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Pilbara region, Western Australia
Jackson Slater lowered himself over the crumbling rim of the volcanic plug, then dropped into the cooler, shadowy dimness of a rust-colored soda trachyte rock tube. He didn’t need the rope. He was a wizard, after all, and perfectly capable of drifting down the seemingly bottomless vertical tunnel, light as a feather, without it. But what the hell was the fun in that?
He was a wizard, but he was foremost a geologist. A field hand of earth science. Confined spaces, sweat, and the adrenaline rush of new discoveries fed his soul and fueled his imagination. The ley he was following originated south of Perth in Mandurah, ran up through the mountains through small towns like Sandstone and Wiluna, and ended here in the Rudall River National Park.
Jack had climbed mountains, forded rivers, and slept on the hard ground for months to reach his conclusions before presenting his latest findings to the Archon Council, which would in turn share that information with the Wizard Council.
How deep was this tunnel? he wondered, descending hand-over-hand. The plug, six feet across, didn’t give him a lot of room to maneuver. He was a big guy. He’d been in darker, tighter plugs in other parts of the world, but rarely had he experienced this kind of intensity. Every twenty feet, he took out the meter to observe the happy dance of the gauge.
Jesus. Look at the thing jump. He couldn’t wait to get back to his temporary lab in Perth and run his samples through the chromatograph.
The salt lakes characteristic of this desert region, part of a palaeodrainage system, indicated there was probably water far below. He could almost smell it, but what riveted his attention was the powerful force of the ley he was tracking. The leys, invisible force fields of magnetic energy deep within the earth’s crust, were a source of power to wizards—millions of whom lived, worked, and thrived unnoticed along the leys, coexisting with the humans who had no idea magic was in their midst and beneath their feet.
The Archon, governing body of the Aequitas, had given him the enormous and delicate task of mapping and cataloging the thousands of leylines banding the globe. As keepers of the land, the Aequitas were charged with the safety and well-being of the mostly oblivious mortals around them.
“Oh, yeah. I feel you.” His voice echoed slightly. The strong vibration of magic zinged through his body as though he were a tuning fork. Intense, alive, the ley pulsed around him harder and faster as he descended. Place smelled like dirt and sweat. Nah. He smelled of dirt and sweat; the tunnel had a slightly musty, damp clay smell, indicating water far below. “Better than citrus and ginger, and a hell of a lot more interesting.”
His head jerked up. What the … ? No one visible above.
Ignoring what honest to God sounded like a woman’s voice shrieking in his ear, Jack took several soil samples one-handed. Maybe he should think about that beer and shower sooner rather than later if he was starting to hallucinate.
He continued downward, sweat oiling his skin, using his shoulder to swipe at the runnels on his face. He wondered if the leylines in the western deserts were the basis of stories told by the aborigines, who said the land was crisscrossed by a large number of mythical songlines or dreaming tracks associated with magical beings. One story involved the travels of two lizard-men known as the Wadi and Gudjara; another described an enormous snake who mystically disappeared beneath the earth and remained there to this day.
With the blue sky a small circle above him and a powerful ley beneath him, Jack felt at peace for perhaps the first time in several years. He was a loner by nature, more comfortable in a desert than a city. Better off identifying a leyline than what went on in a woman’s illogical, convoluted brain. And while he enjoyed his fair share of the ladies, he always came back to what he loved most.
Geology. Leys. Solitude.
The Archon paid him. Paid him ridiculously well. But he’d be ley hunting if he were doing it for free. This was his life’s work, his burning passion, what got him up in the morning and kept him going long past exhaustion. He was his job. All his eggs in one basket, and to hell with anyone who had a problem with that. There wasn’t anyone he gave a damn about anyway. Not anymore.
A man knew exactly where he was with a leyline. There was no room for interpretation. Leys were logical. Honest. Reliable. And nonjudgmental.
He paused again to record the strength of the power surging up through the thick soles of his boots then lowered himself another twenty feet. The meter in his breast pocket vibrated against his chest like a second heartbeat.
“And you—hell, you are the granddaddy of them all, aren’t you, big fella?” And he should know; he’d mapped thousands of them all over the world. He slowly dropped another ten, using his booted feet to keep his body away from the walls, where he suspected snakes and poisonous spiders lurked to avoid the heat of the day.
Aboveground, the sun-baked rocks were hot enough to fry an egg. The lower he dropped, the cooler it became—if one considered a hundred degrees cool. Jack grinned. He loved this shit. Loved the heat. The solitude. The high of discovery.
His meter was going off the charts, and he methodically recorded into a small voice-activated tape recorder as he went. “Why isn’t anyone living around here?” he mused aloud to keep himself company after he’d documented relevant data. It was too damned hot, of course. Only a madman would live—or work—out here in the middle of a desert, hundreds of miles from civilization.
The Rudall River National Park was one of the most remote wilderness areas in the world. Nothing but spiny, pale green clumps of spinifex, a few stands of eucalyptus, and flat, red earth as far as the eye could see.
His body ached pleasantly from long hours bent over his equipment in the broiling sun. But before he teleported back to camp and materialized an ice-cold beer and a cool shower, there were still several hours of daylight left to do what he loved—research the fascinating and complex leylines in this part of the world.
Exhilarated by his latest find, Jack had shoved aside the physical exhaustion, pushing himself long and hard for the last couple of weeks. South America was next on his list, but he’d been putting that trip off for a while now.
He unhooked his water bottle from his belt and chugged half of its contents down, relishing the warm wetness on his parched throat.
His head jerked up. There was, of course, no one there screaming down to him. He was alone. The only thing visible at the mouth of the tube was a small circle of blue sky. Ignoring the icy chill that had suddenly skittered across his nerve endings, Jack dropped another ten feet and paused to record the data.
San Cristóbal, Venezuela
SARA TEMPLE DROPPED ONTO a straight-backed chair beside her friend, when what she really wanted to do was pace like a caged lion. She hated feeling helpless. “Carmelita, we have to get help.”
“You are all the help Alberto needs, mija.” Carmelita’s olive skin was gray with fear. Twisting her apron in her lap, she gave Sara a helplessly trusting look out of dark eyes. “You did good with him just now. He will get better soon. You will see.”
“I didn’t do any good at all,” Sara said in a strained voice as they sat outside the closed bedroom door. The sound of furniture being thrown violently against the walls indicated that, far from settling down, Carmelita’s husband was getting worse.
Sick with a fever, crazed and delirious, Alberto had tried to strangle his wife only moments before. He didn’t know where he was. Didn’t recognize either Carmelita or Sara. The only positive thing was that he wasn’t using magic. God only knew what his distorted mind would conjure while he was in this state.
Damn it, how could any illness cause him to lose himself this fast? An hour ago, he’d looked better than he had in a week and been joking and laughing in his kitchen as he prepared the midday meal with his staff. Sara had gone in to let him know the head honcho, Grant Baltzer, wouldn’t be home for lunch. Alberto was used to things changing at the last minute. He had been Grant’s chef, and Carmelita had been Grant’s housekeeper, since as far back as Sara could remember. They and Sara had traveled all over the world with Grant and his business partner, William Roe, as Baltzer Enterprises built fabulous hotel properties in some of the most beautiful and affluent cities in the world. At present, they were constructing a string of luxury hotels down the west coast of South America and living in a sprawling hacienda a hundred miles from the nearest town.
Fifteen minutes later, after Sara delivered her message and shared an iced coffee with him, Alberto had thrown a carving knife at his assistant, then grabbed Carmelita by the throat when she’d come in.
“We have locked him inside,” Carmelita said resolutely, somehow managing to look as though she didn’t hear the mayhem going on in the room behind them. “The fever will burn away. Can you not use your powers to make him sleep? The doctor, he will just give him medicine and tell him to rest. He needs rest, mija. You can make him sleep deeply and peacefully. You will see, my Alberto will be better by morning if you make him sleep now.”
Carmelita had an unhealthy aversion to doctors. Sara had an unhealthy aversion to using her wizard powers. She suspected her foster father needed more than a good night’s rest. Medication would surely help. Alberto’s sudden psychotic and delusional behavior scared the living crap out of her. She had no idea if he’d picked up some horrific South American disease—they’d only lived here for a year—or if he’d been bitten by something.
Grant’s inconveniently located, sprawling hacienda was surrounded by almost impenetrable jungle. It would take time to locate the doctor, time Sara feared they didn’t have.
Sara looked at the determined and frightened face beside her. She had known Carmelita most of her life, and a picture of the woman belonged in the dictionary under immovable. If she wanted her husband to receive a magical sleeping spell, she would stick to her guns come hell or high water.
Finally giving in to her need to move, Sara got up to pace the corridor outside the master bedroom that Alberto was currently destroying. Her heart ached for him. He was a dignified man, and once he recovered, he was going to be humiliated that anyone had seen him behave this way.
The very mystery of what was wrong with him made her heart pound. She loved him without reservation. Alberto and Carmelita had held her together during some of the worst times of her life. “He’s really, really sick, Carmelita. He needs medical help. Possibly even a hospital—”
The other woman threw up her hands and began to wail, tears flooding her round cheeks. Oh no, oh no, oh freaking no. If Carmelita cried, in seconds, Sara would join her. She wrapped her arms around her friend’s plump shoulders and ran a soothing hand up and down her back. “You know I rarely use my power. And you know why,” Sara reminded her, striving to keep the panic out of her own voice as she drew comfort from having Carmelita hug her in return. It had been a while since Sara had needed the comfort and security of her foster mother’s strong arm about her.
Now their positions were reversed. Eventually, she eased away, holding the other woman’s work-roughened hands in hers. “I’m terrified my power will kill him,” she admitted. “I’m not going to risk it. Please don’t ask that of me, Carmelita. I can’t. Even if I wanted to. You know my powers are unpredictable; you know what happened … before.” She paused to regain control of her voice. “I won’t use magic on anyone ever again.”
“I would not ask that you use fuego, Saracita. Just to make him sleep a little while until he recovers.”
Fire was Sara’s power to call. Or had been. She hadn’t used it since her parents were killed. And she never would.
Wood shattered in the bedroom, and Alberto started pounding on the heavy door with meaty fists, howling in Spanish to be let out. The four-inch-thick wood door shook, but held. The sound of his irrational fury sent a chill up the back of Sara’s neck.
“I’m begging you, Saracita.” The older woman’s eyes were liquid misery, her grip all but cutting off the circulation in Sara’s fingers. “Por favor, mija.”
Sara squeezed her eyes closed. “You know I’d do anything to help Alberto. Anything but magic. You of all people know my powers never have worked the way they’re supposed to—especially when I’m stressed. The fact that I teleported Alberto here, and not to his own bedroom—that wasn’t magical skill, it was a fluke.” And just proved how freaking wrong her powers could be. She’d teleported Alberto to Grant’s master suite. Grant was going to freak out. No one went into his room uninvited. Ever.
“Please, let’s call Dr. de Canizales before something”—bad—“happens.” Magic was a skill Sara had never perfected. She hated using it, tried never to use it. She was an interior designer. Fabric and colors were her skill set, not her rusty magic powers.
She didn’t want to make a seriously bad situation worse—and using her powers would undoubtedly make things worse in ways she couldn’t predict. Alberto needed a doctor—a wizard doctor—who understood these kinds of things.
“Let me make a call. Then we can—”
Eyes flashing, Carmelita yanked her hands from Sara’s. “Not the médico. He will report this to the policía. No, mija. No. Please do not call Dr. de Canizales.”
Sara clutched her cell phone in a damp palm. Jack would’ve known exactly how to handle this. God. She so didn’t want to think about Jack right now. Or ever. “I have a conference call with a fabric supplier in half an hour,” she said evenly, scared by how agitated Carmelita was. “I’m just going to cancel, okay?”
Her friend plopped back onto her chair with a loud umph. “Sí. This is good. Cancel the call.”
Grant would be annoyed. Every delay in the interior finishes of the Lima hotel was money out of the company’s pocket. Actually, Sara thought, he’d be more than pissed she was delaying the fabric order. Everything seemed to annoy Grant lately. God only knew his normally suave behavior had been somewhat erratic over the last few days. Obviously not as out of control as his chef’s, but there was definitely something going on. Not that Grant would share his concerns with her. They were close, yes, but he never liked to bother Sara with his business problems.
She’d wrangle it out of him over dinner tomorrow.
Grant was going to be justifiably furious when he saw the havoc Alberto had wreaked on the kitchen and, worse, on his private sanctuary. As a nonwizard and a mortal, Grant was not a lover of anything involving magic. And while he knew she was a wizard, he also knew she was a nonpracticing wizard. Which was good enough for him.
Shaking her head, Sara made the call, speaking Spanish as she arranged to place the enormous fabric orders the next day.
“He is quiet,” Carmelita whispered, pleased. “Poor Alberto, he wore himself out. Come, let us check to see he didn’t harm himself. Then we will go to his kitchen and calm the staff with a nice cup of tea, sí?”
Sounded like an excellent plan to Sara. She removed the heavy key from the back pocket of her shorts. “Let me go first.”
Alberto outweighed her by two hundred pounds. She’d have to use magic if he was lying in wait for them behind that door. She hoped he was sacked out on Grant’s king-size, four-poster bed, his feet on the red and gold silk spread, snoring away. Except that normally his snoring would wake a hibernating bear, and she didn’t hear a sound from inside.
Holding Carmelita back with one arm, Sara cautiously opened the door. “Albert—shit!”
The luxurious master suite was a shambles of broken wood, shredded burgundy silk, and shattered glass. Her eyes went wide. The last time she’d been in his room, more than a year ago, it had looked just as Grant had requested, like an expensive Victorian brothel. Sara had bought the bed and other furnishings in England at great expense. The sight of the rest of the décor made her suck in a shocked breath. A gigantic black metal cage, suspended in the center of the room, wasn’t for any bird. Nor were the whips, chains, and various restraints bolted to the walls. Holy crap!
Carmelita pushed past her. “Madre de Dios,” she whispered, eyes impossibly huge as she surveyed the room. “Where is Alberto?”
With all the sex toys, Sara had barely noticed that the room was conspicuously empty.
The woman’s frantic voice echoed around Jack, ricocheting from side to side inside the lava tube. Annoyed by the persistence of the mental interruption, he muttered a pungent curse as one of his soil samples dropped from the precariously held core driller. He mentally grabbed it before it got too far and carefully placed it in the sample bag he’d already labeled.
That taken care of, he finally had to think about that voice. Was this incredibly powerful ley amping his connection to a woman he hadn’t seen in two years? Damn it to hell, if he could ignore a damn phone ringing, why couldn’t he ignore this?
Because this was a different kind of communication, in his gut, in his head. Visceral. Insistent.
The urgency demanded immediate attention. He shook his head as if he could shake away that mental SOS like an annoying insect, and tried to find another reason that he was hearing her, one that wouldn’t require action. In his excitement over this leyline, he’d shoved aside exhaustion, pushing himself too long and hard for the last couple of weeks. Hell, he was probably dehydrated; maybe he was hallucinating. Yeah, that was it.
But even at the volume he imagined he heard, he recognized that voice.
He swore again. Too bad. He didn’t want to know about it. Been there, done her.
“Get the hell out of my head, woman.” He did not want to think about, see, or hear his ex-fiancée.
Not now. Not ever. Not even in a hallucination brought on by too little sleep and lousy eating habits.
Yet he heard her.
Forget hanging on to the rope. Jack let go to manipulate his instruments. Magic had its moments. And right now, he needed the use of both hands. He jabbed the new data into his handheld, wiped some of the dust off the screen on the side of his pants so he could actually see what he was inputting, then added a few more numbers.
He was close, damn close. After a year of driving himself hard enough to obliterate thought of anything other than his job, he was almost done mapping Australia. He just needed a few more days, a week at the most. Fascinating as the new information was, though, it was impossible to ignore his racing heart; adrenaline flooded his system as if he were the one in danger.
He felt Sara’s presence as if she stood right beside him. He smelled the soft lemony scent of her skin, the light fragrance as familiar to him as his own heartbeat—No, he corrected himself savagely. He thought he smelled her. “Get a grip.” He pulled a rag from his pocket and swiped his sweaty face. His voice bounced off the curved, hard walls of the ancient tunnel.
“She isn’t sending out a fucking all-points bulletin. How much trouble can an interior designer get into, for God’s sake?” If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could almost make out her words. Instead, he kept them open, trying to focus on what he was doing—
“Fuck it!” Realizing that Sara would keep mentally yanking his chain until he did something, Jack sent his gear back to camp and followed her scream.
© 2010 Cherry Adair