Season of the Witch

Natasha Mostert

Season of the Witch

© 2007

– FOR CARL -

pint-sized warrior

PROLOGUE

He was at peace: his brain no longer blooming like a crimson flower.

Slowly he opened his eyes. Above him, a black sky shimmering with stars. A pregnant moon entangled in the spreading branches of a tree.

Vaguely he realized he was on his back, floating on water. A swimming pool. Every now and then he would move his legs and hands to stay afloat. But the movements were instinctive and he was hardly aware of them.

A violin was singing, the sound drifting into the night air. It came from the house, which stood tall and dark to the right of him. The windows were blank and no light shone through the tiny leaded panes. The steep walls leaned forward; the peaked roof was angled crazily.

His thoughts were disoriented and his skull was soft from the pain, which had exploded inside his brain like a vicious sun. But as he looked at the house, he could still remember what was hidden behind those thick walls.

And how could he not? For months on end he had explored that house with all the passion of a man exploring the body of a long-lost lover. He had walked down the winding corridors, climbed the spiral staircases, entered the enchanted rooms and halls. It was all there-locked away inside his damaged brain-every minute detail.

The green room with its phosphorescent lilies. The ballroom of the dancing butterflies. The room of masks where the light from an invisible sun turned a spider's web to gold. Wonderful rooms. Rooms rilled with loveliness.

But inside that house were also rooms smelling of decay and malaise. Tiny rooms where the walls were damp and diseased, where, if he stretched out his hand, he could touch the unblinking eyes growing from the ceiling; eyes whose clouded gaze followed his antlike procession through a tilting labyrinth of images and thoughts.

He knew their order. The order of places, the order of things. He had followed the rules perfectly. Why then, his mind a spent bulb, his body so heavy, was he finding it increasingly difficult to stay afloat?

A wind had sprung up. He felt its dusty breath against the wetness of his skin and he wondered if the fat moon might topple from the tree.

He was becoming tired. His neck muscles were straining. He should try to swim for the side of the pool, but the one half of his body felt paralyzed. It was all he could do to move his arms and legs slightly to keep from sinking. Below him was a watery blackness. And he realized he was no longer at peace but horribly afraid.

But then the darkness was split by a warm beam of light. Someone had switched on a lamp inside the house. He wanted to cry out but the muscles in his throat refused to work. The light was coming from behind the French doors with their inserts of stained glass carefully fitted together in the shape of an emblem. Monas

Hieroglyphica. See, he still remembered…

A shadow appeared behind the glowing lozenges of red, green and purple glass. For a moment it hovered, motionless.

The shadow moved. The doors opened.

She stepped out into the garden and her footfall made no sound. As she walked toward him, he thought he could smell her perfume.

His heart lifted joyously. She had known he was out here all along. Of course, she did. And now she had come to save him. No longer any need to be afraid. But hurry, he thought. Please hurry.

She was still wearing the mask. It covered her eyes. Her hair was concealed by the hood of her cape. On her shoulder perched the crow. Black as coal. Even in the uncertain light he was able to see the sheen on the bird's wings.

Sinking down to her knees at the very edge of the pool, she leaned over and looked squarely into his face. A wash of yellow light fell across her shoulder. Around her neck she was wearing a thin chain, and from it dangled a charm in the shape of the letter M. It gleamed against the white of her skin.

From inside the house, the sound of the violin was much clearer now and he recognized the music. "Andante Cantabile." Tchaikovsky's String Quartet no. 1, opus 11. The ecstatic notes struck a fugitive chord of memory. The last time he had listened to this piece of music there was a fire burning in the hearth, a bowl of drooping apricot roses on the dark wooden table and next to it three glasses with red wine waiting on a silver tray.

He was sinking. His feet pale finless fish paddling sluggishly. He couldn't keep this up much longer. But she would help him. She would pull him to safety. With difficulty he moved his arm and stretched out his hand beseechingly.

Her forehead creased with concern but the eyes behind the mask were enigmatic. She placed her hand on his face and pushed it softly into the water. The crow left her shoulder with a startled shriek.

His mouth opened in protest and he almost drowned right then and there. He turned his head violently to one side, sneezing and coughing. Panic-stricken, he tried to swim away from her but his limbs were so heavy.

Again she leaned forward and pushed him down. And again. Each time he broke the surface, he gasped for breath, aware only of her white arms and the chain with the initial M hanging from her neck. Her movements were gentle, but laced with steel. As his head bobbed in and out of the water, he knew he was about to die.

Exhaustion. His lungs on fire. He made one last enormous effort to free himself but she was too strong.

She had relaxed her grip now, but he could no longer find the strength to push himself upward. As he started to sink, he kept his eyes open, and through the layer of water he saw her get to her feet. She looked down at him and lifted her hand: a gesture of regret.

Air was leaving his mouth, rippling the water, dissolving her figure, her masked face. And as he slowly spiraled downward, he wondered with a strange sense of detachment if he might not still be on a journey, still searching for the path that does not wander…

HOUSE OF A MILLION DOORS

I always wanted to know what was knowable in the world. -Johannes Trithemius, Steganographia (Secret Writing), 1499

CHAPTER ONE

Was there anything as cool as rush hour traffic on a hot day?

The light turned red. Gabriel Blackstone brought his bicycle to a stop at a crowded intersection. Balancing himself with one foot on the pavement, the other still resting on the pedal, he half-turned and looked around him. He was surrounded by cars and he could sense the expectation-the barely tamed aggression-lurking in the hearts of the motorists sweating gently behind the wheels of their vehicles. They seemed relaxed; elbows pushed through open windows, heads casually cradled against the headrests of their seats. But he was not fooled. When the light turned to green, he would have to move quickly. In this part of the City of London, cyclists were barely tolerated. That was part of the fun, of course: moving in and out of tight spaces, taking chances. Still, the possibility of getting squished was rather high. In front of him he could see a cabdriver's eyes- puckered and creased with lines-watching him in the taxi's rearview mirror. Behind him a TV van was already inching closer with unnerving stealth.

It was hellishly hot. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead. Summer had come early. The tarmac underneath his foot felt soft. The air tasted like paraffin. But he liked the city this way: sticky, unkempt, the pedestrians moving languidly. People's emotions were closer to the surface, not muffled by scarves and thick coats or hidden by hats turned down against a freezing rain.

A flash of red caught his attention: a girl walking on the sidewalk next to him, swinging a fringed bag and wearing a crimson skirt and blouse. Her navel was bare and he could see the tattoo of a butterfly on her flat stomach. She walked with such devil-may-care insouciance that he smiled with pleasure. Life was good. Four o'clock in the afternoon in the Square Mile… and the City was his.

The light turned to green. The traffic bulleted forward. A rapturous roar of sound ricocheted off the steep walls of the buildings, making the ground tremble. He pedaled furiously across the intersection, dodging a green Mercedes whose driver seemed more intent on shouting into the cell phone in his hand than keeping his car on the road.

It was on days like these that he was also acutely aware of that other-secret-dimension to the City. Mingling with the car fumes, the layers of noise and the haze of heat was something even more ephemeral. Digital Stardust. As he pedaled past the looming facades of London's banks, insurance companies and businesses, he imagined himself moving through an invisible but glimmering cloud.

Humming quietly behind the walls of the City's skyscrapers were machines filled with dreams. Dreams of money and power. Dreams broken down into binary code. Data. The most valued currency of all in this city ...

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