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Spell of the Highlander
by Karen Marie Moning
Friday, October 6th
The call that changed the entire course of Jessi St. James’s life came on an utterly unremarkable, dateless Friday night that differed in no particularly significant way from any other unremarkable, dateless Friday night in her all-too-predictable life, which—she was in no hurry to discuss—were a lot of Friday nights.
She was sitting in the dark on the fire escape outside the kitchen window of her third-floor apartment at 222 Elizabeth Street, enjoying an unseasonably warm autumn evening. She was being a shameless voyeur, peeping around the corner of the brownstone to watch a crowd of people that, unlike her, had time to have a life, and were talking and laughing out on the sidewalk in front of the nightclub across the street.
For the past few minutes she’d been riveted by a leggy redhead and her boyfriend—a dark-haired, sun-bronzed, muscled hottie in jeans and a white T-shirt. He kept backing his girlfriend up against the wall, stretching her hands above her head, and kissing her like there was no tomorrow, getting into it with his whole gorgeous, rippling body. (And would you just look at that hip action? The way he was grinding against her—they might as well be doing it right there in the street!)
Jessi sucked in a sharp breath.
God, had she ever been kissed like that? Like the man couldn’t wait to get inside her? Like he wanted to devour her, maybe crawl right inside her skin?
The redhead’s hands slipped free, down to the hottie’s ass, fingers curving into his muscled butt, and Jessi’s hands curled into fists.
When the hottie’s hands skimmed up the redhead’s breasts, his thumbs braising her nipples, Jessi’s own went hard as little pearls. She could almost imagine she was the one he was kissing, that she was the one he was about to have hot, animalistic—
Why can’t I have a life like that? she thought.
You can, an inner voice reminded—after your PhD.
The reminder wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been years ago as an undergrad. She was sick of being in school, sick of being broke, sick of constantly racing from her classes to her full-time job as Professor Keene’s assistant, then home to study, or if she was really lucky, snatching a whopping four or five hours of sleep before getting up to do it all over again.
Her demanding, tightly organized schedule left no time for a social life. And lately she’d been feeling downright sulky about it. Everywhere she turned lately there were couples, and they were busy coupling and having a wonderfully couplelicious time of it.
But not her. There was no time for coupling in her life. She wasn’t one of the lucky ones that had a free ride through school. She had to scrimp and save and make every moment and penny count. In addition to working full-time and taking a full load of classes, she taught classes too. It barely left her time to eat, shower, and sleep.
On the infrequent occasions she’d tried to date, the guys had gotten so fed up with how seldom she could see them and how low on her list of priorities they seemed to be and how unwilling she was to fall right in bed with them (most college guys seemed to think if they didn’t score by the third date there was something wrong with the woman—puh-leeze), that they’d soon sought greener pastures.
Still, it would all be worth it soon. Although some people didn’t seem to think being an archaeologist and playing with old, dusty, or, frequently, dead things for the rest of one’s life was a particularly exciting thing to do (like her mom, who hated Jessi’s choice of major and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t married and blissfully popping out babies like her sisters), Jessi couldn’t imagine a more thrilling career. It might not top other people’s lists of dreams, but it was hers.
Dr. Jessica St. James. She was so close she could taste it. Another year and a half and she’d be done with her course work for her PhD.
Then she might date like the Energizer Bunny, making up for lost time. But right now, she’d not worked so hard and gone into so much debt to go screwing everything up just because she seemed to be stuck in some kind of hormonal overdrive.
In a few years, she consoled herself, staring down at the busy street, the people hanging out at that club would probably still be hanging out at that club, their lives completely unchanged, while she would be traveling to far-off places, digging up remnants of the past, and having grand adventures.
And who knew, maybe Mr. Right would be waiting for her out there at some future dig site. Maybe her life just wasn’t scheduled to take off as fast as everyone else’s. Maybe she was just a late bloomer.
Holy cow—the hottie was slipping his hand inside the redhead’s jeans. And her hand was on his—oh! Right there in front of God and everybody!
Behind her, somewhere in the cramped and crowded apartment that desperately needed to be cleaned and have the trash taken out, the phone began to ring.
Jessi rolled her eyes. The mundaneness of her existence always chose the most inconvenient moments to intrude.
She gulped another fascinated look at the unabashed display of sex-on-the-sidewalk, then reluctantly boosted herself inside the kitchen window. She shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it, then pulled down the shade. What she couldn’t see, couldn’t torture her. At least not much, anyway.
Where was that blasted phone?
She finally spied it on the sofa, nearly buried beneath pillows, candy wrappers, and a pizza box that contained—eew—something fuzzy and phosphorescent green. As she gingerly pushed aside the box, she hesitated, hand suspended in midair above the phone.
For a moment—the briefest, most peculiar of interludes—she suffered the inexplicable, intense feeling that she shouldn’t pick it up.
That she should just let it ring and ring.
Maybe let it ring all weekend.
Later, Jessi would recall that feeling.
Time itself seemed to stand still for that odd, pregnant slice of time, and she had the weirdest sensation that the universe itself had stopped breathing and was waiting to see what she would do next.
She wrinkled her nose at the ridiculous, egocentric thought.
As if the universe ever even noticed Jessi St. James.
She picked up the phone.
Lucan Myrddin Trevayne paced before the fire.
When employing a sorcerer’s spell to conceal his true appearance—which he did whenever he wasn’t completely alone—he was tall, in his early forties, handsome, powerfully built, his thick black hair dashed at the temples with silver. He was a man who turned women’s heads, and made men take an instinctive step back when he walked by. His mien said one thing: Power—I have it, you don’t. And if you think you do—try me. His features were Old World, his eyes cold gray as a loch beneath a stormy sky. His true appearance was far less appealing.
He’d amassed tremendous wealth and power in his lifetime, which had been considerably longer than most. He held controlling interest in many and varied enterprises, from banks to media to oil. He kept residences in a dozen cities. He retained a select group of uniquely trained men and the occasional woman to handle his most private affairs.
To his left, seated in a deep armchair, one of those men waited tensely.
“This is absurd, Roman,” Lucan growled. “What the hell’s taking so long?”
Roman shifted defensively in his chair. He was aptly named, his features as classically handsome as those on an ancient coin, his hair long and blond. “I’ve got men on it, Mr. Trevayne,” he said with the trace of a Russian accent. “The best men we’ve got. The problem is, they went in a dozen different directions. They were sold on the black market. No one has names. It’s going to take time—”
“Time is the one thing I don’t have,” Lucan cut him off sharply. “Every hour, every moment that passes, makes it less likely they’ll be recovered. Those damned things must be found.”
“Those damned things” were the Dark or “Unseelie” Hallows of the Tuatha Dé Danaan—artifacts of immense power created by an ancient civilization that had passed, centuries ago and quite erroneously, into Man’s history books as a mythical race: the Daoine Sidhe or the Fae.
Lucan had believed there was no better place to safekeep his prized treasures than in his well-warded private residence in London.
He’d been wrong.
He wasn’t certain what had happened a few months ago while he’d been out of the country pursuing a lead on the Dark Book, the final and most powerful of the four Unseelie Hallows, but something had transpired somewhere in London—its epicenter in the east side, he could feel the lingering traces of power—that had reverberated through all of England. An immense and ancient power had risen for a brief time, so strong that it had neutralized all other magic in Britain.
Which he wouldn’t have cared about since whatever it was had departed as swiftly as it had come, except for the fact that its rising had shattered formidable, allegedly unbreakable wards that protected his most prized possessions. Protected them so well that he’d found the notion of a modern-day security system laughable.
Not so laughable now.
He’d had a state-of-the-art system installed, with cameras in every room, sweeping every angle, because while he’d been away, a thief had broken into his museum of a home and stolen artifacts that had belonged to him for centuries—including his irreplaceable Hallows: the box, amulet, and mirror.
Fortunately the thief had been spotted by neighbors while hauling away his loot. Unfortunately, by the time Lucan’s select staff had managed to identify and track the bastard, he’d already sold the artifacts to the first in a series of elusive middlemen.
Artifacts such as his, fabulous and utterly lacking provenance, inevitably ended up in one of two places: with the legal authorities of one country or another after being intercepted in transit, or sold for a fraction of their worth on the black market before disappearing, sometimes for hundreds of years before so much as a whispered rumor was heard of them again. They’d gotten few names—and those, obvious aliases—from the thief before he’d died. For months now, Lucan’s men had been chasing a deliberately and cunningly muddied trail. And time was growing critical.
“. . . though we’ve recovered three of the manuscripts and one of the swords, we’ve learned nothing about the box or amulet. But it looks like we might have a solid lead on the mirror,” Roman was saying.
Lucan stiffened. The mirror. The Dark Glass was the one Hallow he needed urgently. Of all the years it might have been stolen, it’d had to be this one, when the tithe was due! The other Dark Hallows could wait a bit longer, though not long; they were far too dangerous to have loose in the world. Each of the Hallows conferred a gift upon its possessor for a price, if the possessor had the knowledge and the power to use it. The mirror’s Dark Gift was immortality, so long as he met its conditions. He’d been meeting its conditions for over a thousand years now. He intended to continue.
“A shipment rumored to fit the bill left England for the States via Ireland a few days ago. We believe it’s headed for some university in Chicago, to a—”
“Then why the fuck are you still sitting here?” Lucan said coldly. “If you have a lead, any lead at all on the glass, I want you on it personally. Now.” It was imperative he recover the mirror before Samhain. Or else.
That “or else” was a thing he refused to contemplate. The mirror would be found, the tithe paid; a small quantity of pure gold passed through the glass every one hundred years—in the Old Ones way of marking time, which was more than a century by modern standards, at precisely midnight on Samhain, or Halloween as the current century called it. Twenty-six days from today the century’s tithe was due. Twenty-six days from today the mirror must be in his possession—or The Compact binding his captive to it would be broken.
As the blond man gathered his coat and gloves, Lucan reiterated his position where the Dark Hallows were concerned. “No witnesses, Roman. Anyone who’s caught so much as even a glimpse of one of the Hallows . . .”
Roman inclined his head in silent concurrence.
Lucan said no more. There was no need. Roman knew how he liked things handled, as did all who worked for him and continued to live.
Some time later, shortly after midnight, Jessi was back on campus for the third time that day, in the south wing of the Archaeology Department, unlocking Professor Keene’s office.
She wondered wryly why she even bothered leaving. Given the hours she kept, she’d be better off tucking a cot into that stuffy, forgotten janitor’s closet down the hall, amid mops and brooms and pails that hadn’t been used in years. She’d not only get more sleep, she’d save on gas money too.
When the professor had called her from the hospital to tell her that he’d been in a “bit of a fender bender” on his way back to campus—“a few inconvenient fractures and contusions, not to worry,” he’d assured her swiftly—she’d been expecting him to ask her to pick up his classes for the next few days (meaning her sleep window would dwindle from four or five hours to a great, big, fat nil), but he’d informed her he’d already called Mark Troudeau and arranged for him to take his classes until he returned.
I’ve a wee favor to ask of you, though, Jessica. I’ve a package coming. I was to accept a delivery at my office this evening, he’d told her in his deep voice that, even after twenty-five years away from County Louth, Ireland, had never lost its lilt.
She loved that lilt. Couldn’t wait to one day hear a whole pub speaking it while she washed down a hearty serving of soda bread and Irish stew with a perfectly poured Guinness. After, of course, having spent an entire day in the National Museum of Ireland delightedly poring over such fabulous treasures as the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, and the Broighter Gold Collection.
Hugging the phone between ear and shoulder, she’d glanced at her watch, the luminous dial indicating ten minutes past ten. What kind of package gets delivered so late at night? she’d wondered aloud.
You needn’t concern yourself with that. Just sign for it, lock it up, and go home. That’s all I need.
Of course, Professor, but what—
Just sign, lock it up, and forget about it, Jessica. A pause, a weighty silence, then: I see no reason to mention this to anyone. It’s personal. Not university business.
She’d blinked, startled; she’d never heard such a tone in the professor’s voice before. Words sharply clipped, he’d sounded defensive, almost . . . well, paranoid.
I understand I’ll take care of it. You just rest, Professor. Don’t you worry about a thing, she’d soothed hastily, deciding that whatever pain meds he was getting were making him funny, the poor dear. She’d once had Tylenol with codeine that had made her feel itchy all over, short-tempered and irritable. With multiple fractures, it was a sure bet he’d been given something stronger than Tylenol 3.
Now, standing beneath the faintly buzzing fluorescent lights in the university hallway, she rubbed her eyes and yawned hugely. She was exhausted. She’d gotten up at six-fifteen for a seven-twenty class and by the time she got home tonight—er, this morning—and managed to fall back into bed, she would have put in another twenty-hour day. Again.
Tuning the key in the lock, she pushed open the office door, fumbled for the light switch, and flipped it on. She inhaled as she stepped into the professor’s office, savoring the scholarly blend of books and leather, fine wood polish, and the pungent aroma of his favorite pipe tobacco. She planned to one day have an office of her own very much like it.
The spacious room had built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcases and tall windows that, during the day, spilled sun across an intricately woven antique rug of wine, russet, and amber. The teak-and-mahogany furniture was formally masculine: a stately claw-foot desk; a sumptuous leather Chesterfield sofa in a deep, burnished coffee-bean hue; companion wing chairs. There were numerous glass-paned curio cabinets and occasional tables displaying his most prized replica pieces. A reproduction Tiffany lamp graced his desk. Only his computer, with its twenty-one-inch flat screen, belied the century. Remove it, and she might have been standing in the library of a nineteenth-century English manor house.
“In here,” she called over her shoulder to the deliverymen.
The package hadn’t turned out to be quite what she’d expected. From the way the professor had spoken of it, she’d imagined a bulky envelope, perhaps a small parcel.
But the “package” was actually a crate, and a huge one at that. It was tall, wide, about the size of a . . . well, a sarcophagus or something, and proving no easy matter to navigate through the university corridors.
“Careful, man. Tilt it! Tilt it! Ow! You’re smashing my finger. Back it up and angle it!”
A muttered “Sorry.” More grunting. “Damn thing’s awkward. Hall’s too frigging narrow.”
“You’re almost here,” Jessi offered helpfully. “Just a bit farther.”
Indeed, moments later, they were carefully lowering the oblong box from their shoulders, depositing it on the rug.
“The professor said I needed to sign something.” She encouraged them to hurry. She had a full day of working and studying tomorrow . . . er, today.
“Lady, we need more than that. This here package don’t get left ’til it’s verified.”
“ ‘Verified’?” she echoed. “What does that mean?”
“Means it’s worth boo-koo bucks, and the shipper’s insurer’s got to have visual verification and release. See? Says so right here.” The beefier of the two thrust a clipboard at her. “Don’t care who does it, lady, so long as somebody’s John Hancock’s on my paperwork.”
Sure enough, Visual Verification and Release Required was stamped in red across the bill of lading, followed by two pages of terms and definitions detailing shipper’s and buyer’s rights in pedantic, inflated legal jargon.
She pushed a hand through her short dark curls, sighing. The professor wasn’t going to like this. He’d said it was personal.
“And if I don’t let you open it up and inspect it?”
“Goes back, lady. And let me tell you, the shipper’s gonna be plenty pissed.”
“Yeah,” said the other man. “Thing cost an arm and a leg to insure. Goes back, your professor’s gonna have to pay the second time around. I bet he’s gonna be plenty pissed too.”
They stared at her with flat, challenging gazes, clearly disinclined to wrestle the awkward crate back up on their shoulders, squeeze it back down the hall, reload it and return it, only to end up delivering it again. They weren’t even talking to her breasts, a thing men often did, especially the first time they met her, which told her how deadly earnest they were about dumping their load and getting on with their lives.
She glanced at the phone.
She glanced at her watch.
She hadn’t gotten the professor’s room number and suspected that if she called the main desk, they’d never put her through at this hour. Though he’d insisted he wasn’t badly hurt, she knew the doctors wouldn’t have kept him if he hadn’t been seriously injured. Hospitals these days spit people out as fast as they took them in.
Would the professor be more upset if she opened it—or if she refused the delivery and it cost him a fortune to have it reshipped?
She sighed again, feeling damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.
In the end it was the constantly-broke college student in her who flipped the coin and made the call.
“Fine. Let’s do this. Open it up.”
Twenty minutes later the deliverymen had secured her wearily scribbled signature and were gone, taking the remains of the crating with them.
And now she stood, eyeing the thing curiously. It wasn’t a sarcophagus after all. In fact, most of the packaging had been padding.
From deep within layers and layers of cushioned wrapping, they’d unearthed a mirror and, at her direction, propped it carefully against the east wall of bookshelves.
Taller than she by more than a foot, the mirror’s ornate frame was a shimmery gold. Shapes and symbols, of such uniformity and cohesion to imply a system of writing, were carved into every inch of the wide border. She narrowed her eyes, pondering the etchings, but linguistics was not her specialty, and the symbols were nothing that, without searching through books or notes, she could identify as a letter, word, or glyph.
Inside the gaudy gilt frame, the outer edges of the silvery glass were marred with a cloudy, uneven black stain of some sort, but aside from that, the glass itself was startlingly clear. She suspected it had been broken and replaced at some point and would ultimately prove centuries younger than the frame. No mirror of yore had achieved such clarity. Though the earliest artificial mirrors discovered by archaeologists dated back to 6200 b.c.e., they had been fashioned of polished obsidian, not glass. The first glass mirrors of significant size—roughly three-by-five-foot panels—hadn’t been manufactured until the 1680’s by Italian glassmaker Bernard Perroto for the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, commissioned by the extravagant Sun King, Louis the XIV. Exceptional glass mirrors of the size of the one before her—an impressive six and a half feet tall—generally proved to be a few hundred years old, at most.
Considering this one’s pristine silvering, it was likely less than a century in age, and no one had gone mad or died from slow mercury poisoning making it. Hatmakers, or “hatters,” hadn’t been the only ones to suffer from the toxic fumes of their trade (though, for some reason Jessi’d never been able to figure, the idiom “mad-as-a-mirrormaker” had never quite caught on).
Eyes narrowed thoughtfully, she scrutinized it. The archaeologist in her itched to know the piece’s provenance, wondered if the frame had been accurately dated.
She frowned. What did the professor want with a mirror, anyway? Such an item wasn’t at all in keeping with his usual tastes, which ran toward replica weapons and reproductions of ancient timepieces such as the sixteenth-century German astrolabe adorning his desk. And how could the professor possibly afford something worth “boo-koo bucks” on his teaching salary, anyway?
Fishing the key from the pocket of her jeans, she turned to leave. She’d done as he’d asked. Her work here was finished.
She flipped off the light and was just stepping through the doorway when she felt a chill. All the fine hair at the nape of her neck lifted, tingling as if electrified. Her heart was abruptly pounding against the wall of her chest, and she felt the sudden, terrifying certainty that she was being watched.
In the manner that prey was watched.
Flinching, she turned back toward the mirror.
Dimly illumed by the pale blue glow of the computer’s screen saver, the artifact looked positively eerie. The gold appeared silvery; the silver glass, smoky, dark and deep with shadows.
And in those shadows something moved.
She sucked in a breath so fast she choked on it. Sputtering, she groped for the light switch.
Overhead light blazed down, flooding the room.
She stared into the oblong glass, a hand pressed to her throat, swallowing convulsively.
Her reflection stared back.
After a moment, she closed her eyes. Snapped them open. Stared into the glass again.
The hair at her nape continued to bristle, icy chills rippled up her spine. The pulse at the hollow of her neck fluttered frantically beneath her palm. Eyes wide, she glanced uneasily around the room.
The professor’s office, precisely as it should be.
After a long moment, she tried for a laugh but it came out shaky, uncertain, and seemed to echo unpleasantly in the office—as if the room’s square footage and actual occupy-able space didn’t quite coincide.
“Jessi, you’re losing it,” she whispered.
There was nothing, no one with her in the professor’s office but her overactive imagination.
With a dismissive toss of her head, she turned, flipped off the light again, and this time pulled the door shut behind her hard and fast and without a backward glance.
Hurrying down the corridor, she dashed out into the back parking lot, kicking up a swirl of red and gold leaves as she hastened to her car.
The more distance she put between herself and the building, the more ridiculous she felt—really, getting all spooked alone on campus at night! One day she would be working on excavations in the middle of nowhere, quite likely late at night and sometimes alone. She couldn’t afford to be fanciful. At times, though, it was hard not to be, especially when holding a twenty-five-hundred-year-old Druid brooch, or examining a fabulously detailed La Tène period sword. Certain relics seemed to carry lingering traces of energy, the residue of the passionate lives of those who’d touched them.
Though not anything like what she thought she’d just seen.
“How weird was that?’ she muttered, shaking off a lingering shiver. “God, I really must have sex on the brain.”
Watching the hottie and his girlfriend earlier had apparently done quite a number on her. That, coupled with exhaustion and the low lighting, she decided firmly as she unlocked her car and slipped behind the wheel, must have pushed her over the edge, into a brief, eyes-wide-open kind of hallucination/fantasy.
Because for a moment she actually thought she’d seen a half-naked man—an absolute sex-god of a man, no less—standing in Keene’s office, looking back at her.
A trick of the light, strange shadows falling, nothing more.
A towering, muscle-ripped, darkly beautiful man, dripping power. And hunger. And sex. The kind of sex nice girls didn’t have.
Oh, honey, you so need to get a boyfriend!
Looking at her like she was Little Red Riding Hood and the big, bad wolf hadn’t been fed in a long, long time.
Definitely a trick of the light.
Looking at her from inside the mirror.
In a place that was not a place, yet was place enough to serve as an inescapable fortress prison, a place to terrify, to drive the common man stark raving mad, six feet five inches of caged ninth-century Highlander stirred.
A hungry animal sound rumbled deep in his throat.
Just as he’d thought: He smelled woman.
Excerpted from Spell of the Highlander by Karen Marie Moning.
Copyright © 2005 by Karen Marie Moning. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.