June 8, 1968, 4:30 p.m.
Walking past a half-naked couple making out next to a picnic basket, Artemis West wished she could turn invisible. I never thought my first assignment would involve working magic in front of a park full of hippies.
She’d dressed to fit in at the Weatherford Park love-in: Jeans, poncho, buckskin band holding back her long brown hair. But still, performing a Secret Service ritual in public? The Outsiders’ existence, and the government’s role in keeping them bound, were classified above top secret.
I could wait until the park clears out … but I’d miss the vigil for Bobby at Eternal Peace. The thought of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination the day before hit her, once again, like a punch in the gut. First Martin, then Bobby, what the hell has gone wrong with this country?
Maybe I should just come back tomorrow. We’ve got months before the bindings fray even a little.
She shook her head. Her supervisor, Harry DeWolfe, had made it clear during training that deviating from the schedule by even a day would get her written up. And DeWolfe already objected to employing a 21-year-old girl as a Secret Service wizard.
Pausing a moment, despite the insistent thrumming of the ley line energy under her feet, Artemis glanced around. Between the tall oaks and sycamores and the well-kept flower beds, she could see couples groping under blankets, a half-dozen hippies sharing acid, a pudgy middle-aged day-tripper offering a joint to a girl leaning against an oak tree. Hell, I’ll go ahead. Nobody’s going to notice.
Drawing her mountain ash wand out of her pocket, Artemis positioned the fingers of her left hand along the wood. The ley lines became instantly clearer to her senses—though she could never define exactly which sense—and she extended her awareness, searching …
“Jesus Christ!” A man’s agonized yell snapped Artemis’ concentration and spun her around. “You bitch!” The day-tripper was clutching his hand, recoiling from a bronze-haired, bronze-skinned teenager in khaki slacks and a Hathaway shirt. “Goddamn—”
“I told you, me asking to hitch didn’t mean I was gonna make it with you,” the girl said. “You should’ve listened.”
Artemis turned away and refocused on her task. Suddenly, she saw/felt it, precisely—the underground point where the interweaving energies that marked the edge of reality had frayed centuries ago. Some Indian medicine man had knotted it back up, saving the world against intrusions from Outside. The knot had shifted a good quarter mile from where Artemis’ predecessor had located and tightened it. It now lay a few feet in front of a World War II statue: In honor of Corporal Frank Westgate, who died a hero at Guadalcanal.
And standing right on the spot, stroking his chin, stood a slim, crisply pressed gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair and a handlebar moustache, leaning on a Malacca cane.
Damn. Artemis glanced around. The hippies were far enough behind her not to notice, but this guy? He did seem absorbed in studying the statue—a historian, maybe?—but she decided to play it safe, stepping behind a nearby oak. It was close enough for the magic to work and if she kept her chanting low, maybe he wouldn’t pay any attention.
Closing her eyes, she let her breathing slow, reached mentally toward the key points in the knot where she’d have to tighten the weaving— “Hey, baby, want some good acid?”
“What?” Artemis opened her eyes to see a stoned-smiling boy with love beads over his bare chest staggering toward her. She tried to step aside, but he stumbled into her, knocking her wand away. “Dammit, no I don’t.”
“Too bad.” The boy stopped smiling, grabbed her arms and spun her around, then shoved her against the oak tree. “That wand’s a no-no baby, it’s a bad scene if you get your hands on it.”
“What? No!” Artemis pushed back as he ground her face into the bark, but he had the weight and the position to nullify her judo training. “The ‘bad scene’ will be if I don’t get my hands on it!”
“On the contrary, girl.” The salt-and-pepper man approached with a military stride, glaring at her, speaking with a crisp British accent. “The world’s going to be much better off without your interference. Hugo, dispose of her wand. Then you and Charlie take her somewhere and—do whatever needs doing. You’ll have your reward tonight, when the job is complete.”
“You got it, Mr. Price.” It was another guy speaking, a brawny redhead who snatched up her wand with a smirk. “So with a cute chick like this, is it okay if we take a little ‘reward’ now, before we get rid of her?”
“Whatever suits you, yes.” The Englishman waved his hand as if it was too petty to bother wish, then turned back to the statue. “And it’s Covenant-Price.”
“Cov—” The infamous name made Artemis’ jaw drop, then Charlie yanked her away from the tree, keeping her arm in a painful half-nelson. “Listen, Charlie, for God’s sake, you can’t—”
Charlie’s hold on her suddenly vanished, sending her stumbling to the ground. Landing face up, she saw a bronze-skinned arm around the kid’s neck, then the girl hitchhiker bent Charlie down and slammed him headfirst into the oak.
“That’s my pal, bitch!” Hugo dropped Artemis’ wand and lunged for the girl as Charlie collapsed. The girl dropped into a boxer’s stance as Hugo approached her. then her long leg swung up fast, driving her sneakered foot into Hugo’s crotch. He dropped to the ground, moaning.
“Uncle Andy wasn’t kidding about where to hit them, huh?” The girl turned startling gold eyes to Artemis and offered a hand. “I was going to split, but I saw those creeps hassling you—”
“I’m fine.” Artemis snatched up her wand, saw Covenant-Price standing atop the knot and pointing at the statue. “if you want to help, stop that man—”
Her wand bucked in her hand as a spike of energy thrust down from Covenant-Price to the knot, ripping away one of the key strands. Outside energy gushed up through the hole and into the man, then flowed out through his hand and into Frank Westgate’s statue.
Pivoting on its pedestal, the statue raised his rifle and fired at Artemis’ chest.
“Get down!” The girl slammed Artemis to the ground, landing on top of her as a violet bolt shot overhead, screaming as it passed. “Holy cow, it’s some kind of robot!”
Twisting around, Artemis saw the bolt hit Hugo, still moaning on the ground. Next instant, a tiny baby lay in his place, half-buried in Hugo’s unchanged tie-dyed shirt and jeans.
The statue shifted and fired into the crowd of hippies, its stone body groaning as it moved. A redhead dancing to her transistor radio turned into a wailing baby barely a foot tall and fell to the grass
“Ho-ly cow!” The girl gasped. To Artemis’ horror, she sprang up and raced for the statue. It raised its rifle, but by the time it had aimed, the girl was already circling behind it. “I can’t see a control panel, how do we deactivate it?”
Good luck with that. Artemis saw Covenant-Price, the Butcher of Kenya, walking away, knew she needed to catch him and knew she couldn’t, not while an Outsider dwelled in the statue. But how did he do it? DeWolfe said no-one on Earth can sever those knots.
The answer didn’t matter. However it had happened, she was the only thing between the Outsider and the life of every innocent soul in Weatherford. Grasping the half-unraveled knot, Artemis began reciting the ancient binding ritual, unsure it if would even work on a knot that was no longer whole.
By the time she’d finished the first line of the chant, she could sense how the medicine man had knitted the worn threads together, feel the narrow loop that Covenant-Price’s spell had yanked loose. He hadn’t released an Outsider: It was incoherent unworldly energy streaming into reality without consciousness, but still malignantly dangerous.
Here goes nothing. Unsure what she was doing, Artemis kept chanting, willing the power in the words to pull on the loops, tighten the knot, knit up the unraveled binding—
Her body exploded in fire. She opened her eyes with a scream, saw her body was intact, but she could feel it burning, couldn’t think, couldn’t concentrate—
She saw the bronze girl darting around the statue, ducking violet bolts, snatching up rocks to throw at it as if that would help. She saved my life! I can’t let it kill her!
Closing her eyes, Artemis resumed the chant, ignoring the flames burning her alive.
Ice enveloped her, a solid block that froze her heart and left her fingers and face numb with frostbite. It didn’t cancel out the fire, it only added to the pain, but she kept chanting, her grasp on the knot becoming firmer in her mind even as her body froze and burned to death simultaneously—and the loose strand of the knot slid smoothly back into place. I did it. Dear god, I did it!
Only the energy, instead of dissipating, oozed out of the statue and down the nearest ley line, in the same direction she’d seen Covenant-Price stride off. But that’s not supposed to happen either, is it?
Artemis opened her eyes, saw the golden-eyed girl on the ground, the statue standing over her unmoving and powerless with its bayonet pointed down.
“I thought I was dead.” The girl sat up, scowling at a bleeding cut on her arm. “I tripped, but then it stopped—” She scrambled to her feet, set nervous hands on the statue. “It feels like solid stone—how the hell does it move?”
“I’ve—no idea.” And why do you care? You should be screaming.
“Right, that chanting you were doing was just a coincidence.” The girl frowned at Artemis, not hostile, only puzzled. “I’ve read about the psychic research they do at Duke, was it some kind of telekinesis? Level with me, will you?”
“How about you tell me who you are first?”
“My name’s Diana—” The sound of sirens made her break off, alarmed. “Dang it, I should have known the fuzz would show with all the hippies screaming.”
“The fuzz?” Artemis turned, realized the love-in had emptied out. A half-dozen tiny babies lay on the ground, unmoving, among trees that had turned into saplings. The two nearest babies looked as if they’d fallen when the bolt hit and cracked their skulls open; she looked away, stomach churning.
“Yeah, that part I don’t dig,” Diana said, looking as disgusted as Artemis felt. “What the heck did it—“
“Diana, I can’t stay and talk.” She broke into a run toward the back corner of the park. If I try to explain, Chief Nichols will think I’m crazy, it’ll take too long to convince anyone otherwise. “When the police show up, tell them—”
“Playing solid citizen isn’t my scene either.” Diana fell into place beside her. “You know a way out?”
“Hole in the fence. We used it on senior skip day, every graduating class does.”
“I had tutors.” Diana sighed. “So, you were going to explain and tell me who you were?”
“Artemis West.” She saw Diana look surprised. “I know, our names are a strange coincidence—synchronicity, maybe?”
“Like Jung wrote about?”
“I haven’t read Jung, but I guess so.” Random patterns that aren’t so random. They told me in training it happened to wizards a lot. “Why’d you show up here?”
“My bread ran out, so I was going to try hitching to the coast. I just want some fun before I start college, is that so unreasonable?” She glanced back as they reached the fence, saw the cops rushing in. “So much for my first love-in.”
They wriggled out onto Clement Avenue, no cops in sight. Diana flashed a peace sign. “Sorry to break the synchronicity, but I’m splitting. Good luck stopping that creepy old guy.”
She jogged away down the street before Artemis could respond.
There was no sign of Covenant-Price, but she could feel the power he’d unleashed, traveling across the city, making her wand hum under her fingers.
A half-hour earlier, she’d been royally PO’d at parking her car at the A&P a block away because the park was full. But if I’d been closer, the police might be asking me questions—synchronicity again? The Service never really told me how that’s supposed to work.
Maybe Uncle Herbert was right. My teachers didn’t explain anything because they hardly understand it themselves.
Two hours later, the older mourners sitting outside the Church of Our Lady of Eternal Peace glared at Artemis as she settled into a folding chair.
Artemis couldn’t blame them. Even the teenagers in the crowd wore suits and ties, or knee-length dresses. Her hippie garb seemed to make their grief over Bobby—represented by a life-size portrait on a dais by the church doors—that much more raw. But tracking the energy there left her no time to change. She’d barely had time to stop at a payphone and report to a very displeased DeWolfe.
Trying not to meet the critical stares, particularly of anyone she recognized, she stood up and searched the crowd for Covenant-Price. Clutching her wand confirmed that the energy had oozed from the ley line into the church walls, but she couldn’t sense any connection to its master. Had he just turned it loose like some sort of guided missile?
And why here? The nearest knot’s two hundred yards from the church. And the Indians bound up the weave before Jesus was even born, those horrors Outside don’t care about Catholicism.
Covenant-Price had to be steering it, but she couldn’t imagine how. Fidgeting in her chair, Artemis recollected what she knew of the man. A British colonial official who’d won international acclaimed for his research into a lost city uncovered in Kenya. Then he’d mastered the long-gone inhabitants’ sorcery, turning it against Kenyans demanding independence and won himself an entirely different reputation, even if most people didn’t know the full story behind his atrocities.
He destroyed all his research before the Mau-Mau finally caught up with him … but I guess they didn’t kill him after all. So why is he in Weatherford? What could he possibly want?
There was no sign of the man. Catching a scowl from a skinny, long-haired boy who’d been a year behind her in high-school, Artemis sat back down. Part of her wanted to warn the crowd, even given the penalties for divulging classified information … but she had no way to convince them. She didn’t even know what to warn them about, exactly.
And I’ve no clue how to get rid of it. They said I’d never have any problems if I just kept the bindings tight.
“Artie? What are you doing here?”
Artemis started and turned, just as Diana slipped into the seat next to her. Her clothes, still stained from the park, drew a frown from the old matron a couple of seats down. “Well, Diana—what are you doing here?”
“It’s not synchronicity, don’t worry.” Diana looked somberly up at the photograph. “I had a huge crush on Bobby—you too?”
“The power from the statue.” Artemis dropped her voice to a whisper. “It’s there, in the church.”
“The old guy too?”
“Haven’t seen him. Maybe he’s inside, maybe doesn’t have to be anywhere close.” Artemis gave a small, helpless shrug. “Whatever he’s doing, it’s way outside my league.”
Diana bit her lip for a second. “If this is where the action is, maybe I should split again. I don’t want to get involved, you dig?”
“That’s fine by me.” Though Artemis thought she’d seemed pretty involved at the park. “You’ll live longer.”
High overhead, the bell in the church tower began to toll. The old woman nearby started to cry, then the nun sitting next to her, then it began spreading through the crowd. Artemis would have choked up too, but before she could, she felt the energy in the walls begin to react. She couldn’t sense anything flowing in from Outside, but the power swelled cancerously just the same.
Without warning, it swelled outward, into Bobby’s photo.
The image bulged impossibly into three dimensions, then Bobby stepped out of the photo onto the dais. Or what Bobby might have been if his body had been made of giggling worms and radiated an aura the color of rancid pork chops.
For a second, there was no sound but the giggling and the bells, then the creature hawked and spat a ball of worms at a bald, bespectacled man in the second. When the ball hit his face, the man jumped up screaming, then doubled over, his scream shading into something like an animal snarl.
Artemis and Diana came to their feet as the crowd erupted into panic, surging toward the street, toppling over chairs, carrying both women with it as shots and screams erupted around them. Artemis saw a softball-size glob of worms arc over her head, splitting as it fell, then more horrified screams as the crowd tried to veer from whoever had been hit.
Separated from Diana by the rush, Artemis grabbed the plinth of a statue of St. Stephen and pulled herself out of the stampede. She turned toward the dais to see Diana a few yards from it, hurling a lectern at the worm-man as it spat at a guy in a wheelchair. The blow staggered the monster and the worms landed on the ground instead.
The creature spat again at Diana, who dived aside. A burly redhead in a patrolman’s uniform fired a half-dozen shots into the worm-man without doing more than staggering it. He ducked for cover as it spat back.
Great job not getting involved, Diana. Artemis closed her eyes, forcing herself to concentrate. But you can’t stop it, the cops can’t stop it, I’m all they’ve got.
Like I can do any better? But she couldn’t give up; leaning against the statue, she concentrated, trying to sense exactly what she was up against.
She felt almost at once how the Outside energy had soaked up the crowd’s grief, but it was drawing on something else, too, something in the church Artemis couldn’t identify.
None of this makes sense—so maybe I should throw away the rule book? She’d been told never to tamper with the knots in any way other than reinforce the binding, but it couldn’t make things any worse. Probably.
Artemis reached out through her wand to the nearest knot, repeating the ancient litany, and fastened her consciousness onto a single thread of power.
Slowly, gently, unbelievably carefully, she teased it loose, then flung it at the Outsideness growing inside the church and drew it tight.
Glass shards stabbed into her eyes, while the air turned razor-sharp, slicing into her skin. She’d expected something like that and made herself keep chanting, tightening the loop, binding the power so she could drag it back outside.
Her lungs filled up with water, water that hammered against her ribs to break through into the air. Even knowing it was illusion, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t chant, tried to tighten the loop with the power of her will alone, but the energy slid out of the trap, rushing down the ley line again.
“Dammit!” Artemis opened her eyes, breathing deep, and peered around the statue. She found herself face to face with cop pointing a gun at her with shaking hands. “Ah, look—”
“Don’t move, lady! Put down that remote control or whatever that is and fix them!”
“What? Who?” She glanced at the nearest body—she’d known there’d be bodies—and felt her gorge rise once more. Whoever the woman had once been, in death she had a monkey head, scaled and furred hands and a spiky crocodile tail thrusting out from under the back of her dress. “Jesus!”
“Fix her!” The cop’s gun trembled in a way that made her wish it was pointed anywhere but at her. “And Mr. Donnelly and all the others too! I saw you controlling that thing, I don’t know how you did it—”
“No, she saved us!” Diana said. Focused on the gun, Artemis hadn’t realized Diana was there. “The thing was about to throw more worms at you, then she killed it.” She pointed back at where the photo lay, yellowing and discolored, on the floor.
“Or she shut it off,” the man said. “After it did—” He glanced at the impossible corpse and swallowed. Artemis saw more of them scattered around the building. “—what did it do? What are you after?”
“Diana’s right.” Very carefully, Artemis drew her wallet out of her jeans pocket and opened it to show her ID. “Artemis West, secret service.”
“Secret Service?” The man repeated the words as if they were in some foreign language he’d never heard. “What? Why would you—”
“We—we protect the president, remember?” Artemis said. “If I don’t stop them here, these things could be in Washington soon.” Hell, I may not be lying.
The cop drew closer, squinting at her photo, his gun still shaking alarmingly. “You—you are—so Washington’s working on this?” He lowered his gun, sinking to the ground and smiling weakly at the corpse. “Good, good, I … I don’t want to, I don’t want to …” Crying, he curled into a tight fetal ball.
“I don’t blame him,” Diana said. She looked a lot more nervous than she had at the park. “Instead of babies, we got those—they look like they de-evolved or something.”
“De-evolved.” A memory stirred in Artemis’ mind, but she couldn’t quite place it.
“De-evolved,” Diana repeated, as if she couldn’t believe she’d uttered the word. “Maybe I should have stayed home in New York. This is much more my dad’s scene—”
“Well, this time you don’t get to split.” Artemis caught Diana by the wrist and stared into her eyes. “I don’t want to put you at risk, but—I’m deputizing you.”
“That’s sheriffs, I don’t think the Secret Service—”
“I don’t give a damn! Because if I don’t get help, more people are going to die, is that what you want?”
“Of course not. That’s why I tried stopping those things, but—” Diana yanked her wrist loose but only to throw up her arms dramatically. “You’re as bad as my dad!”
“So sorry, but you’re all I’ve got.” Artemis headed for her aging Chevy in the parking lot, relieved—given the strength she’d felt in Diana’s arm—that the girl was following. “You drive. I’m going to figure out where it’s going next.”
She knew DeWolfe would probably suspend her for leaving that one strand loose, but she had no time. And just then, her career in the Secret Service was the least of her worries.
“I still don’t get it.” Diana took the corner on Mott Street with the recklessness only a teenage driver could display. “The Outside is—what?”
“Beats the hell out of me.” Artemis closed her eyes; it was easier to follow the power trail if she wasn’t distracted by the risk of imminent death. “Turn left about a block ahead … All we know is that inside our world, things work normally. Even magic has rules—and don’t make that little laugh, I know more about it than you do.” The car swerved and Artemis banged against the door, making her wish she’d bought a car with seat belts. “Outside, no rules, or none anyone’s ever understood. And when the Outsiders get through the weave, the border between our world and theirs, they bring the insanity with them. Turn right, we’re about there.”
She opened her eyes just in time to cushion herself from hitting the windshield as Diana braked to a stop.
“The Tiki Room?” Diana glanced at Artemis incredulously. “You’ve got to be kidding, this burg’s more than two thousand miles from Hawaii.”
Artemis reclaimed the keys from the ignition. “Supposedly one of the Westgates—big shots around here—was in Hawaii when America annexed it back in, um—”
“—and brought back some authentic Hawaiian artifacts.” Artemis got out and closed the door, staring across the parking lot toward the bar. It looked packed, both inside and out on the deck.
“Good night to drink, huh?” Diana said.
“They’d drink more if they knew what was sitting under them.”
“What’s it doing?”
“Waiting, I think.” Artemis studied the building as they started across the asphalt. “I don’t know what for … if I could only find Covenant-Price, maybe stopping him would stop this.”
“So why isn’t the Secret Service sending more psychics out to do that? Why deputize me, Artie?”
“Don’t call me Artie—and the answer is, we’re a really, really small branch. There’s not many agents who can work magic, we’re scattered all over the country and we’re not supposed to need help, ever. The job is routine, like giving a car a tune up … until today. Nobody thought we’d ever need a Plan B, so all they can do is scream at me for screwing up.”
“You saved lives,” Diana said. “How is that screwing up?”
“If I’d found some way to stop Covenant-Price at the park—” They reached the steps up to the deck; above them, the crowd sat glued to the bar TV. It had switched from national footage of RFK’s funeral train to footage from Weatherford Park and the heading Love-in Leaves Dead Babies Behind. “But I didn’t. And whatever it does next, it’s going to kill more people.”
They made their way through the packed bar and out onto the deck without a sign of Covenant-Price. The mood of the crowd as they arrived on the deck was tense as a guitar string, angry, scared, downing booze and exhaling smoke from cigarettes, cigars and pipes.
Artemis wondered if she should try binding the energy again, before it acted, but it hadn’t worked last time. And leaving two knots loose, what would that do? Jesus, what if that’s what Covenant-Price wants?
“Dang it, this is not what I ran away for!” Diana said abruptly. “Look, you’ve got to understand, my dad’s kind of square—”
“Isn’t that what every kid says?” Artemis drew out her wand, winced at the power she felt. The energy was growing, feeding on fear, and once again on that something more.
“No, Artie, he is square! Philanthropist, trouble-shooter—that’s how I learned to handle myself in a fight—always doing good deeds for someone or something and yeah, I admit that’s actual kind of cool too, only everyone expects me to be just like him and cure cancer or tear down the Iron Curtain as soon as I graduate Harvard. I figured if I had one summer on my own, I could find out what it’s like not to have people look at me like I have a tradition to uphold and you probably think that’s a cop-out—”
“My family’s been Secret Service for a hundred years.” Artemis said. “Believe me, I understand tradition— only why’d you stick your neck out at the park, then?”
“Because it’s what my dad would have expected.” Diana rolled her eyes. “Guess I’m not much of a rebel after all—so, what now?”
“I don’t know!” Artemis stared at the TV as if hoping for some clue, but it had switched to coverage of the charity auction at the Weatherford Museum. “Nothing I’ve tried has stopped it—if I only knew what he wants, maybe that would help, but—”
“If we find him, let me go first,” Diana said, glancing over the deck railing. “I can handle one old British guy. So let’s look at what he’s done. He made them babies at the park, then he de-evolved them, which is like making them younger than babies—”
“That’s it,” Artemis said, remembering what she’d half-recalled earlier. “It’s the power of K’Ktal, the Outsider that eats time.”
Diana laughed, then stopped. “I …admit that’s not as crazy as it would have sounded yesterday. But still!”
“According to what the Indians told the conquistadors—” Artemis glanced around, but nobody was listening. “—every time it broke into our world, it would set back the clock a year or two before they bound it.”
“Would that be so bad? We could save Dr. King, save Bobby.”
“Only we wouldn’t remember, so—”
“It’s him!” Diana grabbed her wrist, painfully hard, pointed at the spare figure striding out of the bar’s far exit toward the parking lot. “Don’t worry, Artie, I’m shutting him down!”
Diana vaulted over the deck railing in an instant. Artemis would have followed except the Outside energy was rushed upward in Covenant-Price’s wake, so much stronger now—It flowed into an exotic-looking Hawaiian mask on the wall and beams of darkness flowed from the mask’s eyeslits, lit by incongruously orange sparkles. Darkness swallowed everything.
Next second, Artemis felt the deck under her collapse. She hit the ground eight feet below painfully, stumbled over a loose plank, heard screams from dimly visible people falling around her. She realized her clothes and her wand had both vanished.
Stunned, she peered around into the dark and saw Diana stumble into a muddy pool that had replaced the parking lot between her and Covenant-Price. He strolled off, giving out with a droll little laugh, the asphalt behind him transmuting to more mud while Diana struggled to scramble loose.
Artemis would have expected to fight through another panicked mob, but from what she could see they were clustering together as the dark radiated out, changing everything it touched. Ignoring them, she raced over to Diana and pulled her out of the muck.
“This is disgusting!” Diana leaned on Artemis, sounding almost frightened. “What did it do this time?”
“This part of town used to be a swamp. They drained it. I—I think I was right about K’Ktal.” How far is this going to spread? It’s into Hanover Street already.
“But we’re not back in time, Artie, we remember everything!”
“It’s not K’Ktal, maybe it’s just a part of its energy, changing things—I told you, their power doesn’t follow logical rules.” Artemis stared into the darkness: The Outside presence was so strong she didn’t need her wand to feel it now. I cut it from a young tree, maybe too young to stick around? Like my clothes? “But if these are just side-effects—”
“Then come on!” Diana yanked her toward what had been the street. “We find him, we stop this, right? I can’t see him, but he can’t have gone far.”
“No!” Artemis thought she saw a snake in the mud near her and jumped back. “I can stop this I think, if I—” No. She’s right, cut off the head and the body dies, it’s the only way. “I think I know where he’s going.”
“Those psychic senses you have?”
“Don’t need them. A statue set up after Guadalcanal, what, 25 years ago? A church built to celebrate the end of World War I. Then Hawaii. Further and further back. And the TV—it was talking about an auction at the city museum, a signed first edition of Little Women.”
“Which came out in 1868, a hundred years ago.” Diana nodded, though Artemis could barely see the gesture in the dark. “So? What does it mean?”
“We’ll find out when we get there.” Artemis looked to where her car had been parked and sighed. “Good thing it’s only a half-mile away.”
“I’m so glad my tetanus shots are up to date.” Standing next to Artemis in the alley, Diana examined her foot. “If we survive, I’d better have someone look at the cut though—so, there’s the museum, what now?”
“Beats the hell out of me.” Artemis stared at the museum, its generator keeping the lights on despite the power blackout that had engulfed the city with so many power lines gone. “But this is the place, the energy he’s been collecting is all around us. I feel like an overloaded circuit.” She swept her arm around. “The power’s bouncing between the bar, the park and the church, and this is at the center, more or less. Whatever he’s doing’s about to climax—only my ID disintegrated with my clothes, and we don’t have time to get back to my apartment. Nobody’ll listen.”
“Well we can’t let him do it, right?” Diana smacked her fist into her palm. “I’ll try sneaking us in the back.”
“Dad taught me to take care of myself, remember? I thought he was just a big worrywart but man, here we are with the fate of the world riding on us.” Despite her protests, she sounded nervous—but not disappointed. “You think synchronicity’s going to help?”
“The help was bringing us together. I’m pretty sure the rest of it’s on us. And you’ll have better odds breaking in if you go alone.” Artemis pulled up a dirty crate and sat on it, leaning against the wall and trying not to think about rat droppings or spiders. “If I can do anything, I can do it from here just as well. ”
“I got faith in you.” Diana grinned. “Send me a telepathic message if you need to, okay?”
She was gone before Artemis could explain, again, that she wasn’t telepathic.
And now I—what does that stupid TV show say—boldly go where I’ve never gone before.
Even without her wand, she could feel every detail of the magical structure Covenant-Price had built it up. It held more than enough power to rip open the knot below the museum. But he’s not letting it go. Why?
Artemis felt the knot, wondering if she could tie it tighter, so it wouldn’t come loose. But what if she screwed up and weakened it? Instead, she reached out tentatively and brushed her mind against the power from Outside.
Every drop of blood in her veins turned to battery acid. She recoiled, then reached out again, grasped and held it; she couldn’t do anything to it, but she could feel it reaching toward something in the museum. A mind, a mind connected to the last piece of the design, the key that would complete Covenant-Price’s plans.
That mind suddenly became aware of her. Artemis felt a sharp, angry tug, then she stood in the Westgate Museum, distorted as if seen through a funhouse mirror. A familiar figure stared at her, a book clutched between his hands.
“I suppose I should give you credit for persistence,” Covenant-Price said, smiling coldly. “But really, girl, as a practitioner you’re not even an annoyance. Once my two witless dupes delayed your binding the knot at the park, there was no way you could stop me.”
“I don’t get it.” She could feel his mind carefully linking the Outside power to the book, like a soldier arming an H-bomb. “Why are you here, Price—”
“Covenant-Price, thank you!”
“—and what is unleashing K’Ktal going to get you?” From his flinch, she saw she’d surprised him. “You can’t stop African independence, you won’t even remember—”
“I’ll remember, I’ve made sure of that. But I agree, turning back the clock a few years isn’t long enough to stop the rot of civilization. So K’Ktal is going to eat exactly 100 years, all the way back to when this book was published.” He tapped the leather cover with a lean, nicotine-stained finger. “The loss of the empire, the American century, all of it undone and I swear to you it will never happen again.” His laugh rang in her head as he drew the pieces together. “It took me so long to find the right knots, the right time-bound artifacts, the right moment—so many Americans wishing to take back yesterday, even before I made them want to take back what I’ve done today.”
“You’re killing everyone who’s alive!” She flung her will against his design, tried to break it, kept trying even as she felt her body age to dust. “You can’t—”
“On the contrary. I can.’ He laughed again and the knot slid loose, just enough to let K’Ktal reach out and drag the last century into its maw.
Then, through the distorted image, Artemis saw a bronze streak hurtle toward Covenant-Price, saw him turn a second before Diana snatched the book out of his hand, a second before two cops fell on her. Covenant-Price’s magnificent design shuddered uneasily and K’Ktal clawed at the knot, trying to enter the world completely and devour every second that had ever been.
Desperately she seized the knot, screaming the litany, struggling to hold it closed. The room faded from view, the knot became her world; rats copulated in her stomach and scrambled up her throat but she knew what was at stake and didn’t let go.
“No, damn you girl!” Covenant-Price snarled. Seizing the book again, pulling the pieces back together, regaining control. He thrust his will at the knot and the first strand flew loose.
Artemis seized the strand, flung it around Covenant-Price as she had the energy at the church and yanked hard.
His soul, suffused with Outside energy, fell out of his body and down, or up, or whichever direction Outside really was. He lost control; the forces he’d gathered contracted in on themselves and dragged him with them, down past the loose strand and into K’Ktal’s waiting jaws.
In the instant the Outsider ate his soul, his magic began to collapse. The pressure tugging at the knot vanished; in that instant, Artemis pulled the loose thread back into place and tied it immovably tight.
She tumbled into darkness smiling.
“This is so typical of the establishment.” Stepping out into the morning sun, Diana glared at the city lockup behind them, then at the grey jail clothes they still wore. “You saved the world, Artie—Artemis—and they lock you up, the Secret Service won’t help—”
“They’re never going to admit the existence of the Outsiders, so how could they explain posting bail?” Artemis reached for her keys, then realized she didn’t have them anymore—or her car—and headed down the sidewalk. “And DeWolf’s furious with me—I let Outside energy escape at the park, untied part of a knot at the church, and then got busted for indecent exposure.” She’d wasted her one phone call on DeWolfe. It hadn’t gone well. “And you’re just a crazy naked chick who got arrested assaulting some perfectly respectable tourist who died of shock. If not for your Dad’s call to the governor—”
“He’s proud of me!” Diana thrust up her hands to the Heavens. “For helping you, I mean. And what’s worse, I’m proud of me! Turns out I’m a complete square, ain’t that a kick in the head?”
“You should be proud.” Artemis said, checking the street for anyone who might recognize her in jailbird garb. “If not for you distracting him, we wouldn’t be here. Reality wouldn’t be here.” The thought was terrifying, but the thought of having stopped it? Kind of cool. “I’d buy you breakfast except I have no cash. And I couldn’t reach anyone to come pick us up. And even after I walk home, I’ll have to have the super let me in, because my keys are disintegrated!”
“No sweat, I need to hitch a ride to the local airport anyway,” Diana said. “Dad’s sending a charter plane, then it’s off to durance-vile. But what about you—do you still have a job? Does Dad need to call this DeWolfe guy?”
“The Service won’t fire me. There’s not enough of us mages to go around.” Artemis sighed. “Sometimes I think it would be more fun to split. My Uncle Herbert left me a lot of grimoires—spell-books. He dabbled in some really sick stuff, but some of his spells are—” Not evil. “—usable. Still … tradition. I know you dig what I’m saying.”
“I dig.” Smiling, Diana reached over and hugged her. “Good luck. And if you ever need help again, call me. Harvard’s only 700 miles away; if I’m going to be a square, might as well be with a friend.”
“Thanks.” Artemis returned the hug, then turned and walked away.
She was quite sure they’d never meet again but she couldn’t think of anyone in the Service she’d prefer working with.
Artemis kept checking the street for anyone who might recognize her in jailbird garb, but that only brought the truth home: the street was only there because she and Diana had saved it. The infamous pothole by the bookstore that the city never repaired, the bank and the over-priced bakery a few doors down, she and Diana had saved them all, even if nobody knew it. She’s right, it is a kick.
Who’d have thought I’d be glad about saving 1968?
This story first appeared in Lorelei Signal 2017.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Fraser Sherman used to live in Florida, but it turned out his future wife lived in Durham, NC. He's published five film-reference books and two dozen short stories, all listed on his website, Fraser Sherman's Blog.