Years ago, I was sitting in the green room at WindyCon, talking to editor Kerrie Hughes. Kerrie was putting an anthology together for DAW and wanted me to write her a story about Smudge. Not just any story, mind you—she wanted me to bring Smudge out of the caves of Goblin Quest and into the real world.
This presented a bit of a challenge. I eventually came up with a story about a man who could pull objects (and spiders) out of books, and his efforts to stop a would-be goddess from conquering a science fiction convention. In 2009, “Mightier than the Sword” appeared in the anthology Gamer Fantastic. While not a canonical prequel to Libriomancer, that story was the seed that eventually led to the Magic ex Libris series.
Thank you, Kerrie! And thank you to everyone else who helped me with this book. I received a great deal of feedback from my beta readers: Mindy Klasky, Catherine Shaffer, Marie Brennan, Kelly McCullough, Sherwood Smith, Stephanie Burgis, and Michael and Lynne Thomas.
Laura McCullough, Diana Rowland, and Kelly Angel helped tremendously by providing random expert advice on everything from architecture to dusting for fingerprints. (Even though the scene Kelly helped me with ended up getting cut from the final draft. D’oh! I’m sorry, Kelly!) Any factual errors that remain are entirely the fault of Bob, who snuck into the offices at DAW to try to sabotage my book. I hate that guy.
Thanks as always to my editor Sheila Gilbert and everyone else at DAW Books, and to my agent Joshua Bilmes.
As challenging as it can be to write a book, that’s nothing compared to the challenge of living with a writer. My deepest thanks to my wife Amy and my children Skylar and Jamie for their support and for just putting up with me, especially in those final months of 2011 as I worked to make my deadline.
Finally, thanks to all of you who’ve read and enjoyed my work. If books are indeed magic (and does anyone really believe otherwise?), then they’re a collaborative magic between author and reader.
SOME PEOPLE WOULD SAY it’s a bad idea to bring a fire-spider into a public library. Those people would probably be right, but it was better than leaving him alone in the house for nine hours straight. The one time I tried, Smudge had expressed his displeasure by burning through the screen that covered his tank, burrowing into my laundry basket, and setting two weeks’ worth of clothes ablaze.
The fire department had arrived in time to keep the whole place from burning. I remembered digging through the drenched, dripping mess my bedroom had become until I found Smudge huddled in a corner. With steam rising from his body, he had raced onto my shoulder and clung there as if terrified I was going to abandon him again. And then he bit my ear.
The four-inch spider was a memento of what I had left behind, one last piece of that other life. If magic were alcohol, Smudge would be both sobriety medallion and the one whiskey bottle I kept around as a reminder.
While at work, he stayed in a steel birdcage behind my desk, safely out of reach of small children. More importantly, it kept the small children safely out of Smudge’s reach.
According to a series of tests I had run with an infrared thermometer, Smudge’s flames could reach temperatures in excess of thirteen hundred degrees, roughly the same as your average Bunsen burner. I suspected he could get hotter, but since he only burst into flame when scared or threatened, it seemed cruel to pursue that particular research project.
Not to mention the fact that I was officially forbidden from doing magical research. My duties these days were much more straightforward.
I sighed and picked up the old bar code scanner. Age had yellowed the plastic grip, and the cord protruding from the handle was heavily reinforced with electrical tape. For the third time that afternoon, I played the red beam over the back of the latest Charlaine Harris novel.
The scanner’s LED flashed green, and the computer emitted a cheerful beep as the screen populated with what should have been the details of Harris’ fantasy mystery, a book our system insisted was actually The Joy of Pickling II, by Charlotte F. Pennyworth.
I tossed the useless scanner aside, cleared the record, and began manually entering the book’s information into the Copper River Library database. Without the scanner, it took me a half hour to input the rest of the new books into the system.
When I finished the stack, I glanced around the library. Mrs. Trembath was two-finger typing at one of the public computer terminals, probably forwarding more inspirational cat photos to her grandchildren. Karen Beauchamp was huddled in a beanbag chair in the children’s section, reading The Color Purple.
Karen’s parents would be ticked to know she was reading books they hadn’t personally approved. I made a mental note to save a nice, innocuous dust jacket Karen could wrap around the cover.
Aside from them, the library was empty. Traffic had been slow all afternoon, as people took advantage of the June sunshine.
I removed a fire opal pendant and set the orange stone on the center of the keyboard. The screen flickered, and a new window popped up on the screen. A simple circular logo showed an open book etched onto a medieval shield above the letters DZP.
This database had nothing to do with the Copper River Library. Having cataloged the new books for one library, it was time to do it all over again. I began with a book called Heart of Stone, a paranormal romance about a half-gorgon detective who got involved with a sexy mafia hit man. The story was nothing unusual, but the hit man wore enchanted sunglasses that allowed him to see magic and protected him from the detective’s gaze. Those could be useful in the field. I entered the description and page numbers. The author also hinted that the half-gorgon’s tears had aphrodisiac properties, and were potentially addictive. Something to watch for when the sequels came out.
One by one, I worked my way through the rest of the books. Copper River was a small town, but we had the best science fiction and fantasy collection in the entire U.P. Not that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the most populous place, but I’d match our catalog against any library in the state. I had read every one of the three thousand titles that strained the aging wooden shelves of our SF/F section.
Most of those books had been purchased through a grant from the Johannes Porter Institute for Literacy, one of the cover corporations for Die Zwelf Portenære. That grant paid most of my salary and kept the town well-stocked in speculative fiction. All I had to do to keep it was keep cataloging new books for the Porters.
Rather, that was all I was permitted to do.
“Hey, Mister V.” Karen had lowered her book. “Is something wrong with Smudge?”
I turned around just as a piece of the pea-sized obsidian gravel that lined the bottom of Smudge’s cage dropped to the tile floor. Smudge was pacing quick circles, and tendrils of smoke had begun to rise from his back.
I jumped to my feet and grabbed my worn canvas backpack from beneath the desk. Doing my best to hide the cage with my body, I pulled out a bag of Jelly Bellies and dropped one in beside the ceramic water dish nested in the gravel. “What’s the matter, partner?”
Smudge ignored me and the candy both. Not good.
Mrs. Trembath sniffed the air. “Is something burning?”
I searched the library, trying to figure out who or what was making Smudge nervous. Neither Karen nor Mrs. Trembath struck me as dangerous, but I trusted Smudge’s judgment over my own. His warnings had saved my life three times. Four if you counted that mess with the rabid jackalope. “Furnace trouble. I’m sorry, but I’ll need to close the library until I can get someone in here to check it out.”
Karen was leaning halfway over the desk, searching for the source of the smoke. I grabbed a paperback and gently swatted her back. “That means you, too.”
“I wish my parents would let me have a tarantula,” she grumbled as I escorted her toward the door. “If you ever need someone to watch him for you—”
“You’ll be the first person I call.” I thought back to the last time Karen’s family had been here and quickly added, “if you promise not to use him to terrorize your little brother.”
“I wouldn’t,” she said, eyes full of twelve-year-old mischief. “But if Smudge happened to escape into the bathroom while Bryan was brushing his teeth . . .”
“Out.” I gave her one final, playful thwap with the book. Unfortunately, while I was shooing Karen out the door, Mrs. Trembath had limped over to the desk.
She pointed her aluminum cane at Smudge’s cage. “Isaac, your poor spider’s on fire!”
“He’s not—” Aw, crap. Red flames had begun to ripple over Smudge’s back. I hurried over and took Mrs. Trembath’s arm, but it’s hard to rush an eighty-three-year-old grandmother. I managed to get her moving toward the door, then returned to check on Smudge.
That was a mistake. Mrs. Trembath came back moments later. She had left her cane by the door, and her wrinkled face was taut with determination as she raised trembling arms and pointed a red fire extinguisher at Smudge’s cage.
“No!” I stepped in front of her as frigid air whooshed from the extinguisher’s nozzle like an icy jet engine. It shouldn’t hurt our books, but I had no idea what it would do to a fire-spider. I held my breath and squeezed my eyes shut. I heard books and paperwork flying behind me. The instant the stream died, I reached out blindly to yank the extinguisher away.
My eyes watered. I had to stop myself from rubbing them, which would only make the irritation worse. White powder covered my shirt and hands.
“He’s still burning!”
I glanced at Smudge. As the chemicals from the fire extinguisher dispersed, Smudge’s flames flared even higher, taking on an orange tinge. All eight eyes glared up at Mrs. Trembath with what I could only describe as pure arachnid loathing.
Mrs. Trembath returned to the doorway to fetch her cane, which she raised in both hands like a samurai sword. “At least put the poor thing out of his misery.”
“He’s not burning. He’s . . . bioluminescent.” I doubted Mrs. Trembath weighed more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, but she had raised five kids, and could probably take on an entire wolf pack through sheer cussedness. Unfortunately, the last time I had seen Smudge this spooked, the threat had been far worse than wolves.
“Isaac Vainio, you get out of my way and let me help that poor creature.”
Magic would have ended our standoff, but I was already pushing things by keeping Smudge. Even the smallest spell could get me hauled down to Illinois to explain myself to Nicola Pallas, the Regional Master of the Porters.
Instead, I folded my arms and said, “Smudge is fine, but I really need to take care of the furnace situation.”
“He’s not fine, he’s—”
“Are you questioning my authority?” I widened my eyes, hamming it up as much as possible. In a faux-military voice, I asked, “Are you aware that section six point two of the Copper River Library user agreement gives me the authority to revoke your library card, including Internet privileges?”
She lowered her cane. “You wouldn’t dare.”
I leaned closer and whispered, “A librarian’s gotta do what a librarian’s gotta do.”
We stared at one another for about five seconds before she cracked. With an amused chuckle, she jabbed a finger into my chest. “So why haven’t I ever seen him glow before?”
“Diet,” I said quickly. “He escaped last night and got outside. He must have gobbled down at least a dozen fireflies before I caught him.” I braced myself, praying she didn’t know enough about biochemistry to see through my rather weak excuse.
She backed down. “Maybe if you gave him real food instead of candy, he wouldn’t have to sneak out on his own.”
“He gets crickets at home.” I glanced around nervously as I walked her to the door. I still didn’t know what had set Smudge off, and the sooner I got Mrs. Trembath out of here, the safer she’d be.
“See you tomorrow afternoon?”
“I hope so.” Through the windows, I watched her make her way to the old blue SUV she affectionately referred to as the Rusty Hippo. As she pulled away, I spotted three people approaching the library. They were dressed far too warmly for June, even in the U.P. They kept their heads down and their hands in their pockets.
I locked the door, though if Smudge was right, that probably wouldn’t help. The trio stopped to study the address of the post office across the street. One reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Her hand glittered like a disco ball in the afternoon sun as she scanned the buildings. She tugged her sleeve over her hand a second later, but that one glimpse was enough to identify them as Sanguinarius Meyerii, informally known as sparklers.
I returned to the desk. “You know, you’d be a lot more helpful if you could talk.”
Smudge continued running laps, flames flickering like tiny orange banners on his back. He was never wrong about danger, but he couldn’t tell you if that danger was a meteorite streaking toward the roof or an amorous moose running amok in the parking lot.
Or a trio of vampires.
I opened the cage door. Smudge scrambled out and immediately disappeared beneath the desk. “Careful,” I said. “If you burn this place down, I’m out of a job.”
Familiar adrenaline pounded through my limbs as I searched through the newly cataloged books from the cart. I might be forbidden from using magic in ordinary circumstances, but this definitely qualified as extraordinary. I grabbed Ann Crispin’s latest book, Vulcan’s Mirror, an old-school space adventure set in a mirror universe, complete with evil goatees for everyone.
I didn’t have an eidetic memory, but training and natural aptitude had put me pretty darn close. I flipped to chapter eight and skimmed to the scene where a lizardlike assassin was creeping down the corridor of his alien vessel, disruptor pistol in hand.
The author had described the scene in vivid detail: the hard, sharp-cornered metal of the weapon’s grip, the low heat on the assassin’s palm from the power source, the metallic blue sheen of the barrel as he sighted at a red-shirted security guard . . . detail after detail, each one painting the scene in the reader’s mind. Making it real.
Libriomancy was in many ways a lazy man’s magic. There were no wands, no fancy spells, no ancient incantations. No hand-waving or runes. Nothing but the words on the page, the collective belief of the readers, and the libriomancer’s love of the story.
Love was the key to accessing that belief and power. And this series had been one of my favorites growing up.
My fingers traced the words, feeling the roughness of the paper, the curve of the page near the spine. My mouth was dry, and my heart pounded like I was a kid about to kiss a girl for the first time.
I thought back to the days when I had gone hunting with my brother and father. The slow, steady breathing as I lined up the sights of my rifle. Take a deep breath, exhale, and slowly squeeze the trigger.
My fingers slipped through the pages into another universe. I felt the hot, humid air of the ship on my skin. I flexed my hand, watching the movement of fingers that appeared to end at the knuckles.
I reached deeper until I touched the dry, scaly skin of the killer’s arm. There was no true life in that alien flesh. This was merely the manifestation of belief. Real or not, the assassin had a strong grip, and I had to tug and twist to free the weapon from his hand.
The disruptor was uncomfortably hot to the touch. It was large enough that I had to turn it sideways so it wouldn’t catch on the edges of the book. As I withdrew my hand, magic and story became real. I now clutched a heavy blue-steel pistol with a thick grip and a barrel as long as my forearm. I slipped my finger through a trigger guard designed for digits the size of kielbasa and hid the weapon behind my back.
The library door slammed open, the oak frame splintering like balsa. Cold fear splashed over the excitement and wonder of magic, urging fight or flight.
Neither option was likely to work against sparklers.
I leaned against the desk, doing my best to appear unworried. “I’m sorry, the library’s closed. Furnace trouble. If you could come back in the morning—”
So much for the faint hope that they weren’t after me. The speaker was a teenaged girl, maybe fifteen years old. That was the age she had been turned, at any rate. She wore a bright orange hoodie and too much makeup. Short black hair poked from beneath her hood, and a red flannel scarf looped around her neck. An old backpack hung from her left shoulder. Her dull, red-black eyes never left mine.
Her companions were a burly brown-skinned man in flannel and a pale, middle-aged woman in an ankle-length raincoat. The raincoat was a bright floral pattern utterly at odds with the rage and hunger in her eyes. The man wore a Green Bay Packers cap, and looked like he had been custom carved to be a professional ass-kicker.
“That’s me,” I said, tapping the plastic badge clipped to my shirt pocket. White powder from the fire extinguisher mostly hid my slack-jawed photo. “What can I help you with?”
“Information and payback.” She pushed back her hood and craned her head, as if searching to make sure I was alone. Her lips curled, revealing crooked teeth, and I wondered briefly if braces would have any effect on vampires. “You should be more careful in your choice of friends, Isaac.”
I studied the trio more closely. I was certain I had never seen them before. Not locals, then. Relatively young, since Meyerii had only begun popping up back in 2005.
I had read pretty much every vampire book ever written in English, German, Spanish, and French. In recent years, authors had whittled away many of the more monstrous vampiric traits. More to the point, they had eliminated many weaknesses as well. Going after Meyerii with sunlight, garlic, or stakes to the heart was about as useful as trying to tickle them to death.
It took every bit of focus to shut out the voice in my head whispering that I was about to die. I reached instead for anger. “Two years, three months, and sixteen days.”
Red eyes narrowed. “Take him!”
The middle-aged woman snarled. Her coat flapped sharply as she moved, too quickly for me to see. Her hands clamped around my biceps and hauled me off the ground.
“That’s how long it’s been since I last used magic.” My words were hoarse, squeezed out through fear and adrenaline. I jabbed the barrel of the gun into her side and pulled the trigger.
Green energy burned through her midsection. She dropped me, eyes wide with panic, and grabbed the hole with both hands as if trying to hold herself together. It took less than a second for the energy to devour her body, leaving nothing but a faint ozone smell in the air.
I pointed at the girl, hoping they would be so stunned by the loss of their companion that I could get off another shot. No such luck. The disruptor was ripped from my hand, and something the approximate size and power of a pickup truck flung me across the room. I slammed into the shelves and crumpled to the ground, paperbacks showering down around me.
Green Bay had tossed me into the romance section. Not much I could use here, even if the room hadn’t been spinning like a bad carnival ride, preventing me from focusing. If I squinted, I might have been able to pull a claymore from one of the Scottish Highland romances, but that would do precisely nothing against these two. Where was a good invisibility cloak when you really needed it?
Green Bay twisted his hand into my shirt and lifted me one-handed, pinning me against the shelves hard enough to compress my rib cage.
“If he so much as looks at another book, rip off his arms.” The girl walked over and plucked the disruptor from her companion’s hand. She stabbed the barrel into my side. The metal was hot enough to burn.
“If you want a library card, you’ll have to fill out one of the yellow forms,” I said. Good old banter, the last refuge against terror and imminent death.
Her face was dry and filthy. She was several inches shorter than me, but the feral hunger in those red eyes made her seem bigger. “You should have left us alone, Isaac.”
I tasted blood. I must have bitten my cheek when I hit the shelves. I swallowed, hoping to minimize the scent. “You realize you broke down my door, right?”
Her voice tickled the inside of my skull, like millipedes crawling through my cerebral cortex. “Tell me who among the Porters has been hunting us.”
“I’m retired from the field.” Even after more than two years, the words stung. “And I never hunted vampires. We leave it to you to police your own kind. The automatons take care of any rogues your masters can’t handle.”
Her voice grew soft, and the millipedes dug deeper. Most Meyerii didn’t have psychic powers. This could be another damn hybrid. One of these days, vampiric experiments in transfusion were going to create something they couldn’t handle.
“Don’t lie to me, Isaac. You will give me their names.”
“I’m a libriomancer. Mind tricks don’t work on me. Only money.” When all else fails, fall back on movie quotes.
“Dammit!” She spun away.
“You’re new to the vampire thing, right?” I asked, doing my best to control my breathing. “You probably weren’t around the last time your kind went toe-to-toe with the Porters. It wasn’t pretty. Twenty-three rogue vampires marching down the streets of New Orleans versus one old mechanical warrior. All it took was a single automaton to reduce those vampires to twenty-three piles of dust and ash.” I might have been a mere cataloger, but I was still a member of Die Zwelf Portenære. Killing a Porter was a death sentence. They had to know that.
She didn’t look at me, but I could feel the other one shifting nervously. “I have no idea what’s going on, but if I was involved, do you really think I’d let you march through my front door? That I’d allow myself to be captured so easily? That I’d be wearing a name tag?”
Her attention dropped to the plastic badge. She wiped a thumb through the powder and stared at the washed-out photo that made me look a little vampiric myself.
If I hadn’t been two years out of practice, I would have had something better than a ray gun waiting for them. Back in the days of Dracula, humans had a fighting chance against the undead. But the more they evolved from monsters into angsty, sexy superheroes, the more the odds of a human being surviving an encounter with an angry vampire shrank to nothing.
“He’s got a point, Mel.” Green Bay’s grip loosened ever so slightly. “He doesn’t look like much. He’s nothing but a librarian.”
“What do you mean: nothing but a—”
He thumped me against the shelf without even blinking.
“He’s lying,” Mel insisted.
“I’m an awful liar,” I said quickly. “Ask anyone.”
Mel stepped back, setting the disruptor on the desk. “We’ll have a reader sift through his thoughts.”
Reader, slang for the different species of vampire who could absorb the thoughts and experiences of their victims. Maybe I had a few hours of life left after all. They’d have to transport me back to whatever nest they had come from—probably Detroit or Green Bay. If I could get my hands on another book, or even just make a quick phone call—
Mel opened her backpack and pulled out a large Tupperware container and a butterfly knife. “Drain him. His blood will give the reader the memories she needs.”
“Hold on, you’re supposed to give the prisoner time to bargain! It’s traditional. I’m a libriomancer, remember? You want money? Take me to the history section and I’ll give you the Hope Diamond.” I turned my attention to Green Bay. “Or how about a Packers Super Bowl ring? Give me two minutes in the sports section, and it’s all yours.”
He followed my gaze, but Mel punched him in the shoulder.
“What’s he going to do?” he asked. “Attack us with a football?”
“We are not giving the libriomancer more books.” Mel jabbed her black-polished nail into Green Bay’s shoulder, punctuating every word.
A lazy knock on the broken doorframe made both vampires whirl.
“Get out of here!” I shouted, trying to warn whoever it was. I grabbed Green Bay’s fingers, trying to break his grip, but it was like trying to bend steel. Kicking him in the stomach was equally futile.
“The library’s closed,” snapped Mel.
Footsteps crunched on broken wood and glass. When I saw who had entered, my body went limp with relief.
Lena Greenwood was the least imposing heroine you’d ever see. She was several inches shorter than me, heavyset but graceful as a dancer. I didn’t know her actual age, but she appeared to be in her early twenties, and was about as intimidating as a stuffed bear. A damned sexy bear, but not someone you’d expect to go toe-to-toe with your average monster.
Wisps of loose black hair framed dark eyes, a round face, and a cheerful smile, as if she had walked in on a surprise party. She wore a motorcycle jacket of black leather, the kind with slip-in plastic shields to protect the shoulders, elbows, and back. The T-shirt she wore beneath was filthy, as were her jeans and the red high-top sneakers on her feet. She carried a pair of bokken: curved wooden practice swords that matched the brown shade of her skin.
“Vampires?” she asked.
I managed a nod. “They didn’t want to pay their late fees.”
“I thought you might be joining us,” Mel snarled. To her companion, she snapped, “Make sure she’s alone.”
Green Bay released my shoulders and blurred across the library like the Flash. I didn’t see what happened next, being busy falling down and gasping in pain, but when I looked over, the vampire was pinned to the wall like an insect with one of Lena’s bokken protruding from his chest.
He snarled and grabbed the hilt, trying to pull himself free. The stake-through-the-heart bit didn’t work on Meyerii, but he appeared unable to break or remove Lena’s weapon.
“What did you do to him?” Mel demanded.
His struggles grew more frantic as Lena turned her back on him and strode toward us. “The wood is alive,” she said softly. “It put out roots.”
I looked at Mel. “You still have time to run away.”
Mel rushed for the disruptor. Lena lunged, swinging her remaining bokken two-handed in an overhead smash that struck the weapon before Mel could pull the trigger. Green sparks spat from the barrel, but nothing more. Mel flung the disruptor away and seized my throat, her nails piercing my skin. “I’ll kill him!”
Lena rested the tip of her bokken on the floor, folding both hands over the hilt. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her lower lip was swollen. “I’m tempted to let you. What’s the matter with you, Isaac? Letting a pair of vampires get the drop on you like this?”
“There were three,” I corrected, my voice strained from the pressure on my windpipe. “I got one.”
“With your toy gun? The gun they promptly took away from you?” She shook her head. “An entire library, and that was the best you could do? How did you ever survive in the field?”
“They kicked me out of the field, remember? Besides, I’m out of practice.” But she was right. There were shields that would have protected me from the vampires’ attacks, mind-control rays, and so much more.
“Shut up, both of you.” Mel’s gaze flicked to her partner, who continued to writhe and struggle. I imagined tiny roots punching through his body, anchoring him to the wall, and shuddered.
Movement overhead caught my eye. I forced myself to look straight at Mel, so as not to call her attention to the fire-spider slipping slowly downward from the ceiling on a silken line. Smudge dropped the last foot or so to land ever so lightly atop Mel’s head like a fuzzy red-and-brown crown.
An angry, burning crown.
Flame whooshed through Mel’s hair. She shrieked and spun, launching Smudge through the air into the computers. I grabbed the top shelf, lifted both feet, and shoved hard.
Vampires might be strong, but Mel’s mass was merely human, and I had physics on my side. She stumbled back, and then Lena’s bokken smashed her forearm, shattering bone.
Mel’s good hand twisted into the leather of Lena’s jacket. The two of them seemed to fly through the library. Mel slammed Lena to the ground by one of the spiral book racks, which toppled over with a loud crash. Mel reached for Lena’s throat.
Lena grabbed the vampire’s arm at the wrist and elbow, then twisted.
Undead or not, Mel could still feel pain. I winced at the loud pop that signaled a dislocated elbow. Behind them, Green Bay let out an animalistic snarl and strained to free himself. The wall behind him cracked.
I retrieved Vulcan’s Mirror, skimming the pages until I reopened the magic I had used before. I picked up the disruptor with my other hand and thrust it into the book, letting the text re-form the damaged weapon to its original shape and function before pulling it free once more. Not the safest move, but homicidal vampires qualified as “extenuating circumstances.”
Green Bay finally broke free with an animalistic scream, taking a good chunk of the wall with him. As he staggered toward Mel and Lena, I sighted and pulled the trigger. He vanished in a flare of green energy.
Lena hauled Mel upright. “Your turn. Who ordered the attack in Dearborn?”
“What attack?” I asked. Lena lived in Dearborn, making me wonder what exactly had brought her to my library.
“Shut up, Isaac.”
Mel clenched her fist and swung, connecting with Lena’s jaw. From the way Mel cried out, the blow hurt her as much as it did Lena, but it was enough to let her break free. She spun toward me.
I fired one last time, and Mel vanished.
Lena picked up her remaining bokken. I had vaporized the other along with Green Bay. Keeping her back to me, she ran her fingers over the wood. “What did you do that for?”
Her flat tone took me aback. “Why did I shoot the woman who tried to cut my throat?”
“She was beaten. You didn’t have to kill her.”
“You ran her buddy through with one of your swords!”
“I stopped him. I would have stopped her.” With a sigh, she turned to face me. “They used to be human, until magic changed them into something else. Do you think that girl truly understood what she would become?”
I picked up the butterfly knife Mel had dropped. With the immediate threat passed, I was feeling rather shaky. “I’d have more sympathy if not for the part where she tried to cut my throat.”
“What did they say to you?”
“They thought someone from the Porters had been hunting vampires, and wanted me to tell them who was involved.” I dropped to my knees and crawled beneath the computer desks, searching through tangled cords for any sign of Smudge. I found him hiding in a nest of blue network cables. From the smell of burnt plastic, we’d have to call the computer guy in the morning, but Smudge appeared unharmed. He scurried up onto my shoulder, searing tiny black dots on my sleeve.
“So what did you tell them?” asked Lena.
“Nothing. I’m retired, remember? Nobody tells me anything.” I picked up Vulcan’s Mirror again and flipped to chapter eight. I searched the inner edges for char, but this was a new release, and the pages were clean of magical decay. I dissolved the disruptor back into the text and set the book on its cart. “Thank you.”
She picked up one of the overturned tables. “Any time.”
I hadn’t seen Lena since I moved back up north two years ago. The last I knew, she was the only dryad living in North America, and was currently serving as live-in bodyguard for Doctor Nidhi Shah, a downstate shrink who worked with a number of “unusual” clients. Myself included, back in the day.
“You mentioned another attack. What’s going on, Lena?”
She returned to the doorway to check outside. “From what I can tell, the vampires have declared war on the Porters.”
THE IDEA OF VAMPIRES DECLARING WAR on the Porters was about as ridiculous as the Upper Peninsula marching to war against Canada.
Originally known as Die Zwelf Portenære or The Twelve Doorkeepers, the Porters had been around for roughly half a millennium. The original twelve had consisted of nine libriomancers, a sorcerer, a bard, and an alchemist. All save two were long dead, but the organization had grown over the centuries, and now numbered between four and five hundred members worldwide.
Its mission was unchanged. Every Porter took an oath to preserve the secrecy of magic, protect the world from magical threats, and work to expand our knowledge of magic’s power and potential.
“Vampires get stronger every year,” Lena commented as she examined the wall where the Green Bay vamp had ripped himself free, exposing the studs. Chunks of plaster littered the carpet.
“I blame Anne Rice. She helped start this whole vampire resurgence back in the late seventies. Then Huff and Hamilton and a few others helped it build . . .” And of course, in more recent times, you had Stephenie Meyer.
Supernatural creatures came about in one of two ways. A handful were natural-born, having evolved alongside Homo sapiens with whatever magical gifts or abilities helped them survive. These days, survival meant concealing their existence, like the deepwater Pacific merfolk or the handful of naga living in Laos.
But the majority of such species were created, thanks in part to the magic of libriomancy.
There were only twenty-four known libriomancers in this country, and we knew better than to go sticking our hands into a vampire scene where we might brush against an exposed fang. But there were always others with potential, readers with natural talents who didn’t understand what they were doing.
Had Mel reached into her book and felt the vampire’s teeth sink into her arm, the magic searing through her veins? Or had she been turned the old-fashioned way by another Meyerii? Lena was right that she couldn’t have truly known what she was getting into, even if she had been given a choice.
“What happened in Dearborn?” I asked. “Is Doctor Shah all right?”
Lena’s eyes tightened as she turned away. “You’ve got company.”
I stepped to one of the wire spinner racks and grabbed an old pulp adventure. I flipped to a familiar page, and my fingers sank into the yellowed paper until I brushed the chrome-and-steel handle of a good old-fashioned laser gun. The weapon was cool to the touch, a quirk of the built-in coolant system that prevented the tiny nuclear battery from going critical.
I tried not to think about that too hard.
“Another gun?” Lena’s eyebrows rose. “Kind of a one-trick libriomancer, aren’t you?”
Outside, a heavyset man with a sweat-slick brow hurried toward the library steps clutching a bolt-action deer rifle in both hands. Damp clumps of hair clung to his worn denim sleeves like tiny brown slivers. “Everyone okay in there?”
“We’re fine, John.” I flipped the metal switch on the laser to power it down before sliding it into my pocket. John and Lizzie Pascoe ran the barbershop across the street. They were great neighbors, always willing to pitch in and help a friend . . . exactly what I didn’t need right now.
John carefully kept his distance as he peered between us. He had never said anything to me, but I knew Smudge made him nervous. “Damn, Vainio. That is one busted library. What the hell were you doing, hosting an open bar for itinerant hockey players?”
I turned around, and it finally began to sink in just how thoroughly we had wrecked the place. Broken shelves spilled piles of books onto the carpet. Cracked and broken monitors lay beside upended tables. The door looked like it had lost a fight with a pissed-off grizzly, and then there was the smashed wall.
“Lizzie called the cops when we heard the commotion,” said John.
“Thanks.” Explaining this to the police was going to be almost as hard as explaining to my boss. “We had a wolf.”
“A wolf?” John repeated, his skepticism as thick as the smell of pipe tobacco on his breath.
“Someone must have left the back door open last night,” I said. “I figure it came inside to get out of the rain and hid in the basement. Squeezed up onto the furnace to keep warm. When I went down to investigate, it freaked.”
John’s face screwed up in a scowl. “And the hippies down in Lansing want to protect the damn things.”
I doubted John would be happy to know which side I had been on during the last battle over keeping wolves on the endangered species list. The DNR was right that the wolf population had returned to healthier levels, but the Porters continued to fight to regulate the hunting and killing of wolves . . . and more importantly, to help protect the werewolf packs living in the wilds of the U. P. “It didn’t hurt anyone. Just made a little mess, that’s all.”
“A little mess?”
I forced a grin. “It knocked over some shelves and tables, and toppled Smudge’s cage. Scared the poor thing half to death. But all the wolf wanted was to get away.”
“You’re a lucky man, Isaac.”
“Believe me, I know.” I glanced at Lena, who had thrust her bokken through her belt and was standing with folded arms. “Lena here chased it off.”
She took that as her cue, holding out her hand. “Lena Greenwood. I heard the commotion from outside. I found Isaac trying to fend the wolf off with some old science fiction book.”
“That sounds like Isaac,” John said with a laugh. He looked her up and down before returning the handshake. “So you went after the wolf with a stick?”
“Bokken,” Lena corrected. “I’m a second dan in kendo, and I’ve also studied gatka—Indian stick fighting. I figured I had a better chance than he did.”
John grunted. “You’re a friend of his?”
“I worked with him once or twice, downstate.”
“Isaac doesn’t talk much about his life as a troll,” he said.
Lena shot me a quizzical glance.
“Folks who live in lower Michigan,” I clarified. “Below the bridge.”
Sirens screamed in the distance. I stepped past John and checked the street. We had acquired a few gawkers, but there was no sign of more vampires. Smudge had cooled off, so I trusted we were safe for the moment.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” John clapped my arm, making sure to grab the side away from Smudge. “You look like you’re about two seconds from passing out.”
“Adrenaline.” That and the normal aftereffects of magic. It would be several hours before my heart slowed to its normal rate. It would take even longer for the emotional thrill to fade. “I’m just a little shaken.”
The police were getting closer. If they started questioning Lena or looking into her background, I’d be in even more of a mess than I was. “Lena, why don’t you wait for me at my place? I’ll be over as soon as I’m finished here. I’m on Red Maple Drive, on the east edge of—”
“I know.” She pulled me into a quick hug that probably looked spontaneous to John. Her fingers laced behind my neck, and her breath tickled my ear. “Be careful this time. Keep Smudge and your books with you, and watch your back.”
She nodded to John and hopped down the steps, where she strode toward the motorcycle parked a short way up the street. She tucked the bokken into a case strapped to the side of her bike, pulled a green helmet over her head, and pulled away.
John’s lips quirked. “You’ve been holding out, boy. How long have you and she—”
“Lena’s just a friend.” A friend I barely knew, and hadn’t seen in several years. A friend whose woodsy smell lingered pleasantly in my nose. I could still feel the heat of her body pressing against mine.
“Right, ’cause all of my ‘friends’ hug me like that.”
“Jealous?” I asked.
“Yes, sir.” John grinned and glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure his wife hadn’t overheard.
“You know, you might not want to be standing here with a rifle when the cops start asking questions,” I said gently.
He chuckled and pulled back the bolt of his gun, ejecting a bullet, which he slid into his shirt pocket. “You let us know if you need anything,” he said over his shoulder as he left. “I can talk to my brother about fixing that door if you want. He’s a damn good carpenter, though I’ll deny it if you tell him I said so.”
“Thanks, John.” I headed back inside as the police car stopped in front of the library, lights flashing. I reached up to pet Smudge, gently brushing the bristles along his back, then returned him to his cage. I had just enough time to dissolve the laser pistol back into its book before the police officer knocked on the doorframe.
I barely heard. Other books called to me from the shelves, their long-lost whispers as sweet and seductive as Lena’s fingers trailing over my neck. There were items in those pages that would hypnotize the police and my boss both, letting me speed through the inevitable questions and get back home to find out what the hell was going on.
“Sir, are you all right?”
I gripped the edge of the desk and nodded. Using magic to protect my life was one thing, but the emergency had passed, at least for the moment. As I turned my back on the shelves, I felt the same aching despair in my gut that I had experienced two years ago after walking away from all things magical.
Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods and suffered the consequences. I had returned the gift of the gods, and the price had been my dreams.
“I’m fine.” I forced those memories down and walked over to talk to him and his partner.
For the rest of the day, I recited essentially the same story I had given John, while passersby stared and gossiped from the sidewalk. A fire truck showed up at one point, sirens screaming. I overheard enough to know I had Mrs. Trembath to thank for that one.
“We’ll have someone from DNR stop by to check the basement,” another officer said as she walked out of the library. “You might want to talk to an exterminator, too. We found small holes bored through some of those studs by the door.”
I swallowed, remembering Lena’s comment about her living bokken putting out roots. “Thanks.”
“Isaac!” The shout came from a forty-something woman making her way up the sidewalk.
“That’s my boss,” I said. “Do you mind if I go fill her in?”
The cop gave me a sympathetic smile. “Good luck.”
Jennifer Latona had moved to Copper River shortly before me, taking over for the previous library director after he retired. She wasn’t completely comfortable with small town life yet, and it often felt like she was trying to prove herself.
She climbed the stairs to look inside, then spun back around. The steps gave her almost a foot of height over me. “The police said there was a wolf in my library.”
“Nobody was hurt, and the insurance company should cover the damage.” Just as long as nobody found out what had really done this. Few policies covered acts of vampires.
“There was a wolf. In my library.” She ran her fingers through her frazzled hair.
“The spider doesn’t seem so bad now, does he?”
That earned a glare. I was saved by a passing fireman who commented, “Could have been worse, eh? Eight years back, we had a bear get into the corner store down the street. Gorged himself on chocolate and smashed the Slushee machine to pieces.”
“I want new doors on this place,” Jenn said firmly. “Steel doors, with deadbolts.”
“John said his brother could do the work. I’ll give him a call. I can also get that insurance paperwork started, if you want.”
She nodded, glaring at the library as if trying to will the damage to repair itself. There was a witch down in El Salvador who could have done exactly that, but she charged way too much for this kind of job.
I gestured at the crowd and the flashing lights. “I’ll have an easier time of it if I work from home . . .”
“There was a wolf in my library.”
I took that as permission. A minute later, Smudge and I were in my truck speeding toward home, Lena, and—hopefully—some answers.
Every libriomancer I had ever met had one thing in common: we were daydreamers.
Sure, lots of kids imagined what it would be like to be Superman or Wolverine, or secretly tried to use the force to levitate a toy car, but we obsessed over this stuff. Night after night, I had lain awake pondering whether heat vision could be pinpointed with enough accuracy to kill a mosquito, or whether a lightsaber could be modified to recharge via a regular AC outlet. I fantasized about what I would do if I were ever to develop superpowers. Where would I fly, what global problems would I solve first, where would I go when I needed to get away from it all? (I had eventually decided to build my own private moonbase.)
Some children outgrew such things as they grew up. My daydreams had simply grown more complex. In high school, I couldn’t read a history lesson without wondering how Batman would have foiled the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, or whether a single time traveler with a laser and high-tech armor could have changed the course of the Battle of Chickamauga.
Imagine spending your whole life yearning for that kind of magic, only to discover it was real.
Imagine discovering that magic, like so much else, came with a price. With rules and limits and old men looking over your shoulder. You might as well bring a kid down on Christmas morning, show him a mountain of shiny presents, and then tell him he can only open three or else Santa will beat him up and stuff him into his own stocking.
I learned that I had never truly wanted to be the superhero. Oh, I imagined it, sure. As a kid, I thought about taunting the bullies, then laughing as they injured their fists and feet against my rock-hard muscles. In ninth grade, I constructed one fantasy after another in which my powers allowed me to save Jenny Johnson from various dangers, and how she might express her appreciation once I had flown her to safety . . .
But what I truly wanted, what I dreamed about as an adult, was magic itself. Understanding its rules, its potential . . . I had studied under several researchers with the Porters, but you couldn’t become a full researcher without first serving your time in the field. And you couldn’t work in the field if you lost control of your own magic.
A loud honk jolted me back into awareness. The streetlight was green, and I hadn’t noticed. My face warmed as I sped through the intersection, waving an apology to the driver behind me.
After two years, I could still hear Nicola Pallas’ words as clearly as if she was sitting beside me in the truck. Nicola was Regional Master of the Porters, essentially a magical middle manager, though your average manager didn’t spend her free time trying to crossbreed French poodles with chupacabras.
“Resign from the field, Isaac.” She had driven up from her ranch in Illinois to meet with me. Her voice was flat, like she was discussing what color to paint her living room instead of my future with the Porters. “We’ve decided to set you up with a desk job as a cataloger if you’re interested. We think you’d do well there. But you’re done with fieldwork.”
In other words, I was done with magic. She was asking me to turn my back on the joy and the awe and the wonder, to leave those things to people with better self-control. I remembered grimacing, my face raw and stiff from partially healed burns. “What’s my other choice?”
Her black eyebrows came together slightly as she stared at me. “You misunderstand. This isn’t a choice.”
The most infuriating part was that she was right. I was a damn good cataloger. I saw the magical potential of every book I read.
I simply wasn’t permitted to touch that magic.
When I reached my house, a one-story structure with a metal roof and aluminum siding in desperate need of power washing, I spotted Lena’s motorcycle parked on the edge of the dirt driveway. The black-and-pine-green Honda sport bike was polished to a liquid sheen. A silver oak leaf was airbrushed onto the side, and her helmet hung from the back.
I killed the engine and grabbed Smudge’s cage. He was relaxed enough to finish off the last of the Jelly Belly, which was good enough for me.
A pair of squirrels abandoned the bird feeder and raced into the branches as I approached the front step. They chittered angrily at me while I unlocked the door and stepped inside.
An empty Mountain Dew can sat beside the sink, and a note was taped to the table. I had forgotten to give Lena a key, but that obviously hadn’t stopped her. I grabbed the note.
Back soon. Watch yourself, and don’t get killed. –L
I had bought the house from my parents shortly after my reassignment. They had moved out to Nevada when my father got a job offer from one of the silver mines, but the lousy housing market meant they hadn’t been able to sell this place. It was a full six months before I stopped thinking of this as my parents’ house.
I set Smudge’s cage on the kitchen counter and entered the living room, which I had converted into my own personal library. Floor-to-ceiling cherrywood bookshelves lined three walls. A worn recliner was tucked into the far corner beside the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. The lock for that door had broken years ago, but a broomstick in the track kept anyone outside from opening it.
I closed my eyes, feeling the tug of the books. This was my refuge, my fortress of solitude. Standing in this quiet cave, surrounded by walls of books, was normally enough to ease my mind no matter how stressful things got . . . but not today. Today the books called to me. Every one was a gateway to magic, waiting to be unlocked.
I forced myself to turn away, returning to the kitchen to grab this morning’s newspaper. I slid one sheet after another into Smudge’s cage, pressing them down over the gravel. Smudge tried to sneak out, but I nudged him back. “Sorry, buddy. I need you working security.”
I moved his cage into the hallway, directly beneath the smoke detector. Once he was in place, I grabbed a baggie of chocolate-covered ants from the fridge and dropped a few in with him. He deserved them for helping take out a vampire, and he would need the calories after all that flaming.
With my makeshift security alarm prepped and content, I retreated to my office. More books waited here, stacked on the desk and below the window. Hardcovers and paperbacks, all jammed together like some sort of literary Tetris, waiting to be shelved.
I tried calling Pallas first, but she didn’t answer. I left a vague message about “problems on the job site,” then tried Ray Walker, the archivist down in East Lansing and my former mentor. His cell phone went straight to voice mail, and I gave up on calling his store after the twelfth ring. I glared at the phone, trying to decide who to call next, when the door creaked open behind me.
I spun, heart pounding. Lena leaned in the doorway, her twin bokken tucked beneath one arm. She was doing a lousy job of hiding her amusement.
“This is what you call watching your back?” she asked.
I ignored the gibe. “Didn’t you lose one of those swords at the library?”
“I made a new one.” She stepped inside and studied the office. Her gaze lingered on a framed print of the Space Shuttle Columbia from its original 1981 launch, signed by both John Young and Robert Crippen, the commander and pilot of that first mission. “The trees told me you were back.”
“I was resting in the big oak in your backyard.” She gave me a half-shrug. “They talk to each other. I can watch the entire house through the root system, if I sink deeply enough into the heart of the tree.”
That simple statement set off a cascade of questions in my head. I knew Lena had to return to her tree, and that many of her superhuman abilities came from that connection. The tree’s strength was her own. She wasn’t invulnerable, but a tree’s roots could crush concrete and stone. Lena could do much the same.
But I knew nothing about what happened when she entered a tree. How could she perceive what happened outside? Did those senses weaken with distance? If that connection passed through the roots to other trees, did those trees have to be the same species? Were some trees more conducive to magic than others?
I dragged myself back to more immediate concerns, starting with, “How did you get inside?”
“You barred the back door with a wooden stick.” She twirled one of her bokken, narrowly missing the desk. “That doesn’t work so well against me.”
“So is this the point where you explain what’s going on?”
“Food first. Questions second. I didn’t want to raid your fridge without permission, but now that you’re here . . .”
Lena and I had different definitions of “food.” She tossed her jacket over a chair, then seized a two-liter bottle of Cherry Coke and an old carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream. I grabbed a bowl and spoon and offered them to her without a word.
She took the spoon, plopped down at the table, and pulled a bag of M&Ms from her jacket pocket.
“You’re worse than Smudge,” I said, watching her sprinkle the candy over her ice cream.
She dug in with an almost feral grin. “High metabolism.”
I remained standing. “Well?”
“This isn’t the first attack against the Porters.” She lowered her head, and black hair curtained her face. “A few days ago, I learned Victor Harrison had been murdered.”
“Oh, damn.” Victor was a modest, awkward man. He was brilliant, but I had no idea how someone so kindhearted had made it through fieldwork. He was one of the few people who could make magic and machines play nicely together. He had built the Porters’ server network from the ground up, adding layers of security both mundane and magical.
Three years back, one unlucky woman had come close to hacking our systems. Rumor had it she was enjoying her new life as a garter snake.
One of Victor’s favorite tricks was programming his DVR to record and play back shows that wouldn’t air for another six months. He was supposed to send me next season’s Doctor Who. “How did it happen?”
“They tortured him to death in his own home.” Lena stabbed her spoon into the ice cream. Her shoulders were tight. “Nidhi was called down to Columbus to help examine the scene. The house was a wreck. Walls smashed in, windows broken, and blood everywhere. He put up a good fight, but it wasn’t enough.”
“Wait . . . how good of a fight?” Any serious magical conflict should have attracted attention.
Lena gave me a grim smile. “Exactly. From what we could tell, his television incinerated at least one vampire. He had rigged an extra channel to put out a burst of ultraviolet light through the screen. Nobody could understand exactly what he had done to his garbage disposal, but they found blood and a fang in there.” She crunched another bite of ice cream and M&Ms. “It should have been more than enough magic to alert the Porters and summon one of their automatons to investigate, but that didn’t happen. Nicola Pallas first learned of the attack on the news.”
Meaning the Porters hadn’t been the first ones to arrive. Most of the police officers I’d met were decent people, but they weren’t equipped for this kind of investigation and didn’t know how to avoid tainting any magical evidence.
“The next attack was similar,” Lena said. “An alchemist in northern Indiana. The Porters think vampires might also be behind the death of a telepath in Madison about six months back. That time, they tortured her whole family before killing her.”
Madison . . . that would have been Abigail Dooley. I remembered hearing about her death, but I hadn’t known the details. She had retired years ago, and had been making a comfortable living via the occasional visit to the casino.
“Why punish her family? She was out of the game. She didn’t know anything worth—” The realization made me ill. “They were torturing her. So she’d hear her family’s thoughts as they died.”
“That was Nidhi’s guess, too,” said Lena, her voice dead.
Three murders. “Why haven’t I heard about this before now?”
“I’m not a Porter. You’d have to ask them.” Lena stared at the table, but it was obvious she wasn’t really seeing it. “There were two more attacks yesterday,” she said slowly. “The first was against Nidhi Shah.”
And Lena was Doctor Shah’s bodyguard. “Is she all right?”
Even as I asked, I saw the answer in her face. “There were four vampires. I was forced to kill the first. I stopped another, but they found my tree. They cut it down. I’ve never felt pain like that before. I tried to fight, but as my tree died . . .”
“I’m sorry.” The words felt utterly inadequate, but she gave a tiny nod of thanks. “Are you . . . with your tree gone—”
“I’ve survived the loss of a tree once before.” She stared past me, her eyes wet. “It takes time for life to leave a fallen tree. The leaves wither and fall away. The wood dries and cracks. Insects bore through the bark.” She shuddered. “I’ll need to find a new home for that part of myself, but your oak will do for today. It’s not the same, but it’s enough.”
For once, I managed to suppress any tactless questions about her nature.
“They ruined my garden, too,” she said distantly. “Uprooted my rosebushes and my grapevines. I guess they were afraid I could use the plants as weapons.” She twirled her spoon, digging a pit into her ice cream. “Nidhi shouted for me to get away. I crawled into the closest tree that was big enough to hold me, a thirty-year-old maple. I stayed only long enough to keep myself from following my oak into death, but when I emerged, they were long gone.”