Just released Book 3 of the series, THE THRESHOLD, last Tuesday! I’ve been waiting for Amazon to get its stuff together and post the Look Inside feature before really starting to promote it, but in the meantime, here are the first two chapters to get you started!
(Warning: If you haven’t read Book 2, THE FORGOTTEN, there will be major spoilers in Chapter One of this excerpt.)
Eleanor Pearsall needed a drink.
She glanced at the glowing clock on the top of her dresser: 10:30. A little late to hit the sauce, especially since she had someplace to be. She had to finish the Christmas display at Hillerman’s tonight so it would be ready for the big kickoff sale tomorrow morning. She doubted the owners would appreciate it if she had too much to drink and forgot to put pants on Santa, or posed the elves making lewd gestures at each other.
The thought made her chuckle. She got out of bed and dressed methodically without turning on the lights. Somewhere in the other room she could hear her cat, Crowley, rustling around stalking a mouse or an errant piece of kibble.
The sound reminded her of the dream.
She sat down to slip on her boots. It hadn’t been the first bad dream she’d had recently. Bad dreams normally didn’t bother her. Sometimes she even found them useful, because they gave her insights, or helped her to home in on the answer to some problem that had been plaguing her.
But this one—this one was different. For one thing, the content was always the same. For nearly a month now, every two or three days, the exact same dream.
She’s standing in a dark forest clearing, surrounded by a thick growth of trees. From beyond the trees she can hear the sounds of dozens—hundreds?—of tiny creatures milling around, skittering, testing the perimeters. She has no idea what they are—she has never seen them, and in the dream she isn’t brave enough to venture out of the clearing’s protection to investigate. Some instinct inside her knows that would be a bad idea, just as it knows that the skittering creatures don’t mean anything good for her. She just stands there, turning around and around in place, watching in fear as she waits to see if they break through.
They never do. She can sense their frustration. She can sense their almost palpable compulsion to enter the clearing—but she can’t tell what they want to do when they get there. Kill her? Tell her something? Chase her out into the darkness where something even worse lies waiting?
In her dark room, she zipped up her boots. The odd thing about this dream, aside from its repeat performances, is that it never caused her to do any of those cliché things like waking up in a cold sweat with her heart pounding, or sitting bolt upright in bed—or even waking up at all. After a time, the creatures simply gave up and went away for a while. Like they were regrouping. She wondered if at some point they’d finally just get sick of the whole business and give up for good. While the dream didn’t exactly interrupt her sleep, it certainly played havoc with its quality. She’d been tired and stressed out for the last couple of weeks. That was why she’d grabbed the brief nap before she had to head out to Hillerman’s.
She grabbed her heavy coat, wool hat, and scarf off the chair by the door, shrugged into them, and picked up her purse. Calling out a cheerful, “Back later, try not to get into too much trouble!” to Crowley, she headed out into the night. She didn’t lock her door—nobody in Woodwich ever locked their doors. It just wasn’t that kind of town. And in any case, anybody who tried to enter her home uninvited might find themselves facing a few surprises.
Outside, the moon sparkled on a fresh snowfall. Eleanor loved this time of night: the quiet and peace of a picturesque little town after most of the world had retired behind closed doors and tucked their children in. Sometimes she even enjoyed doing her rituals in the big clearing behind her house—which was nothing like the sinister one in her dream—even if it meant risking discovery. She smiled; most of Woodwich already thought she was eccentric, but in a harmless, dotty-old-aunt sort of way. There were a lot of unusual personalities in this small Vermont town, and they all coexisted with each other in a surprisingly amicable manner, all things considered. But they didn’t know the half of things about her, and it was better for everyone if it stayed that way.
The walk downtown took her about fifteen minutes; she took a shortcut through the woods and never once felt fearful or threatened. The sounds of hunting owls and small prowling creatures comforted her, and when she emerged from the woods a block away from Woodwich’s tiny main street, she was humming to herself in contentment, already going over in her mind what she wanted to do with the display. She planned to try something different this year: instead of the typical Santa and his elves in their traditional red and green outfits, she would dress them up in more earthy, primal garb, turning the North Pole toy factory into a kind of cheery woodland revel. She didn’t know if Mr. Hillerman would approve, but she was pretty good at persuasion, and she did think the tired old display needed something new. The children would love it, she was sure. And it was almost always easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
As she stepped out onto Main Street, snow crunching under her boots, and prepared to cross the street, a figure emerged from the shadows and shuffled toward her. For two or three seconds she did feel a twinge of fear, but then the figure passed under one of the old-fashioned streetlights and she smiled. “Hello, Ted. You startled me. You’re out late tonight.”
Ted gave her a vague nod. Hunched and wild-bearded, he wore a baggy sweatshirt under a shapeless old coat, too-large pants, and a shabby knit cap with a New England Patriots patch. On his back he carried a threadbare green backpack with various items sticking out the top and attached to the sides. “On my way t’the park,” he told her. His voice was scratchy with disuse.
Eleanor nodded. “Is everything all right?” There weren’t many homeless people in Woodwich—it wasn’t that the town discouraged them, but it wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for those who lived on the streets, especially in the late fall and winter, since it had no official shelter. Most of the homeless headed for the larger nearby towns with better services. But Ted was kind of a fixture around here.
He shrugged. “Yeah, yeah. Some guy gave me a five-spot, so I picked up a sammich and…” He grinned guiltily, showing a mouth with as many empty spaces as teeth, and held up something in a paper bag. Eleanor couldn’t miss the whiff of cheap booze. “Runnin’ a li’l late, is all.”
“All right, then. You be safe, Ted. Have a good night.” Eleanor smiled a farewell and continued on her way across the street.
“You too, Miz Pearsall.” He started to shuffle off again, then stopped. “Miz Pearsall?”
Eleanor turned back. “Yes, Ted?”
The grimy face looked troubled. “I…I dunno. Just—be careful, okay?”
“Any particular reason?” Her brow furrowed. This was something new. Ted rarely had anything to say to her beyond a greeting and the occasional request for a handout.
“I—” Again he shrugged, a little shudder running through his hunched body. “I dunno. Just be careful, is all.” He raised his bottle in its paper bag and took a swig, swiping his filthy jacket sleeve across his mouth.
Eleanor regarded him for a moment, then nodded slowly. “I will, Ted. I promise. You’d better get going. It’s late, and you need to get yourself somewhere out of the cold.”
Ted made a vague gesture with the hand holding the bag of booze, then trudged off again without a word. Eleanor watched him go, standing there for a moment in the middle of the street, then started off again. She liked Ted, but he wasn’t exactly ‘all there.’ Putting him out of her mind, she crossed the other half of the street and continued to her destination.
Hillerman’s Department Store was as much a fixture in Woodwich as Ted was, a kind of central hub where everyone ran into everyone else while going about their daily routines. It didn’t do the same level of business anymore since the mall had gone up in Helmford a few years back, but the old-timers still did most of their general purpose shopping here, from clothes to hardware to small appliances and kitchen gadgets. It dominated its block on Main Street (which was only three blocks long), the space behind its two large display windows always lit up and decorated for the latest holiday, sale, or local event.
For the past ten years, it had been Eleanor’s job to design and set up these displays, and she was semi-famous around town for it. People were always stopping her at the grocery store or the gas station, slyly asking her what she planned to do next. She never told them; she liked the element of surprise, and she thought they did too. This Christmas display idea she had would be a departure from her usual, but she was sure it would be a hit. She imagined the looks of delighted surprise on the shoppers’ faces as they arrived at the store for the sale tomorrow morning.
She moved around the back of the building to let herself in with her key, pausing as lights appeared in the small alley that ran the length of the block behind Hillerman’s. She waited as they approached to reveal a golf cart driven by a chubby young man in a guard’s uniform and a heavy down coat. She waved.
“Evenin’, Ms. Pearsall,” the man said with a jaunty return wave and a grin. “Here to fix up the display?”
“That I am, Dwight.”
“Can’t wait to see what you come up with. I’ll be around if you need anything—just give me a call on the radio, okay?”
“I’ll do that,” she assured him, and he rolled off with another wave.
Dwight Carsey and his fellow private security guard, Kurt Moreno, cruised around the entire downtown area overnight, once every hour or so, just to make sure nobody was bothering any of the businesses. All the owners chipped a little into a fund to pay them, since Woodwich didn’t technically have a police department. Because Woodwich also technically didn’t have crime (beyond rare broken window or graffiti tagging incidents), Dwight and Kurt usually just spent most of their evenings watching porn and smoking the occasional joint in the back room of the Alpine Chalet Motel two blocks over. Still, Eleanor was glad that they were available should she need them. They always made it a point to check up on her at least once on nights when she was doing her displays, which she found charming even if it was unnecessary.
She slipped inside the store, closed the door behind her, and turned the deadbolt. Even though she didn’t lock her home door like most of Woodwich’s residents, she still didn’t believe in tempting those who might be teetering on the edge of a little midnight acquisition when she was responsible for other people’s property.
The back door opened into a combination storeroom and receiving area; it was full of boxes of merchandise, signage, and display materials, all neatly stacked on shelves or hanging on racks. Eleanor wasted no time getting started: she grabbed a cart and began piling the items she’d need on it.
In less than ten minutes she was walking through the large public area of the single-story store, traversing the dimly lit aisles like she was in her own home. She wished Crowley were here—at least he’d be a little company. The squeaking of one of the cart’s wheels was the only sound in the wide-open space. To anyone who wasn’t used to it, the place would have seemed ominous in the scant light, with the shadowy racks of clothing and looming mannequins, but Eleanor felt at home here. The dark didn’t frighten her; she’d seen far worse things during her fifty-four years on Earth than a few overgrown naked Barbies.
She was taping up a plastic drop cloth to obscure the left-side display window from the street when she first heard the sound.
Stopping with one side of the cloth in place, she listened. She’d definitely heard something, but couldn’t identify it over all the rustling the plastic had been making. She held very still, willing whatever it was to repeat itself.
It didn’t. The store was once again as quiet as it always was this late at night.
Eleanor sighed. It wasn’t like her to hear things that weren’t there—maybe the interrupted sleep from the nightmares was getting to her more than she’d thought. She turned back to her task, and soon had the cloth draped so anyone looking in from outside (not that anyone was, or was likely to be) couldn’t see what she was doing. She stepped back out of the window and moved to the cart, intending to hustle a nude Santa Claus into position so she could dress him in his new back-to-nature finery.
There it was again.
This time she heard it clearly, far off in a back corner of the store.
She froze. She was certain she’d locked the back door, and no one had had a chance to slip in behind her. She hadn’t checked the front, but Mr. Hillerman and his staff were always conscientious about locking up.
“H-hello?” she called. “Is someone in here?” Maybe not the best approach, but it wasn’t like she’d been doing anything to hide her presence. If somebody was in the store, they knew she was here too.
No answer. The dark, cavernous space remained resolutely silent.
Eleanor rubbed the back of her neck. She was hearing things. That had to be it. It was the dream—it was making her jump at shadows. Still, she wished she’d picked up a couple of her “special items” from the bowl on her mantelpiece at home. She didn’t exactly feel vulnerable without them, but having them with her would have made her a lot more comfortable.
Just get the display done and go home. Taking a deep breath to center herself, she gathered up an armload of clothing and Santa, climbed back into the window, and began arranging him into the proper position. Her only concession to caution was that she faced back into the store while she did this, instead of toward the window.
Once she had Santa posed, she threw a voluminous brown “robe” (a bedsheet she’d cut a head-hole in) over his head and belted it with a golden rope she’d borrowed the other day from one of the curtain displays and squirreled away with her other supplies. She finished the look with a braided wreath of twigs, placed on his head like a crown. Standing back, she admired her handiwork. Santa indeed looked very much like a jolly wood-sprite.
Far off in the back of the store, on the opposite side from the one where she’d heard the footstep, something small fell off a shelf and hit the ground with a tiny whoomp.
Eleanor stopped again, her body stock-still, a chill skittering down her spine. She forced herself to attempt to be rational: if something was in here, what could it be? An animal? Maybe another homeless person who had somehow gotten in and was using the store as a place to sleep? A drifter from out of town who’d taken advantage of a normally locked door to slip in and hide until after closing time? None of those were inherently dangerous, but she wasn’t crazy about the idea of being in here alone with any of them.
She had two choices: ignore the sounds and continue with her work, or do something about them. The “something” could be anything from investigating the situation herself, to leaving the store, to using the radio to call Dwight and Kurt and ask them to come check things out. She didn’t like either of the latter two options: the first because it would mean leaving a job undone for the first time in her ten years of doing displays, and the second because it felt like admitting defeat. Again, she berated herself for not bringing the items from the bowl on the mantel with her—
It was a soft sound, barely audible even in the silence, but it was definitely a giggle. It sounded like a small child, but it had a certain wrongness to it. Not a happy giggle, but a creepy one.
Eleanor’s breath quickened. “All right,” she whispered. “That’s it.” She’d never get anything done while constantly on edge waiting for the next unexpected sound. Retreating wasn’t an option, since she didn’t plan to leave the display undone. Investigating things herself was just stupid: if there was an intruder, she was at a definite disadvantage in her current state. That left the radio—which was in the office off to the left side of the store near the restrooms. She’d have to walk through most of the store’s open area, uncomfortably close to where she’d heard some of the noises, to get to it.
She stepped carefully out of the window and looked around. Luck was with her this time: near the front of the store was a display for the fireplace. She spotted a rack of implements and hefted an iron poker. That might not stop a determined intruder, but it would certainly make him think twice. And if it was a child playing a trick on her—well, she could put the fear of God into him until she could contact his parents and give them an earful about the proper way to raise children.
Though her hand holding the poker shook as she crossed the store, nothing accosted her and no more strange sounds were forthcoming. By the time she reached the door to the office, she began to think she had just been hearing things, and felt almost embarrassed about disturbing Dwight and Kurt for a false alarm. Almost, but not quite enough not to do it. Besides, she rationalized, they were probably bored, and would relish the opportunity to make themselves useful.
The office door wasn’t locked; she pushed it open, reached around to flip on the light. After verifying that no one lurked there, she slipped inside and closed and locked the door. Keeping a close eye on it, she switched on the radio. It crackled for a moment, then settled in to a low hum. She keyed the mic. “Dwight? Kurt? Are you there?”
There was a brief pause, and then Dwight’s reassuringly tinny voice emerged from the ancient speaker. “Is that you, Ms. Pearsall?”
“It’s me,” Eleanor replied. She felt a lot better hearing another human voice.
She paused. “There might be. I’m—I know it sounds silly, but I’m hearing noises in here. Like maybe somebody, or an animal or something, got inside the store.”
Dwight’s voice sounded accommodating, but not too concerned. “We’ll come by right away to check it out, Ms. Pearsall. Probably just a possum or a cat or something got in. Don’t you worry, just sit tight in the office and we’ll be there pronto. Five minutes, max.”
“Thank you, Dwight. I appreciate it. I hate to take you away from the warm—”
“No problem, Ms. P. Just sit tight.” The line went dead with a couple of final crackles.
Eleanor replaced the mic in its cradle and slumped into a nearby chair. She was surprised at the relief that washed over her at the thought that someone else would be here soon to help her get this sorted out. The more she thought about it, she was sure it had to be a cat or other small animal.
But cats don’t giggle, said a little voice in the back of her mind.
She waited in silence, willing herself not to sneak glances at her watch or at the clock on the wall. She didn’t hear any other noises outside, but she didn’t think the little sounds she’d heard would be loud enough to be audible through the closed office door. It was hard not to imagine something furtively sneaking up, waiting for her to open the door so it could pounce—
“Don’t be an idiot,” she whispered. In truth, she had no idea why this frightened her as much as it did. She’d dealt with far worse, at night and alone. Again, she decided it must be the nightmare and lack of good sleep playing hell with her nerves. That was all.
“Ms. Pearsall?” A faint voice filtered through the door. “You there?”
She leaped out of the chair and hurried over to open the door. She had rarely been so happy to see anyone as she was to watch Dwight’s portly, flashlight-wielding form approaching through the dry-goods department, followed by his taller and thinner partner, Kurt.
“I’m here,” she called. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“No trouble at all,” he said. “Now let’s check out this sound. Where’d you hear it again?”
She told them the approximate locations of the three different sounds she’d heard (or thought she’d heard) and they set off in two different directions with their flashlights blazing. She remained at the front of the store, near her display, and watched the lights bobbing around, up one aisle and down another, until at last both young men reconvened near the store’s front door.
Dwight sighed and shook his head. “We didn’t see anything, Ms. Pearsall. No sign that anybody’s here or anybody’s been here.”
She stared at him. Would it be possible for an intruder to hide well enough to fool two security guards—even if they were, admittedly, not among the highest on the professionalism scale? “You looked under the spinning clothes racks? Behind the furniture—?”
Kurt, who hadn’t spoken yet, nodded. “Not that many places for somebody to hide in here,” he said. He was a lanky young man with a shock of unruly dark hair, a dusting of pimples across his forehead, and a bad case of jug-ear.
“And you checked the back room?”
Dwight nodded. “When we came in. We locked the door behind us, and looked around back there to make sure nobody was tryin’ to make a break for it.”
“We even checked the johns,” Kurt added. “Nobody in here but you, Ms. Pearsall.”
Eleanor sighed, embarrassed now. “I’m sorry, guys. I really didn’t mean to drag you all the way out here for in the cold for—”
Dwight grinned, waving off her apology. “It’s fine. Really. You know this is the dullest job in the known universe, right? Anything that lets us get out and pretend to do something useful is cool with us.”
“Bonus if we don’t have to do anything dangerous,” Kurt added with his own rather goofy grin. Eleanor noticed that both of them had the definite whiff of the heathen weed hovering around their persons.
“Well—all right, then,” she said, conceding. “But don’t think I don’t appreciate it.”
“Not a problem,” Dwight said. He nodded toward the window. “That your display? Santa looks—different.”
“Just something new I’m trying,” she said, turning back to look at her work. “You just wait till it’s finished.”
“You know,” Kurt said in a conversational tone, “It’s really a shame you didn’t decide to join us.”
Eleanor was about to say something else about her display when oddness of the guard’s words sunk in. She turned around, convinced that whatever he had said, she’d misheard it. “What did—”
Methodically and without any change of expression, Dwight pulled a long-bladed kitchen knife from behind him and buried it in Eleanor’s gut.
She didn’t even have time to scream. Kurt, as if he had been expecting Dwight to stab her, moved forward and clamped one hand over her mouth while the other grabbed one of her wildly flailing arms and locked it behind her back. Dwight had not yet pulled the knife out; instead, he took a tight grip on its handle and sliced downward, its sharp blade encountering only minimal resistance against the soft organs it cut through. Blood sprayed out in all directions, covering Dwight’s uniform shirt, his face, his hands.
Eleanor, desperate with panic and incoherent with pain, could do nothing but flop back and forth in ever more feeble attempts to pull herself free of Kurt’s grasp, but she accomplished nothing more than to worsen her already grave situation. Her blood, her intestines, and her life essence flowed out of her, and she knew, even amid all the pain, that she was powerless to stop it.
She saw and heard two things before unconsciousness and then death mercifully took her: the first was Dwight’s face, slack-jawed and transported with near-rapturous pleasure; the second was the far-off sound of giggling, accompanied by the mental image of a dark forest clearing ringed by trees.
The next morning at sunrise, a lone figure shuffled along Main Street, pausing to poke hopefully into various trash receptacles with a long pole. He moved with a swaying, methodical gait, still feeling a little out of it after his previous night of drinking. Mostly he paid attention to the sidewalk and the trashcans, but something made him look up as he passed Hillerman’s Department Store. Perhaps he remembered in some back corner of his mind that there would be something to see in the window this morning.
What he saw, however, made him stagger backward and almost fall into the street, his big green backpack dropping to the snowy sidewalk beside him.
The left-side display window at Hillerman’s, the place where Santa and his woodland elves were intended to frolic while ringing in the holiday season, showed an entirely different scene. Santa, still in his brown robe and wreath of twigs, held a bloodstained knife menacingly above his head. Below him, spread out on a sheet-covered table, lay the form of a middle-aged woman, her body covered with slashes and cuts, her arms and legs spread out and tied to the legs of the table like some kind of ritual sacrifice. Her mouth gaped wide in a silent scream of terror, and Santa leered over her with a red-streaked face and gore-strewn beard. Around the table, the elves, still in their green and red traditional garb, looked on with macabre glee. Dried and clotted blood streaked the window itself, providing a grisly frame for the scene.
“Oh, God…” Ted whispered, tears springing to his crinkled eyes. “Oh, God, Miz Pearsall…why didn’t you listen to me and be careful…?”
He sagged to the ground; he was still there when the early-morning sale-seekers arrived soon after, eager to discover what Eleanor had done to surprise them with the display this year.
Considering the impact he’d made on the world in his many years of international celebrity and profligate philanthropy, the demise of the last remaining bit of what had once been Gordon Lucas was altogether anticlimactic.
The event was witnessed by only three “mourners,” seated around a small table. In the center of the table rested a construct of crystals and wires, fashioned into a roughly cubical shape about the size of a child’s building block. They weren’t watching the construct, though, but rather what was inside it. The reddish-purple, glowing globule had been dimming for the past couple of weeks, and at this point it was barely discernible except in a dim room such as the one they now occupied.
“I don’t think it’ll be long now,” Alastair Stone murmured. He’d spent most of his spare time studying the construct and gathering what little data he could from the thing inside. Though the nature of the cage made precise measurement difficult, he’d managed to put together several pages of notes.
“You don’t think it’s gonna—you know—explode or anything, when it goes?” Jason Thayer asked, a little nervously. Even after all he’d been through in the previous few weeks, he was still more than a bit uncomfortable around this sort of thing. He liked his life to be predictable, which was really quite amusing, given his current situation and companions.
“It’s rattling around like crazy in there,” said Verity Thayer. “You can tell it wants out bad.” Her voice, unlike her brother’s, held curiosity and interest. She leaned in with her elbows propped on the table, her eyes never leaving the little glowing thing inside the construct. “I wonder what would happen if we let it out now,” she mused. “Would it get stronger again after it hopped into somebody else? Or did we permanently drain its power by keeping it prisoner for so long?”
“Let’s not find out,” Jason said. The fact that his sister seemed to share Alastair Stone’s catlike curiosity about things strange and paranormal bothered him, especially considering their budding relationship as master and apprentice.
“Don’t worry,” Stone said with a raised eyebrow. “I have no intention of letting this little beastie out of its cage. I—” He stopped, his attention focusing back on the construct.
Something new was happening in there: the faintly glowing ball flung itself against the cube’s “walls,” and an almost inaudible buzz or hum emanated from within. None of the trio had ever heard it make any kind of noise before. As they watched, its urgency increased, along with the speed at which it caromed off the inner boundaries of its tiny prison.
“It’s like it knows it’s dying soon…” Verity said in a near whisper.
It appeared she was correct. The little ball continued darting around madly, gaining brightness as it did. Its sickly, red-purple glow increased, as did its size. Where it had before been small enough to move around inside the cage, it now seemed to be growing too large to be confined by it.
“Is it gonna break out?” Jason asked, leaning in.
“I don’t think so,” Stone said, but nonetheless he sat up a bit straighter, as if preparing himself for action if necessary.
The glowing ball grew both larger and brighter, until it strained against the edges of the construct. After a few seconds, the cube itself began to move, rattling on the table. This went on, increasing in its intensity, for about thirty seconds. The tension and desperation of the thing inside became nearly palpable.
And then, with no warning, the ball disappeared. There was no flash of light, no psychic scream, nothing. It simply ceased to exist. The cage settled back and stopped rattling, its crystals going dark.
Stone let his breath out. “Well, that’s done, then,” he said, getting up to switch on the light. “And now we know about how long the big ones can hang around after they’ve been evicted.”
“That’s useful, I guess,” Jason said. “If we’re planning to capture another one.” He looked up at Stone. “Are we planning to capture another one?”
By mutual unspoken agreement, the three of them hadn’t talked much in the last two weeks about what had occurred at the underground torture chamber in San Francisco that had served as the headquarters for this area’s contingent of the Evil. They were a little surprised that they hadn’t had to. For the first few days after they’d gotten together with some Forgotten friends at a Palo Alto restaurant, they had spent a lot of time looking over their shoulders, as if expecting to be jumped at any moment by Dead Men Walking gangers or worse.
But it seemed Stone’s hypothesis had been correct: the death of the area’s top-tier Evil, which had been possessing former talk-show host Gordon Lucas—and which had just met its final demise on the kitchen table—had thrown the rest of the local Evil into enough disarray that they apparently weren’t in a position to mount a revenge plan.
Stone shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I suppose we’ll have to at some point—either that, or find others who can help us.” He indicated the cage. “In any case, if we do plan to capture another one, I’ll have to build another one of these, which won’t be easy. This one’s dead now, and the materials to build it weren’t easy to get hold of.”
Jason nodded. He knew Stone had been struggling with this. The trouble with the Evil, and what made them so insidious and difficult to fight, was the near impossibility of discerning whether they were possessing a given human unless they gave themselves away by doing something wildly out of character and usually violent. There were Forgotten—the strange, usually homeless, and mostly mentally unstable individuals who had manifested various paranormal abilities around the same time the Evil had arrived—who could identify Evil-possessed individuals, but the logistics of getting the two in proximity to each other often confounded matters even more.
Worse, since the Evil preferred to possess people in positions of power, it was dangerous to reveal anything to the authorities without taking a risk. There was also the fact that those authorities who weren’t possessed by the Evil didn’t look too kindly on tales of extradimensional entities who fed on human (preferably negative) emotion.
Stone had discovered how to build magical items that reacted to the presence of the Evil—the now-inert construct on the table was his first and only specimen at this point—but they also required close proximity to get any kind of useful reading and even then they weren’t all that precise. The bottom line was that the Evil were a problem that had to be dealt with, but only after much thought and careful examination of the possible ramifications. Once that particular genie was out of the bottle, there would be no putting it back in.
In the meantime, the three of them had been trying to return to a normal life—or at least the closest thing you could get to a normal life when talking about a classically trained mage who taught collegiate-level Occult Studies on the side; a seventeen-year-old girl who was not only a fledgling mage, but also a Forgotten and the only known individual capable of ejecting the Evil from its human hosts without killing them; and her bemused and protective older brother, who recently discovered that he had the ability to serve as a willing “magical battery,” providing the energy that allowed a mage to cast powerful spells without causing injury or psychic drain to either party. Jason couldn’t decide if the whole thing sounded like the premise for a bad sitcom or the punch line to a very weird joke.
In any case, Stone had wasted no time getting Verity started on her magical studies. This amounted to spending large chunks of time with her in the family room of the house he’d rented to replace the one that had been destroyed in an assassination attempt by his Evil-possessed housekeeper, quizzing her on the books of magical theory he’d given her to read, and instructing her on the basics of actually casting simple spells. Jason’s ears still rang from her shriek of delight a week ago, when she’d managed to levitate a pencil two inches off the table for a grand total of five seconds.
Jason himself struggled to find his place in this odd little team, especially now that Verity showed signs of actually being able to do real magic. Sure, his ability to help Stone cast spells more easily was useful, but not nearly as useful as being able to throw lightning bolts or levitate onto roofs. He didn’t even have a job now, which frustrated him even more. He stared at the little cage on the table and sighed. Nothing to be done about it at the moment, he knew. But he was going to have to do something, and soon.
The phone rang. Stone got up and disappeared into the other room to answer it, while Verity picked up the cage. “Wonder if he’ll bother building another one of these things,” she said, examining it. “We could start our very own Evil zoo!”
Stone returned a couple of minutes later, pausing in the doorway. He held on to it as if it was the only thing keeping him upright. His eyes were haunted, his expression one of someone who’d just been broadsided by shock.
Jason looked up. “Al? What’s going on? Something wrong?”
Instead of replying, Stone went back out to the liquor cabinet, poured himself a shot, and sank into the nearest chair. Jason and Verity trailed him, concerned. It was only then that he looked at them as if he were actually seeing them.
“That…was a friend from back East,” he said, his voice dull and colorless. “She was calling to tell me that another friend has been…murdered.”
Verity’s stared. “Murdered?”
“What—what happened?” Jason asked.
“She…didn’t give me the details. I don’t think she wanted to talk about them. Apparently it was…quite horrific.”
Jason picked his words with care. “This friend… You two were…close?”
Stone shook his head. “No, not close. We saw each other perhaps once a year or so. But she was—a lovely woman. Older. Kind, clever…a wicked sense of humor. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“Was she…a mage?” Verity asked in a near whisper. Jason looked at her sharply—he hadn’t thought of that.
“Yes.” Stone stared down into his liquor glass, which he hadn’t yet touched. “She was…one of the few truly ‘white’ mages I ever knew, in both magical style and morality. As I think I mentioned at one point, even most of the best among us these days have a few streaks of gray. Eleanor Pearsall…didn’t. She was one of the few genuinely good people I ever knew. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to kill her.”
Jason looked down at his hands. He never knew quite what to say in situations like this—his mind always tended to run to tactless questions about whether they had caught the murderer, or what were the details of the crime scene. Fortunately, Verity didn’t have any such limitations. “Will there be a funeral?” she asked, her voice gentle. “Are you going to go?”
Stone nodded. “She said it’s Friday, in the morning. And yes, I’ll be going. You’re both welcome to come along if you want to.” He glanced at Verity. “There should be at least a few other mages, if you’re interested in meeting them.”
“Friday—that doesn’t give us much time to get plane tickets,” Jason said, frowning.
“We aren’t getting plane tickets,” Stone told him.
“Wait a minute,” Jason protested. “Not—”
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. But the portal is much faster.”
Jason sighed loudly. “There’s one near there?”
“Yes. We’ll have to rent a car and drive for a couple of hours, but it’s better than trying to sort out flights on such short notice.”
Verity was clearly trying hard not to look excited. Stone had explained the teleportation portals to her a few days ago, and she’d been looking forward to trying out this new method of transportation, but this was hardly the time to say so. Instead she asked, “When are we leaving?”
“I’ll make the arrangements and we’ll go tomorrow so we can drive up and find a place to stay overnight. No need to pack much—I don’t see the point in remaining past the funeral itself and whatever gathering they have afterward.”
The next morning, they drove down to Sunnyvale. Murphy Street was quiet this time of day; parking was plentiful on the street in front of A Passage to India, but Stone waved Jason around the back. “David said we could park back here, so we don’t have to leave the car in front of the restaurant overnight. He’s showing up early to let us in, since they’re not open yet.”
After checking to make sure nobody was watching, they headed in through the back door; it would look odd for three people carrying bags to go into a restaurant at nine in the morning, especially if they didn’t come back out again. Even at this early hour, the spicy scent of curry hung tantalizingly in the air.
David, the portly, balding mage who ran A Passage to India along with his non-magical partner, waited for them inside. “I’m so sorry to hear about Eleanor,” he said. “I wish I could go, but Marta is out of town and I can’t close the restaurant.”
“We’ll give everyone your best,” Stone assured him.
The portal in the basement was just as Jason remembered it: large, vaguely round without defined boundaries, shifting and rippling with strange, multicolored lights. He remembered the first time he’d seen it, how beautiful he’d thought it was. After a disastrous trip through this one and nearly being killed by a collapsing temporary version at the Evil’s headquarters, though, he was less interested in its appearance and more in its safety. “You’re sure this is okay?” he asked after David left them alone. Stone was already calibrating the portal to send them to their destination, somewhere in Lowell, Massachusetts. “You said those things home in on emotion—you seem pretty upset about your friend. Is—”
“Don’t worry,” Stone said after a moment, stepping away from the portal. “That’s part of being trained as a mage—the ability to put aside one’s own emotional state when necessary. It’s probably a good thing that you two didn’t know Eleanor, though—it will make things easier.”
“So we just…step through?” Verity asked. Stone had explained the highlights of travel in the Overworld to her on the trip down, with Jason adding the layman’s interpretations, so she had a pretty good idea what to expect. Still, Jason knew hearing it described and actually experiencing it were as different as listening to a symphony and trying to understand it by hearing someone tell you about the individual notes. It didn’t translate well.
“Yes, exactly.” Stone nodded toward the portal. “Just stay close together and keep walking. And remember not to be afraid. The trip will be very short—no more than a minute, and we’ll be out on the other side.”
Verity didn’t look scared in the slightest—to the contrary, she regarded the portal with shining-eyed anticipation. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be fine. I’m a lot tougher than my big chicken of a brother.”
“We’ll see,” Jason said darkly. In reality he was proud of her courage; he just hoped he could match it. Even though Stone had fixed it so he could go through without attracting the attention of the Overworld’s occupants, the place still made him damned nervous.
“All right, then. Ready?”
“Ready,” Verity said.
“No, but let’s go anyway,” Jason said. He put his hand on Stone’s right shoulder, and Verity put hers on his left, and together they stepped through the electric mists.