Wouldn't you know it, Alastair Stone thought ironically as he settled into his seat for the flight home. I've only seen one bloody trid show since the last time I flew home, and of course that has to be the one that's showing on the plane.
In truth, despite this thought, the realization in question did little or nothing to dim Stone's mostly pleasant mood. It was a momentary diversion, just a tiny glitch in what was otherwise shaping up to be quite a nice flight. As usual he was in first class, which meant that the seats were comfortable, the food and drink were good, the service was attentive and polite, and as long as he didn't mind using the little personal trid unit built into the back of the seat instead of the impressive setup at the front of the small section, he had his choice of more than a dozen trideo shows (along with trideo games, up-to-the-second stock quotes, cellular vidphone capability, and the opportunity to buy any of an impressive collection of overpriced gewgaws) with which to claim his interest during the several hours it would take to get to Heathrow. He wasn't really interested, though. Right now, all he wanted to do was sit back and have some peace and quiet, a chance to gather his thoughts; later on, he planned on digging out one of the two real books he had purchased at one of his favorite antique bookstores in Seattle awhile ago and saved for just this occasion. People always looked at him funny when he pulled them out, but he didn't care. When he was in a hurry, he used a chip reader like everybody else. When he wanted to savor a book, he preferred the feel of good old-fashioned paper.
His ticket had been in the name of Alastair Stone. He smiled to himself, thinking of how glad he would be to go back to being Dr. Alastair Stone for awhile, instead of Winterhawk. That last run had been interesting—it was a satisfying feeling to know that once again he and his teammates had solved a puzzle and struck a small blow for justice. It sounded trite, but the older he got, the more he thought about things like that. It always made him feel a little better to know that, in their own almost infinitesimal way, they had done something to make the world a better place. Even if it was only for one person at a time. Still, though, it was also nice to go home and put it away for awhile.
Stone sighed, leaning back. He hadn't always been like that. When he had first started in the shadowrunning business, he had been cockier, more confident not only that his magical abilities could deal with any eventuality, but that they should. He was still a smartass and would probably be a smartass until his dying day, but even he winced a bit when he remembered some of the things he had said and done in his youth. His sense of morality had been considerably more fluid back then.
As the flight attendant droned on with her speech that Stone had heard a hundred times before and had long since tuned out like any other seasoned traveler, he reflected on when, precisely, the change had taken place. It had been a gradual thing, he knew, but it must have started somewhere. He suspected it was probably that first go-round with Harlequin. God, that seems a long time ago, he thought, shaking his head in wonder. Images flashed across his mind's eye: the elf in question, his face painted with clown markings; Darke, or Oscuro, or whatever he was calling himself, malevolent and shadowy; Thayla, with her beautiful face and her beautiful song; then later on, just when he thought they had put the whole thing behind them, the young dragon Gabriel, his friend Kestrel, his brother Stefan...the wind-whipped chasm where the final battle had taken place...the screams...
Stone shook his head rather violently, startling the impeccably-clad elven businesswoman in the next seat. "Sorry," he said, infusing just the right amount of charming British self-effacement into his tone. "These flights always give me a bit of a headache." The woman gave him a sympathetic `think nothing of it' smile and returned to her work.
Stone sighed and leaned back into the comforting embrace of the seat. The plane was taxiing now and would take off any moment. It would take about seven hours to get to Heathrow—he could have gotten there a lot faster (more like two hours) if he had chosen to take the semiballistic, but he did not like to do that unless there was some emergency requiring his immediate presence. Like all magically active individuals, Stone found being outside the Earth's biosphere to be a profoundly disturbing experience, one that always left him feeling vaguely sick for several hours after landing even though he acted like a good little mundane and didn't attempt any sort of magical activity. That was even part of the announcement on those flights—'We must remind anyone who is magically active not to perform any activities of a magical nature during the flight, and please deactivate all magical devices.' One of the few times Stone had flown on such a craft, he had jokingly asked the flight attendant why they didn't have a `No Magic' sign to light up next to the `No Smoking' and `Fasten Seat Belts.' signs. He didn't think she had been amused. He hadn't been amused either, by the time they had landed. It hadn't made it any better that he had once seen a young mage who had foolishly attempted to perceive astrally during a semiballistic flight and promptly been driven mad by whatever it was he saw—or did not see. That had been several years ago, but the image had never fully left Stone's mind. He wondered occasionally (usually when he was flying somewhere) how the young man was doing, and suspected he didn't want to know.
The plane continued to climb until it finally reached its cruising altitude and leveled off. After a few more moments, the seat belt sign went off and normal airline life resumed. Stone tilted his seat back (you didn't have to worry about disturbing your neighbors with your seat in first class, since the rows were wide enough apart to accommodate the seats' transformation into almost-comfortable beds at a very nearly full-horizontal position) and closed his eyes, looking forward to some nice, uninterrupted rest for a couple of hours.
Stone's consciousness returned to him slowly; someone was shaking him, obviously trying to be gentle about it. "Mm?" He tried burrowing into the seat and ignoring the intrusion, but it wasn't going away. "What is it?"
"I'm terribly sorry to disturb you, sir, but I must ask you to return your seat to the upright position and fasten your seat belt. We'll be starting our descent in just a few moments."
Stone's eyes flew open and immediately took in the flight attendant, the other passengers, and the time displayed on the trid unit in the back of the seat in front of him. The clock read 19:20, local time: a little more than six and a half hours since they had taken off. Around him, all the other seats were already upright. "Bloody hell..." he murmured to himself. He looked up at the attendant as he proceeded to do as she had requested. "Sorry...guess I must have been more tired than I thought I was."
"That's quite all right, sir. I hope I made the right decision not to disturb you for dinner. You looked like you'd rather sleep." The young woman looked vaguely worried through her smile.
Stone chuckled. Yes, this is why I fly first class, all right. "No, you made just the right decision. Thank you." He looked around again, studying the passengers around him as the flight attendant nodded, smiled again and moved on. Six and a half hours? I've never slept that long on a plane. Must be getting old or something. Strangely, the thought didn't disturb him; instead it amused him. Better not tell Aubrey, or he'll think I've caught something nasty over there and try to wait on me hand and foot until I can't take it anymore.
He was still smiling about that as the plane continued its descent and touched down at Heathrow.
Aubrey was there waiting for him, just as Stone expected him to be. The old caretaker was pacing around, looking a little worriedly at his watch; his weathered face broke into a broad grin as he saw the familiar figure exiting the gate. "Dr. Stone!" he called, bustling over. Without even being asked, he relieved his charge of his carry-on bag, slinging the strap over his own shoulder.
"Hello, Aubrey. It's good to see you again." Stone smiled, deciding against attempting to retrieve his bag: Aubrey wouldn't consider it proper for his employer to do anything as menial as carry luggage, and trying to convince him otherwise was apt to meet with nothing more than cheerful stubbornness. Instead, he matched strides with the old man and followed him toward the exit.
"It's good to see you, sir. It's been far too long. Six months already. I hope you'll be staying awhile this time." It was a statement, but Stone knew Aubrey well enough that he could hear the question in it as well.
"I think so. I definitely need a holiday." As they wended their way through Heathrow's international terminal, Stone observed the throngs of milling tourists, business travelers, and airport workers. No one seemed to be paying any attention to them. He liked that just fine. "Yes," he said, nodding. "A holiday will be quite nice. P'raps I'll even see if Rodney has anything for me to do."
Aubrey brightened visibly. "Then...you'll be here for several months?"
"Looks that way." Stone would never admit it, but it did make him feel good to know that Aubrey was happy to have him around for awhile. "Could be as long as six or eight—p'raps longer than that. I don't know. I'm tired now, and a good long holiday is looking like just the thing."
Aubrey gave him a worried look and a not-so-subtle once-over. "You're not—hurt, are you, sir?"
Stone shook his head. "No, no, Aubrey. Nothing like that. Actually I'm feeling rather good right now—the jet-lag will catch up with me soon enough, but I had a nice sleep on the plane so p'raps it won't be as bad as usual."
"Good. Glad to hear it." Aubrey shifted the strap on Stone's leather bag to a more comfortable position and continued forward. "Maya will be happy to see you. She's missed you, I think."
"I'm sure she has. I've missed her as well. Did you tell her I was coming?"
"I did, sir, just as you asked." There was a certain amount of indulgence in Aubrey's tone, but you had to look hard to catch it. "She—uh—didn't answer."
Stone grinned. "You still don't believe she talks to me, do you, Aubrey? You're just humoring me."
"I'd never do that, sir," Aubrey murmured, but he turned his head so Stone couldn't see his amused smile.
"No. Of course not. Well, come on. Let's get home. This place has always been rather dreary."
Alastair Stone's ancestral home, Stone Manor, was located near a little village some thirty minutes south of London, which meant that on a good traffic day one could reach it from Heathrow in about an hour. As there really weren't any "good traffic days" when the M25 was involved, that measurement was rather meaningless. Still, Aubrey was an even-tempered and careful driver (unlike Stone himself, who was known to drive too fast and take unnecessary chances when he got frustrated) and as a result it took them only an hour and a half before they rolled up in front of the tall wrought-iron gates that separated the private road leading to the Manor from the rest of the world. Stone leaned back in his seat, stretching out. "Ah...it's good to be home," he said, smiling.
Aubrey echoed his smile. "I've spent the past few days putting the place in order for you, sir. I even dusted some of the things on the walls."
"As if I'd notice." Stone's reply was good-natured and obviously in keeping with a long-standing custom between them. "You know me, Aubrey—as long as nobody's disturbed my study, you could be running orgies in the main hall and I wouldn't notice them."
"The orgies were completed last week, sir."
Stone grinned. "Good man."
Aubrey didn't answer except to chuckle slightly. He drove the car around the circular graveled driveway and pulled up in front of the door.
Stone was out almost before the car stopped, grabbing up his bag from the back seat. Aubrey didn't protest; he could see just how glad his employer was to finally be here. He followed behind as Stone took the steps up to the front door two at a time and tapped in the entrance code on the inconspicuous keypad.
Stone was barely inside when he was accosted by a small black missile which seemed determined to thread its way between his feet and knock him down. He smiled down at it. "Hello, Maya. Missed me, have you? I've certainly missed you."
Maya backed up slightly and looked up at him with big, luminous green eyes. She was large for a cat, with luxuriant black fur and a plumy tail. She sat now with her front paws primly together. "Mrrrow?" Ducking her head down slightly, she waited.
Stone chuckled. "Yes, yes. Of course. How could I forget?" Dropping his bag, he went down on one knee and began gently scratching the cat behind the ears. Maya purred, first demurely and then with increased gusto.
Aubrey watched this scene with amusement. He had lived long enough with Alastair Stone and his unconventional companion (it wouldn't do to call her a mere cat—she was far more than that) to know that, regardless of whether Maya actually talked to him, he did seem to understand what she wanted. He smiled. Life had not been dull since she had arrived, that was certain. At least his apprehension about having a blackberry cat as a housemate had long since departed. Maya had proven herself to be not only trustworthy (she didn't even bother his old beagle Mullins anymore, but Aubrey suspected that was more because she had tired of the game than due to any particular compassion on her part) but also a surprisingly effective deterrent to thieves and poachers who might think that Stone Manor and the lands surrounding it were easy pickings.
Stone rose back to a full standing position. "It's good to see you all," he said, running a hand back through his hair. "It's been too long. I should come home more often."
"You should, sir," Aubrey agreed, trying not to show too much of his enthusiasm about that prospect. "Now...if you'll excuse me for awhile, I'd best put dinner on. I'm sure you must be hungry after your flight."
Stone nodded, leaning down to stroke the insistent Maya again. "Slept right through dinner on the plane. That never happens."
He wasn't tired enough to attempt to go to bed until the early hours of the morning; the long nap on the flight had apparently been sufficient to stave off most of the effects of jet lag this time. He had dinner with Aubrey and Maya, caught up with the goings-on around the house and the small village outside which it was located, and then excused himself to head off to his study where he spent the remainder of the evening going through mail (of the e- and paper variety) and looking through the stack of books that had been delivered a few weeks back from one of the old bookstores in London. As he leafed through notices of professional conferences and seminars soliciting both his attendance and his participation, it once again struck him a little oddly how easily he was able to switch between the personas of Winterhawk and Alastair Stone, almost as if they were different people. When he was home, he rarely thought of his life as a member of a shadowrunning team—not until he was bored and ready to go back, that was. For now, though, that part of his life was nearly forgotten, tucked away in a back corner of his mind to be resurrected in a few months. In a way, the two parts together were what kept him sane. Aubrey would never understand that, but it was true. It was the reason why he knew it would be a very long time before he thought about retirement. Unless somebody does me in first, he thought wryly, but those thoughts were very far away.
The clock in the upstairs hall ticked inexorably along in the silent house as Stone finally finished his catching up and headed for his suite at the end of the west wing on the second floor. Maya was gone now, undoubtedly out on one of her nocturnal prowls, but Stone knew she would be back at some point. She almost always slept at the foot of his bed when he first arrived home—sometimes much longer than that. She was far too aloof to tell him in so many words, but her actions did indicate to Stone that she missed him during his long absences. He sighed as he reached his bedchamber and began preparing for sleep, then smiled to himself as thoughts of sharing his bed with some non-feline female companionship rose up in his mind. Perhaps when he got back to the University he'd ask that lovely Dr. Boothby over in the School of Enchantment out for dinner and a show. If one thing led to another, well...that would be quite nice indeed.
The smile was still there as he fell asleep.
When he awoke the next morning, he felt more tired than he had when he'd gone to bed. He opened his eyes slowly and stretched, feeling vague aches in his muscles that hadn't been there before. The bedclothes were in disarray, and Stone realized he had been huddled up near the headboard, his pillow flung off to one side.
He sat up slowly, running his hand through his hair and discovering that it too was in disarray, mostly stuck to his head like he'd been sweating. It was only then that he became aware that Maya was in the room, sitting at the other end of the bed. She was watching him. If there was ever any doubt that she cared about him, her worried expression put that to rest. "Mrr...owww?"
Stone took a deep breath and almost without thinking cast the spell that allowed him to communicate with her. "Good...morning," he said, the uncertainty clear in his voice.
"No." She continued to eye him. "Not good. You're upset."
He tried to remember what might have caused him to be in such a state, but he couldn't. The last thing he remembered was drifting off to sleep with pleasant thoughts of Dr. Boothby in his mind. Then...this. "Do you know what happened? Did something happen?"
The blackberry cat tilted her head, thinking. As intelligent as she was, it was sometimes difficult for her to put things into words that the two-leggers could understand. "You were upset. For a long time. Bad dreams?"
Stone's brow furrowed a bit. Was he having bad dreams? He certainly didn't recall it if he had. "I...don't know. What was I doing?" His gaze sharpened. "I didn't get out of bed, did I?"
"No." Maya, seemingly convinced that he was better now, approached a little closer. "Stayed in bed. Moved around a lot. Upset."
But yet I didn't wake up. Odd. "Did I say anything?"
Maya was silent for several moments. "You thought something was trying to get you. Told it to go away."
"Hmm..." Stone swung his legs around and sat on the edge of the bed. "Well, that would certainly qualify as a bad dream...p'raps it's just because of all the changes." He shrugged. "Haven't been home in awhile...threw my sleep off with that nap on the plane..." He gave Maya a well, it's done now look and stood. "I'll wager that a good shower and breakfast ought to take care of it, don't you think?"
Maya didn't answer. She watched him with some concern as he padded off toward the bathroom, and remained where she was long after she heard the shower start up.
Needless to say, Stone didn't tell Aubrey about the incident. The shower and fresh clothes, coupled with a brisk early-morning walk around the grounds, did wonders to improve both his outlook and his muscle aches. By the time he returned to the house for breakfast, he had nearly forgotten about the incident, and by the time the meal was over and he was on the train headed into London (after having bid both Aubrey and Maya goodbye) it was as if it had never happened at all.
London University, which was located on the West side, did not have quite the prestige of its more famous sister schools Oxford and Cambridge, but it had been around almost as long and had one thing which had made it Stone's choice from the moment he had begun making University plans in his early teen years: it had the best thaumaturgy department in all of the United Kingdom. During the early part of the century, shortly after the Awakening had occurred, Oxford and Cambridge had been slower to embrace the new discipline, but London, showing foresight and perhaps seeing an opportunity to raise its fortunes a bit vis a vis its rivals, had almost immediately set about luring talent in the nascent specialty. In only five years' time, it had a department that was the envy of academic circles and the other schools were playing catchup. It was not surprising that London also had one of the best matrix science departments in the UK, although there were others—the University of Wales in Aberystwyth and Trinity College in Tir na nOg being the most notable—that were better.
Stone had entered London University when he was sixteen years old and had never really left, at least not in spirit. After completing his undergraduate degree in Applied Thaumaturgy in three years, he had stayed on to get his Master's. That course of study had been interrupted near its beginning by the tragic death of both his parents in a suspicious plane crash, forcing him to take a year off to straighten out their affairs, get all the legalities of the inheritance in order (it was at that point that he also inherited his father's minor hereditary title and became Lord Stone, but he didn't like to talk or even think much about that), and get himself back into the academic swing of things. After completing his Master's, he began immediately on working toward his doctorate—however, an unfortunate series of circumstances involving a messily broken engagement and a resultant falling-out with Aubrey had sent him off to North America to spend several years travelling around, studying magical creatures and phenomena, and occasionally reporting back his progress to the University. At least, that was what the University thought he was doing. It was also during this period that Stone had begun the activities that would eventually lead to his shadowrunning career, but he didn't often think about that much either. The short version was that by the time he returned to Stone Manor and patched up his rift with Aubrey, he was well on his way to both a doctorate in Applied Thaumaturgy and a lucrative side career as a shadowrunning mage. It just so happened that these two avocations tended to complement each other, as his magical studies gave him an edge when he encountered a new creature or phenomenon, and his time as a shadowrunner allowed him to see the kind of magic that he would never see as a pure academic. His papers, infrequent as they were, were always the talk of the department.
Stone got off the train at Euston Station and caught a taxi to the University. It didn't look any different, but then it hadn't looked any different for at least two hundred years, so that wasn't a surprise. The buildings that made up its campus were stately, dignified, ageless under the steel-gray sky. There was a stoic beauty about the place that Stone found comforting. It was one of the few places in the world where he truly felt he belonged.
The Department of Thaumaturgy was housed in one of the newer buildings, which is to say that it was only a few hundred years old. Stone whistled a snippet of an old Pink Floyd tune as he headed up the steps and inside, smiling at the hurrying students making their way in and out of the elevators. He himself skipped the elevator and continued up the stairs, feeling that the exercise would be good for him.
The Department of Thaumaturgy was divided into two main schools: Hermetic Studies and Shamanic Studies. Only the Hermetic school was located in this building; the shamanic types (including the druids of the shamanic persuasion) generally did not like to be confined and maintained their offices in more unconventional locations. It was rare that Hermetic and Shamanic had much to do with each other, study-wise, except in the comparative analysis classes where a group of each got together and tried to understand each other's philosophy of magic. Those classes were usually highly entertaining but rarely got much accomplished except to forge an occasional friendship or romance. Professionally, the adherents of the two philosophies respected each other but everyone knew they would never see eye to eye.
Within the School of Hermetic Studies, there were five departments: Theoretical Thaumaturgy, Applied Thaumaturgy, Enchanting, Conjuring and Elemental Studies, and Magical Theory. The latter was more of a catch-all discipline that tended to attract mundanes interested in the ways of magic; anyone with more than a scrap of magical talent gravitated toward one of the other departments unless they had absolutely no idea what they wanted to do with their magical careers and wanted to get a taste of everything. Aside from those disciplines, there were some others that cross-pollinated with other departments, such as Parazoology, Parabotany, and Paramedicine, but those were also located elsewhere, in their parent disciplines' buildings.
Stone's expertise was in Applied Thaumaturgy, which concerned itself with the application of magic in practical settings. From his arrival at the University at age sixteen, he had been fascinated by all the things magic could allow one to do. He respected theory and had a solid grounding in it, but his true love was using magic in real-world settings. During his undergraduate and graduate studies, he had established himself as a powerful if unconventional mage, one who was willing to take chances—sometimes dangerous chances—to pursue a hypothesis or produce a result. Every one of his instances of scholarly acclaim and praise for his brilliance had been counterbalanced by a reprimand, a warning, or, in a couple of cases, a threatened expulsion from the University for putting himself at risk unnecessarily. Most of the department faculty regarded him as a maverick, a loose cannon whose research produced stunning results often enough that they put up with him, much like one would put up with a gifted child scientist who occasionally blew up the garage with his experiments. Oddly, though, as often as they complained about him among themselves, Stone knew that they would defend him with equal fervor if anyone outside the University commented negatively about him. It amused him—he was certainly a loose cannon, but he was their loose cannon.
As he drew to the top of the stairs on the top floor of the seven-story building, he smiled to see that the wooden door at the end of the hall was open. That meant the man he had come to see was probably here. He had not called ahead on purpose, preferring to surprise his old friend with a visit. They had not seen each other in quite some time.
Rodney Leifeld, head of the School of Hermetic Studies, was probably the main reason why Stone hadn't managed to get himself kicked out of London U. sometime during his career as a student. Stone had first met him at the age of fifteen while he was still attending a prestigious boarding school for young mages and Leifeld was a mere professor in the Applied Thaumaturgy department, but the two had hit it off immediately. They had met during a visit Stone's class had taken to the university—they had taken several that year, to give the students some idea of where they might choose to continue their educations—and Stone had ended up returning the next day, taking the train back to London to meet with him and discuss magic and his future. In Leifeld Stone had seen a mentor, and in Stone Leifeld had seen a potential protege. After a series of tests to determine the young man's aptitudes in both magic and academics, Leifeld had agreed to sponsor his entrance into the University early. The two had remained good friends, and as Stone had progressed in his education, Leifeld had progressed in his academic career. It was largely due to his recommendation that Stone now had his rather unconventional position as sort of a semi-visiting professor, able to drop in for a few months and conduct special seminars in odd aspects of magic, to break up the monotony of the regular course of study.
Stone peeked around the doorframe into the office, checking to see if there were too many people waiting; if there were, he would come back later. Beverley Kent, Leifeld's secretary, happened to be looking up just as he poked his head around the corner, and her face lit up in a broad smile. Before she could say anything, Stone put a finger to his lips, returning her smile. He pointed toward the door and then moved into the office. "So," he said, loudly, "I see you lot are as lazy as ever today, sitting `round with your feet up while the students do all the work!"
Ms. Kent grinned as after a moment a voice boomed from inside the office: "Ms. Kent, is that good-for-nothing Alastair Stone back again? Tell him to get a job and send him on his way!"
"Too late for that," Stone called.
"Well, then, send him in here!"
Stone shrugged, smiled at Ms. Kent, and headed in.
Rodney Leifeld was smiling too, rising from behind his big wooden desk. An elegant, powerfully-built man in his late fifties, he managed to convey simultaneously an air of proud tradition and a sense of mischief that would do a first-year undergraduate proud. "Alastair!" He offered his hand, motioning for Stone to sit down. "How are you? I didn't even know you were back in town."
"Just got in yesterday." Stone settled into one of the threadbare but comfortable antique chairs in front of Leifeld's desk, noting that the impressive collection of dusty magical artifacts on the office's shelves seemed to have grown since he'd been here last.
"And you've come to see me straight away. How touching. I suppose you're looking for something to do."
Stone grinned. "How did you guess?"
"Well, I didn't expect you've come because you missed my charm and witty conversation."
"No—but speaking of that, is Dr. Boothby around today?"
Leifeld chuckled. "Sorry, old boy—she's engaged these days. Has been for a couple of months now. That's what happens when you're gone so long and out of touch."
Stone sighed in mock distress. "Bother." Looking back up at Leifeld, he dropped the distressed expression like a curtain. "So—got anything for me to do?"
Leifeld had to laugh at Stone's affected look of bright, childlike eagerness, knowing full well just how much of an affectation it was. He worried about his old student sometimes; Stone seemed somehow cynical and hardened beyond his years, and never talked about what he did when he was away from England for extended periods, except for the things that he revealed in the papers he submitted. "You certainly don't waste any time," he said at last, smiling. "As a matter of fact I do have something you might be interested in. Been keeping up with the literature on the manastorm around the spot where Dunkelzahn was done in a few years ago?"
Stone nodded soberly. That was a subject in which he had particular interest.
Leifeld glanced up, startled by Stone's expression. "Are you all right, Alastair?"
"Yes...quite." Stone took a deep breath and leaned back in the chair. "I never did tell you I was there, did I?"
"There?" Leifeld asked, a quizzical look passing across his features.
"There. When Dunkelzahn died."
The older man's eyes widened. "No, Alastair...you didn't. You were there? You saw it happen?" He leaned forward intently.
Stone shook his head. "I didn't see it happen, although I was there, at the inaugural ball. I was inside when the actual assassination occurred, but it couldn't have been more than thirty seconds or so before I was outside."
Leifeld sighed. "I don't suppose I ought to ask you how you managed to get yourself invited to Dunkelzahn's inaugural ball, should I?"
"Best if you don't," Stone agreed. "But yes, I'm quite up-to-date on the topic at hand."
There was a long pause while Leifeld digested that information. "We'll have to talk more about this later," he said at last. "I've got an appointment in twenty minutes, and I think this sort of discussion belongs in a pub over a nice glass of ale—or perhaps several—rather than in here. For now, let me just say that I've been thinking about a seminar on the manastorm phenomenon—focusing on Dunkelzahn's but including some of the other, smaller ones—and I thought you might be just the man for the job. Didn't think you'd be around, though. Interested?" At Stone's nod he continued: "It would be one evening a week—you choose the evening—for a couple of months. I figure it will attract some of the younger students—they tend to go for that flashy stuff, and since you're the flashiest chap we've got `round the department—"
Stone couldn't help chuckling. That was the understatement of the year and both of them knew it. Most of London U's thaumaturgical faculty could give entire classes on stodginess and conservatism. A few of them could win prizes. "I'm flattered, Rodney. Really. And I'll be happy to take your seminar. It'll keep me off the streets and out of Aubrey's hair for awhile—especially since it appears that Dr. Boothby is out of circulation." He rose. "It's good to see you again. I won't take any more of your time now, but we'll have to have that ale one of these days."
Leifeld stood, nodding. "And one of these days perhaps you'll finally get around to telling me what you do when you're away for all these months—and how you manage to know so much about things no one is supposed to know that much about."
"P'raps someday," Stone agreed good-naturedly. "I'll see you later, Rodney." He tipped a jaunty salute and headed out the door, nodding farewell to Ms. Kent as he left. He didn't see Leifeld shaking his head in mock exasperation behind him.
The seminar was set to begin in two weeks, and Stone had no trouble keeping busy during that time. When he wasn't studying up on the latest manastorm developments and planning out his sessions, he spent the remainder of the time visiting old acquaintances, hanging out at his favorite London pub with some of the younger and less stodgy faculty members, and prowling the older, non-touristy ends of London looking for magical goodies, old books, and additions to his collection of mid-to-late-20th-century British rock and roll recordings. He was very pleased when one day he found not only an early edition of a pre-Awakening magic book he'd been searching for, but also well-preserved compact disc recordings of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and Jethro Tull's Aqualung in an antique store he hadn't visited previously.
All in all, things had been going very well over the past two weeks, except for one thing.
It was getting to where it was hard for him to ignore them anymore. They didn't happen every night, but three times the previous week and four so far this week were bad enough. At first he hadn't even really noticed them, except for the tired, achy feeling in the mornings, and the confirmation from Maya that he'd been doing a lot of tossing and turning during the night. Each time she told him that he had attempted to ward something off, to send it away, but Stone had no memory of this and Maya couldn't provide much in the way of detail. Later on, though, as the days progressed, he found himself waking in a cold sweat in the early hours of the morning, with vague images of horrible things scuttling off into hiding places in the corners of his mind before he could pin them down long enough to identify them. He wondered what could be causing the dreams, but came up with nothing. Life was going well right now; he didn't have anything nagging at his mind. Even meditation sessions in his study didn't help him put his finger on the problem.
He had purposely not told Aubrey about any of this, not wanting to worry his old friend with something he considered to be of little importance. However, the caretaker was a perceptive individual, and didn't miss much—especially when his employer was involved. "Sir," he said carefully one morning well into the two weeks, "Are you all right? You look...tired."
Stone looked up from his datafax and morning coffee and sighed. "I'm fine, Aubrey. Just fine."
Aubrey looked him over. "You don't look fine, sir. You've got dark circles under your eyes, and you look like you haven't been sleeping well. Shall I have the doctor over to have a look at you?"
"No, Aubrey. That won't be necessary." He put down the datafax and sighed. "You're right—I haven't been sleeping well. Been having bad dreams the past few nights. I don't know why. P'raps I'm getting stressed over this seminar."
Both he and Aubrey knew that was a lie. Stone loved teaching—it was in his blood. "Sir—"
"I'm all right, Aubrey," Stone said, smiling a little too broadly. "Really. I'll come home early tonight and try to get a good night's rest, okay? That's all it is."
Aubrey didn't look convinced, but he knew better than to try to argue with Stone when he was like this. He looked down at Maya, who had been staying close to home the past few days and was rarely far away from Stone. "Maya, perhaps you should have a talk with him. He's always been too stubborn for his own good." His tone was good-natured but there was an undercurrent of worry in it as well.
Maya's only answer was a soft "Mrrrrow?" and a concerned look in Stone's direction.
Stone rose and picked up his empty coffee cup. "Well, I'm off," he announced, as if nothing had happened. "I'll see you two sometime this evening. Don't worry about dinner, Aubrey—I'll pick up something on the way home."
Aubrey intercepted him as he headed for the kitchen, slipping the cup from his grasp. "I'll take that, sir. And you will be home early, yes?"
Stone nodded. "Early. Promise." Before Aubrey (or Maya, for that matter) could say anything else, he leaned down to scratch Maya's ears and swept out of the dining room. Picking up his overcoat and his umbrella, he left the house.
Without a clear idea of what he wanted to do, he took the train back into London. Despite his flippant replies to Aubrey, he was concerned about the nightmares and the resultant lack of sleep; he knew he couldn't go on like this forever. Somehow, he would have to find out what was causing the problem and deal with it. As he sat on the train he tried, for at least the dozenth time just in the past week, to nail down what was disturbing his subconscious mind to the point where it felt it necessary to interrupt his sleep. Professional problems? He wasn't having any. Relationship problems? No...despite the lovely Dr. Boothby's unexpected engagement, Stone had always had little trouble finding companionship when he bothered to look—and besides, the nightmares had started the night before he'd heard the news. Problems with his `other' life? That didn't make sense—the last run had ended well and he hadn't had any problems with disrupted sleep when he was back in Seattle.
He sighed. Whatever it was, obviously it was going to take more than just his continued speculation to get to the bottom of it. Now it was just a matter of figuring out what to do. All he knew for sure was that he didn't want to discuss the problem with anyone at the University. Half of them thought he was strange anyway (and among mages, `strange' came with the territory—if they noticed, you knew you were in a class by yourself) and he didn't want to give them any more ammunition.
An answer came to him in an unexpected way. After spending the morning puttering around lore shops and antique stores in the West End, he stopped off at a Chinese noodle house for lunch. He ate slowly, dawdling over the food as he glanced over one of the local alternative newspapers, listening but not really hearing the rattle of voices around him (most speaking some dialect of Chinese so he wouldn't have understood them even if he had been listening intently). When he finished the meal, he idly cracked open the fortune cookie next to his plate.
The tiny slip of paper read: "An old friend from your past is seeking you." On the back were his lucky lottery numbers.
Stone smiled and tossed it aside next to his chopsticks and got up, preparing to leave. Sounds like something a fortune-teller would tell me—like I'm going to meet a tall dark stranger. He paused a moment, cocking his head. A fortune teller. Perhaps that wasn't such a bad idea after all—and he knew just the person he should see. She wasn't even far from here.
The door of the place he was headed was unmarked, but the window was stuffed full of items both mundane and fantastic. It could have been just another of the innumerable junk or antique shops that lined the streets here, but Stone knew better. He pushed open the door, hearing the familiar soft tinkle of chimes that were not in any way connected to it.
Immediately upon his entrance, he was set upon by numerous aromas all fighting for olfactory supremacy: musk, incense, the pleasant musty odor of old things, wood, leather, and things even more exotic. The interior of the shop was every bit as much of a jumble as the window had been, with items stacked on tables, piled on chairs, hanging from the ceiling, teetering precariously from high bookshelves. Stone looked around as he made his way down one of the narrow aisles toward the rear of the store, noting a row of what looked like petrified headless fowl hanging from one side, a rack of beautifully embroidered silk wraps off to the other, a collection of jade Eastern dragons of various sizes on one of the shelves, incongruously next to two moth-eaten teddy bears. There was by no means enough time to look at everything, not unless he planned on spending multiple days here, but he knew it was not necessary. The good stuff wasn't in the front of the shop anyway. The things out front were for the tourists (if they ever managed to find the place) and the rubes.
There was one other customer in the store, a thin, bookish young man of about nineteen who was wandering around with the air of someone who had found what he had been told was a treasure trove but wasn't sure somebody wasn't pulling his leg. Stone watched him with amusement for a moment, then hung back, smiling, as a second figure appeared.
The lady who came out of the store's back room almost blended in with its eclectic decorating scheme. Small, hunched, birdlike, with raven-black hair tied into a bun and a collection of mismatched robes, shawls, and wraps covering almost every inch of her body, she could have been anywhere from a very old thirty-five to a very young eighty. Her bright black eyes raked over the young man, sizing him up, and then she called out something to him in Chinese. It sounded like a command.
The young man glanced up sharply as if he had been caught doing something wrong instead of just the innocent browsing in which he had been engaged. "I'm sorry," he said to the lady. "I—I don't understand."
The lady moved forward, gesturing at the flustered customer. She said something else in rapid-fire Chinese, speaking more sharply than before in the tone of an accusation, and then waited to see what he would do.
This was obviously not what he was expecting. He looked at her for a moment, then set down the small dog statuette he had been examining, using the sort of care one might use to defuse a bomb. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I was—I was just browsing. I'll—be going now. Good day to you, ma'am." He nearly tripped over himself hurrying out of the store.
From the shadows, Stone chuckled. "You really shouldn't do that, you know. One of these days you're going to have one faint right here in the store."
The woman looked over toward him, her entire demeanor changing as she laughed. "Alastair Stone. It's been a long time, but I would know that voice anywhere." She spoke now with soft, cultured British tones and not a trace of a Chinese accent. Rising from her semi-hunched position, she looked at him with sparkling eyes. It was not much easier to discern her age when she stood up straight, but the range narrowed down from thirty-five through eighty to about forty through sixty.
"It has indeed, Madame Huan," Stone said, moving over to allow himself to be enfolded into Madame Huan Mei-Lin's incense-scented embrace.
She smiled up at him, looking him over. "Let me just put up the Closed sign, and we will go in the back and have tea. Then you can tell me why you have come to see me."
"Must I have a reason?" he asked teasingly. "P'raps I've just missed your charms—or watching you bully the unexpected customers."
She shook her head. "No, my friend. You have a reason. I can see it in your aura. Something is troubling you."
Stone took a deep breath. That was why he had come after all—because Huan Mei-Lin didn't miss anything. He certainly shouldn't be surprised that she had noticed so quickly. "I'm afraid so," he admitted. "But we've time for that." He chuckled, pointing toward the door. "How many do you get these days?"
"Oh, two or three a week," she said, smiling as she turned over the ancient Closed sign and locked the door. "They see the place and wander in, thinking they've found something intriguing. If they're brave enough, I let them stay."
Stone chuckled again, remembering his first trip to Madame Huan's during his third of six years at the magical boarding school. It had been on a dare from some of the older students—go into the strange old lady's shop and come back with something you've bought without letting her scare you away. She had scared him away the first time, just like all the others—but he had come back, disgusted with himself for letting himself be frightened by an old woman. He had come back and she had welcomed him then, as one of the few who had the nerve to do so.
It turned out, as he discovered on that second trip, that Madame Huan was only a junk-shop owner on the surface. Her real businesses were talismongering and divination, both of which she ran out of the ornate back room of her tiny shop. She made enough money from both that she could scare off every bargain-hunting customer who entered the shop and still make a very comfortable living. You only got to the back room if you knew what you were looking for—or if Madame Huan took a liking to you.
She led Stone into the back, winding her way through the narrow aisles with the ease of someone who could do it in full darkness. The thick beaded curtain that separated the junk shop from the back room rustled and tinkled as they moved through it. Stone knew from past experience that at the same location on the astral plane, the curtain represented a powerful ward. Not all of Madame Huan's endeavors were of the strictly legal variety, and she did not like prying eyes.
Behind the curtain, it was as if they had entered a different building. Instead of clutter and eclectica, this room contained tasteful furniture, beautiful (and clearly very, very old) wall decorations, fine rugs, and a scattering of magnificent art objects, each of which Stone knew was worth more than the entire contents of the shop out front. Off to one side of the room was a large wooden cabinet decorated with delicate Chinese artwork; there were two other doorways, also covered by beaded curtains, leading off in opposite directions. "Sit down," Madame Huan said warmly, indicating one of the soft brocaded chairs. "Tell me how you've been. After we've had our tea, we will speak of what is troubling you."
Stone kept the conversation light, speaking of settling in at Stone Manor, of Aubrey and Maya, of the seminar he was preparing to give at the University. While he spoke, Madame Huan bustled about just past one of the beaded curtains and emerged in a few moments with a tray containing a teapot, two cups, and some small cakes. The two of them continued to chat while they drank; Stone found himself feeling peaceful and content as he listened to his old friend's soft pleasant tones telling him of her businesses, both real and false. By the time they had finished their tea and Madame Huan had gathered up the cups and the teapot, Stone's problems seemed remote and far away. He was beginning to think it had been a little silly of him to have come here for anything more than a chance to see an old friend again.
Madame Huan had other ideas. She settled herself back down in her chair and regarded Stone with dark concerned eyes. "Tell me why you have come, Alastair. What disturbs your balance?"
Stone shook his head. "It's nothing, really. Don't know why I thought of you, except I was in the area and there was this fortune cookie..." He looked rather disgusted at himself, realizing that he was rambling.
She waited patiently, watching him as she sat silent in her chair.
"I've been having...dreams," he continued after a long pause. "Bad ones. For a couple of weeks now. They seem to be getting worse—they didn't wake me up before, but now they're starting to. I can't seem to figure out what's causing them." He looked at her. "Divination's never been my strong point—I thought p'raps you might be able to shed some light on it."
Madame Huan nodded slowly. "These dreams...when did they begin?"
"Right after I got back home."
"Where had you been before that?"
"Seattle. I spend quite a lot of time over there—I'd been there for almost three months before I returned home."
Again the woman nodded. "Did anything...unusual happen while you were in Seattle?"
"No more unusual than...well, usual," he said with a wry smile. "Nothing terribly out of the ordinary, if that's what you mean."
"Nothing that disturbed you?"
Stone shook his head. "No. In fact, things had gone rather well. I was feeling good about coming home and relaxing for awhile."
"Mmm..." Madame Huan murmured. "So something has disturbed your subconscious greatly, but your conscious mind has no idea what it might be."
"It looks that way." Stone paused a moment, then looked up at her. "Maya says I was telling something to go away, as if it were trying to...attack me?"
Madame Huan accepted this new bit of information silently. Reaching into one of the voluminous folds of her robes, she withdrew a wooden box and placed it on the table between them. From it, she removed several sticks of incense and a burner. Carefully, she arranged these items and lit the incense, causing a strong but not unpleasant aroma to waft through the air. "Are you carrying anything to which you have a strong attachment?" she asked softly.
Stone was expecting that—those who practiced divination worked in many different ways to focus their power: some used cards, some used crystals, some used tea leaves. Madame Huan's specialty was psychometry, which involved readings from items that had emotional value to their owners. He silently slid his London University ring from his finger (he had put it on the morning after he'd arrived in England) and handed it over to her.
She took it between her hands, rolling it around in her palms, closing her eyes. "All right," he said in a soothing tone, "lean back and try to relax. Concentrate on my voice, and open your mind to me."
Stone did as requested. He knew it was harder to do this sort of reading on another magically active individual, especially one as strong of mind as he. But Madame Huan was stronger and more experienced in her discipline than he was—that was why he was here. He would just have to trust her.
Madame Huan continued to caress the ring in her hands, leaning her head back, her eyes still closed as she murmured to herself in Chinese. Stone felt reality seem to swirl around him as a calm, dissociated feeling settled over him. He was here and yet he was not here, both at the same time. All that existed was here in this room—himself, Madame Huan, the smell of incense, the soft Chinese whispers. Time seemed to stop.
Stone didn't know how long it was before reality returned to normal, but the first thing he noticed was that Madame Huan looked decidedly unwell. Her smooth forehead was beaded with sweat, her skin pale, the sparkle of mischief gone from her eyes. Her hand clutched almost spasmodically around Stone's ring. Stone leaned forward, concerned. "Are you—all right?" he asked softly.
The woman appeared to snap out of a trance. She smiled wanly at him, letting the ring fall into her lap. She nodded. "Could you...get me a glass of water, please?" Her voice was soft, weary.
Stone leaped up and hurried into the kitchen, returning with a large glass of water. He put it in her shaking hands and steadied it as she drank. His eyes showed his worry. After a few moments, Madame Huan smiled at him again, looking stronger now. "I'll be all right," she said. "I just need to rest for awhile. Please—sit down." She set the water glass down and handed him his ring.
Without taking his eyes off her, he slid the ring back on his finger and lowered himself back into the chair. "What—is it? What did you see?"
She took a deep breath. The color was beginning to come back to her cheeks, but it was a slow process. A long silence hung between them as she gathered herself. "I think you're in danger," she finally said, her voice very soft. "But I can't tell you why, or from whom."
Stone tilted his head. "Danger? From nightmares?"
"No. The nightmares are only a manifestation. Someone—or something—is seeking you. I can see traces of it on the astral plane, but it is not always there. It is not there now. I think it is coming to you in your dreams because the veil is not so strong then."
Stone stared at her. "Seeking me?" He remembered the fortune cookie and chuckled mirthlessly. "An old friend from my past is seeking me."
Madame Huan looked at him quizzically.
He shrugged. "That's what the fortune cookie said. The one that reminded me that I should come here. It doesn't sound much like a friend, though, does it?"
She shook her head. "No. I cannot see much—it is very elusive, almost as if it does not wish to be seen. But whatever it is, I sense conflict in it. It is as if it is trying to warn you—and to harm you." She sighed. "I am sorry that does not make much sense, Alastair. I wish I could help you more."
Stone smiled at her. "I'm grateful for what you've done, Madame Huan. I'm sorry that it has tired you so—if I had known, I never would have asked you to do it."
"Be careful, my friend. I don't know who or what this is that seeks you, but I sense great danger, and threat to anyone who attempts to confront it."
Stone spent the next several hours walking and thinking. He had left Madame Huan's only after he was sure that she would be all right and was suffering no lingering effects from the strange divination.
Even after his friend's reaction, he wasn't terribly afraid of this person or thing that was allegedly seeking him. If all it was going to do was give him bad dreams, then he'd just have to pump up the wards around the Manor a little more to keep it out. He'd been overdue to do that anyway. Any stray astral beasties or would-be stalkers who'd latched onto him as a potential target would just have to move on to someone else. Even though the divination hadn't given him the specific answers he had been looking for, the answers he had gotten were enough to make him feel better about the whole matter than he had in several days.
That was before he saw the thing.
It was walking out of a kitchen-gadget store as Stone waited for the light to change so he could cross the street. At first he didn't notice it, because he was concentrating on the light. But then he glanced sideways—and froze.
It looked human—female, in fact—dressed in a short black skirt, stylish little yellow jacket, and high-heeled boots. It looked human, that was, until you saw its head. Stone stared at it, eyes wide, unable to move. The thing's head was vaguely insectoid, but that wasn't quite right. There was something far beyond insectoid about it—far more...wrong.
And then it turned toward him and grinned from across the street.
Stone staggered to his right, catching a grip on a streetlight pole. He couldn't tear his gaze off the grinning thing. Its eyes glowed, red and malevolently cheeky.
He forced himself to drag his vision away from it for a moment to see who had addressed him, half expecting to see another one of them. Instead a troll boy, no more than twelve years old and already taller and broader than Stone, was watching him with concern. "Are you okay, sir? You look...sick."
Stone took a deep breath and risked another glance across the street. The thing was gone now, replaced by a cute young woman in the same outfit it had been wearing. He looked back at the troll boy and forced a smile. "Yes...yes, I'm fine, thank you." Before the boy could leave, he jerked his head toward the area he had been watching. "Did you...see anything...odd over there?" he asked, aware that his voice sounded somewhat strangled to his ears.
The boy looked at him strangely, then across the street, and then back at Stone. He took a step back. "No...nothing odd. Just a lady, and a couple of chaps, and some buildings. That's all." After a pause, he ventured, "Did you?" He was looking at Stone in a way that suggested that perhaps he had been wrong to speak in the first place.
Stone sighed and shook his head. "No...I suppose not. I guess I was mistaken. Sorry to frighten you."
"No worries, sir," the boy said, and hurried off rather more quickly than was strictly polite.
Stone watched him go, pausing a moment to take a few deep breaths and get his racing pulse under control. As he did so and the initial shock wore off, he began to feel more and more embarrassed at his display. Of course there hadn't been any weird creature standing by the kitchen-gadgets store. And furthermore, he had not been seeing things. No doubt it had been nothing more than a young mage or shaman having a joke with an illusion spell. He chuckled aloud to himself in the manner of a man who'd just succumbed to the scares in a horror trid and wanted to let those around him know that he didn't really believe in that sort of thing. "An illusion, of course," he murmured. "What an ass I'm being. I didn't even bother to check." He had done the same sort of thing as a youngster. Obviously Madame Huan's dire predictions had settled into his mind more firmly than he'd thought.
The sun would be going down soon; he supposed he ought to start thinking about getting home. After all, he had promised Aubrey that he would be home early. Still, though, he had time. It only took about forty-five minutes to get home by train, and "early" by his reckoning didn't come for at least another two hours or so. What he needed, Stone decided, was a pint or two first—just to wash away the last lingering memories of an unpleasant experience. Yes, that would do nicely.
He caught a cab over to his favorite pub near the University, sure that he'd find at least one or two of the younger thaumaturgy faculty members or the older graduate students in attendance. He wasn't disappointed. The Rose and Crown appeared to be a popular destination that evening, and he was welcomed warmly. Before the hour was up he was settled in at his favorite table, working on his third Guinness, and both strange insect-creatures and Aubrey were the last things on his mind.
It was almost midnight when the cab pulled up in front of Stone Manor, but the lights were still on inside. As soon as the taxi's headlights were visible around the bend of the graveled driveway, the front door of the house opened and Aubrey hurried out, his entire bearing suggesting that he had been watching the driveway for quite some time with increasing levels of worry. He watched as the ork cabdriver got out and went around to the back, helping out an obviously very intoxicated Alastair Stone.
Aubrey bustled over. "Is he all right?" he asked the driver, taking Stone's other arm. His employer was walking but just barely, humming some unidentifiable tune and looking quite pleased with himself.
The ork nodded. "He's had a few too many, but sleepin' it off'll take care o' that. Ya want help gettin' him inside?"
"`m'all right..." muttered Stone, smiling up at Aubrey. "Hi, Aubrey."
"Hello, sir," Aubrey said noncommittally. To the cabbie he said, "If you'll just help me get him up the stairs to the door—"
The ork nodded and together they hustled the unresisting Stone up. "Where was he?" Aubrey asked.
"Picked him up at the Rose and Crown—one o' his mates called, said he was in no shape to take the train home."
Aubrey nodded. "Well, thank you very much for getting him home. He does this occasionally, but hasn't in a long time. How much do I owe you?"
The ork told him, and he handed over the fare and a generous tip. "Thank you, sir. Have a pleasant evening."
"Oh, quite," Aubrey muttered as he opened the door and slung Stone's arm around his shoulders.
Maya showed up almost immediately after Aubrey closed the door behind them. She looked at Stone, tilting her head and wrinkling her nose.
"Yes, Maya, I know he smells like an ale-house. Perhaps you can talk some sense into him." Aubrey looked at the tall stairway to the second floor and shook his head. "I'm afraid you're sleeping in your study this evening, sir. There's no way I'm going to get you upstairs." Suiting action to words, he half-aided, half-carried his employer into the study and lowered him down on the leather couch, deftly removing his overcoat and shoes in the process. "There you are, sir. You sleep, and perhaps you'll tell me in the morning what happened."
Stone seemed to pick up on the slight tone of disapproval in Aubrey's voice. "Jus' had a few," he told him sleepily. "Jus' a few...was gonna come home early..."
"Yes, sir." Aubrey kept his voice even. Leaving for a moment he came back with a blanket, which he spread over Stone. Maya immediately jumped up and lay next to him. "You sleep, and I'll talk to you in the morning. Perhaps then you'll tell me why you didn't answer your phone when I called you." Without waiting for him to answer, Aubrey turned and left the room.
Stone watched him go through bleary eyes. "`Night, Aubrey," he called—or maybe he just imagined that he called. Either way, he felt pleasantly content. As he drifted off to a deep sleep, he didn't even think about the thing he had seen earlier that day—or the two more that had appeared at the pub.
The next morning Stone didn't get up until almost 10:00, and it was an hour after that before he'd managed to drag himself upstairs, get a shower, and feel vaguely human again. The jackhammer headache wasn't helping matters any. Aubrey was nowhere to be found when he first got up, but when he emerged from his bedroom suite, he caught the unmistakable aroma of breakfast cooking downstairs. He wasn't sure he was ready for food yet, but he knew he had to talk to Aubrey.
He appeared in the doorway to the kitchen and leaned there, watching the caretaker as he fixed up a big plate of eggs, toast, sausages, and a pitcher of orange juice. Aubrey didn't acknowledge Stone's presence.
The old man looked up. "Oh. Good morning, sir. I didn't hear you come down."
There was something in Aubrey's voice that disturbed Stone. "Aubrey...I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me last night. I know I said I'd be home early—" Part of him didn't like the way he sounded: like a teenager caught sneaking in after curfew. Aubrey was his employee, not his father. But still, he had promised—
"It's quite all right, sir," Aubrey said, his tone not changing. "You needn't explain. Are you feeling better this morning?"
The smell of the eggs and the sausage was not co-existing well with Stone's sensitive stomach, but he thought it best not to mention this fact. Aubrey had probably made the lavish breakfast partially for just that reason. Although he was neither female nor Jewish, the caretaker had the classic Jewish mother routine down cold, complete with guilt and occasional passive aggression. "Better than what?" he asked wryly.
"Well, you look better than you did when the cabbie brought you home at midnight, that's for certain."
"Midnight? Was it that late?" That was news to Stone. He'd intended to stay only a short time. "Aubrey, I am sorry. I—I just planned to stop by the pub for an hour or so before I came home, but—" He stopped, not sure why exactly he had remained now. The memories seemed indistinct, fuzzy. He spread his arms in a gesture of futility. "I don't know."
He must have looked sufficiently sincere to cause Aubrey to drop his gentle attempts at punishment. "Sir," he said worriedly, "are you sure you're all right? You've been acting rather—odd—the past few days. Are you sure I shouldn't have the doctor over?"
Stone shook his head. "No, Aubrey. Really. There's nothing wrong with me. I've been having some trouble sleeping, but that's all it is. I think I'll spend the day at home, looking over my notes for the seminar. It starts tonight, you know, and I'll need to be at my best."
Aubrey nodded. "There's some coffee brewing if you don't want breakfast. Would you mind telling me, though, sir, why you didn't answer your phone? I tried to call you several times, but there was no reply. I was getting quite worried that something had happened to you."
Stone looked sheepish, digging in his pocket to pull out his mobile phone. "Looks like I switched it off," he said. "I don't remember doing that, though."
"I suspect, from the condition you were in, you don't remember much about last night," Aubrey said a trifle archly.
"That is the truth," Stone agreed. "Forgiven?"
"Of course, sir. You go on, and I'll bring you some coffee. I'll keep breakfast warm if you want it later."
Stone nodded and headed out, shaking his head. He was still trying to remember what had happened last evening, but his mind stubbornly refused to supply that information. Perhaps he would ask one of his friends later on. Right now, though, getting rid of this headache and finishing up his notes were what he was already concentrating on.
The turnout for the seminar on manastorms was impressive, and, all conceit aside, Stone wasn't surprised. His courses always seemed to fill up fast, due partially to his reputation as a compelling speaker and partially to the students' anticipation that something strange might happen during the course's run. Stone had, in the past, blown up one lab, summoned several elementals of the type that were deemed by the university to be inappropriate for inclusion in an undergraduate class, and taught his students numerous magical tricks that were rarely discussed in the pursuit of serious study. He was not only good with magic, he had fun with it. His enthusiasm was infectious.
He stood now in the old lecture hall, looking out over the semicircular rows of desks, each chair occupied. There were even a few students hanging out at the back of the room, hoping that there would be some vacancies in the list of signed-up attendees so they could get in. From the look of things, they were out of luck.
Stone smiled as he watched all of them. More than almost anything else, this was the sort of thing he enjoyed. Teaching his favorite subject to students who were obviously interested in learning about it made him feel alive. The only thing he liked better was satisfying his curiosity about new magical phenomena, but he was more likely to do that in his other life. For now, things were looking pretty good.
He took care of the administrivia first, discovering that there were in fact a couple of no-shows and choosing two of the hopeful lurkers randomly to take their places. After the remaining lurkers had gone on their way, he began the presentation. Never one to simply stand at the podium and impart wisdom from on high, he ranged out around the entire lecture hall, employing both visual aids and some astral demonstrations, getting increasingly animated in his excitement. The students, for their part, were eating it up. He knew he had the attention of every last one of them—he could see it in their eyes. This was only the first of eight parts of the seminar, and they were already eating out of his hand. Life was good.
This first talk was about the history of the manastorm phenomenon, sort of an introductory session before they got into the specifics in the coming weeks. Stone spent the first half of the hour providing an overview, then moved off into some personal anecdotes about sites he had visited. Moving up and down the aisles, around the room, his gaze roamed over the faces in the dimmed space, satisfied to see that they were still all paying attention. The young man in the fourth row with the riveted expression...the woman up near the back, fascinated...the couple off to the side—
Something caught his attention, flashing briefly in the corner of his eye. He turned to the other side of the room, expecting to see someone having gotten up, perhaps to use the restroom.
There was a thing there.
It was sitting in the fifth row, three seats over from the side. It was dressed in a black T-shirt bearing the logo of one of the local magic shops under a plaid flannel shirt, and faded jeans. It was vigorously taking notes on a datapad, the stylus clutched in an oozy brown hand covered with wiry black hair. Stone's breath quickened as he looked at its head—it didn't look like the other one he had seen. There was nothing insectoid about it; instead, this one had the same sort of oozy brown skin covering its face. The skin was covered with vile warts, more of the strange thick strands of hair, and running sores. As Stone continued to watch, transfixed, one of the sores broke open and a putrid runnel of something milky meandered down the thing's neck and pooled up in its collar. The thing seemed oblivious.
Even more strangely—the students sitting near it appeared equally oblivious. They were watching him now, glancing at each other nervously. Stone realized he had stopped lecturing.
All at once he was angry. Someone was having a joke on him, and he didn't find it at all funny. He stalked over until he was standing directly in front of the row where the thing was sitting, and pointed at it. "You there!" he called sharply.
The thing turned slowly toward him, looking at him with malevolent red eyes. It did not speak. Around it, the other students looked confused.
Stone glared. "What is your name?"
Its eyes glowed slightly as it made a noise that sounded like two pieces of old paper being rubbed against each other.
"I asked you a question!" Stone could tell his voice was rising, but he didn't do anything about it. "What is your name?"
Around him, feet scuffled uncomfortably. All eyes were still on him, except for the ones that were exchanging glances.
The thing made the same noise again. Another sore burst near its misshapen mouth—this time, the stuff dropped on the datapad, hissing as it contacted the plastic.
Stone felt his anger bubbling up. How dare they mock him like this? "Drop that illusion this instant!" he ordered.
The thing stiffened, but did not comply. It made more of the whispering-paper sounds.
"Dr. Stone—" The young woman sitting next to the thing was looking at him, fear showing in her eyes. "Are you—"
Stone ignored her. "All right," he said coldly to the thing, "if you won't comply, then I'll see to it that you're put up for disciplinary action. This kind of infantile behavior has no place in a university classroom. Leave here now. You are dismissed from this seminar."
"Dr. Stone!" the woman called, more urgently this time. "Please. What's wrong? Davey didn't do anything. He's answered your questions." She looked disturbed and very confused as her gaze darted back and forth between the two of them. "What illusion are you talking about?"
The low murmur of conversation around the lecture hall increased a bit in volume.
Stone glared at the woman for a moment, then at the thing, and then turned and stalked back to the lectern where his attendance notes were kept. He snapped up the datapad and whirled back around. "Now—" he began—
The thing was gone as if it had never been. In its place sat a very bewildered looking young man with light brown hair and a scraggly little goatee. Stone stared.
The students, including the young man, stared back at him.
For a moment, Stone could do nothing else. The datapad slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. He took a deep breath. Shifting his perceptions to the astral, he saw no trace of a spell around the young man. There had been no illusion.
But—the thing had been there.
Professor and students continued to regard each other warily for a few more moments, and then Stone broke the trance. He moved slowly over to the spot he had occupied previously and looked at the young man. "I don't know what just happened here," he told him quietly, "but please accept my apology. You—none of you cast an illusion spell, did you?"
The young man shook his head, as did everyone in the vicinity. "No, Dr. Stone," he said. "What—what did you see?"
Stone shook his head like he was trying to clear it. "Never mind that. I—I haven't been feeling well lately. I guess I came back a bit too soon. I think I'm going to call it a night, if you all don't mind. Please come back next week and we'll pick up where we left off. Again, please accept my apology for my behavior."
There was a low murmur among the students as they rose and gathered their things, and more than a few of them cast odd looks at Stone as he stood at the front of the room and watched them go. He did not miss the pity in some of their gazes.
Of course the story was all over the School of Thaumaturgy by the next day, and of course that resulted in Rodney Leifeld asking Stone to come and see him later on that afternoon.
Stone hadn't told Aubrey about the incident; he'd arrived home last night and gone directly to bed, pleading fatigue. He had ignored Maya's looks of increasing worry, although he was comforted that she chose to spend the entire night curled at the foot of his bed. He didn't have any nightmares—but he didn't sleep much either.
Leifeld motioned him to a chair as he came in. There were no joking pleasantries this time; the older man looked worried. "Alastair. I'm sure you know I heard about what happened last evening."
"Everybody on the bloody campus seems to have heard about what happened last evening," Stone said softly, sourly.
"So why don't you tell me what really happened?" Leifeld settled back into the chair behind his desk, regarding Stone with a look of almost fatherly compassion. "There's got to be a logical explanation for it."
Stone sighed. "That's just it, Rodney. I don't have a logical explanation. It happened, and I overreacted."
"What happened?" Leifeld asked gently. "That's the one part of this only you can tell me. I've spoken with a few of the students who were there, but they only said that you seemed disturbed by something, even though no one else appeared to see anything out of the ordinary."
There was a long pause as Stone gathered his thoughts. "I...saw something. A...thing. A—sort of monster, if you will. It was sitting where one of the students was supposed to be."
"Davey Hastings." Leifeld nodded. "He was one of those I spoke with. He was quite concerned about you, Alastair. That's quite a shock for a freshman, to have one of his professors—"
"—come unhinged right before his eyes?" Stone chuckled mirthlessly, nodding. "Well, Rodney, it was no party for me either." He took a deep breath. "I thought he, or one of the others, was having a joke on me. You know, like first-years sometimes do. Like I used to do when I was his age."
Leifeld nodded. "If that's what you thought, then why did you react the way you did? I know you, Alastair. You're not the type to lose your temper that quickly."
Again he sighed. "I don't know. I've not been sleeping well lately, and—well, you might have heard I stayed out a bit late the night before last at the Rose and Crown—"
"I heard," Leifeld said with a smile. "Dr. McGowan says you were quite the life of the party."
"I could well have been—I don't remember." His gaze came up to meet Leifeld's. "But Rodney, I didn't tell you why I did that."
"Stayed out at the pub like that, after I told Aubrey I'd be home early."
Leifeld leaned forward. "All right—why?"
"Because I'd seen another of those things earlier in the day."
For a moment, Leifeld was silent, digesting that information. "Another one—like you saw at the seminar?"
Stone nodded. "And I don't remember for certain, but I think I might have seen another one still, at the pub."
"I see." Leifeld leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowing. "And you've no idea what these things are—or why you're seeing them all of a sudden."
"If I did, I'd be doing something about them." Stone looked down at his hands in his lap, sighing. "Rodney—I don't know what's wrong with me. This is starting to scare me a bit. I've never been one for seeing things."
"Have you spoken with anyone about it?" Leifeld's question was carefully phrased, but Stone nonetheless heard the word doctor unspoken in there.
He shook his head. "No, not yet. Well, except for Madame Huan, about the nightmares. She's—"
"—I know Madame Huan," Leifeld said with a smile. "What did she have to say?"
Stone brought his gaze back up to meet Leifeld's. "She said someone—or something—is seeking me." Slowly, he told his friend about the visit. "She couldn't shed any light on what or whom, though, and I didn't see the...apparitions until after our visit. I didn't think anything else of it, really, except that I planned on redoing the wards around the house. Then...I saw it." He shrugged. "The first time, I thought it was just a trick someone was playing. But two—possibly three times in two days?"
Leifeld nodded. "Well—perhaps it's nothing. But if you want my advice, I'd talk to a professional about it. When was the last time you saw a doctor?"
"A doctor, Rodney—or a psychiatrist?" Stone's tone came out a little more sarcastic than he really wanted it to.
"Whichever you prefer." Leifeld refused to rise to the bait. "Either way, it wouldn't be a bad idea. It's not all that uncommon for mages to occasionally—have a few things they need to sort out."
Stone fixed a sharp, bright-blue stare on Leifeld. "Do you think I'm going mad, Rodney? Is that what you're trying not to say?"
"Of course not." Leifeld's tone was calm. "I've known you a long time, Alastair. You've always been a bit—high-strung, but your feet have always been firmly on the ground. I just want you to take care of yourself. There's a lot of interest in this seminar of yours, and I want my faculty to be at their best. I know sometimes you tend to get caught up in what you're doing and neglect your health. Just a bit of advice from an old friend, that's all."
Stone ended up taking Leifeld's advice, but for all the good it did, he needn't have bothered. He made an appointment for the next day to visit his personal physician, who was a mage himself and had treated Stone since he was barely more than a boy. After a thorough physical and astral examination, the doctor pronounced Stone in fine health both physically and mentally, except for the lingering signs of fatigue brought on by lack of sleep. After the examination, Stone told the doctor about the strange visions he'd been having, but this didn't seem to worry him. "Lack of sleep can do strange things to the mind, especially in the magically active," he told Stone. "You know that as well as I do. You start sleeping better, I'm sure this will clear up straight away. Oh, and try not to hit the Guinness too hard until this has straightened itself out," he added with a smile. He gave Stone a prescription for some mild sedatives to help him sleep and sent him on his way.
That evening after dinner, he sat in his study, slumped in his chair and moodily plucking at his electric guitar. Maya, who was draped over the back of the couch, didn't seem to be enjoying the discordant sounds, but she didn't move away, either. She had been staying very close to him when he was home over the past few days, her wise green eyes watching him from shadowed corners.
As Stone continued attempting to coax the guitar into a passable imitation of the Zombies song that was playing on his sound system, there was a soft knock on the door to the study. "Yes?" he called.
"It's Aubrey, sir. May I—come in?"
Stone twisted around and put the guitar in its stand next to his chair. "Of course, Aubrey. Come on in."
The door opened and the caretaker slowly entered the room. He carried a tray containing some warmed-up leftovers from the dinner Stone had barely picked at earlier, and a tall glass of sparkling water. "I thought you might be hungry, sir," he said a bit hesitantly. "You didn't eat much—"
Stone was about to tell Aubrey thanks but he wasn't in fact hungry when he got a look at his old friend's face. "Sit down, Aubrey," he said gently, motioning toward the couch. "I think you have more on your mind than just feeding me up."
Aubrey sighed, setting the plate and glass down on the edge of Stone's desk and sinking down into the soft leather. He seemed reluctant to speak further, but finally nodded. "Yes, sir." Looking up, he met Stone's eyes. "Sir—I—know it isn't any of my business, but—well—are you all right?"
Stone tilted his head. "What makes you think I'm not? You know I've been having trouble sleeping, but—"
"Yes, sir," Aubrey said. "I know that. But—today while you were gone, you had a call from Dr. Lennox' office, confirming your appointment for this afternoon. I had to tell them I didn't know whether you had one."
"I had one," Stone confirmed. He smiled at the caretaker. "Aubrey, it was nothing. Just a checkup. Rodney convinced me to go talk to Dr. Lennox after I had a couple of odd episodes over the last couple of days. But you'll be happy to know that he's pronounced me to be in perfect health. He gave me something to help me sleep, but that's all. You can stop worrying."
Aubrey gave him a kindly look that suggested that the day he stopped worrying about his employer would be the day they put him in his grave. "I'm glad to hear you're all right, sir," he said at last. "And I'm glad Dr. Leifeld convinced you to see a doctor." The unspoken end of that sentence was that Aubrey knew he would not have been able to do so. "I just want you to remember that I'm here, sir. If you need anything, don't tire yourself out. You're supposed to be on holiday. You just rest and I'll take care of things."
Stone smiled. "I'm fine, Aubrey," he assured him. "If that changes, I'll let you know."
"Yes, sir." Aubrey slowly stood up, having a bit of trouble as he always did getting out of the deeply cushioned couch. He motioned toward the plate of food. "Please try to eat something, sir. You barely touched dinner."
"I will. Now go on. You should be home watching your trid shows, not over here worrying about me." Stone picked up the guitar again and laid it across his lap.
Aubrey nodded. "I'll see you in the morning, then." He still looked worried, but there was really nothing else he could do without stepping out of his proper duty. Without further comment, he left the room and closed the door softly behind him.
Stone watched the door close, then looked at Maya. "He worries too much," he said conversationally, casting his communication spell.
"He loves you."
Stone smiled. "I know. But he still worries too much."
"I worry too."
He looked at her sideways, raising an eyebrow. "Doctor said I was all right."
"Doctor doesn't know."
Intrigued now, he put the guitar once again back where it belonged and leaned forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his knees. He hadn't talked much to Maya since the visions had started. "Oh? And what is it that he doesn't know?"
"Something's wrong." Maya jumped down from the couch and came over to him, parking herself at his feet until he moved back and let her leap into his lap. "Bad things around."
Stone's eyes widened a bit. He stroked her soft fur and regarded her for a moment. "What sort of bad things?"
"Don't know. Not there all the time. Just sometimes."
Stone paused. "How are they there? Do you see them?"
"Smell them, mostly. Smell bad."
Maya often described the things she experienced on the astral plane in terms of smells. As a dual being, she had access to both the astral and the material planes constantly. "Why didn't Dr. Lennox see...smell them when he looked at the astral plane?"
Cats can't shrug, but Maya was good at giving the impression they could. "Don't know. Maybe they weren't there then. Not always there."
Again Stone paused, almost afraid to ask his next question, but needing to know. "Are they there—now?"
Maya looked up and sniffed delicately. "Yes. But not much. They wait."
Stone stared at Maya, his jaw setting a little as he considered what she'd told him. "You say they're there now—well, then, I'm going to have a look at them. I'm getting rather tired of this whole situation. Excuse me a moment, will you, Maya?" Without waiting for an answer, he leaned back in his chair and left his body.
The astral plane was, as always, alight with energy. Stone let himself float upward, looking down at the dimly-glowing form of his physical body, slumped in the chair. Next to it sat the bright, pulsing Maya, who was now watching his astral form with her brilliant green eyes. The whole room had the feel of a well-loved and often-used sanctuary—peaceful and serene in a chaotic world. He made a quick examination of the house and the garage, pleased to discover that Aubrey had returned home and was settling into his chair to watch his trideo shows. The caretaker's aura was concerned but calm; there was nothing to disturb him at the moment. Next to him, the gentle aura of his old dog Mullins was a constant loyal presence.
Satisfied that all was well at the Manor, Stone concentrated on the space around him. He stretched out his senses, trying to find anything out of the ordinary, anything that was searching for him, anything with malevolent intent. When his detection spells didn't turn up anything, he forced himself to relax, to let the energies surround him. Maya watched him worriedly, but he ignored her.
He didn't know how long he remained like that—it could have been an hour, it could have been only a few minutes—when the whispers came.
They were soft, at first, indistinct to his astral ears, blending in with the normal sounds of the living plane. Gentle, sibilant, but insistent: "...help me...someone...anyone... help me..."
Stone stiffened, and next to him, so did Maya. She made a hissing sound under her breath, a growl forming in the back of her throat as she moved forward, the hair on her back and her tail bristling in warning.
Stone paid this no heed. He reached out again, trying to bring the voices closer. "What are you?" he called. "What do you want? How can I help you?"
"...help me...cannot exist like this...help me...please..." The voice continued its whispers, never rising high enough to identify anything about it: no gender, no age, just whispers. As Stone continued to listen, the whispers changed, switching to a language he had never heard before. He tried to make sense of it, but it danced away from him, maddening in its urgency. Whatever it wanted, it wanted it soon.
And then abruptly the voice changed again—this time to something that was not a voice at all. The first voice, the whispering, pleading one, retreated, and Stone could almost sense the terror in it. The new not-voice, more a presence than anything else, swirled around Stone. It seemed to laugh, to mock him. There was a darkness to this new presence, an evil that did not seem to exist in the whispering, terrified voice.
Maya stiffened further, moving in, her tail now in full bristle mode. She hissed loudly at the presence, but it ignored her as if she were not even there. It continued to circle Stone as he tried to look everywhere at once, to understand it, to fend it off. His astral form spun around like a man trying to catch falling leaves, but the presence danced away.
"Go away!" Maya yelled in Stone's mind. "Bad thing. Bad thing I smelled. Go back now!"
For a moment it seemed as if Stone was not going to heed her. But then his eyes widened as he saw the fear in Maya's eyes, and he threw himself to the side, flinging his astral body back into his physical form.
Maya didn't wait to see what the presence would do. Instead, she shifted her perceptions primarily back to the material and looked fearfully at her companion.
Stone was breathing hard, his heart beating rapidly, but otherwise seemed none the worse for wear from his astral encounter. Maya jumped into his lap and fixed her gaze on him until he got himself under control.
"Well," he said at last, "That was a lot of effort for nothing."
Maya cocked her head at him. "Not nothing. Saw bad things."
Stone looked perplexed. "Bad things? Maya, I didn't see anything. What are you talking about? You were right there with me. Did you see bad things?"
Maya's luminous green eyes were locked on his blue ones. "I saw. You saw too. Scared thing and bad thing."
"No—Maya, you're mistaken." He shook his head. "I didn't see a thing. Looked around a bit, saw Aubrey and Mullins, then came back and did some poking around, but not—" He looked at her oddly. "Are you sure you're all right, Maya?"
"Saw it," she said stubbornly. "Gone a long time."
Stone glanced at the clock, surprised to see that it was already after 2 a.m. He had been gone awhile. But why? He racked his brain, trying to remember seeing anything out of the ordinary, but succeeded only in giving himself the beginning of a headache. "Sorry," he said softly. "Don't know what was going on out there that I was gone so long, but there wasn't anything there for me to see." He made as if to rise, and Maya leaped down off his lap. "I think I'm going to bed—hadn't intended to stay up this late. Coming?"
Maya watched him with worried suspicion. She couldn't articulate the fact that he seemed far too cavalier about what had happened—even if he hadn't seen anything, which she knew was wrong, he should at least have been concerned that she had—but he simply rose slowly and headed for the door. She didn't follow—not yet.
Stone trudged up the stairs toward his second-floor bedroom suite, trying to will his hand not to shake as it gripped the wooden banister. The whispering in his mind was barely discernible now-just a slight echo far in the back corners, noticeable only on a subconscious level.
He couldn't tell Maya. He knew that. He couldn't tell anyone. If he told them, then they would take him away. They would lock him up. Perhaps they might even kill him. He couldn't take that chance. He must keep this to himself until he could deal with it.
He could deal with it. Something in his mind told him he could. He would just have to be patient. These things took time.
Maya might already know. She looked at him like she knew. He would have to avoid her as much as possible. Fortunately, she could only communicate with him-he had never taught anyone else the special spell he had devised to allow him to understand her, and Aubrey was half convinced he was only kidding about being able to. Maya, he was safe from. For now, anyway.
Yes...it would only be awhile longer. He would keep working, and the answer would come to him. He knew that now. He believed it.
He had to believe it.
He stiffened, jerking his hand away as the banister beneath it became a long black snake, its supple muscles undulating under its scales. It hissed at him and then it was a banister again. He stared at it, breathing hard, eyes wide, and then moved on. They weren't going to have him. No matter what they did, they wouldn't get him. He would find the answer.
He went into his bedroom and closed the door behind him, closing out the little red eyes that watched him from deep shadows.
Aubrey was getting very worried.
Almost another week had passed since the night he had visited Stone in his study, and his employer had been acting increasingly erratic.
He spent most of his time closed up in the study now, when he wasn't out somewhere (he never told Aubrey where he was going anymore, and he rarely took his phone with him). When he emerged to do the things he had to do, such as attend meetings in London, he seemed fine if a bit over-enthusiastic. When he didn't think Aubrey was watching, though, his actions told another story. He jumped at shadows, kept his eyes downcast, and seemed to have developed a fear of being outside. At one point during the week Aubrey risked being far too presumptuous by calling Dr. Lennox and making an appointment for his employer, but Stone promptly called and cancelled it without informing Aubrey. He also didn't get angry, which set off even more warning bells in the caretaker's mind.
Aubrey confronted him the afternoon of his second seminar. "Sir, if I may—"
Stone stopped abruptly and turned back. There was a fever-bright, almost haunted quality to his gaze, as if he were seeing far more than the rest of humanity. "Yes, Aubrey? What is it?" His voice was a little too quick, a little too manic.
"Sir—shouldn't you perhaps call Dr. Leifeld and tell him you won't be there this evening? You don't look to be in any shape to be—"
"No, of course not," Stone snapped. It was not an irritated snap, just the sound of someone who was preoccupied and in a hurry. He gave Aubrey a rather forced smile. "I'm fine. I'm looking forward to it." He held up his old battered briefcase. "I've got all kinds of notes here—been working on them all week. Shame to disappoint the students, yes?"
"But nothing, Aubrey." Stone swept past, trying hard not to notice the cascade of brown, shiny insects that poured from the caretaker's mouth as he spoke. "I promised Rodney I'd be there, and I'm going to be there."
Aubrey sighed. "You're not going to drive, are you?" He knew he was giving up and felt disgusted with himself for doing it, but what else could he do? He couldn't exactly restrain Stone physically, after all.
Stone shook his head. "No. Got a cab coming." He reached out and clapped Aubrey on the shoulder, hiding his look of disgust as several of the insects crushed beneath his hand. "See you later on, Aubrey. Don't wait up for me, okay?"
And then he was gone.
Aubrey watched after him for a moment, then looked down as he felt something soft brush against his leg. His eyes were bright with unshed tears as he looked down at Maya. "I'm sorry, Maya. I tried. I don't know what's wrong with him, and he won't let me in anymore. I do so wish you could talk so you could tell me what you know of this..."
Maya's only answer was a look of surprising sympathy, followed by a fearful look out the door as the glow from the taxi's taillights faded into the distance.
Stone sat huddled in the corner of the cab's backseat, his eyes fixed on his hands, which were clutched around the briefcase in his lap. They aren't there—it's all in your mind, he told himself for what had to be the hundredth time that day. They can't hurt you as long as you don't acknowledge them...
"Nice evening," the cabdriver said cheerfully without turning around.
"Yes. It is." Stone glanced up for a brief moment, then quickly looked back down again. The cabbie's flesh was peeling off the back of his head in long ropy strips, revealing white skull coated with gelled blood. A single bloodshot eye peered at him from the middle of the driver's skull. All in your mind...all in your mind...
"What'cha doing at the University this evening?" Clearly the man was trying to make conversation, and he seemed genuinely friendly.
Stone looked up again. The eye had morphed itself into a mouth, and he caught it speaking the last of the words the cabbie had spoken.
All in your mind...
"Teaching a seminar," he said, lowering his gaze and clamping his eyes shut. Taking a deep breath, he added, "I'm terribly sorry, but I have a frightful headache. Would it be all right if I just rested quietly until we arrive?"
"Of course, sir. You just rest easy and we'll be there in no time at all." The driver switched on the radio, lowered the volume, and tuned it to some soothing music.
Stone didn't open his eyes the whole way to the University. When the cab stopped in front of the Thaumaturgy Building, it was all he could do to put the payment into the dripping tentacles that reached out to accept it.
All in your mind, damn you! he told himself savagely. None of this is real!
The little whispering voices in the back of his head seemed to chuckle, but he didn't hear them.
The lecture hall was once again full to capacity, and Stone wasn't conceited enough to believe that it was solely because of his legendary lecturing ability. No, in addition to their interest in the subject matter, most of them were undoubtedly here to see if he would have any more episodes like last week's. Stone was a popular professor, but human (and metahuman) nature being what it was—well, this sort of thing definitely broke the monotony of university life.
He stood at the front of the room a few minutes before the class was scheduled to start and stared down at his briefcase on the table. Contrary to what he had told Aubrey, it was not stuffed full of notes on his talk tonight. He could give that talk in his sleep, without benefit of even the most rudimentary of notes. Instead, the case was full of his increasingly illegible scribblings as he had attempted to discover the cause for his apparent incipient madness. Despite the fact that no one else would be able to make any sense of them, Stone was reluctant to let them out of his sight. He feared that Aubrey might find them (he had already discovered that the caretaker had gone through his study, although he did not know that Aubrey had been looking for drugs, not magical secrets) and take them to someone like Leifeld, who had the power to follow his line of reasoning, reveal his madness, and have him put away. He was certain that he was getting close to an answer—closer every day. There was a certainty in his mind of which he was not sure of the origin, but he trusted it nonetheless. He had to. He trusted it in the same way that a drowning man clings to a slowly-deflating life preserver: the trust of the man with no other choice.
He risked a quick glance up at the students as they settled into their chairs and got out their datapads and notebooks. Surprisingly, they all looked normal. Even Davey Hastings, the unfortunate young man he had picked on last week, was there. All of them waiting, anticipation hanging in the air. Would they get an entertaining, informative lecture on manastorms—or would things go weird again?
Stone began. It was a lucky thing that he did know the subject so well, because it enabled him to lecture without really thinking about what he was saying. His voice, hesitant when he started, grew stronger and more confident as he went on and the students continued to focus on him. More importantly, the students continued to be students. He took a deep breath, letting his guard down a little. Perhaps it was over—perhaps whatever was happening to him had finally run its course and was going to—
Davey Hastings' head exploded.
Stone stopped, gasping. He had been looking right at Davey when it happened: one moment the young man was there, and the next moment there was a sound like a ripe melon being dropped and then gore and bone and hair and bits of brain tissue were spraying in all directions, coating the students in his immediate vicinity. They did not seem to notice. They were staring at Stone.
Stone took a deep breath, dragging his gaze from the sight of young Davey, still sitting upright, his bloody stump of a neck oozing gore down his shoulders and chest. Not real. None of this is real. Pull yourself together...
He moved quickly over to the other side of the room, ignoring the scattering of murmurs rippling through the rows. "So," he said briskly, "We'll turn now to the Mojave Desert, in the California Free State. We—"
Something dripped on him from above.
He ignored it, moving away again.
Something else dripped on him. This time it hit his wrist as he was gesturing.
Still talking as if nothing had happened, he looked up.
Not real...not real...notrealnotrealnotreal...
The mantra burned itself into his mind as he stared at the thing that was hanging from the ceiling, grinning at him—although it had no discernible mouth. It glistened in the fluorescent lights, its skin green, oozing red blood from slashes and punctures all over its body. "No..." he whispered, and hurried to the middle of the room.
"Dr. Stone—" Several of the students were rising from their chairs now, concerned, but he didn't see them.
The back doors were opening.
The windows, high up on the walls, were slowly being obscured by sheets of blood.
Stone looked everywhere, trying to find a place to run, but there was no place. He snatched up his briefcase, then threw it down again as it turned into the rotten, bloated corpse of some unearthly creature. "No...no..." His breath came faster and faster. The students approached him but were afraid to get too close—the look in his eyes frightened them.
Then the doors were open. There were two sets of double doors in the back of the lecture hall; they had all been closed, but now all four doors flew open with a clang. More blood ran down the aisles, pooling up at the bottom, lapping at Stone's feet.
But he wasn't even looking at the blood. The blood was the least of his worries.
Something was coming in through the left-side double doors.
Something he recognized.
The students moved closer as Stone appeared to be distracted.
The thing grinned at him.
"NO!!!" Stone screamed, backing away. "Leave me alone!!! You are DEAD!!!"
One of the students, a tall ork, grabbed his shoulders gently. "Dr. Stone, I think—"
"NOOOOOOOO!!!!" Stone struggled in the ork's grasp. The whispering voices were growing louder now. There were more of them. A soft cacophony was erupting in his head. He opened his eyes wide and felt himself lash out. There was a bright flash of light, the sound of many cries of pain, and then there was only the endless fall and the echoes of his own screams.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.