The weak yellow light from the headlights flickered slightly as the car idled, but they shone bright enough to reveal the small placard near the door: SERPENT MOUND PARK.
“What is this place?”
I stopped when I saw the marking at the top of the shed door. A minotaur’s head had been etched into the frame: the sign of the labyrinth. It was old and the paint around it was heavily scuffed, but it was unmistakable.
“Is this a joke?” I asked, risking a shocked turn to my captor, who simply waited grimly, as if hiding behind me.
“Get ready to run,” she said.
“Run?” I scowled. “You realize I’m not wearing any shoes.”
“You’ll think of something.”
There was a loud click, and the handle of the shed door turned slowly.
“You’re early,” came a voice from the dark. By its sound, I could tell that the man who owned it had his face covered, and that was standing in a large, hard-walled room and not the long utility shed that held the door.
He stepped from the dark into the feeble light and let the door close behind him. He was dressed in crisp, dark business attire. His face was covered in etched gold.
“That’s far enough,” my captor said from behind the safety of my body as shield. “Where’s my brother?”
The young warlock opened his hands. “They said you were the best tracker in the business. To be honest, I wasn’t sure you would be able to hold up your end of the bargain. Are those the remains?” He nodded to the imitation Fendi in my hands.
The warlock took a step and my captor raised her revolver to my neck. He stopped.
“You wanted her alive, right? Well, she’s alive. Now, where is my brother, you piece of shit?”
“You misunderstand,” the warlock said calmly, strolling forward once again.
“No, you misunderstand.” She pointed the gun at the warlock and he stopped again. “Juju and I are twins.” I could hear her voice shaking next to my ear. “We’ve been connected since birth. You think I don’t know what happened?”
“It was an accident,” the young man asked.
I snorted involuntarily. I couldn’t help it. “You’re not very bright,” I said, “are you?”
My kidnapper opened fire. Three loud shots rang in quick succession. The warlock turned slightly, as if he’d just smelled a terrible scent. Then I smelled it as well: brimstone, like a potent cross of rotten eggs and mineral ash. He seemed annoyed by it. But other than that, he was unperturbed. He tugged on the side of his white shirt and three round wrinkles disappeared from his chest.
“Tsk, tsk,” he said.
It was then that I was aware there were two more warlocks behind us, one on each side. My captor turned, obviously surprised.For a moment, no one moved. Then she was knocked to the ground.
I chose not to fight, even as Benjamin was pulled from my hands. I had discerned something the young seekers of the dark, in their arrogance, had not.
“Casting darkness,” I said to them. “I thought the spell had been forgotten.”
“Take her to the Stone Table,” the gold-faced warlock ordered.
His companions’ masks were made of black acrylic, which made their heads seem like voids in the dark. One of them took me by the arm while the other produced a key. I froze when I saw it. I recognized it immediately.
“Where did you get that?” I demanded.
I hadn’t seen it in decades. But I knew it well. It was a Master key, an antique, with an ornate loop for gripping at the end of a long stock. At the other end were its teeth. Lion’s teeth. It was Beltran’s key.
“Where?” I repeated.
“That’s no concern of yours,” I was told in a woman’s voice as I was dragged toward the door.
Without shoes, I was in no position to struggle.
“That belongs to my ex-husband,” I said. “Where did you get it?”
The gold-faced warlock was leaning over the prone body of my captor, chanting softly. I couldn’t repeat the spell, but I recognized the intonation. He was taking her magic. She was breathing hard and apparently bleeding, or so the glisten on her high cheekbones told me. Then she smiled and started laughing. It was just a giggle at first, but it grew rapidly into a full belly roar as the snake uncoiled from around her arm and wrapped itself like a python around the warlock’s neck, both choking off his incantation and binding him to his target, who held him in embrace. He struggled against as the woman on the ground released another tattoo with a wave of her hand—a starburst behind her left shoulder erupted into the night and disappeared.
I dropped and covered just before the blast ripped out of the car. It wasn’t very strong, as explosions go, but it was enough to shatter the windows and release burning antimony into the air. Whatever her shortcomings, my captor had done her homework. She’d found an obscure but effective weapon, one unlikely to bound in the warlock’s wards of protection: Hessian fire, an alchemical invention used to fight witches and warlocks in 16th-century Germany. Unfortunately, despite its effectiveness in breaching the dark ones’ defenses, it was also quite toxic to normal people, which meant it was never widely employed during the war.
I glanced, briefly, to the woman on the ground. Both her and the gold-faced warlock appeared to be dead. The car was on fire. The second warlock, the one with the key, ran to his leader while the other held onto me, coughing, but I pulled free in the confusion and bolted past the door and around the corner of the shed. The third warlock yelled and immediately gave chase, but it was dark in the unlit park, especially with the half-moon hidden behind the trees. Once outside the range of the headlights, it was difficult to see more than a few yards. A branch had fallen and I tripped over it. But before I could rise, I saw a specter standing before me. It was Anya, still wearing the brown dress we buried her in. She looked down to the branch. I did as well. Then she was gone. I grabbed the heavy stick and tossed it into the trees, where it rolled down the brush-covered slope. My pursuer took the bait. He didn’t bother turning the corner but bounded straight ahead through the dark grove, swatting branches or breaking them and generally making so much noise that no one heard me creep, barefoot, back around to the front.
The second warlock was frantically dragging the still body of his leader toward the door. It wasn’t until I had retrieved the bag, left on the ground, that he turned. But I was already swinging it, and I knocked him hard across the face and chest. He fell back and I grabbed the key. He grabbed my leg in return, and I fell, and we both scrambled to our feet. Unfortunately, the heavy bag slowed me down, and I barely had time to frantically turn the key in the lock before I was grabbed again from behind. I didn’t know where we were going. I had simply turned at random. As it happens, luck or magic was with me, and we both fell forward as the door opened.
Like so much of The Masters’ fallen empire, the ancient temple that had once held the doorway we exited had collapsed. With it spells of protection gone, the bulk of it had been carried over the edge of a high cliff long ago by an avalanche. All that remained was some exposed stonework attached by mortar to the wall of a jagged crook. The door swung wide over a great empty expanse. Benjamin’s bag hung from my elbow as I grabbed the handles, one on each side, and hung from them, leaving the warlock nowhere to step. The weight of his own falling body was too much for his one-handed grasp, and it slipped free of me as he fell down the snow-swept cliff. His scream faded as I nearly lost my own grip and reached out with a foot to grab the door frame and pull myself back.
Unfortunately, the gold-faced warlock was not dead. He moaned as he stirred. He heard the door slam shut and sat up. I spun and inserted the key again, turning it at random. Warm air hit as the door opened upon the high-arched vestibule of the Kaaba in Mecca. I couldn’t see the famous black cube outside the high, arched hall, but neither did I have time to look. I stepped through and tried to slam the door shut, but the warlock was right behind me. And he was stronger than I. The door was pushed back and I ran. All around, men bent in prayer rose in angry chant. Nor could I blame them. Not only was a nonbeliever running barefoot through the holiest place in the Muslim faith, my head uncovered, I was barely clothed. Hands grasped at my shoulders and ankles as I fled. But I was in front, which meant I could stay just ahead of the crowd’s reaction. My pursuers, on the other hand—there were two now, the third warlock having realized he was tricked—had to contend the angry mob I had awakened. Amid the noise, I heard the sounds of a spell being cast, but in the shadow of the great holy stone, it fell flat and I was free to continue my escape. I pulled my ankle from the hand of a prostrate Syrian and ran through a high arch, down the staircase that encircled the enormous structure, and out into the crowded square. Alarms blared as rising shouts warned me that the warlocks, while harried, were fighting their way through the faithful.
Guards appeared in the open corridor ahead of me. I turned and threw Benjamin over a metal-bar security fence before scaling it myself. It was not the first time my brief but lively career as a circus tumbler had payed its dividend. My feet landed on hot asphalt, and I grimaced as I picked up the bag and took off again, leaving the heavy guards to slam their palms against the bars in frustration.
It was not my first time in Mecca. I had been there once before in the 1930s in the company of a scholar-spy named Hank Hunter, whose voice immediately rose in my head amid the foreign and yet distantly familiar sights and smells of the city.
“She’s the perfect spy,” I heard him tell Master Crowley, who only ever looked on me with a Devil’s bargain of disgust and desire.
“Not likely,” I whispered as I ran.
Heads and eyes turned as I passed. People shouted and pointed. One fellow tried to stop me and got my knee in his crotch instead. I was now being chased by both police and warlocks. There was little chance of hiding. Dressed in nothing but green surgical scrubs, I would stand out wherever I went. And then there was the fact that the sun-baked concrete was painfully hot on my bare soles. But then, Mecca was one of the most important cities in the world, and the Kaaba one of the most important relics, which meant there was another door nearby—in the Mosque of the Jinn, where, according to the Quran, a group of jinn had once gathered to hear the holy Recitation, after which they pledged their allegiance to the Prophet.
Of course, everything I remembered about Mecca was almost a century old, and when I emerged from the outer colonnade of the Masjid al-Haram, I was greeted not by throngs of tent-pole stalls, which occupied my memory, but the wide hotel towers of a major 21st-century metropolis, packed one against the next. Nor were all of those rooms enough. Construction cranes arced across the sky in every direction, sometimes straddling their half-finished steel lattices in triplicate.
A commotion behind me propelled me forward. A white-robed man on a moped passed on the street, and I struck him down with another swing of the heavy, bone-filled bag. Passersby were too shocked at first to stop me, which gave me just enough time to straddle the slim motorized bike and take off between the traffic-stalled cars. I turned my head once to see several dark-uniformed policemen helping the prone man to his feet and speaking into their hand radios. The Saudis took their stewardship of the holy city very seriously. It wouldn’t be long before I was surrounded.
The Mosque of the Jinn was to the north, I remembered, and I banked left at a stoplight amid the honking and screeching of cars. The moped’s little engine sputtered like an exhausted bee as I ran over the curb and onto the sidewalk, dodging more stopped traffic. As I emerged from under an overpass, pedestrians dodging me unexpectedly, I caught sight of a drone, high in the air. I was being tracked. Already sirens approached in the distance.
I slammed on the brake. In my distraction, I had passed my destination. So choked and modern was the street around me, with high-rise hotels in every direction, that I failed to notice the little mosque, whose ancient structure was now covered in a modern concrete exterior. After struggling for a moment to turn the half-fallen moped, I gave up and ran in bare feet, pushing through the men, and occasional dark-robed woman, to hop a turnstile and enter the ancient site, where a state guard waited inside the vestibule. We were under the modern structure but still outside the sandy-stone walls of the tiny, ancient mosque it protected, one of the oldest in the city. The state guard had a gun, which he drew as he shouted at me in Arabic.
I raised my hands calmly, taking the moment to catch my breath.
“As-salamu alaykum,” I said, repeating the simple Arabic greeting I had learned.
I looked at the gun in his hand—a tool of violence, not of peace.
He looked at it as well.
“Wa ‘a laykumu s-salam,” he said softly in response, lowering the weapon.
He wasn’t letting me go. In fact, he reached immediately for his radio. He knew there was only one exit from the mosque, and he saw no reason to shoot me, especially at its doorstep. He simply had to make sure I couldn’t leave.
It was quiet inside and smelled of centuries. I felt instantly at home. Despite that I had not the time, I prostrated myself and gave thanks to the Creator and asked forgiveness for the intrusion. I have never been a religious woman, but in the circumstances it seemed the proper thing to do. My destination, a low and heavy wood door, sat under a block-stone arch in the side wall. Visual representations being forbidden, the head of the bull was absent from the apex of the door frame. In its place was a stylized, interlocking design reminiscent of a labyrinth. I stood and walked to it. I thought for sure I had enough time to do something as simple as open and close a door. But I was wrong. Somehow, my warlock pursuers had found me ahead of the authorities.
The state guard who, in letting me pass, had given me one of the simplest and greatest courtesies of my life now screamed as something horrible was done to him, and two dark-suited men stepped into the small sacred space, still wearing their masks.
“This is holy ground,” I said.
Not that they cared.
I bolted to the door, almost forgetting Benjamin in my haste. I leaned back to grab the imitation Fendi, which now sported a broken strap, and made it to the squat door under the arch just in time to turn the key and be shot from behind with the guard’s gun. I stumbled forward and collapsed on damp dirt. The air was cool. I was in a small outdoor fish market, or so my nose told me. But luck was again with me. I was in Siberia. I could tell instantly, not just from the cracked and faded signs in my native language, but from the people—their faces, their dress.
“Cossacks!” I shouted in Russian as the well-dressed warlocks appeared in the door. “Cossacks!” I repeated as I shuffled across the dirt, trying to escape.
My pursuers were smug at first. They strolled up to me, letting the door close behind, and stood on either side. They were enjoying seeing me suffer. I collapsed on my back and looked up at them. I was bleeding from my side, which was then so tight from pain that it was very difficult to breathe.
“At least I’m in the motherland,” I exhaled in my native tongue.
“That was a good run,” the first warlock said. “They said you were clever.”
He was about to say something equally clever when his companion tapped his jacket. A crowd had gathered—not just fisherman and grandmothers gathering dinner, but mechanics and oil men. Many had their heads shaved. Some had prison tattoos. They encircled us slowly. A moment later, a car pulled to a stop on the wet-dirt road and the crowd parted. Men got out. Big men.
Westerners might not think to find the Russian mob in such a deep and remote place as the wilds of Siberia. But I knew better. Beluga caviar, the roe of the sturgeon, is literally worth its weight in gold. But since the fish is critically endangered and trade restricted, catching it is illegal, and that means gangsters, and lots of them, even in the gulag. It didn’t matter that I was a stranger. I was Russian. The warlocks were not. And no mafia on earth lets outsiders break their monopoly on violence.
A dark SUV pulled to a stop on the opposite side of the road and several more men got out. These didn’t just have prison tattoos. They had sigils and wards branded into their skin. It would be a fight, even for a pair of well-trained warlocks.
“We have a treaty,” the lead warlock explained in English.
“Does it cover incursions into their territory?” I asked, marshaling a deep Russian accent, despite that I had shed it decades ago.
The second warlock took a step back toward the door, but they had let it close. And I had the key.
“She’s taken what doesn’t belong to her,” the first declared loudly.
“It doesn’t belong to you either,” I said with a sneer. I coughed once and grimaced. “Looks like you’re going to have to walk.”
After a few wary glances around the encircling crowd, the warlocks stepped away.
“This isn’t over,” the first man said.
As they departed, the heavies closed in. They weren’t going to let outsiders kill me. But neither were they just going to let me go, not if there was a chance I was valuable in trade.
“A moment,” I said, holding up a hand. “Water,” I called. “Water.”
An old woman came with a cup and I was helped to my feet and set on a bench near the door, whose faded aquamarine paint was flaking and badly chipped. I had no idea why there would be a door in that place, nor how it had survived for so long, but I was thankful.
I was alive but bleeding badly. I wouldn’t last long without medical attention. But neither could I risk dying in Siberia, where I would be quickly found. I had to retreat somewhere further still, somewhere secret. But with only hours to live, at best, I couldn’t risk a random turn of the key.
I closed my eyes and thought back some 35 years to my first meeting with Etude, when my peaceful exile was interrupted and I was detained by the Winter Bureau. I had seen the key used. I repeated the pattern of turns, like a combination, in my mind.
Darting for the door, I hoped my memory was faithful.
from the conclusion of my epic urban fantasy FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image: Iron Door by Keith Spangle