Excerpt: Losing Ground

Carter fumbled the plate he was drying, barely catching it before it fell to the floor. Setting it down on the counter, he dropped the drying rag on top of it and left the kitchen, ignoring Zandra’s worried look. Leaving the kitchen, he cut through the dining room to the living room where his mother had retired for the evening.

Rebeka Bellwood sat in her favorite chair, her feet propped up on the ottoman. She had changed into her evening loungewear: black track pants and an oversized t-shirt. Her face was lined with age and worry, and there was more gray in her hair than Carter liked.

Carter hung back by the doorway, waiting. There was no doubt she’d felt what he had; Rebeka was the owner of the territory and thus connected to it far more strongly than Carter, who simply lived there. She was probably tracking down the source of the strange power spike. None of the other earth wizards in the territory—or in the neighboring territories—had the amount of power to generate such a spike.

“About six blocks south,” Rebeka said, her gaze sharpening. She swung her feet down from the ottoman, wincing as she moved to stand. Carter’s stomach flipped in worry. She was pushing herself too hard, every day, and it tore him apart that he couldn’t help more.

“I can go check it out, see what’s up,” Carter said before Rebeka could stand up. “It could just be someone passing through who doesn’t know the territory’s claimed.”

“It could be something worse,” Rebeka said. She didn’t make any further move toward getting up, though.

“If it is, I’ll come straight back,” Carter said. He rested a hand on Rebeka’s shoulder, giving her a grin. “I promise if anything seems hinky, I’ll call.”

Rebeka sighed, slumping under his touch. “Be careful. If you’re not back in half an hour, I’m coming after you.”

“Always. I’ll be back soon,” Carter promised. Rebeka muttered something, settling back into her chair as Carter headed for the front door. Worry lines stayed etched into her face though, and Carter pulled on his sneakers and left the house quickly, hoping it was something innocuous.

The sun was starting to set as he left the house and headed down the sidewalk. The lawn was brown and dead, as though a massive drought had starved the plants of water. The trees fared little better, and Carter kept his gaze ahead of him, not letting himself focus on all the dead plants and trees that he passed as he headed south.

The territory was dying, slowly but surely. Rebeka couldn’t keep the plants alive, and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It was a disease, that they knew, but past containing it to the affected sections of the territory, they couldn’t do much against it. Rebeka’s energy was tied up keeping the disease in their territory, and Carter had only ever had a shadow of Rebeka’s energy, much to the disappointment of everyone.

The other earth wizards who resided in Rebeka’s territory were as useless as Carter was. Only one of them even tried to help. The other two focused on keeping their own plots of land free of the disease, not caring that if the rest of the territory fell, their land would be next.

Carter didn’t dare hope that the new wizard in town would help. Wizards with power that strong were typically already settled, inheriting the territory they grew up in, or were out to collect more territory. Unfortunately, his mother’s territory was ripe for picking given the disease ravaging it and how stretched thin his mother was.

The source of the power spike wasn’t hard to find. The plot of land had been cured, however temporarily, and the grass and trees and flowers were bright green and growing all over themselves with the influx of new energy. The house was at the end of the street, separated from its neighbors by huge clusters of trees and bushes.

Carter stopped on the sidewalk in front of the house, trying to remember who owned it. He knew most everyone in the territory, but the house in question wasn’t ringing any bells. He didn’t think he’d ever visited it… because it had been abandoned, that was it. No one had lived there in a decade. The previous owner had left the house but not put it up for sale, and Carter didn’t remember it being owned by an earth wizard.

So a squatter taking advantage of an obviously abandoned house to set up a base of operations?

Possibly. Carter studied the house, looking for any sign of life—past the overgrown plant life. There was a light on inside, but the blinds were down and closed. Carter debated his options. He could go roust his mother, but he’d rather not do that without more information. He could confront the wizard on his mother’s behalf, though that definitely belied the ‘be careful’ admonition his mother had given him.

Carter took the middle road. Taking a few deep, steadying breaths, Carter dropped into a light trance. The glow of the yard in front of him was a stark, painful contrast to the dead yards around the plot. Carter reached out to the closest plant, feeling it out, searching for signs of the disease—

And dropped out of his trance in shock as he realized the disease had been eradicated. There was no saying it wouldn’t creep back in, but he and Rebeka had never been able to remove the disease from the plants it affected. The best they’d been able to do was force it to be dormant, which meant as soon as their power waned, it reverted and killed the plant again.

Carter stared at the house again, his heart beating too quickly. Was the wizard better versed in the disease? Or was he responsible? Had he been weakening the territory and was now aiming to claim it himself?

The smart thing to do would be to call Rebeka. Carter pulled out his cell phone, sliding it open… and then slid it shut and tucked it back into his pocket. He’d knock, see if he could get more information, and then call Rebeka. There was nothing she could do that he couldn’t, given how much energy she’d used earlier that day, and Carter wasn’t going to drag her out if it turned out to be nothing.

Walking up the front walk, Carter approached the house slowly. The house showed its wear: the porch sagged sadly, one of the front windows was broken and boarded up with cardboard, and the rest of the house needed repair and fresh paint. It wasn’t a very luxurious base of operations, but the wizard could be planning to move to better accommodations once he established a larger foothold.

The porch steps creaked under Carter’s weight. One of the steps sagged so much that Carter was afraid he was going to go right through it. It held, and then he was on the tiny porch, standing in front of the faded front door. Carter knocked before his nerves could get the better of him, anxiety and anticipation thrumming through his veins as he waited for the confrontation that was surely about to come.

Nothing happened.

Carter shifted from foot to foot, making the porch creak under his weight. He waited a moment more, then knocked again, louder and more insistently. No one answered, and Carter didn’t understand. Why the display? Why cure the yard and then hide? Had the wizard used all his energy on the yard? Only, why would he do that if he was planning to take over the territory?

Knocking a third time, Carter debated the merits of some light breaking and entering. That was definitely outside the realm of being careful, though, and Rebeka would skin him if she knew he was even thinking about it. He should call her first, see what she thought.

Carter pulled out his phone—and promptly shoved it back in his pocket as the door cracked open. It opened a few inches, the chain on the door visible. For all the good that would do if Carter really wanted in. The doorframe looked as worn as the rest of the house. One good kick would probably break the chain free of the door or the frame.

The first thing that struck Carter was that the wizard was short. Carter was tall; at six-foot-one, he was taller than his whole family. The man on the other side of the door had to be about Zandra’s height, a very short five-foot-four.

The second thing that struck Carter were the bruises on the left side of the man’s face. They weren’t recent, fading into the yellow-green jaundiced spectrum, but they covered his cheek and jaw and ringed his left eye. The man stared out—and up—at Carter suspiciously, wary and unsure as he hid mostly behind the door.

“Hi,” Carter said, scrambling to figure out what to say. He’d expected a threat, not a kid—he looked young, though it was hard to tell in the fading light and behind the bruises on his face. That got no response, and Carter made himself smile, tried to make himself appear smaller and less threatening. “I’m Carter Bellwood.”

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