Left foot forward, left foot back, right foot forward, right foot back. I closed my eyes and moved to the sound of the beating drum. My arms swept through the air as I drew a figure eight using alternating circular motions.
“Loosen your legs, Lia. You need to relax,” instructed Master Jinho.
“Ne, Seonsaengnim.” Yes, teacher. Even before he said it, I knew. Nerves had gotten the best of me, and my legs were too stiff. I tightened the belt around my uniform and took a deep breath to clear my mind.
In front of me, Joon stepped in perfect rhythm with the drum. To the untrained eye, it probably looked like we were dancing. But this was actually a pretty deadly practice called Taekkyeon, a traditional Korean martial art. Even before Taekkyeon was officially listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, we’ve been practicing it for centuries. Keeping it alive.
Joon glanced at the holographic image of Master Jinho shooting out from the silver box in the middle of the room.
Master Jinho clapped his hands and, to no one’s surprise, said, “Excellent pumbalbgi, Joon.”
I wanted to roll my eyes, but I smiled and nodded in agreement. Pumbalbgi, or Stepping-on-Triangles footwork, was super important, and today Joon had it down.
Maybe I’d be just as relaxed as Joon if my magic power manifested like his had. Everyone knew that if you didn’t have any inkling of magic by the age of twelve, it was most likely something that would never happen.
I turned twelve a few months ago.
Normally, I was pretty good at Taekkyeon. But I couldn’t concentrate today. Feelings of dread welled up in the pit of my stomach. I knew how all this would end. Not well.
Because, too bad for me, the annual exam to get into the International Magic Agency–sponsored school had three parts: Taekkyeon, academics, and magic.
It really wasn’t fair. I was so much better than Joon, but he could do the one thing I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried.
“We’ll do one round of sparring,” Master Jinho said as he sat down on a chair.
“Ne!” We strapped on chest guards and helmets. I patted my arms and legs. This was supposed to stimulate blood flow and circulation.
After a brief moment, we faced each other and focused on our footwork, swaying back and forth. The key was to maintain eye contact, read the situation, and react quickly.
Joon lifted up his left leg and kicked me. I deflected it with my arm and slapped his foot out of the way. Without missing a beat, I immediately responded with a high kick that landed square on the side of his helmet. Joon fell backward with a yelp.
“There we go, Lia!” Master Jinho leaped to his feet and cheered, giving me two thumbs-up. “Always the fast learner.”
Joon grumbled as he sat up. His birthmark peeked out of his uniform, and I motioned for him to cover it. It made him self-conscious, and he hated showing it to anyone. Not even me, his best friend.
He quickly adjusted his uniform. “This is just practice. You didn’t have to strike so hard.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to.” I reached out to help, but he waved my hand away and jumped up.
Master Jinho chuckled. “That’s what the protective gear is for. We must practice hard to be ready.”
We stood shoulder to shoulder and bowed to Master Jinho. He bowed back and said, “Keep practicing together. You’re both more than ready for the exam.”
Red lights flickered on the silver box, and the image of Master Jinho faded away.
After we changed, we sat down on the foam mat and stretched. I reached for my toes and pressed my face against my knees. The backs of my legs burned from the session today.
Joon rubbed his hands together and chanted, “Yakson.” Medicine hands. Ever since I’d known him, which seemed like forever, he’d always had this ability. Lucky him.
Once his hands started to glow an orangish color, he placed them on his shoulder. The color transferred from his hands and enveloped the injured area.
Even though I’d seen him do this a million times, it never got boring. I mean, how cool was it that he could heal himself? So, basically, as long as he didn’t get fatally wounded, he could heal himself just like that. Which was why his complaining that I’d hit him too hard was just ridiculous.
He moved his neck side to side as he rolled his shoulder. “Good as new. I forgive you for pummeling me.”
“I should’ve gone even harder,” I joked back.
“Have you gotten your power yet?”
I shook my head and took in a deep breath. “It’s too late for me.”
“We could keep practicing. Maybe it’ll show up soon. There’s still time.”
Things weren’t looking so good for me. People were either born with magic powers or they weren’t. Simple as that. It wasn’t entirely dependent on genetics, more like luck of the draw. But I had heard that if you were born into a family of magic, the odds of having powers yourself were higher.
I doubted being born to parents with very low doses of magic helped my chances. Appa had an eidetic memory, better known as a photographic memory. A pretty useless skill in a day and age when everything could be looked up on the phone. Umma had the power of—wait for it—flexibility. And she wasn’t even that flexible. Yoga-level flexible, not superhero level. So my gene pool wasn’t all that great.
All I ever wanted was to be part of IMA, fight monsters, and be one of the four protectors of the world. Of course, normal people couldn’t actually see monsters. They concealed themselves well, blending in with humans. Some minded their own business while others, the ones that we were trained to fight—they were the bad ones. End-the-world, steal-your-soul, open-the-gates-to-the-spirit-world type of bad.
I must’ve been so lost in my thoughts that I hadn’t noticed Joon waving his hand in front of my face.
“Why don’t you follow your mom to work and see what being a desk agent is like?”
“Won’t make a difference. I don’t want to work as a no-magic.” Technically, my parents weren’t no-magics because they did have powers. But, and maybe this was worse, they chose to be desk agents. Why would anyone not use the magic they were given? It made absolutely no sense to me.
The no-magics had the worst jobs ever. Data entry, writing reports, and other boring tasks that required zero powers.
He sighed. “I really don’t see what the big deal is. It’s better than nothing, isn’t it?”
“You just don’t get it.” How could he? He didn’t have to think about life outside of IMA.
I stood up and walked to the calendar hanging on my wall. There were exactly five days left until the exam.
Joon rushed out the door and yelled, “Race you to our hideout!” He disappeared down the stairs.
A large tree stood smack in the middle of our yard. When we first moved here, Appa had been excited to discover it. A couple days later, he bought some wooden planks and got to work building me the most perfect tree house. It was my special place.
I climbed up the ladder fastened to the side of the tree. The inside was a lot larger than it looked from the outside and big enough for us to stand up straight. The good thing about having parents in IMA was that they were able to purchase special magic-infused wooden planks. To anyone else walking past our backyard, this looked like the average tree house. But the inside was a different story.
Joon stood in front of the whiteboard, which was getting pretty full of crossed-out words. We had been coming here for months now, trying to figure out my powers. I had to hand it to Joon for the countless hours of research he’d done in hopes of coaxing my power to show up.
“Today it’s”—he pointed to the whiteboard—“intangibility.”
I groaned. We’d tried this a couple months back. Definitely not the most fun skill to test out. Intangibility was the official way of saying the ability to walk through walls.
“What is the point in all this anymore?” I rubbed my knuckles. Last time, I believed with all my heart and then smashed my hand into the table. It did not go through.
“Who knows? Maybe your power decided to show up today.”
Always the annoying optimist.
“Easy for you to say. You aren’t the one getting banged up every time. And…”
He finished what I was just about to say. “And even if I did, I could heal myself.” Joon chuckled and flexed his arms. “Can’t help it. Born with it.”
I sighed. No use arguing with him. “Okay. One last time. And then I’m so done.”
If this was going to be my last hurrah, I was determined to make it a big one. I steadied my breath, just like we’d learned from our IMA tutor.
The most basic rule was to empty my mind and, if I had a power, try to channel it.
Part of me wanted to prove Joon wrong. But the other part of me desperately hoped that I had some magic. That I belonged. Even a sliver would be fine.
Joon tapped the table. “Ready?”
I nodded, and before he could stop me, I closed my eyes and ran straight into the wall.
For a couple seconds, I must’ve lost consciousness, because when I opened my eyes, Joon was peering down at me with super-worried eyes.
“Lia!” He let out a huge sigh of relief before starting his rant. “That was such a dangerous move.” He stormed to the window and jabbed his finger out toward the grass. “What if you’d had that power?”
“But I didn’t.”
“Think it’s time you accept it.”
“But this is what we’ve been dreaming about all our lives.”
He looked at me with a hurt expression. “I guess.”
I couldn’t stand it. The way he looked like I’d just shattered his dreams.
“Like all agents do, I have a backup plan. So don’t worry about me.” If I couldn’t be part of IMA because I was a no-magic, then I was going to be best friends with Dior. She was the most popular girl at West Hills Middle School, the normal-people school we attended during the week.
Since IMA agents needed to blend in, academics were very important and so most magic kids attended normal-people schools. But because our identities were a secret, we were under strict orders not to use magic or talk about IMA in front of normal people.
Maybe he was in denial, but things were already different between us. After we finished school at West Hills, there were days when Joon would take magic classes with his IMA tutor at his house, while I’d take random skills classes with mine. We used to do everything together.
“I’m going to be Dior’s new best friend,” I said.
“You know that’s the worst plan ever.”
“Because you don’t belong at West Hills.”
Why should I settle for a boring job at IMA while he got to do all the cool magic stuff? No, I was going be the most popular girl at West Hills. And get a fantastic normal-person job someday.
He rolled his eyes. “Okay, so how exactly are you going to be friends with Dior? Who, by the way, is pure evil. And she doesn’t even know you’re alive.”
I scoffed and opened my desk drawer. Inside was the most coveted bejeweled pink invitation ever for none other than Dior’s birthday bash.
Joon picked it up and studied it carefully. A look of disbelief crossed his face. “Is this the invite?”
I beamed but tried to stop because Joon looked so sad. “Always be prepared. That’s our motto, right?”
He scrunched his face and shook his head. “I can’t believe it. All this time.”
I knew he spent every spare moment exploring ways for me to find my power. But we’d exhausted all possibilities, and I was done getting banged up.
“Why can’t you just be happy for me?”
He was so mad, his whole face turned red. “Because this is our thing.”
“Not anymore. I’m not like you.”
“Yeah, but you can still be a part of IMA.”
“As a no-magic. No thanks.”
“She’s just using you.”
I flinched. His words stung, but they weren’t completely untrue. I got to know Dior because she happened to be in my history class. It started off with me helping her with her homework. But somehow I ended up doing all her homework for her. It was worth it, though, because she invited me to her birthday party. All the girls in her group had a golden bracelet. I had a feeling I’d be getting one too at her party. She was my friend, and soon I’d be able to prove it.
“You’re just jealous because you weren’t invited.”
“Why would I be jealous of a normal-people birthday party?”
What was his problem? I should be the one upset, not him. He was the one who was probably moving away to Korea, while I would be left behind, with no friends at all. Eventually he’d make friends with other people at IMA, maybe even meet another healer. But me? I was the one doomed to live in this boring little town in California, alone forever.
“Forget it. I’m going home.”
I opened my backpack and slid the invitation inside, right next to my black leather pouch, which I always carried with me wherever I went. This was my secret stash of nifty things that a good agent might need in an emergency. Since I didn’t know any magic, I made my own little collection of everyday items, from paper clips to matches.