Clarissa Douglas heard the phone chime from the nightstand and mentally growled in anger. This was ridiculous -- they needed to let her husband have one night's sleep in peace! He'd been called out four times in four days now in the middle of the night. You know your husband is exhausted when he wants you to sleep with him by wrapping your body around his and willing him to sleep.
Now, lying on her back, she rolled over and again put her hand on his shoulder in silent communion. The phone chimed again. Peter said in a clear voice. "Tell them -- I am indisposed. Then hang up." His voice was sodden with sleep, but desperate.
Both of them were Type A personalities; both loathed the idea of letting someone else give excuses for them. They couldn't stand not going out if called. He'd called in once for Clarissa, four years before, when she'd been pregnant. In the end it hadn't helped, but that wasn't from Peter's lack of trying.
Now she struggled over his body and groped for the phone as it chimed a third time.
"Clarissa Douglas," she said evenly. The voice that answered was known, but totally unexpected.
"Clarissa! I'm glad it's you. It's Mac."
He sounded funny, like he'd run to catch the phone himself.
"I know who you are, Mac," she told him dryly.
"Clarissa, it happened again tonight. It's bad, Clarissa, it's really bad."
She sighed. As a scholar-mage she was intrigued by unusual magical phenomenon, in particular the slow, steady mutation of those abilities in people. And there was one area of magic she was fascinated the most, the one that used to be unknown, but only in the last hundred years had rare individuals been able to conjure.
Four weeks before someone had cast what scholars like her called a "Mutandis" spell -- one that altered inanimate objects. The first had been discovered by a shopkeeper who'd come in on a Saturday morning and found his shop a crumpled ruin. Forensics teams determined that it had been reshaped into a minaret, like out of the Arabian Nights.
Two weeks ago, also on a Friday night, an intrusion alarm had been triggered in another commercial structure, this one a furniture store. The spell that defended the building hadn't been much of a spell, and had simply called the Night Watch. When the police arrived on the scene, the building looked like a miniature of a Gothic cathedral.
And now, the third alternate Friday in a row, yet another Mutandis spell.
"Go ahead," she told Mac as she settled back in the bed.
"A Night Watch officer felt a vibration, as he was walking his beat down by the Sixth Street Bridge, along the river. He looked and saw a very large warehouse start trying to change shape again. He called it in, and his sergeant arrived just as the warehouse fought back. It's a custom's warehouse, Clarissa, and they have millions of dollars of insured goods inside. They have a protective spell conjured by Wolford and Kingsley. It's a very strong spell.
"Robin, David and I went to the site ... oh God, Clarissa, I've never seen anything like it in my life."
If Clarissa had wanted to use one word to describe her former mentor James MacDougal, it would have been "unflappable." Now he seemed completely flapped.
"Robin reached out and touched the spell just for a second. She had gotten up to within a hundred yards of the warehouse, David was about ten yards further behind her and I was back at the safe line, a quarter mile away, with the Night Watch officers.
"She called that she thought that the spell was childish, and that she was going to try calming and soothing. It seemed to work at first -- the pace of change slowed dramatically. Then -- Clarissa, oh God! Robin's dead. So is David.
"It was like a petulant child striking out in fury at someone who'd told it 'no.' There was this dark shape that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was a giant hammer and it mashed her flat. David screamed and tried brute force on the spell. It was, if anything, worse. He exploded, Clarissa. He just blew up like a human bomb.
"I lifted my hand to try to ward us at the safe line and ... it took my arm. Like some giant beast of the night. Chomp! And my arm was gone above the elbow. Thank God, the Night Watch was there and a dozen of the city's firefighters by then."
Clarissa swallowed. "Mac..."
"I'm at City General," he reported, his voice back to it's usual self, as if he was telling her the weather. "I called the Executive Councilor for Magic in Capital City and he's going to send a team at once, but they won't be here until first light. Clarissa, it's really bad. Really, really bad. The Wolford and Kingsley spell jerks the warehouse back to the way it was, and the other spell forces it back. The whole area is shaking and vibrating. There were already fires in other buildings when they brought me here.
"The fire captain is reluctant to let his men get near the area -- two of them are here in the hospital with me, and a half dozen of the Night Watch.
"Clarissa, I have no right to ask this of you, but I talked to Inspector Morgan -- you remember him -- he's with the City Watch Headquarters these days. He arrived while they were working on my arm.
"I asked him if he'd accept you as a representative of the Executive for Magic. Please, would you go? Just stay back, stay safe, and see what you can learn?"
"Of course, Mac. You take care, and I'll send you reports, okay?"
"Thank you so much, Clarissa. This is going to be very bad ... please, take extra care. For everyone's sake."
"I will, I promise."
"I have to go into surgery now," Mac told her. "The doctors are insisting."
"Good luck, Mac."
Instead of trying to put the phone back on Peter's nightstand, she sat up and dropped it off on hers. She looked over at her husband fondly. Peter had fallen right back to sleep and was resting peacefully. She walked around their bed and leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. "If Mac had no right to ask me to do this, I have even less right to go out the door without waking you. If I did wake you, you'd either want to come or sit here awake and worrying. There's nothing you can do, my love." She kissed him again and walked over to her dresser.
She opened the bottom drawer and fumbled for the backpack that had been the mainstay of her life for a dozen years. B. P. Before Peter, before pregnancy. There was no point in showering, brushing her hair or teeth, none of that was going to matter shortly. She tossed her nightgown on the bed, settled the backpack on her shoulders and wrote Peter a short note saying she'd been called out.
Nude, she walked to the back door of their house, and changed just outside. Three hundred years before, those such as her had been killed on discovery as an abomination. It was all well and good to say it was a reaction of fearful people in the growing presence of magic.
Werehain was the general term for those like Clarissa, and even now many people were uncomfortable with it. There had been too many legends brought from home, that trip now nearly fifteen hundred years in the past. Legends that had persisted all of that time, and if anything, had grown of late as magic took more and more of a grip on the Kingdom of Man.
The curse, she thought, of books. Books were fascinating things for scholars, but the fact was that they preserved the bad as well as the good.
A few seconds later a German shepherd lightly sprang over the back wall and into the alley. The dark shadow lengthened her stride and began to eat distance.
Twenty-five minutes and four miles later she pulled up a half mile from the Sixth Street Bridge. The fires and activity were visible ahead of her, so she changed back in the shadows, then donned jeans, blouse and sturdy, but soft, boots.
She walked the along the river embankment to the cluster of men there, who only occasionally popped up to look over the top of the stone embankment above the river wall. Off to her right the river was dark in the night, close to a mile wide at this point, but contained within the river wall.
Reaching the group, she recognized Inspector Morgan and went up to him. He looked at her, and then back in the direction she'd come. "Scholar Douglas, you are one lucky woman."
"It about a minute or so, that damn protection spell is going to go off again. Didn't any of my men down that way try to stop you?"
"I saw them," she said looking him in the eye. He knew what she was. "They didn't see me."
"Well, if you're in the area between the warehouse and the river when the spell triggers, you would have gone down. We've sent a sixteen men to the hospital. At first we thought the vibration..."
She could feel the vibration, she could feel all sorts of things around her as the warehouse tried to fight the spell attacking it.
The ground shook violently and she had to stand with her legs spread wide, as if she were on the deck of a ship, or risk losing her balance.
The inspector ignored the shaking of the ground. "We thought the vibration was just causing them to fall and hit their heads. Except we couldn't find anyone who'd stayed standing, and now I hear from the hospital that those men are seriously messed up."
"Messed up in what way?" Clarissa asked.
"The doctors have no idea. Their internal body chemistry is screwed up, and they are suffering from hypothermia..." he shrugged his arms helplessly. "It's a warm and muggy evening, with a steady breeze from the east ... how do you suffer from exposure on an evening like this?"
Clarissa walked a few feet and poked her head over the embankment. She watched the warehouse, not really probing, but just using her extra senses to try to make sense out of what was happening.
She had a second's warning.
"Down! Everyone down!"
Everyone went down, lying on the ground. A brick whizzed through the space she'd been in an instant before, then a dozen more. In the river behind them gouts of water jumped up as the bricks landed, looking more like artillery shells than bricks.
Clarissa walked quickly, keeping her head down, towards the bridge, away from the others. She sensed the Wolford and Kingsley spell react badly to losing some of its structure, and then the two spells were dueling once again and she was forgotten.
She nodded to herself.
Robin had been a kindly grandmother, a woman who had raised three daughters and two sons of her own. She had a raft of grandchildren, and none of those deserved to lose her. But if there was one thing in the universe that Robin Mills understand more than anything else, it was children.
Inspector Morgan joined her and simply looked at her. "Wolford and Kingsley, I need to talk to them," Clarissa told him. "I need to talk to the warehouse owner."
She turned and waved at the river. "We have a serious problem and you're going to need to get the word out downstream from here about possible flooding, and significant debris in the water. Upstream, there may already be some flooding, or at best, you'll find the water very high."
"Pardon? Flooding?" the Watch Inspector looked confused.
"Yes. Look at the river wall opposite us."
The inspector looked. "The river is low," he said. "It was a dry winter, a dry spring and now it's been a dry summer."
"Now look at it up there by your northern pickets."
He looked and frowned. "The water is nearly at the top of the river wall!"
"Yes, like I said, we need to talk Wolford and Kingsley. They've used forbidden magic in that spell of theirs."
"Forbidden magic is a serious charge," the inspector told her. "Wolford and Kingsley are a well-known firm, approved by the Crown."
"All those people in the hospital are important too, and so will the flooding be here soon. You'd have known sooner if the wind wasn't blowing from us to the river. Get on your radio and talk to some of your people on the other side. They're going to tell you the night's cooled off considerably."
He raised his radio and made the call.
"You're right," he told Clarissa a moment later. "Just a moment." He spoke again, this time at length. Clarissa could have listened in, but he was using a hush charm and she didn't want to rock the boat.
He turned back to her. "Wolford is in Capital City today, and he's been alerted and is planning on being here in the morning. Miss Kingsley is due here within fifteen minutes. One of the owners is down the line here, talking to the fire marshal."
One of the Night Watch sergeants came up to them. "Inspector, any second now, it's going to happen again. This time there are all sorts of towers, spires -- it looks a little like a fairy castle from a kid's book."
"Watch the river," Clarissa told the inspector as the ground began to shake.
It was the worst shaking she'd ever experienced since the time she'd tried riding a horse. In the distance the Sixth Street Bridge creaked and began to buckle. When the shaking finally stopped the bridge was clearly askew.
The inspector, shaken and pale looked at it. "Thank God, I ordered it closed. And the Nineteenth Bridge as well. Now what's this about the riv..." He stopped in mid-word, his mouth agape as a small island of ice floated slowly past them.
"Is that ice out there?" he whispered in shocked surprised.
"Yes," Clarissa told him, "and this time we can feel the chill from the river. Look at the height of the water now, on the opposite wall."
It was visibly higher, now within a foot or two of overtopping the river wall here, and as he looked back north, water was spilling into the city, higher up the river.
"The Watch Chief is here," someone shouted. "He wants to see you Inspector."
They walked a hundred yards towards the bridge, where a thickset, older man was leaning on the shoulder of a younger man. "I'm fine," the Watch Chief said, shaking off the attentions of a medic. "I twisted my ankle, crossing bridge when it started to go. It'll be all right. Inspector! What the hell is going on here? Where the fuck did that ice come from?"
Someone came pelting up, one of the fire service Emergency Medical Technicians. "There's dozens of people down on the other side of the river, Inspector. We need everyone, right this second! Same thing, we think, as we had here."
"Young man!" Clarissa's voice was sharp and piercing. "Some of those close to the river are probably dead. Anyone you have working over there has to a have a radio with the team. We'll try to give you a minute or two warning before the next cycle starts. Your people have to clear out before it starts as next time it will be worse. You want to draw lines from the customs warehouse, due east, and start evacuating people."
"How far away?"
"Line of sight, to the horizon."
"Ma'am?" the EMT worker said.
"Who are you giving orders at my site?" the Watch Chief demanded.
"Sir, I'm a consultant from the Executive for Magic, I was called in when the local team was killed or incapacitated. I know what's going on and I have a reasonable chance of stopping it. But the longer we stand here talking, the more damage is going to be done. If I was a formal representative for the Executive, this would be my site, sir."
"Chief," Inspector Morgan spoke up, "Scholar Mage MacDougal told me before he was removed to the hospital that he was transferring his authority to Scholar Mage Douglas." Morgan turned to Clarissa.
"Can you really stop this? Do you know what's going on?"
"I need the building owner or a representative with full authority yesterday. Is Kingsley here yet?"
A slight woman of twenty-five appeared. "I'm Ramona Kingsley, who are you?"
"Ramona Kingsley, by the power vested in me by the Executive of Magic, I'm placing you under arrest for the practice of forbidden magic. One of these nice Night Watch officers will read you your rights. As of this moment, you may not practice magic unless and until a proper court of your peers says you may."
It was, Clarissa thought, as fine example of Pavlovian reflexes as you could ask for. Say "arrest" and "read you your rights" and Inspector Morgan was intoning them at once to the slack-jawed mage.
"What forbidden magic?" the young woman demanded.
"Your defensive spell for the warehouse is taking kinetic energy from the river."
"So what?" the young woman sneered. "A waterwheel takes kinetic energy from the river. There is no functional difference."
"Two minutes!" someone shouted.
"Make sure they know across the river!" Clarissa shouted back. "Where's that owner?"
He was a short, beetle-browed fellow, wringing his hands. "Mage Scholar! Can you stop this? You must stop this!"
"Sir, while I do not have to ask you for permission, I would like it nonetheless. You're going to have to let the warehouse go."
"My God! There's a hundred million dollars of goods inside!"
"There's probably a lot less now," she said gently. "And at some point, it's going to go. Sooner is going to be infinitely better than later, sir."
"It'll have to be on your own head, I can't authorize it!"
She nodded. "Sir, you have that right. I have the right to proscribe you, your company and all those associated with your company from this day forward. You are forbidden the services of any mage."
She turned her back on him.
"It's coming!" someone called, sliding down the embankment.
If the shaking had been bad before, now it was terrible. None of them could stand, and all around them, buildings were creaking and grinding, some collapsing. The bridge tilted, leaning at angle over the river, then finally collapsed into the water, sending a small tidal wave down river.
The river itself was now creaking and cracking as ice tried to reach thermal equilibrium with the air and ground around it. "Inspector Morgan, you're going to want to have everyone stay down and keep down ... and well away from me."
She walked along the embankment, having to angle higher because of the slushy water now along the river's edge. She reached the spot she wanted and reached out for the warehouse. She was careful avoiding the young monster; even now marshaling it's force for yet another assault on the protection spell.
She explored and probed the defensive spell and found the right spot. It was one of the most protected and carefully hoarded weapons of Mage Scholars of the Executive for Magic. She felt the protective spell, nearly exhausted now, flog itself to prepare to resist. She couldn't allow that, and so she quickly, deliberately and coldly struck, ending the existence of the defensive spell.
The other spell sensed the demise of its enemy and all Clarissa could do was hug the ground and pray. In that she was lucky. No longer opposed, the Mutandis spell happily turned to what it had been trying to do all night.
After two or three minutes, Clarissa got up and walked back to the others.
"You turned it off the protection spell!" Kingsley accused.
"Yes," Clarissa replied simply.
"Miss Kingsley, if you think that, then you deserve to lose your ability to perform magic. Do you understand that right now there are certainly dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of dead and injured? All because of your spell. The Executive is going to hold you and your partner to account for that."
"For sucking energy from a river? I tell you, it was no different than a waterwheel! Get a grip, you old fogey!"
"Miss Kingsley, how is it you can stand there, seeing the river plugged with ice, having gone through repetitive earthquakes, and tell us that there is no difference? A waterwheel is self-limiting by its nature. The amount of power it can derive is a function of the velocity of the current and the size of the wheel. No matter what, you can't exceed that limit ... or the wheel breaks.
"Taking kinetic energy directly from the river, without limit -- well, this is what you get." Clarissa waved at the river.
There were fires now, dozens of them in the city. It was clear that the river was frozen solid for hundreds of yards. Upstream water, dammed from below, was piling up and spilling over the riverbanks.
"The river," Kingsley said, sounding sarcastic, "is a mile wide here and dredged frequently to a depth of sixty feet. Do you have any idea how much energy would be produced just slowing that much water down a trifle?"
Clarissa laughed. "Of course. Do you know how much energy it takes to cause a 5.5 earthquake? Have you ever studied cause and effect? Do you think it's just an odd coincidence that the river is frozen solid? Why do you think the effects have spread upstream and down, plus on the other side of the river?"
She saw the woman's eyes turn towards the warehouse. Clarissa's slap was lightning quick as she sensed what the young woman intended.
"How dare you!"
"Miss Kingsley, if you'd have launched a probe at the warehouse, as you were intending to, violating, I might add, your prohibition to practice magic, you would have triggered the wrath of a five year old who has been stymied and frustrated all night long, kept from playing with his or her new toy. You'd have killed yourself and everyone around you.
"Worse, that spoiled, petulant child cast a Mutandis spell with a twist. The spell can learn, it can change -- and it did. It detected what your spell was going, gathering energy from the river, and started doing the same thing. Mutandis spells, Miss Kingsley are enormously powerful spells, affecting the fundamental nature of the universe.
"The child would sense when your spell was going to try to reset the building, and tried to shake the ground to distract it and give it more to do. The two spells were steadily escalating the energies involved. Even now, I'm not sure but what if this remaining spell lost focus, that what energy that it has saved up might not be released catastrophically."
She turned to the Watch Chief. "It is my belief that if the energies here aren't released slowly, they might be released all at once, and the most likely form would be heat. It would be the equivalent to a massive explosion, Inspector Morgan. You should clear out all but the most essential personnel, sir."
"And you, Scholar Mage? What about you?" Inspector Morgan asked.
"I have a last request," she told him, but she was laughing so he'd know it was a joke. "I need a dozen books with pictures of castles, the bigger the better."
"Whatever for?" the Watch Chief asked.
She laughed, waving in the direction of the custom's warehouse. "It looks like a fairy castle now. I was going to do a little bedtime story-telling."
Nothing ever happens as quickly as you want, Clarissa knew. It took twenty minutes to get the first book. She'd stayed down, in the interim, hoarding her energy.
Two of the City Watch's forensic mages had arrived and had effectively magically castrated Kingsley. Clarissa would have felt sorry for the woman, except for the aborted attempt to probe the Mutandis spell.
There was clearly a lot for the Night Watch and the Fire Department to do. The former custom's warehouse wasn't burning as so they'd gone off to other, more urgent tasks. The Watch Chief had apologized to her, but had to leave to over see the rescue operations in progress all over the city. Only Inspector Morgan remained.
She smiled at him and held up the book. "Inspector, you should move away in case I've misjudged."
He shook his head. "Robin Majors was the godmother of my oldest daughter. I could never look my wife or daughter in the face if I left here now."
Clarissa shrugged. She settled down with the book and studied the first image, inspecting each and every detail. She made no effort to probe the warehouse; she just imagined a more substantial Gothic castle in its place. Five minutes later she was studying a building with a half dozen gleaming minarets, rising in a gleaming pattern from the roof.
Peter came riding up on a bicycle, two Night Watch officers running alongside, remonstrating with her husband, telling him he wasn't authorized. That was countered by his argument that he was the Secretary of the King's Executive Council and he could go wherever it pleased him.
He stopped next to Clarissa and walked towards her. "It wasn't hard to find you," Peter said levelly. "First, I'm shaken out of bed by an earthquake and I find you missing with a short note with a severe paucity of significant information. Then I hear a great commotion out on the street, with old man Ridgeway from down at the bottom of the lane screaming for help, because his house has been flooded.
"All I had to do from that point was point myself in the direction of the nearest commotion, and keep going that way. Here I am. What are you doing, my dear?"
"Come here and sit next to me, Peter."
He sat down next to her. "What are you up to?"
"Right now, I'm reading a bedtime story. Please Peter, but your arm around my waist and focus on this lovely picture of a castle. Think how pretty it is, how marvelous the towers and spires, how exciting it would be to actually live in it."
He ran his fingers over the picture, imagining.
A few minutes later she sensed his thoughts turn. "Peter, there will be time for such thoughts later. Now, happy thoughts! Happy, happy thoughts!"
When dawn was breaking Peter was drowsing again on her shoulder. A Day Watch police sketch artist, who evidently harbored an enormous amount of untapped whimsy and fantasy, was rapidly sketching more and ever more fantastic castles.
Finally, she gently disengaged from Peter, stood and stretched. From a few feet away someone politely applauded. She turned and recognized the source of the accolade. "Scholar Mage Martin," she said levelly.
"Scholar Mage Douglas, that was one of the finest pieces of magic I've seen in my thirty years of service to the King of Man! I assure you, Scholar, that he will hear of this!"
She shrugged. "Just a moment." She walked up the embankment and looked at the fantastically configured former warehouse.
Next to her Scholar Mage Alastair Martin stood. He whistled softly. "Even the residuals are -- terrifying!"
"Hush!" Clarissa told him.
In front of her a last vagary of the spell floated into the pre-dawn light. There was no way she could stop it, but she could and did stay with it.
She sensed the girl wake up, yawn and stretch. Then Clarissa felt the glow of happiness from her as she absorbed all of her handiwork.
Clarissa couldn't get a sense of what the young girl looked like, just that she was five or six. But the girl ran down a hallway and into her parent's bedroom, and tugged on her mother's arm. "I made castles, Mama! Castles with towers and battlement, spires and minarets..." the girl basked in her pleasure at what she'd done. For an instant the mother looked at her daughter, with exasperation. "'Tilda, you should know better than to disturb your father and I this early. Please dear, go play with your building set!"
Like so many children had, over the thousands of generations of humanity, she turned away, frustrated and angry at her parents inability to care or understand what she'd achieved. But for one instant she'd looked on her mother full in the face and Clarissa imprinted that face in her memory.
The last wisp of the spell faded away. In the distance, miles and miles away, now sensitized to what to look for, she saw the blaze of another Mutandis spell, this time on simple building blocks.