbow colours under the sun, and crimson-feathered wings folded behind it like a regal cloak. Alongside was an intricately carved wooden Viking longship, bearing the Pope & Bear crest on the side and with a T-shaped mast empty of sails. Several children sat within its gunwales, peering at Kate curiously.

The dragon arched one scaly brow at the girl standing nervously before her, and Kate struggled to remember the traditional greeting. "Um, hail, mighty d-dragon, master of b-beasts and, uh, keeper of the Great Flame. I'm K-kate."

"Yes, yes, hello to you too, K-kate," the dragon said in a musical and definitely feminine voice, rolling her eyes. “I am Mathylda, the Jasper's Dragon. A pleasure, I'm sure. Now let's dispense with the bowing and scraping as we don't have all day and you're obviously not very good at it. The toll, if you please.”

Oh! Kate quickly unwrapped the foil and presented a miniature cake to the dragon. Mathylda's tawny eyes lit up and she gave an appreciative sniff.

"Ah, Black Forest gateau, with fresh black cherries, Swiss chocolate, and just a hint of rum. My compliments to your mother. She knows her desserts." With a flick of her long tongue she snatched the cake from its wrapping, pulled it into her mouth in a trice, and went nearly cross-eyed with pleasure. “Oh, such a delight, so moist, so scrumptious. Pity it was so small. Any more?”

Her enormous eyes seemed to devour Kate, who simply shook her head. Mathylda gave a fiery sigh, then motioned with her spade-shaped tail. "Into the longship with you then. We've a long way to go from here."

Kate clambered onto the ship's deck and strapped herself onto one of the seats, then held onto the ship's edge for good measure.

A great gust of wind tousled the children's hair as Mathylda leaped onto the T-shaped mast, gripped it in her great claws, and bore the longship into the sky.

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