The question spun through Justin Greystone’s head, chased by several others that snapped and clamored for his attention. Chief among them was wondering who had unleashed the massive magical surge that had blown the roof off of Gene-Tech’s secure building? It had felt familiar, but then again, with the number of powerful Mages he’d been associating with lately, he really couldn’t go by “familiar.”
Thunder rolled overhead, echoing the grumblings of the residual earthquakes as the building shifted again and a veritable snowfall of concrete chips cascaded around them. Justin stumbled, nearly knocking Rick Jackson off his feet.
“We have to find the office,” he said, swinging around and peering through the destruction. The emergency lights threw a hellish orange glare over the carnage, and Justin tried not to focus on the stretchers with their still passengers on the other side of the spell chamber.
Despite Rick’s worries, Justin knew it would be at least twenty minutes before the police responded to the explosion – Gene-Tech was set far back from any roads, the better not to be bothered by anyone official. The building crashing down on them, on the other hand, was a distinct possibility, and they’d left both Nikki and Alenya unconscious in the spell chamber.
Her pale, serious face, dark blue eyes shadowed with magic and old pain, swam before him briefly and his heart ached. She was so young, so unready…Justin cut those thoughts off ruthlessly. We were all too young, he reminded himself. We dealt with it. So will she. We’ll just have to help her, if she’ll let us.
The AK-47 chattered as Rick blew away the lock and then kicked the remains of the door into the office. They stepped through the doorway, and Justin wondered briefly why there were no magical protections.
“Not Alex Masterson,” Justin replied, looking slowly around the opulent office. A mahogany desk dominated the room, in front of a whiteboard covered with notes. Two file cabinets sat across from it, and a large table was pushed up against the wall opposite the door. Justin took a step towards the cabinets, then paused and walked over to the desk instead.
The rich mahogany wood glowed under the light coating of dust from the ceiling, and as soon as his fingers touched it, Justin knew he’d hit gold. Protection spells flared to life, vibrating with barely-contained Power, and he swore. This was going to take far too long…
“They have to be. Where else would he hide them?” Justin reached into his pocket and pulled out a small Swiss Army knife. He mumbled a few words under his breath and then popped open the larger blade. “Do you have any gum?”
“Damn.” Justin looked around the room. “Hell. It’s a small magic.” He whispered under his breath and a small stick of chewing gum appeared in his hand. He unwrapped it and popped it into his mouth, chewing enough to soften it and then spat the sticky lump onto the dusty desktop. A few more whispered words, and he drew the blade through the middle of the gum, cutting it in half. Sparks raced over the surface of the desk for a second, and then died. “Just a little sympathetic magic. I hope this works.”
“Yep.” Justin closed the blade, pocketed the knife and reached for the top drawer tentatively. No sparks flared, and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Come on. I don’t know how long I can keep this hole open.”
They grabbed every piece of paper they could find in the desk, then checked the filing cabinets, which proved to be empty. Justin risked a little more magic, even as the floor swayed beneath them, and shoved all the papers into a small pocket of space that he saved for emergencies. Then they booked it back to the spell chamber, hoping they could get out in time.
Unfortunately, while the spirit was willing, Justin had been running on fumes for a while. He managed to get all four of them out of the crater that the secure building was forming, but only to the lip, and then he stumbled, rain hitting him like accusations. Outside of the dubious safety of the building, the storm howled, and they were all immediately soaked.
It only took Rick a few minutes to return with a suitable vehicle – an older Jeep that rumbled a tenor counterpoint to the thunder above and below it as they loaded their two unconscious burdens into the back. Justin spent those minutes marveling at the sheer destruction that one single Horseman could wreak. No, not just a single Horseman, he corrected himself silently. There had been another, and he knew that signature very well…
He hadn’t formulated an answer by the time Rick pulled into Vashti’s driveway. The Earth Lord’s farmhouse was hunkered down against the storm, and the woman who had trained him met them at the door. “Bring them,” she said, turning and leading them through the corridors to the massive kitchen that crouched at the center of the building. The warmth from the fireplace crept slowly into Justin’s bones as he laid Alenya gently onto the large table, and then he turned to Vashti.
“Because you and your fellow Councilors are involved in this up to your eyebrows,” Justin said, trying not to sound accusatory and knowing he was failing miserably. “And quite frankly, I’m tired of being jerked around. What is Shanna doing that is so important no one can know about it, and how does Nikki fit into it?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” Vashti told him, going to the large stove and removing the whistling kettle from it. “It’s not as if she tells us everything either. And before you explode at me, young man, let me remind you that the StarChild does what she wants, whether or not her Council approves. And she did not blow up the Gene-Tech facility, as far as I could tell. That was the lovely young woman on the table behind you. So why don’t you tell me what happened tonight where you were, and worry about things you cannot control when we have time?”
Justin bit down hard on the retort that hovered behind his lips, trying not to lose his temper, and Rick jumped in. “Nikki’s hurt,” he said, from the head of the table where he’d laid her. “Badly. I think he hit her heart.”
“I don’t know,” Justin whispered back. “I really don’t know.” But he did. That’s why Shanna had to start the Cleansing, he realized, ice crawling through him again. She had to call that Spirit up, or Nikki would have died.
Instead of a dead Horseman, we’ve got… He blocked the images from his mind.
Time slowed to a crawl; the howl of the wind outside an eerie, keening counterpoint to the deep, liquid sounds of breath moving through the ruins of Nikki’s chest. Morgan and Vashti cast in well-oiled unison, Power rising and falling through the flickering firelight, sweat-stained faces gleaming as they fought to repair the damage caused by Alex’s knife. Eventually they both stepped away and washed their hands, then Morgan picked Nikki up and took her out another door. Rick watched him go, questions rising, but Justin caught his attention and shook his head.
“So we’ve got two Blood Mages, a rogue Shadow Lord and an innocent girl with a babe in her belly that’s been exposed to bastardized versions of the Summoning Spells on the loose, and you have no idea where. Is that what you’re telling me?” Vashti looked from one exhausted young man to the other. “Do you have any good news?”
“What do we tell Nikki?” Rick asked, breaking the silence. “She’ll want to know what happened.”
“You lie,” Vashti said, and when they both started to object, her voice cut across their words like a sword. “You lie until your tongues turn blue and fall out if you have to, but you lie. Do you really think she’ll be able to handle what she’s done? Until you hear further from me, you lie.”
“You can’t keep her in the dark forever,” Justin warned. “The news…”
“The government won’t let information leak for a while, especially with Shanna casting tonight,” Vashti said. “I warn you, Justin. If you don’t obey the Council in this, not even your sister will be able to protect you.”
“Is that a threat?” Justin asked quietly.
The kitchen, his home away from home for so long, grew cold and dark as he waited for her answer. “No,” she said. “A warning only.” Her dark eyes avoided his. “For all our safety, Justin, do not fight this. Please.”
He didn’t answer.