Chapter 1: Unexpected Visitors
Something in the questioner’s voice raised the hairs on the back of my neck. And then, too, there was something else. A feeling. A whisper. Before I’d even registered the conscious need to react, my hand had fallen into my coat pocket, fingers closed around my wand.
You might think that sounds paranoid, but then, you didn’t know my father. You don’t know what it’s like to be a Rasputin.
I turned slowly. Around me, my students were leaving in a tidal wave, ebbing from the learned shores of “Continental History: 1633 to 1815.” It took me a moment to pick my questioner out from amongst the sea of bodies. But then I saw him—them, I realized—standing like a rock against the flow of free-spirited adolescence. The one in front—he must have been the speaker—was tall, proud, and in retrospect, given the voice, distinctly American. He had broad shoulders, a blue Brooks Brothers suit, and black hair cropped so close that he could have been a 1960s-era astronaut. His power-tie—red-burgundy, of course—and starched white shirt served to accentuate what was already an immensely strong aura of solidity and confidence. The lines in his face proclaimed him to be in his late-forties at least, but as I looked at him, I knew that his body would be chiseled granite beneath his clothes.
So, the United States Army. Or maybe he was a U.S. Marine. Obviously an officer, at least Field grade.
Nothing good could come of this.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” I replied.
The man behind the speaker was similar but younger, bigger, and strikingly blond. In fact, he was enormous. He looked like he should be wrestling bulls on some Texas ranch wearing only a pair of leather gloves and a cowboy hat, not standing in a suit in my lecture hall in a pose vaguely reminiscent of Parade-Rest. And it was his power that I was feeling. I shuddered. He was not the kind of man that any sane magician wants to fight.
Fortunately, he wasn’t in charge. Probably, he was an aide-de-camp or something. A senior captain, at least, or more probably a major. Not exactly the kind of man that you’d normally think of as “muscle,” but then the American Army has taken that whole shock-and-awe thing to heart.
The dark-haired man waited as the last of my students left and then looked briefly around to make sure that the coast was clear. When he was satisfied that we were alone, he took another step forward. His voice dropped so that I had to lean forward to hear him.
“You are Professor Nicholas Rasputin, I presume?”
I caught myself leaning forward and almost shook my head with frustration. Clever. With an effort, I straightened and took what I hoped was an innocuous-looking step back. I needed some space and a chance to get control of the conversation, or thing might not go well. And more to the point, my desk was behind me. I turned to it and picked up some papers, glanced at them briefly, and then stepping around in front of my chair.
I suppressed the urge to activate my wards.
“Is there something I can help you with, Colonel?”
The effect of my words was instantaneous. “But how could you--?”
Behind him, the blonde man reached inside his coat, to the place where most people would keep a pistol in a shoulder rig. “I told you this was a mistake, sir.”
“Easy, Chris,” the Colonel said, laying a hand on his companion’s arm. He looked up at me. “Is there someplace we can talk, professor? I mean, privately?” He took a deep breath and looked very much like a man about to confess to murder. “I’m sure you can guess what this is about.”
“As it happens,” I replied, “I can think of several things. So which is it? Basque Separatists? Or maybe the CIA is looking for an expert on Russo-German relations as it formulates policy in relation to Gazprom?” I shrugged and drew out the moment. “This is Oxford, and my nation is your staunch ally. Whatever it is, I assure you… I am at your service.”
The Colonel frowned. “It’s a little more delicate than that, I’m afraid. But we’ve got a car downstairs if—“
“We’re talking, Colonel. And there’s no one here. Just tell me what you want, and if I can, I’ll be happy to help. But if you think I’m just going to get in the car with you and—“
The blonde one—Chris—cut me off. “This is ridiculous, sir. He’s toying with us.” As he said it, I felt him gather a bit more power to himself. “But I can Compel him, if you’ll authorize it.”
Could he? I was presumably safe behind my wards, but this man, Chris, he was the worst kind of opponent. Young and strong, athletic and dedicated. Confident. Probably gifted, too. There was no telling what he was capable of. In that, he reminded me forcibly of some of my father’s old friends, especially back when Dad was young—back before they transferred him over to the SIS and Special Section. But then, that fact raised more questions than it answered. For starters, when did the American Army start using magic, and who in Hell could possibly have thought that it would be a good idea to teach Army Rangers to be war-wizards?
Unfortunately, I already had a pretty good idea how this was going to end.
So too, apparently, did the Colonel. He put a restraining hand on his companion’s shoulder. “No Chris. I’m sure that if we’re polite, Professor Rasputin will see reason. Or at least that’s how his father always was. Isn’t that right, professor?”
“I’m not my father, Colonel. Either ask me what you came here to ask me, or get the Hell out of my classroom. I don’t like being bullied in my own lecture hall.”
Chris reached back into his coat and pulled out a long metal rod. It wasn’t a wand exactly. It was too big and heavy—and definitely dangerous. “No one’s bullying you, professor,” he said. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Colonel, your friend is about to hurt himself.” I kept my voice calm, but I made sure to keep my eyes focused on Chris’s weapon.
“The Colonel already asked you nicely—“
“The Colonel didn’t ask me anything. And if this is your idea of nice, I’d hate to see ‘persuasive.’”
“I can be very persuasive, professor.”
“Boys,” the Colonel said. But by then it was too late.
“Can you?” I snarled. “You learned a trick or two, and now you think you’re some kind of bad-ass sorcerer? Now you’re ready to draw-down on me, Chris? Come on, then. What’re they teaching in America these days?”“I’m not scared of you,” Chris said, though it was obvious that he was. “Your father’s dead and buried, and from what I hear, you’re not half the man he was. Where’s Durandel? Tell us where the Sword of Kings is, or I swear to God, I’ll—“