Read an Excerpt
By A.M. Dellamonica
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 A. M. Dellamonica
All rights reserved.
THE GATE HAD BEEN stalking Will Forest ever since he arrested his wife. It grew into bare patches of wall in his various hotel rooms and his quarters at Wendover Air Force Base; it had taken over a discreet corner of the kitchen of the Oregon home he so rarely returned to. It turned up in his peripheral vision in restaurants, TV stations, and shops. An archway of brambles, seven feet high, it pushed through drywall and hardwood with apparent ease. Its slats were a blue-tinged wood; its handle was a carved ram's horn.
He touched it once, and his hand vanished into nothingness. Blue light bled from the boundary between his wrist and the absent wall. When he pulled back, his skin was chilly to the touch, like meat from a fridge.
He would go into restroom stalls and find the gate on the side wall, exhaling a cold draft that fluttered the toilet paper. He had seen it in the temporary courthouse the air force had erected at Wendover. It waited in the prisoner interview room, an unobtrusive witness to his attempts to get information out of captured Alchemite terrorists.
None of his colleagues noticed the thing. One of the prisoners tried throwing herself at it ... and bounced. As far as anyone at Wendover was concerned, she had flung herself against an impenetrable wall. The suspects had done crazier things: shouting prayers through the pretrial hearings, faking seizures, pulling out their hair during jury selection.
Startled out of his contemplation of the gate, Will found General Arthur Roche neatly turned out in full dress uniform, his hair so newly cut that every salt and pepper strand lay in perfect, bristling formation. Even the hearing aid tucked into his left ear gleamed.
It wasn't a reprimand. In fact, Roche served up one of his carefully rationed smiles, a rigid upturn of the lips that froze as he took in Will's wrinkled shirt and unshaven chin.
"It's Monday morning," Will said. "My son and daughter should be getting ready for school."
Another man might have clapped Will on the shoulder. Roche, though they'd been friends since college, barely nodded. "Take another run at your wife today. Maybe when the trial starts, it'll sink in that this is serious."
"Yes, I'll try Caro again," Will said without much hope.
"Now Sahara's on trial before the whole world, the Alchemite movement will crumble like dried-out cake."
"Cake," Will agreed. He didn't point out that getting this far had taken a tremendous toll on both the government and the military.
"Today's the beginning of the end for the witches, you'll see." With that, Roche hustled Will into a glorified storage closet furnished with a cheap table and chairs, a space designated for witness interviews and small meetings.
One of Roche's tame journalists waited inside, dictating copy into her phone: " ... opening arguments in the trial of Sahara Knax, head of the fanatical cult that sank the aircraft carrier USS Vigilant last fall. Knax and nine followers face charges of attempted murder, committing terrorist acts, and treason in connection with the attack on the carrier.
"Today I am talking to the two men responsible for bringing Knax and her so-called mystics to trial. Will Forest insists that he is an ordinary person, doing his best in extraordinary circumstances.... Listen, they're here. Call you back?"
Will stifled a sigh. Sahara's show trial was little more than a diversion from the magical catastrophe enveloping the country. The real power lay beyond the gate of brambles even now embroidering itself on the wall. It lay within a reservoir of spilled magical energy in the Oregon forest and with the woman who controlled it, Astrid Lethewood.
Officially, Astrid was a bit player in this mess. Sahara had embarrassed the navy when she sank its carrier, so quashing the Alchemites was the government's first priority. Oh, the air force was firebombing the magical well, and they were fighting to stop the alchemized forest from spreading. But as for recapturing Astrid? She would keep, Roche said.
Would she? Will hadn't pushed: Astrid was probably beyond their reach. And he'd liked her, more than was wise ... which might be why he hadn't mentioned the gate.
The reporter snapped her phone shut. "I appreciate your talking to me, Mr. Forest."
"Call me Will." He shook the hand she offered.
"Minimal pleasantries, okay?" Roche glanced at his watch. "Trial starts soon."
"Okay, Will: We'll start with an easy one. Everyone remembers where they were when they learned that magic exists. How about you?"
"Home, watching the same news broadcast as everyone else." It had begun with a police standoff: Some guy with a shotgun, holding his girlfriend and her roommates in an old house in Oregon. A local fireman had blundered in and been killed. The gunman was holding off the sheriff's department. Sad stuff, but nothing peculiar.
"You saw the lawn and trees growing to giant size, the alchemized bees and songbirds attacking police?"
"Yes, from the comfort of my living room. I saw Sahara Knax escape on a flying carpet. Then the house collapsed."
Sahara had fled to California with a pillowcase full of magical objects, now known as chantments. She used them to set herself up as a goddess, scamming thousands of believers.
"Your wife was with you?" the reporter asked.
"My whole family saw it," Will said. "Afterward, Caroline became one of Sahara's followers."
"She left you and kidnapped your children?"
"And it was Caroline's departure that led to your capture of Sahara Knax?"
"Indirectly," Will said. "I got involved in the effort to contain the alchemical spill in Indigo Springs. My job included interviewing the survivors of the initial standoff —"
"Including the gunman, Mark Clumber?"
"Mark had been contaminated. He couldn't speak." Clumber, a supposed bad guy, had arrived in Indigo Springs to find Sahara Knax locked in a power struggle with Astrid Lethewood. Their house was sitting on a source of immense magical power Sahara wanted to control.
"He'd been in contact with this magical fluid?"
"Vitagua — that's right. Sahara had broken into a wellspring of the magical liquid. Astrid, Sahara, and their roommate, Jackson Glade, were trying to contain the spill when Mark Clumber showed up. He was something of a last straw."
"Things went from bad to disastrous?"
"Catastrophic. Sahara used a chantment to force Mark to shoot at police. They were trying to buy time, but the ploy failed. The magical spill triggered an earthquake. Vitagua contaminated the entire region."
"What happened to everyone in the house?"
"Clumber and one of the neighbors, Patience Skye, were doused in magic. The army took them and Lethewood into custody. Lee and Jackson Glade were killed." The press still didn't know that Jacks Glade had been shot by police. "Knax, of course, got away."
"And you caught her, three months later."
"That's right. I was interviewing Astrid Lethewood, and Alchemites attacked the facility where she was being held. Lethewood and Clumber escaped, and I arrested Sahara Knax."
The reporter leaned in. "Since then, you've helped arrest several key Alchemites, including your wife. But you haven't recovered your children?"
"No. If anyone knows where my children are, please contact the authorities. There is a reward."
The worried father stuff played well with the public; Roche was using him and the kids, but what could Will do about that? Not search for Ellie and Carson?
It wasn't working. A sense of pointlessness, time wasted, assailed him with the force of a riptide. The confidence he'd had in his old friend and the might of the army was fading.
"This trial is a step forward for America," Roche said. His plan to steer the United States beyond the magical crisis was simple: convict and execute Sahara; then subdue the remaining Alchemites. Last, sort out the contamination in Oregon.
Will tried not to stare at the magical door. Astrid had offered to help him.
Still. He'd give Caroline one last chance.
They finished the interview in time to watch as nine Alchemite prisoners, seven women and two men, were led into the courtroom. Caro was third in line. Her posture was upright, her golden hair ragged. Scabs and bald patches marked her scalp. Hunger strikes had diminished the curves Will had once loved, and her now-skeletal face was puffy and bandaged. She wasn't the only one: several prisoners sported black eyes.
Will shot an uneasy look at Roche.
"Self-inflicted," he huffed. "Marshals caught 'em smashing their faces into the cell walls last night."
The defendants were led to a side room for a last search, in case anyone had gotten their hands on a chantment on the way from the cells.
As Will followed Roche into the courtroom, the gate of brambles flowered into view behind the bench.
Sahara Knax was brought in after her followers were seated. Like Mark Clumber, she had been exposed to raw magic. Astrid had improvised a treatment for her condition: before her arrest, Sahara had been devolving into a bird. At present she looked human.
Her delusions of godhood were as strong as ever.
"Who's the new guy?" Will asked, spotting a lean black man, maybe thirty-five years of age, conferring with the prosecutor.
"Gilead Landon," Roche said. The man's head came up, as if he had overheard. He raised a hand in greeting, revealing a badly scarred palm. "Landon's been helping hold back the magical forest. He's got ideas about containment."
"Containment as in burning Alchemites?"
"It may come to that." Will darted a look at Caro, and Roche added hastily, "Landon wants to burn the contaminated and their magic toys. Just Sahara and the chantments, see?"
"How'd this clown find you?"
"I found him."
"True or false, Will: Lethewood murdered that fire chief, Lee Glade, because he was in a competing magical faction...."
"This Gilead Landon is a witch burner?"
"Will, if these people understand magic, I want 'em on board, not running wild. Anyway, he's with you on Lethewood. Says she's the one that matters."
"Oh, if he agrees with me, let's get into bed with him."
"Why shouldn't I reach out to a potential resource?"
"They're murderers, Arthur. A society of killers whose charter was written in the Middle Ages."
"Says who? Astrid Lethewood? She'd killed one of them, Will. She had every reason to claim they're bad guys."
"Didn't you just say this guy wants to put Sahara on a stake?" The Fyreman was studying Sahara as she sat at the defendant's table.
"Law says if Knax gets convicted, we'll give her a lethal injection," Roche said. "So what if we cremate the remains afterwards?"
"What if he wants to burn her alive, Arthur?"
Roche made a frustrated noise. "This isn't pattycake we're playing here. You want your kids back or not?"
Will was spared the necessity of a reply when a clerk called court into session. The assembly rose, and the Federal Circuit Judge, George Skagway, wheeled his chair to the bench.
"Be seated." His voice was a rich, resonant bass, the modulated boom of a seasoned speaker. Everyone obeyed him ... ... except Sahara Knax.
"Poisoners of the world, lovers of the Filthwitch, I hereby mark your faces," she said. Her lawyer tugged on her orange plastic sleeve, but she shook him off. "You will drown in floods, freeze in blizzards, choke in the dust storms I bring down upon your Earth-hating heads."
Filthwitch: that was her name for Astrid.
"Praise the Goddess!" The defendants chanted, "Praise the Earth, praise the —"
"That's enough!" Skagway had the lungs of an opera singer; he drowned out the sound of his own gavel coming down, overriding the prisoners. "Defendants will quiet down or be banned from the courtroom for the day."
The Alchemites' prayers became shrieks of rage. Several banged their heads against the table. Others, Caroline included, curled so they could reach their hair with their cuffed hands and yank it out in bloody tufts.
The U.S. Marshal in charge of courtroom security, Juanita Corazón, already had her team jumping in to restrain the defendants.
Sahara feinted, stepping out to face the prosecutor. "You, Wallstone. You'll be first to feel my wrath."
The Fyreman, behind her, laid his scarred palm on Sahara's shoulder. She swayed, dropping into Juanita's arms. The gallery quieted.
"Move to dismiss, Your Honor." The defense attorney hopped up. "Prosecution's assaulted my client."
"Motion denied. Who are you, young man?" Judge Skagway asked.
"Gilead Landon, Your Honor." The Fyreman raised his eyes to the bench. "Consultant to the air force."
"I'll thank you to stay away from the defendants. The marshals have this in hand."
"Just trying to help."
"Help us again, you'll be banned from court." Judge Skagway said, "Defendants may watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV. We'll recess to facilitate the transfer."
"See, Will? Gilead's got his uses." Roche covered a smirk with his hand. "The public sees how easily subdued Sahara is, it makes her less scary."
"You planned this?" Will said.
"It didn't take much imagination to know Sahara would want to disrupt the first day."
"But will you broadcast her threats?"
"We may edit the footage."
"And pretty up the Primas' black eyes digitally, while you're at it?"
"Not a bad idea," Roche said, ignoring his sarcasm.
"Won't people wonder how Landon knocked her out? Won't they say, 'Hey, wasn't that magic? Aren't you government types telling us that magic is bad?'"
"Officially, the point is terrorism, not magic," Roche said. "Now, do you want to talk to Caro?"
No, Will thought. "All right."
Minutes later, he was seated across from his ex-wife in one of the six-by-six booths the Wendover staff had dubbed "squirrel cages," watching a marshal cuff her to the table. A screen on the far wall offered a view of the courtroom; a keypad on the desk let her text her defense attorney during proceedings. No need for that now, though — a lawyer was present.
The newest raw spot on her scalp was oozing.
Caroline the Alchemite bore little resemblance to the Caro who had rappelled from the roof of a student residence tower to the deck of Will's apartment when they were undergraduates; the woman who'd climbed K2 without oxygen on her twentieth birthday. The woman who had shared his bed and dreams, who'd worked two jobs while he attended grad school, who'd soothed their son's night terrors while writing her bioethics thesis was gone.
These days, Sahara was first in her thoughts. "What did that bastard do to the Goddess?"
"Want me to find out how she's doing?"
"Still the negotiator, William? I'd have to do something for you, right?"
Never fight the subject on her own terms. Will produced a file, sliding out two news clippings: an account of an Alchemite's death in Wichita, first. Just after Sahara's arrest, her followers had taken to wearing orange jumpers similar to prisoners' uniforms. It made them easy to spot; this one had been beaten to death in his home, which had then been looted — the killers, naturally, were after chantments.
The second clipping was about a woman who'd had the bad fortune to resemble Sahara: she had been drawn and quartered in Bogotá. He let Caro read, saw her blanch. She passed the pages to her lawyer with a shaking hand.
"Caroline, tell me where Ellie and Carson are. Whoever you've left them with, she isn't safe; she can't protect them."
She shook her head.
"Sahara can't watch out for her flock. The army's chipping away at your leadership...."
"We're coming out even there," she muttered. It was true. Hundreds of soldiers had vanished in the skirmishes of the past six months. A few had been killed; when desperate, the Alchemites powered their chantments by drawing the life out of the people they were fighting — and any unfortunate bystanders. Vamping, they called it.
Will fanned three last pages out in front of her. "You weren't the only mother in the cult, Caro."
"I am the Prima of Wind, Worker of Miracles," she hissed. "I am soft air washing away the sins of the technofilth —"
Her gaze fell on the pages.
It was the biggest weapon he had, a police report detailing the fate of a minor Alchemite and her three children. He had not spared her the photos. Caro let out a long keening breath. For the first time since her arrest, she was rattled.
Excerpted from Blue Magic by A.M. Dellamonica. Copyright © 2012 A. M. Dellamonica. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.