Several people, here and otherwise, felt that they did not get into the story until Victoria set off to speak to the magician. So, I'm experimenting with starting the book at that point...though, of course, this postpones the first dialogue to page 6. Not sure that's a good idea.
Anyway, I'd love to hear what y'all think!
(I should add that this version goes about 9 pages farther than the other one did.)
Chapter One: In the Lair of the Archmage
The moonlight brought strange definitions to the meadow and mountains beyond. The great sequoias loomed like titans in the semi-darkness. Around her, everything was quiet, save for the mournful hoot of a lone night bird. Thomas and Bernard were sleeping, even Freki twitched as he slumbered, his tail occasionally thumping against the ground..
Victoria, however, could not sleep. She lay awake, reviewing over and over what her friends should have said when they went to confront the Archmage and railing at the injustice of it all. America was under attack by the forces of another world, whose dragon could slag tanks in one breath of super-heated plasma and knock out the engines of jets in flight with the yellow beams that came out of its eyes. And that was just their dragon! They also had sorcerer-priests who dazed and confused the US troops.
And then there was the sun. Nothing showed yet, but scientists reported that it seemed be dying. Apparently, the dragon was killing the sun.
Silently, Victoria slipped out of her sleeping bag and pulled on her sweater and hiking boots. She walked out into the moonlit meadow and stood staring down at the forest below. All was so silent, so peaceful; the natural world had no inkling of the horrors to come. It brought tears to her eyes.
And now it would all be destroyed, and there was nothing they could do. The sun would go dark. The earth would freeze. And all this beauty would perish. It would be as if the earth and all the trees and birds and millennia of history had never existed. If only she had insisted that the men take her with them to talk to the deadly magician.
The tall meadow lupines, colorless now beneath the moon, bowed before a gust of wind. The breeze blew through the weave of her sweater, chilling her. She hugged her arms and turned, gazing back through the redwoods the way that her friends had gone. The magician Lessingham’s house was not far, Bernard had said. It would be a shame to come all this way and not even see it.
After all, she had been waiting all her life for the magic to come, too. There had to be more to it than dead soldiers and a darkening sky.
Silently as a fawn at midnight, she walked over the soft pine needles, a compass in one hand and a flashlight in the other. She did not switch the light on. The light of the full moon was bright enough to read the compass by, even in the forest. She moved as if in a dream, caught up in the chiaroscuro spell of the shadows and moonlight. She kept going until she could go no more, her way was blocked by a tall yew hedge.
Circling the hedge, she came to where a cast iron gate stood open. It was fashioned into two leaping unicorns. Through it, she could see a pale pebbly walk leading to a handsome brick mansion built in the Victorian style. The house had several gables and a long brick patio upon which various flowering plants grew in large urns. Elegantly-landscaped gardens flanked it. Beyond that lay close-cropped lawns upon which yews had been clipped into fanciful shapes: centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs. In the darkness, these topiary figures seemed like living things, Victoria would have sworn they rustled and moved.
The scene beyond the gate was beautiful, magical…only when describing a place, the word “magical” usually meant that the scenery was reminiscent of what an enchanted landscape might be like, that it filled the viewer with a sense of wonder that lifted him out of his ordinary life. This place was actually enchanted. She wondered whether the word still applied.
She placed her hand on the cast iron unicorn. It was cold beneath her palm. It would be foolish to walk forward, of course, alone at night into the lair of the dark sorcerer. And yet, if she turned back now, she would lose any chance she might have to save the world.
If only she had thought to sit down with her friends before they went to speak with the Archmage. It had not occurred to her to discuss with them ahead of time what Thomas and Bernard were to say to Lessingham. The other two had read the same stories and, in Bernard’s case, played the same games she had. Heck, Bernard had written those stories. Neither of them could not fail to be aware of the treasure trove of information upon which the three of them sat. She would have swore that it would have been as obvious to them as it was to her how to approached a man like Lessingham.
But it had not been. They had come back defeated. Unable to convince the Archmage to help save the earth. Apparently, his plan was to leave, to depart for another world or dimension. Just the fact that there were other worlds filled her with a mix of joy and longing. And yet, according to Bernard and Thomas, Lessingham had no plans to take the rest of humanity with him.
The idea that there might be other worlds and she would never get to visit them filled her with a terrible sorrow.
True, they could still give Bernard’s stories about Lessingham to the new Department of Supernatural Affairs; however, she and her friends could never write down all the information they held in their memory, the thousands of hours of she had spent playing with Bernard as children, making up details, little things, any one of which might be the key that could convince the Archmage to save the world. Even if the DSA people believed her, even if she talked to them for hours, she could not tell them everything she knew.
Besides, in the midst of this crisis, they had no idea how the government might react to the discovery that three students – two college kids and a law student – had written stories about the current enemies before the recent attack. Thomas feared the DSA might lock them up and perform experiments upon them. Victoria was more optimistic, but even she would rather not put the matter to a test.
Of course, if she walked forward, if she passed this threshold and stepped into the magician’s lair, she might never come out again. The man within was both ruthless and callous. According to the stories Bernard wrote, he was a murder who sacrificed human beings to win the favor of dark gods. If the real Lessingham were anything like his fictional counterpart, no appeal to decency or mercy would stir him.
And yet, he had his virtues, too, or she and Bernard would not have spent so many hours making up stories of which Lessingham was the hero. If this real man were anything like their version, he was a man of great integrity, a man who would never break his word. He operated by the code of the Archmages, and Victoria knew that code, at least in part. It should be possible to speak with him and walk away alive. But only if Bernard’s stories were true.
But did she know enough? Closing her eyes, the cold iron still beneath her fingers, she concentrated. She poured over what she knew, details from Bernard’s stories, from Thomas’s novels, from works she had written herself. She continued until she had identified three pieces of information that might be of interest to the Archmage of Earth. She could offer to barter these secrets for anything he might know about how to solve their problem – she just hoped that these secrets were all true.
Was she ready to risk her life, to sacrifice whatever short time she might have left, for such a slim hope?
Surely, she had found her way here for a reason. She could not have figured all this out, dragged her friends across the country and up into the redwoods to this hidden place, without there being some higher purpose to it. She owed it to that higher purpose to try: to that and to the world she loved so much.
Victoria lifted her foot and stepped over the threshold onto the grounds of the enchanted mansion.
As she made her way up the walk, the pebbles crunching softly under her feet, she became aware that she was being watched. But she could not make out a watcher in the darkness. Arriving at the house, she climbed the stairs. The door swung open before her, silently, doing its part to maintain the illusion that she was trapped in a dream. From beyond poured out golden light and a faint scent of sandalwood.
Victoria hesitated. She could not see anyone within, just warm light and rich wood. As she wondered whether she should call out or enter, footsteps echoed, and a shadow fell across the doorway. Then, he stood before her. Lessingham, the Archmage whose life she and Bernard had traced out since they were children.
He looked much as she had imagined he would, tall and stern, with a fierce hawk-like gaze. His jet-black hair was streaked with gray at the temples, and his icy blue eyes smoldered with an inner fire. Deep smile lines brought delineation to his face, though somehow she doubted he used them for smiling. He was clad in a dark suit from an earlier age, Edwardian, she guessed, with a diamond tie tack and matching cufflinks. Rubies glittered from two fingers of his right hand, and a diamond sparkled upon his left. In his right hand, he held a simple cane of dark wood.
Victoria stared, enthralled. She had expected him that he would be imposing and severe. She had not expected that he would be so handsome.
She opened her mouth and hesitated. No, she would not call him Lessingham. The others had done that. She needed another name, something more intimate that put her on a different footing than her friends. What had his mage title been in Bernard’s half-finished novel, the bird of prey name by which the Archmages addressed one another?
“Kestrel,” she bowed slightly.
He raised an eyebrow and inclined his head in acknowledgement. “And you are?”
Bernard had warned her never to give her real name to a magician. She gave him the name of a character she had played in Thomas’s roleplaying game. It seemed ironically fitting.
Kestrel Lessingham frowned and made a gesture Victoria recognized from Bernard’s book. With pinky and index finger extended, he reached over his head and then brought his hand down before his eyes, so that he gazed over his fingers. Victoria fidgeted, aware too late of where she had gone wrong. Upon hearing what sounded like the name of a bird of prey, Kestrel assumed she was claiming to be another mage. Now he was looking into the spirit realm to see if her boast were true, and, of course, it was not. No lemniscate, the crown of the Archmages, hovered mystically above her head. It was too late to take the name back. She raised her chin and met his gaze unflinchingly.
His examination lasted an excruciatingly long time. Victoria stood on the doorstep with her hands in her pockets, growing more and more aware of what he must be seeing: a slender young woman dressed in what would look to him like men’s clothing: a green sweater, black jeans, and brown hiking boots. Chestnut hair surrounded her like a cloud, cascading all the way down her back to brush against her hips. In front, it was cut short; dark bangs framed hazel eyes that appeared slightly too large for her pale, freckled face. She knew she probably looked both unexpectedly vulnerable and fiercely determined.
“What business do you imagine you have with me, So-Called Ladyhawk?” Kestrel Lessingham asked finally. His voice was cool and precise. “I already informed your traveling companions that I am not interested in coming to their rescue.”
Victoria took a quick look at his face; he frowned more severely than ever. She glanced out over the topiary garden lit into a dark silvery life by the light of the moon. Now came the moment of truth. She had criticized the others for taking the wrong tack with the Archmage. But all her knowledge of him was based upon a story – a story that could be wildly inaccurate. Most likely, she thought wryly, she would also crash and burn, perhaps ending her life as a sacrifice to some horrible god.
But she had to try.
Victoria drew herself up as tall as her short frame allowed and narrowed her eyes, She considered what she knew of the fictional version of this man. Her normal effervescent manner would not do. She needed to present herself as cool and professional.
Turning back to him, she spoke in a straightforward, business-like manner. “Of course. It’s not your responsibility.”
He inclined his head but said nothing.
“But if you wished to, you could, couldn’t you?” She asked. She kept her voice light as if the matter were not of much importance. To emphasize this, she glanced casually away, reaching out to examine a leaf on the rose bush that grew on the trellis beside the door. Glancing back at him sidelong, she added. “You know how it would be done.”
“Naturally.” He clasped his hands behind his back.
She faced him. “I have come to buy that information from you: the knowledge of how to save the earth.”
A flicker of interest passed across his icy blue eyes, so quickly that if she had not been staring right at him, she would have missed it.
“ Indeed?” he asked. “And what do you offer in return?”
“Information. Secrets.” Victoria took a deep breath and plunged. “For instance, I know the true name of the dragon that is wrapped around the Washington Monument.”
The Archmage gave a short laugh, hardly more than a snort. “If that is so, the dragon is yours to command. Why come to me?”
“I know the name,” Victoria repeated, refraining from adding that this was merely untested conjecture. “But I do not know what to do with it.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “Come in. Let us repair to the Winter Room. We have much to discuss.”
* * *
Victoria followed Kestrel through the halls of his mansion, her trepidation momentarily forgotten as she gazed in awe at the intricate beauty of the ancient treasures and ornate woodwork. Here was a doorway carved with vines and flowers, there a den upholstered with the pelts of leopards and zebra filled with figurines of beasts. It soon became apparent that each chamber bore a different theme. One was decorated in dark woods, richly carved with intricate scroll-work and arcane symbols, another of blue and green marble was frescoed with fish and dolphins, still another, done in a Roman style, sported white statues of deities and heroes from Greek mythology. She caught sight of a formal dinning room with a long Edwardian table and crystal chandeliers. Other than that, however, she could not deduce from her brief glimpses the purposes of any of these rooms.
This house was even more impressive that the mansion she and Bernard had envisioned for the Archmage, the one they had drawn elaborate pictures of one winter break back in junior high. She could not wait to discuss what she was seeing with Bernard – assuming she ever got to see Bernard again!
Kestrel led her to a chamber with stark white walls and a heavy cherry wood table carved with a leafless tree motif. Faces of winds with blowing cheeks graced the lintel. A statue of a blind god dressed in furs stood beside the great white marble fireplace, and the ornaments that hid the gas jets on the wall were fashioned into leafless branches. Outside the wide French windows lay the same moonlight-illuminated expanse of lawn and topiary figures she had seen from the front of the house. Only, here, everything was covered in snow.
Victoria moved to the window and stared. How was this possible? Was there a world somewhere just like theirs, only where winter reigned when it was summer in her world? Or was it always winter out this window, twelve months of the year? If so, how had the grass and trees grown?
Kestrel gestured, and the lights ignited, giving the room the golden glow of gaslight. He waved her toward a seat. Victoria crossed the room and sat down. The craftsmanship of the table was exquisite. She ran her hands over the heavy table, tracing the polished curls and rough unfinished declivities of the leafless trees with her fingertips.
As she studied the tabletop, she reviewed what she remembered from Bernard stories about Kestrel and his brothers, the other Archmages. There was a ritual the magicians did when they visited each other. It was intended to keep the host and the guest from casting spells on each other. What was it? It had something to do with Greek mythology.
“Um…aren’t we supposed to…” she began.
Kestrel regarded her imperiously. He stood at the head of the table with his right hand resting upon his left breast. He looked quite forbidding in that pose. Victoria, who had been caught up in the wonder of her surroundings, abruptly remembered that she was in the presence of a dangerous and unpredictable magician.
“…share bread,” Victoria kept voice even, hiding her sudden fear, “to invoke the Guest Law?”
A single eyebrow quirked upward, and then Kestrel gave a nod of approval. Relief rushed through Victoria. She had survived the first ordeal. Only a hundred thousand more to go.
The Archmage gestured in the air. Heavy shuffling footsteps sounded in the hallway. A great, hairy, brown, humanoid creature some eight feet tall came into the Winter Room. He towered above the Archmage with huge shaggy shoulders and arms as thick around as a gorilla’s. His face was man-like, though covered in fur. His eyes were warm and beastlike; a scar stretched from the brow to the cheek of his left eye. The creature carried a tray upon which rested a thick slice of home-made bread and two wine glasses.
“Wow! It’s Big Foot!” Victoria laughed gleefully, her cool exterior forgotten. Dragons and sorcerers were one thing, but Big Foot? It was as unexpected as that first moment when the strange, Jabberwocky-like dragon-creature had appeared on the evening news burning the town of Wheeling, West Virginia. If dragons were real, and Big Foot, what else might be out there?
“My servant is a Yeti, from Tibet,” Kestrel corrected, “but, yes, he has been sighted by locals upon occasion, and, upon occasion, they have survived.”
“Ah.” She regarded the tray, not sure what to make of the threat implied in his last statement. Was it directed at her, or did he habitually speak that way? She added, “I don’t drink.”
When Kestrel continued to regard her oddly, she added. “Alcohol. I don’t drink alcohol.”
“A teetotaler.” Her host nodded. “ Servant, the lady would prefer tea.”
The Yeti placed the tray with the bread on the table and departed with the wine glasses. Kestrel lifted up the bread and broke it into two pieces. He handed half to her and waited until she had raised her piece to her mouth. They both bit into their half-slice simultaneously.
The bread was warm and fresh. Victoria closed her eyes, savoring the warmth and the yeasty taste. When she opened them again, she found her host’s gaze trained on her face. She gave him a quick smile and sat down abruptly.
Kestrel seated himself as well. He sat upright, his back straight as a ramrod.
So this was what a murderer looked like? Victoria peered at him with great interest. He did not appear evil or psychotic. Not that she had much experience with such things, of course. Rather, he looked grim and composed, like an impeccably dressed business man sitting down for a conference meeting. Only the intensity of his icy blue eye betrayed that there might be something more to him.
When dealing with such a man, it was essential to keep in mind exactly what one hoped to achieve. Victoria considered her strategy. Her purpose in coming here was to learn how to save the earth. Therefore, she needed to acquire from her host the knowledge of how this might be done. Currently, the greatest threat was the possible death of the sun. So long as the sun continued to shine, the humans might be able to defeat the interdimensional invaders, the strange, mask-wearing sorcerer soldiers and their antlered master.
The dragon-thing that was wrapped around the Washington Monument looked very much like one of the Dread Space Leviathan from Thomas’s Conquered Space stories. Thomas’s Leviathans had the technology to destroy stars, so it was possible that the dragon was the thing damaging the sun.
Stopping the dragon must be her foremost objective. Her goal here was to discover how to do this. Anything else she learned would be gravy.
“How do we proceed?” she asked. “I am quite interested in learning how to control the dragon.”
Her host nodded. “In return for the dragon’s name, I shall explain how to command it. I will even, if your other secrets are sufficiently pleasing to me, give you that which will aid you in controlling it. You will be able to command the dragon, within certain parameters, to keep him from harming you, to hold him at bay. Even with all this, however, it will be hard to force him to give up any treasure. Dragons are extraordinarily possessive of their horde.”
“We are not interested in its horde,” Victoria assured him.
Kestrel regarded her over steepled fingers. “The dragon’s definition of horde may include the monument and the treasures of your capital city, all its statues, its museums, its library.”
“Ah,” Victoria said again, meeting his gaze with more confidence. “Will we be able to make it put the sun back to normal, or is that part of his horde, too?”
“Is it the dragon that threatening the sun?” Kestrel asked. “I had not suspected this. My divination has not yet revealed the cause of the curse upon the daystar.”
“I do not know for certain that it is the dragon,” she admitted honestly. She moistened her lip. “How do you propose we exchange information?”
“You tell me the secrets you wish to offer, and I will let you know what that knowledge is worth to me,” Kestrel informed her.
Victoria’s eyes narrowed. Did he expect her just to trust him? What would keep him from always declaring her information was insufficient?
The answer, when it came to her, was simple: the code of the Archmages, of course! In Bernard’s stories, Lessingham always kept this code, though he was quick to take advantage of those who did not know it. Did the real Kestrel Lessingham also uphold this code? If he did, he would be offended if she doubted him, and yet he might attempt to deceive her if he believed her to be ignorant of its limitations. If she wished him to treat with her fairly, she would need to demonstrate her knowledge of it, but what if some of the details in Bernard’s tales were incorrect?
Her heart beat in her throat, but she kept her voice cool. “And I need not fear that you will cheat me, because you must keep your word before the spirits, if you wish them to keep faith with you.”
Kestrel nodded. Something that bordered upon admiration flickered through his icy eyes.
Victorious, Victoria breathed a silent sigh of relief. That flicker of admiration in his gaze intrigued her. She noted that every time she demonstrated competence in his world – asking to break bread or showing that she understood the code under which the mages operated – the Archmage relaxed ever so imperceptibly. When he had first confronted her, at the door, he had been hostile, frozen. Now, he watched her with a reserved interest.
His good regard, so grudgingly given, was intoxicating.
With heavy shuffling footsteps, the Yeti returned. A new tray floated before him, upon which rested an Edwardian tea service. Conversation paused while the tray came to rest on the table. The aroma of Earl Gray filled the air. Both Kestrel and the Yeti looked at her, waiting.
Victoria stared back at them, puzzled, and then winced. Of course, she was the woman. They expected her to pour.
Victoria rose and swiftly took up the tea pot. As she watched the hot liquid flow into the cups, she felt like a cross between an Edwardian lady and a little girl playing tea party. It was both as if she had been whisked away to some forgotten time to which she now belonged, and as if she were an imposture, like a child dressed in her mother’s clothing, afraid that the magician and his servant might, at any moment, see through her flimsy disguise. The contradiction amused her.
She looked around, but there was no third cup for the Yeti. Kestrel noted this gesture with distain. Apparently, he found the idea of sharing tea with his servants insulting.
“Sugar?” she asked him
She could not resist a smile. “One lump or two?”
“One is enough.” He responded humorlessly, snuffing her enjoyment.
She placed the sugar cube in his cup and offered him cream, which he refused. Then, she gave herself two lumps of sugar and a huge wallop of cream. Sitting down again, she stirred her newly-poured tea and took a sip. It was delicious!
The Yeti grunted and invisible hands picked up the tray and wafted it out of the room. The Yeti retreated to a corner near the window and hunkered down, waiting to be called upon if needed.
Kestrel lifted his cup to his lips and drank, his icy eyes trained all the while upon her face. It took all her self-control not to squirm, but she held herself erect and sipped her drink gracefully.
An eerie cry, haunting and deep, like a moan but not from the throat of any creature that she recognized, reverberated throughout the mansion. Kestrel lifted his head, listening, and then snapped his fingers. There was a stirring in the air. A soft voice Victoria could not make out murmured near his ear.
Kestrel frowned, something he did exceedingly well, as if he were well-practiced. Victoria found his expression intimidating. Yet, instead of feeling discouraged, she was intrigued. Why did he frown so much? Why, if he were such a vast and powerful being, living by himself, catering to no master save his own whim, was he not happier? Was it because his crimes lay heavily upon his soul? She found these questions fascinating.
The Archmage rose. “You must excuse me. One of my experiments needs tending.” His gaze met hers, his tone severe. “My house contains many secrets; it is not advisable to meddle with them. If you stay in this chamber, you will have nothing to fear.”
He left, his footsteps ringing along the corridor. As the sound died away, Victoria rose. She felt too nervous to sit still. She dared not leave the chamber, but she could at least look about the Winter Room.
She crossed to the fireplace, which was carved with images of the abduction of Persephone by Hades, which was, according to Greek Mythology, the cause of winter. The fireplace smelt of cedar wood and ash, though no fire currently burned in the grill. She knelt and examined the marble likeness of the terrified maiden. Beneath her lay her dropped flowers. Her mouth was open in a silent scream and her hands outstretched for help that did not come, as she was spirited away into in the ground over the shoulder of the god of death.
Behind her, the yeti left his corner, his feet shuffling across the marble floor. He came straight toward her.
Had she done something wrong? Victoria rose and faced the huge creature, which towered over her, smelling of a heavy musk. Its curly brown fur was matted and tangled. Victoria thought the poor beast could do with a bath. The image of bathing the big hairy brute cheered her. She concentrated on this, hoping to distract herself from dwelling upon how easily the gigantic man-thing could snap her neck.
The yeti looked furtively from side to side and then gestured urgently toward the doorway, indicating the way she had come, the opposite direction from the way his master had just gone.
Victoria regarded this odd behavior with trepidation. “Do you want me to leave?”
The hairy creature nodded urgently.
“Now?” she asked, “Before he returns? Even though he told me to stay here?”
The yeti nodded again.
“Why?” Victoria asked.
The yeti drew its hairy finger across its throat and made an ack noise.
“You mean, he will try to kill me?”
The yeti nodded again, bobbing its head up and down in rapid succession.