"There." Two men paused at the crest of a wooded hill in the warm glow of a fine Autumn sunset. Behind them, running along the base of the hill, a hard-packed dirt road threaded its way through the English countryside, a gleaming black Morris Oxford parked on the nearer berm. Ahead, a short distance below where the observers stood, the trees gave way to a small clearing, in which stood a rough-hewn stone structure no bigger than a shed. Through its gaping windows came a glow as warm as that of the setting sun. Here, in this peaceful haven, was the one they had come to retrieve. It was time to go home.
The older of the pair lowered his hand, his ring pulsing a deep red as its objective was fulfilled. The ring would find the one who waited in the shrine, always, no matter the distance or the years since he'd last been seen. It was a bond forged from the power of love beyond death, a power now shared by the master's younger companion, his inheritance from his ancestor Merlin.
Dave glanced across at his fellow seeker, who simply stared unmoving at their destination only a few yards down the slope. "Well?" he asked. "Aren't we going to go get him?"
Alvar's face was troubled, as if remembering things he would just as soon forget. "You go ahead," he urged. "I'll wait back at the car." He turned then and left his friend to finish their errand alone.
Dave watched him go for a minute, curious but knowing better than to press for answers just then. He shook his head; Alvar would tell him when and if he chose to. For now, he had more pressing matters at hand. With a sigh, Dave turned back and trudged down the slope to the little stone building in the clearing.
He opened the door without touching it, noiselessly, so as not to disturb the shrine's occupant. He needn't have bothered.
Inside, a stone ledge served as a bench under one window, facing the window directly across the room. Between them, an earthen floor lay half-buried under fallen leaves, some from this year and some from seasons past. Opposite the door, a deep niche in the wall held a simple marble crucifix flanked by thick white candles in iron sconces. The candles were the source of the glow seen from outside. Their light pushed back against the deepening shadows of the dying sunlight streaming through the western window.
In the middle of the floor, resting on his haunches with hands lying lightly atop his thighs, a man sat still with face upturned to the carving in the niche. His hair, bright as burnished gold where it met the light, quickly turned a darker reddish-brown as the shadows took control. His long leather coat blended its earthy scent with the ground and the stone and the dripping candle tallow. He seemed to belong there, as if he'd been here in this spot for as long as the shrine had existed.
"Hello, Dave," the man said without moving.
"Hey," answered the new arrival. "How are you doing? You okay?"
"Yes," his master replied, and Dave heard the smile in his voice. He relaxed a bit; he'd been hoping he wouldn't have to deal with anything too emotional. He waited, for surely his purpose in coming was obvious.
After a long silence, though, he wasn't quite so sure. He cleared his throat. "Um, it's getting late," he pointed out. "What are you doing here, anyway? Didn't you get enough church this morning when you went with Veronica?" As no response was forthcoming, he tried again. "We should be getting back now, okay? Master Alvar's waiting for us in the car."
Then and only then did Balthazar turn from the object of his study. His blue eyes, when they locked on his apprentice, were sad. "It's hard for him," he said, referring to his own master, "being here in this clearing. He did what he thought he had to do, but he's never forgiven himself for doing it."
"Yeah." Dave stared at the floor. Balthazar had very nearly died here, at the hand of his beloved master Alvar. Both of their lives had changed that day; ultimately for the better, but not without price. Apparently, Alvar hadn't yet finished paying it.
The shrine hadn't been here then. From the corner of his eye, Dave caught movement, and looked up to see the older man reaching out to touch the wall of the little building.
"Some of these stones may have been the same ones we used for his cairn," noted Balthazar quietly.
Reflexively, Dave studied the rough blocks more closely. Now he noticed, etched at regular intervals throughout the interior, the words carved like epitaphs in tombstones. Not surprisingly, they were verses of Scripture urging the visitor to a life of humble repentance, loving service, and unwavering holiness. He chose one at random to read aloud:
"Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience.
'What's 'concupiscence'?" he asked.
"A fancy word for 'lust'."
"Oh." Dave sat on the bench, suddenly depressed. "You don't actually believe all that stuff, do you?" he asked hopefully.
"I have questions," Balthazar admitted. "I'm no theologian, but I have no reason to disbelieve things like what you just read. Passages like that are pretty consistent throughout the whole Bible. Yeah, I'd have to say God really means it."
"No, I mean about there even being a god to begin with." He leaned back against the wall and stared at the ceiling, the floor, at Balthazar, anything but the illuminated icon in its niche. "Man, I can't believe I'm even talking about this. Could we just get out of here, please? This place makes me nervous."
"Here's a citation that will make it even worse." The master sorcerer pointed to another inscribed stone. Dave considered ignoring it–Balthazar wasn't above tormenting his apprentice now and then–but the man sounded serious tonight. Dave read the marked stone to himself:
"He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death"
"Okay, that's it," declared the apprentice sorcerer, standing. "I'm outta here. If you don't come with me, right now, I'm sending Alvar back here to get you, whether he likes it or not." He moved to the open doorway and waited. "Well?" he prompted.
Balthazar twisted to face his young friend. "Give me a minute, all right?" he requested. "My legs have gone numb from sitting here for so long. I don't think I can stand up just yet."
"Oh, well, why didn't you say so?" Dave was embarrassed for not considering that possibility, and it came out in a tone more brusque than he'd intended. He lent a firm supporting arm so that the older man could rest on the bench until he was able to walk again. "So," he found himself asking despite himself, "do you really think we're all damned just because we're sorcerers? It's not something we chose, after all."
"We didn't choose the gift, true," replied his master, "but we did choose to use it. There are different interpretations of the word: a diviner or fortune-teller, someone who invokes evil spirits, or a user of potions to exert control over people. Broadly speaking, it does mean anyone who uses magic, no matter what his intentions, so yes, we're walking a dangerous line by continuing its practice."
"But we have to use it to fight the Morganians!"
"True enough. Your Tesla coil trick only worked because it wasn't expected. We can't depend on that again, or any non-magical means to fight the enemy. We don't have much choice in the matter."
Dave shook his head. "That's not fair, then, to condemn magic when it's used for good. We shouldn't be punished for doing the right thing."
"As I said, I have questions." Balthazar smiled, then rose slowly to his feet. "I think I'm good to go now."
Together, they started up the hill toward the crest, and the candles went out behind them. "It's probably a matter of where we put our trust," Balthazar continued. "Do we put our trust in ourselves, thinking our magic is all we need, or do we trust in the one who gave us that gift? With the Morganians, it's easy to see which side they've chosen. We Merlinians are murkier, but we have that same temptation. Too often, we make the same choice."
Dave said nothing, but he remembered. His master had told him, that first day they'd begun to train, "Magic can't be everything. It can't be all you are. Never forget that..." He understood that now, better than he had then, though the magic he wielded now was more powerful than any other sorcerer's on earth. The temptation for him might have been irresistible without the help of Balthazar and the others to keep him firmly grounded. No, he knew the first option wasn't a valid choice. The alternative, though... "I don't know," he admitted at last. "Isn't there a third way? I mean, I know there's more to life than magic, but God? Really? There's no proof that he even exists. Can't we just trust each other–you know, the good people–and our own morality? I don't need some invisible dude up in the sky somewhere to tell me the difference between right and wrong."
"'The good people', you say," his companion responded. "There are no good people; not me, not you, not even Becky or Veronica. We've all made mistakes. We're all evil to one degree or another, even if it never shows as anything worse than being selfish or arrogant, or unforgiving."
Dave frowned, a bit perturbed. "Okay, then, relatively good. Nobody's perfect, but that's not the same as saying everyone is evil. At least I've never killed anyone...um, unless you count Morgana, but that was the whole point of training me in the first place."
They had reached the top of the hill by now, where they paused briefly to locate the waiting Oxford, a patch of black just a few shades darker than the night sky and the road. The car's roof was still folded back, but it wouldn't be many more weeks before the weather no longer afforded them that luxury.
Balthazar smiled again. "Master Alvar's probably asleep by now. Maybe you should drive."
The lights of the mansion were on when the travelers returned. Dave let his passengers out in the cobblestone courtyard before taking the vehicle around back to the garage. This was a rather large building, part of which was still used as the carriage house for which purpose it had been made. Beyond it, past a wide gravel path through the trees, lay the rest of the estate: the stables, a smokehouse and storage houses, the groundskeeper's cottage, and a chapel, along with a few other necessary outbuildings. Dave hadn't gone back there since his initial tour of the premises when they'd first moved in three months ago.
May 4, 1924, just after sunrise: that was when the group had landed on the beach of Cape May, New Jersey. A month later, seven of the eight had moved here to England, allowing the driver to retire peacefully to his ancestral home in Puerto Rico as he wished. The Masters Estate was home for the rest of them, at least for now. Once the adjacent property was developed, which should be done sometime before the end of the following year, the group would be split even further.
Dave smelled the enticing odors of roast beef and fresh-baked biscuits as soon as he walked through the front door. He followed the aroma through the parlor and into the dining room, where the rest of his household waited for him before sitting down to dinner.
Sorcerers they were, all of them but one. Becky was a beam of golden sunshine in the room, and it wasn't just her long flaxen hair that made her so. She was his delight, his reminder of who he had been and his encouragement to become so much more; a better man as well as a sorcerer. Of them all, she had given up the most to stay with him, and he was determined always to be the man she found worthy of her sacrifice. He gave her a quick kiss of thanks.
As the owner of the mansion, Alvar claimed his seat at the head of the table. He was a handsome man, if somewhat dark: black eyes, short black hair, with a trim black beard and mustache to match; and a darkness in his past which he still and always sought to overcome.
To his right was the newest addition to their team, the former Morganian Chandra Kolinsky, who also appeared to be the eldest. She was petite, dressed in simple but well-tailored attire, and aging gracefully as her brown hair faded into gray. For all of her nearly sixty-five years, she'd been set apart by the strong electric-disruption field that surrounded her like an invisible aura; not large, but virtually impenetrable. Only by traveling inside the mirror world could she ride in a motorized vehicle. She was content now in her retirement, and the simple pleasures remaining in her life, like dinner with a household full of friends. Dave sat on Chandra's other side at the table, and then Becky beyond him. To Alvar's left were Balthazar and his wife Veronica, and finally Horvath to complete the group of seven.
Well, eight, really. Veronica was just beginning to show evidence of the new life growing within her womb. The Blakes' first child was due within a month of Dave's own birthday. For this reason, the mansion had one room that had been fitted as a nursery, though there were no plans for other babes to use it except as guests.
"So how's the construction going?" asked Dave of nobody in particular when they had all filled their plates and begun to eat. "I haven't been over there all week–been too busy here."
"Not today," Alvar corrected him. "You could have checked it out today, if the two of you..." He nodded to include Becky, "hadn't decided to spend the day in town instead." The young couple started to look defensive until the senior sorcerer smiled. "I'm not criticizing," he added. "Chandra and I had a lovely restful day here by ourselves. I actually got to finish that medical journal I've been reading for the last month, before Horvath and Veronica got back."
Merlin's three apprentices had taken a carriage to survey Balthazar's recently purchased property, the grounds on which the legendary sorcerer's castle had once stood. Once the necessary legal work was finished and the architectural design approved by both owner and engineers, it hadn't taken long to begin the actual construction of a new, contemporary version of the castle.
Horvath took it upon himself to answer the question that had been posed. "At the moment, it's not much more than a hole in the ground," was his assessment. "I don't suppose the dungeons will be recreated..." He sounded almost wistful.
"No," confirmed Balthazar, to his peer's evident disappointment, "but we might install a guest room for you down there, with extra closet space for all those hats you bought."
"I thought so."
"Anyway..." Horvath went on, "the cellars are dug and the foundation laid. If this goes as quickly as Fort Agatha did, we should have it done right on schedule. Then my fellow Morganians and I can have this mansion to ourselves."
Chandra corrected him. "Ex-Morganians, you mean."
"Whatever." They were all on the same team now, but that didn't mean they didn't have their differences, and their memories of past hostilities and wrongs. For Horvath especially, it would take some time to find his place within the group; a self-imposed struggle that his friends would be happy to resolve if only he allowed it. Balthazar had been an enemy and friend in turn–twice–and Horvath had grown weary of the fight. There was no reason for it anymore, since there was no victory to be had. The choice to remain a friend was a simple one; and, truth be told, a comforting one, though he would never admit that to Balthazar. Veronica was the harder issue. Much as Horvath still wanted her, he knew that she would never be his. She hadn't been happy with him, even when she'd acted as his faithful wife not so very long ago. She was happy with Balthazar. Slowly, her first suitor was coming to accept that, but it didn't make it easier to be here in the same house with her and the man she loved. Horvath still couldn't help but feel rejected. That was his struggle, and not even the Morganian discipline of emotional control could help him win this battle. Only time and patience, and the team's unwavering support, could hope to bring him peace.
He was making progress, certainly. When Balthazar had asked him to take Veronica home from the construction site so she could rest, Horvath eschewed his normal sardonic ways and behaved as a perfect gentleman. An observer might have concluded that the riders were either good friends or siblings; comfortable in each other's presence, but not romantically involved. That was how Veronica thought of them, as well.
Dave seemed a bit uneasy now. "Do you really want us to move out, Horvath?" he asked, but the query was directed at Alvar and Chandra, too. He hated to be an imposition on anyone, so he was quick to detect any suggestion of resentment.
Horvath shook his head. "My dear boy," he replied, trying to be patient, "you're welcome to stay as long as you like, provided you follow the rules of the house. You know the rules: we don't flaunt our magic in front of humans, we let our servants do the work they were hired to do, we let someone know when we take a car or carriage, and we keep our knowledge of the future to ourselves. We don't need to start tongues wagging about us in town." He didn't have to confirm his open invitation with the mansion's owner; Alvar's signature was on the papers, but Horvath was the one in charge of running the household.
"Yeah, I know the rules, but still..." Dave's uncertainty hadn't abated.
Chandra laid a comforting hand on his arm. "We're happy to have you here, Dave," she assured him with the warm note of sincerity, and Alvar nodded in agreement. "You, Becky, and our friends across the table." He wasn't convinced, even when she afforded him her most grandmotherly smile.
Balthazar looked almost amused. "You'll notice that Veronica and I aren't worrying about overstaying our welcome," he told his apprentice. "Relax, Dave. You worry too much."
"Yeah, you're one to talk," Dave shot back, but he did feel better now.
After dinner, Alvar had an announcement to make. "I've been thinking," he began over drinks. "Things are going smoothly here, which is wonderful, but I'm starting to miss being out on the road. It would be nice to go out into the world again, find out what's changed since my day. Are we the only sorcerers left? I know there must be more; Drake Stone's ancestors, if no one else."
Sorcerers had always been few, and Balthazar had been the only Merlinian left by the time he met young Dave Stutler in the year 2000. There were still some Morganians then, but not many. If there were other sorcerers in the world, they either didn't know their own gift or they chose to keep it secret.
"You want to scout again?" Balthazar asked somewhat reluctantly, just to make sure he understood his master's intention. "We just got settled in, and you want to leave us already?"
"I'm not leaving you," Alvar replied. "This is a short-term mission, only a few weeks or maybe a month. If I don't find anyone, I can always go back out later. This is my home now, and you're my family. Trust me, I'm not about to give that up, ever."
"And if you do find someone..."
Balthazar's master grinned at him. "Don't worry. Even if I do take another apprentice, you're still the first. You'll always be special to me." The grin broadened further when Balthazar suddenly found the glass in his hand too fascinating to ignore.
Dave, seeing his master's chagrin, couldn't help a smile of his own. He knew exactly how Balthazar felt. It was the same way he felt when he thought about the child who would, in a few short months, be demanding his father's attention. He was happy for his friends, and he looked forward to the new baby almost as much as they did, but there was still a twinge of jealousy...just a little bit.
Veronica had a different concern. "But Alvar, what about the baby? What if I need you here?"
Alvar was the attending physician for all of them, but his primary focus for the time being was the pregnant woman and her first child. As an older woman, she faced difficulties that someone of Becky's age would not. Her concern was well-founded. Now it was Alvar's turn to look uncomfortable. He shifted in his seat and took the opportunity to focus on draining his goblet before venturing to respond. "I'll keep in touch," he assured her when he finished. "We'll talk every night, either by telephone or by magic, like I used to do with Morgana. If there's a problem, just let me know and I'll come right back. I don't plan to leave the island."
The answer was far from satisfactory, and they all knew it. However, the pregnancy had so far been uneventful, or at least not unusual. There was no real reason to keep a physician at hand. Veronica was clearly not happy, but she allowed his answer to suffice.
Alvar broke the uneasy silence that followed. "Ahem, well, it would probably be best to get started soon, either tomorrow or Tuesday. I'd prefer one of the carriages, but I think a car may be better to get to more villages in the time allotted. Um, I wouldn't mind company, either, if anyone's interested."
Chandra shrugged. "I'd go with you, Alvar, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be very good company inside a mirror. I'm more of a homebody, anyway."
To their surprise, it was Horvath who volunteered. "I'll go," he declared, "if that's all right with you, Alvar."
Wide-eyed, the older man sat back in his chair. He agreed to the request immediately, if a bit hesitantly. "Certainly, if you're sure..."
"I'm sure." He saw no need to explain, and nobody else dared to ask.
"All right then," Chandra concluded. "I'll be the head of the Masters Estate while you two are gone. You boys be good, and don't forget to call."