|Written by Margaret L. Carter / Artwork by Holly Eddy
The latched window
wouldn’t pose a problem.
Lorita would have worried
more about a sleepless
neighbor noticing her
like all wizards, Master
Arlen valued privacy too
much to place his
workroom in view of
surrounding houses. This
window faced an alley and
a blank wall. The wizard’s
choice to live in a modest
townhouse belied the
power displayed by the
smooth, clear glass pane.
Only the rich or the
magically gifted could
afford such a luxury.
Slinking up to it in the
faint moonlight, Lorita
cast a final glance in each
direction to make sure
nobody wandering the
streets at this late hour
happened to be passing
She raised her left arm and sent her instructions to the translucent band coiled around it: :Get inside,
Taper, and unlock the window. The creature unwound itself and stretched to its full arm’s-length
extension. Under its shiny surface, multicolored flecks glistened. A cluster of six dots at one end served
as eyes. Flattening itself to hair’s width, it slipped through the crack between window and sill. She
watched it glide up the inside of the glass to the lock, where it snicked the latch to the open position.
Closing her eyes, she linked with the creature’s senses. Though it couldn’t talk to her, even mentally, she
could share its vision. The room was deserted, the door on the far wall closed. Good.
Lorita grinned to herself as she pushed the window up. This trick worked much better than breaking a
pane with a crash that might wake the unsuspecting homeowner. Her smile instantly faded, though,
when her soft-soled boots touched the floor of Master Arlen’s workroom and she couldn’t avoid thinking
of why she’d broken in. She couldn’t take pleasure in a job when her brother’s life depended on it.
The air, cool in contrast to the humid summer night outside, tormented her with familiar smells. Incense,
spices, musty books. A wooden bowl of ripe apples on the desk. The same old pair of overstuffed, faded
chairs sat side by side. She recognized the stuffed raven above the fireplace mantel, perpetually watching
the room through emerald eyes. Didn’t Arlen ever change anything around here? Maybe he liked a
comfortably predictable home as a refuge from his quests for magical artifacts in rugged wilderness and
ruined cities. Quests she hadn’t been allowed to join, on the grounds that a half-grown apprentice
couldn’t handle the risks. All the magic she’d sampled had consisted of tedious labors in library and
She’d never expected to set foot inside this house again. The sooner she found her quarry and got out,
the sooner she could shed the pain of this betrayal she was committing. :Here, Taper. The creature
slithered to her and coiled around her arm. Her skin tingled with the prickle of hundreds of tiny needles
on Taper’s underside. It got nourishment and renewed its bond with her by absorbing minute quantities
of her blood. As always, that contact sent a momentary rush of euphoria through her, like a sip of
sparkling wine. The exhilaration lasted even less time than usual. Her throat tightened as she looked
around the once-welcoming space. She swallowed a lump and tasted acid.
Her fingers wandered to the amulet she wore around her neck. She’d recalled enough of her lessons in
magic to craft a charm against setting off the spell that would alert the wizard to an intruder. She knew
the style of Arlen’s magic well enough to have a fair chance of averting it. When her eyes adjusted to the
dimness, she scanned the chamber for the casket she knew she would find. There it sat, in a niche three
shelves up from the floor. She recognized the box, carved with winged serpents, at once. Master Arlen
had always kept his most valued treasures in it, and as set in his routine as he’d always been, he
probably still did.
:Open that box, Taper.
If the container had a lethal ward cast on it, her pet could still unlock it safely, being immune to such
magic. Taper stretched toward the casket, and the creature's first few inches slithered into the keyhole.
Seconds later, the lock clicked open. She lifted the lid with her gloved hands. On a velvet cloth lay the
object she sought, just as her employer had described it. A crystalline pyramid of a size to rest in her
palm, with iridescent colors undulating inside it. Taper twined around the thing and nudged it out of the
box onto the desk. She picked up the crystal carving while Taper wrapped itself around her arm again.
Even through her glove, the artifact felt like a lump of ice. Her skin tingled again, and her heart raced.
:Let’s get out of here.
Just as she turned toward the window, the door creaked open. She whirled to face it. Master Arlen,
dressed in a ragged house robe, strode into the room with a ball of light the size of one of those apples
floating above his head.
Lorita turned again and dashed for the open window. A flash of blue light leaped to the window, which
slammed shut. When she spun around to face the door, it closed, too. She knew the blue sparks that
outlined the two escape routes were keeping them magically locked.
The wizard waved his hand again. Golden whips of energy lashed around her and bound her arms to her
side. Another strand tripped her, knocking her onto the floor with a bone-jarring thud. The shining
ropes tightened around her chest. She struggled for breath, her vision fading to gray. Her pet
shuddered in sympathy with her distress.
“Lorita? Is that you?”
The magical bonds vanished. Gulping air into her aching lungs, she scrambled to her feet. She started to
charge the wizard.
At another gesture from him, a spectral gust of wind knocked her down again.
He said, “You’re young and fast, so you might be able to hit me over the head before I could cast
another spell. But that wouldn’t get you out of a mage-locked room. Now, can I safely let you up?”
Through a veil of frustrated tears, she studied his face. His stern gaze didn’t reveal anger or any other
emotion. She nodded. When she struggled upright, nothing happened.
Her shoulders slumped. She sighed and placed the pyramid on the desk. “All right, what are you waiting
for? Fry me with a lightning bolt. Turn me into a beetle and step on me.” A tremor coursed through her
pet in an echo of her fear.
With a sad smile, he said, “Child, do you really think I would hurt you?” He settled in one of the chairs
and waved her to the other. “Sit down.”
She did. Even after six years’ absence, the habit of obeying him came back instantly. “Go ahead and call
the Watch, then.”
“I don’t want you punished. I want to know why you’re doing this.” His eyes wandered to her charmed
necklace. “I see you remember enough of my lessons to ward against my alarm spell. It didn’t occur to
you that when I acquired that thing you tried to snatch, I’d naturally strengthen my defenses?”
She didn’t think it would help her case to say she’d thought of him as old and stuck in a rut. Not that he
looked that old. His brown hair and beard didn’t have any more gray streaks than she remembered. “I
had to take the chance,” she said.
“I’ve heard about your successful career as a thief for hire.”
Her face heated. “I don’t steal. I search for lost objects and restore things to their rightful owners. I’m
good at finding things.”
“Where does taking the pyramid come into that? Revenge for our last conversation?”
She shook her head. “I don’t blame you for being angry at the way I left, just for trying to stop me in
the first place.”
He sighed. “I did call you an ungrateful brat, which was going a bit far.”
She couldn’t deny she had ample reason to be grateful to him. When the spotted fever had killed both of
her parents in a single season, Master Arlen, an old friend of her father, had taken in Lorita and her
younger brother, Lain. “I know I shouldn’t have just run away like I did. But I never wanted to study
magic. That was Lain’s ambition. I shouldn’t have made him come with me. He wanted to stay here.”
“He didn’t have the gift. I hear he’s progressing quite well as an apprentice historian at the High Lord’s
She frowned. “You’ve been checking up on us?” She’d assumed he never wanted to see or hear of her
again. Throughout her teens, she’d done nothing but defy him.
“Of course I’ve kept track of you. I never stopped caring about your welfare. Unlike your brother, you do
have a talent for magic. Otherwise you couldn’t have bonded with that creature. They’re very rare. Maybe
later you can tell me how you managed it. May I?” He reached toward her.
She extended her arm and let him touch her pet. Taper rippled with pleasure when Arlen ran his fingers
over it. The warmth that surged through Lorita’s veins reassured her. Taper would sense danger if Arlen
meant her any harm. Maybe he really had forgiven her for those old quarrels.
“I shouldn’t have tried to stop you from finding your own way in life. You’ve obviously done quite well
with your skills.”
She felt herself blushing. “Thanks, but now I know I could have come up with a better way of finding it
than just disappearing into the night.”
“And I should have listened to you. Then I might have been able to advise you about using your gifts in
a way that would suit you better. Not all mages spend their lives ‘rooting through piles of dusty tomes,’
as I remember you put it.”
“The most exciting thing you ever taught me to do was cast spells on ants.” She’d spent hours learning
to implant a scintilla of magical energy into a bread crumb and drop it into the path of an ant. Once
carried into the anthill, the spell embedded in the crumb instantly wiped out the insects. “Very useful if I’
d wanted a job as a pest exterminator.”
“Not your life’s ambition, I know. You craved what you called adventure. But I track down magical objects
to safeguard them from abuse, not for thrills. I was sure your father would haunt me from the grave if I
put his child in danger.”
“I’m not a child anymore.”
“So I see.” Arlen sat up straighter. “If you didn’t break into my workshop after six years because I
wouldn’t let you spread your wings as a girl, then why?”
“I was hired by a wizard who claims you stole this treasure from him. He said it would be dangerous left
in the wrong hands.”
His voice sharpened. “Karnak? Why would you work for a man like that?”
Tears stung her eyes. “Because he has my brother. He promised to do something terrible to Lain if I
didn’t bring him the crystal pyramid. And I’ve seen a little of what Karnak can do. He demonstrated on a
rabbit.” She rubbed her face. “You’re saying that thing doesn’t rightfully belong to him?”
“Really, my dear, knowing both of us, which one would you believe?”
“It’s not like I had much choice, after he captured Lain. But, sure, I suspected he was lying. What is that
“A very ancient artifact one of our old teachers found in an abandoned temple. After our mentor died, he
bequeathed his effects to Karnak and me to divide equally between us. I think he hoped the process
would lead to reconciliation.” Arlen sighed. “The old man was always a bit naïve about Karnak’s
personality and goals. When the pyramid turned up, naturally Karnak and I fought over who had the
right to it. Luckily, I managed to get my hands on the object first. You know what he’s like—reveling in
the pain of others, pursuing the occult art for power instead of knowledge. A personal clash between us
would be explosive and possibly end in his destruction, so he chose to use you because of your past ties
to me. He wants that thing because it amplifies the power of any mage who wields it, and that’s only one
of its uses. But, as you see, I can’t let you give it to him.”
“Then there’s no point in discussing it anymore. If I don’t, my life is over. After he kills Lain, I’ll spend
what time I have left trying to destroy him. Until he squashes me like a fly, that is.”
He spread his hands. “Believe me, I don’t want to see you and Lain become Karnak’s victims. If he gets
his hands on that artifact, though, none of us three will survive much longer.”
Her eyes darted around the room, the old memories thronging into her mind. “Wait—suppose there’s a
way to give it to him without really letting him have it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember what we used to do with those ants?”
An approving smile spread over his face. “I see. The idea has possibilities.” He leaned forward. “If we can
make it work, however, I’ll ask something else of you.”
The anteroom of Karnak’s house might have looked serene and elegant to some people’s taste. It
reminded Lorita of a box carved out of ice. The walls and floor were white. The few pieces of furniture,
mostly marble, were white trimmed with silver. Two silvery automata shaped like giant beetles crawled
around perpetually cleaning and polishing. One of them followed her to erase the smudges her boots left
on the floor. Although the air didn’t actually carry a chill, Lorita’s skin felt clammy with cool sweat. Taper
shrank and squeezed tighter around her arm.
The inner door swung open, and Karnak strode in. Despite his shock of white hair, his clean-shaven face
had no wrinkles. Although he might have been called handsome, his smooth smile made Lorita’s stomach
churn. “You have it?”
She showed him the leather pouch in which she carried the pyramid. He reached for it. “Not so fast. I’ll
give you this thing after you let my brother go.”
The wizard’s expression didn’t change when he said, “Why don’t I just strike you down and take it?”
“Because magical objects can be delicate. I know that much. You wouldn’t want to risk damaging it with a
lightning bolt or fireball, would you?”
His smile grew broader, reminding her of a hungry wolf’s maw. “Very well. I have no use for the boy,
anyway.” He snapped his fingers. A green spark appeared in the air beside his head. After he whispered a
command to it, it flitted through the door.
A couple of minutes later, the tiny light reappeared, twinkling like a firefly. Lain followed it. “Sis?”
Lorita took a step toward him. Karnak raised a hand in warning. She froze. “Lain, are you all right?” His
scholar’s fair complexion looked paler than usual, and lines of stress marked his face, but he didn’t show
any visible injuries.
“I’m not hurt. You shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.”
“Don’t worry about me. Just go outside and wait.” When he hesitated, she snapped, “Hurry!”
He obeyed with a worried backward glance. Only after he’d crossed the threshold and closed the outer
door behind him did she hold out the pouch toward Karnak.
The wizard grabbed it from her hand. With her throat dry and her pulse racing, she silently prayed he
wouldn’t be able to resist checking his prize right away—and that the object would work the way Master
Arlen had promised.
As she’d expected, Karnak didn’t trust her enough to let her go without confirming she’d fulfilled his
command. When he untied the thongs and shook the pyramid into his palm, his predatory smirk widened
still more. She watched with her pulse racing in apprehension. Suppose Master Arlen’s masking spell
failed? Karnak showed no suspicion, though. His hand closed to clutch the artifact. For a second he
stood poised in the enjoyment of his triumph.
Then his skin and robe started to change into a uniform smooth, white surface. A look of astonishment
followed by rage darkened his face before it turned as colorless as the walls around him. He managed a
half step and a twitch of a finger before he lost the ability to move. His fingers visibly strained to unlock
from their grip on the pyramid, but they were paralyzed. Within seconds, he couldn’t even blink, and his
mouth was frozen open in what would have been a shout of fury.
A wave of cold rushed over Lorita. In the next second, the wizard completed the transformation into a
statue of ice.
But the change wasn’t done yet. The solid mass of his hair started to crack first. The fissures spread
over his face, then down his torso to radiate along his arms and legs. Lorita gasped and gripped the
back of a chair to steady herself while she watched him crumble into hundreds of shards.
When her head stopped reeling, she bent over to scoop up the pyramid, careful not to touch it with her
bare hand, and returned it to the pouch. As she backed away from the wizard’s remains, the cleaning
automata glided over to suck up the ice splinters. She walked out into the morning sunlight.
Lain waited in front of the house. He rushed to her and hugged her. “Are you all right? He just let you
“Karnak won’t be a problem anymore. That thing he made me find for him, to ransom you—Master Arlen
infused it with a spell that was triggered when Karnak touched it.”
They headed along the street toward home. “I’m surprised Karnak didn’t expect something like that,”
“It wouldn’t have entered his mind that Arlen would help me after I broke into his workshop. That’s
something Karnak would never think of doing.”
“You’re absolutely right there,” Lain said. “Still, Master Arlen trusts you to bring back his artifact, not try
to sell it?”
She said with a weary smile, “He knows I’m not that stupid. Anyway, we made a deal. I promised to work
for him for a year.”
“What? You were dead set against becoming a mage.”
“I’m not going back as a wizard’s apprentice,” she said. “He wants me to use my skills on his magic-
hunting expeditions. Sounds like fun, actually. If it works out, maybe I’ll take the job long-term.” Taper
stretched and rippled around her arm. It clearly approved.
Margaret L. Carter specializes in vampires, having been marked for life by
reading DRACULA at the age of twelve.
In addition to her horror, fantasy, and paranormal romance fiction, she has
had several books and articles published on the supernatural in literature.
Her most recent novels include WINDWALKER'S MATE, a
Lovecraft-inspired horror-romance crossover, and LOVE
UNLEASHED, an erotic romance about a womanizing wizard cursed to
become a St. Bernard by day.
Visit her website, Carter's Crypt, at http://www.margaretlcarter.com