Ezekiel Jones bounced down the corridor leading to the Library's movie theater, a paper sack of double-cheese and jalapeno sliders with large fries in one hand and an extra-large soda in the other. Tucked into the waistband of his jeans was "Ash vs. the Living Dead" and its sequel, "Army of Darkness", along with "Zombieland", just for good measure. The others teased him about his taste in movies, but he didn't care—cheesy horror, sci-fi and fantasy movies were his favorite way to decompress, and he'd been looking forward to this afternoon all week.
As he laid his hand on the door handle, though, the young man stopped cold. From inside the theater he swore that he could hear a woman crying. A look of perplexity crossed his face; Baird was upstairs with Flynn and Jenkins doing some kind of boring stuff involving Arcadian mumbo-jumbo—or was it Akkadian? He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Who cares: Tomato, tomahto. If it wasn't related to Australia or stealing in some way, it was all mumbo-jumbo to him.
By process of elimination, then, the crying woman must be Cassandra. Juggling his burgers and soda, he turned the heavy brass knob and pushed the door inward with his hip, poking his tousled black head around it. Sure enough, there she was, seated on the sofa and sobbing, a huge pile of used tissues overflowing the small end table next to her. On the screen of the large television in front her was the most disgustingly clichéd trope in the book: Rose saying a tearful, tragic goodbye to Jack as his lifeless corpse slipped into the blackness to rest forever on the floor of the Atlantic, along with the broken bodies of the Titanic and her hundreds of hapless victims. Ezekiel rolled his eyes.
"Oi!" he called impatiently from the doorway. Cassandra jumped at the unexpected sound and whirled around in her seat, a soggy tissue clutched in her small hand.
"Ezekiel!" she yelled, quickly dabbing her eyes. "You scared the hell out of me!"
"Sorry," he offered carelessly, bounding down the side aisle to the sofa. "What're you doing here? I called dibs on the theater for this afternoon ages ago!" Cassandra grabbed a fresh tissue and blew her nose.
"I know, I know—don't worry!" she sniffled. "I just had a sudden urge to see "Titanic" again, I thought I could get it in before you got here."
"Yeah, well, I guess you guessed wrong, then!" the thief said cheerily. "So unless you want to watch Ash kick evil dead ass with me, it's time for you to shove off!" He grabbed the remote and stopped the movie, then jogged over to remove the disc from the player.
"Hey!" Cassandra yelled angrily. "I was watching that!"
"'Was' being the key word in that sentence," he said breezily. "We all agreed, remember? Starting at noon on Saturdays, we each take turns picking the movies each week. Anyone who doesn't like the picks is welcome to go read a book!" He handed her the "Titanic" dvd. "It is now 12:00 pm on my Saturday!"
"Fine!" she huffed tartly, snatching the dvd from his outstretched hand. "But why is it that for someone who hates rules, they suddenly matter so much whenever they benefit you?" Jones shrugged his shoulders and gave her a cock-eyed grin.
"One of the great mysteries of life, yeah?"
"Ugh!" she said, rolling her eyes in defeat. She began to replace the dvd into its case.
"How can you watch that scary, freaky, zombie, magic stuff, anyway?" the redhead grumbled as Jones prepared his own dvd for playing. "Don't you get enough of that in real life?"
"How can you watch that sappy, mushy, romantic, kissy-kissy love drama crap?" he shot back. "Don't you get enough of that in real life with Jenkins?" Cassandra's head whipped up and she glared at the Aussie with fiery blue eyes.
"What's that supposed to mean?!" she said, warning in her voice. Realizing he was suddenly, unexpectedly on thin ice, Ezekiel quickly backpedaled, holding his hands up in surrender.
"What's what supposed to mean?" he asked as he went back to the dvd player.
"You know exactly 'what'!" she accused. "Did he say something to you?!" Jones turned around to look at the young woman, confusion on his face.
"Cassandra, what are you talking about?" Something about her expression caught his attention then. She was upset, but he could also detect a trace of fear in her eyes.
"Are you all right?" he asked, all levity gone now. He cocked his head as an idea came to him. "Did you have a fight with Jenkins or something?"
Cassandra dropped her head and began to play with the dvd case still in her hands. Bingo! the thief thought.
"We didn't fight; we had an argument last night," she confessed anxiously.
"Magic," she sighed. She looked up again and began speaking, the words tumbling out as quickly as she could form them. "I told him that I wanted to work more deeply with magic. Not just with books and potions and spells and artifacts that are already made—I want to learn how to create my own! I want to learn the kinds of magic that Merlin knew! And I can do it, Ezekiel, I know I can do it, the Library has all of Merlin's own notes and books! They're a whole treasure trove of magical knowledge, and it's just sitting there, going to waste!"
"And Jenkins says…?" prompted Ezekiel. Cassandra's face instantly clouded.
"Jenkins says that it's too dangerous," she spat with irritation. "Jenkins says that Merlin's magic is just too esoteric and complicated and obscure for any modern person to understand properly!" Cassandra looked at Ezekiel, her angry eyes narrowed. "He basically stood right there and told me to my face that I was just too stupid to understand it!"
"Aww, come on, Cassandra, Jenkins would never say that!" Ezekiel said, trying to smooth her ruffled feathers. Unfortunately, he rubbed the wrong way.
"Oh, of course you'd take his side!" the Librarian snapped, her eyes flashing. "Men always stick together!"
"Okay, okay—sorry!" Jones said holding up his hands; the Library didn't pay him enough to get in the middle of domestic squabbles. "Didn't mean to step on any toes!"
Cassandra opened her mouth to say something, but she was cut off by the ringing of Jones's phone. Thank God! he thought as he pulled it out of his pocket and answered it; she recognized Eve Baird's voice on the other end, but couldn't hear her words. After a few seconds of fruitless protests, he hung up with a sigh of frustration and jammed the phone back into his jeans.
"Great! Come on, Cassandra," he said sourly, grabbing up his sack of burgers and the soda. "Duty calls. Baird says the Clippings Book is going bonkers and she wants us upstairs, ASAP."
Their new mission began as most of them did, with the Clippings Book fluttering its pages anxiously and hopping wildly on its stand, signaling that a particularly important artifact had been uncovered. Everyone quickly gathered around the large, leather-bound book to examine the various newspaper clippings magically glued to its thick, cream-colored pages. Sharp-eyed Eve Baird noticed at once that Cassandra stood apart from Jenkins, and that the normally affectionate couple now seemed tense and stiff. The Guardian caught a brief, pained glance from Jenkins that Cassandra totally ignored.
Trouble in paradise, Baird thought; she would have to keep an eye on that situation.
Jacob Stone was the first to reach the excited book, and as he held it down on its stand with both hands he quickly scanned the headlines of the articles.
"These clippings all seem to be about that big travelin' 'Hidden Treasures of the Smithsonian Museum' exhibit that opens next week in Washington, DC," said Jacob. "The exhibit premieres at the Smithsonian first, then it goes on a five-city tour through the US. Hundreds of items from their storage vaults, stuff that's never been put on display before."
"Anything that looks like a potentially magical artifact?" asked Eve as she peered over Stone's shoulder at the clippings.
Jacob gave a little shrug. "Hard to say. With a place nicknamed 'America's Attic' there's bound to be at least some long-forgotten magical items hidden in there somewhere." He peered closely at the articles, scanning for any mention of the items to be featured.
"This exhibit seems to have a little bit of everything—clothes, furniture, items with ties to historical events, Native American artifacts," he continued thoughtfully. "Any of which could be magical in some way. No way to figure out which one the Clippings Book is so hyped up over, though. What do you think, Jenkins?" When there was no reply, Stone and the others looked up from the book. Jenkins was staring at the clippings, his face like granite. Grunting, the Caretaker stretched out a long arm and pointed to a photograph of some of the items that were going to be on display. His finger landed on one item in the picture: A pendant made from a large blue sapphire, shaped like a teardrop and polished smooth, in a plain, functional gold setting. Even in the grainy newspaper photograph, they could see that the stone flashed and glittered with an unearthly spark.
"That is why the Clippings Book is so 'hyped up', as you put it," Jenkins rumbled soberly. Everyone turned back to the book and bent to examine the photograph more closely.
"'The Crowley Sapphire," Jacob read from the caption under the picture. "'A twenty-five-carat blue sapphire mined in Sri Lanka, said to have once belonged to the infamous English occultist, ceremonial magician, free-love advocate and so-called 'wickedest man on earth', Aleister Crowley'."
Ezekiel leaned in and gave a low wolf-whistle. "Hello, gorgeous! Where have you been all my life?"
"I wouldn't let myself become too enamored of its beauty if I were you, Mr. Jones," said Jenkins. "Unless I miss my guess, it's one of the Heart Stones, and it is an exceedingly dangerous item." The old Caretaker shook his head, distress etching itself onto his face. His voice took on the familiar lecturer's tone he adopted whenever he filled them in on an artifact.
"Late in the year 1911, we received a tip that Crowley was in possession of what believed to be a Heart Stone. As I was in the London Annex at the time, Judson ordered me to investigate and confirm the information and gather more intelligence. In the Spring of 1912, I was able to confirm all of the information we were given and that the Heart Stone was genuine. I also learned that Crowley was making plans to send the Heart to someone in New York via the Titanic on her maiden voyage." Jenkins paused a moment and shook his head sadly.
"We tried to recover the Heart before then, but failed. Since Mr. Dare, the Librarian at the time, was absent on another mission, Judson was preparing to intercept and secure the Heart once it reached the US. Of course, sadly, the Titanic sank; it was hoped that after the ship went down, as horrible a tragedy as that was, that at least now this particular Heart Stone was safely beyond the reach of anyone else."
"What exactly is this thing, Jenkins? What's it do?" Eve asked, not liking the heavy feeling of dread that was beginning to form in her stomach. The immortal stood up straight and turned his attention to the Gordian.
"The Heart Stones are essentially weapons, Colonel; sort of 'magical land mines', for lack of a better description," the Caretaker replied, warming to the subject. "There are several such 'land mines' known to exist, each made of a different gemstone, each destructive in a different way—but all are destructive, make no mistake!" He exhaled a breath and shook his white head again gravely.
"Some texts say they were created by vengeful gods to punish humankind, others that they're the work of powerful sorcerers in the primordial days of wild magic, for use against each other in their interminable wars for domination. Regardless, the Stones were eventually lost, scattered throughout the world in ancient times. On very rare occasions one will crop up, usually when some hapless victim trips them. But, by then, of course, it's too late for anyone to do anything about it." Jenkins reached out and tapped the photograph again.
"We have an incredibly rare opportunity to recover this Heart Stone before it can claim a new victim. We therefore must not fail!" An uneasy silence fell over the small group as Jenkins's words sank in.
"So how do you use one of these...'mines'? How are they tripped? And what happens when they...go off?" asked Eve, her anti-terrorism training already working to find a way of neutralizing these supernatural weapons.
"A ritual is performed to 'set the charge', so to speak, for each Heart," Jenkins answered. "They're tripped merely by handling the Heart itself, physically making contact with bare skin. And as for what happens..." The immortal visibly shuddered and threw his hands up.
"That depends on the Heart. According to the legends, the Heart of Madness, for instance, destroys the victim's mind, drives them murderously insane. The Heart of Betrayal causes its victim to die by the hand of the one he or she holds most dear."
"So which Heart is this one?" asked Ezekiel, waving at the Clippings Book. Jenkins shook his head and shrugged again.
"Hard to say, Mr. Jones," he said. "There is a list of the names of the Heart Stones, with only a vague physical description." The immortal paused and shook his head again. "This one could be either the Heart of Death or the Heart of Despair…"
"How many of these Heart Stones are on the list?" asked Baird.
"Fifteen," was the grim reply. "The Library already has custody of the Hearts I've already mentioned—Madness and Betrayal—as well as the Hearts of Destruction, Terror and Desolation."
"Fun names," muttered Eve, her feeling of dread increasing exponentially.
"These Heart Stones are particularly nasty artifacts, Colonel," reiterated Jenkins. He cast a pointed look at Cassandra. "They're the direct result of men and women trying to tame and turn wild magic to suit their own purposes, to attempt to control and destroy those whom they perceived to be their enemies. What they ended up doing was to create no more than a means of terrorizing and killing innocent victims." Cassandra showed no reaction to her husband's words.
"So, wait—if this thing's so bloody dangerous to touch, why hasn't it zapped any of the literally hundreds of people who've probably touched it in the last few decades?" asked Jones, a disbelieving look on his face. "Why haven't we heard of this thing before now?"
"I have a theory about that, Mr. Jones," the Caretaker said thoughtfully. "When the wreckage of the Titanic was discovered in the 1980's and they began to bring up artifacts, there were rumors that many of them—the Heart being among them—were donated to the Smithsonian, but we were never able to confirm or deny that. But as an important historical artifact, it would've received special handling. Primary among those kinds of protocols is a strict 'no touching' rule—no one would've directly touched the Heart itself, they would always be wearing gloves of some sort to prevent damaging or contaminating the artifact." Jenkins stared at the tiny photograph intently, then looked around at the anxious faces of the team.
"We must retrieve this artifact, regardless of the cost! The Library has sought for centuries to bring the various Hearts together here, where they can be safely locked away in the Special Collections Vault and under the protection of the powerful binding spells in place there."
"Do you think the Heart had something to do with the Titanic going down, Jenkins?" asked Eve.
"I honestly don't know," replied Jenkins, shrugging. "As I said, we don't know which Heart this one is at the moment. Perhaps I can identify it once it's safely here in the Library. It may have been responsible for the sinking, it may not. We simply have no way of knowing right now." Jenkins's voice turned hard.
"Regardless, that Heart—like all of the other Hearts—is pure evil. It must be retrieved and brought to the Library where it can be starved of any more victims!"
The team quickly got to work. It didn't take long for everyone to agree that this job had Ezekiel Jones's name written all over it. Between his skills as a computer hacker and as a master thief, he was the logical point person—an admission that was a huge boost to his already very healthy ego.
Jones made short work of the Smithsonian's security system and any computer records related to the exhibit itself. In less than half an hour he had the entire security layout, guard schedules, patrol routes, clearance codes. He also got the inventory of the items in the exhibit and where exactly they were located in exhibit's gigantic layout, tens of thousands of square feet in area. Thanks to his efforts, the team learned that the Heart Stone was set to be located in a room dedicated to various gems and other mineralogical items, rather than in the jewelry display, and housed in special cases with security features in place that would have quickly dissuaded most thieves. Jones, however, was personally insulted by what he deemed to be the simplicity of the measures.
"You'd think with the historical value alone of some of this stuff they'd take security a lot more seriously," he groused disgustedly. "It's almost like they want someone to come in and steal something!"
"They're probably not really expecting anyone to steal anything," Flynn opined. "Most thieves probably assume up front that the security is just too stiff to crack. Plus, this stuff would be impossible to fence, except to private parties or to fulfill an insanely wealthy collector's particular wish list. Most thieves just don't have access to people like that."
"Yeah, well, not me, mate," smirked Jones. "Not only can I steal this gem, but I could have it sold within a day and for top dollar." He sighed dramatically. "You guys really have no idea just how lucky you are to have me on your side!" Behind the thief, Flynn and Jake rolled their eyes as Jones, oblivious, continued to peck away on his keyboard.
"Still, this is a nice little practical exercise for me, I guess," he continued. "A nice shiny chunk of sapphire that wants desperately to come home with Big Daddy Jones!" The young Australian turned from the computer screen to face the others. His expression was now all business.
"Right. Disabling the electronic surveillance and the alarm systems will be a piece of stale cake. Once we're inside and find the case with the Heart, it'll take me about ten seconds to have it out and in our possession. The only thing we really need to worry about are the guards—they're the only real wild card here. It only takes one cowboy who likes to deviate from the established protocol to mess this this whole thing up."
"And Flynn and I will take care of those," said Eve. "You focus on getting that sapphire, Jones. If it goes as smoothly as you're expecting, we should be in and out before they even know what's happened."
"You sure you don't want me and Cassie to come along as back-up?" asked Jacob worriedly. "You know how things associated with the Library have a tendency to go real sideways, real fast..."
"Nah, we should be fine," said Flynn confidently as he slapped his hands together and rubbed them excitedly. "This is really a relatively small, straightforward mission, we'll only need a small team. Too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the broth, you know!"
Today was a Sunday. Eve determined that this evening would be the best time to strike, after the Smithsonian closed. No visitors, the guards would be lax on a quiet weekend night, and with luck they would all be back in the Annex in time for Eve and Flynn to keep their planned dinner and a movie date.
As the trio prepared to go through the door Jenkins had dialed up for them, the Caretaker once again anxiously gave them instructions on how to handle the cursed gem.
"Remember, under no circumstances are you to touch the Heart itself, not even the setting. It's always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to dealing with artifacts as dangerous as this one! I saw on the inventory list that it's still hanging from its original chain; pick it up by the chain, Mr. Jones, and place it immediately into the box I gave you. The box will lock magically the second you close the lid. Do not, under any circumstances, let the Heart itself touch you!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I heard you the first fifty times, Jenkins!" huffed Jones impatiently. "Pick up cursed rock, put cursed rock in magic-jacked box, close lid of magic-jacked box, go back to Annex. I got it!"
"You forgot the part about the chain!" reminded Jenkins sharply.
Before Jones could say another word, Eve stepped between the two and tried to reassure the older man. "Don't worry, Jenkins, we've got this. We shouldn't be gone more than an hour."
"I certainly hope so, Colonel," he replied fervently. "I can't express strongly enough how dangerous this artifact is. The sooner it's in the Library, the easier I'll rest tonight!"
Flynn came to stand next to Eve and put his arm around his Guardian's waist. "No worries, Jenkins!" he said brightly. "Why don't you go make some tea or something? That'll take your mind off of things while we're gone."
"No, no, I really should stay here in the workroom, just in case..." the nervous immortal began.
"Nonsense, Jenkins!" the Librarian dismissed his objection. "Go! Go! You've been jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs ever since the Clippings Book told us about the Heart. Even better—go spend some time with Cassandra! That's an order! Jacob can stay here, 'just in case', right, Stone?"
"No problem," affirmed Jake with knowing grin. "Go on, J, I bet Cassie'd be happy to have a little 'alone time' with you. If anything happens, I'll call ya."
Jenkins sighed and bowed his head obediently toward Flynn. "Yes, sir, if you think that would be best."
"Of course I do!" chirped Flynn. He turned to the others members of the team. "Now that that's settled, let's go steal us a cursed sapphire!"
As soon as the team disappeared through the back door, Jenkins turned and resolutely started towards his rooms. Mr. Carsen was right about one thing: He did need to spend some time with Cassandra. He'd been meaning to talk to her about the argument they'd had the night before this new mission popped up, but they had both been too busy with the preparations for the mission until now.
"I will be in our quarters if you need me, Mr. Stone," he said as he walked past the younger man. Jake nodded and gave him a silent thumb's up in acknowledgement and went back to the book he was reading, an account of the Titanic tragedy entitled A Night to Remember.
Jenkins stalked down the hallway that led to the spacious rooms he and his wife shared, his mind replaying the argument of a few days ago as he walked. It had been rather heated, both of them equally passionate in stating their beliefs on the matter, neither side willing to give an inch. As a result, nothing was resolved, and though Cassandra didn't ask him to sleep elsewhere that night, she stubbornly refused to kiss him goodnight and stayed on her side of the huge bed, her back turned unyieldingly to her husband every night since then.
The Caretaker halted outside the door to their rooms, hesitating. He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath in preparation, then opened the door.
"Cassandra?" he called out, quickly scanning the bedroom. "Are you here?" He heard movement coming from the direction of her private suite. A moment later the door opened and Cassandra stepped out of her sitting room, a notebook and pen in her hands. He could see her body tense at the sight of him.
"Hi," she greeted stiffly. Jenkins took a few steps toward her.
"Mr. Carsen, Colonel Baird and Ezekiel have gone to the Smithsonian," he informed her. "Colonel Baird assures me that they should back inside of an hour." He waited for a response. Cassandra gave a slight shrug of her shoulders.
"Did you need something?" she asked, voice flat. She refused to meet his gaze, and he could tell that she was still angry with him. The immortal's shoulders slumped in dejection.
"Cassandra, please; we need to talk," he said, his voice low and urgent. "I don't like quarreling with you! These last couple of days…"
"Then don't be so stubborn!" she snapped, raising her eyes to glare at him. She took a few steps further into the room, dropping the notebook and pen onto the large bed. "Jenkins, why are you so adamant against me learning more about magic? I've been here five years. The whole time, I've read every book about magic I could get my hands on! I'm not just a dabbler, I'm serious about this! I want to learn! I want to grow! You heard what Eve said about me when she saw me at the Loom of Fate—she said I was an incredible Librarian, and a sorceress! And it was only because of my magical abilities in that timeline that the damage done by Dulaque to the Loom could even be repaired in the first place!"
"I understand all of that, my dear," Jenkins said, holding up his hands as he tried to soothe her temper. "But that was an entirely different reality. There is no guarantee that in this timeline—"
"The only difference in that timeline is that you weren't there to stop me from studying magic!" she lashed out. "You were still hiding yourself somewhere like a whipped dog, while the rest of the world was burned to the ground by the dragons—the dragons your father awoke and angered, by the way!" Jenkins said nothing, only stood and stared at the angry young woman in front of him. Her words and their implied accusation of cowardice stung him deeply.
"So what exactly are you saying, Cassandra?" he finally asked, his voice tight. His dark eyes hardened as he returned her stare. "That you would rather that we had never met?" Cassandra rolled her eyes.
"Omigod, you are such a drama queen!" she groaned loudly. "Stop putting words into my mouth, Jenkins! That's not what I said and you know it!" The immortal raised his chin to peer down his nose at her.
"Oh, I'm sorry, is that what I did?" he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Because I very distinctly heard you say that the only thing standing between you and the acquisition of all magical knowledge and power and all of the world's adulation that comes with it was me!"
"Oh! My! GOD!" Cassandra's head fell back as she threw her hands into the air in frustration. "I cannot believe you, Jenkins! You are so…so…"
"Right?" he supplied smugly, knowing full well that it would only anger her more but unable to hold his tongue. Her head snapped up and she stared daggers at her husband.
"Wrong!" she yelled furiously. She turned her back on him and stomped back towards her sitting room, pausing only to snatch up her notebook and the pen. "You're infuriating! That's what you are—infuriating!" She disappeared into her room, slamming the door behind her. Jenkins heard the lock click loudly as she turned the key. His shoulders dropped as he scolded himself for making things worse between them. With a heavy sigh, he went over to the locked door and tapped on it softly.
"Cassandra?" he called out penitently. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that; can we please talk about this some more?"
"Cassandra, please!" he pleaded. "You just don't understand how dangerous magic can be!" He jumped back from the door, startled, as something hard struck it from inside the room and landed on the floor with a thump.
"Go away!" he heard his furious wife yell. "And don't come back until you're ready to apologize!"
"But I just apologized!" Another object struck the door, harder this time.
Jenkins pulled himself up and began to smooth his suit coat. He frowned at the door and took a deep breath.
"Very well," he said loudly. "Suit yourself, then! Stay in there until Doomsday, for all I care! I will not apologize for telling the truth!" Jenkins turned and quickly strode across the bedroom, heading for his own suite of rooms. Just before he closed the door to his private sitting room, he heard a muted shriek of frustration and a third object thud against his wife's door.
"Fine!" her muffled voice shouted.
"Fine!" he bellowed back childishly, then quickly slammed his door shut before she could get the final word.
"Hey, Jenkins! They're coming back!"
The Caretaker raised his head and sighed with relief at the stifled sound of Jacob's excited voice as he shouted from the corridor while knocking excitedly on their door. Jenkins climbed to his feet from the comfy armchair he had been dozing in and stiffly walked over to the door leading the bedroom.
"Coming, Mr. Stone!" he yelled back as he opened and passed through the doorway and into the bedroom. He headed straight to his wife's sitting room to knock on her still-locked door.
"Cassandra, the team has returned!" he announced emotionlessly, then turned to head for the Annex workroom without waiting for an answer.
Pushing aside his current dilemma with Cassandra, Jenkins walked quickly back to the workroom, arriving just in time to see all three team members burst through the back door. Eve and Flynn had Ezekiel between them, helping him to walk. One leg of his jeans was torn and bloody.
"What happened to Jones?" barked Jacob as he and Jenkins rushed across the room.
"An especially well-trained and determined Belgian Malinois," answered Baird through gritted teeth while she and Flynn helped Ezekiel to a chair. "We were lucky to get him off of Ezekiel and get out of there before the guards showed up!"
"Just a little trick I picked up some years ago in New Zealand," bragged Carsen as they gently seated Jones in the chair. "Bet you never knew that members of the lupine and canine families could be hypnotized, did you?"
"Bloody dogs!" spat Jones, wincing in pain as he dropped onto the chair. "The computer records didn't say anything about guard dogs!"
"He gonna be all right?" asked Jake worriedly, kneeling down to gently examine the thief's wounded leg. "Should we get 'im to a doctor?"
"He should be okay," said Eve. "It's a bad bite, but it'll heal. Guard dogs have all of their shots up to date, so no rabies to worry about. We just need to get his leg cleaned up and disinfected, wrap it up and he'll be good to go." She grabbed Flynn's arm and started pulling him with her.
"Come on, Flynn," she ordered. "You can help me get the stuff from the infirmary."
"Mr. Carsen, before you go—I hate to seem unsympathetic to Mr. Jones's predicament," interrupted the anxious Jenkins. "But, were you successful?"
The Librarian nodded, grinning broadly as he turned to follow Baird. "Mission accomplished, Jenkins! Ezekiel...?"
The young man grimaced and dramatically pulled an ebony box covered with arcane symbols inlaid in gold from his jacket pocket. He handed it to the taller man with a sour look.
"Here you go, Jenkins—one super-evil weaponized bit of bling, courtesy of Ezekiel Jones, even though it nearly cost me my leg!"
Jenkins took the box and set it gently on the table. Murmuring the words of a spell, he unlocked it and opened the lid, looked inside. To his great relief, there it was: One of the infamous Heart Stones, glinting dully against the black interior of the box.
"Well done, Mr. Jones!" he breathed sincerely. "Very well done, indeed! Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to take this straight to the Security Vault and..."
Jacob, still inspecting the dog bite, touched it. Ezekiel yelped with pain and jerked bolt upright in the chair. Jake snatched his hands back, his head whipping around to look at the Caretaker.
"Jenkins! I need somethin' to hold over this bite! His leg is still bleedin' pretty bad!"
"I really would feel better if I could just..." began Jenkins.
"Jenkins! Come on, man!" snapped Jacob, his concern for Ezekiel making him short-tempered. "The man's bleedin' to death here! Put that damn rock down and help me! It's in the Library now, it's safe!"
"Very good, sir," the Caretaker said resignedly as he closed the lid on the box without relocking it. He pulled his handkerchief out of his trousers pocket as he hurried to Stone's aid. The sooner he got this out of the way, the sooner he could get the Heart safely locked into the Vault.
His back was turned to the corridor doorway, so he didn't see Cassandra enter the room; hearing the commotion, she'd come to see how the mission had turned out. She started going to where Jenkins and Jacob were hovering over a loudly-complaining Ezekiel. She opened her mouth to greet them, but at that moment she
Heard a sweet, sibilant voice murmuring into her ear.
Startled, she jumped and whirled around to see who it was, but saw nothing. She gave a tiny shake of her head in dismissal and turned back to the men helping Ezekiel. Must be my imagination, she told herself.
She turned again toward the sound of the voice, felt a strange, irresistible urge to go to the long table in the middle of the room. She abruptly changed direction and walked slowly to where the black box sat, surrounded by a soft, pale gold aura of light.
She stretched out her hand towards the smooth ebony lid and lifted it. The sapphire inside glowed intensely, a brilliant silver-starred deep blue. It sounded like it was humming.
She lifted it carefully from the spell-protected box by its heavy gold chain. The Heart suddenly blazed like a miniature nova before her eyes, utterly enrapturing her.
"I know you!" she said dreamily, lifting her free hand to softly brush the glowing surface of the gem with back of one finger. "You're the Heart of Sorrow!" She sniffed the air, certain that she could smell the salt air of an ocean, could almost taste it on her tongue. She shivered violently, the air around her suddenly ice cold. She thought she could see her breath as she spoke.
"You're so beautiful!"
Hearing her voice, Jenkins turned around, and his heart turned to ice within his chest as he watched the pretty Librarian stroke the smoldering jewel, then turn it over in her bare hands.
"CASSANDRA! NO!" he bellowed in terror as he turned to hurl himself towards her. She slowly turned her head and stared at him blankly, vaguely startled by his reaction. She felt an odd warmth in her hands, almost a burning sensation as the Heart of Sorrow demanded her attention. When she turned her head back towards the source, she was surprised to see the gemstone Heart was now ablaze with an angry, blinding indigo fire.
She heard a loud buzzing in her ears, like a barrelful of angry hornets at first, but it soon cleared and she could hear the voices of people screaming in terror. Hundreds of people, screaming…screaming. The screams drowned out the panicked shouts coming from Jenkins, the shouts of Jacob and Ezekiel, then of Flynn and Eve as they entered the workroom and saw what was happening. Cassandra gazed intently into the Stone, her heart now filling with fear at the awful sound of the screaming. Mesmerized, she didn't feel Jenkins's hand grab her arm so tightly that it was sure to leave a bruise. A moment later, a sudden flash of blue light exploded out from the Heart Stone, swallowing both her and Jenkins and temporarily blinding the others.
When the light faded away, Eve Baird dropped the bowl of water clutched in her hands, letting it crash heedlessly against the floor. The stunned Guardian frantically called out for Cassandra and Jenkins as she ran over to stand in the now empty place where they'd been standing just a few seconds earlier.