A funerary pallor clung to the aged brick facade of the Fine Arts Building. Despite the bright sunshine and scorching temperatures, students shivered as they hustled through the shadow cast by the Federalist-style building.
Death lived here.
Or more specifically, a fist-sized onyx that held death captive. It was the job of Alistair Eugene Holmes, Guardian of the Living Five, to retrieve the stone before someone unleashed a plague or worse upon this world. It should have been an easy task, a mere five minutes of his time--but then he had detected the subtle shift in the Etherium.
Someone had traveled through time and space to retrieve the powerful gem.
Only one sorcerer was desperate enough to risk being torn apart by the tidal rifts in the Etherium to travel nine hundred years into the future--Perlam. The twelfth-century magician would stop at nothing to eliminate Alistair and the Knights of the Living Five from history.
Straightening his shoulders, Alistair climbed the flagstone steps of the Fine Arts Building. His left hand closed around the substitute black onyx bulging in the pocket of his tan Dockers. The gloom pervading the building meant he had arrived before Perlam. Unless...
Unless the death stone had been planted in the museum as a trap to draw him into the open. Finding the Living Five's Guardian was key to locating the Knights. A simple plan, really. One where everyone lost but the sorcerer and his depraved master.
Alistair quickly removed his hand from his pocket and smoothed his pants, casting a surreptitious glance at the meandering college students. Despite his being ten years older, his camouflage was more than adequate. He hitched the blue weighted backpack higher up his shoulder, tugged his baseball cap down then opened the door and stepped inside the building. A sharp right turn, six more steps and he pushed open the glass doors guarding the museum.
The odor of fresh paint assaulted his nostrils and stung his eyes. He nodded at the receptionist. She glanced up from her book and raked him from head to toe.
"Backpacks aren't allowed in the museum."
Alistair stopped. He had thought to use the pack as a shield from the camera. When he shrugged, the strap slid down his arm. He caught it in his hand. At least, he hadn't stowed the gemstone in one of the bag's pockets. Relinquishing the pack was a nuisance but not detrimental to his plan. He scanned the bare foyer. The only place to store the damn thing seemed to be in the cubicles behind her.
The woman offered him a wan smile and held out her hand. "I'll take it."
The backpack clunked against the wooden counter, earning him a flash of annoyance. She stuffed the book bag into a cubbyhole, removed a yellow tag from the top of the box and slapped it on the counter.
"Keep the claim slip. It's the only way I know which bag is yours."
Alistair cocked an eyebrow as he surveyed the empty rows of cubicles. Was she expecting a rush of patrons? No matter, he only needed five minutes to make the switch.
"Thanks," he muttered, dutifully tucking the plastic tag in his pocket. He tugged at his shirt, amused at how exposed he felt without the small piece of his disguise. Rolling his shoulders, he shook off his discomfort, turned and sauntered into the museum.
The gallery was deserted. Alistair spared a small smile. Just as he had planned. He glanced over his shoulder. The woman at the entrance looked up from her book. He turned back. He had to steal the Death Stone without using his magic. His racing heart pumped adrenaline through his body. His skin tingled, stretching over his bones.
"Steady, old boy." Alistair tightened his control. Confidence was one thing; over-confidence could be disastrous. He surveyed the gallery. A flaccid scarlet cord dangled from a silver pole. Its metal head rested in the hallway, pointing the way to the Onyx.
Anticipation coiled within him, bunching his muscles. He shook them loose and began his stroll.
He paused in front of a display case full of twisted glassware, passed another twelve seconds admiring a stained glass lamp and circled a mannequin dressed in a sequined gown. As he picked his way around the room, he timed the camera. Its thirty-seven-second sweeps allowed him plenty of time to slip away. He ambled closer to the camera's blind spot, knowing the last picture taken would be of him contemplating the nuances of Dadaist art.
The camera moved its watchful eye off him. Alistair consulted his watch. Four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Not bad. He slipped through the archway.
His sneaker-clad feet glided over the polished wooden planks. The snick-snick of his soles betrayed him. His lips curved at the impending victory. Light glinted off the case framed by the vaulted opening. The black Onyx brooded on a crimson nest. The stone's power escaped its glass cage. Energy flooded the hall, zapping the hair on his skin. Agony, pain and death buffeted him. The keening of survivors and the moaning of the damned scratched his ears.
The knots of tension in his shoulders loosened. Not that he doubted his success, but Perlam must have seen the five-by-seven-inch picture of the Onyx displayed on the university's web page. Of course, the opening wasn't scheduled until Saturday, so anyone unfamiliar with the university might not know about the lax security. He glanced over his shoulder.
As for the university...
His conscience tweaked his resolve. Technically, he was stealing the Death Stone; they would have an onyx, just not the one they had found. Besides, anyone reckless enough to advertise the location of such a valuable stone with a single paltry camera for protection deserved to have it stolen. They were just damn lucky he was the first thief to arrive.
Alistair grimaced. The fools had no idea they housed death under glass. Rage bubbled under his skin. Ignorance couldn't excuse carelessness. The idiotic archeologist who had found the stone actually believed it to be an ancient pagan artifact. How had the imbecile explained the cross-shaped flaw inside the stone? Accident?
Singing drifted out of the room to his left. Awareness prickled Alistair's skin. Was the sorcerer waiting for him? The thrill of a challenge roared in his ears. He shook his head to clear it. Perlam wouldn't be singing.
He halted by the archway and peeked inside. A woman perched on the second rung of a stepladder. Red, black and white paint streaked her faded jeans and oversized man's shirt. The tip of her ponytail hung out of the speckled kerchief covering her head. Her paint-splattered sneakers tapped to a beat different than her song. Her voice rose but cracked before hitting the next note.
Alistair felt something inside him unfurl at her joy. His toes wiggled in his shoes. He smiled at the passion filling the off-key singing. Her vanilla scent teased his nose. He whispered a soft spell, sending her the gift of perfect pitch.
His offering was returned, hitting him in the voicebox and strangling any words he might have uttered. Magic. The woman was surrounded by a magical shield. Alistair looked closer. White light shimmered around her. The energy would be more focused if she was a magician. So, what was she? A dabbler in the occult, casting harmless spells and wearing crystals? Or was she something more sinister?
He shook his head. Thinking of Perlam had obviously affected his judgment. The only evil here lurked in the dark forces spilling from the Onyx. He turned to continue his mission but stilled when she moved. Waves of satisfaction rolled off her as she stretched. The hand holding the paintbrush dropped to scratch her head. Red smudged the fabric of her scarf. The bristles left a fine trail in their wake as she moved her hand forward.
She stepped back, viewing her sign with its crimson Madness and black Death. The wooden paint paddle snapped underneath her heel. Startled, she looked down, laughed then turned back to her work. A faint click-click-click floated to him.
Alistair shook his head. No doubt she tapped the wooden handle against her teeth as she appraised the forbidding words. He considered the sign. The letters looked crisp, straight, but then, he didn't have her vantage point.
She pitched the brush into a jar filled with paint cleaner and wiped her hands on her shirttail. Alistair blinked, breaking the hold she had over him. Another badly executed song filled the air. She should have accepted his gift. He shrugged and turned to continue his mission.
The bill of his hat flattened against his face. His reaction to her had been unusual but certainly not enough to cause him to run into a walls. He shoved his cap aside and peered at columns of sinew straining against a starched collar.
"You're not allowed back here, sir." Human-made thunder rumbled down the hall.
Startled, Alistair stepped back as he surveyed the mountain of muscle blocking his path. The barrier was at least six inches taller than his own modest five-foot, eleven-inch frame. The name tag glistening on his shirt proclaimed the mass of flesh to be Melvin Street.
Melvin crossed his arms and flexed first one pectoral than the other. "The exhibit doesn't open until Monday. You will have to come back then."
"Y-Yes, of course." Alistair tried to peer around him, but the man mirrored his movements, blocking his view. Gritting his teeth, Alistair retreated to the open gallery and feigned interest in a sculpture made of broken vinyl records. Melvin leaned against the archway.
Alistair felt the over-protective guard's eye every time he moved. Swearing under his breath, he rammed his hands in his pockets. The sharp edges of the replacement onyx bit into his palm. He could command time and the elements, and yet a paltry heap of flesh stopped him from completing a simple theft.
He moved on to a sculpture made from shiny cans. His reflection twisted and bent. Twenty pairs of eyes accused him.
Think, Alistair, think. His mind blanked, and he searched the steel sculpture for inspiration. A man and woman strolled into the room, snagging his attention. The woman's floral-print dress swayed around her shapely thighs. Her platinum hair cascaded down her exposed shoulder blades. Her peach-tinted lips parted as she gazed admiringly at the man by her side.
Alistair narrowed his eyes as he inspected her companion. Dr. Cooper Dixon, the archeologist who had found the stone. Alistair glared at him. No wonder the man didn't recognize the true nature of the stone. Dressed like that, the man was a poor caricature of a Hollywood stereotype. No doubt he thought the Onyx a pretty bauble suitable only for women's jewelry.
Coughing on his snort of disgust, Alistair turned away from the sight and whacked his toe against another sculpture. Pain zipped up his shin. A curse exploded on his tongue. Who was the moron that set such a massive piece on the floor so anyone could trip over it? He forced himself to be silent. He hobbled to a chair and admired a blue dot smeared on a red canvas while surreptitiously watching the newcomers.
He forced his jaw to relax as the pair disappeared into the inner sanctum. How had such a buffoon unearthed the Death Stone in the first place? It was supposed to be safely hidden in the Twelfth Century. Coincidence? Not bloody likely. The stone had surfaced for a specific reason--Gerand. The name slithered across his musings. The fanatical warlord had been defeated centuries ago, but with the sorcerer Perlam among his minions...
Alistair rubbed his throbbing toe. He could speculate all he wanted once he had the stone. He had been on the verge of an epiphany before those two distracted him.
That's it--a distraction. He stood up and moseyed around the lifesized rock sculpture to peek at the security guard. The mountain's attention was riveted on the woman's swishing skirt. Alistair's cough covered his bark of laughter. Women! If the flesh was weak then Melvin Street should be helpless. The guard speared him with a look. All things being relative, that is.
Closing his eyes, he rocked back on his heels. In his mind's eye, he scoured the campus for the perfect distraction. He found her right outside the Fine Arts Building. Moments after the incantation left his lips, the pretty coed turned on her heel and raced up the steps of the museum. She stood hopping from foot to foot, arguing with the woman at the front desk. Their conversation resounded in the gallery. He grinned as Melvin leaned towards the foyer, shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversation.
"I tell you someone is following me. If you could just call security and have someone escort me to my car..."
Counting patiently, he fingered the edges of the stone column before him. At ten, the guard threw one last harsh look at him then lumbered out of the gallery and into the foyer.
"Is there something I can do for you?" Melvin rumbled.
Alistair slipped under the archway and inched down the hallway. Disquiet muffled his exhilaration. His canvas shoes dragged as if weighted with cinderblocks.
Something was wrong. The keening was faint; the screams gone. Had someone accidentally invoked the power of the death-wielding Onyx? He dismissed the idea as soon as it occurred to him. The stone's energy seemed weaker than before, not stronger.
Dr. Dixon, his companion and the bewitching painter were framed by the archway, directly in front of the stone. Alistair eased into the Death-and-Madness room. Damn! Now, he had no choice. To get the stone, he would have to cast a spell.
He was wracking his brain for an appropriate Temporal Suspension Spell when the threesome shifted out of sight. Stealing down the hall, he arrived in time to watch them march through a door marked Employee's Only. Finally, something in his favor. He slipped into the room.
The Onyx nestled in its bed of crushed red velvet. The glass dome surrounding it was intact, but the stone seemed different. Alistair closed his eyes, bracing himself for its deadly power. Nothing happened. He concentrated harder.
This was not the right onyx.