For Ages
12 to 99

Toxic Heart: A Mystic City Novel is a part of the Mystic City Trilogy collection.

The second MYSTIC CITY novel . . . it's Romeo & Juliet in a dystopic Manhattan.

A city in flames. A trust betrayed. A perfect love destroyed. Has Aria lost Hunter, her one true love?

Ever since rebellion broke out in Mystic City, pitting the ruling elite against the magic-wielding mystics, Aria has barely seen her boyfriend. Not surprising, since Hunter is the leader of the mystic uprising, and he'll do whatever it takes to win freedom for his people—even if that means using Aria.

But Aria is no one's pawn. She believes she can bring the two warring sides together, save the city, and win back the Hunter she fell in love with.

Before she can play peacemaker, though, Aria will need to find the missing heart of a dead mystic. The heart gives untold powers to whoever possesses it, but finding it means seeking out a fierce enemy whose deepest desire is for Aria to be gone—forever.  

"Recommended for dystopian fans."--School Library Journal

An Excerpt fromToxic Heart: A Mystic City Novel

"And block," Shannon says.
She's standing a few feet in front of me, a long wooden kendo stick at her side. Without hesitation, she lifts the stick and swings it at my head.
I raise my right elbow to block her, but she's too fast.
All I see is a flash of color before I'm on the ground, staring up at the blazing, white-hot sun, my head throbbing. It is oppressively hot--so hot that I can barely think.
At least the grass is soft. Sort of.
"Get up!" Shannon bends over me. "Man. It's like you've never fought before in your life."
"I haven't," I reply, rubbing the side of my head, making sure I'm not bleeding. Until a few weeks ago, the only physical activity I'd ever really done was a handful of squash matches in the Florence Academy gym. And dancing, of course, at various debutante balls in the Aeries.
"Oh?" Shannon says, poking my leg with her stick. "I seem to recall your being in a pretty huge battle recently. Then again, you did end up in the hospital. So I would say you lost."
The tone of her voice is teasing, which bothers me. That entire night is a blur: my parents' army raided the underground hideout of the rebel mystics, who retaliated with mighty displays of their powers. It ended with Violet Brooks's death and my hospitalization--and a war that continues to this day.
Shannon pokes me again. "What are you going to do if someone attacks you and you fall? Just lie there? Get up and strike back."
I groan, pushing myself into a seated position. The surrounding field is an open square of land, though in the not-too-far distance are dozens of trees, clumped together like knots of hair, stretching their bare limbs up toward the clouds. This area--once prime farming land in Upstate New York--is nothing like the shiny skyscrapers that I'm used to in Manhattan.
Of course, none of the land is prime anything anymore: the sweltering heat has left the grass brown and yellow and stiff. There's been no respite for the past two weeks, ever since I left the hospital. Shannon has been drilling me every day. According to her, I'm a terrible student.
I brush the sweat from my forehead and wipe my hands on my training gear, stretchy black fabric engineered to reflect heat. It can't possibly be working. I'm so hot I could explode.
"Now watch me." Shannon drops the kendo stick to the ground and holds up her hands. She tucks her fingers into her palms and makes two fists. Then she brings her arms into her chest until her fists are just under her chin. "This is the correct position."
I mimic her. "Okay."
"Let's say I'm running toward you, ready to attack. You don't have time to run away, so you have to defend yourself. You get into this position . . . then what?"
I think for a second. "Punch?"
Shannon shakes her head. Her red ponytail flicks from side to side. She's barely broken a sweat.
"Why not?"
There's a flicker of light in her eyes. "Try to punch me."
Shannon rushes toward me. I extend one fist in what I think is a solid punch, but she smacks it out of the way, jabbing her knee into my stomach. There's a sharp pain and I'm on the ground again.
"Ow!" I cover my abdomen with my hands. "What's wrong with you? Do you get off on hurting me?"
Shannon gives me a wide grin. "That's why you don't try to punch your opponent. You're too weak, Aria. What do they teach you up there?" She lifts her chin and stares off into the sky. We can't see the silvery bridges and magnificent skyscrapers of the Aeries from here, but I know what she's referring to.
"Not to fight." I roll to my side and push myself up, wiping my hands on the backs of my legs. If Shannon only knew what my life was like just a few weeks ago--shopping with my friends Kiki and Bennie, going to parties and dinners, summoning servants to administer to my every need--she'd hate me even more than she does now. "At least, not physically."
Shannon laughs. "I can tell." She reaches out and yanks on the chain around my neck, which holds the heart-shaped locket given to me by Patrick Benedict. Another ally, now dead and gone.
"Dull," she says, running her fingers over the tarnished silver. "I would have expected something fancier from you."
"Sorry to disappoint you," I say. I'm suddenly tired. And sore. "I didn't realize this was a fashion show."
I glance back at the converted farmhouse, a tall white structure with three stories. You could never tell that more than fifty mystics are crammed inside. This is one of several rebel army command centers in outer New York. Like the others, it is a refuge and a place to prepare provisions to be sent to the mystics who remain in the city--older boys, men, and women who are fighting to overcome the Aeries and restore equality to the city. Though we haven't been given much information about the ongoing war, we do know that many people have died, that the Depths have nearly been destroyed. Manhattan is no longer the city I remember.
"Are we done for the day?"
"Absolutely not." Shannon picks up her kendo stick as if it were a feather. "Let's do leg blocks."
I don't even want to know what those are.
"Pretend I'm attacking." Shannon shifts her weight back and raises the pole behind her head. There's a moment when the sun catches her eyes, making the browns of her irises seem to sparkle, and she looks almost . . . friendly.
Too bad she's not.
"If you anticipate my strike," she says, "you can deflect the blow and knock away my weapon. Let's try."
I raise my arm to shade out the sun. "Try what?"
Without answering, Shannon swings her arm down, striking me in the left shin.
"What in the Aeries--"
"Again." She narrows her eyes. "Too slow. If I'd hit you with any actual force, you'd be a goner." She pauses, then adds, "A plucked Rose."
Shannon cocks her head at me. It's easy to hate her. Aside from her perpetual smugness, she's beautiful in a way that I will never be: hard where I am soft, dark where I am light. I barely know anything about her--where she's from, who her family is, what she likes, whether she has a boyfriend. She's managed to avoid answering any personal questions these past weeks.
Instead, she's focused on beating me up--for the sake of the rebellion.
I point to the yellowish-blue bruises on my arms from our session a few days ago. "I don't think this is what Hunter had in mind when he left me here for training."
"This is exactly what Hunter had in mind," Shannon says angrily. "Hunter has a rebellion to lead now. You barely escaped Manhattan with your life, Aria. You have to learn how to protect yourself."
"I know all that," I tell her.
I've done the best I can to avoid thinking about the battle that killed my boyfriend's mother, Violet Brooks. She was the mystic hope, the voice of the poor who lived in the Depths, the champion of the oppressed. She stood for everything my parents and the Fosters do not.
I have tried to erase the memory of the gun in my hands as I pulled the trigger and aimed directly at my ex-fiance, Thomas Foster, then gazed in horror as he dropped to the muddy ground.
I have tried and I have failed. I defended myself that night, and I certainly don't need Shannon, whoever she is, throwing it all back in my face.
My eyes travel across the dead grass, away from the peeling white paint of the farmhouse. Behind the field is what used to be an apple orchard. All the trees are victims of global warming, their life sucked out by the sweltering heat.
I shift my attention back to Shannon. "Why are you here, anyway?" I ask. "Don't you have more important things to do?"
Shannon draws back her lips like some kind of feral animal. "You think I want to be here? Training some spoiled little rich girl when I should be off fighting?" She yanks the elastic from her ponytail, letting her thick red hair cascade around her face. "I'm here because Hunter asked me to help you. Unlike you, I wasn't born into a family of privilege. I never knew my mother . . . my father is all I have, and he's back in Manhattan. Fighting a war you started." She glares at me with a look that chills me to the bone. I've known all along that Shannon doesn't like me--but now I realize that she actually hates me. "I should be there." She spits on the dry ground. "Now run."
The sun is glowing red and pink. "Aren't we done?"
"We're done when I say we're done," Shannon says. She points in the opposite direction from the house, where a cluster of dying trees marks the edge of the farmland. "There and back. Now."
"Okay, okay." I shoot her a dirty look. "I'm going."

My heart thumps loudly in my chest as I grit my teeth and run. I've nearly reached the training ground and am about to black out when I see a figure approaching me. "Here, Aria," a timid voice says. "Water."
I stop running and double over as I catch my breath. "Walk it off, Rose!" Shannon yells. "Walk it off."
I glance up: it's a boy, nine or ten at the most. Markus. The only one in the entire compound who's been kind to me since I arrived. He's holding out a glass of water.
I kiss his cheek with gratitude, then take the glass and gulp. I gulp and gulp and some of the cool water spills down my chin, but I don't care.
Markus laughs. He has floppy brown hair, big eyes, and dark freckles scattered across his skin. He's adorable. Because he hasn't yet developed his mystic powers, you'd never be able to tell he's anything other than a normal human, if a bit on the thin side.
"That was just what I needed, Markus. Thank you."
"I figured," he says, taking the empty glass. "I was watching you from the kitchen. You looked thirsty."
Shannon struts over to us. "Did Aria make a new friend? So sweet."
Markus is already skipping back to the farmhouse, my empty glass raised high in the air like a trophy. "Bye, Aria!" he shouts.
"Bye!" I shout back, waving until he's out of sight. Then I turn to Shannon, who is staring at me disapprovingly. "What?" I say. "He's sweet." Shannon shrugs. "He's an orphan. Well, I guess not technically. His dad is alive. But in the city, fighting. Like mine. His mother died in the underground battle."
"That's . . . so sad," I say, my eyes still on Markus.
"We all try to watch over him," Shannon says. "He's not the only kid on this compound with no parents around. We're all one big family." She pauses. "Except for you."
"Gee, thanks."
She purses her lips together. "Well, it's true. Anyway. Tired?"
I nod.
"Good," she says. "Now do it again."
"No." I shake my head and push past her, starting toward the farmhouse. "I'm done, Shannon."
"Aria!" she calls. "Get back here. Now! Or I'm telling Hunter."
"I'll tell him myself," I call back. I hear a pattering of footsteps and Markus is right beside me. The sunset has darkened to a mixture of black and blue and deep red. The air is hot but slightly more bearable than it was.
I catch up to Markus. "You hungry?" I ask him.
"Yep." He rubs his belly. "Starving."
"Me too," I say. "Let's go eat."

In the two weeks I've been at the compound, there has never been a formal meal--something I'm still getting used to. My parents are fond of proper dinners: everyone in their finest clothes, seated around a perfectly laid table, silver glistening, the servants bringing in platters of elegant food. The cooking is done in the kitchen, which is in a separate wing, and no one sees the effort that goes into preparing a meal, only the glorious outcome.
Here, it's exactly the opposite. People come and go, never staying in the same place for more than a few hours. Bread is baked in the morning and smuggled off the compound and into the city by afternoon. Sometimes there's a delivery of chicken or fish, and sometimes there isn't and we eat only vegetables and clear soup.
Tonight there are a few hunks of goat cheese, rolls, and some cold meats spread on an island in the middle of the kitchen, as well as bowls filled with nuts and boiled potatoes. Markus heaps food on his plate, then rushes into the other room to start eating.
I find a plate and slice a few bits of cheese. Then I grab a roll. I've lost more than a few pounds, and it's not only because I've been training and eating less. I've also been worrying more. Everyone here has.
Through the kitchen is a dining area with an oval metal table. Markus is at the far end with a couple of other kids. A few women are eating, but they don't look up at me when I pass by.
I nod to them. "Hello."
But no one responds. Everyone here supports Hunter and the rebel cause, but they don't all support me. In their eyes, I'm the reason their loved ones are dying, the reason they've had to flee the city their powers helped build. Most have been here only slightly longer than I have. Signs that they have recently been drained linger on their bodies: dark green circles under their eyes, chalky skin as thin as rice paper. They're waiting in this refuge until their powers have regenerated so they can fight alongside the rebels.
"Aria, come sit!" Markus says, but one of the women shushes him.
"That's okay," I say. "I'm gonna go upstairs and relax. I'll see you later."
He nods, focusing on his food.
I take my plate and leave the room, the floorboards creaking with each step. It's almost seven-thirty.
This farmhouse was built over a century ago, and everything inside it is part of a life and a time that I know nothing about. The walls are beige, accented with mystic symbols for protection and health: Metal and wood carvings of large, open eyes, inlaid with turquoise and ruby-colored stones where the pupils should be. Dozens of charcoal drawings of silhouetted female figures, waves of hair cascading down their backs, palms pressed together--the Sisters, one of the older mystics told me when I asked her who they were, but she didn't elaborate.