Excerpt: The Opposite of Magic

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

The Intruder

 

 

Emily didn’t do anything more exotic than hit send on an email, for God’s sake, but every pixel on the screen wobbled and came to rest off-kilter. The computer was cursed. Either that or she was, and all things considered, she hoped it was the PC. It refused to restart, so she dialed tech support—three times in one day, a personal record—and punched in her ID.

When Alexander Hartgrave stomped into her sort-of office fifteen minutes later, she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at his expression.

“You’re a menace,” he said, scowl deepening.

“I’m telling you, it’s not my fault.”

He crossed his arms. “It most certainly is.”

“Just replace the thing—”

“Dr. Daggett, the day you get another computer to torture is a day I’m no longer working here.”

A much-anticipated day.

“Get back,” Hartgrave said, like a threat, and put a protective arm around her PC tower. He glared at the screen. Then he tapped three keys, and the reboot window that wouldn’t appear for her popped up for him as if nothing were wrong. He clicked “restart.” It worked.

No one could make her feel idiotic the way he could. Of all the bad things about her job, the many, many bad things, he was—well, not really the worst. Just the most aggravating.

He glanced at her. “I don’t suppose you could stay off the computer for a while and give me a break? Read more books about lies and fairytales, perhaps?”

He wasn’t the first person to dismiss her specialty, but all the others were fellow academics. It seemed more insulting, somehow, coming from the college’s help-desk guy.

Emily spat out the “you” part of a rude comeback before thinking better of it. In her best lecture voice, she added, “can learn a lot about a society through its mythology and magical belief system.”

His lips twitched. “And you can save me considerable trouble by staying off the computer. Win-win.”

His cell phone chimed. Next victim calling in. Out he went, shaved-bald head gleaming in the fluorescent light, black duster flaring out behind him.

“Vulture,” she muttered.

Bernie Ballantine, the only other person with a basement office in Ashburn College’s humanities building, cleared his throat in a way that suggested a covered-up laugh.

“Switch computers with me and see how amusing you find it,” she called across the corridor.

Bernie gave up the battle and chortled. “I don’t think that would help.”

Emily minded it far less coming from Bernie, who liked her, than from Hartgrave, who did not. She grabbed a book about the history of the Faust legend (or lie, depending on your point of view) and walked over to spend her technology time-out on the English professor’s couch.

Bernie shook a finger at her. “Don’t settle in—it’s getting late. And it’s supposed to snow tonight, you know. You don’t want to get stuck here all weekend.”

“I won’t read for long.”

He gave her a look that said he had her number. Emily Daggett, near-friendless workaholic.

“Some of us don’t have tenure,” she said in her defense. “Publish or perish, etc. etc.”

“Take a break tonight, publish tomorrow. Tag along, if you like Mexican.”

Perhaps Bernie couldn’t remember his pre-tenure days, a quarter-century ago, but she had exactly five dollars in her wallet and not much more in her bank account. (If she was lucky, she’d pay her student loans off a few days before retirement.) She shook her head.

He rolled his eyes and shrugged on his coat. “All right, but don’t stay long. I mean it,” he added, then undid what little solemnity he’d managed by doffing his beat-up cowboy hat and putting on a neon-yellow fez, the second most absurd of his vast collection.

She laughed. His hats never failed to improve her mood. “See you Monday.”

Emily waited until the stairwell door thudded behind him, then ran along the corridor and shut off the overhead lights, leaving only the glow from his office lamp. There. That was the way to read about a scholar seduced by the devil, and no mistake.

When she’d first stepped into this crazy basement, with its maze of stone corridors and not a single room (none!), she’d despaired. A history department broom closet would have been more office-like than what she had. Because what she had was office furniture plopped into part of a corridor just shy of where it connected—without a door, of course—to the main passageway. Why the college had ever built such a basement beat her.

But what the heck: It looked like something out of a Gothic fantasy, complete with archways. Her middle-school self would have been thrilled. And sitting here, with her back to Bernie’s computer and telephone, she could easily imagine she’d been transported to a place where people put more faith in magic than technology. Especially with Bernie’s gargoyle statue crouching in her line of sight. (Her co-worker had asked to be put down here.)

She didn’t mean to stay long—just another hour or two—but the book was interesting and Bernie’s couch was comfortable. So very comfortable. And she was so very fast asleep, dreaming of a bald devil in a black duster offering her anything, anything, in exchange for her soul. She was eleven, bouncing on her toes, the answer falling from her lips without a second thought.

Magic. I want to do magic. And go on an adventure.

He sneered. Wouldn’t you rather have a working computer?

She came to on Bernie’s couch, thinking the indignity of dreaming about Hartgrave had snapped her out of it. But no. A sound—the stairwell door. Footsteps, coming her way. Someone else was in the basement.

Bernie? Surely not, considering his strict out-by-five regimen. And not the cleaning staff, in at seven on Mondays. Why would anyone be here at whatever-the-heck-o’clock on a Friday night?

She bolted upright. Her book clattered to the floor. The footfalls paused.

Emily took a single second to consider whether she should keep standing there, perhaps with a wave and a smile. She scurried behind the couch instead.

The next moment a beam of light cut into the office. The man—the tread sounded too heavy to be a woman’s—approached her hiding place, his feet just visible through the gap under the couch. He stood there for a moment before bending down, a dark shape that sent her heartbeat from rapid to light speed.

Then he picked up the book, dropped it on the couch with a muffled thump, switched off Bernie’s lamp and strode out, heading down the main hallway—further into the basement.

She pulled in gulps of air, simultaneously twenty-six years old and eleven. The rational, adult part of her said that was close. A smaller but surprisingly loud part let out a whoop and insisted on more.

Well—perhaps it was the overflow quantities of adrenaline talking, but she didn’t see an absolute need to stay behind the couch, not with the intruder heading away from the door. She could tiptoe out and call the campus police. Extend the adventure just a bit.

She edged around the couch, listening for but no longer hearing the man. With a whisper of rubber soles, she made it to the archway marking the end of Bernie’s office and hung a left toward the stairwell door, using the exit light as a beacon.

She got the door open with hardly a noise. She crept up the stairs and immediately located a campus telephone. All in all, she felt pretty darn pleased with herself—positively spy-like—but then she pictured her side of the conversation.

Come quickly, there’s someone in the humanities basement! . . . Well, I don’t know what he’s doing exactly, but it’s very odd that anyone would go down there at eleven-thirty at night. . . . What was I doing down there at eleven-thirty at night? Um—sleeping. Hello? Hello?

Rarely had anything gone better than she’d imagined. She sighed and turned to head home.

But the stairwell door caught her eye, and she couldn’t look away.

It was a mystery why anyone would go wandering around the basement. In the dark, no less, and without any of the drunken stumbling of a student on a dare. An utter mystery.

Five feet to the right stood the exit—the way home, the sensible choice. The other door promised danger and excitement and answers.

She walked past the exit, opened the stairwell door and strode down the steps. She was officially crazy. Either that or officially eleven. Even Bernie’s “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” sign on the door at the bottom of the stairwell, put up to cut down on office visits, wasn’t a sufficient deterrent.

Dead silence met her in the basement. She flipped on the overhead lights, expecting a giveaway sound like scuffling feet. But nothing broke the tomblike hush of the place—advantage, intruder. Perhaps she’d better have something she could use as a weapon. She rummaged in her desk drawers, settled on a three-hole punch because its name sounded threatening and set off.

If turning the basement into offices was the architectural equivalent of swimming upstream, using it for intrigue meant being swept along for the ride. Dark corners, indistinct and menacing shadows—she could feel the rat-tat-tatting of her heart in every part of her body.

But corridor after corridor proved empty, not counting the ones crammed full of boxed-up old paperwork. She picked her way around the entire level and found nobody. The basement had only the one way out—he couldn’t have slipped away without her hearing him, could he?

She set off on another circuit, but the thrill was largely gone. Halfway around, she stopped to rest her forehead on the wall, contemplating hitting one against the other. Was she so starved for excitement that she would go haring off on pseudo-adventures at the first opportunity? Time to rethink her life. Past time, certainly, to go home.

She stepped back—and gasped. She hadn’t leaned against a wall at all. It was a door.

Only the doorknob set it apart from the wall, and even that was virtually invisible thanks to the dim light. Did anyone else know about this? Was the invader just beyond this door?

She hesitated. It might not be safe to go in. And if anything happened to her, no one would have any idea where she’d gone. Not even Bernie.

Bernie.

Of course—of course it was him. Didn’t he poke and prod to get her out of the building that afternoon? Didn’t he make a point of saying on her first day that the corridors went nowhere?

What in blue blazes was he doing?

The doorknob was warm to the touch, smooth as glass, tingling under her fingers like mild static electricity—and locked.

“Oh, come on,” she muttered, yanking on it. To vent, not because she thought that would work. But it did. She tumbled onto her backside, stunned, as the door burst open.

Inside, a cavernous room. Inside the room, a man—Bernie?—wearing a cowboy hat.

And hovering at least fifteen feet above the floor.

He was too far away to see properly, but she could hardly miss the way he recoiled as the door cracked against the wall. He hung in the air for perhaps a half-second more—just long enough for her to gasp, “Magic!”—and then dropped like a stone, disappearing from view behind a large table at the center of the room. His body made a sickening thud as he hit the floor.

Emily scrambled to her feet and dashed in, jettisoning the three-hole punch as she went. Her heart clenched when she found him lying motionless on his stomach, outstretched arms obscuring his face. The rest of his head was covered by his coat collar and the dark cowboy hat, which had landed only slightly askew.

“Bernie?” This came out half an octave higher than normal, wavery and fearful. Oh God, it was all her fault. “Are you—are you all right?”

The words echoed in the otherwise silent room.

“Be alive, be alive,” she pleaded, pulling his coat back to feel for a pulse.

She just had time to register the lack of salt-and-pepper hair on the nape beneath—the lack of any hair at all—when the man knocked her feet out from under her with one swift kick.

 

 


 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Practitioner

 

 

“—you hear me? Dr. Daggett!”

She opened her eyes to a ceiling that seemed too far away and shut them tight against the sickening sensation of falling—down a rabbit hole, like Alice. Then she realized she was flat on her back, lying on something hard. Soft. Both?

“Dr. Daggett?”

Oh. The floor. She was on the floor with some sort of cushion under her head—her aching, aching head.

“Dr. Daggett!”

She supposed she ought to say something. This man, whoever he was, seemed upset. But her “yes?” came out more whimper than reassuring answer.

“Can you sit up?” The man sounded familiar. “No, no, wait,” he added as she shifted experimentally, “I’m going to help. Easy now.”

Hands slipped behind her shoulders and supported her. Her head throbbed, but once she got upright, the pain eased enough for her to risk opening her eyes. Kneeling beside her, showing every sign of deep concern, was Hartgrave.

Great. She was hallucinating. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them again.

Still Hartgrave.

“Are you all right?” His voice faltered on the last word.

“What—what happened?”

He looked as disoriented as she felt. “I heard a loud thump. You were lying on the ground.”

She tried to focus on where she was. A stone corridor—the basement, then.

Abruptly, she remembered. An invader. A door out of nowhere. A man in a secret room, flying.

Magic.

“You might have a concussion.” Hartgrave leaned in, looking at her eyes. “Do I seem blurry? Are you dizzy?”

That man in the room—what had he looked like? She struggled to dredge up details from a brain working at half-speed. A hat, she was pretty sure he wore a hat. And . . . and a coat? She stared at Hartgrave. He wasn’t wearing a hat or a coat, but more importantly—it couldn’t have been him, scoffer at all things paranormal. That was beyond laughable.

“Dr. Daggett,” Hartgrave said, the sharpness sounding less like his usual annoyance and more like honest anxiety.

She’d lost track of what he’d asked, but she said “no,” hoping that answer made sense.

He sat back on his heels, letting out a breath. “What’s the last thing you recall?”

Two things struck her: Strange that she was outside the secret room if she’d been attacked inside it; and rather more importantly, the door was gone.

Hartgrave cleared his throat.

Gone.

“Do you have any idea how you came to be unconscious?” he said.

She stared at the wall, unable to make her eyes see the small doorknob. It might be cleverly hidden behind a spell cast by a wizard, one who’d knocked her out, deposited her in the corridor and scooted. Or she’d grasped at thin air, at a doorknob that wasn’t, and jerked so hard that she’d knocked herself out against the opposing wall. No wizard. No magic. Just psychosis.

Even while possibly concussed, she could tell which scenario was more likely. Tears welled.

Hartgrave looked away. “It’s all right—you’ll be all right—I had a concussion myself, once. Let’s get you to the campus clinic.”

He grasped her elbows and helped her to her feet. “Can you walk? Hold on . . .”

Two things occurred to her as the pain receded enough for higher-order thinking. He was being unusually—suspiciously—nice. And it was nearly midnight on a Friday.

Then, reaching down with the hand he wasn’t using to steady her, he picked up the bunched-up something he’d put under her head. His long black coat.

Maybe she hadn’t gone entirely around the bend. She glanced up at him and said, as nonchalantly as possible, “Isn’t this well past your quitting time?”

He gave an exhausted sort of half-shrug. “Bad week. I’ve a lot of work to do still. As long as I was in the building, I thought I might give your computer an overhaul, considering—” He stopped, apparently thinking better of the customary insults. “Well, just considering. Shall we?”

“Just a minute.”

He didn’t look inclined to wait, but she pulled free and stumbled to the wall that should have had a door, catching herself with both hands.

“Dr. Daggett,” he said, “I really do have loads of work, so if you don’t mind—”

“Go ahead, then,” she said, running her palms along the wall.

He tugged at her arm. “The fact that you think I might leave you here with possible brain damage is confirmation of it, no MRI required.” Back to full Hartgrave-strength. That was quick. “Come with me.”

“No, I lost something—”

And then she brushed against it. Heart accelerating, she grabbed the knob, wrenched the door open—Hartgrave letting go with a startled intake of breath—and rushed in. The room looked even bigger on second viewing, but it was definitely the same place. There, the stone table. There, lying near it, the wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

Her head pounded, her back and elbows ached, and she’d never felt better in her life. Not a hallucination. Real.

Magic was real.

And to hide that, someone had tried to make her think she’d gone crazy. Someone had injured her. Someone had an incredible secret and few scruples.

“Well, this is a fascinating little excursion,” said her self-appointed knight in black armor, shrugging on his coat, “but as it’s not getting you any closer to medical help . . .”

She lifted her eyes from the hat—the black hat—and stared at Hartgrave, the only other person in the room. “You.”

He crossed his arms, a vision of impatience. “Yes?”

“It was you!” Her headache faded as rage took over. “You attacked me!”

“What?”

“You were floating and you fell, and when I tried to help, you knocked me out!”

He shut the door. Ominous. But all he said was, “Yes, I’d say you have a concussion.”

“You were doing magic.”

He walked toward her, boots clacking against the stone in exactly the way they had when he cut through the basement in the dark. “Do you realize how completely delusional that sounds?”

She backed out of reach. “You were.”

“Dr. Daggett, for pity’s sake,” he said, grabbing her arm.

She tried to wrench free, but the moment her bare wrist came into contact with his hand, a shock went up her arm like an electrical charge. The surprise of it—as much as the pain—made her cry out. He must have felt it too, because he jumped back with a gasp.

Then he tripped over her three-hole punch, surprisingly useful as a weapon after all, and would have ended up flat on the floor—again—if not for what happened next. He stopped mid-fall. Feet in the air.

Aha,” Emily yelled.

He tipped his head back and pressed his hands over his eyes. “Scheiße.”

She wanted to throttle the man. “Thought you’d cause a little memory loss and send me on my way? You could have killed me!”

His “yes,” as he righted himself, came out more hiss than word. But she was too angry, and possibly concussed, to take this as a serious threat.

“Listen, you—”

“No.” His face was ashen. “No. You listen to me, Daggett. You were not supposed to be here. You will never come here again.”

“Oh? Do the Ashburn powers-that-be know you’re here?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Magic is exactly my business! And I can’t believe you had the gall to tell me I’m wasting my time studying its history when you’re a wizard!”

“Don’t call me that,” he snarled, raising his right hand toward her in a way that suggested imminent magic hazardous to her health. She spun around to make a dash for the door.

A thick line of blue-black fire leapt in front of it, flames ten feet high.

“Have a seat,” Hartgrave said. Not a request.

He gestured toward a corner of the room, which—incongruously—contained an armchair, a bed and several other pieces of furniture. Keeping a mistrustful eye on him, she sidestepped to the chair and prepared for unpleasantness.

But he walked to the closest wall, laid his hands on it and stood there for a moment, as if checking on something. Then he slumped on the bed, rubbing the back of his neck with both hands and issuing no threats.

She could not satisfactorily explain to herself why she felt disappointed.

The silence stretched out, broken by a curse as he reached farther down his spine and hit what must have been a particularly sore area. She winced.

“How badly did—did you get hurt?” she asked, unable to bring herself to say how badly did I hurt you. Only one of them had been injured on purpose, and it wasn’t him.

He glanced at her, still rubbing. “I slowed my fall just before I hit the floor, or it would have been very bad indeed. You’re ten times the menace I thought you were.”

When she was young, she had wished, hoped, dreamed she would find a wizard. He would have silver hair (of course), teach her how to use magic (obviously) and send her on grand adventures. Instead, the universe gave her this hairless, thirty-something, sardonic IT director.

She did her best to out-glare him. “You more than paid me back, don’t you think?”

“I apologize.” The words came out strangled to a fare-thee-well. “It was all I could think of, with the wind knocked out of me and the door—” He stopped short.

“What about the door?”

“It doesn’t matter—it’s no excuse,” he muttered. “Are you seeing double?”

“No.” (And thank goodness for that. One of him was already too much.)

“Any lingering dizziness? Nausea? Ringing in the ears?”

She shook her head—gingerly—and found the movement wasn’t too awful.

He passed a hand over his eyes. “Then it’s less likely your concussion is severe. For which mercy I am properly grateful.”

She supposed she ought to reciprocate, though he had more to apologize for than she did. “About your fall . . . I’m sorry.”

He fixed her with a look that put all previous piercing looks to shame. “So, Dr. Daggett—what am I to do with you?”

That sounded more like the evildoer script. She sat a bit straighter. “Haven’t you done enough?”

He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.

“I know, I know, you don’t want anyone else to learn your secret,” she said, putting up both hands to stop the inevitable objections. “But who’d believe me if I told them?”

“The salient point is I won’t be able to use this room for fear you’d bring someone in.”

She saw how she could turn this to her advantage. So she didn’t like him. So what. He was a wizard—the salient point to end all salient points.

“Let’s make a deal.” She clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking. “I won’t compromise you if you’ll do something for me.”

He narrowed his eyes. “What ‘something’?”

“Teach me magic.”

His reaction was not what she’d hoped. He laughed—a black-humor sound, a why-is-this-happening-to-me sound. She needed to appeal to his better nature, if he had one, and fast.

“Alexander—”

No. Absolutely not.”

She made a mental note to never call him by his first name again. “Please—you have no idea what it would mean to me.”

He snorted. “I’ve some idea. I’ve seen your office.”

Hey, those sword-and-sorcery posters went well with the setting.

“I’ll pay you like I would any tutor,” she said, trying to figure out how, exactly. Skip meals?

“I don’t need your money. I’m fairly certain I make twice as much as you do, Professor.”

She was a lecturer on a two-semester-only contract, not a professor—most professors made twice as much as she did, let alone IT workers. But she didn’t correct him. She cast about for a lever to shift an immovable object—what did he really want?

Oh. Of course. She sighed at the thought, but it wasn’t as if she liked her computer. Or even the ones that worked. Who in their right mind would choose technology over magic?

“All right,” she said. “I won’t call you for tech support ever again. I’ll just . . . use the computer lab when there’s no way around it, I suppose.”

He didn’t laugh this time. He surveyed her, something like pity in his eyes. “Tempting, but no. There’s nothing you could offer. Ask for something else.”

She swallowed, her disappointment far weightier than she would have thought possible. She’d chosen the history of magic as her specialty, yes, but only because it was interesting and worth further study, not because she’d seen it as the next best thing to casting magic. It wasn’t as if magical practices of the past had all that much in common with rip-roaring adventures about wizards. She just enjoyed researching, excavating information no one else had noticed or seen the value in.

And yet . . . Maybe she wasn’t giving her childhood wish enough credit. It obviously had more staying power than she ever suspected. Now that she knew spellcasting wasn’t merely the stuff of books and fairy tales, it topped her list of things she really, really wanted. Even above a tenure-track job.

And the only person who could teach her had absolutely refused. Probably on the grounds that he detested her, because if he knew somehow that she had no innate magical ability, or if he was magically bound not to reveal occult secrets, he could just say that and have done with it.

Wait . . .

“Find me someone else who will teach me, then,” she said, leaning forward in her seat.

Hartgrave threw up his arms. “No! Something else.”

Something else.

Something else that would keep her in contact with magic and let her work on him like drops of water wearing away stone.

“Let me watch.” She gripped the chair. “Let me watch you practice, and I swear I’ll always come here alone.”

His sour expression told her he disliked this idea nearly as much. Seconds ticked by. A minute.

“All right.” He fell back on his bed, eyes squeezed shut. “But the next time you stop by, knock, for God’s sake.”

 


 

Want the rest? Here’s where you can find the book.