Keeper of Secrets

Science and hard cold facts have always been Cassandra's life. Yes she’s read fairy tales, but that’s all they are, tales. Magic and magical beings have never been proven and she only believes in what science can back up. A graduate student at a prestigious university, she never imagined her life any differently. But one fateful winter day, she learns the world is not as black and white as she’d imagined, and the childhood stories she’d read were real. To keep the world from being swallowed by evil, Cassandra has to trust a man who uses magic as easily as she breathes.

Chapter One

Chapter 1

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The cold wind stung Cassandra's cheeks as she clinched her parka with one hand and her heavy textbooks with the other. A quiet calm hung over the university campus as the dorms set vacant of students who has gone home for winter break. A loud burst of laughter caught her attention, and she glanced up at an open window in the undergraduate dorm as she slowly walked beneath the window. A shadow danced across the window and Cassandra wished for one day where she could forget her responsibilities and let her hair down. It was her own fault she was stuck at school during winter break; she didn’t have to pick such a highly competitive field. She remembered to glance down but it was already to late as her left foot landed on a patch of ice and slipped from under her. She windmilled her arms in an attempt to steady herself but as her books went flying her butt made contact with the cold hard ground.

 “Fuck,” she ground out from between clenched teeth. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Excuse me miss.” A deep voice from somewhere above her made her close her eyes and wish she were anywhere else. “Can I help you up?”

“No I’m fine.” She kept her head down. There was no way that sexy voice could belong to anyone but a Greek god come to life. “When I catch my breath, I’ll climb to my feet.”

“Ok, but if you stay there too long, you’ll catch a cold.”

She grunted as she ignored the hand the man held out and climbed to her feet.  “It would seem all my common sense has left the building.” She bent to pick up her books but he beat her too it and it wasn’t until he stood back up that she got her first real look. The man before her was no Greek god. If he stood next to Zeus, he would outshine the king of the gods. He was a little over a foot above her five ten and had the darkest skin she’d ever seen. His smile showed off white teeth, and his eyes lit up with his mirth.

“We both must have lost it, because here we are out in the cold when everyone else is holed up warm somewhere.” He pointed up at the open window. "I was thinking that maybe I should join them in their marry making."

“I have graduate work I need to do, what’s your excuse?” She asked mentally kicking herself for asking such a cliché question. She had never been good at talking to guys and as she got older she didn't have time to figure them out. The man standing in front her had her rethinking her decision.

“I’m meeting an old friend who called asking for my help.” He nodded toward the science building. "Shall we?"

"How did you know that's where I was going?" Cassandra asked as she walked along beside him. She was careful to keep her eyes on the ground so she wouldn’t embarrass herself again.

"I figure that's the only building that seems to be in use. Unless," he chuckled, "you are heading to the math building."

"What you don't think I could be a mathematician?"

"No I don't. You seem more like a woman who wants to be challenged not have a formula to follow."

"You may be right." Cassandra said.

"Watch your step."

She was surprised when she stopped and saw they stood in front of the science building. She was usually such a nervous wreck around the opposite sex that she was hyper aware of her surroundings. “Who are you here to see? The only one here during winter break is Professor Humburg. Well in the science building, anyway.”

“Yes, dear old Professor Humburg.” The man smiled again, showing off his dimples. “Our families have worked closely together for years. He called me last night with a discovery he believes I would be interested in.”

“I don’t remember him mentioning anything.” Cassandra said. “Usually, if something comes in from a dig I catalog it.”

“Are you versed in African lore?” he asked.

“It’s my main area of expertise,” she boasted. If there was one thing she was proud of, it was her achievements in the academic world. She hoped to one day be the youngest woman to preside over her own archaeological dig. “I am also an expert in ancient Greece & Russia. I have no idea why I picked Russia, except my grandmother on my father's side is half Russian. She was so happy when I told her.”

“Such talent. I’m impressed.” He held up a hand to stop her from responding. “That came out wrong. Not many people, male or female, try to understand the workings of the ancient world anymore. They believe we’ve found everything we can, and its time to look to the future.”

"I believe that the ignorance of people are causing us to repeat many of the mistakes from the pass." Cassandra stated. "Even some of the most talented archeologist have trouble understanding how ancient people and conflicts affect us today. They look at the treasure they find as just that, treasures. I strive to understand the undercurrent of everything past civilizations did."

"My thoughts exactly." He opened the door to the science building and warm air rushed out to meet them. "Please, ladies first."

"Thank you." As she passed him she noticed he was still carrying her books. "I'm so sorry," she reaches for them but he shakes his head.

"This weight?" He gave her a pained look. "I will send you the bill from my doctor."

"I'm a graduate student, I will put it on the list of things I need to pay for." Cassandra laughed. “The professor is on the seventh floor.”

"I miss this smell." The man took a deep breath.

"What smell?" Cassandra just smelled disinfect and as always her nose twitched.

"The smell of higher learning."

The doors to the elevator opened and they rode up in comfortable silence. Cassandra exited first. “He should be in his office, unless he’s already entered the artifact room. It's this way.”

They found the professor bent over his desk with his glasses dangerously close to falling off the end of his nose. Cassandra had fallen in love with the grandfatherly professor, the first time she’d sat in his freshmen class, six years ago. He always wore the same brown tweed jacket and black pants. Even his brown penny loafers looked like the same ones he’d had for years. His gray hair was now thinning and sticking out in every direction like a mad scientist. He was so unkempt, Cassandra always wondered if he just slept in his office and never went home.

“Professor, someone’s here to see you.” She looked back over her shoulder. “I'm sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

“I'm James.” He winked, sending shockwaves of awareness down her spine. “I guess we didn’t get around to that part.”

“I was trying to gather my dignity.” Cassandra was happy her darker skin hid the blush staining her cheeks. “I'm Cassandra.”

James held out his hand, and as she grasped it, a spark ran from his fingers up her arm, and her eyes jumped to his face. He smiled.

“I can see we have a visitor, young lady.” Humburg stood and started around his desk, breaking the spell they were under. “James, it’s been a long time.”

“Yes, it has.” James let go of Cassandra hand and grasped the professor’s. “Too long.”

“Time does seem to get away from me. More so now that I’m in my old age.” He turned and grabbed keys off his desk. “Something came from a dig last week, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it is." He jiggled the keys as he tried to find the right one.  "There's something off about this artifact, and I didn't want too many people knowing about it." He glanced up at Cassandra. "This is going to blow your mind, young lady."

She shrugged out of her jacket and laid it over a chair. She was one of the most knowledgeable graduate students at her school, and if something had come in where an outsider needed to be called, it had to be important. Maybe, if she played her cards right, this would cement her place in the archeological field. So many jobs would open, and a grant or two.

“We have to hurry. I have another appointment this morning.” Professor Humburg shuffled toward the door of the artifact room. "A new graduate student, who starts in the fall, is coming to check out the Egyptian artifacts. He promises to be as talented as you Cassandra."

"I would hope I’m not the only talent in the new generation." Cassandra stated. "When do I get to met this student?"

"If he passes my inspection and can prove he actually knows what he's talking about, soon." The professor stopped in front of a set of heavy doors and jiggled the keys again before he found the one he was looking for and inserted it into the lock.

Cassandra's heart sped up as a click sounded and the professor pushed open the doors. She loved this room and entered as often as she was allowed. Each piece of pottery, metal and rock had a story to tell. Some were so old they predated dinosaurs while others had been crafted in the middle ages. No matter what their history was, she loved them each equally.

"Cassandra would you like to join us in the room?" The professor said over his shoulder as he walked further into the room.

Cassandra felt a blush stain her cheeks as she nodded. "Yes, sorry." She glanced at James who was standing next to the professor and gave a small shrugged. "This room does this to me every time."

“Here it is.” Humburg waved them over to a table laden with artifacts in different stages of restoration. “I know you’ve always been interested in African lore and mirrors, just like your father.” The professor glanced at James as he spoke. “An unbroken mirror came in from the coast of Asia. It was dated from before the Great Wall, but it wasn’t with other artifacts from that time. Cassandra I know you may think I passed you over but I want to be sure it's not from Asia, which isn't one of your areas of expertise."

"Not yet," Cassandra confirmed, feeling a little better about being left in the dark.

"There is something strange about mirror, if you can all it that, it has no reflection."

“No reflection, you say.” Cassandra could hear the tension in James’ voice and glanced at him. He brow was lowered and he cocked his head to the side. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’ve observed the mirror but haven’t touched it.” The professor pulled a black cloth off a small mirror. “The man who touched it went mad and killed himself a few days later. After that, it was sent to me, and I haven’t told anyone that it’s here. I don't believe in curses but this mirror just seems wrong.”

Cassandra sucked in a deep breath and stared in wonder at the beautiful work of art in front of her. The frame was twisted dark wood with figures carved at one-inch intervals. Each one reached out to the one above it completing a dance of sorts. The oval mirror, itself, was made from a material that looked like modern mirrors, but that was impossible. When she leaned over it, no reflection shown back at her. Of it's own accord her right hand reached out, but James grabbed her wrist.

“I wouldn’t touch it if I were you,” he said.

She blinked up at him and felt as if a fog was lifting. “Why not? It’s so pretty.”

“If this mirror is what I think it is, evil lives within.” James covered the mirror.

"This does look like a mirror but without a reflection it could have been used for any number of things." Cassandra looked between James and the professor. "Maybe a picture hung in it?"

"It's a mirror, trust me." James laid the cloth back over it. “Where did you say it was found, exactly?”

"Outside a small village in the mountains, which was odd." The professor frowned. “The work is obviously from early Africa and during that time not many traveled great distances.”

“I’ll need to take it back to my family home to be sure but this may be an artifact that has been lost for generations. I—”

The heavy doors blew off their hinges and went flying toward the back of the room. Cassandra gasped as the doors knocked over shelves of priceless artifacts, and the sound of breaking glass, pottery and rolling rocks filled the air. Two heavily armed men with wicked looking guns in their hands stood in the doorway. They quickly scanned the room, and when their eyes landed on James, Professor Humburg and Cassandra, she could feel the hatred. James grabbed her by the upper arm and pulled her behind him.

"Cassandra." The professor pressed something into her hand. "Whatever happens don't drop this and don't touch it without the cloth. Follow James, and he will explain everything."

“But—“ Cassandra sucked in a breath as he reached under the table and pulled out a shotgun. “Professor?”

"You can all continue to live if you hand over the mirror little girl." The tallest of the two promised.

Cassandra went to move around James but he kept pace with her. “Over my dead body,” James said.

“That can be arranged.”

"Please, let's talk about this." Humburg moved to stand beside James. "I'm sure we can come to some type of understanding."

"I have already stated our request." The man motioned with his gun. "Now have the woman hand over mirror."

"Go my friend." The professor gripped his gun in both hands. "I will hold them off."

 “Thank you, old friend.” James reached a hand behind him and grabbed one of her wrists. “Hold on to me, and don’t let go of me or the mirror.”

Cassandra gripped the mirror tighter and nodded. She expected him to turn and run, but instead, he started to chant in a language she’d never heard before. In fear, she tried to run, but whatever he was doing had her frozen in place. All she could do was hold on to him and pray the end came quickly.

The bottom of her stomach dropped, and her vision tunneled before snapping back into focus. She watched as the men ran toward them in slow motion before her eyes closed, of their own accord, and she swallowed hard hoping her breakfast would stay down.

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© 2019 by PAULINA WOODS.