She was moving forward when the din of footfalls approached, stopped and lingered in front of the shop, causing her to stiffen but only for an instant. Even before snippets of their conversation and the chorus of excited laughter reached her ears, she knew that these people were of no concern. Teenagers in the East Village for the first time, giddy with anticipation. Jasmine tightened her grip on the flashlight, held it straight out in front of her and eased further along inside the storefront.
Getting in had been easy — a stolen and copied key, the Elder probed for the alarm security code. Still, she needed to hurry. If anyone arrived early, she’d be caught.
At first, Jasmine had refused to heed the visions that had driven her to undertake this daring, self-imposed mission. She had tried to shutter the window into the savage garden — a place so dense with violence and brutality that a mere glimpse had pummeled her with fear. She had closed her eyes to the vista of unspeakable, gory horrors, had tried to free herself of the presentiment. But it kept returning, laying its frigid hand upon her. Now, it had a vice-like grip on her heart.
Something evil is coming.
The thought drove her forward with increased resolve. Her unruly burnt sienna hair flogged her face. She was trying to tie it back when the vision came again, intense and without warning: flashes of death and destruction, the metallic taste of blood, the stench of rotting flesh, a sense of inconceivable terror and overpowering despair — all this, and then oblivion.
The cloying scent of residual incense and essential oils drew her attention back to the display-stand in front of her; to the glass case filled with conjuring paraphernalia on her left; to the book-lined shelf against the wall; to the relevance of the moment. Her hands shook, but it was pointless to be nervous. There was no turning back now. The opportunity for that ended the second the door had shut behind her. Anyway, she must press on. The day of reckoning loomed near. This she knew. They had little time left for preparation, for deepening, for harvesting. There’s much gathering to be done, Jasmine thought, and if we don’t collect ourselves quickly, humanity will fall miles apart and many will be lost forever. Of those who perish, only a few will mimic the phoenix, and be reborn to rise from their own ashes more beautiful than before.
She inched steadily forward using her free hand and the feeble glow of the flashlight to guide her, until her fingers made contact with plush, billowing softness. She parted the velvet curtains, passed beneath the archway and stepped through into the smaller back room. Just then something stroked her hair. Jasmine batted it away frantically, but then promptly collected herself with a steadying breath. It’s only a frond from a low hanging fern, nothing more.
What would happen if they found her breaking in like a common thief? They would terminate her, definitely — perhaps literally, if she believed the rumors. Not that it mattered one way or another. What befell her had no importance. She must do this regardless of the consequences. If she did not, the outcome would be far worse than anything the Society could do to her. It would be dire. It would be devastating. And it would beget the downfall of humankind.
Jasmine pointed the flashlight into the blackness before her and in its ray lay what she sought placed atop a stone altar. Keeping the beam trained on it, she walked quickly toward the ebony box. Her fingers traced the intricacy of its pattern. But for its beauty, it seemed insignificant and unassuming, nothing more than an elaborately hand-carved wooden box. Nevertheless, she believed humanity’s fate hinged on what rested inside.
Pushing stray curls away from her face every few seconds, she worked swiftly, yet carefully, so as not to disturb the small clay figurines that surrounded the box. They represented the ancestors and were revered as such. Perspiration dampened her cinnamon face as she tinkered with the lock. It was a simple one and did not take long to open. A moment later she held in her hand a bronze circle formed by the symbol of a snake consuming its own tail — the Serpent of Eternity. This sphere with no beginning or end was the personification of infinite life and continuity. It was also a counterpart to the much larger bas-relief that graced the wall above the altar and the image tattooed between her shoulder blades. All were visually alike, but the one in Jasmine’s hand was primordial and said to possess great power.
But what if the legend was all myth and no fact? What if the icon she held was not a sacrosanct relic capable of protecting against evil? What if it was simply a piece of metal?
Dizzying splinters of doubt caused Jasmine to falter, to think about returning what she’d plundered to its rightful place. But as she made a move to do so, a warm tingling sensation radiated from the palm of her hand, passed through her body and plunged into the depth of her soul.
“A sign from the One Parent,” she whispered, tucking the consecrated talisman securely into the pocket of her anorak. Then she hastened out of the back room, through the store and out into the night. The cadenced slap of boot against linoleum rippled the silence and with each step, icy fingers drummed a staccato rhythm on her spine and the premonition constricted tighter around her heart.
Something evil was within spitting distance.