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Puzzles and Pictures
Darkness engulfed the city. Pinpricks and pockets of light scattered across town shed some light, but the violence of yesterday’s storm left downed trees and power lines, debris everywhere, and standing water in low-lying streets that had yet to drain.
Robert rubbed at his aching eyes. As it was, it felt like nothing more could be tacked on to the end of a long and tiring day. He had been rushing everywhere today, traveling around to meet with various people on the whims and orders of his employer. So much fetching and carrying, searching and spying… and the lack of electricity in an already steamy summer only made things worse for everyone.
He groaned and sat up. “I’m only in my twenties,” he said to no one. “I shouldn’t hurt this much already.” A single candle burned on his rickety table, throwing out a little bit of light. It felt nice, to wallow in the dark after a hard day. For once he couldn’t be sucked into the Internet or computer games—no electricity meant no Internet, and no Internet meant no games. Instead, Robert appreciated the view from his apartment’s window—with the city so dark, the stars in the sky shone brilliantly.
Suddenly a voice from nowhere boomed throughout his apartment. “Robert!” The great voice lingered, and when it faded, Rob put a hand to his aching temple. His boss wanted to see him. He could feel a headache coming on. I really hate that scrying bowl of his, and his voice trick. Sighing, Robert climbed from his couch and shuffled into the middle of his small living room, losing sight of the sky. A quick glance around the apartment showed that his door was indeed locked, and he was far enough from the window that he couldn’t be seen through it. Feeling secure, Rob breathed deep and slow.
A blue halo gathered around both of Rob’s hands. He raised them to just in front of his body and traced shapes in the air, the blue glow fading into nothing. The light around his hands extinguished. Rob closed his bloodshot eyes.
In front of him now stood the hazy outline of a tall upright rectangle, the air and space contained within warped just enough to look like a desert mirage. The thought made Robert smirk. I have a mirage in my apartment. He took one regretful glance at his comfortable old couch before stepping forward into the magical doorway.
The sensation of passing through the door woke him up with a shock of cold air and momentary weightlessness. A second of utter darkness studded with globes of starlight, and he was through the door.
Robert emerged into the brightly lit entrance hall of a manse. His pupils shrank and he flinched, the light hurting his eyes. Candelabras stood guard around the walls, and an elegant golden chandelier hung from the ceiling over a scarlet runner rug. The air felt much cooler here than it did at his home on Earth—even though this world had never been introduced to electricity, the room temperature was cooler and much more comfortable than his air conditioner could have produced. It made him shiver just a little, his body still used to the height of humid summer.
A tall man stood in the middle of the rug, waiting for Robert to regain his equilibrium. “Welcome back, Mr. Gordon. Mr. Knight is expecting you.” He waved his arm and inclined his head toward the stairs. “Please follow me.”
“Thank you, Joe,” Robert said. He brushed off his wrinkled shirt and followed Joe up the grand staircase. Joe’s navy and charcoal suit blended in with the much gloomier halls in such a way that Rob felt the man was more a ghost than a human, transparent and colorless. Even his dark brown hair blended with the surroundings.
Joe led Robert down the burgundy rug of the second floor hallway, past closed brown doors on both sides. He stopped outside a door decorated with ornate brass swirls and wooden carvings on the left and knocked. A muffled voice came from inside. Joe responded. “Mr. Knight, Mr. Gordon has arrived and is here to see you, sir.” The muffled voice came again and Joe opened the door to usher Robert inside.
Rob nodded to Joe in thanks and walked in, tugging on his still-rumpled shirt. Joe stayed outside and closed the door behind him. “Mr. Knight, sir. I have come as requested,” said Rob.
Robert’s employer sat behind a wide wooden desk, papers stacked around the workspace. The man was still fairly young, but prematurely graying. Bright brown eyes glanced up at Robert from over the top of thin reading glasses. “Robert, thank you for joining me. How did the meeting go today with the Earth suppliers?”
“As expected, sir. The smugglers met with Mr. Alan to move the shipments in secret to Alan’s warehouses in the south.” Robert summoned his report from home with a twitch of his fingers and it popped into existence in his hand. He removed the spell on the pages that transformed the words into gibberish to all but him and laid the report on the desk. “I believe I was the only spy in the meeting itself—I know there were two others watching from outside. I also believe Mr. Alan will not use those smugglers again. Whatever it is he’s up to here in Corá, he’s trying to keep it very quiet on Earth.”
Mr. Knight pulled the report closer and skimmed through the first page before adding it to his stack of papers. Then he changed the subject. “I have a long-term assignment for you that will have top priority. It is the only thing you will be doing from now on.”
The older man passed Robert the paper he held. Robert read it, his eyes widening and eyebrows spiking up into his floppy hair when he saw the picture. His heart beat faster and he could feel nerves building in his chest. “That’s Roxie. What does she have to do with this?” A shiver of apprehension overtook him.
“Your friend is going to college.”
“I know.” Robert curled the fingers of one hand and picked at a fingernail. How does he know this? His heart still beat against his ribs, as if in warning. “But I ask you again, sir, what does she have to do with this?”
Mr. Knight frowned, the lines of his face deepening into displeasure. “Your tone is insolent, Robert, but I shall let it pass for now. You are too protective of this girl.” His eyes narrowed. “Do not worry, my boy, she is not the assignment. She is the means to an end, so to speak.”
“I don’t understand.”
The man picked up another sheet of paper, removing his own coding spell as he did. “Roxanne is going to college in a few weeks.” He handed Rob the paper. “With this girl.”
This paper had no picture, only a name and some information. “Sita Newbury? I’ve never heard of her. What does she have to do with my assignment, sir?”
Mr. Knight stood up, his movement graceful and fluid, and he ambled over to a cabinet near his desk. “She is the assignment. As it happens, she is going to the same school as your Roxie.” He knelt down to reach in the cabinet and pull out a black mirror. Something inside the cabinet shone an ethereal white, bright enough to make Robert squint. Before he could see what it was, Mr. Knight closed the cabinet and held up the mirror. Mr. Knight carried it to the desk and set it in front of Robert.
Rob looked from Mr. Knight to the mirror and back. Mr. Knight’s eyes grew hard, and Rob felt his apprehension grow the longer the meeting went on. Sweat beaded on his palms, but Mr. Knight spoke once more, his voice quiet but colder than before. “Your assignment, Robert, is to watch Sita. Learn about her. Report back to me everything you find out. She may be exactly the person I have been looking for.”
“How so, sir?”
The older man gave him a brittle smile. “You will find out later. For now, it is not necessary for you to know why I am interested. In fact, you will likely find out before I even tell you. You’re a smart boy. Use that brain of yours.” Knight held his hand over the mirror’s glass, closing his eyes. Dark green light gathered at his fingertips and dipped onto the mirror, making its surface cloud over, the green absorbed into the black.
An image formed in the scry glass. A young woman gazed up at them: beautiful, young, blonde-haired and green-eyed, with a wide and engaging smile. Rob’s nerves subsided a moment, pushed out by curiosity, and his heartbeat returned to a more normal pace. He examined the face closely, trying to memorize every detail. “That’s her?”
“That is Sita Newbury. Find her, Robert. Track her. It would be highly beneficial if your Roxanne could befriend her, but I do not have such high hopes. Just being at the same school will be enough.” The mirror went blank.
Robert heard the finality in his employer’s tone. He stood up, enspelling and folding the papers into his pocket as he did. Joe opened the door from the outside. Knight said one last thing as Robert walked to the door. “Robert, I remind you, this is your only assignment. I place a great deal of importance on this project. I expect results, and in as timely a manner as possible. You know the rules: she is not to know of your profession. You are just another college student. A friend. Try that photography thing you like so much, she might believe you as a photographer, you have the grungy, artistic look.” Knight smirked and sat back into his chair.
Robert nodded and gave a half-hearted smile before walking out the door. “It will be taken care of, sir,” he said under his breath. Joe led him back down the stairs into the entrance hall, clearly waiting for him to disappear. Rob took a deep, steadying breath and closed his eyes for only a moment. It was a bad idea to let Joe see any of his nerves—he would report back to Mr. Knight anything unusual. How can I not be worried? he thought. Somehow Knight knew about Roxie . . . I’ve never mentioned her. The implications of that unsettled him even more, and he knew he needed to find Roxie.
He wiped the bit of sweat from his face, using a yawn as his pretext. Then he redrew the magic blue door and disappeared back into his lonely apartment, leaving Joe to stare at an empty hall.
Sita Newbury set aside her book. Her quiet home, nestled in a cul-de-sac in a quiet Maryland town, sheltered only her at this hour. Yet something didn’t feel quite right to her. A sense of unease swept through her fluttering heart and stomach and she rose from the couch, unsure of what to look for or where. It couldn’t be her sister home already—school wasn’t even close to being finished for the day.
A shape outside the front window drew her to sneak a peek outside. She stepped close to the drapes and carefully peeked out the corner.
No one was there.
A creak in the kitchen. The sound of rustling cloth. The hiss of breath being released all at once as someone moved.
Sita let go of the drapes, spun on her toes, and crouched to the floor, just in time to avoid a punch to the head. The man’s fist landed on the wall instead and he cried out in pain. Sita didn’t wait for him to recover. Her hands moved before her brain did. She clutched the man’s shin and poured magic into him, overwhelming his body and making him faint. He slumped to the floor, head banging on the linoleum. Sita sniffed and scrambled to her feet, back to the wall.
The first man was forgotten as a second man came around the corner. He was more cautious than the first—this one waited. So she studied him. The two men dressed similarly in black clothing with half-masks covering their faces. She didn’t see any obvious weapons, but that didn’t mean much when they wore long-sleeve shirts, gloves, and pants. Sita rolled her eyes. “What do you all want? And how’d you get in here, anyway?”
But the moment she opened her mouth, the second man attacked. A knife headed her way, followed by a second and third. Sita raised her left hand, palm out, and blocked the knives with a shield of violet magic. “Don’t make me ask again,” she said.
More knives whizzed through the air, and Sita blocked them all without breaking a sweat.
Now he began to annoy her. So she stopped talking. She knew there was a third man somewhere around her, and she wanted to make one of them talk. Since this man clearly wasn’t interested in speaking . . .
Sita dodged to the right out of the man’s immediate line of sight. She pulled out a thread of her magic, rolled it into a ball, and threw it at the man’s right shoulder. She made a second that hit him in the chest as the first orb knocked him back, and a third that hit him in the left shoulder as he spun. Finally, he fell, stunned.
A hand grasped her shoulder from behind, but Sita was ready. Instead of trying to escape, she made her magic course through her body all at once, and little sparks of power ran over her skin. The man grunted and let go when the sparks shocked his gloved hand.
Now Sita did turn, a violet-sheathed fist aimed at the man’s gut. But he blocked her with his arm, knocking her off balance. Sita let herself fall, pulling the man down with her. She kneed him in the groin as he fell on top of her. He groaned and rolled to the side, but still managed a grip on her wrist. “Let go!” Sita said through gritted teeth. Another jolt of magic through her arm into his hand made him release her.
Sita sat up onto her knees and watched the man lay there in pain. “Alright, who are you?” He growled at her.
She ripped his mask off, making him cry out. He wasn’t very old—certainly not much older than her. His brown hair fell into his eyes. If he hadn’t just attacked her, Sita might have found him handsome. As it was, she wasn’t very inclined to be nice to him right now. Her breathing began to return to normal after the slight exertion of fighting off three men. “What do you want? Who are you?”
Sweat ran down his forehead and pain knitted his brows together. Sita moved her knee onto his groin and pressed down, just enough to cause some pain. He cried out. “OK, OK! I’ll talk! Just move your knee!”
“About time.” Sita moved off, resuming her position beside him. She raised a shield around the both of them, to keep him in and to keep anyone else out. “Talk.”
“I’m Allen. From Imbri Mors.”
“Never heard of Imbri Mors.”
“Your problem, not mine.”
Sita grimaced. Her knees began to ache from kneeling. “Who or what are Imbri Mors and why did you attack me?”
The man, Allen, shrugged. “Orders. Following orders. Dunno beyond that.”
The pain must have started to wear off—he had stopped sweating. Sita kept an eye on his hands, which were beginning to creep toward his pockets. “Fine. How did you get around my shields?”
She shifted and threatened to lay her knee into his groin again, but he cringed and curled up protectively. “Relax, geez! I dunno how, you’d have to ask the other two. But the shields around the place let us through.”
Sita cursed under her breath. She had thought something was off in the shields lately. Clearly, there was. Knees aching, she leaned back and considered the man. She couldn’t kill him—too messy, and she had nowhere to hide a body right now. Besides, her sister would be home in a few hours. She couldn’t clean up the house by then if she killed them all. With a sigh, she reached out and touched a finger to Allen’s temple. He gasped as if about to say something, but Sita’s magic rolled into his brain and knocked him out.
He would stay asleep for a few hours now. Sita crawled over to the other two men and did the same to them, making sure they would stay asleep.
Then she rose to her feet and looked out the front window, scanning the yard and cul-de-sac for any sign of people. But no one moved around outside. No one walked anywhere. The children were all still in school, their parents at work. So Sita grabbed her car keys, backed the car into the yard, and hauled the three men into the back seat and trunk of the car. They barely fit, and they were heavy, but with a touch of magic, Sita managed to get them all in. Then she hopped in the driver’s seat and started down the road.
She drove a few miles away to the local park. Only one or two people were around at the moment, so Sita drove down behind the soccer field and turned the car around to hide the trunk. Each man she carried out of the car and into the woods, propping them up against a tree out of sight of the field. No one would see them, and when they woke in a few hours, they could find their own way out and back to where they’d come from.
When she finished, Sita huffed and wiped her hands on her jeans. “That’s done. Now to fix those shields around the house when I get back there.” She checked her watch.
Her sister would be home any minute.
Sita cursed and hopped back into the car, gunning the engine and tearing off down the field to the road. Her sister would be pissed if she found the house torn up, and their aunt would be even more furious since she would now be staying with the younger girl while Sita was at college.
Sita groaned. Her sister would have one more thing to scold about. Sita was supposed to leave for college tomorrow.
And she hadn’t started packing at all.