Key of light, p.10
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       Key of Light, p.10

         Part #1 of Key series by Nora Roberts
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  And still I’m not afraid.

  They call the puppy Diarmait, and set it down so it can romp around the fountain. Its excited yaps ring like bells. I see one girl slide her arm around the waist of another, and the third rest her head on the second’s shoulder. There, they become a unit. A kind of triad. A whole of three parts that chatter about their new puppy, and laugh as he rolls gleefully in the flowers.

  I hear them say names I know, somehow know, and look as they look. In the distance, in the shade of a tree that drips down with graceful branches heavy with jeweled fruit, are a couple caught in a passionate embrace.

  He’s tall and dark, and there’s a strength to him I can sense might be terrible if roused. She’s beautiful, and very slender. But there is about her, too, a sense of more.

  They’re desperately in love. I can feel that need, that heat inside me, throbbing like a wound.

  Is love so painful?

  The girls sigh over it. And they wish. Someday, they hope. Someday they will love like that—desire and romance, fear and joy all tied into one consuming entity. They will know the taste of a lover’s lips, the thrill of a lover’s touch.

  Someday.

  We are, all of us, caught in that urgent embrace, absorbed with our envy and our dreams. The sky darkens. The colors dim. I feel the wind now. Cold, cold as it spins around and around. The sudden roar of it screams in my ears. Blossoms tear from branches, petals fly like bright bullets.

  Now I’m afraid. Now I’m terrified even before I see the sly black shape of the snake slither over those silver tiles, before I see the shadow slink out of the trees and lift high the glass box it holds in its black arms.

  Words boom out. Though I press my hands to my ears to block them, I hear them inside my head.

  Mark this time and mark this hour when I wield my awful power. Mortal souls of daughters three forever will belong to me. Their bodies lie in eternal sleep, their souls imprisoned in this glass. The spell will hold sure and deep unless these things come to pass. Three keys to find, to fit, only by mortal hands to turn. Three thousand years in which to learn. An instant more and souls will burn.

  This test, this quest, to prove a mortal’s worthiness. With these words I wind them, and with my art I bind them. These locks I seal and forge these keys, and here hurl them to the hand of destiny.

  The wind dies, and the air goes still. There on those sun-washed tiles, the three girls lie, their eyes closed as if in sleep, their hands clasped. Three parts of one whole.

  Beside them is a glass box, its clear panels leaded at the seams, its trio of locks glinting gold. Warm blue lights dance frantically inside it, seem to beat against the glass walls like trapped wings.

  Three keys lie scattered around it.

  And seeing them, I weep.

  Malory was still shaky when she opened the door to Zoe.

  “I got here as soon as I could. I had to get Simon off to school. You sounded so upset on the phone. What—”

  “Dana’s not here yet. I’d rather just go through this once. I made coffee.”

  “Great.” Zoe put a hand on Malory’s shoulder and simply lowered her into a chair. “I’ll get it. You look like you still need to catch your breath. Kitchen that way?”

  “Yeah.” Grateful, Malory leaned back, rubbed her hands over her face.

  “Why don’t you tell me how your date with Flynn went the other night?”

  “What? Oh. Good. Fine.” She dropped her hands, then stared at them as if they belonged to someone else. “He seems almost normal without his dog. That must be Dana.”

  “I’ll get it. Just sit.” Zoe hurried out from the kitchen, heading Malory off before she could rise.

  “Okay, where’s the fire?” Dana demanded. Then stopped, sniffed. “Coffee. Don’t make me beg for it.”

  “I’m getting it. Go sit with Malory,” Zoe added under her breath.

  Dana plopped down in a chair, pursed her lips, and gave Malory a long, hard stare. “You look terrible.”

  “Thanks so much.”

  “Hey, don’t expect hugs and kisses when you get me out of bed and over here within twenty minutes and on one cup of coffee. Besides, it’s reassuring to know you don’t roll out of bed looking perfect. What’s up?”

  Malory glanced over as Zoe came back with three thick white mugs of coffee on a tray. “I had a dream.”

  “I was having a damn good one myself. I think it involved Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a really big vat of dark chocolate, and then you called and interrupted it.”

  “Dana.” Zoe shook her head, then sat on the arm of Malory’s chair. “A nightmare?”

  “No. At least . . . no. As soon as I woke up, I typed it out.” She rose now and picked up papers from the table. “I’ve never had a dream with so much detail before. At least I’ve never remembered details so clearly after I woke up. I wrote it down because I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything. But I’m not going to. Anyway, it’ll be easier if you both just read it.”

  She handed them the typed pages, then took her own coffee and paced to the patio doors.

  It was going to be another beautiful day, she mused. Another beautiful late-summer day with clear skies and warm breezes. People would walk around town, enjoying the weather, going about their business. Their normal, everyday chores in the normal, everyday world.

  And she would never forget the sound of that dream-wind, the feel of that sudden, bitter cold.

  “Wow. I can see why this shook you up.” Dana set the pages aside. “But it’s pretty clear where it came from. Flynn told me you guys went up to see the painting again yesterday. All of this is on your mind, and your subconscious just flipped you into it.”

  “It’s scary.” Zoe rushed to finish the last few sentences before she got up. Walking over, she rubbed her hands on Malory’s shoulders. “No wonder you were so upset. I’m glad you called us.”

  “It wasn’t just a dream. I was there.” She warmed her chilled hands on the coffee mug as she turned. “I walked into that painting.”

  “Okay, honey, take it down a notch or two.” Dana held up a hand. “You’re overidentifying, that’s all. A strong, vivid dream can really suck you in.”

  “I don’t expect you to believe me, but I’m going to say out loud what’s been in my head since I woke up.”

  Woke up, she remembered, shaking with cold, with the sound of that terrible wind still ringing in her ears.

  “I was there. I could smell the flowers and feel the heat. Then the cold and the wind. I heard them screaming.” She closed her eyes and fought a fresh surge of panic.

  She could still hear them screaming.

  “And I felt this, this charge in the air, this pressure. When I woke, my ears were still ringing from it. They were speaking Gaelic, but I understood them. How could I?”

  “You just thought—”

  “No!” She shook her head fiercely at Zoe. “I knew. When the storm came, when everything went crazy, I heard them calling out for their father. Chi athair sinn. Father, help us. I looked it up this morning, but I knew. How could I know?”

  She took a steadying breath. “Their names were Venora, Niniane, and Kyna. How would I know?”

  She walked back to sit. The relief of saying it all calmed her. Her pulse leveled, as did her voice. “They were so afraid. One minute they were just young girls playing with their puppy in a world that seemed so perfect and peaceful. And the next, what made them human was being torn out of them. It hurt them, and there was nothing I could do.”

  “I don’t know what to think about this,” Dana said after a moment. “I’m trying to be logical here. The painting’s drawn you from the first, and we know the legend is Celtic in origin. We look like the girls in the painting, so we identify with them.”

  “How did I know the Gaelic? How do I know their names?”

  Dana frowned into her coffee. “I can’t explain that.”

  “I’ll tell you something else I know. Whatever locke
d those souls away is dark, and it’s powerful, and it’s greedy. It won’t want us to win.”

  “The box and the keys,” Zoe interrupted. “You saw them. You know what they look like.”

  “The box is very simple, very beautiful. Leaded glass, a high, domed lid, three locks across the front. The keys are like the logo in the invitations, like the emblem on the flag flying on the house. They’re small. Only about three inches long, I’d say.”

  “It still doesn’t make sense,” Dana insisted. “If they had the keys, why hide them? Why not just hand them to the right people, and game over?”

  “I don’t know.” Malory rubbed her temples. “There must be a reason.”

  “You said you knew the names they called the couple making out under the tree,” Dana reminded her.

  “Rowena and Pitte.” Malory dropped her hands. “Rowena and Pitte,” she repeated. “They couldn’t stop it either. It happened so quickly, so violently.”

  She took a long, long breath. “Here’s the kicker. I believe it all. I don’t care how crazy it sounds, I believe it all. It happened. I was taken into that painting, through the Curtain of Dreams, and I watched it happen. I have to find that key. Whatever it takes, I have to find it.”

  AFTER a morning staff meeting that included jelly doughnuts and a pissed-off reporter who’d had her article on fall fashion cut by two inches, Flynn escaped to his office.

  As his staff consisted of fewer than thirty people, including the eager sixteen-year-old he paid to write a weekly column from the teenage perspective, having one reporter in a snit was a major staff glitch.

  He flipped through his messages, punched up a feature on Valley nightlife, approved a couple of photos for the next day’s edition, and checked the accounting on ads.

  He could hear the occasional ring of a phone, and even with his door shut, the muffled clatter of fingers on keyboards. The police radio on top of his file cabinet beeped and hummed, the television squeezed between books on a shelf was set on mute.

  He had the window open and could hear the light whoosh of morning traffic, the sporadic thump of bass from a car stereo playing too loud.

  Now and then he heard a door or drawer slam from the room beyond. Rhoda, the society/fashion/gossip reporter, was still making her annoyance known. Without looking through the glass, he could see her in his mind, spitting darts at him.

  She, along with more than half the staff, had worked for the paper since he’d been a boy. And plenty of them, he knew, continued to see the Dispatch as his mother’s paper.

  If not his grandfather’s.

  There were times when he resented it, times when he despaired of it, and times when it simply amused him.

  He couldn’t decide which reaction he was having at the moment. All he could think was that Rhoda scared the hell out of him.

  The best he could do was not think about it, or her, and settle in to polish his article on the meeting he’d attended the night before. A proposed stoplight at Market and Spruce, a debate over the budget and the need to repair the sidewalks on Main. And a rather spirited argument regarding the highly controversial notion of installing parking meters on Main to help pay for those repairs.

  Flynn did what he could to inject a little energy into the subject matter and still stay true to the reporter’s code of objectivity.

  The Dispatch wasn’t exactly the Daily Planet, he reflected. But then again, he wasn’t exactly Perry White. Nobody around here would ever call him Chief. Even without Rhoda’s periodic snits, he wasn’t certain that anyone, including himself, really believed he was in charge.

  His mother cast a very long shadow. Elizabeth Flynn Hennessy Steele. Even her name cast a very long shadow.

  He loved her. Of course he did. Most of the time he even liked her. They’d butted heads plenty when he was growing up, but he’d always respected her. You had to respect a woman who ran her life and her business with equal fervor, and expected everyone else to do the same.

  Just as you had to give her credit for stepping out of that business when necessity demanded it. Even if she had dumped it in her reluctant son’s lap.

  She’d dumped it all, including, he thought with a wary glance toward Rhoda’s desk, surly reporters.

  She was filing her nails instead of working, he noted. Baiting him. File away, he thought. Today’s not the day we square off, you cranky old bat.

  But that day soon will come.

  He was deep into adjusting the layout on page 1 of section B when Dana walked in.

  “Not even a cursory knock. No flirtatious little head peek in the door. Just stomp right in.”

  “I didn’t stomp. I’ve got to talk to you, Flynn.” She threw herself into a chair, then glanced around. “Where’s Moe?”

  “It’s backyard day for the Moe.”

  “Oh, right.”

  “And maybe you could go by, hang out with him for a while this afternoon. Then maybe you could throw together some dinner, so I’d come home to a hot meal.”

  “Sure, that’ll happen.”

  “Listen, I’ve had a rough morning, I’ve got a goddamn headache, and I’ve got to finish this layout.”

  Dana pursed her lips as she studied him. “Rhoda sniping at you again?”

  “Don’t look,” Flynn snapped before Dana could turn around. “You’ll just encourage her.”

  “Flynn, why don’t you just fire her ass? You take entirely too much crap off her.”

  “She’s been with the Dispatch since she was eighteen. That’s a long time. Now, while I appreciate you dropping in to tell me how to handle my employee problems, I need to finish this.”

  Dana just stretched out her endless legs. “She really stirred you up this time, huh?”

  “Fuck it.” He blew out a breath, then yanked open his desk drawer to hunt up a bottle of aspirin.

  “You do a good job here, Flynn.”

  “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered as he dug a bottle of water out of another drawer.

  “Shut up. I’m serious. You’re good at what you do. As good as Liz was. Maybe better at some areas of it because you’re more approachable. Plus you’re a better writer than anybody you’ve got on staff.”

  He eyed her while he washed the aspirin down. “What brought this on?”

  “You look really bummed.” She couldn’t stand to see him seriously unhappy. Irritated, confused, pissed off, or surly was fine. But it hurt her heart to see misery etched on his face. “Pleasant Valley needs the Dispatch, and the Dispatch needs you. It doesn’t need Rhoda. And I bet knowing that just sticks in her craw.”

  “You think?” The idea of that smoothed out the raw edges. “The sticking-in-the-craw part, I mean.”

  “You bet. Feel better?”

  “Yeah.” He capped the water bottle, dropped it back in the drawer. “Thanks.”

  “My second good deed for the day. I’ve just spent an hour at Malory’s, and another twenty minutes wandering around trying to decide if I should dump on you or just keep it between us girls.”

  “If it has to do with hairstyles, monthly cycles, or the upcoming Red Tag sale at the mall, keep it between you girls.”

  “That’s so incredibly sexist, I’m not even going to . . . what Red Tag sale?”

  “Watch for the ad in tomorrow’s Dispatch. Is something wrong with Malory?”

  “Good question. She had a dream, only she doesn’t believe it was a dream.”

  Dana related the discussion before digging in her bag for the typed account Malory had given her. “I’m worried about her, Flynn, and I’m starting to worry about me, because she’s got me half convinced that she’s right.”

  “Quiet a minute.” He read it through twice, then sat back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. “What if she is right?”

  Exasperation spiked into her voice. “Do I have to start playing Scully to your Mulder? We’re talking about gods and sorcery and the capture of souls.”

  “We’re talking about magic, about possibilities. And possi
bilities should always be explored. Where is she now?”

  “She said she was going to The Gallery, to do some research on the painting.”

  “Good. Then she’s sticking with the plan.”

  “You didn’t see her.”

  “No, but I will. What about you? Dig anything up?”

  “I’m tugging a few lines.”

  “Okay, let’s all meet at my place tonight. Let Zoe know, I’ll tell Mal.” When Dana frowned at him, he only smiled. “You came to me, honey. I’m in it now.”

  “I really owe you for this . . . .”

  “Oh, sweetheart, any day I can do something behind the bimbo-nazi’s back is a day of celebration.”

  Still, Tod cast a cautious look right and left before he opened the door to what had once been Malory’s office and was now Pamela’s domain.

  “Oh, God, what has she done to my space?”

  “Hideous, isn’t it?” Tod actually shuddered. “It’s like the walls vomited Louis XIV. My only satisfaction is that she actually has to look at this when she comes in.”

  The room was jammed full. The curvy desk, the tables, the chairs, and two tasseled ottomans all vied for space on a rug that screamed with red and gold. The walls were covered with paintings overpowered by thick, ornate gold frames, and statuary, ornamental bowls and boxes, glassware and whatnots crowded every flat surface.

  Each piece, Malory noted, was a small treasure in itself. But packing it all together in this limited space made it look like someone’s very expensive garage sale.

  “How does she manage to get anything done?”

  “She has her slaves and minions—meaning me, Ernestine, Julia, and Franco. Simone Legree sits up here on her throne and gives orders. You had a lucky escape, Mal.”

  “Maybe I did.” But still, it had been a wrench to come through the front door again, knowing she no longer belonged.

  Not knowing where she belonged.

  “Where is she now?”

  “Lunch at the club.” Tod checked his watch. “You’ve got two hours.”

  “I won’t need that much. I need the client list,” she said as she headed for the computer on the desk.

  “Oooh, are you going to steal clients from under her rhinoplasty?”

  “No. Hmm, happy thought, but no. I’m trying to pin down the artist on a particular painting. I need to see who we have that buys in that style. Then I need our files on paintings with mythological themes. Damn it, she’s changed the password.”

  “It’s mine.”

  “She uses your password?”

  “No—M-I-N-E.” He shook his head. “She wrote it down so she wouldn’t forget it—after she forgot two other passwords. I happened to, ah, come across the note.”

  “I love you, Tod,” Malory exclaimed as she keyed it in.

  “Enough to tell me what this is all about?”

  “More than enough, but I’m in kind of a bind about that. A couple of people I’d have to talk to first.” She worked fast, locating the detailed client list, copying it to the disk she’d brought with her. “I swear I’m not using this for anything illegal or unethical.”

  “That’s a damn shame.”

 
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