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Chapter IV: The Calm Before
Chapter V: The Wanton Wand
Chapter VI: The Hanged Man

 
 
 




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Small knots of people walked down the sidewalks of Mill Avenue in the fading light of dusk. The sun had vanished behind the buildings, the cerulean blue of the sky gave way to a soft grey-blue hue, and the clouds painted across it tinted rosy like pink cotton tatters. Even with the dimming sunlight, the giant “A” on A Mountain still gleamed bright yellow. The street lamps hadn’t come on yet; it was only twilight.

The passersby ignored the sights beyond the storefronts and cars driving past on the roads. They chattered amongst themselves, oblivious to their own worlds. Some stopped in front of windows to examine storefront collages; some visited them to buy clothing, books, or drinks. None paid heed to the sky as it changed, none but a select sensitive few. Their clear eyes glanced skyward, drawn by a sudden sense of foreboding. A small group of street rats, spanging  near Cold Stone Creamery, paused in their conversation to watch the sky.

Further down Mill, next to a white gazebo in an enclave from the street, a man who called himself Richard was doing a tarot reading. He had laid out his reading cloth with the most astute care, few wrinkles were visible on its surface. It aligned exactly with the lines-of-ley that passed through this place. He could not see them, nor had he known any evidence to their existence, but he knew that they were there, nonetheless. The cards sat in a neatly squared pile in the corner to his right. He was doing a reading for the city.

A reading for Tempe.

Music and laughing voices filtered down the concrete stairs nearby from a bar upstairs. The soft sounds of voices echoed from the entrance to the Graffiti Shop behind him. Though the air was still, the trees that grew in the alcove rustled as their leaves shook. The sky shimmered rosy red patterns between the openings of the dark canopy above. The smells and sounds of Mill also entertained him from the street-side opening to the alcove: exhaust fumes, hurried footsteps, and the rush of heedless traffic.

The Tower—catastrophe, sudden change. Crossed by The Star—hope.

Richard’s hands tingled. Perhaps there will be an economic crash, people will lose their jobs, strife will be rampant, but as long as there is hope there is a future. This is not uncommon for cities. He has seen it before.

The Hanged Man—sacrifice.

Richard doesn’t know what this means, but he feels compelled to continue the reading, to complete the design, but the design he sees in his mind does not match any reading he has ever done before. His fingers reach to draw more cards and place them. The Knight of Wands. The Queen of Cups. Judgement. Richard cannot stop himself, he doesn’t understand, the cards are answering a question that he didn’t ask—

“Hello, I see you have cards,” a voice said nearby. The sound broke Richard from his reverie of placing the cards and he glanced up into the brown eyes of a girl. “Would you give me a reading?”

He recognized the girl as Megan; he’d seen her before out on Mill. She wore black cat ears atop her head; one of the ears was bent tipped. Her eyes flashed as she smiled in the dimming light and she carefully set a backpack with a bright cat face down nearby. Reality reasserted itself again, Richard felt as if he had been dreaming the past few moments, but when he looked down the cards were still there. He couldn’t help but feel, however, that the design was unfinished.

“Sure,” he said, trying to shake the feelings he had received from the reading from his head. “I can do you a reading, but—” Richard glanced around. “Let’s go somewhere else. How about down into Graffiti?”

He felt the need to get away from the lines-of-ley and their energy. Perhaps another reading, one that didn’t include the city, would be able to clear his mind. Perhaps he would be able to separate himself from this experience. Whatever was going on, Richard didn’t want to be part of it.

“Sure,” Megan said, snatching her backpack up again. Then she paused to glance up at the sky. Her gaze flickered a moment between the reddening clouds and the fading blue of the sky; stars were already beginning to peek out. “Do you think it’s going to rain? I get this strange feeling when I look at the sky, but I don’t think the weather said anything about rain…”

“Yes,” said Richard, absently gathering up his spent cards; he tried not to look at them as he shuffled them back into his deck. “I think there’s a storm coming. A big storm.”

“I’ll see you inside,” she said.

“Be there in a moment,” he replied.

He tied his reading cloth around his cards and glanced around. It was time to leave town. One more reading; then it was time to leave this place. He knew that he would have to leave a warning, but there his responsibility ended. He had been told before by others who divined the nature of the cards that these things happened. When big things were brewing it was best not to stick around for them. If the Changing Hands bookstore had still been on Mill he would have known to leave a note, but now that it was gone he wasn’t sure.

Perhaps Megan would know, he wondered; he could feel the spark within her. She knew magic. He could tell her during the reading and she could relay the warning to those who needed to know.

Certain of his plan, Richard headed down into the Graffiti Shop and tried to clear his mind. Clear his mind and find the right warning to give.

Though the participants had moved on, the cards were taken up. The reading was stopped, but it was not done. Few people understand that magical power is not invested in objects, it is not possessed simply by a set of cards, by the bones of the dead, or the entrails of young animals: it flutters like diaphanous butterflies in the souls of people. Where people gather, so does magic, it fuses into the places around them. Cities are also people; cities also have souls.

When a reading is interrupted it may not be completed by the actors involved, but as long as one still remains the reading does not simply stop because the objects of divination have been removed. Once set in motion, it does not simply let go.

It does not end until it is done: until the message is spent.

 * * *

The Knight of Wands—a fair haired youth; The Queen of Cups—a kindly, brown haired woman with gentle eyes.

Korey, Darlene, and Mary Beth sat together in the TV room of Hayden dormitory. The evening had worn late, already it was nearly one a.m. but nobody could sleep. After the strange events of the previous evening, their usual fare at Denny’s didn’t have the same taste. They ended up sitting around until nearly eight a.m. doing nothing but drinking coffee and talking to other students. Now, even together in the TV room, Darlene felt disconnected from the world, as if she were alone even sitting with two of her friends.

Nobody had heard from David since they parted ways that morning. He hadn’t answered his door when all three knocked on it. Korey left him a message on his answering machine saying where they were, but it had been an hour since then.

Mary Beth came out of the kitchen carrying some steaming cups of café mocha. Darlene could smell the scent from where she sat near the muted TV; it was invigorating. She thanked Mary Beth as she took the mug from her and gently took a sip. The warmth at first burned her lips, but then she caught a sharp, numbing taste in the drink. Wincing, she looked up.

“What’s in this?” she asked. “It tastes minty, but it burns.”

“Delicious,” said Korey.

“It’s an Irish Coffee,” Mary Beth admitted, taking a sip of her own. “I put whiskey in it. Not much, though, I figured that we’d all need a chance to unwind.”

Darlene raised an eyebrow. “Where did you get alcohol?” she said in a conspirator’s hush, even though nobody else was around. “You’ll get in trouble if they find out you have it in here, you know.

“Oh, and thank you—yes, I could use a chance to unwind.”

“I have my ways,” Mary Beth purred. “Also, being the RA for this floor gives me some perks. Since I’m the one who would be catching me with the alcohol. And I just did, but I let myself off with a warning this time.”

Korey had already drained nearly half of his mocha a la whiskey. “What brand is it?”

“Jameson,” said Mary Beth. “Can’t possibly Irish up coffee without the Irish.”

Darlene smiled; she could already feel the warmth of the alcohol spreading through her limbs. She never was a heavy drinker, and didn’t know if she could hold her liquor or not—she had never tried before. Being tipsy was about as much drunk as she was willing to be.

 Finished with his draught of coffee, Korey set it down on the table, scrubbed at his blonde hair with one hand, and checked his watch. “Didn’t we call David like an hour or so ago? Where do you think he is?”

Mary Beth shrugged.

“He might still be asleep,” Darlene suggested. “He plays some card game at Coffee Plant  sometimes after classes, doesn’t he? What if he’s still there?”

“At one in the morning?” Korey shook his head. “I think it’s closed by now.”

“Oh, right.”

“Maybe we all need to get some sleep,” said Mary Beth. She looked just as bad as everyone else. Her dark red curls were tousled and haphazard on her head and she wore her sleeping shirt; it hung lopsidedly along her neck. Darlene knew she couldn’t look much better. “Has anybody tried to get some sleep yet?”

“I couldn’t close my eyes,” Korey said.

“Nightmares,” ventured Darlene. “I kept waking up every five minutes feeling like something was watching me. I couldn’t get a wink. The alcohol is making me feel sleepy, though.”

And it was. Darlene was beginning to feel drowsy and comfortable. The warmness in her limbs had wrapped into her chest, her breathing felt easy, and a gentle sense of lightheadedness had entered her senses. She lay back in the cushioned chair a little bit and her vision swam. She could feel herself drifting away.

Mary Beth set something small and hard in Darlene’s hand. “Oh, I think you left this in my room a few days back.”

It was a small red box with the words “Kolstein Violin Rosin” written on the surface. “My rosin?” asked Darelene. “How did I manage to forget that?” Her head was foggy and her voice wavered.

“You might find it easier to sleep in your own bed, hon,” Mary Beth said, hoisting Darlene up onto her feet. “Go back to your room and some sleep.”

Mary Beth was generally the boss of the group. It was why she was given the position of High Priestess at the ceremony. What she wanted done got done. Darlene often felt irked when people told her what to do, but there was always something about Mary Beth’s tone that made it feel more like she was giving a good suggestion of what to do, not commanding. So people usually did what she asked.

So, asked to return to her room and sleep, Darlene was more than happy to do so. The door to the TV room closed with a hollow click behind her as she made her way out of Hayden and crossed the parking lot. Korey and Mary Beth watched Darlene leave, her braid swinging back and forth like a pendulum across her back.

Once she was out of sight, Mary Beth turned to her boyfriend.

“You.” Mary Beth pointed at him. “Come with me to my room.”

“I obey,” Korey snickered.

“You bet you do.”

 
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