Most of the shops on Mill Ave opened a little late on Saturday,
as if to set aside the morning for other things and prepare for the glut of
people that would be passing through. The Hippy Gypsy threw its incense swathed
doors open a little early that day. The girl who tended the store that morning
smiled when she heard the birds singing in the trees that lined the Ave. The
other stores, however, were a completely different story as to why they opened
late—or not at all—this particular Saturday.
The Cold Stone Creamery, further away, set right next to
the post office, opened two hours late because the entire morning shift had
become sick with an unexplainable bout of pink-eye. All up and down the Ave,
stores were still closed even at 11 a.m.;
nearly all of the people who normally tended the stores weren’t feeling well.
Urban Outfitters only had two out of their entire staff who weren’t sick with
allergies, upset stomach, or some other inexplicable malady.
The only restaurant on a stretch of Mill from University
to the bridge completely unscathed by the plague illnesses was none other than
the Coffee Plantation. It opened at its regular time, entertained the morning’s
first customers, and started serving coffee amidst the confusion and
conversation struck up by the strange turn of events.
Nathan pushed the front door of the Coffee Plantation open
and entered to escape the increasing heat of the day. He had not gotten up that
morning with the expectation that he’d be visiting Mill so early in the day;
instead he had intended to hook up with Vex again when the skies grew dim and
she made her usual visit to the Ave. Then Saturday morning congregational Mass
at his parish had been unexpectedly cancelled, due to the pastor being ill; the
Christian Reading Room wasn’t going to open for another hour; and Nathan
discovered he had a hankering desire for some coffee.
“At least you guys are still open,” Nathan said, casting a
kindly wave and greeting to the girl behind the counter, who was waiting on a
single customer. She smiled and waved back after counting out change and
closing the register.
“Hey, Nathan,” a voice said from nearby.
Nathan turned his attention to an unshaven and grinning
young man sitting in one of the uncomfortable interior chairs—there were two
types: those with cushions and those without—and inclined his head.
“Anthony,” Nathan said, “when did you get back? Weren’t
you on walkabout or something like that?”
“Yeah, yeah, well, I had a feeling that I’d been away for
too long. So I’d kicked my old bike into gear, trucked it back up the road, and
here I am. How is life treating you nowadays anyhow?”
“Not bad,” Nathan said. He crossed his arms in front of
his chest and took a deep breath. “Things have been a little bit strange. Yes,
I know what you’re going to say: things are always strange around Mill. But
no.” He rubbed his fingers against his forehead. “It’s the bad sort of strange.
I think that Satan has plans here. It’s reminding me of Sodam and Gomorrah. The
iniquity is grotesque, Tempe’s previous mayor was a Sodamite, the moral fiber
of the culture is decaying before my eyes—” He let the words hang in the air
and shook his head.
“That bad, hey?” Anthony said with a shrug. “This is a college
town; moral fiber isn’t what they’re about. That’s why there are people like
you, after all. Eh, the way I see it, good is good as long as nobody is being
hurt. And you should give our mayor a bit more credit.”
“I doubt the Bible would agree with you on that one, sir.”
Anthony waved his hand. “Nevermind all that. Get yourself
a drink and come back and grab a seat. How about a game of chess? Perhaps we
can get our minds off of the wickedness in the world for a moment.”
While Nathan was off at the counter ordering himself a
drink, Anthony went and grabbed one of the rolled up, plastic chess mats from
the games cubby, and one of the pouches with the chess pieces. Already there
were two chess games being played at the neighboring table. He left the clock
behind; a good game of chess needed some conversation, and conversation wasn’t
easy when the game was timed.
He returned with a steaming cup of coffee—one sugar, three
creams—and sat down across the table.
“Things have really gone batshit down in Sedona,” Anthony
said. He had finished setting up the black pieces on his side of the board; one
pawn and a bishop were missing. He stole one last, expectant look inside the
pouch, saw that all the remaining pieces were white, and gave up. Nathan took
the bag from him and started setting out his pieces.
“Sedona?” Nathan said. “Isn’t that where all the hippies
and aliens are?”
Anthony held up a finger as if to tell Nathan to wait a moment,
he fished around in his pocket, and removed a penny and a tall blue board game
playing piece. “The penny is a pawn, and the Candyland guy is a bishop.”
Nathan nodded. Miraculously, the white side wasn’t missing
“Anthony!” the girl behind the counter called. “Do you
want a refill?” She waved a green Coffee Plantation cup at him. “If you have
the money, I can ring it up and bring you a fresh cup.”
“Sure thing, hon,” Anthony replied. “And could you add
vanilla to it? Café grande, just like the last one.”
“What were you doing in Sedona, anyway?” Nathan asked
after a moment of watching the coffee being poured.
Anthony turned back to Nathan. “Yes, Sedona is where the
hippies and the aliens are. That’s where I was just at before I came up here. I
spent some time in a bed and breakfast dedicated to Bell Rock.” He set the
exact change, plus tax, required to buy his coffee at the corner of the table.
The coffee was set down next to him, the change scooped up; Anthony picked it
up and took a sip without missing a beat. “I arrived this morning, in fact.”
“I haven’t been,” Nathan said after a long moment,
absently sipping at his own coffee. He winced; it was a bit too hot. “To Sedona,
“Well, you should,” Anthony admonished. “It’s a beautiful
place—if you ignore the hippies and the aliens, not that they’re that bad
either. The landscape is just beautiful, magnificent in fact, very blue skies,
the clouds are streaks of white, the rocks are so red that you’d swear they
were painted… Ah, it’s a good place.
“Been getting a little out-of-hand recently, though, I
might warn. See, there’s this metaphysical vortex down there that attracts a
lot of people. Psychics and the like, and aliens too apparently, Sedona is
something of a hub of activity for every sort of strange occurrence. The people
down there have been getting really antsy about something. A lot of the local
mystics have been leaving town, people have been seeing strange omens out at
A sudden silence passed in the conversation.
Several chess moves later, Anthony spoke up: “On second
thought, maybe you shouldn’t go there…you’d hate it.”
“You think?” Nathan said, trying to suppress a laugh. “I
know that I come across as a real prude.” He took a breath and examined his
situation on the chess board. Nathan had never been good at chess, but it still
amused himself to think that he had a strategic mind. He moved the piece.
Anthony quickly capitalized on the move, placing a knight
to capture a pawn and directly threatened Nathan’s king.
“Checkmate. Good game. Try again?”
“Clever,” Nathan said. “Yes, I’ll have another go. How did
you do that?”
“This time you go first,” Anthony said, grinning. “That?
That was just a variation on Scholar’s Mate. It’s a trick where you can
checkmate someone in the first three moves. Took me a bit longer to get you,
though. Hasn’t anyone used that on you before?”
“Nasty trick. Good for getting newbies. I’ll play more
fair this time.”
“I don’t think I’ll fall for that one again,” Nathan
“Good,” Anthony said. “That’s why we use it anyway.”
“As I was saying earlier,” Nathan went on. “I know that I
come across as something of a prude. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy
myself. Though, I figure that if I visit Sedona it will be for the scenery and
not the vortex.”
“Speaking of scenery, where are all the people?”
“I don’t know,” Nathan mused, watching as Anthony set up
the last black piece. “At this rate when Vex shows up tonight we’ll be the only
people out here.”
Anthony nodded. “If you see her before I do, say hi to her
Nathan stared out the window at the eerily empty street
and an uneasy frown played on his lips. Out of the emptiness, something
sinister gazed back; for a moment it seemed as if the sky had been torn back
and a negative sky glimmered beyond. A presence of great evil stared down.
In the window, the chess game reflected back. Nathan sat
across from Anthony, the chessboard lay set with the armies of black and white
facing one another across a field of white and blue plastic. The black king
turned to look up at him, plastic eyes gleaming with malice; it smiled a grin
filled with lion’s teeth. The damned legions of Hell itself boiled around the
black king. The white army lay routed and scattered in disarray, their white
king leaned heavily on his staff like a crutch; his crown broken and sundered.
The army of black charged. There was no escape.
A chill rushed through Nathan.
His breath caught in his throat, Nathan touched the cross
at his chest. “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me
here, ever this day be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”
“Did you say something?” Anthony asked.
The chill vanished, the trance broken by the spoken words
and the prayer.
“Nothing,” Nathan said. The chessboard was complete now.
“Nothing… Shall we play?”
The entrance to the Hayden Library sat an entire story below
ground, immediately underneath the green grass of Hayden Lawn. Students
interested in entering had to pass through an arch of tan colored stone covered
with green vines and red flowers and descend a cascade of steps into a wide
courtyard—complete with tiny fountains gushing water in the corners. The
entrance was a red-orange stone structure that reminded Vex of a reversed
monastery gatehouse with a pair of pillars housing a giant concave window and
balustrade rails winging the structure on the higher ground level.
Like most of the desert, the only green around the
structure came from withered looking trees planted to line the shadowy walls;
green trees, palm tree tops, and other foliage poked up above the terra cotta
banisters and muddled with the royal blue of the Arizona afternoon sky. Birds
chirped angrily from atop the shade wall and fluttered away. With the clarity
of the sky came a hot, but gentle, breeze bearing the lingering musk of wet
stone, the brittle scent of chlorine, and the sweet potpourri fragrance of the
flower gardens blooming.
While starting down the steps towards the underground entrance,
a flash of prismatic light slashed through the wide window between the pillars.
Blinded for a moment, Vex put her hand up to shield her face as she trotted
down the stairs. For a brief second the multicolored light silhouetted the lighthouse
Inside the lobby, a bored-looking student attendant
sitting in the circular reception desk completely ignored both Vex and Patrick
as they strolled past. Dim sunlight bathed the
room from the glass windows facing outward and the skylight that poked out into
Hayden Lawn above. The clean, pine scent of cleaning detergents mixed with the
papery odor of books, clinging to the ubiquitous, lingering library hush.
Vex led Patrick deftly through the various ups and downs,
past glowing computer monitors, studious college kids buried in books, wooden
showcases, tables, and bookcases. The quiet rustle of papers and low murmuring
voices greeted them when they walked past a study room; a chair creaked with
startling volume and an embarrassed student ducked her head as she froze in her
seat. Vex simply smiled at her as she walked past and into a stairwell surrounded
by glass windows.
“Why can’t we just use the elevator?” Patrick huffed,
trying to keep his voice down. He pushed to keep up with Vex’s sweeping gait as
she ascended the stairs. “Wouldn’t that be a bit faster?”
“The floor that we need to get to isn’t accessible by elevator,”
she explained. “They’re remodeling it.”
“How high up is it?”
“Just four more flights.”
The stairwell finally terminated several floors up at a
grey door with a large safety-glass window.
Vex waved Patrick to silence before he asked any
questions, withdrew her athame from one of the hidden pockets in her dress, and
knelt down in front of the door. He looked down at the knife with a dubious
expression as she set the spell to work. Unbinding incantations were reasonably
simple when a person had a clue how locks operated. With the tip of the
whalebone blade touching the keyhole of the lock, she spoke the words quietly under
her breath, coaxing the lock to unlatch.
With a soft click the lock undid itself and Vex thanked it
Patrick shuffled nervously nearby. “Okay, that’s new to
me,” he said. “I didn’t know that you could pick locks. Say, wasn’t this what
got you thrown in the clink just two days ago anyway?”
“It wasn’t locked that time,” she said.
The door swung open to reveal an unfinished room. Carpets
were rolled up and laid against the walls, empty bookshelves stacked flat
against the back, and the floor was smooth concrete. The smell of dust and
disuse immediately followed the panorama of emptiness. Vex could feel her skin
prickle. The magical residues from the previous working still remained.
As did the working sigil, the candles, and the disturbed
dust that Vex had seen before. Although, there were extra footprints added to
the dust now: those of Vex herself, and the ASU police officers who had cased
the scene while she was handcuffed. It looked as if nobody else had accessed
this room since then—except that Vex knew better. The soulstones had been
removed from the three other candles.
Vex cursed herself for not returning immediately after Patrick
had come to get her from jail. It was a stupid thing to wait so long. She could
only comfort herself that more than likely the other soulstones were taken
while she was in police custody.
“You’re getting sloppy, Vex,” she said to herself.
“What?” asked Patrick.
“Nevermind,” she said. “Stay here, okay. Don’t touch anything.
I mean that.”
“Sure, sure,” he said. “What is that symbol?”
“It’s a sigil,” she explained as she pulled her digital
camera out of another pocket. It activated with a soft whrr and extended
its lens. “They are common to certain magickal incantations used to summon and
control extraworldly entities. Like demons and the like. Most cultures have
them, but not all cultures use symbolic words in their works. Normally they’re
pictures, images of what’s being summoned, controlled, or banished.”
Vex circled the sigil and took a few scene shots of the
entire setup in relation to the rest of the room. Then she snapped a few
pictures of the sigil itself, with the salt and iron circles around the outside
and the puddles of wax goo that once were candles more visible. The Wicche
Script around the outer circle had been drawn by an expert hand; someone with
artistic experience in calligraphy had painted them. The sigil and the Enochian
were a different matter altogether, but they still appeared to have been
painted by the same person; their lines were blurred, splotchy and rougher than
the perfect elegance of the external script.
Patrick waited silently while Vex continued to take snapshots.
“The outer circle is a magickal barrier,” she told
Patrick. “They might not have known it, but the barrier plus whatever working
they did achieved some real results. When I came here that night the barrier
was intact; I had to cut through it in order to get at the candles.”
“That’s where you found that soulstone.”
“Yes. And there were three more. They’re gone now.”
Vex walked to the windows. The room they stood in was
spacious by ordinary standards. Wide windows at each of the four walls produced
sweeping vistas of the buildings and the layout of the campus. She spent a
moment at each of them to get pictures of the view with careful attention to
give clues as to the facing and the orientation of the sigil to the windows
“I’m done,” she announced.
“So, what’s next?” asked Patrick.
Vex sashayed over to him, her black dress flounced in
graceful waves at her feet, stopped just barely too close to him, tilted her
“You are going to take me—” she started to say; then
thumped the camera against his chest with a grin, “to the Computer Commons and
help me e-mail these pictures to Brent.”