Picture by John C. Wright
Chapter One: The Dreamer Whose Dreams Are True
Once upon a time there was a young woman named Victoria Woods, who never did anything the way everybody else did. While others ran for their lives or grimly prepared to fight the dragon, she quit her job, booked a ticket to California, and went in search of an imaginary man.
* * *
Softly as a fawn at midnight, she walked over the pine needles. A flashlight dangled from her wrist, but she did not switch it on. The stars shone bright enough to read by, even under the giant redwoods. She moved as if in a dream, caught up in the spell of the shadows and starlight.
Everything was hushed, save for the mournful hoot of a lone night bird. The great sequoias loomed like titans, eclipsing the high peaks beyond. Victoria hiked steadily, her thumbs hooked under the straps of her backpack. Several times, she paused to check her GPS. Its artificial light contrasted garishly with her surroundings.
Then, in the midst of the Sequoia National Forest, where there should have been only trees and ferns, a tall hedge blocked her way. She had found it. She laughed with fearful delight.
Trailing her fingers over the boxwood, she followed the hedge until she came to a cast iron gate fashioned in the shape of two leaping unicorns. A pale walkway led to a brick mansion with narrow, peaked gables and a wide patio. Elegant formal gardens flanked the house. Flowering plants grew in large urns upon the porch, the blooms of which she could not make out in the dark. Between the gate and the gardens lay neatly-trimmed lawns. To the left, yew trees clipped into fanciful shapes—centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs—rustled and moved like living things in the midnight breeze.
Victoria touched one of the leaping unicorns. The wrought iron burned cold beneath her palm. Beyond the gate, all was peaceful…magical.
Cautiously, she pushed. The gate creaked open. She walked forward, the pebbles of the walkway crunching under her feet. Goosebumps rose along her arms. She felt as if someone stood among the topiary, watching her. She peered into the darkness, but the shadows were too thick to make out whether anyone was there.
She paused, hesitant. Slipping her hand into her pocket, her fingers curled unconsciously around the printout folded there—as if by keeping it safe, she could protect those pictured upon it, particularly the two figures she had circled. Recalling their plight bolstered her determination. Clutching the folded piece of paper, she promised herself that she would not give up until she had found a way to rescue her two friends.
The Victorian mansion loomed before her. As she climbed the stairs, the door swung silently open. Golden candlelight poured out. A man stepped onto the patio. Victoria halted. Her stomach cartwheeled. Was it him? If this turned out to be the home of some eccentric Hollywood billionaire, she was going to have a difficult time explaining what she was doing on his front steps in the middle of the night.
Two candelabras, untouched by visible hands, floated out of the house. As silently as a spider descending upon a silken thread, they glided to hover on either side of the door, illuminating the red roses and white lilies growing in the urns.
Her heart leapt straight over its next beat. Magic. Real magic.
In this light, she could make out the figure on the porch. He wore a dark suit from an earlier age, with a diamond tie tack and matching cufflinks. In his right hand, he carried a staff of ebony topped with an upside-down, five-pointed star. Gray streaked the temples of his jet-black hair. His icy blue eyes smoldered with an inner fire. He looked as she had imagined him: tall and stern with a fierce and hawk-like gaze.
Upon seeing him, the world she knew abruptly flew apart, and a new, larger world came into being. It was like the part of a roller coaster when the car reaches the top of a sharp curve suddenly drops, both terrifying and exhilarating. His very existence confirmed so much, and yet that confirmation implied that the universe was a vaster and far more dangerous place than she had previously believed it could be—dangerous and yet teeming with wonders. Laughter welled up inside of her. She pressed her lips together to keep it from bubbling out.
Her host spoke coldly. His deep voice held a hint of contempt, as if he had laid out a trap and waited to see if she would stumble into it.
“I do not entertain solicitors, but I will accept a free sample of any gewgaws you may be peddling.”
“Excuse me?” Victoria exclaimed, taken aback and yet amused “A solicitor? Do you mean a salesman? It’s the middle of the night.”
“So it is.”
“Salesmen don’t bushwhack seven miles through the mountains after midnight in order to sell magazines or aluminum siding, do they?” she asked wryly.
He did not reply but continued to stare down at her. It surprised her that he could stand so absolutely still and yet radiate danger. The way he held his shoulders, the tension in his jaw, and the fierceness of his eyes—all hinted at a buried fury, like a volcano covered by ice.
“Um…I’ve come to discuss saving the world?” Her voice rose under his disapproving scrutiny.
“As I told my previous uninvited visitors, that is no concern of mine.”
“But…” She narrowed her eyes, frowning at him. “You do live here. In the world, I mean.”
“An inconvenience which can easily be remedied.”
Victoria slid her hands into her pockets. When she withdrew all her savings and set out on this crazy trip, she had figured the difficulty would be finding him. It had not occurred to her that convincing him to help might be the hard part.
How crazy is that? Who doesn’t want to save the Earth? If he was unwilling to save the world, how was she going to convince him to save her friends?
Her mind rapidly leapt through what she knew, whirling like the gears of a well-oiled machine. This was obviously not the Good Samaritan version of the magician from their superhero period. What had she and her childhood friend Bernard Starr made up about the Archmage during their other periods—the periods when they had pretended he was not a nice guy? In their stories, the Archmage had always been eager to learn more secrets, and he had preferred his interactions to be business-like.
“Um…” Stepping down a stair, she assumed her best professional demeanor, her voice calm and crisp. “I’ve come to offer a trade? I want to buy information on how to save the Earth.”
To judge from his lack of expression, he was duly unimpressed. “What could you possibly offer me in return?”
“Information. Secrets.” Victoria met his gaze directly. “I know the true name of the dragon wrapped around the Washington Monument, in D.C.”
A flicker of interest passed through his icy eyes. “Then the dragon is now yours to command. Why come to me?”
“I know the name,” she allowed, “but I do not know what to do with it.”
“Indeed? Then, perhaps we do have something to discuss.” He gestured toward the door behind him. A candelabrum floated past him to illuminate the dark hallway. “Come. Let us repair to the Winter Room.”
* * *
Victoria followed her host through the halls of his mansion, gazing in awe at its intricate beauty. Her heart pounded in trepidation. She fought the urge to turn and run—to escape while she still could, while the door remained open behind her. Curling her hands into fists, she refused to be daunted. Too much was at stake; and besides, she hated to let fear master her. Deliberately ignoring her dread, she fixed her attention upon the marvels around her.
The floating candelabras moved before and behind them, illuminating the otherwise-dark halls. As they walked, elegant jeweled swords, ornate Chinese vases, fine marble statues, and the bright green and blue feathers of an Aztec mask gleamed briefly in the candlelight before vanishing again into darkness. Through an archway, she caught sight of a planetarium, its deep blue walls dappled by stars, and of a formal dining hall with a long Edwardian table and crystal chandeliers hanging overhead. Other doors led to chambers whose purposes she could not discern at a glance. A doorway carved with vines and flowers opened into a dimly-lit room overflowing with plants. Intricate diagrams decorated the walls of a den upholstered with the pelts of leopards and zebras. Beyond, a chamber sported low Roman sofas flanked by white statues of deities and heroes from Greek mythology.
Around a corner, the candlelight illuminated a neatly-appointed study with a heavy mahogany desk and an archaic globe. A human skull sat on the desktop, serving as a paperweight. Candles jutted from its eye sockets, and wax dripped down its bone cheeks like frozen tears.
This was the house of a magician. She had literally walked into a fairytale.
Victoria knew fairytales were not always friendly places. People died there, and for foolish reasons, such as picking up the wrong cup or stepping off the path. And yet, some people survived there, too, and rescued their friends, and saved their kingdoms, and found true love. A fairytale was a fine place to be when everything in the world went wrong, but caution was required.
Unfortunately, she had never been good at caution.
Her host led them 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 wooden statue of a blind god dressed in furs, its eyes covered by a wrapping of cloth, stood beside the great white marble fireplace. The gas sconces resembled leafless branches. Outside the wide French windows lay the same expanse of lawn and topiary figures she had seen from the front of the house. Only, everything was covered in snow.
Victoria moved to the window and stared out into the snowy wonderland. With the ice-covered branches shimmering in the starlight, and a thick coat of fluffy white blanketing the lawn, the entire landscape looked enchanted.
Or perhaps it was enchanted.
Her fingers pressed against the cool glass. It must be enchanted—otherwise how could it be winter here, when it was June outside the front door? But how was it done? Was there a world somewhere just like hers, only where winter reigned when it was summer here? Or did this window look out upon a place where it was always winter? If so, when would the grass and trees here have grown?
Her host tapped his tall staff against the marble floor and released his hold on it. It remained standing upright. The light of the floating candelabras glimmered off the upside-down star of cold iron that topped it. He gave an imperious wave of his hand, and the jets ignited, illuminating the room with the golden glow of gaslight. The candelabras departed, gliding out the way they had come.
He gestured her toward a chair. She hesitated. Then, slowly, she swung her backpack off her shoulders and rested it against the wall. Sitting down, she ran her hands over the heavy table. Her fingertips traced the polished curls and rough unfinished declivities of the leafless trees carved into its surface.
“Um…aren’t we supposed to…” She broke off under the force of his gaze and bit her lip.
“Enunciate clearly. I have many duties and do not care to have my time wasted again.” He stood at the head of the table regarding her coldly. His right hand rested across his left breast. His face was as expressionless as granite, and yet it seemed to Victoria that he exuded disapproval.
She wished he would sit down.
Victoria felt herself on unsteady ground. Some of what she knew was real, or her host would not exist. But how much was true, and how much was nonsense? She could already see he was not the cheerful, outgoing figure her friend Bernard had portrayed in his unfinished novel. What else had she and Bernard gotten wrong?
Her gaze was drawn to the hand laid across his breast. Two rings glittered there, a diamond and a ruby. A third ring of amber adorned his other hand. In the stories they had been making up about this man since they were children, the enchanted ruby shot flame. Bernard had reveled in long descriptions of how its gout of fire instantly incinerated some hapless foe, leaving behind only a dark smudge. At the time, it had sounded exciting. That was before she had taken on the role of hapless foe. And that was just the ruby. Who knew what the diamond or the amber might do?
If only she could phone Bernard and ask him what he remembered, but then it was because she could not that she had come here.
The thought of how her host might respond if she said the wrong thing terrified her. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. On the other hand, if Bernard was right about how magic worked, and she did not take the necessary precautions, she would likely meet an even worse fate.
Drawing a shaky breath, Victoria forced the words out. “Shouldn’t we share bread—to invoke the Guest Law?”
Her host’s left eyebrow rose the merest increment. He raised the hand with the ruby ring. She flinched, but he merely made an intricate gesture in the air. Victoria sagged in her chair as relief rushed through her. She had survived the first ordeal—only a thousand or so more to go.
Heavy footsteps shuffled along the hallway. A great, hairy, brown, humanoid creature some eight feet tall came into the Winter Room. It towered above the master of the house with huge shaggy shoulders and arms as thick around as a gorilla’s. Its face was man-like, though covered in fur. Its eyes were warm and bestial. A scar stretched from its right brow to the top of the cheek-bone below, though it did not touch the eye itself. The creature carried a tray upon which rested several thick slices of homemade bread and two glasses of red wine.
Victoria sat up straight in surprise. That thing was not in Bernard’s book.
“Wow! It’s Bigfoot.”
“My servant is a yeti, from Tibet,” her host corrected her, “but, yes, it has been sighted by locals, and, upon occasion, they have survived to speak of it.”
Victoria shivered. Speaking so lightly of murder horrified her, but she did nothing to betray her opinion.
He picked up a slice of the bread and broke it in two. He handed half to her and waited until she raised her piece to her mouth. They both bit into their half-slices simultaneously. The warm bread tasted yeasty and fresh, though she wished the tray had included butter. She also wished, yet again, that her host would sit down. Seated at the table before his looming form, she felt small and insignificant. She frowned grimly. It was not a feeling she liked.
“Welcome to my abode, which is also my place of power.” Her host gestured about him. “There is peace between us while you are here. When I bid you to leave, you will depart, harming none, taking nothing not freely given, and leaving nothing behind.”
Sinking back into her chair and pretending that his looming presence did not trouble her, Victoria took another bite. Thanks to Bernard and his knowledge of magic, she was now protected by the Guest Law, an ancient decree that hosts and guests who shared food beneath a roof could not harm each other without invoking the wrath of the gods—something an Archmage, such as her host, would be loath to do. That fact that he had been so quick to bring bread showed that this portion of their information, at least, was correct. She was grateful that she had found the courage to ask for this protection. Her chance of walking out alive had just increased dramatically.
“Choose a glass.” Her host waved his hand at the wine.
“Um…” She looked at the tray. “I don’t drink.”
He regarded her oddly.
“Alcohol,” she added quickly, “I don’t drink alcohol.”
“A teetotaler.” He nodded to the yeti. “Servant, the lady prefers tea.”
The yeti departed with the wine glasses.
To her great relief, her host finally seated himself. Like a character in a historical novel from a period when posture was king, he sat upright, without any part of him touching the back of his chair. Victoria examined him surreptitiously. His somber attire gave the illusion that she spoke with a stockbroker or a real estate agent, except that no businessman she had met was either as imposing or as physically well-favored. He was surprisingly handsome for a man with gray at his temples and such deep lines to either side of his mouth. It had never occurred to her during her many years of making up stories about him that he would be so handsome.
He stated, “You may call me Lessingham. And you are?”
“Lessingham?” Victoria leaned forward, intrigued. “As in the man from E. R. Eddison’s book who traveled by hippogriff to Mercury?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Victoria blushed and sat back again. “Um…never mind. Lessingham, not Kestrel?”
He regarded her, his eyes narrowing. “Yes. I am the Archmage called Kestrel, the Archmage of the Earth.”
“Ah.” A stray smile escaped. “Thought so.”
“And you are?” he repeated pointedly.
Victoria opened her mouth and paused. He had responded positively to her comment about the dragon’s name. That meant there might really be a law of True Names. He had carefully said call both times he referred to himself, rather than saying “my name is.”
Just like in Bernard’s book.
Victoria thought she knew her true name, a name she had made up as a child. But what if she were wrong? What if her true name, the name that would give the Archmage power over her, were her given name? She did not know how the system worked, but she knew Bernard would never forgive her if she told her True Name to the first magician she met. On the other hand, if she left without obtaining some kind of help, she would never see Bernard again—or their mutual friend, the brilliant Thomas Fairweather.
Victoria swallowed, hoping to sooth the sudden ache in her throat. She missed her two friends very much and bitterly regretted her decision to work rather than to join them for their vacation. Of course, if she had been with them when they were captured, that would have helped no one.
But what to say now? She dare not give Kestrel her real name, but she hated lying. And if she made up a name, how would she remember to answer to it? Ah, ha! Sometimes it paid to be a bit strange.
“I am called Ladyhawk.” She said, giving him the name of a favorite roleplaying character. Technically, this was true, even if she was only called by that moniker occasionally.
Kestrel Lessingham frowned. He reached over his head with his pinky and index finger extended and the other two fingers curled beneath his thumb, Victoria had always thought that this partial gesture resembled a bull. He held his hand thus above his head and then moved it forward and bent his outstretched fingers, as if they were catching hold of something invisible above his head. Then, he brought his hand down in front of him, until he gazed at her over the gap between his fingers.
She recognized the motion from Bernard’s book. In his novel, the magicians used it to draw down their lemniscates—the invisible infinity symbols that hovered above the heads of Archmages—in order to peer through the lemniscate into the spirit world…which meant she had just made a misstep.
Victoria swallowed convulsively. She should not have used a name that sounded like a bird of prey. Archmages had the names of birds of prey: Merlin, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel. Her host believed that she had just claimed to be a member of his order. Now, he peered into the spirit realm to confirm the truth of what he believed was her boast—only no matching lemniscate hovered mystically above her head.
Of course, she had not meant to claim such a thing, but it was too late to take the name back now. She raised her chin and gazed at him unflinchingly.
The examination lasted longer than the history of time. Victoria tried not to squirm, 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. Long hair of so dark a brown it often appeared black, except in the sun where it glittered with chestnut highlights, surrounded her like a cloud, cascading over her shoulders and back to brush against her hips. In front, it was cut short, so that dark curling bangs framed hazel eyes that appeared slightly too large for her freckled face.
Eventually, Kestrel lowered his hand, giving no indication of whether what he had seen pleased or dismayed him.
“So-Called Ladyhawk,” he spoke with cool, biting precision, “You claim you have business with me?”
“I do.” She spoke in her best professional manner, hiding any reaction to his condescension; though the name “So-Called Ladyhawk” amused her tremendously. “I want to sell you the True Name of the dragon. What can you offer me in return?”
Kestrel folded his hands before him. His red ruby ring winked in the gaslight. It seemed to Victoria that he pointed it directly at her. She flinched.
“In return for the leviathan’s name,” he stated, “I shall explain how to command it. I will even—if you have other secrets sufficiently pleasing to me—give you a talisman that will aid you in controlling the creature.”
Victoria jerked forward in her seat. Her host had called the dragon a leviathan. That was the same term her friend Thomas had used when he left its true name on her voice mail. The only leviathan Victoria was familiar with was from the Bible, but she thought she recalled that Thomas had used the term in a short story he had written about a race of space faring dragons.
Kestrel continued, “You will be able to command the dragon, within certain parameters—to keep it from harming you, to hold it at bay. Even with all this, however, forcing it to give up its treasure will be difficult. Dragons are extraordinarily possessive of their hoard. Their adoration for their treasure is the only kind of love they are capable of knowing.”
“That’s creepy,” she murmured, adding aloud, “I am not interested in its hoard.”
Kestrel regarded her over steepled fingers. “The dragon’s definition of hoard may include the monument and the treasures of your capital city, all its statues, its museums, its library. Your Founding Fathers were unwise to erect an Egyptian obelisk without knowing what such an arcane symbol might attract. ”
“Oh.” She moistened her lips, struggling to keep her voice even. That was not good. “How do we go about this?”
“I propose an exchange of questions,” he stated. “We each make inquiries of the other, and each answers as sees fit. Either may refuse to answer a question. Three refusals, and our exchange of questions comes to an end.”
“Very well,” Victoria replied. “You go first.”
She thought of asking how they would know that they were each telling the truth but stopped herself. If this version of Kestrel was even remotely like Bernard’s, he would never stoop to lie, and Victoria knew that she would not lie either…well, not on purpose.
“In that case, this dragon. What is…” Kestrel paused as heavy, shuffling footsteps sounded from the hall. “Ah. Our tea.”
The yeti returned with a new tray floating before him. Upon it rested an old-fashioned tea service. The tray came to rest on the table. The aroma of Earl Gray perfumed the air. Both Kestrel and the yeti looked at her, waiting. She stared back at them, puzzled, and then winced. Of course, she was the woman. They expected her to pour.
Victoria restrained her desire to roll her eyes. Rising, she took up the teapot and poured it with care. She had hardly ever poured tea from a pot and hoped there was no trick to it.
As she watched the hot brown liquid flow, she felt like a cross between an Edwardian lady and a little girl playing tea party. It was as if she had been whisked away to some forgotten time to which she now belonged and, simultaneously, as if she were an impostor—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. This bolstered her courage, helping to calm the part of her that longed to give her excuses and dash from this preposterously dangerous house.
Victoria looked over the tray, but there was no third cup for the yeti. She held the teapot up toward the huge shaggy being. It licked its lips but shook its head. Kestrel frowned at her gesture with disdain. Apparently, he disapproved of sharing tea with his servants.
“Sugar?” she asked him.
She could not resist. “One lump or two?”
“One is enough.” He responded curtly. Victoria sighed wryly, chastened.
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 serving of cream. Sitting down again, she stirred her tea and took a sip. It tasted delicious.
She hoped it was neither poisoned nor enchanted.
The yeti grunted and retreated to a corner near the window, where it hunkered down, waiting to be called upon if needed. Kestrel pushed the tray to the center of the table. He lifted his cup to his lips and drank. His eyes remained trained upon her face. It took all her self-control not to squirm. She held herself erect and sipped her drink as gracefully as she could manage.
Kestrel came right to the point. “What is the dragon’s name?”
Kestrel cocked his head, as if listening for something. Then, he gave a curt nod. “You speak a name of power. Whether or not it is the name of this dragon, it is still of value to me. Your question.”
Victoria nodded and considered. If she could control the dragon, she could save Bernard and Thomas. The enclosure where her friends were being held was within a stone’s throw of the dragon. Clearly, the gigantic leviathan had the power to restrain or release the prisoners. She thought of explaining to her host about her friends and how they had been captured but decided against it. Among other reasons, she was sure the Archmage would not care in the least.
She pulled her notebook out of her backpack and leaned forward. “The dragon’s True Name. What do I do with it?”
He replied, “Speaking a True Name robs the being of its magic—for a short time.”
“So I just say it out loud?” she asked, pen poised.
“Where the creature can hear you, yes. After you speak the name, the leviathan will not be able to use its psychics against you.”
Victoria recalled what she had seen on the news of the strange creature. It was a sinuous winged serpent over a mile long, with a head like the jabberwocky from John Tenniel’s old black and white drawings. In the clip online, beams of amber light from its eyes had swept over the DC Mall, knocking out the engines of tanks, driving soldiers mad, and causing pilots to leap from their planes without parachutes. She suspected that those beams were what Kestrel meant by its “psychics.”
Dragons! Enchanted houses! Real Archmages!
Victoria’s head spun from the wonder of it all. Only a week ago, these things had been imaginary. Now it was possible to have tea with them. She fought the desire to squeak and gush, like a fangirl visiting the set of a Lord of the Rings movie. So far, she had managed to keep her voice calm and businesslike, despite her alternating awe and terror. For that, she gave thanks to her father, who had run his business from their home, schooling her since childhood to speak and carry herself in a professional manner.
But she did not know how long her calm aplomb would last. This cool formality ran counter to her inner nature, which was forever exclaiming with delight over the marvels of life. Her internal joyousness kept threatening to break free of its restraints and ruin her attempts to portray herself as cool and collected. For the moment, she held it in check, reminding herself sternly of the danger here, but it trembled inside her like a caged nightingale, flying recklessly about its barred home, seeking to escape from its tiny prison and sing.
The other thing that she kept having to fight against was the desire to lower her lashes and glance at him sidelong. Most men enjoyed being charmed, and Victoria was so very, very good at it. But she dared not. She could tell that was the sort of man who would dismiss her as insignificant if he though she was trying to flirt with him. So, she resisted. But it was so very, very difficult.
Aloud, she said, “So, saying its name stops its eye beams?”
He nodded. “Nor will it be able to breathe out its dreadful fire. This will allow you to approach the monstrosity unharmed.”
Victoria wrote this down. “You mentioned that its True Name will rob the creature of its magic for a short time. How long a ‘short time?’”
“It can vary. Sometimes, merely a few seconds. Sometimes as long as ten minutes.”
“So…long enough to get close, but not long enough to get away again?”
Was that a spark of amusement in her host’s eyes? If so, it appeared and vanished more quickly than the time it takes a bee to sting.
“To control it properly,” Kestrel continued without any trace of humor, “requires a wraith or ghost. Leviathans of Chaos fear wraiths, because ghosts can possess them. Shades of the dead are the sole thing over which they have no power.
“As to exactly what steps to take,” he continued, “approach the leviathan. Say its name. Command it to do as you wish. Then threaten it with a wraith—this will be easier if you have the talisman of which I spoke to protect you. It works best if your magician actually has a ghost on hand for the dragon to see.” Her host’s frowned at her derisively. “You do have a magician to help you, do you not?”
Victoria fought the desire to shrink away from him. She thought of Bernard and his notebooks filled with magic rituals.
“Yes…of sorts, except that he is currently….” Her voice trailed off.
“And here I thought that I had wiped out all the lesser magicians.” Kestrel’s lip curled in a manner that, in a more demonstrative man, might have been called a sneer. He made a gesture in the air and a notepad, feather pen, and ink pot floated around the corner, landing on the table before him. He leaned forward, dipping his pen in the ink “Who exactly did you say this other magician was?”
A shiver went through her from head to toe. Had she just made some dreadful mistake? She was suddenly very glad that she had not mentioned her friends despite her tremendous desire to save them.
An eerie cry, haunting and deep, like a moan but not from the throat of any creature that she recognized, reverberated throughout the mansion. Her host cocked his head, listening. He snapped his fingers. A stirring moved through the air, and a soft voice Victoria could not make out murmured near his ear.
He frowned forbiddingly; something which, she had to admit, he did exceedingly well. No real person she knew scowled in such an intimidating fashion. He not only is a character from a story. He frowns like a character from a story. She had to fight back an unexpected desire to smirk.
The Archmage rose and grasped his staff, its iron star glinting in the gaslight. “You must excuse me. One of my experiments needs tending.” His gaze met hers, his tone quelling. “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 stood. She felt too nervous to remain still. She moved to the doorway and peered out, but the hallway turned just beyond the chamber, so she was not able to catch any glimpse of what had made the noise. Stepping back inside, she turned slowly in a circle, taking in the bare branches and snow motifs.
She still could not believe that she stood in the house of a real magician. A week ago—before the dragon attacked West Virginia—no one would have imagined such a thing was even possible. She laughed in nervous awe, wondering if she should pinch her arm to make sure she was not dreaming.
Completing her slow, circular examination of the Winter Room, Victoria wondered what it would be like to be the mistress of such a mansion: living with such beauty; commanding the invisible servants; strolling the long halls and investigating their enchanted secrets, while one’s magician husband worked in his study pursuing forbidden arts. Perhaps, she would even study magic herself.
Would she like such a life? Or would she find it lonely? The thought of marrying the Archmage sent a pleasant tingle throughout her, but she suspected he would make an inattentive husband. A shame. Victoria was a great romantic. She loved the idea of marrying a magician and dwelling outside the scope of ordinary life, not to mention that Kestrel was extraordinarily handsome. But she was also quite practical. In real life, things like this seldom worked out.
She crossed to the fireplace. Though no fire currently burned in the grill, it smelled of cedar wood and ash. To either side of the hearth, a carving graced the white marble. Kneeling, she ran her fingers over the abduction of Persephone by Hades. The raised bas-relief showed the terrified maiden flailing over the shoulder of the god of death as he spirited her away, carrying her off to his underground kingdom. Beneath the maiden lay her dropped flowers. Her mouth opened in a silent scream. Her outstretched hands reached for help that did not come.
Victoria shivered. She touched the marble again, running her finger over a discolored spot. Everything looked so intricate and so old. There was no way that her bright but rather goofy friend Bernard could have dreamt up all of this. This mansion could not have come into being recently. It must have been here before she and Bernard were even born. But then, how did they know about it, to put it in the childhood stories? How had they known about its host? How had Thomas known the True Name of the leviathan?
Behind her, the yeti left its corner. Its feet shuffled across the marble floor. The great shaggy creature came straight toward her. Victoria rose cautiously and faced the huge beast. Her eyes scoured its half-man, half-beast face, trying to gauge its mood.
Had she done something wrong?
The hairy creature towered over her, smelling of a heavy musk. Its curly brown fur was matted and tangled. The poor thing could do with a bath. The mental image of the big shaggy man sitting awkwardly in a bubble bath nearly caused her to laugh out loud. She kept this picture focused in her thoughts, so as to keep at bay the image of how easily the gigantic man-thing’s enormous hands could snap her neck.
The yeti looked furtively from side to side and then gestured toward the doorway, indicating the way they had come, the opposite direction from where its master had just gone.
Victoria regarded his odd behavior, trying to make sense of it. “Do you want…you want me to leave?”
The hairy creature nodded urgently.
“Now? Before he returns? Even though he told me to stay here?”
The yeti nodded again.
The yeti drew its hairy finger across its throat and made an ack noise.
“You mean, he will kill me?”
The yeti’s head bobbed up and down in rapid succession. Yes.