Ian burst through the door to Aunt Cleona’s apartment twenty minutes late. Seemed like the whole day had gone that way. He’d turned in his copy at The Cosmic Eye
with two minutes to spare, had missed the 5:10 bus to Freemont, and now he faced the wrath of Cleona.
Lucky for him she was involved in an online poker game. The spaghetti sauce simmered forgotten on the stove, and he took a few minutes to sort out his jumbled thoughts, wipe rainwater from his face with a kitchen towel, and collapse into a chair.
The violin music had haunted Ian all day, making sure he wouldn’t forget the spell floating like a loose hook in his brain. He closed his eyes, and the stormy gaze that promised entry to paradise assaulted him. He’d tried to deny it, run from it, bury it beneath work, but the deadly promise was still there as if the musician stood right behind him, whispering breathy enchantments into his ear. Ian shook his head, then put his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. He’d been chasing magic his entire life, and now that he’d found it, it terrified him.
“Look who finally decided to show up!” Cleona bellowed as she swished into the kitchen. Her hips were wider than the doorway straight on, and she had to turn sideways to fit through. Three cats ran in with her like a furry escort, claiming the tabletop and counters with impunity.
Cleona had kinky blonde hair, almond skin, and golden eyes. She wore a purple velour kaftan with gold trim. Golden spectacles sat askew on her head.
“Don’t start,” Ian said and gave her a forlorn look meant to inspire pity.
She stood with her hands on her hips, giving him a once-over. Her mouth fell open and she asked, “What the hell did you get into?”
“A glamour spell, I think.”
“Ain’t nothing glamorous about the energy you’re projecting.” She squeezed around the table and put a hand on top of his head. His thick hair snagged on the prongs of one of her many rings as she massaged his scalp and mumbled incantations. Over the years he’d learned to put up with a lot of strangeness as she’d practiced her piecemeal magic on him, and he sat still, resigned to playing the guinea pig. She claimed to be a natural-born witch, but she’d gathered her power the hard way, through study, spying, and thievery. Sometimes her spells worked; sometimes they didn’t.
“Oh!” she said. “Oh. Oh. Not good. Not good at all.” She hurried into the living room, taking along several strands of his hair. He rubbed his head and listened to her pull books off the shelf and toss them onto the coffee table. After a few minutes of listening to her thuds, curses, and murmurs, he joined her.
All four walls of the small living room were lined with shelves. Cheap pasteboard bookshelves from the discount store, heavy oak shelves inherited from her mom, plastic crates pinched from the backs of grocery stores, stacked cardboard boxes, tables with smaller tables on top—all these things were there simply to hold books and a sprinkling of odd objects, her collection of rodent skulls being among the oddest.
“Here we go.” She licked her fingertips and thumbed through a large book with a dark-green cover and gilt-edged pages. She let out a heavy sigh. “This is bad. This is very bad.”
“What?” He flopped down on her red velvet couch, forgetting he still wore his wet raincoat.
“Describe the one who hexed you.”
“Tall, dark, handsome. Playing a violin at the market. Dressed like a pirate. Human.”
“Human? You wish.” She kept her gaze trained on the book, chewing a lip. “Dark, you say?”
“Black hair. Skin sort of a Mediterranean tone. Spanish, maybe.”
“No. Um, bluish, grayish, silverish.”
“What did he want?”
“I didn’t stick around to find out.”
“How did he cast?”
“With the violin. That’s what drew me to him. Then when I took his picture—”
“Oh, holy Goddess, Ian.”
“What? I always take their picture if I can.”
“Have you developed it yet?”
“No. I’ve had the day from hell. Came straight here from The Eye
“So you went to work and let that spell worm its way into your innards for how long?”
Ian leaned back and pressed a brocaded pillow against his stomach for comfort. “Uh, three, four hours.”
“Jumpin’ Jehosophat.” She slammed the book shut and worried at her own protective amulet, a large brass circle with a moonstone in the center. “We’re gonna need professional help.”
“Can’t you do something?”
“Sure I can do something, but will it be effective? I don’t know. You see, I think you’ve gone and stepped in a shadow of darkness.”
“That sounds bad.”
“It is. I need to consult an expert. For now, I’ll cast some friendly darkness-repelling spells over you and hope they slow the spread. Too bad we can’t visit Alistair tonight, but he’s out on his boat hunting mermaids.”
Alistair was a self-proclaimed shaman, about a hundred and twenty years old, who lived on a ratty sailboat in Lake Union. Alistair provided Ian with most of his tips about magical sightings in the city.
“He went mermaid spotting without me?”
“Think it’s a personal affair. C’mon, let’s eat.”
“What about the protective spells?”
“I’m hungry. I can’t work on an empty stomach.” Cleona returned the book to the shelf. “I’ll put on the pasta. Take off that wet coat and stop looking like the canary that got eaten by the cat. Most likely, this magical critter will forget about you since you were able to escape his clutches.”
Ian wriggled out of his coat and tossed it across the back of the couch. A black cat named Lotus immediately hopped up and began sniffing and clawing at it. Ian waited until he heard water running in the kitchen, then stood and went to the shelf. He removed the book and let it fall open in one hand. He’d learned the trick from Cleona that if you set your intention and acted quick enough, a book would always open to the last page that was read.
The chapter heading was “Capture and Entrapment Spells.” The entry was “Svarta: Tricks of the Dark Ones.”
The beings who live in the dark realms have an insatiable lust for the powers and energies of those who live in light. A svarta usually uses temptation to lure willing victims into their realm where they are helpless to resist. Svartas use beauty, sex, wealth, comfort, excitement—whatever the unaware prey might be longing for. A svarta rarely uses violence unless truly desperate. Their favorite hex is the Pied Piper spell, instilling into the mind of the victim a haunting tune they cannot help but follow. Through the music, a svarta can ride the vibrational disturbance and enter the victim’s thoughts and dreams
Ian took a deep breath and flipped to the back of the book. In the index he found svarta
and turned to page 537.
Svarta: Scandinavian term for the Dark Ones, often considered a branch of the Elvin family, who live in a parallel dimension of darkness which some believe has devolved into a sort of spiritual dead-end. Svarta can gain power by draining the magic and sometimes souls from any magical creature who roams our dimension of light. They are the historical enemies of the liosa, an Elvin branch believed to have been closely related to the svarta in primordial times. (See Liosa, page 322). Since the great wars and time of separation, svarta have preyed on any class of being (including human) with magical abilities. There is no bargaining or deal making with the Dark Ones. Not to be meddled with.
Ian felt trepidation and relief at the same time. He hoped Cleona was correct. The svarta wouldn’t bother to track down a human like himself who had so little magic to feed off. Maybe if Ian had stepped right into the trap, he’d be a soulless husk right now, but he’d broken away, thanks to Cleona’s moonstone. He fingered it, and the music, which had never entirely gone away, faded.
He looked up to see Cleona in the doorway, wagging a wooden spoon at him.
“If I’d wanted you to know about the svarta”—she symbolically spit into her palm to dispel the bad energy of the word—“I’d have told you.”
“Why don’t you want me to know?”
“Sometimes knowledge is power; sometimes it’s a trap. The less you know and think about and fret over that creature, the better.”
Ian put the book away, but he didn’t agree. “Have you ever seen one?”
“Maybe. Way back. Back when Gwen and I went to Ireland.” Gwen was Ian’s mother. She’d died, of all things, in a shipwreck. “We were stupid like you back then, chasing after magic as if we could collect it like agates off the beach or pennies on the sidewalk. And sometimes it does come in those forms, but usually the easier it is to get, the more dangerous it is. Like this musician fellow, laying out his beautiful spell for you to stroll right into.”
“But maybe if I’d known about these creatures, I wouldn’t have—”
Cleona curled her lips up in a smirk. “You really think you would have ignored the siren call of a magical being? I never should have told you any of this stuff, but since you’ve always been so damn determined, I thought it was safer to give you a little guidance.”
“It is safer. Your necklace saved me today.”
“But don’t go running out ahead of me, Ian. There are places I can’t follow. Creatures like this svarta, I’ve got no juju against. Don’t be filling up your brain with information you can’t use. Most likely your musician was just a run-of-the-mill conjurer.”
“Didn’t feel very run-of-the-mill.”
“C’mon. Let’s eat. Then I’ll try to weaken that thread a little and, if we’re lucky, break it. You shouldn’t be alone tonight. Sleepwalking is a real danger with a spell like this. Yeah, you stay on my couch tonight.” She nodded and went back to her pasta. Ian looked without enthusiasm at the sagging, cat-infested couch.
“Dijeree is at the apartment. She’ll keep an eye on me,” he called out to Cleona.
“If you insist, I’ll drive you home, but I’m not kidding. You can’t be alone.”
He looked out the window into the black, rainy night. He only lived ten blocks away, but the distance seemed vast and fraught with peril. He could see a bit of the Aurora Bridge, lit up and streaming with the gold and red lights of traffic. Beyond the bridge, black water shimmered in the Ballard Locks, dark trees loomed, and music drifted out from around a luring campfire. He could get warm there, be safe, and the handsome musician would give him wine, take him inside—
A sharp rap on the head with the wooden spoon stopped him from opening the front door. His hand was on the knob. He didn’t even remember walking over there.
“Damn. You’ve got it bad, boy,” Cleona said from behind him.