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Late spring, early morning
She was running, running, running. Marian wished the passages were narrower, twistier, because the thing that chased her was huge and deadly. With each breath putrid air seared her lungs. The cavern's corridors oozed slime.
She stumbled, clutched the plastic ball holding her hamster close. Looking down at her cross-trainer shoes in horror, she saw the laces were untied. She always tied them in perfect double bows.
A vibration hit her back. The monster's breath. Stitch cramping her side, she used terror for a burst of speed and reached narrow upward stairs. Fresher air, laden with blood instead of poisonous acid, fouled her nostrils. She climbed, thinking the thing behind her could flow up the stairs. It wanted her blood, her guts, her brains.
Bumping from side to side, scraping skin raw, protecting her pet, she jumped up the steps and burst out onto a wide ledge of rock. With agility she didn't know she had, she pivoted, avoiding the edge, hit the cliff face. Leaned into it. Gulping night air, she felt the thing brush past her, and fall screaming.
She couldn't stop herself from looking down. Saw something worse than the huge shattered body of the monster that had hunted her. Her younger brother Andrew was surrounded by chanting black-robed druids who looked like death personified. Some of the druids held scythes, some gongs, some chimes.
Prone Andrew was, more pale than he'd ever been in life. Shrieking, "Nooooo!" she put the ball between her feet, lifted her arms as if she could call thunder that would set his heart to thumping again, push his blood; lightning that would nail his soul into his body, fire the spark of life.
A wet chuckle came next to her, freezing her blood. Slowly she turned her head to see a cowled figure with gleaming red eyes, a face not quite human but which might have been a man's, once. He opened his mouth wide, and it got larger and larger, ready to swallow her whole. She raised her hands, fingertips arcing blue fire
Marian Harasta jolted from the dream, covered in clammy sweat. Morning light streamed through the high windows of her garden apartment and she gasped in relief.
Before she could exhale, the chimes sounded, rippling through her nerves and echoing in her mind. Then the gong reverberated, arching her body off the bed. Her vision blurred and distant chanting rushed in her ears. She was bowed for one long moment before she fell back onto the bed, panting.
First the nightmare. Now the sounds. For the past months, dreams and auditory hallucinations had peppered her life sleeping and waking. She steadied herself with even breathing. She would figure out what was happening to her. She'd had a full physical the week before, and a psychological evaluation, too. And she was perfectly fine.
The strangeness had started with sounds, then the dreams, then an itchy feeling as if she were a butterfly escaping from a constrictive cocoon, ready to stretch her wings. The notion was more than a little scary because her academic career was on track and her life tidy and under control. Except for Andrew, her half brother with progressive-remitting Multiple Sclerosis.
Brrrrinnng. The telephone. She flung off her covers and stumbled from bed, staggering to the phone charger on the kitchen counter. She had to blink a couple of times to read the caller ID. Her mother, Candace. Hell. The relationship with her mother, too, was out of Marian's control. She let voice mail answer.
Marian wiped her face on the sleeve of her flannel nightgown, pondering options to understand, then fix, her problems. She couldn't discuss this with her academic professors of Comparative Religion and Philosophy, or her advisor sheparding her through her doctorate. Her university profs would not understand. She didn't want any oddness attached to her spotless reputation as she planned on a professional career.
Since the problem wasn't physical or psychological, she'd considered psychic phenomena. Since she'd been fascinated by alternative spiritualities for years, she thought she might find help there.
She'd examined all the notes from all the classes she'd taken outside the university New Age classes that fed her thirst for knowledge searching for answers. Somewhere there was a solution for what plagued her and she would find it.
As she padded to the bathroom, she checked on her hamster, Tuck, curled in his cage in the alcove. A half-chewed piece of carrot was within paw reach. All was well in his small world.
Marian only wished it were the same for her. She worked hard to keep her life in order, and usually succeeded, but lately . . .
In the shower as water slicked away sweat, she decided to call Golden Raven. The lady leaned more to Native American beliefs than Marian did, but she was more open-minded than many and would listen without judging. She might know of instances similar to Marian's experiences. That would be a good step in controlling the weirdness that had invaded her life.
"Yes," she muttered as she dressed for her work-study job. "I need Golden Raven." She went to the telephone. Should she call Golden Raven or Candace? Glancing at the clock, she thought it might be too early for Golden Raven. If Marian didn't phone Candace back, her mother's mood would turn nasty and her demands would escalate. Inhaling deeply, Marian called the residence of Candace's sixth husband, a mansion in an old, upscale area of Denver.
Candace's tone was sharp. "Well, Marian, it's good you called." Papers rustled in the background. Since Candace didn't launch into speech, Marian figured her mother was multitasking.
Excellent. Maybe they could get through a conversation without damaging each other. "What do you want, Mother?" asked Marian.
"Hmm? Oh, yes, Marian. You must come down here to Denver for a fund-raiser tomorrow night, Friday, 7:30 p.m. Cocktails and dinner."
"Why, Mother?" Marian was deeply entrenched in academia now; she'd never be a person who could enhance her mother's status in any way. Thank God.
Candace heaved an exasperated sigh. "Trenton Philbert III remarried a month ago. A woman who runs one of the largest occult shops in Denver. Why he married such a creature, no one knows. I just learned he and his new wife will be at the benefit. Trenton dotes on the woman and his contribution is necessary for us to meet our goal."
Ah, various cities competed to raise the most money and Candace intended to prove she was the best. Candace continued, "So I need to keep his wife happy to keep him happy."
Instead of zooming in on the woman like a barracuda.
"I can't imagine that anyone would have any idea what to say to her." Creature was still in Candace's voice. "Then, I thought of you, of course. With all your . . . experience in that area."
Sounded like Marian attended seances and channeling every night.
Hooking up again with the Denver New Age community might not be a bad thing. In one way, Marian could even convince herself that her company would be beneficial for the unknown woman. And there were some good, kind people in Denver society that Marian would like to see again. Too bad her mother didn't happen to be one. Despite her methods, though, Candace was great at raising money.
"I don't think so, Mother."
"I can make it worth your while," Candace continued.
Marian waited for the bribe. Bribes sometimes worked. Marian had to know more about the situation to figure out whether the favor was worth whatever Candace was offering.
"I know you're studying too hard. Having the rest of your college fund would make life easier."
In Candace's mind, Marian was always studying too hard. Candace didn't understand that learning was a pleasure. Though she understood that knowledge was power, at least when it came to playing the Denver social game, using secrets.
"Marian, did you hear me? I told you that I could release the last of your college fund."
Good bribe, and if bribes didn't work, Candace used the threat: Withholding her college fund now, Andrew's welfare when he'd been younger. He was twenty-four, four years younger than Marian. She'd tried to take care of him, since Candace was uninterested in her son.
"I'll think about it," Marian said.
"I need a commitment," Candace snapped. "I'll call Andrew. It may take some doing on his part, but he'll come."
"No, Mother, I don't want you bothering Andrew."
Candace ignored her. "Of course he'll come. The Colorado Charities Fund disburses money to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation of Colorado. I always have an advantage when campaigning for the Chairmanship of the Fund drive with poor Andrew being afflicted with MS, and at such an early age, too."
Fury veiled Marian's vision in a red haze. Good thing that the phone was industrial strength; otherwise it would have crumbled under her grip. How Candace could think of her own son that way . . .
"Andrew is a person with a challenging disease. Don't define him as a victim."
Candace sniffed. "Believe what you want. Now, about the fund-raiser, tell me whether the weather will be clear."
Heat crept up Marian's neck. She'd always had weather- sense. She shifted and felt the connection to Mother Earth, one reason she loved the garden-level apartment. "Clear and cool," she said.
"Good. Your drive down from Boulder should be fine, then."
Rubbing her forehead, Marian said, "I'll be there."
"I thought so, and bring that delightful Professor Wilse with you."
Marian shuddered at the thought of Jack Wilse. Mistake. She admired his body but deplored his values. He'd manipulated and used her, too, before her mind got her hormones under control. It was inconceivable to her now that she'd had a brief affair with him. "He won't be coming with me."
"Marian, you can't attend alone! How will it look? Speaking of looks, you have used that exercise club membership I bought for you so you'd lose those extra pounds, haven't you?"
"My weight is my own business." Candace would continue to comment on it anyway. "I will be coming alone or not at all. If you want me there, deposit the rest of my college fund into my account and e-mail me the details." Marian hung up.
Mistake. She'd allowed her mother to manipulate her. Would she ever learn? But this time, she'd gotten the last of her college fund. With chilled fingers she reached for her appointment book, flipped to the end where she'd listed her five-year plan. She inserted Friday's date as the day she'd receive the money that would set her free from her mother, and launch her fully on her career path. Ahead of schedule, but right on track. She wouldn't allow anything or anyone especially her mother to control her again. Her own mistakes might be bad, but they were hers. Hers to learn from.
She felt as if she'd been stung, and poison was spreading through her system. Like so many times before in her life. That's what happened when you were raised by an unevolved Scorpio.
Grumbling, Marian stalked through her living room. A book from the bookshelf-lined walls thumped to the floor. She stopped and stared. There was a gaping hole on the second shelf where she kept her Wiccan books neatly alphabetized by author.
She swallowed. Even before she picked up the book, she knew what it would be: Craft Your Own Ritual, by a well-respected Wiccan. It was the third time this week that volume had fallen from the shelf.
As usual, the crisp pages fell open to a full-moon ritual. Rising anxiety made her pulse race. She closed her eyes and colors swirled behind her eyelids, followed by a flash of the image of Andrew from her nightmare.
Her eyelids flicked open. Her chest tightened. All the recent coincidental signs pointed to her conducting a full-moon ritual. Marian glanced at the yearly moon phase chart she'd framed. Full moon tomorrow night, Friday the same night she'd agreed to attend Candace's benefit.
A knock came at her door and a tingle ran up her spine. She pushed aside the curtain draped over the apartment door's small window, looked out. Golden Raven stood on the threshold. She smiled until the lines deepened around her blue eyes and framed her mouth. Beyond her was an old van packed full of boxes, ready for a long trip.
With a sigh, Marian opened the door.
"I heard you call me," Golden Raven said.
Jaquar's Tower, Sorcerers' Mue Island, east of Lladrana
Late spring, that same morning
Jaquar stood naked in the alcove that held his magical supplies and looked into the round ritual room of his tower. A faint blue-green steam eddied and flowed along the lines of the pentacle carved into the stone floor. His shoulders tensed at the thought of plane-walking leaving his body behind to float astrally through different layers of existence. He was a Circlet the highest rank of Sorcerer of Weather Control and plane-walking, but he'd been focused on the second craft for the past three weeks.
Putting off the moment when he'd have to look in the Enhanced Mirror, the last step before the ritual, he turned back to the work counter and set his hand on the upper leaf in a huge book.
He'd made the book himself. Each sheet was a non-physical plane he'd traveled. Sheets were arranged in the same layers as the planes themselves. A being existed on many planes, but a good plane-walker like himself could separate himself from his body and explore one layer at a time.
The leaf he'd turned to was the plane he'd visit. One of seething, low emotions evil emotions only. A plane for monsters, not humans. But he was tracking a monster. The monster that had killed his adoptive parents three weeks ago.
A chime notified him that the ritual should be started within the half hour. Jaquar inhaled deeply and went to the left end of the narrow alcove. There he unfolded the three-paneled mirror. To ensure he didn't get lost amongst the planes, he had to know himself, and for that he used the mirror.
He scanned his physical appearance. He was taller than the average Lladranan male, had filled out in maturity. His strong body appeared nothing like that of the abandoned street boy Simone and Torrence Dumont had found and raised. But the awful inner loneliness of the boy before he'd known them filled him now. He'd once thought he'd never feel that desolation again.
His body showed a few childhood scars. His eyes were still the hated deep blue that made him an oddity in a brown-eyed culture. Some ancestor had not been Lladranan.
He'd lost weight since the deaths of his adoptive parents, but not so much that it would compromise his strength. His black hair touched his shoulders and looked limp, not as shiny as it should. The silver streaks denoting Power had visibly spread over the past three weeks as he'd searched for the evil thing that had killed his mother and father. Both had been powerful Circlets, yet the horror had sucked them dry of magic and
energy and life.
As Jaquar had searched the planes for the killer, he'd grown in magical wisdom and Power, discovering new layers. These new planes would be valuable in tracking the horrors that invaded Lladrana.
The northern magical boundary of mainland Lladrana had been failing, gaping open so that hideous evil creatures could slither through to prey on the people. First the smaller horrors would cross, such as armored snippers. Then the greater monsters would attack in groups renders and slayers and soul-suckers. And the sangvile. At the same time, frink-worms had started falling with the rain, affecting even the Tower community's islands.
The horrors had never reached the Sorcerers' town of Coquille-on-the-Coast where his parents had lived until Jaquar had led the sangvile there. He had answered the Marshalls' call for a Sorcerer, given them information, then left. The sangvile had attached itself to the flying horse he'd ridden from the Marshalls' Castle to his parents' house. He'd left the deadly thing there, unknowing. Just two weeks past, the key to restoring the magical boundary had been found too late for his parents.