I lowered the stacks to the floor, pulled up a chair, and emptied the envelope onto the desk's surface. Two photographs and a letter. In the first photo two couples stood side by side. I recognized my father, a hulking, red-haired man, enormous shoulders spread wide, one arm around a woman who had to be my mother. Some children retain memories of their deceased parents, a shadow of a voice, a hint of a scent, an image. I recalled nothing of her, as if she had never existed. My father kept no photographs of her - it must have been too painful for him - and I knew only what he told me. She was pretty, he had said, and she had long blond hair. I stared at the woman in the photograph. She was short and petite. Her features matched her build, well-formed, delicate, but devoid of fragility. She stood assured, with easy, natural poise, clothed in a kind of magical allure and perfectly aware of her power. She was beautiful.
Both he and Greg told me I resembled her, but no matter how hard I studied her image, I could see no resemblance. My features were bolder. My mouth was larger and not pouting by any stretch of the imagination. I did manage to inherit her eye color, dark brown, but my eyes had an odd cut, almond-shaped, slightly elongated. And my skin was a shade darker. If I overloaded on eyeliner and mascara, I could easily pass for a gypsy.
There was more to it than that - my mother's face had feminine gentleness. Mine didn't, at least not when compared to hers. If we were to stand side by side in a room full of people, I wouldn't get a single glance. And if someone had stopped to chat me up, she could've stolen him with a single smile.
Pretty... Yeah. Nice understatement, Dad.
On the other hand, if the same people had to pick one of us to kick a bad guy in the kneecap, I'd get the vote, no problem.
Next to my mother and father, Greg stood by a lovely Asian woman. Anna. His first wife. Unlike my parents, those two stood a little apart, each maintaining a barely perceptible distance as if their inpidualities would strike a spark if they reached for one another. Greg's eyes were mournful.
I put the photograph face down on the desk.
The other photo was of me, about nine or ten years old, ping into a lake from the branches of a giant poplar. I didn't know he had it or even when it was taken.
I read the letter, a few sparse lines on the white piece of paper, a part of Spenser's poem.
"One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey."
Below four words were written in Greg's blood.
The words blazed with red fire. A powerful spasm gripped me. My lungs constricted, the room blurred, and through the dense fog the beating of my heart sounded loud like the toll of a church bell. A tangle of forces swirled around me, catching me in a twisted mess of slippery, elastic power currents. I reached out, and gripped them, and they carried me forth, far into the amalgam of light and sound. The light permeated me and burst within my mind, sending a myriad of sparks through my skin. The blood in my veins luminesced like molten metal.
Lost. Lost in the whirlwind of light.
My mouth opened, struggling to release a word. It wouldn't come and I thought I would die, and then I said it, pouring my power into the weak sound.
The world stopped spinning and I found my place in it. The four words towered before me. I had to say them. I held my power and said the words, willing them, forcing them to become mine.
"Amehe. Tervan. Senehe. Ud."
The flow of power ebbed. I was staring at the white piece of paper. The words were gone and a small puddle of crimson spread across the sheet. I touched it and felt the prickling of magic. My blood. My nose was bleeding.
Pulling a dressing from my pocket, where I always carried some, I pressed it against my nose and leaned back. I'd burn the bandages later. The watch on my wrist said 12:17 p.m. Somehow within those few instants I had lost almost an hour and a half.
The four words of power. Obey, Kill, Protect, and Die. Words so primal, so dangerous, so powerful that they commanded the raw magic itself. Nobody knew how many of them there were, where they came from, or why they held such enormous hold over magic. Even people who had never used magic recognized their meaning and were subject to their power, as if the words were a part of some ancient racial memory we all carried.
It wasn't enough to merely know them; one had to own them. When it came to acquiring power words, there were no second chances. You either conquered them or you died trying, which explained why so few among the magic workers could wield them. Once you made them yours, they belonged to you forever. They had to be wielded with great precision and using them took a chunk of power that left the caster near exhaustion. Greg and my father both warned me that the power words could be resisted, but so far I hadn't had a chance to use them against an opponent that did. They were the last resort, when all else failed.
Now I had six words. Four given to me by Greg and two others: Mine and Release. My father taught them to me long ago. I was twelve and I almost died making them mine. This time it had been too easy.
Maybe the power of the blood grew with age. I wished Greg was alive so I could ask him.
I glanced to the floor. The orange lines of Greg's ward had grown so dim, I could barely see them. They had absorbed everything they could.
The words clamored in my head, shifting and tossing, trying to find their place. Greg's last gift. More precious than anything he could have given me.
Gradually I became aware of someone watching me. I looked up and saw a lean black man in the doorway. He had smiled at me when I passed by his office some three hours earlier.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Tripped a residual ward," I mumbled, the rag still covering my nose. "Happens. I'm okay."
He eyed me. "You sure?"
"Yeah." Okay, I'm an incompetent moron, go away now.
"I brought you Greg's file." He made no move to enter the room. Smart. If I had tripped a trap set up by Greg, it could hit him as well. "Sorry it's so late. One of our knights had it."
I walked to him and took the file from his hands. "Thanks."
"No problem." He regarded me for a moment and walked away.
I rummaged through Greg's desk for a mirror. Every self-respecting mage had a mirror close to hand. Too many spells required it. Greg's was a rectangle set in a plain wooden frame. I caught my image in it and almost dropped the rag. My hair glowed. It radiated a weak burgundy luminescence, which shifted when I ran my hands through it, as if each inpidual strand of hair was coated with fluorescent paint. I shook my head, but the radiance didn't dim. Growling at it didn't help either and I had not the faintest idea how I could get rid of it.