Against the Dark Devourer 2 covers

Against the Dark Devourer by Margaret L. Carter

Against the Dark Devourer 2 covers
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All her life, Deborah has known she and her older sister have extraordinary psi powers. When their mother dies suddenly, Deborah learns she’s meant to use her gift against the forces of darkness in some special way. How, she doesn’t have a clue, but she wants no part of this alleged fate. Yet with evil forces stalking her, can she avoid the battle ahead?

 All his life, Victor has known he and his twin sister have a unique destiny. Bred to serve inhuman entities from another dimensional plane, he’s instructed to either seduce a strange young woman who poses a grave threat to the cult he belongs to…or destroy her.

 Unexpectedly, he finds Deborah not only attractive and intelligent but his equal in psychic power. Although his cult views religion with contempt–and she’s an unabashed Christian–he’s helplessly drawn to her. For her part, Deborah finds in Victor a kindred spirit. For the first time, someone other than her sister can empathize with her differences from “normal” people. Is prophetic destiny written in stone, even for two potential foes falling in love? A paranormal romance inspired by C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength and the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

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GENRE: Paranormal Romance      ISBN: 978-1-922548-00-9     ASIN: B08SJVGDW5     Word Count: 69, 164

Chapter 1

 

The colors in the transparent tetrahedron swirled like smoke. The motion made Victor dizzy, and his stomach churned. He swallowed, tasting bile. He shook his head, impatient with his body’s reaction. By now he should be hardened to the crystal’s effects, even if he didn’t get the privilege of gazing into it very often. He didn’t want to appear weak in front of his guardian.

Uncle Hugh–no genetic relation, really, but his lifelong mentor–gave a small frown of obvious impatience at the way Victor clutched the pedestal where the object sat on one of its four triangular faces. “Straighten up. You act like you’re expecting an earthquake any second.”

“I haven’t had as much practice with this stuff as you have.” Victor kept any note of defiance out of his voice, not eager for the tongue-lashing an argument would certainly earn him. He shifted his eyes from the undulating tangle of violet tendrils. His head pounded. The decor of the windowless room didn’t help–the walls painted midnight indigo, the parquet floor of oak so dark it was nearly black, all illuminated only by a few low-wattage bulbs in wall sconces.

“Well, focus! We don’t have all day.”

Victor drew a deep breath and dragged his gaze back to the crystal. Each time he used it, he half expected the smoky whorls inside to clear away and open a peephole into a dimension of alien geometry and amorphous monsters. He had viewed that scene only once, but once was enough. Following his mentor’s instructions, he focused with all his will on the scene he wanted to scry. The luminous tendrils vanished like melting icicles. An ordinary living room shimmered into view.

A middle-aged woman with short, gray-streaked, auburn hair sat in the single armchair. Against a pile of throw pillows on a couch with faded upholstery that matched the chair reclined a woman apparently in her twenties, with hair the color of dark honey. Her tight jeans displayed generous curves. Victor willed the image to widen its scope. At the counter marking the boundary of the kitchenette stood a slim girl in a miniskirt, taller and a few years younger than the one on the couch. After watching her tie back her hair, light brown with dark blonde highlights, he moved his psychic vantage point to watch the other two women from behind her, over her shoulder. As he virtually passed in front of her, her blue eyes shifted, as if she sensed an invisible observer.

“These are our targets?” Uncle Hugh said quietly.

“Yeah, that’s them,” Victor said, keeping his eyes fixed on the scene in the crystal.

“Pull back. Try to view the outside of the house.”

Years of relentless drills made the procedure easy enough. Drifting through the closed door of the first-floor apartment like a ghost, Victor visualized himself standing in the hallway.

“Farther, now. You need to confirm the location of the building.”

Squelching a spasm of irritation at the unnecessary directions, Victor imagined himself panning the corridor with a wide-angle lens. His viewpoint moved to an exit at the end of the hall and floated into the parking lot. The building number matched the address label pasted in the hardback novel he was using as a tracer, latest installment in a bestselling sword-and-sorcery epic.

“Very good. That’s enough.”

Relaxing his cramped fingers from their grip on the pedestal, Victor exhaled a long breath and allowed the picture to fade. He stepped away, bending to pick up the book, and staggered with vertigo. His guardian clasped his elbow and led him from the room into the antechamber, graced with open windows, upholstered furniture, and a wet bar. Another door opened into Uncle Hugh’s office, a third into the corridor. “By now you shouldn’t find it such a strain, my boy.” He guided Victor to an armchair and poured him a Scotch and soda on the rocks.

After a sip of the cool drink, Victor said, “I guess I just don’t have your strength.” Though the range of Victor’s psychic gifts far exceeded the older man’s, Uncle Hugh did excel in remote viewing talent.

“Nonsense, you and your sister wouldn’t have been trained for this mission if you didn’t have the necessary ability.” He picked up a floral-patterned rain scarf from the marble-topped coffee table. “You’re quite sure the scarf belongs to the mother?”

“Well, I saw her wearing it. How else could I possibly tell?” Why did Uncle Hugh have to be so damned picky about everything? “I did the whole operation exactly the way you planned.” The evening before, he’d gone to a Vincent Price film marathon at the small, private college the two girls attended. Sitting two rows behind them, he’d used a delicate flick of telekinesis to make the scarf slip out of the mother’s jacket pocket and the book fall from the elder sister’s open shoulder bag. Another mental nudge had hidden the objects under the seat where the women wouldn’t notice and pick them up. “What do you want the scarf for, anyhow?”

“I may need a link to them again at some later time, and the more personal, the better. Other than that, the fewer details you know from this point on, the more spontaneous your reactions will appear. Telekinetically disable their car, and once you’re inside the house, you’ll know what to do when the time comes.”

“I guess I’d better get going.” He didn’t bother asking why he had to disable the car, figuring that would be classified as another detail he didn’t need to know.

“Yes, considering the drive takes over an hour.” Uncle Hugh handed the book to Victor. “I’ve temporarily tagged this so I’ll be able to watch your progress. Do well.” He wouldn’t wish “good luck”, since he disdained the concept of luck as vulgar superstition.

Victor took another sip of his Scotch and reluctantly set the glass down. He’d never gotten pulled over for drunk driving before, and he sure wouldn’t take that risk today. Not that one glass would intoxicate him, but why take chances? This meeting was too important to screw up.

Standing up, he realized his heart was racing. Finally, he would meet her. The confrontation he’d been trained for all his life was about to start.

Deborah nudged the front door of the apartment shut behind her, then plopped her shopping bags on the floor and collapsed into the lumpy armchair. “I’m sorry about your book.” Before heading to the college bookstore for her fall course needs, they’d checked the lost-and-found at the campus movie theater. Nobody had turned in the hardcover her sister, Sara, had misplaced the previous evening.

Sara slumped on the couch and ran her fingers through her unbound, shoulder-length hair. “I can’t see how I managed to lose something that size without noticing.” She sighed. “And I’d barely had a chance to start it.”

 “Just goes to show,” Deborah said, “you should carry a paperback or your Kindle for standing-in-line purposes, like I do, instead of a twenty-some-dollar hardback.”

Sara gestured at the sofa with a lazy wave. A throw pillow flew up and smacked Deborah in the face. “Okay, I admit it, the story was so exciting I couldn’t bear to leave home without it. I don’t usually go around losing stuff.” 

Flipping a hand at the pillow, Deborah made it sail across the room and land in Sara’s lap.

“Cut it out, you two.” Their mother emerged from the hall bathroom, drying her face. “Have pity on the poor old mamma duck.” Her tone was light, not scolding.

Deborah didn’t need to ask what that phrase meant. Mom often said the girls’ casual use of their wild talents made her feel like a duck who’d hatched a pair of swan eggs. Not that their mother couldn’t do similar things if necessary, but for her exercising such gifts took effort, and fortunately the need wasn’t thrust upon her very often. Whatever psi powers she’d originally possessed had mostly gone dormant after Deborah’s birth.

Now she took a seat beside Sara and glanced back and forth between her daughters. “Father Mike would probably say you shouldn’t use your gifts for frivolous purposes.”

Sara gave her standard answer to that objection. “That’s only if we were wasting energy we might need for some crucial reason later. First off, we’re not wasting energy, because it’s easy for us.”

“And second off,” Deborah said, taking up the familiar argument, “we’re not going to need the power for anything important. There’s no threat to use it against.” Father Michael Emeric, the Episcopal priest she’d known as mentor and surrogate grandfather since her birth, always discussed such things in a worrywart tone, as if monsters might lurk around every corner.

“You hope,” Mom said, but Deborah sensed her ominous glower was mostly put on.

“Well, where do you want to eat dinner?” asked Sara.

“After hot fudge sundaes less than two hours ago?” their mother said. “Don’t ask me to think about food. You girls have bottomless pits for stomachs and never gain a pound. Ah, youth.”

A knock sounded on the door. Deborah heaved herself out of the chair and walked over to answer. When she opened the door, a man close to her own age stood in the corridor. He had wavy, black hair trimmed to just below his ears. The style suited his vaguely Goth outfit–tight, black pants and a ruffled, white shirt. A triangular, gold pendant with a green gem in the center hung from a chain around his neck. A matching earring adorned his right ear. As she finished scanning him, he said, “Hi. I’m looking for Sara Jacobs.” He had a resonant voice, as if he’d taken years of singing lessons.

Deborah had to swallow and draw a breath before she could get a reply out. “I’m her sister, Deborah.”

“Glad I found you.” He held up the missing book in his left hand.

“Oh! Come in.” Standing aside, she opened the door wider. When he’d stepped into the room, she said, “How did you find us?”

“Address label inside the front cover, remember?” He smiled. “I was sitting behind you in the theater last night and saw it fall out of her bag. I followed you to the parking lot, but I couldn’t catch up in time. So I decided to drop it off today.”

“Well, I’m glad you did. We thought we’d never see it again. Thanks!” She held out her hand, and he accepted it with a cool, firm handshake.

“No problem. I’m Victor Morheim.”

“Come in and sit down for a minute. This is my mother, Kate Benson, and my sister, Sara Jacobs.” As usual, she didn’t bother with the technically accurate term half sister. She turned to Sara. “Look, your lost sheep has returned to the fold.”

Standing, Sara accepted the book from Victor with a murmur of thanks.

Their mother got up and greeted him with a smile. “Can we offer you something? Maybe a Coke?”

“Sure, that would be great. Thanks.” He sat in the armchair Deborah had vacated, stretching his legs out and crossing them at the ankle. He wore black boots polished to a shine, not the scuffed look Deborah would have expected.

Automatically, she brushed the edge of his mind. Instead of the buzzing cloud of mundane thoughts she anticipated, her probe pinged off a smooth, reflective surface like the outside of a metal sphere.

  Sara, walking around the counter into the kitchenette to fill a glass with ice and cola, spoke inside Deborah’s head. ::Did you try to read him, too? What’s he hiding?::

::Maybe nothing. We know some people have strong natural shields, without even being aware of it.::

::That strong?::

The suspicious tone stung Deborah into resistance. ::Don’t be so paranoid. He seems nice, and he returned your book, didn’t he?:: “You deserve more of a reward than a drink,” she said to Victor.

He accepted the glass and shook his head. “It wasn’t any trouble.”

Mom sat on the edge of the other chair. “Do you live around here?”

“No, near Berkeley. I drove out yesterday for the Vincent Price festival.”

“And you drove back today just for this?” Sara said. “That sounds like a lot of trouble to me.”

“Not that much. I don’t have a class this afternoon, and I like to drive. No big deal.”

::More like he wanted to hit on one of us,:: Sara projected. ::Probably you.::

::Yeah, what’s wrong with that? Not that I believe it for a second.:: Deborah felt irritated enough to launch something heavier than a pillow at her older sister, if a stranger hadn’t been present. “Well, it’s a big deal to us.” With her gratitude firmly established, she fumbled for another topic of conversation. Now that he’d started on the Coke, they couldn’t expect him to leave until he’d finished it. Not that she wanted him to rush off. “So you like Vincent Price, too?” Lame, Deb, really lame.

“Yeah, those Poe movies are cool. Sure, I could stream them anytime, but that’s not the same as watching them with a crowd on the big screen.”

“Right.” Deborah perched on the edge of the desk. “I think my favorite is Theatre of Blood, even more than the Poe films.”

“Yeah, but for that one it helps if you know Shakespeare, and I’m a computer programming major.” He flashed a grin that seemed to mock his own deficiencies in English lit.

Sara, leaning against the counter, spoke up. “Are you looking to work in Silicon Valley?”

“Probably not.” He took a swig of the cola. “My guardian is CEO of a gaming software company, and he’ll have a job opening for me.”

“I like a young person who knows his own mind.” Mom aimed a teasing half-smile at Deborah, who majored in biology with plans for teaching that, so far, remained tentative. Deborah made a face at her mother, whose smile broadened for a second before turning into a grimace.

“What’s wrong?” Deborah took a step toward her.

“Nothing. Dizzy for a second. It’s gone.” With a dismissive wave, she started to get up. A second later, she slumped back in the chair. “Whoa.” She clutched her left temple and bowed her head on her knees.

Sara hurried to her and touched her shoulder. “What is it?”

“Headache.”

Reaching for her mother’s mind, Deborah sensed nausea and a stabbing pain. “Come on, you’ve got to lie down.” Together, she and Sara each took one of Mom’s arms and urged her toward the bedroom. Out of the corner of her eye, Deborah noticed Victor springing to his feet.

“Grab it.”

“Grab what, Mom? Come on, you’re scaring us.”

“Rabbit hole. Dark.” She squinted as if in painful concentration. “Ship.” Her mouth twisted. “Sheep. Woof.” She pressed a hand to her head again. “Amber.”

Her pain hit Deborah as a sharp pang like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. It segued into a dull ache that radiated outward from the point of impact. She instinctively raised her shields to keep that pain separate from her own sensations. Her mother’s knees crumpled. Catching her, Deborah and Sara placed her face up on the couch.

“Call 9-1-1!” Sara’s voice trembled on the edge of panic.

“I’ve got it.” Victor already had his cell phone in hand.

While he punched the numbers, Sara groped for their mother’s wrist. “She’s got a pulse, but she’s not breathing right.” With no need for even telepathic instructions, Deborah cleared the airway for artificial respiration. Vaguely aware of Victor in the background talking to the operator, Deborah inhaled and exhaled on Sara’s count. Lightheaded and queasy herself, Deborah narrowed her focus to her mother’s lungs. Clammy sweat chilled Deborah’s skin. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and kept breathing into her mother’s parted lips.

A siren wailed in the distance. The noise rose to a peak and abruptly shut off. Seconds later, hands grasped Deborah’s shoulders to steer her out of the way, and an olive-skinned man in a paramedic’s uniform began administering oxygen. Two more EMTs swarmed in with IV equipment and a stretcher. Stumbling away from the couch, she almost tripped over the coffee table. Victor grabbed her arm to steady her and help her to the chair.

She blinked at him. For a minute she’d forgotten he was there. She pressed a hand to her mouth, aching to question the paramedics but knowing better than to distract them. Sara, she noticed, had already taken on the task of answering medical history questions. Victor’s hand rested on Deborah’s shoulder as if for comfort, but she sensed tension in his touch. A sidelong glance found him staring hard at the activity around the couch. Probably, she decided, he had no more experience with this kind of crisis than she and Sara did. Most likely he wished he hadn’t fallen into this scenario and wondered how quickly he could escape.

After a few intervals of rapid cross-talk on the radio, one of the paramedics, a tall, blonde woman, said, “We’re ready to transport now.”

“Is it her heart?” Sara asked with a barely suppressed tremor in her voice.

“Looks more like a stroke. The doctors at the hospital will be able to answer your questions.”

“Can we ride in the ambulance?”

After helping to shift the unconscious woman from couch to gurney, the blonde EMT turned to Sara. “Only one of you, I’m afraid.”

Deborah got to her feet and gestured for Sara to go ahead. “I’ll drive Mom’s car and meet you there. It’s the community hospital next to the college, right?”

The paramedic nodded and steered the gurney out the door to the parking lot. Snatching up purse, car keys, and room key, Deborah followed. In the mild breeze of the northern California late August afternoon, she watched her mother loaded into the ambulance, with Sara climbing inside just before the doors were shut. The shriek of the siren split the air. Deborah stared after the ambulance until it disappeared around a corner. 

Shaking off the paralysis of shock, she hurried to her mother’s four-wheel-drive SUV. Her fingers trembled so that she had trouble pushing the unlock button on the key fob. Then she had the same problem dealing with the ignition. When she managed to insert and turn the key, nothing happened. Sure she’d overlooked some obvious step in her anxiety, she checked to make sure the transmission was in Park and tried again. Nothing, not even the grinding noise of a car trying to start with a flooded engine or drained battery.

“This is stupid!” She pounded on the steering wheel. “It worked fine less than two hours ago.” She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, wishing her psychic talents included reviving sick machines. Clenching her jaws, she tried the ignition again, willing it to work this time. The engine remained silent.

After one last, frustrated thump on the dashboard, she got out and slammed the car door. Victor stood next to her. She was mildly surprised to see him still hanging around. “Something wrong with the car?” he said.

She suppressed an impulse to respond with “duh”. “Won’t start, and Sara’s car is in the shop. I’ll just have to call a cab.”

“You don’t have to do that. Let me drive you.”

She stared at him. “Thanks, but I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”

“Hey, no trouble. Come on, they’re probably halfway to the hospital already.”

Her head spinning, she followed him across the parking lot to a silver-toned compact of a brand she didn’t recognize. He opened the passenger door for her, a gesture she hadn’t received from a guy her own age in longer than she could remember. Fastening the belt, she relaxed into the contours of the leather-upholstered seat and gave him directions. Vaguely aware of how quiet the motor was, she let her eyes drift shut on the fifteen-minute drive. She opened them when she felt the car pulling to a stop in the parking lot of the small hospital on the edge of the college campus, at the foot of the mountain that gave the town its name. Flinging the car door open, she barely remembered to thank Victor for the ride before rushing into the ER.

Antiseptic odors and the frigid atmosphere of air conditioning turned up too high stung her nose. Before she could charge the reception counter, Sara intercepted her. “You might as well sit down. They told me to wait out here.”

Deborah sagged into one of the contoured, plastic chairs. “What’s going on?”

“They’re working on her back there. They wouldn’t tell me much of anything.” Sara glanced at Victor with a silent question. ::What’s he doing here?::

Deborah answered aloud, “The car wouldn’t start, so Victor gave me a ride.”

Sara muttered a word of thanks, though her tone sounded dubious.

“Do they have any idea what caused it?”

“Like I said,” Sara replied, perched on the edge of a chair, “they aren’t talking yet.”

“It doesn’t make any sense.” Deborah rubbed her eyes. “Mom’s never had a trace of high blood pressure or any other risk factors.” Feeling his attention on her, she looked up to find Victor hovering beside her. “Thanks again for the lift. You might as well go on, no need for you to be stuck here.”

“Well, if you’re sure…”

“Yeah, we’ll manage,” Sara said.

Victor shoved his hands into his pockets, jingling coins and keys in an oddly self-conscious way, considering how he’d taken charge back at the apartment. “Hey, after things settle down, would it be okay if I drop by and see you at school?”

“How do you know where I–?” She felt her cheeks flush. “Oh, I guess the Parnassus College Bookstore logo on the bags in the room gave you the first clue. Sure, that would be cool. There are only two women’s dorms. I’m in Anthony.”

“Well…” He shifted his feet and jingled his keys again. “I hope your mom will be okay. Later.”

After he’d left, Deborah said, “Why don’t you like him?”

“I don’t not like him. I don’t know a thing about him, and neither do you.”

“What’s to know? We just met him. Why do you have to act so suspicious?” Deborah wasn’t sure why she felt an impulse to defend the guy, maybe because of the implication that he couldn’t show interest in her without ulterior motives.

Sara lowered her voice. “Because of that shield. I think it feels too airtight to be accidental. We’ll talk about it later.”

Fishing a paperback out of her purse, Deborah resumed her current rereading of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Because she knew the plot and most of the dialogue by heart, though, her mind kept wandering from Lord Peter and Harriet. After a few minutes, she put the book away and picked up a National Geographic, hoping the mating cycles of sea otters would succeed in holding her attention. Since she resolutely kept her eyes away from the time function on her phone, she couldn’t tell how much time passed before a middle-aged, black doctor walked up to Sara.

“Ms. Jacobs? We have your mother stabilized.”

Sara stood up. “This is my sister, Deborah Benson. What’s wrong with her? When can she go home?”

“That’s not certain yet.” He cleared his throat. “She’s in a coma, listed as critical. We’re moving her up to the ICU.”

When Deborah got to her feet, she found that her back ached from sitting so long. “What happened, anyway? Is it a stroke? She’s too young.” Kate Benson wasn’t quite fifty yet, older than Deborah could imagine being herself, but far from having one foot in the grave. “And she eats super healthy and jogs and all that stuff.”

“An intracerebral hemorrhagic stroke, bleeding in the brain. She doesn’t smoke?”

“Never,” Sara answered.

“What about her cholesterol? And how was her blood pressure before this episode?”

“Normal, as far as I know. Everything at her last checkup was normal.”

The doctor shrugged. “Sometimes people with no predisposing factors or warning signals suffer this kind of attack. We’ll be able to tell you more after we’ve run additional tests.”

Deborah felt too emotionally battered to frame questions such as “When?” or “What kind of tests?” When she glanced toward the glass doors of the ER, she could hardly believe the sun hadn’t even gone down yet. “Can we see her?”

“Just briefly.” He gave them directions to Intensive Care.

While she rode up in the elevator with Sara, Deborah’s head buzzed with swarms of incoherent prayers. Don’t let her die, make her all right, don’t let her die. Catching her thoughts falling into the “I’ll do anything” mode, she clamped down on the rising panic. Father Mike said God didn’t make that kind of bargain. Anyway, Mom wasn’t about to die. The doctors would send her home with a prescription or something, and life would return to normal.  

ICU consisted of a semicircle of cubicles with the nurse’s station at the center. The duty nurse shooed Sara and Deborah into a waiting room until their mother got settled in. After checking the time once, Deborah forced herself not to look again. It was too frustrating to feel an hour had passed and discover the digits had changed by only five minutes.

Finally, the nurse escorted the two of them into the tiny room where Mom had been installed. “Ten minutes. She needs to rest.” The bed and equipment left space for little more than a single straight-backed chair. Neither of them sat down, instead standing as close to the raised bed as they could. As predicted, their mother was unconscious. Deborah touched her hand, which felt colder than the air conditioning could account for. With her face slack in sedation, a tube down her throat, and wires and tubes snaking around her like the vines of a man-eating plant, she looked years older than she had that afternoon.

Deborah glanced at Sara, also staring intently at Mom’s ashen face. “Maybe we could reach her mentally, find out how she’d really doing, inside.”

“That doesn’t seem like such a good idea,” Sara said, keeping her voice low. “If we did get through to her, we’d wake her up, and you heard what the nurse said about resting. Anyway, look at all this.” She gestured at the beeping monitors. “With all that stuff sticking in you, would you want to be awake?”

Deborah sighed. “I guess not.”

Though her legs and back soon cramped from leaning over the bed, she didn’t move until the nurse returned to chase them out. “You can go home if you want. Nothing’s likely to happen tonight, and we have your number, Ms. Jacobs.”

“No way,” Deborah said before Sara could answer. Sara echoed her. They retired to the waiting room with its plastic-covered couches. In a corner, a woman and her little boy were watching cartoons on the TV.

After a few minutes of trying to read a magazine, Sara suggested they get something to eat. At first Deborah protested the very idea of food, but her stomach churned with a reminder that it was past dinnertime. In the hospital basement, they found the cafeteria and ordered soup and salads. “Do you think we should call Father Mike?” Deborah asked when they’d settled at the table.

Sara shook her head. “Why upset him when there’s nothing he can do? They’ll probably send her home in a couple of days.”

“For sure.” Deborah didn’t voice the next question that came to mind. What if Mom needed care after being released? “Home” was a small town in the mountains three hours away. Sara couldn’t take much time off her private school teaching job, and Deborah herself started classes next week. She couldn’t visualize Mom convalescing in Sara’s cramped, two-bedroom apartment. A twinge of anger pricked Deborah. They shouldn’t have to worry about things like this for another decade or two.

On the way back to the ICU, they both bought paperback mysteries in the lobby gift shop, bracing themselves for a long night. Neither of them brought up the alternative of spending the night at Sara’s place. After a few hours, although chilled and headachy from the air conditioning, Deborah caught herself dozing off. She fought the first few waves of drowsiness but finally surrendered and stretched out on the too-short couch. From the TV, sitcom dialogue babbled in the background, punctuated by occasional bursts from the laugh track. She drifted in and out of sleep until its undertow pulled her below the surface.

She saw her mother strolling in the woods near their house. Hulking shadows with crimson eyes lurked under the trees. They trailed after the woman, but she seemed oblivious to them.  Deborah tried to shout a warning. No sound came out. The shapes slinked from the trees onto the path, like wolves the size of horses. Some of them slithered ahead to block the woman’s steps. Now she saw them, too late. They clustered around her. Now they no longer looked like animals. They melted into amoeboid blobs that extruded tendrils to wrap around her limbs and neck, then drill into her skull. Again Deborah tried to scream, but some force choked her into silence. A smoky pseudopod oozed over her mother’s face and cut off her breath. The woman collapsed onto the ground, buried under the spreading shadows.

Deborah snapped awake to a mental cry of alarm from Sara. ::The Dark!:: She couldn’t tell whether the words came from her own mind, her sister’s, or both.

She sat up, noticing Sara uncurling herself from a chair opposite. ::Yes, the Dark is hunting for her. But it can’t get her. Remember that.:: Sara’s mental tone projected no confidence, though. It trembled on the edge of terror.

Both of them leaped up and hurried into the ICU. Through the glass window of their mother’s cubicle, they glimpsed two people working over her. A nurse stepped forward to intercept Sara and Deborah. “You can’t go in right now. Wait outside, and we’ll tell you her status as soon as we can.” With kindly firmness, the woman herded them through the doors into the corridor.

Instead of retreating to the waiting room, the girls stood just outside the doors. Deborah strained her ears to catch any clue from the beeps and footsteps that were all she could hear. Sara’s hand, clammy with sweat, clasped hers. Together they reached for their mother’s thoughts. They sensed nothing but a gray cloud. Deborah closed her eyes to focus harder but couldn’t find any trace of consciousness. Moments later, a light shone behind the cloud, transforming the gray to pearl, then to blinding white. And then nothing.

Within seconds, the door swung open. A doctor–Deborah was concentrating so hard on his voice and his aura that she couldn’t have recognized him by sight five minutes later–took them by the shoulders to steer them out of the hallway. “Ms. Jacobs, Ms. Benson, I’m sorry to have to tell you your mother suffered another stroke a few minutes ago.”

“No.” Deborah scarcely heard her own voice, like a faraway echo down a dark tunnel.

“Her heart stopped. We did everything possible. We shocked her repeatedly and administered drugs in an attempt to stimulate the heart muscle.”

“No.”

“We tried our best, but we couldn’t bring her back.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry. She died.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Victor’s pulse accelerated while the phone rang on the other end of the line. He mentally ordered himself to chill. If he couldn’t reconnect with Deborah Benson this way, he’d see her at the college a few days later the way he’d planned. He would have preferred to call her at the dorm, but when he’d tried that, she hadn’t been on the premises. He’d resorted to getting her sister’s apartment phone number from directory assistance.

The answering machine message began, “Hello, you’ve reached Sara Jacobs,” cut off at that point by a live “Hello” in Sara’s voice, sounding weary and impatient at the same time.

“Hi, I wondered if Deborah’s around.”

“Yes, she’s here. Can I tell her who’s calling?” The tone of the question sounded far from welcoming.

“This is Victor Morheim. I just wanted to check that she’s okay and ask how your mom’s doing.”

“She died last night. It was a hemorrhagic stroke.” Only the flatness of Sara’s voice prevented her from sounding outright hostile.

“Oh! I’m sorry to hear that. Uh–please tell Deborah I called.” He didn’t have to fake his shock. He hadn’t expected this development.

“Sure. I have to go now.” Sara hung up.

She doesn’t like me much. Better work on that. Hanging up the phone on the nightstand table, he slumped on the edge of the king-size bed. Had Kate Benson’s death been planned all along, or had the spell escalated out of control? He rubbed his forehead. He needed to talk to someone, definitely not Uncle Hugh. The scarf. Damn, that’s why he wanted it.

He left his suite and walked down the hall to his twin sister Vivian’s. They’d lived all their lives in the sprawling, early-twentieth-century mansion that housed the headquarters of Millennial Dawn, Hugh Morheim’s software company. As soon as the twins had reached their teens, they’d each moved into a private apartment on the top floor. Approaching Vivian’s door, Victor heard the soundtrack of Phantom of the Opera emanating from within. They’d first watched that show out of curiosity after Uncle Hugh had sneered at the “sentimental” ending, and Vivian had become enthralled with the music. Victor reached out to touch his sister’s mind. She answered with a silent invitation to enter. The speakers switched off.

He stepped into the living room of a suite identical to his except for incidental decor, two rooms with a kitchenette and bath. Japanese anime posters covered the walls, while he papered his quarters with star charts, astronomical photos, and stills from old horror films. Her space, like his, stayed tidy except for a few books and clothing items scattered around. When they’d reached their teens, Uncle Hugh had agreed they didn’t have to let the housekeeping crew in anymore, provided they cleaned the rooms to his standards. Vivian kept a tarantula named Shelob in a terrarium under the living room window, where Victor had a potted Venus’s flytrap in the corresponding spot. At the moment Vivian sat at the computer station barefooted, in denim cutoffs and a T-shirt, playing a dimension-hopping roleplaying game produced by Millennial Dawn. Aside from the fair skin they shared, the two of them didn’t look much alike. About a foot shorter than his six feet four, she had flame-red hair she’d recently taken to wearing in multiple corn-rowed braids. Freckles dusted her nose. Exiting the game, she walked over to sit on the couch. “What’s wrong?”

He averted his gaze from the screen saver, an image of Azathoth devouring a solar system. Even though nothing but a cluster of pixels, the monster’s single eye always made him queasy. The graphic came from another of the company’s games, The Dark Devourer, which Uncle Hugh had cautioned them not to play beyond the demo, for good reason. “Who said anything was wrong? Can’t I just visit my favorite sister?”

“Otherwise known as your only sister? Yeah, right. You’ve got your thoughts shielded okay, but the emotions still leak out. So give.”

He dropped onto the luxuriously thick, forest green carpet and reclined against the couch. “It’s about Deborah Benson.”

“I wondered when you’d get around to telling me how it went. I want to hear everything. If she’d been a boy, she’d be my assignment.”

“It’s not like you’ll get left out. I’ll need you to soften up the sister. You know, get tight with her and keep mentioning what a great guy I am. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.” He laid his head back to stare at the ceiling. “Uncle Hugh killed their mother.”

“Oh.” Vivian wrapped her arms around her knees and gazed down at him. “Are you really all that surprised?”

“Not really, knowing him, but he could’ve warned me.”

“He probably didn’t trust your acting ability.”

“Yeah, he said something about wanting my reactions to be spontaneous. But that’s beside the point. Why’d he have to do it? Sure, the hemorrhagic stroke makes sense–“

“Whoa, back up. Stroke?”

Victor had momentarily forgotten he hadn’t filled her in on his meeting with the girls yet. “Yeah, he used a scarf as a link to work the spell. He put a tracer on the book I was returning, too. I’ll bet he wanted to make sure he zapped the mother while I was in the room, so I’d have an excuse to offer Deborah a ride to the hospital. And that part worked fine. But he didn’t have to kill her.”

“You know what Uncle Hugh would say to that. Millions of people die every day. What’s the life of one woman you don’t even know, when cosmic issues are at stake? And the lifespan of any human being is like a microbe’s compared to the time scale of the universe, yada yada yada.”

Victor managed a weak grin. “Yeah, that’s exactly what he’d say. It still didn’t make a lot of sense to kill her. It’ll be harder to get Deborah turned on to me while she’s dealing with her mother’s death.”

“Good point.” After a moment’s thought, Vivian said, “You think he was worried that their mother might sense your real motives? Maybe he wanted her out of the way so there was no chance she could protect the girls.”

“Maybe.” He still hated being left out of the loop, like no more than a pawn.

“So when are you seeing Deborah again?”

“I’m supposed to drop in at her dorm sometime,” he said. “Wait a minute, what if she decides to skip this semester, with her mother dying and all?”

“That’s right, nobody knows where they really live, so how would you find her?”

“Uncle Hugh must have thought of that. He’s got to have a backup plan.” Victor sat up straight as an idea occurred to him. “I think I’ll go to the funeral. All I need to do is find the obituary, and that’ll tell where and when. It couldn’t hurt to show up and look sympathetic.”

“Unless the sister thinks you’re doing it just to hit on Deborah. Especially since you are.”

“Wow, thanks for the moral support.” He turned around to give his sister a light thump on the leg. “I do feel sorry for her, having that drop on her out of nowhere, so that’s no lie. And she can’t read my thoughts.”

“You hope,” said Vivian. “Sure, we have better than average shields, but these sisters are supposed to be powerful to the max.”

“Well, I didn’t notice any sign that they broke through my shield yesterday.”

“Which do you think it’ll be?” She rested her elbows on her knees and thoughtfully propped her chin on her clasped hands. “Turn her or sacrifice her?”

The idea of Deborah’s getting devoured by the Ancient Ones made his stomach curdle. “I’ll do my best to bring her over to our side, of course. Maybe Uncle Hugh wanted her mother dead to throw her off balance, make her disillusioned with what she’s believed all her life.”

“So the girl’s worth hitting on, huh?” Vivian said with a sly smile. “Give!”

To his annoyance, he felt his face reddening. He didn’t feel like discussing his instant attraction to the only girl he’d ever met, other than his sister, with powers comparable to his own. “Yeah, she’s hot. Real tough assignment–“

The ring of the telephone next to the computer interrupted him. The short buzz indicated an inside line.

Vivian stepped over to the desk to answer. Her side of the conversation consisted of a series of “yes, sirs”. Victor didn’t bother eavesdropping telepathically, since she would tell him about the call in a minute. When she hung up, she turned to him with a troubled expression. “Uncle Hugh’s coming to get us. An important meeting, he says.”

Victor stood up. “With who?”

She frowned. “He didn’t say. Just that I better dress decently.” She glanced down at her clothes. “I guess that means something besides raggy cutoffs.” Dashing into the bedroom, she emerged a minute later in jeans, sandals, and a blouse, seconds before a knock sounded at the door.

Victor opened it to find their guardian waiting.

Somehow managing, as usual, to look all business in a tieless, short-sleeved shirt, he intimidated Victor even though Uncle Hugh was two inches shorter and, with his receding, graying blond hair, tiny mustache, and mild hazel eyes, deceptively harmless-looking. An unavoidable side effect, thought Victor, of having taken orders from the man for as long as he could remember. “Ready?” he said in a brisk tone. “You’ve been summoned to meet the Archon. Both of you.”

Victor barely stopped himself from blurting out, “What?” Why would they receive that privilege with no advance notice? Unless the lack of warning was a deliberate attempt to unsettle them? Was he in trouble? Had Uncle Hugh’s report of Victor’s first meeting with Deborah disappointed the Archon? Not for the first time, he felt thankful for their mentor’s lack of telepathic ability. He had some hope of concealing his alarm.

Vivian made no attempt at reticence. “What’s going on? What does he want with us?” She didn’t voice the other thought Victor knew she shared with him, surprise at the confirmation that the Archon actually existed. After all these years of hearing that shadowy figure discussed in terms of awe, Victor had begun to suspect the Archon of being purely symbolic. Uncle Hugh certainly managed all the routine operations of both the software company and the Order of the Crystal Tetrahedron, with no need for support from anyone more powerful.

“He hasn’t communicated the details to me,” Uncle Hugh said, “so don’t waste my time with questions.” He led the way to the elevator, a sign that their destination was in the cellar. If they’d been heading for either an above-ground room in the house or an offsite destination, they’d have taken the stairs.

The drop of the elevator aggravated the queasy feeling in the pit of Victor’s stomach. On second thought, if he were in trouble, the Archon wouldn’t have summoned both him and Vivian. Besides, why would their near-mythical leader bother with something so trivial as rebuking an underling? Still, the unprecedented command made his heart race with anxiety.

The elevator came to rest in the basement, expanded from the house’s original wine cellar. Uncle Hugh led them past that chamber, still used for its intended purpose but remodeled with state-of-the-art climate control, down a side tunnel Victor had never explored. From childhood, he’d known this area was off limits without an invitation. Although ordinary fluorescent overhead bulbs lit the corridor, he imagined the light looked weak and watery, not quite up to the job of extinguishing the shadows in the long, narrow hall. He mentally shook off the illusion. Uncle Hugh had no patience with emotional indulgence.

They followed their guardian to a door of dark wood at the end of the hall. Uncle Hugh pushed a buzzer beside it. The door swung open on its own. Victor half expected it to creak like a portal in one of those black-and-white horror films, but it opened soundlessly. “Go on,” said Uncle Hugh. “I wasn’t directed to come with you.” He turned back toward the distant elevator.

Victor exchanged a nervous glance with Vivian, who nibbled on her lower lip. Wiping damp palms on his black jeans, he said, “Well, you heard him. Let’s go.” He didn’t dare elaborate even telepathically. Who knew what powers the Archon might have?

The door opened into a long, narrow entryway carpeted in a bland beige. He’d vaguely expected deep purple like the scrying room or some other vibrant color. The plain white walls echoed the neutral tone of the rug. At once the temperature dropped to a level that momentarily made him shiver. The subliminal hum of the ventilation system vibrated in the background. Vivian wrapped her arms around herself.

With the carpet muffling their footsteps, they walked to an inner door that looked less formidable than the first. It, too, opened without a touch when they approached it. Victor stepped through first, with his sister close behind. She moved to his side as soon as they cleared the doorway. While they took in the white and beige room and its inhabitant, he felt a wave of shock from her. He struggled to quash his own reaction. Fear of offending the Archon chilled him.

The reason for the bland color scheme became clear. The Archon had lashless eyelids sealed shut. His only garment, a pair of blue satin shorts, made the absence of legs equally obvious. He sat in the middle of the room in an electric wheelchair. Electronic equipment lined two of the walls, a state-of-the-art sound system and a computer with its peripherals. An open door led into the rest of the suite.

The wheelchair glided toward them without a touch from the rider’s hands. At the same time, the door behind them closed.

Okay, telekinesis, Victor thought. I can do that, too. Yet he couldn’t help feeling a renewed chill when the sightless face turned directly toward him. Vivian clasped his hand like a little girl lost in the woods.

“Don’t bother trying to conceal your distaste,” the Archon said. “I know how I look through others’ vision. I probably perceive my surroundings better than you do.”

Too late, Victor firmed up his shield, though for all he knew the Archon could pierce it like paper. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean–“

The other waved a hand dismissively. “Never mind. Sit down.”

Large cushions littered the floor. The twins unclasped hands, and each chose a cushion. Studying the Archon more closely, Victor wondered about his age. From rumors he’d heard, he thought their leader was about as old as Uncle Hugh. His bald head and smooth skin made it hard to judge.   

“So. Victor and Vivian. Mr. Morheim gives me good reports of your progress and the first contact with Deborah Benson.”

Victor swallowed and stammered a word of thanks for the compliment. He felt Vivian’s nervousness leaking through her shield.

“How much do you know about the source of your powers?”

Not expecting that question, Victor groped for an answer, but the Archon turned toward Vivian.

“Selective breeding,” she said. “Our parents were chosen for the strength and range of their talents. And of course we’ve been trained all our lives.” Trained by a different specialist in each gift, since no one teacher possessed all the psychic potential the twins had inherited. Uncle Hugh, though he guided and tested them, had almost none.

“That’s only part of it. Your abilities were catalyzed in the same way as mine. Like my parents, yours were exposed to several mutagenic drugs designed to stimulate their future offspring’s extrasensory powers to their highest potential. In my case, unfortunate physical side effects occurred. Consider yourselves lucky that the Order had a couple more decades to perfect the process before you were conceived.”

Victor wondered whether the Archon had spent his entire life in these chambers and whether he resented the existence forced upon him.

The Archon turned in Victor’s direction. “One of my gifts is direct communication with the Ancient Ones. You can’t possibly imagine what I experience when I leave my body to unite with Them. No physical pleasure could compare with it.”

Remembering the fragmentary glimpse of another dimension he’d once seen in the scrying crystal, Victor had no desire to imagine the Archon’s experience, much less share it.

“Do you know why you were bred and trained to deal with that girl?” The sharp tone suggested that the Archon already knew the answer.

“Only that there’s a prophecy,” Victor said. “She has to be neutralized. But Uncle Hugh never told us the details.”

“That’s one reason I called you here, to enlighten you on that point.”

Victor leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees, and noticed Vivian doing the same. About time they got more than the “no need to know” answers he was sick of hearing.

“The configuration of the stars within our galaxy is about to move into an alignment that warps our space-time continuum sufficiently to allow the opening of a gate between universes. The barrier weakens, and the time approaches for the return of the Ancient Ones.”

“Soon?” The pulse pounded in Victor’s head. All his life he’d had the story drilled into him, how vast entities who had been exiled from our continuum waited to break in once more. All life on Earth would become cattle to feed them, except for the chosen few such as the members of the Order. He’d thought of this return as a distant myth, though, no more believable than his own eventual death.

“A lot sooner than you probably thought.” A thin smiled flitted over the Archon’s face. “The leaders of the Order and our allies in other organizations have known since before Deborah Benson was conceived that she would have the power to block the opening of the gate and that she would do so if she weren’t stopped.”

“How will she do that?” Vivian asked.

“We don’t know. The important thing is that Victor, with your help, has to either eliminate her or seduce her to join us. Preferably the latter. Her strengths could be useful to us. Meanwhile, you have a special role in preparing for the Ancient Ones’ return.”

“Me?” Her voice practically squeaked.

“When the time comes around,” he said, “the gate must be opened by one of Their own offspring in human form. You have been selected to give life to this opener of the portal.”

Victor felt his sister’s shield freeze into a sphere impenetrable even to him. Knowing she must be trying to hide her fears from the Archon, he wondered whether she had any hope of succeeding. Just in case, he followed her example. Although he suspected the Archon sensed his negative reaction, there was no need to advertise it.

“Follow me.” Again without touching the controls, the Archon turned his wheelchair and glided toward the other door. He led them into a chamber with four rooms opening off it. The three doors that stood ajar showed glimpses of a bedroom, a small kitchen, and a book-lined study. The other door was shut. At a gesture from the Archon, it opened.

Behind it stood another closed portal, this one of black wood polished to a gleaming finish. “Brace yourselves,” said their host. “Sighted visitors seem to find what you’re about to see a little disturbing.” He nodded at the ebony door, which swung inward. An iridescent curtain of multicolored light filled the gap.

Victor blinked, struggling to make the shimmer hold still long enough to focus on it. The same headache he usually got from the scrying crystal began to congeal behind his eyes. “Now,” the Archon said. The rainbow curtain melted away. A tunnel stretched before them. Its walls formed a dizzying spiral of swirling colors that shifted so rapidly Victor couldn’t identify one before it segued into another. The passage threatened to suck him in. For a second he imagined he felt a wind pulling at him, about to draw him into the vertiginous depths. With one hand he leaned on the wall, while with the other he clutched at Vivian’s groping fingers.

He stomach roiled. At the end of the tunnel–or was it the bottom of a pit?–he glimpsed a faceted eye staring at him. The Dark Devourer. The game illustration is based on this. Biting off a scream, he closed his eyes. Mistake–when he couldn’t see, the floor seemed to lurch under his feet. Turning his head away from the portal, he opened his eyes to meet Vivian’s, wide in terror.

“Enough.” The Archon’s brisk tone cut through the buzzing in Victor’s head. The curtain re-formed, and the two doors slammed shut.

Clammy with sweat, Victor, with Vivian still clinging to his hand, followed the Archon back to the main room. “Was that–?”

“A window into Their continuum, yes, or an antechamber of it, anyway. I’ve been communicating with that servant of the Ancient Ones since before I was your age. It will sire the child you’re going to bear, Vivian.”

Sinking onto the nearest cushion, she couldn’t suppress a gasp.

The Archon answered the question that had just popped into Victor’s mind. “Oh, not in the usual way, of course. It isn’t even composed of the same kind of matter we are. Your ovum, Vivian, will be fertilized in vitro by one of your brother’s sperm.” With a wry smile at her involuntary flinch, he added, “Calm yourself. You should be too well educated to care about irrational taboos. You’ve both undergone thorough genetic testing, and you bear no harmful recessives. We want to preserve the psi powers we devoted such effort to producing in you two. At the next step, the implantation, that creature you just met will merge its essence with the zygote’s DNA to shape it into a hybrid form, a human body with some of Their traits.”

“That’s possible? An embryo with effectively two fathers?” Victor’s amazement almost drowned out his fear and revulsion. “Can you even be sure the fertilization and implantation will succeed the first time?”

“Our reproductive biologists have received a little extra guidance from Them.”

“When?” Vivian whispered.

“The extraction of the ovum can be done at your next cycle. You’ll receive instructions to report for hormone injections soon. As for the crucial stage, the implantation, that depends on many cosmological factors. Mr. Morheim will inform you of the details.” The door behind them opened. “Don’t bother trying to make me think you’re overjoyed about this assignment. You’re obviously shocked. Once you get over that, though, I’m sure you’ll realize what an honor this is.”

The tone of dismissal was obvious. When Victor stood up to leave, he caught himself backing toward the exit, as if either leaving the presence of royalty or afraid to turn his back on their host. Vivian, he noticed, spontaneously did the same. When he realized what they were doing, he didn’t change his posture, nor did he feel any impulse to laugh at himself.    

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