5. The Swamp
Zann landed in a puddle of swampy water. "Drat," he muttered.
His Conveyance teacher was always scolding him for this sort of thing. Being a Red, Zann could zap himself far—and fast. But his focus still needed some work.
That didn't matter now though. He was out of the house. It was time to find Darb.
Pursing his lips, he whistled, trying to imitate the call of a lesser swamp swift.
"Not bad," a voice said from the grassy hillock behind him. "I always knew you had talents other than magic."
Zann spun around and grinned. "Hey, Darb," he said, stepping out of the water. "Sorry I'm late. Boz didn't want me to go out."
"Because of the warning about Reds disappearing?" Darb asked thoughtfully. "I've been hearing about that."
Darb was a Void, one of a small group of people in Magica born without any magical abilities. That was the reason he and Zann had met in the first place. On Zann's first day at the Swamp Bottom School, he'd encountered Jev and his friends teasing Darb. Zann had told them to stop.
"Who's going to make me?" Jev had sneered. "That red hair of yours doesn't mean you get to tell me what to do." Then he'd turned and shoved Darb into the wall—hard.
Looking back, Zann knew he probably should have called a teacher. Instead he'd acted on impulse, rubbing his fingers together until sparks began to jump from his hand.
Jev didn’t even know what had happened until his friends started snickering and pointing at him. Zann had given him a pair of oversized donkey ears. It took Jev several tries to undo the spell. Ever since then Jev had been Zann's enemy, and Darb had been Zann's friend.
Darb didn't attend school anymore. Voids were only required to study the basics of theory and history. Once classes started doing practical magic lessons, Voids usually dropped out and studied on their own. Most ended up finding careers as companions, greeters, animal caretakers, and mediators, or other jobs that required no magic.
Most people in Magica would never purposely discriminate against a Void. But Zann had noticed that people said things in front of Darb that they wouldn't say in front of others. It was as if they thought Voids were deaf and dumb as well as lacking magic.
That didn't seem fair to Zann. But it did allow Darb to hear a lot of interesting gossip.
"What have you heard about the warning?" Zann asked his friend now.
"Not much," Darb said. "Everyone's talking about the message from the palace though. The mayor is so nervous that she put a Shield spell over the entire town hall."
"Boz is trying to find out more. In the meantime he wants me to stay inside." Zann rolled his eyes.
"You can't blame him for being worried after what happened to your parents."
"I guess." Zann jumped onto a larger hillock. "So what have you been doing?"
"Insects, huh?" Zann said. "Why not study something more exciting? Dragons, maybe?"
"Speaking of dragons, where's Zing?" Darb asked.
"He was outside when I left. I couldn't get him without Boz seeing me."
Darb looked disappointed. Everyone assumed he'd end up being an animal caretaker someday. He loved animals of all kinds, and they loved him. Zing broke into a happy whistling song whenever he saw him.
Darb stepped toward a slow-moving stream. "Look, panic bugs." He leaned closer for a better look. "Can you get a picture of them for me?"
"Sure." Zann rubbed his hands together and stared at the shiny red bugs.
A piece of paper appeared and fluttered to the swampy ground. Zann picked it up. The image of the panic bugs was there in full color.
"Thanks." Darb took the blink image, folded it, and put it into his pocket. Then he gently scooped up the bugs and put them in his other pocket, being careful not to startle them into releasing their stink. "Want to help me look for leeches?" he asked. "I've seen them around here before."
"Leeches?" Zann echoed. "Why?"
"I've been reading about them. It's fascinating how they can suck the magic out of people."
"Yeah." Zann grinned. "Back in First City, my friends and I used to stick them on each other as a joke. It would take about a million of them to drain enough magic to make a difference, but it was still funny."
Darb peered into the water's murky depths. "Leeches are very shy," he said. "They live at the bottom of streams like this. We'll have to be quiet and feel around in the water."
"Why go to all that trouble?" Zann rubbed his fingers together. "I'll displace the water. Then you can grab as many leeches as you want."
"Zann, wait!" Darb began. "That won't—"
The water in the nearest section of the stream levitated, hanging as droplets in the air. Several fish and other creatures were left lying on the bottom of the streambed, looking confused.
"Leeches!" Zann cried, pointing. Almost before he spotted them, the slimy little creatures had burrowed into the soft sand. "Oh. They're gone."
"I tried to tell you that," Darb said with a sigh. "They dive away from air unless they're latched on to someone."
"Sorry," Zann said. "Hey, did you hear that?"
Zann tilted his head, listening. "That buzzing noise," he said. "Sounds like an irritated spy fly, or maybe—"
A loud, angry buzzing drowned out his words. Suddenly a whole swarm of tiny, glittering dragons came zipping out of a hole in the bank and started stinging him!