Key of Light
“No, this is the place. From my dream. This is the house. How could I be so stupid not to realize, not to understand?” Excitement pitched into her voice, rushing the words out. “It wasn’t what was Flynn’s, but what was mine. I’m the key. Isn’t that what Rowena said?”
She whirled back to face them, her eyes brilliant and bright. “Beauty, knowledge, courage. That’s the three of us, that’s this place. And the dream, that was my fantasy, my idea of perfection. So it had to be my place.”
She pressed a hand to her heart as if to keep it from leaping free. “The key’s here. In this house.”
In the next instant she was alone. The staircase behind her filled with a thin blue light. Like a mist, it rolled toward her, crawled along the floor at her feet until she stood ankle-deep in the damp chill of it. Rooted in shock, she called out, but her voice rang hollow in a mocking echo.
With her heart drumming, she looked at the rooms on either side of her. The eerie blue fog snaked and twined its way up the walls, over the windows, blocking even the gloomy light of the storm.
Run! It was a frantic whisper in her mind. Run. Get out now, before it’s too late. This wasn’t her fight. She was an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life.
She gripped the banister, took the first step down. She could still see the door through that sheer blue curtain that so quickly ate the true light. Through the door was the real world. Her world. She had only to open that door and walk out for normalcy to click back into place.
That was what she wanted, wasn’t it? A normal life. Hadn’t her dream shown her that? Marriage and family. French toast for breakfast and flowers on the dresser. A pretty life of simple pleasures built on love and affection.
It was waiting for her, outside the door.
She walked down the steps like a woman in a trance. She could see beyond the door, somehow through the door, where the day was perfect with autumn. Trees a wash of color gilded by sunlight, air brisk and tart. And though her heart continued to gallop inside her chest, her lips curved in a dreamy smile as she reached for the door.
“This is wrong.” She heard her own voice, oddly flat and calm. “This is another trick.” A part of her shuddered in shock as she turned away from the door, turned from the perfect life waiting outside. “What’s out there isn’t real, but this is. This is our place now.”
Stunned that she’d nearly deserted her friends, she called out for Dana and Zoe again. Where had he put them? What illusion had separated them? Fear for them had her rushing back up the steps. Her flight tore the blue mists, only to have it gather back into nasty ribbons behind her.
To orient herself she went to the window at the top of the stairs and rubbed away those frigid mists. Her fingertips went numb, but she could see it was still storming. Rain whipped down out of a bruised sky. Her car was in the drive, just where she’d left it. Across the street a woman with a red umbrella and a bag of groceries dashed toward a house.
That was real, Malory told herself. That was life, messy and inconvenient. And she would get it back. She’d find her way back. But first she had a job to do.
Chills crawled along her skin as she turned to the right. She wished for a jacket, for a flashlight. For her friends. For Flynn. She forced herself not to run, not to rush blindly. The room was a maze of impossible corridors.
It didn’t matter. Just another trick, one meant to confuse and frighten her. Somewhere in this house was the key, and her friends. She would find them.
Panic tickled her throat as she walked. The air was silent now, even her lonely footsteps were smothered by the blue mist. What was more frightening to the human heart than being cold and lost and alone? He was using that against her, playing her with her own instinct.
Because he couldn’t touch her unless she allowed it.
“You’re not going to make me run,” she shouted. “I know who I am and where I am, and you’re not going to make me run.”
She heard someone call her name, just the faintest ripple through the thick air. Using it as a guide, she turned again.
The cold intensified, and the mists swirled with wet. Her clothes were damp, her skin chilled. The call could have been another trick, she thought. She could hear nothing now but the blood beating inside her own head.
It hardly mattered which direction she chose. She could walk endlessly in circles or stand perfectly still. It wasn’t a matter of finding her way, or being misdirected now. It was, she realized, nothing more than a battle of wills.
The key was here. She meant to find it; he meant to stop her.
“It must be lowering to pit yourself against a mortal woman. Wasting all your power and skill on someone like me. And still, the best you can do is this irritating blue-light special.”
An angry red glow edged the mist. Though Malory’s heart plunged, she gritted her teeth and kept moving. Maybe it wasn’t wise to challenge a sorcerer, but aside from the risk she realized another side effect.
She could see another door now where the red and blue lights merged.
The attic, she thought. It had to be. Not illusionary corridors and turns, but the true substance of the house.
She focused on it as she walked forward. When the mists shifted, thickened, swirled, she ignored them and kept the image of the door in her head.
At last, her breath shallow, she plunged a hand through the fog and clamped her fingers around the old glass knob.
Warmth, a welcome flood of it, poured over her as she pulled the door open. She started up, into the dark, with the blue mist creeping behind her.
OUTSIDE, Flynn navigated through the mean-tempered storm, edging forward in the driver’s seat to peer through the curtain of rain that his wipers could barely displace.
In the backseat, Moe whimpered like a baby.
“Come on, you coward, it’s just a little rain.” Lightning pitchforked through the black sky, followed by a boom of thunder like a cannon blast. “And some lightning.”
Flynn cursed and muscled the wheel in position when the car bucked and shuddered. “And some wind,” he added. With gusts approaching gale force.
It hadn’t seemed like more than a quick thunderstorm when he’d left the office. But it worsened with every inch of road. As Moe’s whimpers turned to pitiful howls, Flynn began to worry that Malory or Dana or Zoe, maybe all three of them, had gotten caught in the storm.
They should have been at the house by now, he reminded himself. But he would have sworn that the rage of the storm was worse, considerably worse, on this end of town. Fog had rolled down from the hills, blanketed them in gray as thick and dense as wool. His visibility decreased, forcing him to slow down. Even at a crawl, the car fishtailed madly on a turn.
“We’ll just pull over,” he said to Moe. “Pull over and wait it out.”
Anxiety skated up his spine, but instead of easing when he nudged the car to the curb, it clamped on to the back of his neck like claws. The sound of the rain pounding like fists on the roof of the car seemed to hammer into his brain.
He pulled out into the street again, his hands vising on the wheel as the wind buffeted the car. Sweat, born of effort and worry, snaked down his back. For the next three blocks he felt like a man fighting a war.
There was a trickle of relief when he spotted the cars in the driveway. They were okay, he told himself. They were inside. No problem. He was an idiot.
“Told you there was nothing to worry about,” he said to Moe. “Now you’ve got two choices. You can pull yourself together and come inside with me, or you can stay here, quaking and quivering. Up to you, pal.”
Relief drained away when he parked at the curb and looked at the house.
If the storm had a heart, it was there. Black clouds boiled over the house, pumped the full force of their fury. Even as he watched, lightning lanced down, speared like a fiery arrow into the front lawn. The grass went black in a jagged patch.
didn’t know if he spoke it, shouted it, or his mind simply screamed it, but he shoved open the car door and leaped into the surreal violence of the storm.
The wind slapped him back, a back-handed blow so intense that he tasted blood in his mouth. Lightning blasted like a mortar directly in front of him, and the air stank with burning. Blind from the driving rain, he bent over and lurched toward the house.
He stumbled on the steps and was calling her name, over and over like a chant, when he saw the hard blue light leaking around the front door.
The knob burned with cold and refused to turn under his hand. Baring his teeth, Flynn reared back, then rammed the door with his shoulder. Once, twice, and on the third assault, he broke it in.
He leaped inside, into that blue mist.
“Malory!” He shoved his dripping hair out of his face. “Dana!”
He whirled when something brushed his leg, and lifted his fists, only to lower them on an oath when it turned out to be wet dog. “Goddamn it, Moe, I don’t have time to—”
He broke off when Moe growled deep in his throat, let out a vicious bark, and charged up the stairs.
Flynn sprinted after him. And stepped into his office.
“If I’m going to do a decent job covering the foliage festival, then I need the front page of the Weekender section and a sidebar on the related events.” Rhoda folded her arms, her posture combative. “Tim’s interview with Clown Guy should go on page two.”
There was a vague ringing in his ears, and a cup of coffee in his hand. Flynn stared at Rhoda’s irritated face. He could smell the coffee, and the White Shoulders fragrance that Rhoda habitually wore. Behind him, his scanner squawked and Moe snored like a steam engine.
“This is bullshit.”
“You’ve got no business using that kind of language with me,” Rhoda snapped.
“No, this is bullshit. I’m not here. Neither are you.”
“It’s about time I got treated with a little respect around here. You’re only running this paper because your mother wanted to keep you from making a fool of yourself in New York. Big-city reporter, my butt. You’re a small-time, small-town guy. Always have been, always will be.”
“Kiss my ass,” Flynn invited and threw the coffee, cup and all, in her face.
She let out one short scream, and he was back in the mist.
Shaken, he rounded once again toward the sound of Moe’s barking.
Through that rolling mist, he saw Dana on her knees with her arms flung around Moe’s neck.
“Oh, God, thank God. Flynn!” She sprang up, wrapped herself around him as she had the dog. “I can’t find them. I can’t find them. I was here, then I wasn’t, now I am.” Hysteria pitched and rocked in her voice. “We were together, right over there, then we weren’t.”
“Stop. Stop.” He yanked her back, shook her. “Breathe.”
“Sorry. I’m sorry.” She shuddered, then scrubbed her hands over her face. “I was at work, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t have been. It was like being in a daze, going through the motions and not being able to pinpoint what was wrong. Then I heard Moe barking. I heard him barking, and I remembered. We were here. Then I was back, standing here in this—whatever the hell this is—and I couldn’t find them.”
She fought for calm. “The key. Malory said the key’s here. I think she must be right.”
“Go. Get outside. Wait for me in the car.”
She breathed deep, shuddered again. “I’m freaked, but I’m not leaving them here. Or you either. Jesus, Flynn, your mouth’s bleeding.”
He swiped the back of his hand over it. “It’s nothing. Okay, we stick together.” He took her hand, linked fingers.
They heard it at the same time, the hammering of fists on wood. With Moe once again in the lead, they rushed through the room.
Zoe stood at the attic door, beating on it. “Over here!” She called out. “She’s up there, I know she’s up there, but I can’t get through.”
“Get back,” Flynn ordered.
“You’re all right?” Dana gripped her arm. “Are you hurt?”
“No. I was home, Dana. Puttering around the kitchen with the radio on. Wondering what to fix for dinner. My God, how long? How long were we separated? How long has she been up there alone?”
SHE was afraid. It helped to admit it, accept it. To know that she was more afraid than she’d ever been in her life, and to realize she was determined not to give in.
The warmth was already being eaten away as the light took on that harsh blue hue. Fingers of mist crawled along the exposed beams on the ceiling, down the unfinished walls, along the dusty floor.
Through it, she could see the pale white vapor of her own breath.
Real, she reminded herself. That was real, a sign of life. Proof of her own humanity.
The attic was a long, wide room with two stingy windows at either end and the ceiling rising to a narrow pitch. But she recognized it. In her dream there had been skylights and generous windows. Her paintings had been stacked against walls done in soft cream. The floor had been clean of dust, and speckled with a cheerful rainbow of paint drops and splatters.
The air had carried a summer warmth and the scent of turpentine.
It was dank now, and cold. Rather than canvases, cardboard boxes were stacked against the walls. Old chairs and lamps and the debris of other lives were stored there. But she could see—oh, so clearly see—how it could have been.
As she imagined it, it began to form.
Warm, washed with light, alive with color. There, on her worktable with her brushes and palette knives, was the little white vase filled with the pink snapdragons she’d picked from her own garden that morning.
She remembered going out after Flynn had left for work, remembered picking those sweet and tender flowers to keep her company while she worked.
Worked in her studio, she thought dreamily, where the blank canvas waited. And she knew, oh, yes, she knew how to fill it.
She walked to the canvas waiting on an easel, picked up her palette, and began to mix her paints.
Sun streamed through her windows. Several were open for the practical purpose of cross-ventilation, and for the simple pleasure of feeling the breeze. Music pumped passionately out of the stereo. What she intended to paint today required passion.
She could already see it in her mind, feel the power of it gathering in her like a storm.
She raised her brush, swirled it in color for the first stroke.
Her heart lifted. The magnitude of the joy was almost unbearable. She might burst from it if she didn’t transfer it onto canvas.
The image was burned in her mind, like a scene etched on glass. With stroke after stroke, color blended on color, she began to bring it to life.
“You know this was always my deepest dream.” She spoke conversationally as she worked. “For as long as I can remember I wanted to paint. To have the talent, the vision, the skill to be an important artist.”
“Now you have it.”
She switched brushes, glancing at Kane before she faced the canvas again. “Yes, I do.”
“You were wise, making the right choice in the end. A shopkeeper?” He laughed, dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “Where is the power in that? Where is the glory in selling what others have created when you can create yourself? You can be and have whatever you choose here.”
“Yes, I understand. You’ve shown me the way.” She slid him a coy look. “What else can I have?”
“You want the man?” Kane shrugged elegantly. “He’s bound to you here, a slave to love.”
“And if I’d chosen otherwise?”
“Men are capricious creatures. How could you ever be sure of him? Now, you paint your world as you do that canvas. As you wish.”
His lip curled. “So it is with mortals always. Love, they say, is what matters more than even life. But it’s wealth and it’s glory that they really crave. Take
it all, then.”
“And you, what will you take?”
“I have already taken it.”
She nodded, switched brushes. “You’ll have to excuse me. I need to concentrate.”
She painted in the warm bath of sunlight while the music soared.
FLYNN hit the door with his shoulder, then gripped the knob and prepared to ram it again. The knob turned smoothly in his hand.
Zoe gave him a jittery smile. “I must’ve loosened it for you.”
“Stay down here.”
“Save your breath,” Dana advised and pushed up behind him.
The light seemed to pulse now, thicker and somehow animate. Moe’s growling became wet snarls.
Flynn saw Malory, standing at the far end of the attic. Relief was like a hammer blow to his heart.
“Malory! Thank God.” He leaped forward, and hit the solid wall of mist.
“It’s some sort of barrier.” He spoke frantically now as he pushed and slammed against it. “She’s trapped in there.”
“I think we’re trapped out here.” Zoe pressed her hands against the mist. “She doesn’t hear us.”
“We have to make her hear us.” Dana looked around for something to batter against the wall. “She must be somewhere else, in her head, the way we were. We have to make her hear us so she’ll snap out of it.”
Moe went wild, leaping up to tear and bite at the wall of mist. His barks echoed like gunshots, and still Malory stood like a statue, her back to them.
“There has to be another way.” Zoe dropped to her knees, pressed her fingers along the mist. “It’s freezing. You can see her trembling from the cold. We have to get her out.”
“Malory!” Helpless rage had Flynn pummeling the wall until his hands bled. “I’m not going to let this happen. You have to hear me. I love you. Damn it, Malory, I love you. You listen to me.”
“Wait!” Dana gripped his shoulder. “She moved. I saw her move. Keep talking to her, Flynn. Just keep talking to her.”
Struggling for calm, he pressed his forehead to the wall. “I love you, Malory. You’ve got to give us a chance to see where we can go with it. I need you with me, so either come out or let me in.”
Malory pursed her lips at the image taking shape on canvas. “Did you hear something?” she asked absently.
“There’s nothing.” Kane smiled at the three mortals on the other side of the mist. “Nothing at all. What are you painting there?”
“Uh-uh-uh.” She wagged a playful finger at him. “I’m temperamental. I don’t like anyone looking at my work until it’s done. My world,” she reminded him and daubed on color. “My rules.”
He gave a single, elegant shrug. “As you wish.”
“Oh, don’t pout. I’m nearly done.” She worked quickly now, all but willing the image from her mind onto the canvas. It was, she thought, her masterpiece. Nothing she’d ever done would be so important.
“Art isn’t just in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “But in that, in the artist, in the subject, in the purpose, and in those who see.”
Her pulse skipped and stumbled, but her hand remained steady and sure. For a timeless moment, she shut everything out of her mind but the colors, the textures, the shapes.
And when she stepped back, her eyes glittered with triumph.
“It’s the finest thing I’ve ever done,” she declared. “Perhaps the finest thing I will ever do. I wonder what you’ll think of it.”
She gestured in invitation.
“Light and shadow,” she said as he stepped toward the easel. “In looking within, and without. From within me to without and onto the canvas. What my heart speaks. I call it The Singing Goddess.”