When the key turned in the lock of his cell door, the young man seated on the floor against the opposite wall merely tilted his head back to observe what followed. He was tired, for one thing, his body still aching from the beating, magical and physical, he'd taken upon capture. For another, he was damned if he'd give his jailers any sign they could construe as respect or fear. His ribs might be bruised, but his pride was intact.
The three who entered looked down on him with equal disdain: a boy whose thoughtful face was twisted into a triumphant sneer; a girl who slowly licked her lips and mimed a kiss; and a dark-haired man, no taller than either of them and as casually dressed, but who radiated power like a furnace running full blast. In his left hand he carried a pale golden wand crowned with four delicately wrought ankhs. The young man's eyes tracked it greedily as his captor raised it in a mocking salute. "Welcome home, Omen," he said.
His companions snickered; Omen ignored them. "Love what you've done to the place," he replied. "But you should fire the maid. Oh, and keep your pets outside." His attention slid to the boy. "I don't think they're housebroken."
His prey rose instantly to the bait, cheeks flushing. "Takes one to know one, doesn't it, Mr. Toad?"
"Frog," Omen corrected him.
"That's not fair, Blaze," said the girl. "Omen had so much practice being a frog. I'm sure he learned how to use the litter box." She tittered, a sound as grating as the deliberate scrape of fingernails down a chalkboard.
Omen kept his eyes on Blaze. "I did learn a lot while I was away," he said softly. "I spent months out there, after all." His lips curled into a thin smile. "And you had what, Blaze – two days?"
Blaze's hands knotted into fists. "I'll get out again," he growled. "And then you and that Lance Stone can rot here together."
"And Cally," added the girl. "Don't forget her." She dropped into a crouch, reaching out to steady herself against Omen's right knee. Her eyes glittered, catching his unwilling glance. "I'll bet he misses Cally most of all."
Omen caught her fingers as they slid up his thigh. "Shut up, Violet," he said and twisted her wrist so viciously that she squealed.
Blaze bulled forward, but the dark-haired man flung out an arm to bar his way, knocking him back on his heels. Light burst from the wand in the man's other hand, sun-bright and blinding. Blaze flinched. Violet, her free hand crooked to claw at Omen's face, swore and toppled away from him. Omen released her, raising his own hands to shield his eyes.
"You two, get out," ordered the man. "Now!"
Violet scrambled on hands and knees to the door, where Blaze took her arm and hauled her upright. They both turned to glower at Omen, who smirked. Blaze leaned toward him, but Violet tugged her brother across the threshold, whispering in his ear. The dark-haired man gestured with his right hand and the steel door slammed shut behind them.
Omen sighed theatrically. "Kids these days," he said.
The other man regarded him with similar indulgence. "You're foolish to provoke them," he remarked. "You're in no position to take them on."
Omen concealed a grimace. Few could match him in a straight fight, but he'd chosen to challenge the other necromancer without preparation or backup in the man's own place of power. Stupid, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Under those circumstances, the combined might of Blaze, Violet and their puppet-master had been enough to defeat him and (for now, at least) to hold him prisoner. Yet he could no more refrain from taunting his enemies than he could from breathing. You go on believing I'm all bark, he thought. When the time comes, my bite will surprise you. "I don't like them," he said aloud.
Omen shrugged. "I'm astonished we're still on speaking terms."
"Astonished I let you live, you mean?" The man chuckled. "I never discard a useful tool."
"I'm not your tool."
"You will be," said the Puppet-Master.
Omen pushed himself to his feet and managed not to blench as his abused muscles protested. "You'd do better with me as an ally," he said, "especially if you're looking for a foothold in the other world. I know the ground there; I could give you an advantage. If I add my strength to yours – "
The man threw back his head and roared with laughter. "Your strength?" he exclaimed. "Do you believe your travels in the other world have made you strong, Omen? Do you think you can hide your weakness from me?" He lifted the wand, pointing it straight at Omen's chest. "Imago imaginis!" he cried. "Imago cordis imaginis!"
Omen cast up his crossed forearms to block the spell, but it tore through his guard like a knife through newsprint. The incantation squeezed him breathless, leaving him gasping against the wall. With the wand's tip, the Puppet-Master drew a circle in the air between them, its circumference filled with a shimmer of pale colors like a film of oil on water, whose contours slowly resolved into the portrait of a girl's face.
It was similar enough to Violet's to be her twin's – a pretty face, pale-skinned, framed by long, wind-tangled brown hair. But the malice that animated Violet's features was absent from the portrait-girl's. Her brow was puckered with worry, her eyes brimming with tears – in the dim light Omen could almost imagine that her lips trembled. Something inside him roiled queasily and he swallowed, schooling his own face to a watchful neutrality.
The Puppet-Master gazed on his handiwork with palpable satisfaction. "Cally Stone," he said. "The image of your heart." He cocked a brow at Omen. "And where did you get such a thing as a heart, I wonder?" he asked, his smile like a knife-edge to the other man's throat.
Omen cursed him silently and thoroughly. It was bad enough that the necromancer had seen him trade himself for Cally – worse, that he had heard Omen call out to her through the mirror when Blaze and Violet had overborne him. The last thing his adversary needed to know was how acutely seeing Cally in pain hurt him. "What do you want?" he asked, and was pleased to hear himself sound bored and annoyed. "Or are you just showing off your new toy again?"
With a flick of his wrist the Puppet-Master pushed the portrait aside to hover over his left shoulder. It turned slowly on its axis, rotating like a whirligig in an imperceptible breeze. "Cor ad cor loquitur," he said. "I want you to call Cally Stone's heart out of her body – summon her essence onto the astral plane."
Omen laughed at him. "It'll never work," he said. "She doesn't trust me; she hates me."
"Oh, come now," replied the Puppet-Master. "You saved her brother. You saved her, too, gallantly enough to turn any girl's head. Why else would she offer you such a fond farewell?" He gestured at the glimmering circle and the sad lines of Cally's face ran, dissolved, and reformed into a different picture. Now she stood forlorn on her side of the mirror-portal between their worlds. She touched three fingers to her lips, then trailed them down the mirror's cracked surface, her mouth soundlessly forming the word Good-bye.
"She didn't – !" Omen began, but broke off as memory tugged uneasily at his elbow. There had been a moment, after he had sent Cally's brother Lance back through the mirror, when the Puppet-Master's attention had strayed from their battle. Omen had seized the opportunity to attack without wondering what had caused it, but now ... "She's not stupid," he said, forcing the words out. "She won't answer. She'll know it's a trap."
"Then lure her to you with a dream," said the Puppet-Master. "People dare in dreams what they would never do in reality." He drew a step nearer, shaking his head with affected sympathy. "Look at you, Omen. Haven't you been dreaming of escape – of revenge?"
"You have no idea," Omen replied and feinted a snatch at the golden wand.
If the Puppet-Master had recoiled, Omen would have had him, one long leg snaking out to trip his opponent and bring him to the ground. But instead the shorter man darted forward and drove the wand two-handed against his throat. Omen choked. The Puppet-Master muttered a word and an electric noose seemed to close around Omen's neck, cutting off his breath. He grabbed hold of the wand, straining to free himself as his lungs began to burn, but the Puppet-Master's grip was unyielding. "You'll call her," he snarled, "or I'll carve out that newborn heart of yours and bait the hook with it myself! Do you hear me?"
Omen let his arms fall to his sides and jerked his chin downward – once, twice. Giving his spell-noose one last, cruel twist, the Puppet-Master released it and leaped back out of Omen's reach. He might have spared the effort: Omen's knees simply buckled beneath him. He collapsed to the floor, barely preventing his skull from cracking against the cold cement. Slowly he righted himself, winded and fighting not to show it, loathing every gesture that betrayed his weakness. The Puppet-Master smirked; even Cally's face, still idly rotating, seemed to pity him. Omen fingered his bruised throat and glared at them both.
"Dream all you want," said the Puppet-Master, "but do as I bid." He tapped the wand against his palm. "I rule here."
Omen rolled his eyes. "Sure," he rasped, suppressing a cough.
The other man's smile drained away. He thrust his hand, palm out, fingers splayed, at the portrait. It flew across the cell and smashed explosively into the wall above Omen's head. The concussion filled the room, drawing a tortured, clanging echo from the door. Omen ducked, wincing, then looked up.
The outlines of Cally's face were seared into the cinderblocks like a graffito. Stripped of detail, its likeness to Violet's was even more pronounced, but for a touch here and there that preserved the sweetness of the original – the sweetness, and the pain. Oh, Cally, Omen thought savagely and turned his own face away.
"Company for you while you work," the Puppet-Master said. His head tilted slightly aside as he considered the portrait with the detached absorption of an art student at a gallery. "Such a lovely girl," he mused, adding with a mordant undertone that belied his pose, "I can almost comprehend her attraction for you."
Omen said nothing.
After a moment, the Puppet-Master made for the door – careful, Omen noticed, not to show his back to his prisoner. "Perhaps I'll let you keep her afterward," the dark-haired man said.
After what? Omen thought better of inquiring; his ears still rang. Besides, he had a more pressing question. "Why?" he asked.
Hand on the lintel, the Puppet-Master paused. "The privilege of the gods," he replied. "'Annihilate but space and time, and make two lovers happy.'"
The door, slamming shut behind him, did little to muffle the sound of his callous laughter.