Breathe. One, two, three . . .
Slowly my vision cleared and I saw the translucent ward and beyond it the scrolls glowing on their stone pillars. Deep blue currents of magic slid up and down within the glow. What the hell? I looked up. The last of the magic torn from me floated above in a cloud of indigo, slowly merging with the ward.
Damn it. The perimeter wall of the circle wasn’t a ward, although it looked and felt like one. It was an ara, a magic engine. I’d read about them but never encountered one. It lay dormant until some idiot, like me, stepped inside it and donated some magic juice to get it running. It absorbed my magic and turned blue. If I’d been a vampire, the glow would’ve become purple.
It occurred to me that my feet were no longer touching the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the place where the floor used to be and it wasn’t there. I glanced down. The floor had vanished. In its place gaped a black pit and I floated above it, weightless.
Oh, great. Just great.
I opened my hand, revealing the parchment. A feather of light swept it off my palm and dragged it into the air to my eye level.
The magic buckled. Long veins of indigo streaked through the ara and struck at the parchment. It shivered, caught in the spider web of blue tendrils.
It was good that the Temple was shielded by a ward; otherwise anyone with an iota of power would be able to sense these fireworks.
The tendrils clutching the parchment turned a darker blue. The circle picked up the parchment’s magic and now it spread through the glow.
A powerful magic pulse ripped through the ara.
The center of the parchment turned smooth. The worn lines creasing the rough paper vanished. Ink appeared, slowly, like a developing photograph. A magic square formed in the corner. An assortment of geometric figures: spirals, circles, crosses . . .
The magic pulsed again and again, like the toll of a great bell. My whole body hummed with the echo. Hurry up, damn you.
The ragged edges of the parchment grew as the web built onto it. The parchment must’ve been only a small piece of the original scroll, a top left corner, and now the circle was reconstructing it as it once had been.
Words appeared, written in Hebrew. Between them, smaller lines written in English came through. I devastate the land and shatter it to dust,
I crush the cities and turn them into waste,
This was familiar. I knew this.
I crumble mountains and panic their wild beasts,
I churn the sea and hold back its tides,
I squeezed my memory, trying to pinpoint where I’d read this before.
I bring stillness of the tomb to nature’s wild places,
I reap the lives of humankind, none survive,
Come on, come on. Where did it come from? Why was it lodged in my brain? Words kept coming, faster and faster. I scanned the lines.
I bring dark omens and desecrate holy places,
I release demons into sacred dwellings of the gods,
I ravage palaces of kings and send nations into mourning,
I set ablaze the blooms of fields and orchards,
A final phrase ignited at the end of the scroll. It pierced my mind. Cold bit my fingers.
I let evil enter.
The words glared at me. I let evil enter.
Oh no, you don’t. I knew this—this was a part of an ancient Babylonian poem, used as an amulet against a man once worshipped as the god of plagues. He’d brought panic and terror to the ancient world and decimated its people with epidemics. His wrath was chaos, his temper was fire, and ancient Babylonians feared him so much, they were too afraid to build him a temple.
I read all about him when I was ten years old. His name was Erra.
But the Steel Mary was a woman. I was absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure she was a woman. I saw her with my own eyes. A huge six-foot-six woman, but unmistakably female. I had a round hole, and no matter how the universe tried to get me to shove a square peg into it, it wasn’t going to happen.
The tendrils curled back, withdrawing into the circle. The scroll snapped taut and disintegrated into a cloud of glowing sparks. The piece of parchment, once again ancient and blank, landed into my hand. The power of the circle vanished and I dropped to the stone floor.
The door slid open and I saw Peter’s pale face. He wheezed, catching his breath. “We’re under attack.”
I DOUBLE-TIMED IT THROUGH THE PASSAGEWAYS of the synagogue. Peter jogged next to me.
“What do you mean, there is no way to hide the circle’s magic? You said you keep the circle secret.”
He huffed. “The particulars of the circle are secret. Its power isn’t. One doesn’t hide the power of God. The light of knowledge must shine through.”
It shone alright. It shone real well. It shone so well that the Steel Mary had sensed the parchment and sent the cavalry to investigate.
A thud shook the walls of the old building. I dashed up the stairs, through the hallway, and to the front. Several people stood before the door on the stairs.
On the snow-buried lawn a six-foot-tall blood-red man grabbed a golem by the hind leg. He jerked the golem up, swung it, and smashed it on the ground, sending a spray of snow into the air. The golem slid, scrambled up, and galloped away, leaping over the broken body of its twin. All around the Temple crushed clay bodies littered the grounds. At least ten, maybe more. It looked like a war zone and only one side had suffered casualties.
A red aura flared from the man, ruby bright against the white snow. The sun was a pale glow behind the clouds. It was almost five and the night would pounce soon. I didn’t want to fight him in the dark.
“Is he alone?”
“Did he come alone?”
“Yes.” Rabbi Weiss swung into my field of vision. “What was on that parchment? What is he?”
You don’t want to know. “In ancient Babylon there was a god called Erra, also known as Nergal. He was the god of plagues and chaos.” And fear.
Except he wasn’t really a god. I would’ve preferred a god, but Erra was something much, much worse.
Another golem galloped from the back and hurled its spear at the man. The man batted it aside.
“Erra had seven warriors at his disposal.” I flipped Slayer, warming up my wrist. “Darkness, Torch, Beast, Tremor, Gale, Deluge, and Venom. Deluge is dead. The Beast Lord killed him three days ago.”
The golem charged the red man and reared, kicking with its hoofed legs.
I watched the charge. “This would be . . .”
The man stomped. Thunder rolled through the yard, like the sound of a colossal sledgehammer. The ground yawned. He grabbed the golem and thrust it into the forming hole. It sank up to its waist, still kicking. The man swung his huge fist and hammered a punch to the golem’s sternum. The clay chest shattered like an egg shell. The golem’s head fell to the ground.