"Just a word." His voice lowered to a rasp. “I’ve located amanita mushrooms. Trent is drying them out.” Trent was Jhara’s human foreman, and a more fawning idiot she’d never met.
“I’m happy for you. And it has something to do with me because?”
“Don’t play games.” Sweat slicked his forehead and a bead rolled down his hairline. “I know you want them.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” She forced her lips into a tight smile. The serpent flicked its tail and rattled.
"I’ve got more active ingredients in my office. With your name on them." Jhara gestured to a glass cage on the mezzanine level.
Her body itched as if spiders tried to burrow beneath her skin. She swallowed past a lump in her throat and glanced at a corridor leading to the ladies bathroom.
“I don’t think so.”
The snake blasted flame from its mouth and she ducked beneath a stream of sulphurous smoke. It hissed and she sucked in a sharp breath, realizing the snake’s rattle sounded like Latin.
Trent sidled up to Jhara with a crystal pendulum in his hand and stared at Maya with a raised brow. “Sir, would you look at this?”
Jhara turned and launched a cracking blow at the foreman’s head. The young man reeled and staggered, grabbing the bin for support.
“I said, don’t interrupt me,” Jhara roared.
Maya backed away. She hurried down the narrow corridor and pushed through a door marked ‘Bathroom’. Crouching, she checked beneath the stalls.
They were empty. Her back itched as if those damn spiders were holding a square dance on her spine. She pulled her spell box from her pocket and rifled through the contents with a trembling hand. She placed a blue paper-thin square on her tongue and dry swallowed. Her leg jittered like a hyperactive engine. Maybe she should skip out the back entrance? Getting paid in spells by a mage with a God complex wasn’t her smartest idea.
A wash of relaxation hit her muscle and she wobbled on unsteady feet. She flipped her wrists and held them beneath the nanofilter, exhaling as cold water splashed over skin that seemed too flimsy to contain the veins beneath.
The door swung wide, banging off the wall. Jhara stalked into the bathroom.
There was a burst of air and a white flash. One moment he was standing six feet away, and the next right beside her. He unbuttoned his jacket and she caught a whiff of ozone.
"Alone at last," he said, in a guttural tone.
“Get out,” Maya snarled into the mirror.
Jhara's skin rippled, distorting like a surrealist painting. His whole face bulged and stretched. Then his hard expression broke into a pasted on smile, while a cold grey flooded his iris. He smiled, showing blunt teeth.
"Not after I went to so much trouble finding you." His body broadened and his face distorted, morphing into a full face with eyes lined in black kohl.
She straightened her spine. "You’re not Jhara. Who are you?”
"So short-lived; your kind are easily extinguished. It's been a long time since I've spoken to a human. You can be entertaining. I'm Magister Oxyhiayal."
“What’s a high-ranking official from the House of Horus want with me?” Maya reached behind her, searching for a weapon, backing up until her hand brushed the cold towel rack bolted to the wall.
Oxyhiayal tilted his head, surveying her from head to toe. He topped her by ten inches, and must outweigh her by a hundred pounds. He waved his hand, and a new cloak covered him. A lead-colored headdress with an exposed metal hexahedron beaten into the crown appeared on his head, while an ink half-mask rose to the surface of his skin. He carried far more command than Jhara even fantasized about. Pentagrams and shooting stars burned like hot coals on the black cloak. The mage smelled strongly of some type of smoky leaf—hawthorn maybe. She had a talent for scents and this one she'd remember.
"I had to visit, myself, just to see what the fuss is all about. You're not what I expected. Without much effort you'd fit in my pocket. I could take you out whenever I wanted to play."
He clicked his fingers and his armband flashed as the overhead light struck the jewels. A roll of parchment floated between them. "Naughty girl. Sticking your nose in mage business.” He tsked and drifted closer, his silver-toed boots floating above the floor. An onyx ankh now hung from the platinum chain around his neck, and heavy earrings dangled from his stretched lobes.
She flicked a glance at the door and he huffed, nodding his head at her fist.
A flash of blue fire rushed around her hand and up her arm. She yelped and dropped the spellbox. It clattered to the floor. She brushed her palm over the back of her painting hand and gripped it tight, scanning the skin for burns.
"I see you are a spell-user. Are you a mage-whore, addicted to something you'll never create? If so, we can keep you well stocked. Horus has far greater formulae than anything Jhara could produce." The spell box collapsed with a loud crunch.
The change in air pressure caused her ears to pop.
Her head whirled as she looked up into his eyes, as if she plummeted through a cold wasteland. His pupils glittered and she took a step back. Shame washed her cheeks with a red glow. For a moment she was tempted, really tempted to give in and let him have what he wanted. A few decent charms would help keep the madness away for a while.
He raised a brow. "This is yours." He held up one of her handmade scrolls.
It unrolled to reveal a charcoal landscape she'd drawn from her visions: a city with tall spires, backlit by four moons. One of her crayons slid out of his cloak, along with the musty smell of mineral pigments.
She nodded although it was more a muscular jerk. "Where did you get it?" Surely she’d know if Horus had purchased her pictures? She clenched her fists and bit down on the inside of her cheek. A few spells weren’t worth losing her self-respect.
The scroll rolled together with a snap and tucked itself inside his cloak. "In Jhara's safe. If the House of Anu is interested in art, then so are we. And what a surprise to find a scene that no human should know about." He clucked his tongue. "Where did you see this image? Did Jhara have a hand in this?"
"Jhara’s never helped anyone."
He smiled. “Of course, the search for immortality brings few friends. Draw for me."
Her face must have shown her refusal because his lashes fluttered.
"Come now. I insist. Show me what you can do, sweet one." He inclined his head toward the mirror. “You can’t lie.”
A white ripple of magic cascaded over her body, jerking her forward involuntarily toward the glass. Her head whipped back so fast her neck cracked.
The bastard. Her boot heels squealed on the tiles as she was dragged to the mirror and she pin wheeled, overbalancing and almost falling over. She gripped the sink with her hand and the black crayon snapped in two. She stared at Oxyhiayal in the mirror. One look at his smiling face and she knew any reasoning was out of the question.
"No bargains," he said. "Quickly now. Before you collapse like your box of tricks." His voice was mild as he flicked his gaze over her body.
She shuddered, placing the jagged end of the crayon on the mirror, and sketched a rough picture of a castle. On the top of a rampant stood a heavily framed soldier. If someone had asked her, she wouldn't have been able to explain. There was no knight-errant waiting to save her—only her own defenses. Then why had she drawn the picture?
Grow up, Maya. The flush blotching her neck reflected back in the mirror and she licked her dry lips.
She turned to Oxyhiayal. "Happy now?" Her voice trembled.
The waves of compulsion ended so abruptly, it was like a mental slap. She leaned her stomach against the cold sink in a boneless slump.
The stark lines of the picture cast back at them. Oxyhiayal's face lit up as he floated over to the mirror and touched the drawing with two fingers.
"Of all the Gods. How could you know?" He sighed.
She couldn't see the attraction herself. The creation was brutal and raw, thick wedges and squiggles that were jagged and ill-formed.
The air-pressure shifted, prickling the hairs on her nape. Smoke coiled over the ramparts, the thin trails wafting and bleeding into the surface, like dark blood on litmus paper. A spreading darkness filled the sky above the warrior. The shape formed a triangular face with tiny yellow pupils. In horror she watched horns appear—flowing back from a high forehead. The creature's eyes narrowed, tracking over her face, crafty and malevolent, before the pattern descended into the glass leaving spectral black stains on the mirror. The mirror rippled as if water washed over the surface, and she held onto the sink with white knuckled fists. The room darkened as a light bulb popped, showering glass over the floor. Another light flickered, casting writhing shadows over the mirror.
Sweat slid down her neck into her t-shirt and she quarter-turned to bolt.
Oxyhiayal seemed oblivious—too busy touching the mirror. The warrior, no, it was a soldier, grew. He expanded in size, much larger than the original drawing now fully composed. Black vines wrapped around his arms. She leaned away and sucked in a breath.
Light flashed, and the picture bulged as if the warrior projected out of the flat landscape. His shadowy form sharpened and his coat rustled. He turned his head. Black eyes examined her, roving over her face as if memorizing the details.
Holy freaking hell. She opened her mouth to let loose a full throttled scream.
He threw something at her, just as a crash of thunder hit the atmosphere. She jumped back, falling over her own feet and landing with a thump on her backside. She stared up at the mirror, now leaning on an odd angle, too close to her face. She put out a hand to push it back and her hand sank into the glass, disappearing to the wrist. Silvery cold liquid tugged at her fingers and she hollered just as something lifted her off the floor.
Bang. She fell, as if in slow motion, landing with a thump.
The thunder faded and the warrior flattened, becoming one-dimensional lines. No horns or over sized warriors. Perspiration ran down her spine and she put her hand on her thumping heart. She scrabbled to her feet, backing away and stared down at herself. Had the soldier tossed something? There was no evidence on her body. But it had looked like black stars. A sense of unreality washed over her. She looked down at her blackened fingers and trembling hands.
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"Gods." Oxyhiayal was staring at the glass, his head thrown back and eyes wide in disbelief.
Grabbing the chance, she lurched forward and round-housed him in the stomach.
He exhaled in a loud oomph of pain and agony speared across his face as it contorted into a misshapen mess. His eyes bulged and his face purpled with effort. He fell against the counter and it cracked, peeling away from the tiled wall. The basin dangled from an exposed pipe, gushing a fountain of water over the mirror. Jhara must have realized he had a moment to regain control because the mage's torso twisted and flailed against the counter like a bug caught on the head of a pin. He spun, cracking his spine against the mirror. It shattered, slivers raining onto the floor, one large hunk containing the warrior hanging from the frame.
Jhara's head lifted and his icy eyes glared back at her. She tugged the sleeves of her sweater up her arms and flicked a quick glimpse at the door.