The woman, some said, had escaped the first witch trials. Others claimed the ancient one had consorted with the sorcerers of Alexander, Darius, and Ptolemy. This small town, however, perched on the shores of Lake Superior, was bedrock practical and most of the townspeople dismissed the notions with a skeptical snort and muttered: Doddering hermit.
Adam Zolton favored none of the theories. One learned more with an open mind. Any tale was suspect until verified, and locating the gold nugget of fact took digging through a bushel of muck. Tonight, likely, he’d end up with only grimy shoes.
But he’d had to come—the irresistible habit of his private insanity. The e-mail had mentioned mages.
Most of his fool’s errands weren’t so miserable, though. Hunching his shoulders against the skin-biting cold, he reluctantly pulled one bare hand from his jacket pocket to knock at the log cabin door. Wind kidnapped the sound of his knock and flung it to the featureless sky. Adam rapped again, frowning at the dark cabin. He was expected; Madame Grimaldi had set the time. He’d given up his New Year’s Eve; she’d bloody well better answer.
A gust found a path through the boles of the pines and swirled around him like a dervish on speed, sucking out heat and moisture. Shivers ran through Adam’s bones, as he knocked a third time. Christ, but he hated the cold. His blood had thinned from the years in New Orleans.
The wind attacked again, penetrating his coat, accompanied by an unnatural howl as piercing as a dragon’s call. Adam spun toward the woods, but saw nothing within the black trees. He stilled, listening to the creak of wood. The noise had vanished. Still, he pulled a small digital camera from his inside pocket and recorded the scene. The sudden drops of sweat froze to his forehead as the wretched cold reclaimed him.
One more attempt, then he was through. After stowing the camera, he lifted his hand for another knock, more forceful this time, when a voice from inside interrupted him.
“Who are you?”
“Adam Zolton from New Orleans New Eyes.” He buried his fist in a pocket. So, St. Jude, patron saint of impossible causes, teased him on.
The door screeched open. Faith Grimaldi stood in the entrance, barefoot and wearing a shapeless red caftan. Silk, he noted absently; the mage enjoyed her comforts. Her pewter-shaded hair was a trimmed cloud, and her face more wrinkled than the last known photo of her, taken twenty years ago. Then, she’d already looked like a pug, and time had not been kind.
“You’re supposed to be a woman.” Her strong voice revealed nothing of age, only a hint of accent and accusation.
“Natalie’s on another assignment, and you said the matter was urgent.” He lifted his brows, adding challenge to his smile and shifting the subject away from why he’d taken Natalie’s place in this forsaken icebox. “Are you prejudiced against a man simply because of the appendages?”
He took a chance, quoting back her own words with the substitution of man for woman. Despite the precious little he knew about her, one common theme hinted at her disdain for stereotypes.
Faith’s eyes narrowed. “You’re a cheeky one.”
“Does it matter, so long as NONE covers your story?”
“More than you know.” Her gaze fixed on him, and Adam felt a prick of pain in his chest, as though he’d been touched by a surgical laser. Bugger it, she actually had some power! Unlike most of his leads, this might not be a fizzle.
Keeping his gaze latched to hers, he concentrated on who he was today: a curious chronicler of the bizarre, editor and owner of NONE, the alternative paper some called tabloid and others called bible.
The probe in his chest stabbed deep and unexpected. He pressed back a gasp of pain. “Trying to do me in, love?” he murmured.
“You’re confusing,” she admitted with a frown. “Murky. No, not murky, the parts I see are clear. It’s the parts I can’t see that worry me.”
“No one should be laid bare to a stranger.”
“Says the newsman?”
He laughed, genuinely amused. “Except my targets, of course. Am I to be allowed in? It’s beastly cold out here.”
The strange howl recurred. Fear spasmed the wrinkles in Faith’s face, and he spun toward an unseen threat. A finger of red—Fire? Plasma? Aliens?—flared out, then vanished. He’d taken one stride forward, when Faith grabbed his wrist. With unexpected strength, she yanked him backward. “Get in!”
Adam took the invitation. He crossed the threshold, noting the tingle of some unseen barrier. Faith, apparently, had more protection than he’d realized. Curiosity, and, hell, admit it, hope, rose another notch.
As soon as his arse was inside, she slammed shut the door and threw an old-fashioned lock and a shiny new deadbolt. She then chanted under her breath, as her hand pressed against a carving of a rampant lion. When she spun to face him, her face contorted with fear. “Were you followed here?”
“I didn’t see any lights after I left the highway.” He thought back. “No, I wasn’t followed.”
“Perhaps we have time, then.” She gave a small sigh, revealing the vulnerability of age. “Follow me, Adam.” She led the way deeper into her cabin.
Adam studied his surroundings. The décor intrigued him. He’d anticipated backwoods cabin—hewn wood and handmade quilts—or mystical new age, but there was nary a patchwork, crystal, copper pot, or vial of fragrant oil. Instead, the room evoked the tropics, with soft fabrics patterned in bright colors and a profusion of plants.
It was also beastly hot and humid. Adam flicked away a bead of sweat, and then stiffened as a flash of black caught the corner of his eye. Involuntarily, his hand shifted to his waist, where a weapon was normally sheathed. Bother, he’d left both gun and knife in the car. He hadn’t expected any trouble from a woman who’d asked for a visit, and he’d thought the weapons might disturb her.
Faith gave a high-pitched chuckle. “That’s not the danger, at least not to me. My pet smells you. Galanthis, meet our guest.” When the animal, whatever it was, refused to show, she shrugged. “She picks her times. Come, I’ll show you why I asked you here.”
He followed Faith down a short, unlit hall. She pushed open a steel door, and again, he felt the tingle of a protective barrier, although the source—technical or supernatural—eluded him. Perhaps it was a mix of both.
Faith might be a hermit, but she was not doddering. A fact he’d best keep in mind.
On the other side, he gave a low whistle. “Which Circuit City did you plunder?”
“Did you think magick was stuck in the thirteenth century? That the principles couldn’t apply to a modern world?”
“If I did, you’ve shown me different.”
From her sharp glance she’d caught the subtle evasion, but she said nothing, allowing him to look his fill. Despite the room’s crowded state, it was cooler here, air-conditioned to counter the heat-generating equipment. At the center of the room stood a scarred round table, one carved elegantly enough to have befitted the legendary Arthur. A single office chair pushed up to the table served as seating for the open laptop, which was a top-of-the-line Mac.
Electronics and arcana. The table portioned the room into schizophrenic halves.
A reflection of his hostess?
The smaller piece contained classic magickal paraphernalia—a clutter of oils, books, herbs, quills, crystals. A brazier emitted a thin curl of smoke, scenting the room with the aromas of lavender and sage. His fingers itched to pull out his camera, to record the details, but that faux pas would earn him a quick exit. Instead, he tried to memorize what he could.
The other side of the room was a geek’s wet dream. The Mac plus two other computers, a plasma TV—52 inch, he’d wager—a flat screen monitor on the wall, virtual-reality goggles, all wireless. Mage business must be lucrative.
“Sit here,” she ordered, rotating the chair to face the wall monitor.
Willing to follow her lead, he sat, and then jerked up as a tube of dark fur leaped into his lap, just missing the family jewels. Ready to swat the threat, his hand paused as he realized the attack came from a miniature sable ferret. Its dark eyes gazed at him curiously, while the beast made itself at home by crawling up his arm.
“The shy Galanthis, I presume?”
“Don’t bother our guest.” Faith tugged the ferret off him, but as soon as she set Galanthis down, the ferret slid away to crawl inside his pant leg. “She’s inquisitive.”
“I’d rather have her on my shoulder.” He tugged the ferret from his leg and hoisted her up. She promptly stuck her nose into his ear.
Ignoring the tickling sensation, he looked quizzically at the monitor. All he could see was a blur of colors. “What am I supposed to see?”
“Put these on.” Faith held out the virtual-reality goggles and a pair of gossamer gloves, which looked as though they’d been woven from a spider’s web.
He struggled to don the gloves. Bloody things tangled worse than cheap cling wrap. At last he got them on, donned the goggles, and instantly the light from the monitor screen columned outward, enveloping him in its surreal glow. As he sat in a swirling rainbow, he heard Faith chanting low and keying the Mac laptop behind him. Suddenly, the colors sharpened, and a virtual library popped into focus within the column of light.
He gave a low whistle, covering his rising excitement with an understated, “Impressive.” Swiftly, he scanned the titles; some he was familiar with; others not. Grimoires, ancient herbologies, modern theories of power, neuromancy, applied MEMS tech—the library was as schizo as the room. An eternity wouldn’t be long enough to study them all.
“Pull out that brown book, the one on the upper shelf,” Faith commanded, her voice faint.
He spied the book she meant. Testing, he reached out. Only his hands entered the cyber library. The sensation was dizzying, crawling around in his stomach like motion sickness, but by focusing, he coordinated physical motion to the disembodied hands and pulled the book off the shelf.
He ran a hand across the seemingly solid book. It was old, with vellum pages that had somehow escaped the destruction of time and the Dark Ages. He could feel the brittleness of the pages, smell the distinctive age mold.
“Is it real?” he breathed.
“Do you think I’d allow anyone to touch it in solid space?” she countered.
It existed, and yet it didn’t, preserved by some technique he didn’t yet understand, a meld of magick and technology. Newsman instincts rose as the twin thrills of discovery and curiosity fired. The Magi lead might be a fizzle, but this library made the trip worthwhile.
“Turn to page sixteen,” she ordered.
He turned the pages, occasionally needing to close his eyes when the dizzying nausea threatened. The snuffling of Galanthis on his shoulder, along with the musky ferret smell, helped to ground him.
The book was a collection of predictions, unknown ones, unlike those of Nostradamus. Page sixteen was difficult to read, written in Latin and elaborate script, the words fading in and out of focus, but he got the gist. “It predicts that the slaughter of the mages will usher in destruction by…is that chaos?”
“A general prediction of Armageddon?”
“Or a specific kind of chaos, like the eruption of Vesuvius or even the myth of the fire-spewing Chimaera.”
“Slaughter of the mages? Old news: Fifteenth-century European witch hunts, the Salem witch trials, the Inquisition?”
“Did you read what occurred in Papua New Guinea a couple of years ago? The women who were burned with metal rods on suspicion of witchcraft?”
“I did. Isolated incident of ignorance and jealousy.”
“A symptom of a continuing mindset. Open the safe on the library wall.”
He looked around the virtual library and saw a keypad. That hadn’t been there before; somehow Faith’s command had made it visible. “What’s the code?”
When the safe door swung open, the cyber library vanished with a pop, to be replaced by the dark maw of a safe. Inside was a fuzzy stack of colored folders.
“Open the top red one,” she ordered.
Inside the folder was an array of newspaper articles. One was from NONE, but the others were from regular newspapers scattered across the country. He remembered the subject of the NONE article. He’d suspected the chap was careless with gasoline, but they’d found enough discrepancies to run it as a bizarre case of spontaneous combustion.
Swiftly, he thumbed through the remaining articles and obituaries. Each detailed the disappearance, or death, of a local citizen. Reading virtually made focusing on the typeface difficult, but he caught the names and realized each had been a practitioner of magick.
Over the years of his quest, Adam had had occasion to meet each one. He’d found them of varied temperament, varied skill. He hadn’t realized they had died, however. Mage deaths. A good story for NONE. He could play the random events into a conspiracy.
What was Faith’s angle? As he screened the articles for added details, he asked, “Have you told the police?”
“Which department? There are eight different jurisdictions. And the FBI didn’t take seriously a conspiracy theory to kill crackpots.” The fear in her voice was real.
“But NONE will.”
“That’s what I hoped.”
“Even mages die. Why think these are connected?”
“They drowned in the breath of the dragon. And now it wants me.”
The dragon. He stilled, the moment becoming a timeless vacuum, while his stomach muscles clenched at the coincidence. Unbidden, memory played the echo of another woman’s last lucid words: “The dragon burns me.”
Was Faith as deluded as his sister? Was St. Jude offering a bread crumb that led nowhere?
“Put the file back in the safe,” Faith commanded.
Perhaps his brain had unthawed, perhaps he’d grown accustomed to the nausea, perhaps Faith had adjusted the resolution or was playing games with him. Whatever the reason, as he replaced the file, the stack below came into sharp relief and atop the folders lay a CD case. The label on the CD was a rainy-day gray, with two words stamped in deep blue: Abby Zolton.
The gold nugget!
Oh, bloody hell. He snatched up the disk, his heart racing against his throat, sweat, cold, and nausea forgotten. Only the snores in his ear from the snoozing Galanthis kept him grounded.
Abruptly, the safe snapped closed, leaving him back in the library, the disk in his glowing hands. Could he get the disk out of this virtual prison? View the photographs? Carefully he tried pulling the disk into reality. “This disk—” he began, his voice rough.
Before he could finish, a high-pitched tone knifed from the impressive tower computer fitted against the wall. “Security breach,” shouted a mechanical voice.
With a banshee shriek, Faith spun toward the breached computer. The library—and disk—vanished. She began typing at a speed that seemed impossible for her gnarled fingers. “Viper, you led them into my system.”
“No, I didn’t!” He flung off the goggles, and peeled off the gloves. Faith ignored him, concentrating on the computer screen.
A red and blue hexahedron burst onto her computer screen, and began rapidly replicating into a caterpillar of sparks. It erased her efforts before erupting from the screen in an electric stench. The twist spiraled toward the Mac laptop connected to the wall monitor, gathering speed.
“What the hell is that?” He leaped to his feet, and Galanthis tumbled off his shoulder. He grabbed the ferret in one hand, then set the beast on the floor.
“A mage-born computer virus. They know about the library.”
The head of the virus incarnation bounced off the Mac, unable to penetrate Faith’s guards. Instead, it burrowed into the third computer and flashed into the screen, filling the pixels, erasing the merry lines of the screen saver.
The strange virus also deposited a single red-glowing hexahedron in the room, and the remnant began spreading in reality. Adam felt his lungs labor for breath. The growing thing ate up breathable air, replacing it with ozone and burnt electricity.