Sealing the Dark Portal 3d cover

Sealing the Dark Portal by Margaret L. Carter

Sealing the Dark Portal 2 covers

Almost nothing Rina remembers about her life is true. Rather than the ordinary librarian she believes herself to be, she’s actually a sorceress who fled from another world to ours when creatures from an alien dimension devastated her home and killed her family. Now they’ve pursued her to our world, summoned by a sorcerer who plans to open a portal and invite monstrous entities from the void between dimensions to overrun this planet. Rina’s former bodyguard, a cat shapeshifter who was once her lover and still yearns for her, helps her true memories to awaken. She must come to terms with the truth about her past so that together they can save their new home from the fate of their old one.

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Blue Bar

Chapter 1

 

Nightmares belonged in the bedroom. So when Rina glimpsed a tendril of shadow writhing at the edge of the library’s parking lot, she knew something was wrong. She grabbed her friend’s arm.

“Whoa, you okay?” From behind her gold-rimmed glasses, Patricia Doyle followed the direction of Rina’s gaze. “It’s just Mr. Rodriguez.”

Of course it wasn’t the oil slick monster from her dreams. The shape Rina had imagined she’d seen morphed into a man in his sixties wearing his usual faded jeans and shabby denim jacket. He shuffled out of the shadows onto the pavement. She unclenched her grip, and her shoulders sagged.

“Why so jumpy?” Pat asked. “You’re the one who used to have the idiotic habit of walking home alone after dark.”

Rina didn’t want to mention the revival of the nightmares she thought she’d smothered months before. Never mind walking home–if she raved about dark tentacles coiling around her, she would sound too unstable to drive. She couldn’t claim to be nervous about being the last to leave, given that former “idiotic habit” and how often the two of them strolled out to a deserted parking lot after shutting the library for the night. So she only shrugged and smiled.

Pat dug her car keys out of her purse. “We still on for tomorrow night?”

“Sure.” They spent most Friday evenings together, something she didn’t want to miss. “Why not?”

“I keep thinking you might have a date one of these weeks.” Pat seldom missed a chance to lament their pathetic manless existence, pointing out that at least she had the excuse of being a single mother. When Rina laughed and shook her head, Pat asked, “Don’t you ever crave anything more exciting from life than a girls’ night out?”

As usual, Rina answered that question with a firm negative.

Pat headed for her SUV, her short, mahogany curls bouncing in rhythm with her brisk pace. After the SUV pulled out, Rina started toward her forest-green compact, dangling her keys. Mr. Rodriguez ambled from the row of trees at the back of the lot into the light and planted himself between her and the car. “Ms. Cassel? I got to talk to you.”

She paused, feeling her nervously fixed smile evaporate. She certainly had no reason to be uneasy about this man. He spent hours every day in the library reading magazines and newspapers. Skinny but not scrawny, with dark eyes and gray-streaked hair, he was familiar to the staff and never caused trouble. She didn’t know whether he was homeless or just retired and in need of a place to hang out. Despite their long but casual acquaintance, though, his accosting her at this time of night with that worried tone of voice made her pulse quicken. “Can I help you with something, Mr. Rodriguez?”

He started to speak but doubled over, wheezing.

“Are you all right?”

Catching his breath, he waved away the question. “Sure, I’m fine. This is about you, not me. Something feels wrong. You got to be careful.”

She forced a dry laugh. “Is this another one of your premonitions?”

“Don’t laugh, ma’am. You know I can sense things sometimes.”

A chill snaked up the back of her neck. Granted, the previous fall he’d spent an afternoon telling everybody who would listen that a hurricane predicted to sweep past Virginia and out to sea would make landfall right on top of Maryland instead. It had. Weather prediction was notoriously chaotic, though. The meteorologists had miscalculated, that was all, and he had made a lucky guess. On the other hand, there had been the car key incident just last month. No, she wouldn’t think about that. She shook her head. “And you know I don’t believe in that stuff.”

He gripped her hand. His fingers felt icy despite the warmth of the May evening. “Please listen, I know there’s danger somewhere. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

She didn’t believe for a second anything was about to happen. Still, when she had panicked about not being able to find her keys that other evening, he’d told her they were on the checkout counter in the library where she’d accidentally left them while rummaging for something else in her purse. And he’d been right that time, too, even though he hadn’t been anywhere near when she’d dropped them. Coincidence, another random hit. But it couldn’t hurt to humor him for a minute. “Okay, what’s the danger? What should I do to protect myself?”

He frowned as if trying to puzzle out an answer. “I don’t know; I think it’s got something to do with a necklace.”

Her pulse stuttered. “What necklace?” She owned only one of value, which he had never seen.

With a gasp, he squeezed her hand painfully hard, and his legs crumpled. He collapsed to his knees on the pavement, almost dragging her down with him.

She dropped her oversized shoulder bag and hooked her free hand under his elbow. She caught a whiff of the cigarette smoke that always permeated his clothes. “Mr. Rodriguez, what’s wrong? Can you stand up?”

Leaning on her, he lurched to his feet. Though she stood five feet six, and he wasn’t much taller, she staggered under his weight. “Are you sick? Let me get you some help.”

He shook his head. “Just dizzy. I’m all right now. You just be careful.”

Rina struggled to hide her impatience. After all, the poor man was obviously ill and maybe not in his right mind. “Thanks for worrying about me, but what can I do if you don’t even know what I should be careful of?”

“Somebody wants to hurt you. I don’t know who. But you got to watch out.” Labored breaths punctuated the words.

“Okay, I’ll be careful.” Not that she had any idea what further precautions she could take. She didn’t walk from the exit to her vehicle alone when leaving the library at night, even though the parking lot was small and well-lit. She locked the car doors while driving, chained and bolted the door of her rented duplex every night. In the fifty-year-old residential neighborhood between the library and home, she didn’t expect to be mugged anyway. After dark she drove the few blocks instead of walking to and from work only to keep Pat from fussing. The nightmares, visions of earth and sky cracking like eggshells to hatch horrors, made her more nervous than the streets did.

“Now let me call 9-1-1 for you.” Dizziness, difficulty breathing, poor circulation in his hands–suppose he was having a heart attack? She picked up her purse and fished in it for her phone.

He straightened up and looked her in the eye. “No, thank you. I don’t need a doctor.”

“Are you sure?” She unlocked the driver’s door of her car and paused with her hand on the latch. Light rain began sprinkling her face and bare forearms.

“Don’t worry about me. You just keep your eyes open.”

No point in asking any more questions. Aside from the mention of the necklace, he obviously had nothing except a vague “sense” to communicate. His other “guesses”, or whatever they were, had been specific. “At least let me give you a ride so you won’t get wet or in case you feel dizzy again.”

“No need. Goodnight, Ms. Cassel.” His back straight and head high, he walked out of the parking lot, crossed the wide lawn in front of the redbrick library building, and turned up West Street toward downtown Annapolis.

Rina decided not to persist any further. She couldn’t force him to accept help, and he looked well enough now. With the rain picking up, she got into the car and switched on the windshield wipers. The spatter of drops grew to a steady stream by the time she’d made the five-minute drive home.

Pulling into the driveway of her half of the duplex, she noticed movement in the shadows on her front stoop. She flashed on an image of an ink-black blob oozing from a pit. As soon as she stepped out of the car, she let out a shaky giggle when the illusion evaporated. She recognized the long-haired cat who had been hanging around the yard off and on for the past couple of weeks. She couldn’t blame him for seeking shelter under the roof overhang, especially since she had set out more than one bowl of milk for him on occasional evenings.

There was no chance of confusing him with any other neighborhood stray. He was the largest domestic cat she had ever seen, maybe close to twenty pounds, his coat an explosion of copper-toned fluff. His golden eyes glowed up at her as she scurried through the rain to the front door. Though he didn’t wear a collar, he was clearly used to people, judging by the way he sat calmly while she rushed past him into the house.

In the foyer she toed off her shoes in the tiled entryway. She crossed the beige carpet and headed up the stairs to the master suite where she slept alone, as Pat took frequent opportunities to mention. Rina liked that arrangement perfectly fine. She liked her tidy bedroom with off-white walls, neatly made queen-size bed, and bookshelf holding rows of paperback mysteries alphabetized by author. She liked the uncluttered attached bathroom, with nobody else’s junk scattered around or hair in the drain. After drying her face and rubbing a towel over her head, Rina stripped off her wet blouse and put on a T-shirt. When she opened a window to let in the night air, the noise of the rain came with it.

Was the cat still huddled on the stoop? He looked too healthy to be living on the streets. Maybe he was one of those house cats that made the rounds of the neighbors scrounging food, with their owners oblivious to the con job their pets were running. Yet she couldn’t help worrying about him out there in the rain. Muttering “pushover” to herself, she hunted through the kitchen cabinet and found a can of tuna, the contents of which she dumped onto a paper plate.

When she opened the front door, the cat was still there. He padded over to her as if he’d been expecting her. With a single meow in acknowledgment, he began nibbling the tuna as soon as she put it down.

“You need some water with that, don’t you?” She went inside, leaving the inner door ajar. The screen would keep the cat from coming in, not that she expected him to try. He was still eating steadily when she returned with a bowl of water. He lapped up a few swallows, then returned his attention to the fish. She stretched a tentative hand toward him. When he didn’t flinch, she stroked down the length of his back. His tail flicked lazily. He didn’t narrow his eyes, fold back his ears, or show any other sign of hostility. His damp fur felt soft and smooth, with no mats or scabs. In the middle of his meal, he paused to rub his head against her hand. She scratched behind his ears, and he responded with a guttural purr.

“If I didn’t think you had a home somewhere, I might consider inviting you to live with me.” A cat wouldn’t be nearly so much trouble as a human roommate, whether friend or lover.

Abruptly he pulled away from her and sprang to his feet. His tail lashed.

“Hey, what did I do?”

Hissing, the cat whirled around to face the front yard. His coat puffed up like a porcupine’s quills. Rina peered through the rain, trying to see what had spooked him.

A sharp acetone smell, like nail polish or overripe bananas, stung her nose. Something materialized a few yards away on the sidewalk between the house and the street. At least, the word “materialize” popped into her mind, because one minute she saw nothing and the next minute, there it was. A grayish, four-legged creature, maybe a huge dog like an Irish wolfhound. Its eyes gleamed red. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Four legs? For a second the beast looked as if it had at least six.

No way, it’s the rain. She couldn’t see clearly through the downpour outside the circle of the porch light. That was why she had trouble counting its legs. That had to be why its edges blurred, almost like a cloud rather than a solid body. It expanded, and its mouth gaped to show fangs longer than any dog’s. It stalked toward her. Too paralyzed with disbelief to retreat, she stood petrified, watching.

The cat’s hiss segued into a snarl. Claws out, he charged at the beast. The creature backed up. Its outline melted into amorphous clump of smoke or sooty fog. The cat sprang on it and sank his claws into the gray clot. The thing solidified into something like a giant dog again. The cat leaped to the ground and raked a slash down one of the elongated legs. The beast retreated to the shadow of a crape myrtle tree at the corner of the yard and vanished. The cat dashed after it into the darkness and out of sight.

Rina slammed the door, shot the bolt, and fastened the chain with trembling fingers. Shaking, she leaned on the panel.

I did not see that.

The rain must have confused her vision. Everything was a blur out there. She hadn’t seen a crimson-eyed smoke creature that changed shape. It must have been a dog. And the cat had chased it away.

My hero. I owe him another can of tuna.

Why hadn’t the Pirellis, the retired couple in the other half of the duplex, come out to investigate the noise? Was the rain that loud? She clenched her fists against the wood and willed herself to stop trembling.

By the time she managed to relax, the rush of the rain slackened to a patter. Outside, a man’s voice spoke so faintly she could hardly make out the words, “Varina, you’re in danger. Listen carefully.”

“What?” The voice sounded almost familiar. But she couldn’t place it, and he’d addressed her by somebody else’s name. She called with her lips next to the doorjamb, “Who’s there? You’ve got the wrong house.”

“Varina, you have to awaken your pendant.” The man sounded closer this time.

She unlocked the bolt but left the chain on to peek out through the crack. Nobody appeared in her range of vision. “Is anybody there?”

No answer. She closed and bolted the door. She must have heard wrong. The man had gone away because he realized he’d come to the wrong house, and the name he’d spoken must have only vaguely resembled hers. As for the reference to a pendant, her mind had probably distorted that part of the sentence, too. After all, it didn’t even make sense. How could anybody “awaken” a piece of jewelry?

Now that she’d been reminded by that remark and Mr. Rodriguez’s warning, she couldn’t stop thinking about the pendant, her only family keepsake. She hadn’t looked at it more than twice since the deaths of her parents and teenage brother, Ted. Her mother had passed it to her on Rina’s last birthday before the car crash that had killed all three of them six years earlier. She went up to her bedroom, knelt on the floor in front of the dresser, and opened the bottom drawer. Under a stack of sweaters she kept a silver box about six inches square. She took it out and held it on her lap, hesitating. Why touch the necklace when it only stirred sad memories?

Having come this far, though, she couldn’t resist. She opened the box and lifted out the silver chain. From it hung a large, oval pendant of green jade. The figure of a butterfly with eyes made of emerald chips and a mottled pattern of blue and green on its wings clung to the front of the oval. She dangled the pendant against her chest. She’d worn it only once, to a winter dance at college right before she’d received the news of her whole family’s death. Was that a sensible reason for never wearing it again? She could rationalize the decision by claiming she didn’t want to risk damaging or losing a valuable heirloom. The truth was, she knew, she couldn’t face the reminders it brought. Speaking of “awakening”, the memories linked to this necklace were exactly what she didn’t want to awaken. She tucked it back in the box like a dangerous animal she wanted to lock up.

The unknown voice had mentioned danger. Mr. Rodriguez had warned her something was coming. Was that it? A beast made of smoke? Rina dug her fingers into her scalp as if to keep her head from exploding. She had misheard the strange man, Mr. Rodriguez was a few pieces short of a jigsaw puzzle, and her brain had translated a glimpse of a gray dog in a downpour into an imaginary monster. Or else she was losing her mind, an alternative she had no intention of considering. She crammed the box under the sweaters and slammed the drawer shut. Time to go to bed and forget the past half hour.

 

***

 

Cambur morphed into his feline shape and dashed under the shadow of the tree just in time to keep Varina from catching a glimpse of him. Or, as she thought of herself now, Rina Cassel. Why had he dared to speak to her–as if she would listen anyway? He wasn’t ready to reveal himself yet, if ever, and she certainly wasn’t ready for the truth. His yearning for her had made him reckless.

The thing he’d just chased away reminded him that he needed to focus on protecting her, not on his selfish desires. It, or some stronger entity, might reappear anytime. Cam sneezed and shook drops from his fur, a futile gesture even under the shelter of the tree. A crape myrtle didn’t offer enough of a canopy to shield him from the rain. For all the advantages of the cat form in discreet surveillance, it had its drawbacks on a night like this. The bed in his apartment across town beckoned, but he wouldn’t abandon Rina until right before dawn. He’d watched her leave her workplace with her shorter, plumper friend and had kept an eye on her until he’d been sure the man in the parking lot meant her no harm. Then Cam had sprinted along the few blocks of tree-lined streets from the library to Rina’s home.

He followed the same pattern every night. Given that he had to sleep sometime, he did it mostly in daylight, when she was less at risk. Even then, the empathic link between them would alert him if danger struck, although the time required to dash to her rescue might mean life or death. Granted, attacks could happen at any time of day or night, but the enemy would most likely prefer darkness. Night lessened psychic interference from the oblivious human population, and the dark made it less likely any noncombatants would notice the enemy’s creatures. Fortunately, even if any random passersby had seen tonight’s combat, they would probably have mistaken the entity for a natural animal. The summoner of the beast was doubtless still groping for his path in this world. He must have found his way here very recently, for he wouldn’t have waited long to come after Rina.

Cam watched lights inside the duplex switch on and off as she moved from room to room. His chest tightened with longing for another glimpse of her. She hadn’t changed much since fleeing their home. Her olive skin and green eyes looked the same as ever. Her glossy black hair now reached only to her shoulders, shorter than before, and it showed waves she usually tamed by tying it back in a ponytail. She’d become more slender than he remembered. She still had alluring curves, though, as her tailored slacks and the blouse molded to her breasts by the rain had made clear. Now that the void spawn’s odor had dissipated, the lingering ghost of Rina’s scent–powder, shampoo, her own sweet musk–tantalized him, so much stronger to his cat nose than his human one. He flexed his claws. A growl vibrated in his throat at the memory of her hand stroking his feline body.

Focus, you besotted idiot! He was here to guard her, not fantasize about something she wouldn’t want even if she knew his identity. In the house, the last light on the second floor blinked out, leaving only the porch lamp shining. She must be settling to sleep. Not that he needed visual evidence to get a rough sense of either her location or her mood. Whenever he got close enough, the bond between them flooded him with awareness of her even though she remained deaf to it. No matter that the block had been placed in her mind for her own safety, he couldn’t quell his sadness that she had no memory of him.

Was he looking for an excuse to reveal himself to her? After all, the situation had changed. Vardon’s creature shouldn’t have been able to attack Rina so near her own front door. The zone of protection was weakening. Maybe obliterating her memories had been a mistake, leaving her vulnerable. She might have been safer all along in knowledge than in ignorance.

By now the rain had slacked to a light sprinkle. Cam smoothed his wet fur with his sandpaper tongue. Scanning the lawn and street, he didn’t catch any sign of the void spawn. His instinct told him it wouldn’t try again tonight. Scaring it away had been almost too easy. Why hadn’t it put up a fiercer fight? He suspected the attack had been no more than a test to confirm Rina’s location and probe her defenses. Now Vardon knew where she lived and how little power to protect herself she had. His next try wouldn’t be a mere test.

As long as Rina stayed inside the house, she would be safe unless the shield degraded too far. Of course, she wouldn’t do that, not even if Cam told her the full truth and convinced her of the danger. She wouldn’t abandon her work and friendships to hide like a princess imprisoned in a tower. Perhaps implanting the suggestion that she should keep the pendant locked in its box had been a bad idea, too. The barrier around her home centered on the necklace, and in or near the house she enjoyed its protection. Could the barrier be eroding because the box’s magical insulation encased the necklace? The original plan, to keep the enemy from tracking Rina by homing in on the pendant, obviously hadn’t worked. So perhaps the time had come to activate the jewel instead of hiding it. That way, the shield and Rina could draw on its full power.

Thoughtfully licking a paw, he reached for her mind and found it immersed in the rhythms of sleep. The new plan wouldn’t let her stay wrapped in the spell of oblivion. Simply telling her to awaken the pendant, as he’d foolishly tried, wouldn’t work. He would have to revive her memories.

 

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