“If I were you,” he said over his shoulder. “I would try to find out how I was cursed in the first place.”
“We did!” I protested. “We went all over, asking.”
“Maybe it was lifted? Maybe the person who spoke it died? Maybe it was all a fake? You’ll never know why or how unless you look.”
He slid into his seat. “Good-bye, Becca.”
I watched him pull out, the sun flashing of his car windows as he pulled up and out of the garage. I tried not to feel like that good-bye was forever.
It apparently was.
Dad came home in a temper.
“Strenton quit!” he snarled at Mom and me as we made dinner.
“What?” she demanded. I set down my colander of potatoes carefully.
“He just up and quit! Seven years, and he just takes off!” Dad swore then, something he never did, and slammed his keys down on the counter. “Didn’t even want his paycheck!” Dad threw himself into a chair at the table and scowled at the wood top.
“Why?” I hazarded.
“How should I know?” Dad growled.
Mom went to console him, asking questions. I eased out of the kitchen unnoticed.
His house was dark, sitting silent on the rolling hills. I left the truck headlights on and rummaged around in the toolbox until I found a flashlight.
It took me a few minutes to work up my courage, but I finally reached out and tried the knob on his front door. It was unlocked.
“Hello?” I called, just in case. I didn’t want to be blasted or turned into a rabbit or something, should I surprise him.
My voice bounced back at me hollowly. I felt along the wall until I found a switch.
The light was warm and yellow, just like normal lights. But the house was empty. No furniture. Nothing. I checked each room carefully, looking in the cupboards and under the sinks. I went upstairs, wincing at every creak.
I swung open a door with a stiff finger, shining my flashlight in every corner before I flipped on the light.
A small stack of books sat in the middle of the room, the dust on the floor showing that a bed had sat there not long ago. I crossed to it and sank to my knees.
A piece of paper had been tucked under the cover of the topmost book. I flipped it open.
Give these to Mule. He knows what to do.
I’m going to see what I can do about your nightmare. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.
I’m serious about you going to find out about your curse. You should go on a Quest. Ask Walowitz about it.
I am sorry I never told you. But I didn’t think you’d understand.
Tell your dad I’m sorry.
I smoothed the paper out, reading it again. He knew I’d come. How?
I flipped through the pages of the books, my nose itching as dust rose from them. They looked old and crumbly, like they had been stuffed in a box and forgotten. They made no sense to me, but I gathered them up carefully. A second piece of paper fluttered down as I picked them up.
I stopped and opened it, too.
If they give you any trouble, show them this.
Below was a complicated drawing, all swirling lines and symbols. It made my head ache to look at it. I tucked it into my pocket and left, shutting off the lights behind me.
I cried all the way home.
“Hey, Kevin, it’s me, Becca.”
“Hey!” He sounded surprised and pleased. I blushed on my end of the line and went on.
“Jeff is gone.”
“How do you know?” I demanded.
“The GF illuminations went all green, showing that there was decrease in tri-radiation-”
“Okay, okay, okay.” I stopped him before he could get some momentum. “He left some books for Mule.”
“Magic ones. And he said I should go on a Quest. With a capital Q.”
“You saw him before he left?”
“No, he…” I hesitated, not wanting to explain why I went to his house. I didn’t know myself. “He left me a note.”
“A Quest.” Kevin mused. “He said that?”
“To find out why I was cursed and how and by who.”
“Whom.” He corrected. I sneered, but it was wasted as he wasn’t actually present. “So, are you going to go?”
I choked. “What?”
“I don’t even know what that means!”
“A Quest is just what you think. You go questing.”
“Thanks,” I snapped at him. “I feel so much better.”
“I mean, it is really dangerous and-”
“Can I come over?”
“Are you at the CMR?”
“What’s the address?”
He hesitated. “Becca, I don’t think-”
“What is it?”
He sighed. “Okay.” He listed off the directions.
“Okay, I’ll see you in a bit.”
I hung up, not caring how grumpy he sounded. He was going to help me or I was going to throttle him until he did.
Kevin’s place was a nice enough apartment in the residential area uptown from the CMR. I rode the elevator up, the books heavy in my arms.
Kevin answered his door after a few minutes, still looking grumpy. Or maybe embarrassed.
“Here are the books Jeff left.” I said without preamble, dumping them in his arms. He looked at the topmost title and yelped, snatching his hands away. They banged to the floor, making a poof of dust.
“What?” I demanded as he stared at them, his eyes wide.
“He left these for you?” Kevin asked breathlessly.
“For Mule.” I corrected, bending and gathering them up. “Why?”
He eyed them like they might bite. “They’re…rare.”
“Then why’d you drop them on the floor?”
“Forbidden? By who? Whom?” I added before he could.
“By the Council.”
I rolled my eyes. “Then why did Jeff have them?”
“How should I know?” he demanded. “I’m not a Black!”
I frowned at him. “Aren’t we racist?”
“No! Black magic!”
“And Jeff is?” He was making no sense.
“I didn’t think so, but…” He reached out and touched a book with a shaking finger. “But, if he has these…”
“Just because he has them doesn’t mean he uses them.” I snapped, suddenly angry. “I have a car, but I don’t go running people over with it.”
Kevin swallowed. “Just…just don’t get too…familiar with them.”
“Bring them here.” He led me in, shutting and locking the door behind me. “Put them on this.” He swept the dining table clear of papers and things, taking a broken pencil and drawing a circle on the wood. I set them in the center and he breathed a sigh of relief. He shuddered suddenly, making a face.
“Ugh.” He grunted, rubbing his hands on his pants. “They feel awful.”
“Right.” I said slowly. “Anyway, about this quest?”
Kevin suddenly fixed me with a glare. “Why did he run?”
“Run?” I demanded. “How should I know?”
“What did he tell you?”
“Nothing!” I protested. I pulled his note from my pocket. “This is all I know.”
Kevin read it, scowling. “Did he leave anything else?”
“This.” I pulled out the second piece of paper. He stared at it too, then carefully set it next to the pile of books. He stood and looked at the pile, his brow furrowed.
He dragged his hands through his hair, letting out a long breath. He sent me a quick look, his face red. Was it ever not, I wondered.
“What’s between you and him?” Kevin asked.
“What?” I went beet red, too. I could feel it.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Nothing.” I said. “Nothing, I swear. I’ve seen him like five times my entire life.”
He grunted. “That,” he pointed. I noticed he kept his finger outside the circle. “Is a…shield, of a sort. It will protect you, should…bad people come calling.”
“What sort of bad people?”
“Are they bad? I thought they governed magic or something.”
“They’re not bad, but they’re not…good. They are just.”
“No. Just. As in justice. Law. Balance. You’ll need it if you’re caught with those books.” His mouth twisted. “What Strenton was doing with them, I don’t know. Nor do I want to.”
I shivered. It did not sound like anything I wanted to get involved in. “What’s that paper say?” I asked, looking at the design from the corner of my eye.
Jeff cleared his throat. “He…claimed you. It says you belong to him.”
He was lucky to be gone, otherwise I would have beat the crap out of him. “Excuse me?” I snarled, outraged.
“Or that you’re under his protection.” Kevin added hastily. “That he is looking out for you, shielding you.”
I scowled. “Anything else I should know?”
“No.” He said. “Tell me more about your curse.”
“I don’t know anything about my stupid curse!” I burst out. “I’m not magic. I didn’t die when I was supposed to. I’m a meta-healer. That’s all I know.”
He didn’t look convinced. “Then why did the PF not crush you to death?”
I cringed. I’d been trying to forget that, hoping everyone else did too in the commotion. “Maybe I got lucky?” I said. He glared at me and I stuck out my tongue at him. “I don’t know. Tell me about this questing thing.”
“Alright,” he growled. “Come on.” He went through a dark doorway. I followed. “And don’t touch anything.”
A light flicked on. I gasped. I couldn’t help it.
It was one long room, paneled in dark wood. Charts and paper hung from the walls, chalkboards covered with writing, diagrams beautiful just for themselves and for their intended purpose. Stacks of books were piled everywhere, tables covered with bottles and beakers and things.
But the most amazing part was the models. Sparkling mobiles that spun and flashed all over the room, their orbs floating in seemingly random circles, but always centered around each other. And really floating, no strings or wires or anything.
“Don’t touch!” Kevin’s fingers closed over mine as I put a hand up to see if one shimmering ball was solid or energy like it looked.
“What is it?” I asked, staring at it.
He said a whole bunch of words that I recognized, but that made no sense when strung together. “Never mind.” I interrupted finally. Then I realized we were still holding hands. I cleared my throat and drew mine back.
“Over here.” He said stiffly. He led me to a pair of chairs tucked back into one corner. He sat with a thump and stared at me. I stared back.
“Your eyes are brown.” He said finally.
He grunted and looked away. “So, tell me again about this curse.”
I threw up my hands. “Look, all I know is what Dr. Z and Mule told me. I don’t know anything.”
He nodded, his eyes closed. He looked tired. I wondered how many hours he’d spent in here, working on whatever magic-like things he did in his free time, researching, reading.
“Strenton wants you to go on a Quest.” He said at last, his voice quiet.
“Apparently. But my parents already went around everywhere asking questions.”
Kevin shook his head. “That’s not the same. A Quest…” he looked uneasy now. “A Quest is something else entirely.”
“Would I have to find a magic sword or something?”
He cracked his eyes to peer at me. “What?”
“Usually,” I explained. “Someone goes on a Quest to find a jewel or the shards of a crystal or something. That’s what they told us in school.”
He looked disgusted. “I guess, if that’s what you’re looking for, you could Quest for it. But why? You could just buy something like that.”
I flopped down in a chair and scowled. “Fine. I’ll shut my face and you can start explaining.”
He smiled. “Yes, ma’am.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. I noticed the papers lying on the little table next to him started to flutter around. I looked away.
“A Quest,” he said, “Is a certain way to look for something. I can scry, as you would call it, if I’m looking for a certain thing or person.”
“Could you find Jeff?” I asked, eagerly.
He winced. “Absolutely not. He’d blast me, even if I could find him. Men like him don’t like to be spied on.” He looked sick at the thought and shuddered. “Questing is deeper than that. It is for when you don’t know what you’re looking for, or for answers, instead of a thing or something so powerful that its very nature makes it unobtainable any other way.”
“Like?” I prompted. This sounded interesting.
“Like…” he waved a hand and the papers shifted all around. “I don’t know, the Crown of the Last King, or the White Blade of Ieberon.”
“The point is,” he said firmly. “Is when you Quest, you devote yourself to the searching.”
“No.” He said again, his oddly clear blue eyes on mine. “There is a spell, you would call it. It takes root within, looks for what you want, what you need so desperately. It drives you, propels you to it. It has been described as if you were a blood hound. The thing you want pulls at you, whispers to you. And it won’t stop until you find it. You can’t remove the speaking. You can’t fight it. You have to keep looking, until you find it or die.”
The mobiles were still, hovering in place. The air felt close, hot. Kevin blinked and the room was full of flashing light again.
“Sorry.” He said with a smile. “I didn’t mean to mesmerize you.”
I gasped, blinking hard. “What?”
He laughed. “Sorry.” He said again. “So, if Strenton wants you to go on a Quest, then he thinks there is a chance of you finding what it is you want.”
“How can I find something if I don’t even know what it is?”
“That is the danger of Questing. You may think you know what you want, but the speaking finds out what is in your heart and sends you after that. Even if it doesn’t exist.”
I shivered, drawing my knees up to my chest. I felt like things were watching me from under the shelves and tables, little eyes, waiting for me to move, to make a decision.
“And if it doesn’t exist?”
“Then you never stop looking. Ever.”
“Why would he want me to go?” My voice sounded very small and meek.
Kevin shook his head. “I don’t know. It may be as simple as finding the person who cursed you. If they’re dead, it will most likely take you to their grave or their successor. If it was an event, then maybe the key people involved. Hundreds of years of research have been devoted to Questing. No one understands it. I don’t understand it. I like to stick to hard science and measur-”
“Will you come with me?”
He started. “Will I what?”
“Will you come with me?”
“Becca!” he exclaimed.
I sat up straight, my cheeks hot. I was panting, eager, like the very idea of finding what was wrong with me had already taken root, already put a drive in me, a need. “Will you come? I need to go. I need to find out what happened.”
“Becca, I really-”
“Please, Kevin. I don’t understand any of this. I’m not magic. I never was. I don’t know what’s going on. I need help. Please.”
He let out a long breath, his face pale. “Are you sure you’re not magic?”
“Nothing.” He pressed his hands into his face. “Yes.” He said after about a minute of me holding my breath. “But I won’t take the speaking. It has to be you.”
“I understand.” It made sense: my curse, my Quest.
“And I can’t…I can’t promise I’ll stay with you, if it takes years.”
“Okay.” He repeated. He lifted his head and glared at me. “I hate you.”
I grinned. “No, you don’t.”
He grinned, too. “No, I don’t.”
That’s when I decided I should leave. I stood and coughed a few times, collecting my thoughts.
“I need to go home.” I said lamely. “I’ll…I’ll call you.”
“Okay.” He was looking at his fingers very intently.
I left, dodging floating spheres.
Back in the dining room, I paused by the table. With careful fingers, I reached for the piece of paper, the ‘shield.’ I snatched it back, jumping away from the books sitting very boringly on the wood. Tucking it into my pocket, I went out and went home.