Mia had already set down the bag she carried, and now walked over to Zack to take the one he’d brought for Nell. “Let’s give our scientist a moment to play, shall we?” She gestured toward Mac. “He’s so happy.”
Then she slipped an arm around Nell’s shoulders. “There’s no need to be nervous, little sister.”
“It just feels a little odd. And I’m still new to all this.”
“Your man stands with you. You come here already more powerful than you were the first time, and more aware of self
.” She shifted her gaze to Zack, studied his face. “Can’t you feel his pride in you? In all that you are? There are some who never have that vital magic. Without it, the light’s never quite bright enough.”
As much to bolster herself as Nell, she gave Nell’s shoulders a little squeeze before going to join Mac.
“She’s so lonely,” Nell confided to Zack. “She doesn’t think it, and she’s so confident, so complete, no one sees it. But there are times she’s so lonely it makes me ache.”
“You’re a good friend, Nell.”
Mia laughed at something Mac said, then spun away from him. It wasn’t quite a dance, Mac would think later. But still somehow balletic. Her long gray dress billowed, then settled as she lifted her arms. And her voice, rich and full, was the music.
“This is our place, the place of the Three. It was conjured from need and knowledge, from hope and despair. From power turned away from death and fear and ignorance. This is our place,” she repeated, “passed down to us, the Three to the Three. For tonight, we are two.”
Mac got slowly to his feet. She was changing in front of him. Her hair was more vivid, her skin sheening like marble. Her already staggering beauty increased, as if some thin veil had been lifted.
He wondered if she used her magic to enhance what she had now, or if she used her gift to dim it at other times. And he cursed the lack of recording equipment.
“We come here to give thanks, to honor those who came before, to offer, and remember. This ground is sacred. You are welcome here, MacAllister Booke, when you’re invited. I won’t insult you by asking for your promise not to come here otherwise.”
“You have it anyway.”
She inclined her head, a regal acknowledgment.
“Zack, you are Nell’s, and this place is hers as much as mine. So it’s yours. You can ask questions if you like,” she added as she bent to open her bag. “I imagine Dr. Booke has most of the answers.”
Because the request was implied, Mac crossed over and stood with the other man. “The candles they’re getting out are ritual candles. I imagine they’ve already been consecrated and inscribed. They’re using silver, representing the goddess. Female power. The symbols on them . . .”
He edged a little closer, squinted. “Ah, yeah. The four elements. Earth, Air, Fire, Water. Mia wouldn’t tell me what ritual they’d do tonight, but from the setup, it’s probably a call to the four elements. An offering of respect,” he continued. “Maybe a request for dream interpretation or clairvoyance. Those are represented by the silver candles, too. It’s an attractive ritual.”
“You’ve seen it before.” Zack watched his wife remove a knife with a curved handle, a goblet, a wooden wand with a crystal tip from her bag.
“Yeah. If the ritual generates enough power, you may feel a little tingle in the air. Even without that, my sensors will pick up the energy increase. They’ll cast a circle and light the candles with wooden matches.”
“Matches?” Zack felt his face split into a grin. “Brother, keep watching.” Amused now, and fascinated by his wife, Zack slipped his hands into his pockets, rocked back on his heels.
Mac scribbled in his notebook as they cast the circle. It was a fairly standard casting, little variation on the other chants and movements he’d observed.
“Too bad it’s cloudy,” he commented as he checked the new reading on his sensor. “We could use more light.”
Even as he spoke, a thin line of silver shimmered over the ground, a perfect circle of light.
“Jeez.” With equal parts shock and fascination, he took a step forward, notebook forgotten.
From the center of the circle, Mia and Nell set the candles alight, with no more than a sweep of arm.
“I thought you’d seen this deal before,” Zack said.
“Not like this. Never like this.” Catching himself ogling, he pulled himself back. And got to work.
“We are two,” Mia said. “And we bring two more. One for love, and one for knowledge. One to be cherished, the other to be sought.” She picked up her wand. “Such things are tools,” she said, conversationally now. “Tools are to be respected.” She opened a small jar and took out a handful of petals. “Iris, for wisdom.”
From another, Nell took a sprig of rosemary. “And this for love.” She took up her ritual knife and used the tip to draw symbols on the earth. “And here we twine them, here we bind them, love and knowledge blessed with hope, within the circle and without, sought and cherished they conquer fear and vanquish doubt.”
“Hearts and minds, open and free,” Mia continued, sprinkling herbs and flowers into a wide bowl. “Only then can we meet our destinies. Because these things we both hold dear, we allow two to witness what we do here. In this place and on this night, we open our ritual to their sight. This I do willingly.”
“As do I,” Nell responded.
“All right, then. Any questions, Professor?”
“I’ve never seen that particular ritual.”
“Just a little precaution. We wouldn’t want you to be taken as Peeping Toms. Consider it a kind of warm-up act for the main performance. Still, you’re not to attempt to enter the circle, or even approach it, once we begin. Understood?”
“Then . . .”
“One more?” Mac lifted a finger.
“Ask,” Mia said with a nod.
“What is this place?”
Mia held out a hand, palm up, fingers gently cupped, as if she held something precious. The air—Mac would have sworn it—pulsed.
“It is,” she said quietly, “the heart.”
Then she lowered her hand. Mia nodded at Nell. “Blessed be, little sister.”
Nell drew in breath, held it as she lifted her arms. “I call to Air, both restless and sweet. On her breast my wings will beat. Rise and turn and blow your breath warm, come stir the wind, but do no harm. I am Air,” she called out as the hanging crystals began to sing, “and she is me. As I will, so mote it be.”
The wind swirled, dancing in the once still night. Mac could smell the sea in it, feel it whisper, then rush over his face and hair.