Wren and I arrived in the Realm early, as the Lady had requested.
Yetta stood in the main, gold-encrusted hallway, with a sullen expression. She started walking before we reached her, leading the way to the Lady. It had been many months since I’d exchanged words with Yetta in person. She was always like this. She had to talk to me on the phone because the Lady wouldn’t use one, though she’d certainly adapted her expectations of her Hands once we all had cell phones.
I wasn’t sure where Yetta was leading us, but it wasn’t to the lake or to any of the cavernous rooms full of the leavings of bygone societies, where we’d normally face an audience with the immortal.
Was Lionel somewhere down here, right now? I had no way of knowing if he was even alive. I’d have to come back when I wasn’t expected if I wanted to look around. And that meant having an hour or two to myself, which seemed to be a tall order these days.
As Yetta rounded another corner, I grew more confused. We stepped into the portal room that led to London, Barcelona, and Prague. I hadn’t been in this room in years.
There the Lady stood, her bearing regal despite the bemused expression on her face.
“Lady? Are you going out?”
She rarely left the Realm for the mortal, ever-changing world. The last time I knew about was when I was fourteen – seven years ago.
“No. You’re going for me, of course.” She didn’t bother to look at me; she kept her stare on the portal to London. Except now that I was watching her, I realized she was examining the edges of the portal. But why? I had no clue.
“I keep losing witches.”
The randomness of this statement made my brow go up, and I felt myself smirk. Luckily, she wasn’t looking at me, because she might have made me pay for a slip like that.
“Three have gone missing now, right before Briggs and Godwin arrived.”
So the Lady was keeping Godwin and Briggs plenty busy, too.
“Why are you having them track these witches? Are they Queens?”
She swiveled to face me, her stare icy. “They’re irrelevant. I’m after the one who is helping them.”
“What do you mean?” If she would just stop dodging the subject and tell me why we were here, maybe my skin would stop crawling.
“I need you to track a Queen witch gone rogue. An upstart who is telling my witches they needn’t listen to me.”
The smirk threatened a reappearance, but I held back. Good luck with that. I would not be turning in a witch because she fought her oppressor.
Instead of betraying these thoughts, I asked the obvious question. “Who is this witch, and where can we find her?”
“Anna Hoffman lives in London.” The Lady slipped me a piece of paper with an address scrawled on it. “This is her last known address. She’s joined a rebellious group of witches there. I’ve tried other ways to dissuade these activities, including separating the instigators…to no avail. London has become more and more troubling…”
“What other ways?” It was rare that the Lady spoke this much, and I was going to learn whatever I could.
“That’s none of your concern. Anna Hoffman is your concern. Find her, and bring her to me. It’s time she answered for these activities.”
“To London, then.” I motioned to Wren and with a nod to the Lady, I stepped through the London portal with my sister following after me.
I hadn’t had much contact with the European witches. I’d heard that Briggs and Godwin spent a fair portion of their time there, but they’d never told me details.
When we were still in twin school – our four years of extensive training in our powers and duties as the Lady’s Hands – we’d traveled to different areas. I’d noticed then that many of the European witches lived in multi-generational families. Blood families. That was different from how the Queen of Peace had organized her family in the new world. Many Queens in the U.S. were raised by other witches outside their genetic family. Human family wasn’t a value the Lady held dear. She’d rather we depended on her and be raised to that loyalty, rather than to a divided set of loyalties.
What was possibly the cleanest portal entrance ever seen in the mortal world greeted us in London. An antiseptic smell tinged the air. The walls were painted a stark, near-blinding white. A couple of chairs and a low table that held a selection of magazines made me think of a waiting room. But no one was waiting.
We left the underground portal room and hailed a cab on a busier street after a few blocks’ walk. I gave the rough old character behind the wheel the address. Wren was sullen when she got into the cab, but we couldn’t fly everywhere. This wasn’t the place or the time.
The city was gray, clouds thick overhead and a fine mist coating everything. Luckily, coming from Portland, I’d dressed for rain. When we stepped from the cab, I flipped up my hood. We stood on the walk outside a red-brown apartment building. The stoop and stairs were crowded with plants, the flowerbeds thriving with greens despite the dreary weather.
Just as I was considering going up, a middle-aged man and woman emerged and came down the steps. They didn’t make eye contact, but after they passed the woman tugged on the man’s sleeve, whispering something in his ear. When both of them looked back at us, I realized they were talking about us.
Another man exited, and also didn’t look at us as he walked past, going the opposite direction from the couple. Then came another couple, the woman giving me a quick glare as her husband pulled her by the hand. All of them had been dressed in dark clothes.
“Wren…I don’t know what’s going on, but this looks almost like a funeral. Try to stay calm, okay. There might be a lot of people in there.”
She nodded, but I noticed she didn’t make any promises.
I swiveled to face her, trying to be firm but not in her face enough to make her angry. That’s the last complication I needed. “We’re only here for Anna Hoffman. The Lady was specific.”
Wren ignored me, and climbed the steps to the front door. I followed, glowering at her back. I had to be back by nine to get ready for my meeting with Chaos. She’d better not cause more trouble for me.
Wren wrapped her knuckles on the door in a resounding knock, and I heard someone inside shuffle to the door. An elderly man answered, his eyes merry under bushy gray eyebrows. “Eh? What’ll we do for you today?”
Wren looked at her feet, suddenly shy. I rolled my eyes. “We’re looking for Anna Hoffman. Is she home?”
“They said you’d come. I didn’t expect you’d be so young or lovely.”
“Um…thanks. Might we come in?”
“Oh. No. You can’t come in. Best you come back at a later date.” He started to close the door.
“Where is Anna Hoffman?” I asked, placing one hand on the door to stop him from closing it.
“Why, none of us have a clue.”
I didn’t realize what Wren was going to do until she’d shoved the old man back with her power, his elderly form crunching against the doorframe as she brushed him aside like a branch in her path. He groaned, sinking to the floor with one hand on his side.
“Wren! Have care!”
She didn’t speak. The room was full, all eyes on us.
I stared at each and every person – horrified at the looks of terror on their faces. It looked like a family gathering; like a funeral, as I’d thought. But if I didn’t get some answers and get Wren out of here, they might have more people to bury.
“Who can tell me where Anna Hoffman is? Is it true she is not home?”
They all stared, and a few shook their heads. No one broke the silence that stretched…
I sighed. “Where is Anna’s room?” I’d have to start tracking her somewhere.
A bent-backed woman with her hair in two dark braids led me to a door. She cowered out of my way, and I turned the knob, half expecting to find Anna in residence despite their denials.
There was no one home, but Anna had been here recently. The room was neat, everything in its place. Except for a scattering of chalk next to a wooden box on the floor, and a rag dotted with chalk. I kneeled to examine it.
Strange symbols lined the frame of the closet door. At the lower right-hand side, a symbol had been scrubbed away hastily. Fragments remained, but I couldn’t make it out. I didn’t understand any of the symbols, though they reminded me of runes. I’d have to borrow a book or two from Godwin. I stretched out a hand, wiping at the symbol. It was still wet, as though they’d scrubbed it while we were at the door. So at least some of the people present out there were witches.
I didn’t get it. I was missing some piece of this puzzle. But even if I understood what I was looking at, it wouldn’t help me find Anna.
I tried every angle I knew, tracing and retracing what I could find of her paths through the apartment. She’d come in a few hours ago – and I could not for the life of me find where or how she’d left.
The Lady was not going to be pleased.
My ten o’clock meeting with Chaos loomed.
“Wren, let’s go. There’s nothing here.”
“They know more than they’re letting on.” Everyone waited, holding their breath. My sister loved this sort of power, but I hated games like this. One of the women had helped the old man Wren had shoved move to the sofa. His eyes were no longer sparkling, no longer friendly. I would bet he didn’t find us lovely anymore.
“If the Lady so desires, we shall track each of them down in turn,” I promised my sister, my gaze traveling among the assembled. We could do it, and at least some of them knew it. I wouldn’t do it, but I was trained to play this part like an actor on a stage. “She will want to hear our news.”
I led the way, my sister following swiftly at my heels. I gave a silent prayer of thanks and went to face the Lady’s fury.
***I hope you enjoyed the first three chapters of Chaos Calling! Thank you for reading! Look for book three in the series, The Unseen Mirror, in fall 2015.***
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