“Jordan, perhaps you can elucidate to the class how the emergence of powered individuals has disturbed the foundation and premise of the law and structure of the United States?”
Rabbi Kirov was picking on me again. When I had picked up my schedule I’d discovered he had wedged his own class onto the list: The Ethics of Super-powered Beings. Now we were at the end of the second week and he already had established to everyone that I was some sort of teacher’s pet. He kept selecting me non-stop to answer questions or to reiterate the passages in the assigned reading texts. It had gotten out of hand, and I was so going to yell at him at our private magic practice session come Monday.
Emitting a moan and trying to ignore the quiet snickers of my classmates, I straightened from a slouched posture resulting from the uncomfortable hard wood and plastic school desks. They were a far cry from the cozy and plush leather computer desk chairs I (and my posterior) had gotten used to at proper places of business while plugging away at writing software. Clearly the school administration believed that strengthening our characters involved strict conditioning for our rear ends.
Kirov waited patiently with an amused smile and there was no getting out of it. “Right, uh, the foundation and premise of the law and structure of the United States…” My mind tried to form something coherent as it replayed what he had been talking about, and I had a sneaking suspicion that this time the rabbi picked on me because my attention had drifted away again. Oops. To the side from a pair of speakers could be heard Penelope, my heat-sensitive friend teleconferencing in from Hawthorne, as she giggled into her microphone.
I plowed onward. “Well, given that even in our Declaration of Independence it states a basis on ‘all men being created equal’, the notion that all citizens should therefore be equal under the law takes a hit when the premise is directly proven false.”
The rabbi nodded for me to continue. So far so good.
“I mean, historically rulers gained their power due to being the strongest with a sword or having the biggest group of thugs willing to follow their stomping about. But beginning with inventions like the crossbow, and later the musket and rifle, the playing field between individuals became more level: a peasant could take out a knight given a week or so of simple training. Thus the power balance between royalty and subjects shifted towards the people - which over the course of time culminated in the thinking of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, in the opinions of many, the Second Amendment provides the people the right to arm themselves with the implements of their equality under the assumption that it would keep the citizens on par with the government in terms of such power and thus curtail governmental abuse and tyranny.”
I paused for a second, but he didn’t interrupt.
“Thing is,” I continued, “that power balance went out of whack with the advances of technology: machine guns, tanks, missiles, and of course, atomic weaponry. The military of the state once again held overwhelming superiority. This was kept in check by virtue of the members of that military also being citizens and the careful organized control by the military collective over the tools of such greater destruction and the designed constitutional subservience of the military to civilian leadership. But the emergence of super-powered beings, independent of the military, greatly threatened the underlying premises. Here were individuals with the potential for tremendously more power than their fellow citizens, and in truth they could threaten the agents of the citizenry: the police, and in emergencies, the military itself. So should they remain ‘equal’ under the law when the agents of the law might be powerless against them? Or do they require regulating under a stricter system to keep them in check before the previous pattern of history with a ruling class holding all the personal power came to repeat itself, except this time the royals would be metas or mutants and society would have a class division based not on subjective prejudices but measurable traits.”
Yeah, the kids in the class were openly staring at me now. I decided I should shut up. Everyone pretty much hated the MCO and while I didn’t like them either, the issues prompting their existence were extremely thorny and difficult.
“Ahem. Yes, an excellent summary,” Rabbi Kirov said. “As an assignment for the weekend, write a three to five page essay on either the effects of the 1976 Starbright Registration Act which formed the basis of the United State’s agreement with the Mutant Commission Office or how the continual rise of technology - gadgeteer or ‘normal’, not devisor tech - has been used to give civilian law enforcement the capacity to try and restore ‘equality’ between those with powers and the civilian populace.”
Everyone groaned, including me. While it wouldn’t take that long to type something up, it was one more thing on the pile. As it was most of Saturday was booked solid with first the Defensive Driving course, and then Danielle had insisted I join her for lunch before we spend the afternoon working on my magic spell-casting. While she had an instinctive knack for spell-work and Tamara had spent many evenings trying to get me to understand how she did things as a witch, I hadn’t made any progress. Lighting even a single candle properly was still beyond my ability and Danielle was determined to help come Hell or high water.
Sunday was set to be clobbered with tutoring Tamara (and a couple other students) for their algebra quiz on Monday, and Jenna had told me to leave the afternoon free. I had a suspicion she and Brendan were still hoping to recruit me to their combat team.
And of course tonight I had Ballroom Dancing. Yep, I got stuck with that too. Cecilia Rogers had conspired with Natalie to force me into her class to ‘ease the transition into being a proper young lady’. Ugh. At least I got to see Zap there - he’d also been railroaded into it to help him get used to being in human form again. Apparently he’d fallen down a few times from forgetting he couldn’t just take off into the air like he had when stuck as a hawk. That must’ve been awkward.
The rabbi remained nonplussed by the sounds of misery from students mentally rearranging their weekends to accommodate the last-minute assignment. “This is all the time we have for today. Remember to double-space or it goes into the sacred sepulcher of wasted efforts!”
Everyone quickly shoved notebooks and school laptops into bags, hopping up as a disorganized mob rushing out the door.
“Jordan, a moment if you would, yes?” Kirov caught me as I was about to escape to the freedom of the hallway with the other inmates.
Quickly rolling my eyes so he wouldn’t see, I turned around. “Yeah?”
“Your attention wandered elsewhere today. Is there something on your mind?” The rabbi absently removed his glasses to clean them on his tie.
“No, well… yeah.” I sighed, stepping back into the classroom by the cluttered teacher’s desk so everyone else could get past. “I guess a number of things.”
“Care to talk about them? Perhaps I can help.” Returning the frames to their impressive perch, he frowned - somehow he’d managed to smudge them even worse. He fumbled with a pocket for a handkerchief to try instead while I stammered out a reply.
“Well, other than the total weirdness of being back in school and getting treated like a kid again, plus the frustrations I’ve had with the magical studies and practice, I guess there are two things that are bugging me.”
Scholarly hands paused what they were doing as he gave his full attention. One thing I really liked about the rabbi - no matter how absent minded he could be, he truly cared. The man had a heart the size of Texas.
“Please, go on,” he encouraged.
“Nick Wright hasn’t contacted me and it’s been, what, over four weeks? Natalie still won’t tell me anything, and Director Goodman only responds to emails with a perfunctory notice that if I need to know I’ll be informed.”
“Hmm. As I understand, Mr. Wright is not entirely reliable - at least according to my brother Gregory. And the second item you mentioned?”
“Oh, uh…” I blushed. “It’s kinda embarrassing.”
He offered a reassuring smile. “I only wish to be of assistance.”
I stared down at my uniform shoes, or as Jenna called them, ‘Mary Jane’s’. Apparently that’s the style. Huh, they had some mud stuck on the tips. When did that happen?
Ah hell. Making a face I looked back up at him. “I worked it out: I’ve been a girl for forty-five days now.” I stopped. How the hell was I going to explain this to him?
“Does that bother you?” He was puzzled. Not surprising, as I’d been telling him that the whole gender thing hadn’t been much of an issue lately. Which was true, I had too many other things to worry about.
“Not itself, no. Just, uh… certain things should have happened by now. But they haven’t.” It was raining against the windows again. Oh yeah, it had rained before dawn last night too. Hence muddy feet.
I gave up. “My period, okay?” I blurted loudly right as a freshman entered the room for the next class. The poor guy almost tripped and looked lost as to whether he should run out or pretend he hadn’t heard anything.
Rabbi Kirov still didn’t get it.
“Jesus, do I need to paint you a picture?” I leaned over to his ear and gave a graphic description of what the hell I meant.
He paled. “Ah. I see!”
“Yeah.” I nodded, crossing arms over my stomach protectively.
“How long did you say it hasn’t happened?”
He fumbled for his briefcase, fished out his teacher’s ticket book, and hastily scribbled onto the top slip. “Here.” He handed it to me.
“What’s this for?” I tried to read the writing, but naturally it was illegible. My full name was probably there in the mess somewhere.
“Whatever your next class is, you’re excused. You are to go to Doyle for an examination.”
“Sensei Ito is not going to like me missing class.”
“I will notify him directly. This is not negotiable, Ms. Emry’s. Your health is paramount.”
I groaned, even louder than I had over being assigned the essay.
“Move along, Jordan. This cannot wait. And Mr. Hansen,” the rabbi said over my shoulder to the dude who had taken a seat all the way in the back of the room, “You are not to repeat what you overheard here, do you understand? It is private information.”
“Uh, yes sir?” I could hear the grin in the guy’s voice. I didn’t even need to look.
Shaking my head, I hurried out of the room. Didn’t the rabbi know that by giving such an admonishment he all but guaranteed the entire student body would be full of rumors by dinner? Argh!
At least the doctor at Doyle warmed up the invasive salad spoons before applying them to my, uh, sensitive areas. The hospital that had first examined me weeks ago hadn’t been so considerate.
I still didn’t enjoy the experience.
The doc ordered another set of blood work and also an ultrasound. And nope, she wouldn’t tell me anything. She just kept asking how many days I’d been a girl over and over as if hoping I’d trip up and admit that oh, oops my bad, it was only last week that my outtie became an innie! Yeah, like my medical file here didn’t already have all the details spelled out in triplicate.
She did make an attempt of consoling the patient with phrases like, ‘it could be a hormonal delay, and thus nothing to worry about’ and ‘recent transformees start their cycles differently’.
Nope, not comforting.
The ultrasound tech was a younger guy who pretended he didn’t speak any English. Either that or he had the music on his headphones turned up so loud he couldn’t hear me, but I liked the initial theory.
When an entirely different lab-coated woman came in to wheel me and the gurney I was stuck on into an elevator to the basement for ‘further testing’, I became concerned. Also, wow did she wear too much perfume. Urk!
The lady with the overpowering scent of an entire garden’s worth of flowers mushed into a bowl of vodka slid the gurney and its trapped passenger into a weird silver tube lined with white LEDs.
“Is this some kind of MRI?” I asked, thinking it odd to be fed into the contraption feet first.
She grunted as if offended by the notion. “No, this is a custom scanner of mine, of superb quality. And don’t worry, most lab subjects have no side effects of any note.”
Say what? “Side effects?” Wait - did she also say ‘lab subjects’?
The lady made a ‘tut tut’ sound with her tongue. “Try not to move.” She closed the tube behind me, as if having loaded a fresh torpedo into a submarine’s launch tube.
There was a loud ‘kachunk’ of a locking mechanism and the lights went out.
Before I could even say ‘what in tarnation’, my insides did a triple somersault and all senses went berserk.
Sound was sight, smell was touch, and taste was reporting the utter loss of balance. Up was yellow, the darkness was deafening, and there was no way to scream.
A voice painted a word using trombones and rough sandpaper. The flavor of an arrow offered guidance, and somehow I followed.
The scent of crashing thunder mixed with the direction of a breeze and I could see the coldness of a large stone.
My stone. The one from my dreams.
Like putting a puzzle together piece by piece, each sensory input needed to be reassembled and reassigned. But the pattern was familiar: ocean and beach, cliff and sky. Hands on liquid shoulders formed an essence which cut through the haywire sensations.
They steadied me, those hands, and the scene came into focus.
“I am here. But you are not, not entirely.”
We were standing upon that stone, with him behind. The sights and senses had become solid, but looking down I was not. My body - now dressed in casual t-shirt and jeans - kept flickering and pulsating like seeing an image in a constantly warping fun-house mirror.
“Keep your eyes on the ocean, or your perceptions may have further issues.” His voice was calm, yet concerned.
“Okay.” I gazed out over the waters, focusing on the white peaks of waves as they rolled towards the shore. “The doctors are using some kind of scanner on me. It’s messing me up.”
“For what do they scan?”
“My… female organs. I’ve yet to have a cycle. You know, menstruation.”
“Ah.” He said it with a touch of sadness and hands massaged my shoulders with a gentle firmness.
I choked up. “They’re going to find something anomalous, aren’t they?”
He stayed silent before sighing. “It is likely.”
“Damn.” I really didn’t want to think about it, not here, not now. “Where have you been?”
He didn’t answer. I tried to turn my head to look back at him but even shifting that much threw everything off-kilter again. Back to the waves. Back to their gentle roar and the scent of salt in the wind.
He spoke quietly. “I was searching for that which I could not find when I first came across you here, much to my surprise.”
“This dreamspace. It is a small pocket favored by someone. I had come hoping they would be here - and found you instead.”
Somehow, don’t ask me how, I knew who he meant. “Gabriel. This is her place.”
“You can’t find her?”
“No. She is missing.”
“That’s… that’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I could feel his worry, through his touch, from his heart.
“I saw her. Once.”
The hands went still. “When?”
How could he not know? “Before she sent me back across.”
He exhaled sharply. “That answers one question, and raises a legion more in its place.”
“Can I help?”
“I do not know.”
“Raphael, what does it all mean? What is happening?”
The light from above reflected off white cresting waters, but it was felt as a clash of cymbals. I couldn’t refocus because brilliant colors of butterfly wings were pulling me away.
As the bitterness of over-brewed tea swept everything away, his answer echoed across a painted tableau of soft silk. He only said one word.
The world coalesced into the bright white LEDs illuminating the inside of the silver tube where I still lay.
Finding my voice, I screamed sheer frustration until the throat bled raw.
They put me in a ‘recovery’ room to await the results of their tests. It had obviously been designed to try and put a patient at ease: wallpaper of greenery with pale flowers of yellows and violets, padded comfortable chairs, even a simulated skylight pretending to look upwards at a sunny sky blue complete with fluffy cotton-candy clouds.
But outside in the real world you could hear the rain.
When Natalie came in with the perfume lady it was obvious they were worried about disclosing their findings. But Raphael had pretty much already clued me in.
Natalie was the one to explain it all in careful technical detail: the lack of any follicles around the ovaries, how my blood nevertheless showed absolutely balanced and normal hormone levels between estrogen and progesterone, being at the stage where an egg should be released by a follicle and sent on its way to the uterus in its hope to encounter some male produced counterparts.
That and how the measurements of the blood exactly matched what they had seen in all their prior tests, with the only variance being minimal shifts of glucose levels.
The doctor (who’s name I had done my best to ignore) tried to interrupt a few times, but Natalie shushed her with a firm look each time.
But the therapist still wouldn’t cut to the chase and I’d had enough. “I’m barren,” I interrupted. “Just skip to the end of the bullshit and say it.”
Natalie had the grace to cringe. “I’m sorry, Jordan - but it appears so. Doctor Yellen’s devise shows your ovaries to be completely lacking of any eggs. And with the steady-state nature of your hormones favoring estrogen and lacking the follicles to remain and produce progesterone, your womb will not thicken to be ready to accept an egg even should one be procedurally transplanted.”
I stared at the green and off-white tiled floor, feeling numb.
Doctor Yellen (damn, perfect memory won’t let me forget her name now) opened her yap again. “Many women would count you lucky, you know - you won’t suffer monthly periods with their pains and messes. Why, I have often thought to induce such a state in myself, after all with some effort I’m sure I could build an artificial womb that could carry a child to term later should I wish it-”
“Doctor.” Natalie glared at the woman. “Why don’t you go double check the findings?”
Yellen snorted. “The results were obvious. Even a first year intern could interpret them. With her exemplar metabolism, even IVF hormone treatments would fail to allow such a womb to ever quicken and hold a child.”
“Leave, Doctor. Now.” Natalie pointed angrily at the door. With a casual shrug, the woman got to her feet and shuffled out.
At least the horrid flowery stench went with her.
“Jordan?” Natalie leaned closer, trying to make eye contact. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Can I go now?” I was still staring at the door the medical devisor had used to exit.
“Do you want to talk about it? I know this is a shock…”
She sighed quietly. “I’m here for you if you need me. Call me, day or night, okay?”
“Sure. We done? I’d like to go back to my room now.”
After a hesitation, she nodded. “We’re done. But I’d like to check in with you this weekend, alright?”
“Sure,” I said again.
She opened the door for me, but I didn’t say anything or look at her as I left. I just needed out.
It rained heavily the whole way back to Hawthorne. There was an umbrella in my book-bag, but I didn’t think to pull it out.
Back at the attic sanctuary Khan tried to get me to play without much success. After settling for some scritches, he decided to go run amok in the rafters because hey, they were there.
As for me, everything seemed unreal and distant. I was a girl, but not really, not where it counted.
Raphael’s revelation that Gabriel was missing was also damn troubling. Problem was, I wasn’t sure I could tell anyone about that. Nick had warned me against spilling the beans to the rabbi about what had happened on the other side back when I had died and was resurrected, and this felt like something else that was really dangerous to know.
Nick was the only one I could really talk to about it, and the bastard hadn’t called back like he said he would. I swore that someday I’d have him and Isaiah try to get in touch with each other, the resulting silence would be profound.
Feeling I might do something stupid like punch another wall, I pulled out my dad’s guitar instead. After retuning the strings, I plunged into a frenetic Bulerias.
Not wanting to think, the music gave a great excuse to avoid doing so. I fell into the tempo and falsettas, repeating a piece from the beginning whenever a mistake was made.
I must have lost track of time because it was entirely dark outside when the room’s phone rang. The sound snapped me out of the reverie, and I fumbled for the receiver.
“Jordan?” Mrs. Cantrel was calling from downstairs. “Your dance partner, Zap, is here waiting and wondering if you’re going to class.”
Shit. Ballroom dance. Dangit, that meant I had also missed dinner completely.
For a second it was tempting to decline and skip the class as Natalie would surely give me cover for ditching, but then Zap wouldn’t have someone to practice with. There were an even number of kids in the class, and as I wanted to get to know him better I had quickly grabbed him to be my partner. He’d saved my bacon in the whole incident with Tamara and her demon after all.
I figured us stepping on each other’s toes by accident couldn’t be any more embarrassing than when he had passed out stark naked on top of me at the end of that whole encounter. As for having given him a peepshow while he was a hawk, when I’d asked him what he remembered from his time as the bird he only grinned and had refused to answer.
Yeah, overall I’d have to say we were even on that score.
“Jordan? You there?” Oops, Mrs. Cantrel was still waiting for a response.
“Tell him I’m coming.”
“He says not to forget your heels like you did on Wednesday.”
Blah. Those things were uncomfortable, but Cecilia wanted the girls to practice in them as much as possible. “Fine, fine. I’ll grab them.”
Fortunately my clothes had already dried from the earlier downpour and the standard uniform with skirt was good enough to practice in. So after picking up the pair of white and gold stilettos that Ms. Rogers had claimed would perfectly match the dress she was making for me, I hurried downstairs.
Zap waited in the lounge. We all knew his real name, but everyone still called him Zap. We were about the same height, and he had decided to grow his hair long. Unfortunately it was still in that awkward in-between stage and thus he looked rather like a mop-top member of the Monkeys.
Not that I’d tell him that.
“You ready?” he asked after I reached the ground floor and popped out of the elevator. If the campus rumor-mill had filled him in on things, he didn’t let it show.
“Sure, let’s go.”
The rain had let up for the moment which was weirdly disappointing, and we hurried to the gym in silence. He usually didn’t say much unless prompted and for once I was grateful. When the term started he had barely said anything more than a few words or maybe a grunt or two. He’d opened up, at least to me, but it had been slow going. When going around campus, however, he was hyper alert - those golden-brown eyes darting from sound to sound building a perfect mental map of everything occurring in the vicinity. Residuals from having been a hawk was my bet.
We were the last to arrive. Cecilia quickly formed us up to practice the steps she had demonstrated over the past couple weeks. She gave me a large sympathetic look as I came in, which made me internally wince. She’d been informed, wonderful.
Privacy, thy name is not Whateley.
She hit the music, and Zap put an arm around my waist before taking my hand.
He was really good. He had this natural balance - something I was still working on. As partners I couldn’t have chosen better for he had this almost infinite patience and effortlessly picked up the dance moves Cecilia had been trying to teach everyone.
I was improving, but the first couple classes were really awkward. Just being held by a guy was weird enough, trying to move ‘naturally’ with spikes under my heels was tricky.
Turning at the end of the gym, he pulled me closer still. There was something comforting about his presence, even like this. There was this quiet solidity to him, and I don’t mean just physically because it was more than that. He had this immovable center, a core that while it could bend, it would never break.
Even if breaking would end the pain.
My wife Caroline had described me that way once - when I had held her tightly as she wept after the doctors told her the same things that they had told me today. She knew that as much as we both wanted children, I could never leave her just because she would be unable to bear them.
Such a thought had never registered, or if it had it was dismissed immediately as an absurdity unworthy of any further consideration. I don’t remember which.
As she lay dying those few all-too-short months later she told me I must find someone new. Marry them, she fervently had said, and go father the child she wished we could have shared. She made me promise.
And here I was, in a new body, in a new life, and I could never fulfill her dying wish for me. These insane changes completely destroyed the promise I had given. I’d spent the intervening years mourning deeply for her, rejecting all notions of dating anyone else. The chances and opportunities friends had tried to encourage to break me out of that shell had all been wasted and ignored.
My cheeks were wet and it wasn’t raining indoors.
Zap had stopped moving, he was staring wordlessly at the tears.
Ms. Rogers stepped up behind him, whispering to take me outside. I didn’t resist when he pulled me past the doors.
Once away from everyone else I collapsed against him. Without volition huge racking sobs of anguish soaked through his shirt faster than the lightly falling rain.
He held me close and let me cry.
Zap escorted me to the cafeteria when the class was over. Once I’d gotten myself together again, we’d gone back inside and continued practicing. Cecilia hovered nearby, but had been kind enough not to say anything.
A good number of the girls had also nodded to me with sympathy. As I had figured would happen, news had spread fast.
He stayed quiet until we’d already spent a few minutes picking at the food on our plates.
“Want to talk about it?” He said it casually, but you could hear the underlying concern.
“Not really,” I said.
Pause. “Okay.” He took another cheese-laden bite of his lasagna bolognese.
“You know,” I said, hoping to change the subject, “I’ve never asked you why you cursed at the sky after you saved me and Tamara. Were you just upset about being human again? Is it that bad?”
He stiffened, which made me feel guilty for being rude and asking. But after a moment he shrugged.
“Being human is fine. It’s what that asshole keeps shouting every morning at dawn that pisses me off. Easier to ignore as a bird.”
Wait, what? I replayed that scene in the forest: hawk-headed warrior standing guard, saying he had to go, shifting form to Zap… oh, and the sunlight that streamed down on him the whole time and which had disappeared when Zap came back.
Sunlight. Ra. Hawk-headed warrior who kicked serious ass. Oh shit!
“Holy crud, were you channeling Ra when you shifted out of hawk to help fight the demon-thing?”
Zap shook his head. “Only his energy, like a power-up boost.”
“Oh. So what does Ra shout at you?” I couldn’t help it, I had to ask.
He snorted in disgust. “He shouts pronouncements that I’m the god Heru and need to wake up. Yeah, fuck that noise.”
I gaped openly at him. After my fork kept not moving from where it hovered, he looked up. “What?”
“You’re Horus, I mean, Heru? The other hawk god? That’s, uh-”
“It’s a pain in the ass, is what it is. You have any idea how depressed that guy is?”
“Ra is depressed?”
He rolled his eyes. “Not Ra. Heru.”
Zap tilted his head, much like he had done as a hawk. “Dude was once god-king over Egypt and its entire civilization. His people and their traditions are all gone, and his cities are buried in sand. How much more depressing can you get?”
“But if you’re him…?” I admit, I was fairly confused.
He groaned and pointed a fork at me. “Look - gods are complicated spirits, okay? They have aspects, shards, bits of themselves that go off and do things. Read the myths, it’s all in there. Ra won’t shut up about me being one of them.”
“Is that why you stayed a hawk for so long?”
He grinned mischievously, stabbing more lasagna. “Birds don’t give a crap about the past, they just care about eating and fu… uh, other things. Worked great.”
I thought about the dream of Gabriel and Danielle’s report of also having past-life dreams. “Do you have memories of being Heru? From those old days?”
He shrugged. “A couple fragments, nothing really coherent. I try to block ‘em out.”
“Don’t you want to know what happened?”
“I already know what happened. Open a history book, it’s all there. He can keep his damn memories, I don’t want them.”
“Why not?” I asked again.
Zap’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. “Because I’m me, and I’m keeping it that way. I sure as shit am not going to let the ghost of some dying god swamp who and what I am.”
I contemplated my mostly uneaten steak salad. “Maybe you could teach Danielle how to do that - blocking stuff out, that is.”
“Danielle? Your freshman friend?”
“Yeah. She’s likely a reincarnate of an old sidhe and has relived some of it in her dreams. She’s learning magic from them, but I worry.”
“You’re afraid she’s going to lose herself to what she was.”
“Pretty much. She’s seems happy with it now, but as I understand the history the sidhe were pretty much wiped off the planet. Eventually she’ll trigger memories that won’t be happy. Like your Heru.”
“Until she wants to block that stuff, and I mean really want to, it won’t work. No matter what I show her. It’s, uh, it’s a bit like covering your ears while shouting loudly and running into a closet to get away from it at times.”
“You didn’t though.”
“Run. When it counted. Even as a hawk you were watching out for me and you let Heru take over to fight that demon. Thank you. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if it hadn’t been for you.”
His cheeks went all rosy as he looked away. “The bird liked you.”
I smiled. “The bird was you.” I picked at the salad, stabbing a bit of beef before grinning. “Totally worth the smuggled hot dogs onto the balcony.”
He grinned back, still flushing pink. “Those were tasty.”
“Aha, you do remember! Which means you remember seeing me topless!”
Those cheeks went a much deeper red but the grin didn’t falter. “Maybe?”
I couldn’t help it. Laughter overtook me, hard enough that my eyes watered. His silly smile kept it going. The few other late-evening diners stared at me like I’d lost my mind, but I didn’t care.
Right as I was calming down, he looked up and away and with an expression of forced innocence said, “Boing!”
I snerked loudly and lost it again.
After the day I’d had, I really needed it. Once we’d bussed our trays and were about to wander back to our own cottages, I impulsively grabbed him in a hug.
I must have caught him off guard, yet he went with it and held me close again. His expression, though, was of someone struggling with something. But with a forced casualness he only said, “Anytime, Jordan. See you later!”
It wasn’t until I’d gotten back to the doors of Hawthorne that I figured it out. He’d debated on whether he should try to kiss me. What was more disturbing as I went inside was that I wasn’t sure whether or not he’d made the right decision.
“No, you’re just not getting it!”
Danielle threw her hands up in exasperation. She sat on a chair outside the circle covering the bedroom floor and was glaring at me. We’d moved the bed out of the way (easy to do considering the size of the room, and how strong we both were), and I had plopped myself into the center of the three rings that kept the energy from flooding the cottage.
Around on the floor lay the wreckage of yet more candles, making white goopy circles of their own on the aluminum foil trays. Some wax had blown clear of the shiny improvised place-mats; it was going to be a pain to clean.
The day so far had been decent enough, especially after a surprisingly restful night of sleep. No dreams, no weirdness, just me and Khan snoozing and purring the night away. The little guy had graciously allowed me to sleep in, thus I had been late to the defensive driving class I’d signed up for in the hopes to be allowed to park on campus at the end of the term. It was an interesting class: we’d quickly gone through the usual types of vehicles in these state-of-the-art simulators and had moved on to things like armored vehicles and tanks. Motorcycles had been the most fun so far.
After lunch Danielle had marched me back here with a fresh pack of white candles and her notebook of magic incantations. She was fixated on me being finally able to light a flame by the end of the day.
The odds of that happening weren’t good.
“I’m trying!” I grumped with equal frustration. “I can gather the energy, hell I can keep it contained without these circles now for the most part, but it just won’t do anything! It’s like I’m using the wrong language or focus or something.” Whatever words I had instinctively shouted back at the DPA testing facility to such great effect refused to become clear in an otherwise perfect memory. Like there was a mental block in there, which just made the continued failure so much more annoying.
She casually gestured at a pillar candle placed on the desk and said, “Fuego!” The damn wick instantly whooshed into bright flame. It even danced about as if taunting me. “It shouldn’t really matter what language you use as long as it has meaning for you,” she said, knowing she’d proven the point by imitating one of our favorite modern-fantasy characters. “It’s all in the intent, visualization, and flow.”
“I dunno. It’s like my interface is broken or something. I can feel the command trying to go, but then it just bounces back into my face. This is useless.” I shook my head.
“You’re just upset that I can do it and you can’t, ‘uncle’.” She grinned, having made the scare quotes around our old relationship moniker obvious by her tone.
I threw a dirty look and followed up by sticking out my tongue. “I thought I had gotten over you abusing my ego years ago when you used to cream me at Mario Kart.”
She giggled. “God, you really sucked at that game.”
I made a bigger show of being disgusted, but internally was smiling. If she ever figured out how badly I’d played on purpose…
“But more seriously,” she was saying, “You’ve got the manna channeling thing down pat. I mean, you have more energy than anyone else on campus. All of us sensitives can tell that much.”
“Jeeze, I’ve had to argue with other magic users to prevent them from doing something stupid like trying to tap into you as if you’re some kind of battery. I mean, we’ve all been warned against reaching into lay-lines, but some of these idiots think you’d be safer somehow.”
“Uh, how’d you convince them not to?” Holy hell, and what would I do if they tried?
“Reminded ‘em that you live in Hawthorne for a reason and that if they were to attempt something incredibly dumb like that to make sure I wasn’t in the same building or anywhere near the inevitable explosion. Shut them up pretty quick.” She smirked.
“Has the rabbi said anything about your spectacular lack of success with the spells? Anything useful?”
I sighed ruefully. “Not really. He only emphasized that I should have patience, and at the very least master control of the energy itself. If I can prove to him I can do that then I might be allowed to power up in martial arts class. So far that seems to be the most useful thing I can do reliably. Filling my physical body up with the power is easy now, but keeping it from leaking if I get distracted by fighting is something else entirely.”
She nodded. “That’s something they’ve been teaching in survival class. Spell knowledge and theory is great and all, but using it in a moment of panic is something else entirely.”
“Yep. And you never know if you’ll freeze up until the moment hits. Doesn’t have to be combat either, any kind of pressure crisis can trigger it. Seen enough programmers lock up under severe time crunch when the stress levels got high enough.”
“You didn’t when you came to rescue me.”
“That’s because I was too stupid to know what I was doing.” I smiled at her.
She smiled too, but it faded. “This is really strange, you know.”
“What, me failing the simplest spell, or the fact that Khan is actually trying to nap and not demanding attention?” I pointed at the fuzzy lump sprawled out on the purple comforter, four paws dangling up in the air with the rest of him flat on his back.
“No. It’s just…” She hesitated.
“Go ahead, hon. Whatever is bothering you.”
“All of this.” She gestured at me, and back at herself. “Us. You like that, me like this. I mean, you are… or were my uncle, an adult, and you took care of me when mom,” she choked up, “… when mom died. And now…”
“Now I’m just another student at your school, and a girl at that.”
“Yeah. Except when it’s just the two of us you sound more like your old self. But out there?” She waved towards the balcony and the school beyond. “Out there, you’re more and more just like any girl going to the school. It’s weird.”
“I’m sorry.” I fidgeted, not knowing what to say.
“Jordan, who do you want to be?”
“That’s… a really good question, hon.” Unfortunately I didn’t have a good answer. “Who do you need me to be?”
She shook her head. “No, that’s a cop out. It’s not about me and what I want or need. It’s about you.”
“You’ve been talking with Natalie.”
“Well, duh. I’ve got an entire previous life and its personality to deal with so she’s asked me the same thing. But no distracting or sidestepping over to my problems - I asked you. Stay on target, Red Five!”
She earned a small grin with that, but yeah, best to fess up in all seriousness. “I guess I don’t know. As each day goes by, being like this becomes more and more normal. At times that is upsetting all by itself. I feel like I might be losing who I was, but then the fact that I died smacks me in the face. That life is gone. The only thing remaining from it is you.”
“Would it be better, you know, if we didn’t hang out or talk?” A cheek quivered as she asked.
“Hell no! Dangit hon, knowing you are here too is the only thing keeping me sane! We’ve both lost our old lives and are trying to start these new ones, but I don’t ever want to let go of the last beautiful treasure that remains. You. Well, and Khan, of course.”
That got a slight chuckle. “Of course.”
“I know I can’t be the adult or parental figure in your life any more, and yeah, that hurts. I’ve tried my best to not act that way towards you the past couple weeks. With all the teachers on your case, not to mention Isaiah demanding you email him those daily updates, I think you’ve got plenty of that. But I can still be there for you as more than a friend. We’re family. You’re all I have left, sweetie. Which means I’ll worry about you, just like I think you’ve been worrying about me.”
She gazed into the still-burning candle. “I heard about what happened yesterday. Rumors are saying that you were pregnant and had an abortion at Doyle.”
“They said you were late on your period. Did something else happen to you when you were attacked? Did that gryphon guy do something, like, unnatural to you?”
Face meet palm. Hard. “Oh for fuck’s sake. I am not, nor was I ever, pregnant. And no, Tsáyid did not rape me. Slit my throat, sure, but nothing more.” I gave a short bark of a laugh.
“Then what…?” She was clearly confused.
“I’m barren, Danielle. Utterly and totally barren. No periods, no eggs, no bearing children.” That came out with a lot more bitterness than I’d intended.
“Oh my god, like Aunt Caroline? I’m so sorry!”
It was a good thing I’d already released all the summoned energy because before I knew it Danielle had tackle-hugged me in the center of the circle.
“That’s just awful!” she said, horrified. “I know how much you and Aunt Carol wanted a baby, mom was so sad for you guys when she found out. And I wanted a cousin too!”
I let her hug me, patting her hair awkwardly. “Yeah, well, as we both have learned all too well life is giving us dramatically different things from anything we could expect.”
She sniffled something fierce. I managed to extricate myself and fetch the tissues, holding them out for her. She took one gratefully.
With a long sigh I said, “I guess overall I’m just like any other teenager, sweetie.”
After blowing her nose, she asked, “How so?”
“Desperately trying to figure out who I am and where I’m going. The fact that I’ve done it before and have all that experience to draw on cushions it somewhat, I guess. I’d like to feel I was successful enough to not need to worry about whether I can do it again, but that doesn’t make things any less confusing. Hell, I might even like boys now. It’s a mess.” I tried to laugh but it came out more like a hiccup.
She wiped her eyes. “Natalie warned me against trying to rely on the past life stuff in deciding who I am. She said it was from a much different time and that I should hold on to how I was raised this go-round. To try and keep a firm grip on the nature of the world as it exists now. Otherwise I might fall into potential traps of being lost in sorrows over stuff that happened perhaps tens of thousands of years ago. I think the counselors here have dealt with this kind of thing a few times.”
“Could it also apply to you? Maybe not the thousands of years part, but…”
“I get it. However, I only have the one childhood to draw upon. And my losses are just that: mine. Not from a different lifetime lived ages ago. I imagine there is wisdom that can be drawn from your past life too, but treating it like reading a book might be safer. Identify with her as a character but not as your core. I’d hate to lose my niece.”
“Am I losing my uncle?”
“Oh hon.” I pulled her into a hug. “You will never lose the love I have for you. We will always be family, regardless of bodies, and regardless of what anyone says about our spirits and who they were or who they are now. Family. I swear I will always be there for you.”
A pulse of power moved within, raising the hairs on my skin. A singular chime vibrated deep in the center of my soul. She stiffened, obviously feeling it too.
We were about to comment but a knock on the door startled us. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, she scooted back so I could get my ass up and go open the door.
It was Jenna. “Hey Jordan!” she said all too cheerfully.
Not entirely happy at the timing of the interruption, I said, “Hi Jenna. Need something?”
“Want to go on a field trip?” She grinned wide, brushing aside blonde hairs from today’s wig selection away from her face.
“A field trip?”
“Yep! With the weather finally chilling out it’s safe for Penelope to go outside. Mrs. Cantrel is inviting a few of us who won’t have issues with the cold to join them for a quick trip off campus!”
Penelope had been stuck in her room all summer. For her a balmy seventy degrees Fahrenheit was like one-hundred twenty for the rest of us so she’d been effectively trapped. But this September had cooled off a lot faster than most years and looked like it should safely stay that way for at least a few more days. The rain had even stopped overnight and left clear (yet cold) skies behind.
“Like right now?”
“Absolutely! You had lunch already, right? Hi Danielle!” Jenna waved through the doorway. “Want to come too? There should be room for one more in the van, and as you’re also an exemplar a cold breeze shouldn’t bother you either.”
I looked back at Danielle and shrugged.
She shook her head at the mess I’d made of her candles. “May as well, we aren’t making any progress. We’ll just continue your torment some other time.”
Jenna bounced. “Awesome! Wear swimsuits!”
Swimsuits? Danielle gave me a huge evil smile as she said, “Oh we most definitely will, right Jordan?”
“Perfect! Meet downstairs in twenty!” And with that Ms. Perky Let’s-Embarrass-Ourselves-In-Public Jenna skipped the elevator to dance down the stairwell in the attic’s lobby area.
Danielle giggled. “You do have a suit, right?”
“I uh…” For a moment the temptation to lie shot skyward, but I resisted. “Yeah. I do. Cecilia Rogers sent me one for free because she claimed I seriously over-tipped.”
“Muhahaha… can’t wait to see you in it! I’ll go run and get mine.”
With that she also darted towards the stairs, leaving me alone with a deeply sleeping cat. He didn’t even stir as I rummaged in the wardrobe searching for the slinky and barely-there two pieces of deep purple fabric that Cecilia had sent.
“Why do I feel like fate is conspiring against me?” I muttered before changing into the ridiculous thing. Frankly it felt like I was wearing even less than when I had on only underwear and a bra. Worse still was how good the damn thing looked when I caught the reflection in the mirror. At least being Cecilia-crafted I knew it would be really durable and the knots holding the top and bottom pieces in place wouldn’t slip free. Small comfort, but it would have to do.
I threw a sweater and pair of sweats on over it all before tying on some sandals. That at least covered it up and removed the risk of any lustful spontaneous brain hemorrhaging within the local male teenage populace on the way out.
Lord knows I would have reacted just as badly to such a sight when I was that age.
Lieutenant Forsyth was drafted by Mrs. Cantrel to drive the Whateley van for our excursion. The long van had been modified so our house-mother could just hover into the back with her custom handicap floating chair. Wherever she’d gotten that thing made, it was a serious piece of tech.
Penelope was ecstatic over being able to go outside and, unlike the rest of us girls, hadn’t bothered covering up. Instead she danced all scantily clad in her tiny bikini into the front passenger seat after shouting ‘shotgun’ with glee. The blueish-green fabric made a nice contrast against the copper tones of her skin.
I will admit the wide-brimmed straw hat she had on was also cute, it even had a small recognizable penguin logo affixed to the front.
Danielle and Jenna grabbed the middle row, leaving me sitting next to Brendan behind them. The poor guy barely fit in the seat and kept apologizing whenever his knee would smack into my leg. He had to keep them widely splayed out just to wedge himself in. At first I had been surprised Jenna hadn’t wanted to sit next to him, but given her own height it was obvious that they both would have been really cramped if squeezed in next to each other.
By the time we drove past the suspicious-looking gargoyles at the main gate all the girls up front were busily singing the latest Lady Gaga song at the top of their lungs and drowning out the radio speakers. The Lieutenant had already thrice refused to turn the volume up any louder, so the girls had decided to make up the difference themselves. Exuberance, sadly, does not compensate for being seriously off-key.
Brendan, after rolling eyes towards the roof at the uncoordinated assault on our eardrums, pulled out a computer tablet which on boot up landed on a news page. I glanced quickly at it, noting that the top story was something about an explosion in Syria complete with a fuzzy black and white picture of the scene.
Shrugging, I turned to stare out at the forest trees that started zipping past, but something about that photo kept bugging me until I had to do something about it.
“Hey, can I see that headline news story?” I shouted, hoping he could hear me over the screeching chicken debate happening up front.
“Hmm?” Nope, he couldn’t.
I pointed at the tablet and leaned closer to his ear. “I want to see that news story!”
“Oh! Here, I’ve got another one.” He handed me this tablet, and fished a second from his bag. Looks like Jenna had made him carry hers too.
Hitting the back button a couple times brought up the story: ‘Central Synagogue of Aleppo Bombed’. I zoomed in on the picture showing smoldering rubble of what must have been a fairly large building wedged between many others. Emergency crews were trying to put the fire out, and a number of victims lay scattered about a small roadway in front. Some were on stretchers, others had been left where they must have fallen on the ground.
My gut bottomed out as I stared at the image. Because there, on one of the stretchers in the background, lay an unmistakable Nicolas Wright. He didn’t look conscious.
“Oh shit, oh shit…” Lungs began to work overtime and I had to force myself to breathe slower. I wanted to call Goodman, the Director at the DPA, and find out what the hell happened but I was in a van full of other students. Disturbingly loud ones at that.
I hastily sent a text message to Natalie instead. She was on loan to Whateley from the DPA after all, and in a weird way was therefore my main contact with them. She needed to know and maybe she could find out something, or even inform the home office if they hadn’t seen the pictures yet themselves.
‘Natalie! Look at the photo for the Aleppo Bombing on the news feeds - Nick Wright is on a stretcher! Is he alive???’
With an echoing pulse almost drowning out the girls, I waited for a response. It didn’t take long.
‘My god, you’re right. I’ll call it in. Where are you?’
‘On a field trip with Cantrel and kids… what the hell is he doing in Syria?? He said he needed to go to Jerusalem!’
‘Come by my office when you get back, I’ll try to have some intel by then - if I can.’
Chewing at my lip, I went back to the tablet and tried to dig up whatever I could about that synagogue. My mind boggled at what I found. Apparently it was the site that had contained a very old and notable version of the Hebrew Bible - one endorsed by a very famous rabbi (named Maimonides) for its accuracy.
While the synagogue had been set on fire in 1947 during anti-Jewish riots, the Aleppo Codex (what they called the manuscript after it sat in Aleppo for six-hundred years) had mostly survived. It currently resided in something called the ‘Shrine of the Book’ at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Of real interest was that not all the pages had made it out of Aleppo and it was claimed that the missing ones had burned. Yet reports also said that none of the remaining pages had been singed.
Pages were simply missing, likely torn out.
There was a lot of controversy regarding the Codex, but the remaining pages had apparently been authenticated by leading scholars.
What the hell was Nick doing there? Did he have a lead on those missing pages or was he going after something altogether different? Dammit. I bet only he would know.
I hoped he hadn’t died - and not just because he was the only real chance for figuring out what the hell Soren had done to me and why. The man had helped save Danielle. I owed him. Plus the last time we spoke, he’d actually been honest and forthright about things.
Being so engrossed between trying to find more news articles about the explosion and reading further into the history of the Codex, I hadn’t noticed when the van stopped and everyone else got out.
“Jordan? You coming?” Mrs. Cantrel, having already disembarked, hovered at the side of the van’s open door.
“Huh? Oh, yeah… uh where are we?” I looked past her to see we were parked in a gravel lot. Brendan and Jenna were busy unloading a number of folding beach chairs.
“At a local lake,” she replied. “A bit chilly for my bones to go swimming, but you kids should be fine.”
Brendan bellowed at me over a shoulder. “Just leave the tablet in the van!”
I yelled back. “Got it!”
Turning off the device and dropping it on the seat, I scooted out as Danielle gleefully shouted at Penelope from the opposite side of the van. “Last one in is a rotten dragon egg!”
Penelope gave a giggling shriek and they raced off, presumably towards water.
Noting that there were six chairs and that with Jenna, Brendan, and myself we had six available hands to carry them, I quickly went over and grabbed a pair. Not that Jenna and Brendan couldn’t have carried more, but why be rude?
As we lugged the chairs around the van and towards a wide path, I caught sight of Danielle. She wore a white bikini two-piece and was laughing while easily running ahead of poor Penelope past all the green trees lining the path to a shimmering lake.
My stomach fell to the floor a second time. So did the two chairs I’d let fall from my fingers. I’d seen this scene before. Back at powers testing. When I’d lost control.
When I’d seen the gryphon, Tsáyid, swoop out of a forest with the intent to take my niece’s life.
Eyes darting upwards caught sight of the black shape as it emerged from the obscuring foliage to barrel towards her on silent shadowy wings.
Her running faltered as she turned towards my shout and she let out a scream of her own.
Black raven claws had pierced her shoulders to carry her up into the sky.
Everything went white.
He’d kill her. If I didn’t stop him, he’d kill her. As sure as the grass was green or the sky the bastard was flying into was blue.
All of Nick’s previous warnings against overload were ignored instantly, discarded as unimportant and if anything a hindrance to what needed to be done.
I didn’t just reach for the light, I plunged into it.
The limiter on the connection that had time and time again likely prevented serious damage appeared clearly as this intricate circle of energy in my inner vision. It rotated there, fully inscribed with brilliant golden names of power and diamond-forged sigils of meaning as it restricted the flow from that greater pillar of light which lay beyond.
Jenna and Brendan shouted my name, hands held before them trying to protect their eyes from the brilliance being cast forth unshielded.
I ignored them.
With flapping wings the gryphon climbed further into the sky while Danielle struggled against the claws piercing her skin. Both soon hovered several thousand feet up directly above a wide island dominating the center of the lake.
It was all so perfectly clear as if I was right there next to them. Her frantically screaming spells in an attempt to gain freedom, oblivious to the danger of what would happen should they succeed. But her invocations, her fae magic, slid off the dark feathers and fur as if the gentlest of spring rain.
Across that distance the beast looked to me with those stony raven eyes. And he spoke straight into my mind.
The Master sends his regard and a message.
I shouted my response. “Fuck your master and his message, bring her back! Now!”
Sorrow I have as the deliverer, little sparrow. Yet the Master bids thee to learn.
Tears of glittering sparks burned down my cheeks, because as much as I could pull in the power I couldn’t use it. I couldn’t reach him, couldn’t save her. At that distance, none of us here could.
“Learn what? Bring her back!”
The Throne and its Light are a lie. They cannot save what is precious to you.
Oh shit. He really was going to kill her. Like he tried to do to me when he slit my throat.
The Master acknowledges your rise in power. But it is not enough. Never enough.
Dammit, no! I had to stall. Anything to keep him busy. “Tell him he should come and see my power for himself! Instead of hiding behind you like a damn coward! Tell him I challenge him, just us two!”
He sends his response.
Claws stained with blood withdrew from her shoulders. With a mighty scream of terror, Danielle fell.
There were no thoughts. Everything was thrown at that shining limiting circle. Everything. All the energy and light I had pulled in, all the rage, all the fear, and most of all the love driven need to save her.
I had sworn to be there for her. I had to be. It was all that mattered.
An explosion ripped outward, tossing me like a kite in a hurricane from the resulting multiple concussive waves of force. The complex circle, its names, its sigils, its power, detonated into billions of streaming sparks, visible now to everyone and not just to that inner sight. The shock wave scorched the dirt where I had been standing, shattered the van’s windows, and knocked everyone else to the ground. Twin vortexes of fiery light flashed behind me though the air and set distant trees instantly aflame.
I found myself airborne.
And Danielle was falling rapidly towards the hard ground of the island below.
With a wordless cry of will and need I sped towards her, the unleashed energy now flowing free. No longer a trickle or even a faucet, it was a flood washing away any remains of the dam that had been keeping it in check. The lake billowed with steam as I flew across the waters to intercept her terminal trajectory.
No! I am commanded not to fail!
Tsáyid emitted a raven shriek and panther’s roar, plunging into his own dive to race towards our shared target.
Sight blurred as everything I had within was shoved into raw speed.
I got to her first.
Arms clamped around her protectively before the beast collided into my back and talons ripped through skin. I hugged her close, trying to wrap her within all the light that I could muster.
“You shall not have her, you bastard!”
Pain blossomed from the repeated slashes into my neck, along my back, and across the wings of light that held us aloft. But it didn’t matter. I had her.
His efforts became desperate. To his dismay, each slice only cast forth even more brilliance only to swiftly close over. He shifted tactics, trying to grapple instead to get those claws, both raven and forest cat, past me and into what I had sworn to keep and defend.
A symbol formed in the mind’s eye, and without hesitation I shouted the word it formed.
Another tremendous blast of light burst forth into the startled gryphon and launched him back towards shore. I flew after him, consumed with the need to take him down.
He recovered in the air, trying to drive back towards us. Again I shouted the word, sending a wave of light smashing into - and through - his essence.
The Light! It burns!
I hit him with it three more times until the last punched him into the wet earth by the water’s edge.
Those last hits he hadn’t been trying to attack, rather he’d unfolded his wings from the tumbling as if only to bask in what I was throwing.
As we reached the shore Tsáyid had crouched on all fours, feathered wings smoldering against scorched fur with head and torso held low to the ground.
He was kneeling. And this time when he spoke it was not mind to mind.
“Lady, I beg thee! End me while the Light of All has weakened the Master’s grip!”
Danielle, her voice weak, whispered, “He’s a slave. Help him. It’s not his fault.”
Landing besides the crater formed by the gryphon’s impact on the lake’s shore, I gently set Danielle on her feet - making sure she was able to hold herself up. The wounds on her shoulders were already starting to heal, faster than her regeneration normally was capable.
“Quickly! Before the Master rips me from this host!” Tears of desperation fell upon raven cheeks.
Stepping forward, I hesitated and looked back at Danielle.
“Hurry!” she pleaded.
“How do you know?” Not that I wanted to doubt but this was the same asshole who had sliced my throat from side to side and had just tried to kill her!
“Because I know who his master is!” she cried. “I’ve felt that energy before in my dreams of the past; it uses people as if they were puppets!”
Reaching out a glowing hand to Tsáyid’s forehead, I needed to check for myself.
It was like peering through an immense gallery measured not in years or even centuries, but eons.
Tsáyid had once been an angel of the Host, a Kerubim.
Pictures danced. He fought alongside six squad-mates as they stood against a terrible Darkness. It lacked all definition yet threw entities of endless appetites towards all the intrusions of light and order pushing outward into its depths.
They were raw patterns of energy, him and his squad. But those patterns had meaning. Raven. Lion. Hawk. Bull. Tiger. Eagle. Panther. And Man. The essences of the patterns of physical creatures not yet in existence echoing across the dreamspace within which the Kerubim fought and lived.
Each were unique in form and style, and each were bonded together by their struggles, fighting as one and healing together after mighty and victorious battles.
They were beings full of light, of laughter, of love, and an absolute singular dedication to defending the domain assigned to their care.
They were beautiful.
And they were part of something larger than themselves, bound to the infinite purpose of a greater whole. Their light and their hearts flowed freely to and from this unimaginably vast collective, and their names fit the perfection of their assigned places. His name among them had been Tsáyidiel, God’s Hunter.
He was that no longer.
Only weeks prior had I seen into a girl’s soul that was under attack by a demonic force, manifested as cruel tentacled barbs digging harshly into her inner shine. It had been heart-wrenchingly awful to behold.
This was, in its own way, worse.
I had already blasted him with the light, over and over, and his ancient energy channels yearned for any traces and echoes of the power which had burned its way through.
But those remnants of brilliance faded into darkness as if a deep internal pain could do naught but swallow all that might glimmer. Something else shoved and forced itself through those very channels that once had been glorious with creative purpose, something twisting and spoiling every passage it touched.
A cruel miasma, similar in horrible purpose to Tamara’s demonic force, had been internalized so deeply that in truth Tsáyid was but a husk being manipulated and used by the foul sludge pushing through the veins.
With a cry of dismay, I shoved light into that pattern, trying to burn away the infectious invader. All thoughts of subtlety were lost, it was a reaction born of pure instinct.
“It won’t do any good.” A voice, full of sadness, reached out to me. I recognized it immediately.
“Raphael! Help me heal him!”
That couldn’t be right. “He’s an angel and you are God’s Healer! There must be a way.”
“It is not possible,” he replied with a deep and ancient sadness. “This one has fallen beyond all hope. Look here.”
Attention was drawn towards the center of Tsáyid’s spirit. Where a word of immaculate fire had once been inscribed with loving care, now was naught but a hollow cave, the remains of his word now dark, smeared, and unreadable.
In its place a darker symbol, like a black hole devouring all traces of light, lurked within. This was the source of the black ichor growing stronger with each passing moment.
“He fell from grace, little one. And in a moment of desperation he turned to another to take up Father’s place within his heart.”
I felt sick.
“Look at the pattern again,” Raphael continued gently. “It is only the invader’s will that keeps the whole coherent. Without its influence and control, the entire fabric would collapse into lost shards streaming towards the Abyss. His own will is lost, incapable of maintaining his own existence.”
“Danielle was right,” I said, wanting to cry. “He’s a slave. Who did this to him?”
I had no form in this place, but still there was a sensation of a comforting touch. “He did it first to himself, but it is Azazel who has conquered his will and bound him. And if you do not hurry, this one’s terrible lord will pull him out of your reach, re-bind him to another hapless mortal avatar, and continue our brother’s endless suffering.”
“He asked me to end him.”
“For one such as him that is only a mercy.”
Images of this hunter’s former glory flashed past. What could have driven such a shining being to fall into a despair so powerful that he’d accept giving himself over to such invasive evil? The foul stench from the creeping muck flowing out of that rotten heart was overbearing. How long had he suffered so?
“Danielle wants me to save him.”
“Once broken, Father’s grace does not return to our kind. This name has been lost, forever and always.”
I couldn’t accept it. Had Tsáyid tried to fight against the orders from his master? Rebel against the evils that he had been commanded to perform? He had almost killed me, but he had seemed oddly reluctant to do so. Not to mention, if he had just cut off my head back at my old house when I was at his mercy that would have been it for me.
But he hadn’t. He only sliced my neck open and departed. Just like a cheap comic book villain leaving the hero (or heroine) a chance, albeit small, to survive.
Had that been deliberate? Reaching out, I touched Tsáyid’s memory of our first encounter, back to when he had tasted my blood as ordered by the cruel corruption pulling on his strings.
And I understood.
That blood had flashed through him like lightning, a reminder and literal taste of all he had once been and all he had lost. What was left of his spirit, corrupted even as it was, still deeply mourned the loss of his former comrades and that glorious unity, and he had shouted forth that tremendous internal agony, destroying the rest of Mark’s SUV in the process.
He cut my throat, yes, but deep inside he had hoped I would live. He had risked awful punishments from his enslaver - ones he had suffered before and which even the quick flashes from his memories caused me to shirk away in horror. He had deliberately given me a fighting chance to live at huge risk to himself. A chance which, with Soren’s arrival and guidance, had been successful.
I didn’t want him to die and I couldn’t leave him enslaved.
“Let him go. There is nothing you can do,” Raphael urged.
“Maybe so, but I don’t care! He earned a chance. And I promise you, he will get it.”
Emotion and will aligned, forming a standing wave of power threatening to grow without end. The brilliance crashed inward as a tidal wave flooded into the canyon of my being, rapidly rising above all limits of any rational capacity.
The decision within my heart had obliterated all restraint.
Raphael, always so calm and self-assured, reacted in alarm. “Wait, please, you could damage yourself!”
I doubt I could have stopped even if I had tried. That inrush of light overwhelmed everything, having latched onto the promise with a fierce resonance binding it to the blinding pillar stretching into the infinite. Burning with the power of a billion suns, I cried out not only from sheer pain, but also from the ecstasy that lay beyond the agony. There was only one thing to do before being consumed completely: I threw it all into Tsáyid’s core, directly at the place where once had been written something beautiful and transcendent. His former name still glimmered in the echoes of his past and I grabbed the memory of that name with all that I had.
The dark invader corrupting his heart screamed in agony as it burnt and shriveled under the onslaught, black flakes peeling off and falling away as dust and ash. A field of despair and rejection of hope tried to coalesce and push back, but the infinite light focused to an impossible spear-point and drove the unyielding white fire right through.
Where I ended and the source began became meaningless for I was the light and it was me. There was only a cacophony of emotion and driven focus swarming the senses: a song of love and a need unknowable, so powerful in its desire and intent that nothing in existence could withstand a single unfiltered note.
And yet this symphony underlay and upheld all.
Being merged and lost within that torrent, I began to understand. Everything that was, the entire universe - or universes, as there were realms upon realms upon realms all piled onto each other yet distinct within their own individual resonances and layers - all was created by this primal energy.
Because it moved.
The substances of physicality, the substances of spirit, of emotion and of wisdom, of all life and the magic it generated, all were created by the endless dance of this light. Every idea, every atom, every flow of manna, every thread of spirit, all existed by virtue of the motion of this endless light in expression of its desire that all things be continually created.
With every bounce and leap of its ceaseless passing a symphony comprising all things emerged from the eternal dance of the infinite.
Here and now it flashed into Tsáyid with glorious purpose. Through energy channels rigid and drenched in the molasses of dark despair for years uncounted the hot and bright fire now spiraled, cleansing with both a mercilessness and a tenderness every last strand within the skein of that spirit until it too sang in perfect harmony. Like electricity overheating a coil until the metal burned past the glowing red into blinding white brightness, the weaving of darkness and grime vibrated with rising intensity until a pattern as pure and shining as the day it had been created blazed forth anew: a reforged extension of the very power that had claimed us.
At his center, as the torrent began to calm and recede, a name burned once again to sing its joy in letters of multi-colored fire: Tsáyidiel.
That wasn’t all.
Above the name, indeed anchoring it in place and fueling its fire, sat a promise engraved by the purity of the endless source.
Tsáyidiel’s spirit sounded one final mighty note as the light’s work completed, shouting its blinding glory. As focus faded a sense of self rebounded, causing the vision of spirit and source to drop away. But as I staggered and fell to weak knees back in the physical world I distinctly heard Raphael cry out in awe and fear.
“What have you done?”
Then his presence was gone.
Laying on the sandy ground was an unconscious and scrawny man wearing nothing more than boxer shorts and a sleeveless grubby t-shirt. Not that I should cast any aspersions on his wardrobe choices as other than the amazing Cecilia-crafted purple two piece bikini my own attire had been reduced to a few slips of shredded rags which were waiting for a nearby sneeze to fall off the rest of the way.
Oh, and my hand was resting on the guy’s sweaty forehead below stringy and unkempt grey hair. It was sticky.
Standing up, the world swayed and flickered. I might have fallen had Danielle not been there to put a hand on an arm. Her touch offered steady coherence, much like Raphael’s had done in the dreamworld when I was being wacky-scanned.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Turning, my first concern was her - but all her wounds were gone, not a single mark or scar remained from where claws had scraped bone. She was also covered by a thin sheen of ice. “I think so,” I stammered while looking about to get a measure of the damage.
Oh boy. The lake behind Danielle now sported a large section by the shore completely frozen over and judging by her icy armor she must have come from there. The wreckage done to the forest was extensive: treetops were still aflame, spitting wild sparks.
Back at the crumpled remains of the van Penelope peaked around a shredded bumper while Jenna and Brendan came running towards us after abandoning the partially melted shelter. Jenna was in full stone skin mode and had lost her clothing. Her armored skin was weirdly not grey as usual but instead this glossy shade of ebony. She was like this human-shaped black mirror reflecting the inferno from the trees above as she ran. It was remarkably beautiful.
“Wow, look at those wings!” Danielle exclaimed. Just as I had been trying to take in the scene, Danielle had been checking out what was behind my shoulder blades.
Twisting to the side, sure enough there were two glowing wings of gold spilling out of my back made up of white feathers forged from the electrified filaments of a thousand lightbulbs. Whoa.
I tried flexing to move them, and to my astonishment they did. I was aware of both the wings and the energy coursing through the veins of each individual feather. While I was distracted by this discovery, Danielle suddenly jerked backwards a couple steps and her hand fell from my arm.
The distant crack of a rifle’s gunshot followed quickly after.
“Jordan?” Pale blue eyes looked at me in surprised shock. Her knees buckled as she collapsed and thick red blood poured down her chest melting the ice still covering her skin.
Gunfire echoed through the forest.
I was screaming, but I don’t remember what. Danielle was on the ground bleeding heavily from the spot near her heart and I was lying over her trying to keep her covered because Lieutenant Forsythe had shouted that there were multiple snipers and for everyone to get down.
Jenna was struck as she got close, the impact causing her to tumble forward like a dark shadow projected on a screen behind a mad trapeze artist.
“Jenna! No!” Brendan, only a few steps behind her, dove towards where she lay.
From where she hit the dirt out of view Jenna shouted, but not with pain. “Wow! I’m fucking bullet proof! Jordan, stay there!”
With that she was on her feet charging into the woods. Brendan, fury replacing shock, gave chase while lines of force wavered in the air around him. More gunshots, but this time coming from Mrs. Cantrel and the Lieutenant’s position by the van.
Lt. Colin Forsythe was returning fire.
There was a loud ka-chunk, and a small cylinder hit the path between us and the parking area. It spewed out a tremendous amount of smoke, covering everything and making it impossible to see.
My hands were trying to keep Danielle’s blood from spilling free. They were glowing, attempting to help her as I had once helped Mark.
But there was an awful lot of blood.
Mrs. Cantrel’s emerged through the smoke piloting the hover chair, expression determined and focused. In rapid succession the dark-skinned woman visually examined me and Danielle, flicked at the controls to launch another smoke grenade out the back towards the snipers, and continued shouting into a wireless ear-mic that had been snapped into place.
“… at least two hostiles conventionally armed. One student down, repeat, one student down. The vehicle is disabled, our transport is gone. Request ETA on evac and medical!”
All I could do was stare down at Danielle’s pretty and unconscious face.
“That’s not soon enough!” Cantrel yelled into the link. “Dammit, Jordan… Jordan!” She nudged my arm with her chair. “Snap out of it, girl!”
I looked blankly up at her.
“Reinforcements and transport will take minutes to get here. From that wound, she doesn’t have that kind of time. Can you fly?”
Blinking, I remembered I still had wings - and power still flowed through them. And through me. The realization forced the world back into clarity. “I think I can, yes!”
From a hidden compartment she fished out a weird plastic mask contraption and tossed it over. “Put that on her, it will force air into her lungs. You can’t do CPR while in flight.”
I scrambled and slid the mask over Danielle’s head. As soon as it was in place her chest began to rise and fall from the gadget’s forced airflow.
“Now put this over the wound. It may not help much, but every bit counts.” She handed me a beige cloth-like thing, like those special ones used to dry cars, and I placed it against the raw bloody leak over Danielle’s heart. The strange cloth seemed to suck itself onto her skin - sealing the wound.
That done, I picked her up in my arms.
“Can you find the way to the campus?” Mrs. Cantrel demanded to know.
A moment of panic. I hadn’t paid any attention to the drive here and really didn’t have any idea where I was.
Mrs. Cantrel saw my face. “Don’t freak, girl - focus. You have a familiar. Some magic users can sense them, even from afar. Your cat, Khan, can you feel where he is? The roads don’t lead straight to get there, but a feeling will.”
Khan? How the heck… wait. My head snapped towards a direction over the lake and off to one side. For a brief second there was a flash of Khan scratching and meowing at the inside of the door to our room.
He knew something was very wrong.
“Yes, I see him! He’s that way!” With hands full, I pointed with my chin in the general direction.
“Then get her to Doyle as fast as you can without harming her further, understand? I will tell them you are on your way.”
More gunfire and shouting could be heard off in the forest and I hesitated.
“Don’t worry about us, just fly! Go!”
I took to the air.
Treetops rushed past directly below and a trail of light and tears followed behind.
I prayed to Raphael to get his help for Danielle, but I couldn’t feel him.
“Dammit, Raphael, where the fuck are you? She needs you…” Honestly, I don’t know what he could have done to help, but I was furious that he didn’t answer.
Which is why I didn’t react very kindly when a presence popped up to the side and called my name.
I snapped before looking. “Raphael! Where the hell have you been! I’ve been calling… oh… shit, sorry Louis.”
Louis Geintz, a.k.a ‘Fubar’, had projected his mental self to ‘fly’ alongside us.
“Raphael?” He raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but that’s a new one.”
“Sorry!” I said again. “How’d you find us?”
“You mean other than looking off into the sky and spotting the incoming blazing comet? But listen, you need to follow me in. The wards detected Class X energies… and something else… in the vicinity. An opening will be made for you, and if you miss it, well, right now let’s just say I’m not sure which would win: you or the wards.” The roaring wind blew hair into my face while he floated alongside untouched in a perfect lotus sitting position.
“I’m getting her to Doyle. I don’t care what’s in the way!”
He nodded seriously. “My point exactly. Will you let me lead you in?”
Clutching Danielle closer, I tried to increase speed. “Do it!”
“Then go up a little higher. Here, follow.”
He teleported directly in front, pointing the way. The road leading to the campus was off on the right and I remembered that the wards extended a decent distance outside the actual official limits of the school.
He had us curve up further, and this time the wards were even clearer than when I had arrived. They comprised a solid wall of energy much like a huge soap bubble, including rainbow refractions swirling about on the surface. The pattern pulsed with active energy whereas before it had seemed passive.
As we went over the protective half-dome, it became obvious where he was guiding us. A circular section opened in the wards - surrounded by a slowly expanding wheel of sigils. I aimed for the gap and was through.
It closed instantly behind.
Swooping down we made a beeline towards Doyle where a gurney and crew of medical personnel already waited in front. One of the nurses was off to the side with a young female student who I didn’t recognize. The nurse was trying to get the girl inside, but they and everyone else gaped as we came in for a landing.
Laying Danielle as gently as I could on the gurney, I took a step back to give the medical team room to do their jobs.
Please, God, if you’re listening - take care of her! Please!
They rushed her into the building, shouting about starting an IV and getting her into surgery.
Louis put an awkward arm around my shoulders, trying to offer what comfort he could as we watched Danielle get wheeled away. “They’ll take good care of her. I promise.”
The young girl still stared at me through horn-rimmed glasses. Her face had gone very pale and she muttered, “Gabriel?” Wide eyes proceeded to roll up into her head.
The nurse snapped free from her own astonishment at my appearance and managed to catch the girl before she hit the ground.
Jenna raced between densely clustered trees, each step launching her faster through branches shattering against her obsidian skin. Brendan was not far behind. She could hear each of his running steps, his presence a warmth following the same path that beckoned her forward.
The blinding explosion of light that burst from Jordan upon touching the gryphon had washed through her and Brendan both, and she knew they were riding the culmination of its pulse towards those who would snuff out all illumination if given the chance.
As she gave herself over to the music reverberating within, she offered up a quick prayer to a deity she had long ago set aside after losing the most precious thing in her life.
The foliage ahead became a blur, yet each leaf was distinct and framed with clarity. Thunderclaps of the attackers’ guns registered within her perceptions, but her body had already danced to the side as if it knew beforehand the proper path to take to avoid the deadly rounds of lead which spiraled past.
Her blood sang with righteous fury and she charged with a fierce joy at the figures ahead, noting black clouds obscuring eyes set within expressionless faces. Her body was her weapon: a fist smashed the rifle of the enemy, tearing the front end of the weapon clear off. The opponent, a man shorter in height and dressed in the fighting fatigues of a certain extra-national organization, twisted aside and drew a knife. But she had already twirled about, catching his face with an elbow and forearm to scrape past his head and grab the back of his neck. Planting her feet, her other hand smashed the nose a second time and with his head now locked in a vice grip her coiled body unwound and hurled him into a tree-trunk. The wood disintegrated into splinters. Like a kata in Sensei Ito’s class, each move of the fight was somehow known, practiced, and laid out in a glorious sequence of efficient violence.
All she had to do was connect the dots.
Brendan grunted as a third unseen attacker shot through his leg as he closed the distance with the second. He didn’t falter or even flinch as he tackled the man before him, letting his larger size and momentum plow the foe into the rough ground. Jenna sprinted towards the new threat, determined to reach the similarly uniformed woman and bring her down.
Jenna’s perceived sequence of attack shifted. Behind her the first, who by all rights should have been incapacitated by the crack denting his spine, was on his feet anyway to give chase with a knife in each hand.
The two students instinctively moved to stand back to back, preparing to deal with attackers eerily connected by strands of wispy darkness just as the light bound the two of them together.
But while they were outnumbered, Jenna and Brendan were no ordinary opponents. With hearts echoing that drumbeat singing within the marrow of their bones, they raced along the path of glorious light so clearly charting the way.
As one they lashed out with a speed, strength, and fury beyond anything their foes could counter.
Within the most warded room in the hospital, I waited anxiously.
It had been over an hour and still no word from anyone - other than the nurse who had kindly brought over a pair of white sweatpants and a blank grey t-shirt.
She also had gently suggested that maybe I should go to my room and the further protections it provided. She (and presumably everyone else in the building) was obviously quite worried what I might do should they lose Danielle.
I had stubbornly refused to go. Let them worry and do their damned best to make sure that didn’t happen.
Louis clearly had wanted to stay and wait with me, but the pensive worry lines that remained from watching the other girl pass out led me to assure him he could go. If he could help the other girl he should. Reluctantly he had acquiesced and disappeared.
All I could do was alternately pace and try to sit in between throwing prayers at the ether and despairing at Raphael’s lack of response. So yes, I pretty much spent the time worrying myself sick.
I had powered down, causing the wings to flicker out and disappear. What was really weird was that the channels for them could still be felt as they were just waiting for energy to pour back in. Whenever the anxieties would peak, they would pulse - an instant alerting mechanism that, shit, I was pulling in power again without meaning to.
There was no longer any resistance to doing so. I had a sinking feeling I could go from zero to floodlight in less than an instant.
Which may have explained the nurse’s trepidations if they had figured that out too.
My heart skipped a beat as the door opened, all the fears leaping again. But it was only Jenna, dressed in ill-fitting Whateley Security fatigues. Oh, right. She had lost her clothes before she took off into the forest. She must have lost her wig as well, because her head was again sporting the post-stone-form baldness.
“Jenna!” I jumped to my feet and pulled her into a fierce hug. “You okay?”
“Whoa, there! I’m not armored!”
Chagrined, I let go. “Sorry.”
She shook her head. “It’s alright. Any word on Danielle?”
“No. They’ve just left me in here, saying she’s in surgery. Where’s Penelope and Brendan? Are they alright?”
“They’re fine. Penelope wasn’t touched, and Brendan’s leg is all stitched up. He’ll be good by next week.”
“His leg? What happened?”
She pulled me back over to the chairs, making me sit again. “The idiot got shot trying to keep up with me.”
“Doesn’t he have regen? His codename is ‘Tank’ for crying out loud!”
“He doesn’t understand it either, he’s usually bullet proof because of his telekinetic shielding. Whereas I’m not. But the rounds bounced off of me, and yet one went right through his thigh. They haven’t told us much other than something about those bullets being special, some kind of meta-poison-projection or magical field penetrators.” She paused before looking carefully at me. “While the docs clammed up on the details, they did say those rounds also nullified regeneration powers.”
“Oh god, Danielle.”
“Yeah,” she said, putting an arm around me. “It’s probably why they’re taking so long.”
I was shaking. “Did… did you guys get the shooters?”
“Kind of. They were MCO. Three of them. But they were messed up. Their eyes were like solid black, you know, evil. And they didn’t react normally, more like they were in perfect lockstep coordination. If it wasn’t for…” She stopped herself, staring at the floor a moment before continuing. “If it wasn’t for us being supercharged, we would have been toast.”
“I saw you - all black and shiny, not grey. How did you do that?”
“Jesus, Jordan, you don’t know? It’s because of you.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “When you touched that gryphon son-of-a-bitch, it was like a column of power just, I dunno, detonated around you. Hell, it launched Danielle into the lake, crushed the van, and set more trees on fire. When it washed over us my power went crazy. At first my usual grey stone popped out like half a foot thick all over - totally destroying my clothes - but then it’s like the rock concentrated down. I think the density it reached was insanely high. It didn’t even feel like stone, just like this smooth skin covering.”
“Brendan was right,” she said while letting me lean against her. “You can supercharge powers. He can normally only shield himself, but while we were fighting those three hand to hand? I’m pretty sure he punched one of them without actually touching them.”
“But his defense wasn’t enough to stop their bullets.”
“Forsythe says those things were really nasty pieces of work.”
I swallowed. “If the doctors were able to help Brendan, hopefully they’ll know what to do for Danielle.”
We sat silently for a minute before I asked, “What about the unconscious guy on the shore? Was he alive?”
She nodded. “Alive, and he woke up once on the trip back.” She winced. “That was creepy.”
“Why? Who is he?”
“He woke up crying for his mom, with this thick English accent. When we asked who he was, he only said his name was ‘Billy’ and kept demanding his mom. He looks totally over fifty, like old and stuff, but he sounded really young. Mrs. Cantrell asked him his age.”
“He claimed to be nine so she asked him what the year was. He got real confused and blurted out that it was nineteen sixty-six.”
“Holy shit.” I shivered. I had a horrible suspicion about what had happened to the guy.
“He had a panic fit and they had to restrain him; they even gave him a shot of something to knock him out. Mrs. Cantrell was really disturbed, I could tell that much, but she wouldn’t explain why.”
“I think he was Tsáyidiel’s avatar host.”
“The gryphon. That’s his true name. He was under a… a really nasty compulsion. I think Billy is an avatar mutant, likely a high level one. And Tsáyidiel was bound to him, so that he could manifest through Billy’s powers.”
She thought about it for a moment, and looked sick. “Wait, that would mean…”
“Yeah,” I said. “Billy’s mind, if not his whole soul, has probably been completely suppressed for forty plus years.”
“That’s fucked up.”
I couldn’t even imagine how much help Billy was going to need. He’d lost over more than three quarters of his life, and now was in a time extremely different from what he’d known. Hopefully the school could find his family, even if his parents were probably retirees by now. I was pretty sure that he and Tsáyidiel weren’t bonded anymore as that connection severed before the light crashed full strength into the gryphon’s pattern. Good thing too. I’m not sure a human’s spirit could have survived that kind of power.
“Oh!” Jenna said. “I didn’t tell you the rest about those MCO assholes.”
“Are they in custody? And how do you know they were MCO?”
“They were in uniforms. And that’s just it, me and Brendan fought and chased them through the forest, right? We gave them a good beat-down and finally knocked them out of commission. But when the Lieutenant arrived with the armored security squad and went to pick them up? With eyes closed and their bodies slack, they all laughed with this same really disturbing laugh. And they died, all three of them. They fought as if super-powered too, we… if we hadn’t fought like we did…” Jenna let go of me to cross her arms, hugging herself instead.
“With enchanted weapons, it’s a miracle you both survived. What were you thinking running at them like that?”
“We were… look, I can’t explain it, okay? We needed to take them down.” Jenna watched me for a long moment, studying my face. “Jordan, just what the hell is after Danielle and why? Do you know?”
“It’s a long story. And there is way too much for which I haven’t a single clue.” I was about to say more, but the door opened. Natalie came in, and I panicked. If they had sent Natalie, oh no… no…
Jenna took my hand and squeezed it, hard.
Natalie, looking a bit frazzled herself, simply said, “She’s alive, Jordan. Unconscious, but alive. The surgeon expects her to recover.”
I choked out a sob and they both held me while the tears fell again, this time with overwhelming relief.
Natalie had already called Isaiah, and miraculously he’d answered. He was taking a red-eye flight and due to arrive in the morning. I wasn’t looking forward to having to explain to him how we had foolishly left the security of the campus, and how we’d severely underestimated how easily our enemies could find us if we did. Natalie had mentioned they were looking into how the attackers knew where we’d be, but so far the guess was something magical. Great.
They let me visit Danielle. I spent the next couple hours kneeling at her bedside holding her hand while listening to the heart monitor steadily beep. Once again, another hospital room, and another bedside for someone I loved so dearly it hurt.
Jenna insisted on sitting in a chair nearby where she’d pick up a tablet, poke at it, and put it down again. I know she still had questions, but I really didn’t feel up to talking. She was kind enough to respect that.
The doctors had said Danielle should recover and be fine, especially as her regeneration had been picking up speed ever since they were able to flush the poison from the bullet out of her system. They said she should wake up by morning.
It all sounded reassuring, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still wrong.
After awhile voices rose in the hallway, and as I slowly paid attention they resolved into Rabbi Kirov arguing with Circe.
“… but we know something of incredible power happened out there, and we need to find out what!”
“Patience, rabbi. Jordan will talk to you soon enough. I felt it too, naturally, but for now this is where she needs to be.”
“The echos reached colleagues in Israel. They report that their contacts with Above have all fallen silent. It is very worrisome!”
“Is Jordan or the school in any danger tonight from the repercussions?”
“I… I don’t know. But the MCO’s involvement…”
“They have no authority to intervene on school grounds, at least not without cooperation from the DPA. And the DPA Director has advised to sit tight.”
I sighed. I really didn’t want to talk about any of it, but if there was a chance of a further threat they needed to know. I got up, earning a weird look from Jenna who had obviously been listening in on the hallway conversation too.
“Watch over her, will you?” I said.
“You got it.” Jenna nodded, scooting her chair closer to the bed.
Stepping out into the hallway interrupted whatever Kirov had been about to say. Instead both him and Circe turned to me.
Despite the exhaustion, I forced myself to speak. “You want to know, so I’ll give a summary.”
The rabbi’s expression went quickly from anticipation to concern after taking in how I looked. “If you’re too tired…”
Holding up a hand I said, “Just listen, okay?”
He nodded while Circe gave me her complete focus and attention. Yeah, that wasn’t unnerving or anything.
I told them everything I could remember: the airborne fight with Tsáyidiel, Danielle wanting to free him, and Raphael saying it couldn’t be done and to kill him before Azazel took him.
And I described the light taking over and freeing him anyway.
Kirov’s mouth hung open, he was at a complete loss for words. Circe, however, narrowed her eyes. “Azazel.”
I nodded. “Yeah. That’s the name of his master, Raphael said so. Not like I know who that is, though.”
The rabbi recovered enough wits to speak. “A fallen Grigori, one of their leaders according to lore.”
I thought back to the dream of Gabriel discussing these Watchers as she’d called them. Nervous butterflies tried to fly in the stomach but sank like lead instead. “Well, that’s the asshole who wants Danielle to die while I watch. And who ordered Tsáyidiel to kill me before.”
Circe said to Kirov, “Go make use of your connections. Find out all you can about this fallen angel. Also inform the DPA, though I advise going through your brother to have a properly secure connection with which to talk to the Director. If you have friends in the Christian communities or other Abrahamic scholars, talk to them as well. They may have insights from their perspectives that we lack. Do it discreetly.”
He nodded with a face drawn and serious. “That I shall do. Jordan, you should rest - and likely should eat. Regain strength.” He turned to go, but then stopped and looked back. “And Jordan?”
“Raphael was correct. An angel lost from God cannot be recovered. As far as I understand, it is impossible and has never been done.”
“Then what the hell did I just do?”
He was both concerned and awed. “Perhaps a true miracle. And we had best find out.” With a nod to Circe, he hurried down the hall.
Circe put a hand on my shoulder. “You really should try to eat. So should your friend in there.”
“I can’t leave Danielle. I just… I can’t.”
“What if I stayed with her until you returned? Should anything change, I can have you paged at the cafeteria. I’m going to presume you lost your phone in the fight that destroyed your other clothes.”
Shit. She was right - my phone had been in a front pocket. I hadn’t even thought of that. “Until I get back? You’ll sit with her?”
Slowly I nodded, realizing that yeah, my stomach was really empty - the sinking butterflies didn’t count. Come to think of it, Jenna was also probably starving beyond belief.
She was, and so we went. Jenna didn’t even want to stop by Hawthorne and get one of her other wigs, saying that after the day’s events any snot-nosed punks that tried to make fun of her baldness could, in her words, go suck eggs.
The Crystal Hall was in the middle of dinner rush and packed to the brim with students.
Not feeling adventurous, I just slapped a couple slices of pizza onto a plate and grabbed an iced tea. Jenna must have felt similarly, as she piled a few cheeseburgers onto hers and called it good.
The whole cafeteria was abuzz with kids talking about what had happened. The tale had obviously grown in the repeated tellings: Tsáyidiel was described as having been as large as a house and instead of three MCO agents it was now a full squad of ten, no twenty. With devisor tech rifles no less.
As we passed some of the freshmen tables, however, one male voice spoke louder than his classmates.
“Too bad the MCO was too incompetent to get the job done, ain’t it.”
Magnus. The jerk who had accosted Danielle her first day here.
“ ‘A’ for effort, but ‘F’ for results,” he continued snidely.
Reaching an open table, I carefully put down my tray. “Watch my food, please,” I said to Jenna, and before she could try and stop me I walked back over to Magnus. I tapped him on a shoulder.
“Care to say that crap again?” I asked him, my tone strangely calm.
His buddies, those that weren’t too busy ogling me, quieted. But Magnus turned and stood up.
Huh, we were the same height.
“You one of those sidhe loving idiots or something?” he asked with a sneer.
In a tone somewhere below freezing I said, “I only know one sidhe, and yes, I care for her more deeply than you will likely ever understand. My question to you is, are you just a bigoted moronic child who can’t help but parrot the garbage he was raised with, or do you have even the slightest possibility of growing out of it and becoming a worthwhile person?”
“Are you calling my gran garbage?” His face twitched with rising anger.
“If she taught you to prejudge everyone with a disgusting bias then yes, I suppose I am.”
“You bitch!” The air around me on all sides solidified into glassy barriers of force as he activated his powers. He even put a top on the box. “I’ll crush you!”
The translucent walls he created tried to compact the space with me still between them.
Thing was, they were just made of energy which flowed outward from his aura. Barely anchored energy at that. Holding up a single finger, a pulse ripped at the pattern of light underlying his magic and focused it all instead to that fingertip.
The entire hand burst into white flame, and I drove the point directly towards his forehead with a blur of speed as if meaning to burn through his skull and set the lack of brain on fire.
But I didn’t. The fingernail stopped millimeters above the skin right between his wide eyes, while the rush of air generated by the swiftness blasted into his face and through his hair with a small sonic boom.
He was too stunned at the speed to raise his hands or try anything.
“Hear me carefully, Magnus,” I said, holding that burning finger ever closer to his forehead. “The sidhe you accused the other week as being one who would enslave the human race begged me, earlier this very day, to free a slave who had only moments before driven claws through both her shoulders and tried to kill her.”
Magnus swallowed, his face pale with fear of the white flame before him and of the crazy equally flaming-eyed girl holding it.
“Ask yourself,” I continued, “whether your hate will help your cause or if it is more likely to poison her pure heart towards you and all the other humans, and thereby become the source of a self-fulfilling prophecy and cycle of pain.”
“What… what are you?” he stammered. He tried to raise his shield-wall again, but that only caused the finger to grow brighter.
“Were you raised a Christian?” I asked, ignoring his attempt to use his power.
“Then consider me a messenger from the Lord with a warning for your soul. And don’t test my patience any further.”
I slowly pulled back and, with eyes locked on his, blew out the dancing flames before stepping calmly away past the astonished faces of the other students.
As I sat down back where Jenna was waiting, she casually pointed at my pizza. “It’s getting cold.”
It took a few minutes of silent chewing for it to hit me. I had no idea how I had just done what I did. It was all reaction without thinking and just, well, doing it. Like being in a dream, with that weird intuitive knowledge you get where you just do and say stuff automatically because you’re following the dream logic and story.
That feeling still remained. The solidity of the world had gone, like the illusion had been pierced and I should wake up any moment. But where would I awaken to?
Breaking through the mystical limiter that had given boundaries to the energy had changed me, and more than just the gain of those fiery wings. And clearly from the conversation with Magnus, the subconscious no longer considered me to be one of the humans along with him and everyone else.
Deep down, it knew different.
Even Jenna, who normally would be trying to cheer me up or something, sat there quietly eating hamburger while lost in her own thoughts. She hadn’t tried to stop me from confronting Magnus. What had she really seen or felt by the lake? Was she afraid of me now?
She caught my stare and put down her burger. “You okay?” she asked, looking at me warily.
“I don’t know. You?”
She hesitated, as if debating on what to say. “I’ve never been in a real fight before. Not like this.”
Oh. How stupid can I be? Her fight with the MCO thugs… “Sounded scary, but you did real well.”
“I wasn’t thinking,” she said, pushing tomato back under a bun to prevent its escape. “When they started shooting and that bullet bounced off? I just charged in, as if I was invincible. It was like I was high on adrenalin or…”
“Or overdosed with power. Thanks to me.”
She slowly nodded. “Yeah. Totally unreal. Like a crazy video game.”
“Still feels that way.”
“You in shock? I’ve heard that can happen. I mean, we only caught the edge of that font. You were at the center. You really…” She hesitated. “You really are something different, aren’t you?”
“A real angel,” she continued. “And not just as a spirit, you know, with a human body.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I don’t think I can deny it anymore.”
“Plus something out there is hunting you. And those that are close to you.”
Staring down at the slice of pizza in my hand all I could do is nod. “Something old and terrible. Evil. And I barely know anything about it.”
“That’s messed up.”
The slice fell back onto the plate. “It… it’d be safer to…”
She cut me off. “If you even think of saying it’d be best to not be your friend, you should shut the fuck up right now.”
Startled, I stared up at her. Her eyes had hardened. “But-”
“No. Being hunted or chased by big and nasty things or organizations is like a damned tradition at this school. Heck, most of us obvious mutants get hunted in general anyway. So this enemy of yours doesn’t make you special. Okay, sure, it sounds all darkly powerful and shit, but you know what? You’re going to win. And we’re going to help you, however we can.”
I didn’t know what to say, and she kept talking.
“I’ve never been one to really believe in God, or any of that stuff. Especially after… after losing my brother. I mean, sure, I knew spirits and magic were real, but since you got here you’ve saved Evie, saved Tamara, and today you saved Danielle and fought off a monster. And when that blast wave hit us? It didn’t just feel like magic.”
She shook her head. “It was something different. Something holy. I can’t explain in words properly, but there it is. We must be meant to help you. It gave me the power today to do so, and it felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I tried to shift my skin in private in the restroom at Doyle, and it’s back to being the usual grey stone. I’m not bulletproof, not to long arms fire like that. But today I was, because of the divine. Because of you.”
“Because of me, you could have been killed!” I protested. “I couldn’t stand it if something happened to you!”
“I know. We all know you would do anything to keep us safe. So let us try and do the same for you.”
“Me, Brendan, and I’m sure if you asked, Evie, Leland, Zap, and Tamara all would say the same.”
“I…” Words died in my throat. Yep. Overwhelmed, that was me.
She managed a tired grin. “Just shut up, eat your pizza, and let’s get back to check on Danielle.”
I obediently shoved pepperoni and cheese past my teeth. But after a couple bites, something popped into my thoughts and I had to ask.
“Was it a green or red flag today?”
She paused, looked up at the color displayed over the cafeteria doors, then snorted a giggle. “Seriously?”
“Don’t want to get more detention, Mrs. Cantrel will run out of things for me to clean!”
That earned an even louder guffaw of laughter. I joined in.
We remained punch-drunk from the day’s events during the rest of our dinner and all the way back to Doyle. Whenever we’d fall quiet one of us would just go ‘flag!’ and kick off more giggles.
The mirth, however, fell away when we got back to Danielle’s room.
Circe was there as before, but now Louis and another man I didn’t know also stood next to Danielle’s bed. The newcomer had on a western-style leather vest, jeans, boots, and even some turquoise beads around his neck. Weirdly I could sense a powerful spirit either within him, or lurking nearby. It was an odd sensation and knowledge.
All three were way too somber for the gathering to be anything good. The air was thick with deep concern and worry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, pushing myself past them so I could see Danielle, leaving Jenna in the hallway. Danielle was still on the bed, still breathing, and the heart monitor beeped normally.
It was Louis who answered. “Physically, nothing - and that is the concern. Jordan, can you see her spirit?”
Her spirit? I frowned, focusing to open myself to the other side of things. Immediately the room shifted and now there were four people in it. Circe was like a solid green flow of magic, Louis was clearly his projected self with the tether-line flowing up and out of the room towards Hawthorne, the new guy had a pattern that felt like a calm spring bubbling in pristine woods, and the fourth was an older native man hovering behind the new guy all dressed in traditional leathers decorated with beads and feathers, with a worn face to match.
Danielle, though, was missing. Her spirit was just… gone.
“No!” Knees failed, the guy in the vest caught my elbows and gently lowered me to her bedside.
“Her spirit is traveling,” he said. “But to where, we do not know.”
“Charlie,” Circe said. “Can you trace it?”
The man shook his head. “If there is an astral cord, we cannot see it. I can ask the spirits to search for her, perhaps they could find her depending on where she has gone.”
From what the rabbi and Louis had told me about astral projections, I knew that losing the connection between spirit and the body was really bad. “How long can she live like this? How long does she have?” I demanded.
Sad faces all looked at me, and Charlie answered. “A few days, perhaps weeks. Without a solid cord, the body will eventually give up. Though her natural regeneration could lengthen that time-frame, it’s hard to say.”
“How likely is it your spirits can find her?” He hadn’t sounded confident.
“Like I said, it depends. They can search the realms they know and travel. But not beyond.”
I felt cold. “That doesn’t sound reliable.”
“It’s the best I can do,” he said quietly.
Dammit, what good was it being an angel if I couldn’t protect one soul? Or even notice when Danielle’s got knocked free? Problem was, I hadn’t known to look and even if I could potentially go after it, I had no idea how to do that either.
Wait. I didn’t, but maybe - just maybe - I knew someone who did.
“Circe,” I said more forcefully than I probably should have. “I need your help.”
Eyes older than civilizations calmly regarded me. “How so?”
“I’m unsure of my control or even limitations after today. Come with me to my room, if you could, and stand ready to trigger your failsafe in case it’s… necessary.”
“What are your intentions, Jordan?” she asked curiously.
“I need to call out to someone who, if I’m right, should be able to find her no matter what spirit realm or place she’s gotten lost in. I don’t know how much power I’ll unleash if I do this and right now I don’t trust myself. I’m trying to play it safe.”
She considered for a moment, then nodded. “A summoning. Let me stop by my office and pick up a couple items and I’ll meet you at your room.”
I stood and leaned over the bed to kiss Danielle’s forehead. “Hang in there, sweetie,” I whispered. “I’m going to send help.”
Straightening, I looked at Charlie - and realized he must be Charlie Lodgeman, the same one who had tried to help Zap when Zap first shifted and got stuck as a hawk.
I said to him, “I don’t know much about such things, but I have read stories about it being dangerous for a body to be without its soul for too long. Making it vulnerable to evil spirits, demons, stuff like that. If that’s true, is there anything you can do to ward this room and keep her protected?”
He smiled gently, but the creases besides the eyes showed a deep weariness. He’d seen too many kids in these kinds of conditions, and the toll lay heavy upon him. “I was going to suggest it. Yes, I’ll stay here and do all I can.”
“Anything I can do?” Louis asked.
I shook my head. “If you can’t trace where to start looking for her spirit, then maybe go bug Natalie or whomever is trying to help Billy. He’s going to need all the love and understanding he can get - and make sure he’s protected both physically and spiritually. He was probably kidnapped and used for his high avatar ability and is wide open again.”
“I’ll check in.”
With one more gaze at my unconscious niece, I stepped from the room. Jenna, still at the doorway, backed up to let me exit. She wiped away the tears on her face and looked at me determinedly.
“You’re under my protection again. Where you go, I go.”
This time I knew better than to argue. I gave her a quick hug. “Okay.”
We headed towards Hawthorne’s attic and the triple circle that waited there. I really hoped I knew what the hell I was doing.
Truth was, I hadn’t much of a clue. But I was going to do it anyway.
When Circe arrived she asked Jenna to stand outside the attic room’s door and make sure we were undisturbed. Jenna reluctantly agreed though she was clearly not happy about it.
I had given Khan some attention. The poor little guy had really made a mess of the inside of the door, he’d left deep grooves. I checked his paws to make sure no claws had broken off, fortunately they were all intact. For his part, he kept wanting to bonk foreheads with me - at least until I put the fresh food down for him. He had his priorities, though he did pause to give me a look until I told him it was okay and he should eat. He tucked in.
Circe had been busily preparing a separate part of the floor for herself. With chalk and a small amount of her own blood she marked a new circle in a corner and inscribed a pentacle within it.
“I’ll stand here. Do you have a technique you are going to try?” she asked.
The king-size bed was still shoved to the side out of the triple circle from the day’s earlier practice sessions. “Not really, figured I’d power up, try to reach across - maybe to the space I keep going to in my dreams - and then shout until he answers.”
I shook my head. “No, not him. I think earlier today scared him off.”
Her brow lifted in surprise. “An archangel scared? You didn’t mention this to the rabbi.”
“Nope. Haven’t decided whether I want to yet or not. I like Kirov, but if he gets too excited? I’m not certain he won’t let something slip to a colleague and start a religious mess. Attention like that is the last thing I need right now. Which is why I didn’t invite him to this - even if contacting angels is more likely his area of expertise. Honestly, if he were to overhear any of this he might soil his pants.”
“I agree. And I appreciate the gesture of trust you’re extending me.” She nodded with approval and stepped inside her newly protected area. “I am ready. Good luck.” Khan took a seat on the floor at her side, just outside the markings. He watched me expectantly, as if he knew I was about to do something and he too would be ready just in case.
I pulled off the t-shirt, still wearing the purple bikini top underneath. I didn’t want the borrowed shirt to get ruined with what I was about to do.
After a moment’s hesitation, I stepped into the center of the circles: three rings surrounding a six-pointed star with each ring inscribed in very different styles of symbols and languages. This time I could feel the change from crossing their boundaries. It was like I became mostly cut off from the world beyond the lines. The middle circle had originally been designed to just anchor and hold me, but after making a mess of my dreamtime it had been modified to let awareness slip back and forth.
The outer circle, of course, was Circe’s failsafe to launch the inner contents beyond all the worlds if the energy levels became dangerous to the school. Or the planet.
Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes. Every time I had powered up before I had to deliberately open up, pulling the brilliant energy into that spiritual well. This time was different. I realized that since powering down at the hospital I’d been unconsciously putting effort into seeming human, my own will restricting the flow to maintain the appearance of being nothing more than a sixteen year old girl. But I wasn’t human. And as much as that scared me something awful, I embraced the idea because right now I had to.
Danielle needed my help.
The restrictions both in my mind and my spirit fell away and wings spread instantly out behind, feathers and skin filling the room with that brilliant effervescent glow.
It felt natural. It felt right.
Waking up in the hospital that first day with an exemplar body and its lack of aches and pains and ease of breathing had been a similar experience, only this was so much more. I just was, and it was glorious.
I could have spent hours reveling in the sheer sensation of it, but there was work to do.
For over a month my dreams had drifted to those cliffs overlooking an ocean. In the sky above were usually clouds that occasionally carried a floating city. The path to that place had been taken whether I willed it or not, but now I reached for it deliberately while awake and still standing in the physical world.
I pictured that scene lying behind the balcony doors, and in that vision I stepped forward to open them wide and let that ocean breeze flow into the room. As feet passed the second circle there was a tug of resistance, but a quick determined push carried them past. Moving both in the physical and spiritual realms, the distinction had washed away.
Standing in the open double doorway I called outward into the bright yet sunless sky beyond.
“Tsáyidiel! If you can hear, I bid you to come!”
As soon as I said his name I could feel him, like a warm cozy blanket that takes away a wintry evening’s chill. He was coming, and coming fast. I took a couple steps back inside as a large black raven swooped down to the floor just inside the doors.
Upon landing it was no longer a raven. On one knee was an angel, raven wings cascading upon his back to match feathers woven into long dark hair. His hands - correction, his dark furred paws - were placed on the ground as he bowed low.
“My Lady calls, and I answer.”
I felt the acknowledgment as a shiver through my spirit. “Are you… alright? Are you free from darkness?”
He raised a beautiful face of flawless skin and eyes deeper than the night. I couldn’t help it, I gently touched that face, aching for merging my energy with his. He was mine somehow, and I was his.
From that touch, he didn’t shrink away. If anything he trembled in ecstasy.
I took a half-step back, disturbed by the strength of that connection between us.
“My freedom lies in serving the Light,” he said as tears welled in the corners of his eyes. “But I am unworthy, my Lady, and this dream is impossible. You are right to recoil from one such as I.”
“No!” Impulsively I pulled that gorgeous face against my chest, wrapping glowing wings around him. “No. I’m sorry! I’m sorry.” He was terrified, absolutely terrified, to believe in what had happened and his pain and fears surged through me. I couldn’t stand it!
He wept as I held him, paws folding around the small of my back, clinging to me fiercely. “It is too much, for this is not possible. Because I failed! I failed, and I fell, and I let the abyss claim and abuse me - and through me perform horrors. My Lady, I do not deserve this miracle!”
The reason for the connection between his heart and mine burned again in my perceptions, for a heart’s promise lay within him still and continued to be the source of the light shining through his reforged name. It was my promise that fueled him and kept him whole.
I pressed a cheek into soft feathers woven through his hair. “Tsáyidiel, you have to believe. And if you failed in the past, remember the experience and don’t repeat the mistake!”
“You don’t understand,” he whispered, still trembling. “We Malakhim, if we fail from inner weakness we can never be used again. For it was proven we were flawed, the name shown to be weak. A member of the Host must be impeccable, our tasks are too important to be risked and given to a failed instrument. So it is commanded.”
“Then listen to me, Tsáyidiel. Because if you were flawed before, you now must learn from it and grow stronger. I’ve known many flawed people. The ones who are worthy recognize their weaknesses and strive to work past them, to heal the cracks so they become stronger than ever they were before.”
“It cannot be done.”
“If it cannot be done, then why has the Light chosen you? Why has it used me to restore your name? Because I have a need for you, a task that only you can perform before it is too late.”
“My Lady, I… I do not know the answers. I know only of failure.”
Words flowed unbidden off my tongue. “Give yourself over to faith, beloved Kerubim. And find the start of your redemption in the completion of this need.” The words were more than advice. They were a command.
His trembling quieted and new resolve grew in response, causing that name to burn stronger still. “Give me your task, my Lady. I pledge myself to you and its success, unworthy as I am. For you have given me that which I never dared dream possible, and even the merest taste of it is worth more than my whole existence. Please, tell me, what is this sacred task?”
“You are God’s Hunter. Find my niece’s soul: Danielle Thorne, recently manifested as one of the sidhe. Her body lies in the medical facility here at this campus, but her spirit is missing. Find her spirit and bring it safely back. I will help in any way that I can, just tell me how.”
Those dark eyes flared with renewed purpose. “She is your family, and thus is she also mine. I can see the ties that bind us, and they will lead me to her. But I give warning that the flow of time between realms ebbs and shifts according to its own schedule. Please do not mistake any perceived delay in my return as a lack of haste in my efforts! No matter where in the planes of existence she is hidden, she shall be found as swiftly as these wings may fly.”
He stood and bowed deeply to me with a courtly sweep of an arm. “With your permission, I shall not delay.”
“It is given. Go hunt, and may the light be with you.”
“Through your grace, my Lady, it has been restored to me!”
Turning towards the ocean bluffs existing beyond the doors, he took three steps before spreading those wings as if to cover that bright sky with a feathery night and took to the air.
He shimmered before disappearing as he slipped between the realms. But if I focused, his heart could still be felt as if it were next to my own.
Closing the doors, I walked back within the three circles and, with a last glance at the ocean view, clamped down on the energies. Wings disappeared and I collapsed to the floor, shaking from the sudden nausea and fear that swept through me.
Circe knelt down nearby and offered a trash can. “Here.”
Taking it gratefully, I threw up. Still twitching, I managed to whimper, “Good grief, who the hell am I? Was that really me just now?”
The ageless sorceress frowned, worry lines clear upon her face. “That is an excellent question. But a phrase from my youth comes to mind: Tò peproménon phygeîn adýnaton. It is impossible…”
“… to escape from what is destined,” I completed without thinking. “Great, just great.”
She looked at me oddly. “You speak Greek?”
“Of course not,” I replied before realizing what I had just done.
The world spun as all blood fled my face, said face needing to be shoved back into the trash can due to the stomach’s continued decision that insanity and pizza should not mix.
Circe kindly held my hair out of the way.
He awoke in darkness.
Confusion assaulted his senses, pain of sufficient alarming intensity breaking through what obviously was a medicated haze. Eyes open, but no light, and no sound.
Rolling clouds of dark and grey, crashing thunder under a water-deluged sky. Hovering above a grassy plain, watching as a tidal wave hundreds of feet high swept away all that dared stand before it. Voices screaming, crying out for help or forgiveness as the waters plowed them under, and knowing there was still time to save those he very much needed to save…
A sword of blazing crimson fire held point first against his neck prevented swooping down to those desperately wailing, forcing him to abandon those hoping against hope that the numerous winged figures framed by lightning in the rain above might lift them to safety.
No, that was just a dream, clinging to consciousness after waking up. Roll it back a bit further. There had been an explosion followed by pain.
Ah, progress. Keep going then.
Running, he had been running. Makes sense, but from what?
The underground vault. Running up the hidden staircase, cursing with each step.
Traps. Magical ones, cunning and complicated, with the second set proving much more difficult than the first had been.
Oh. He had screwed up. Miscalculated and triggered a backlash. The resulting blast launching him from the top of the stairwell and through a couple walls, protective spells on his trusty coat doing their best to keep him alive. But the force had still knocked his overconfident and foolish ass right out, leaving bruises on ego and body.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wright. I’d suggest trying not to move much as you have had a rough couple days.”
The voice - female, adult - perhaps late forties? Older? The accent was odd, British but not from England. Former colony perhaps. It came from off to the right and a distant echo indicated wherever he was, it was in a large open space.
Not a proper hospital room then, despite the IV needle shoved into the back of a hand.
She spoke again. “While I’m sure you would prefer to rest and recuperate, we have need to talk. Sadly, this is not how the approach is usually done, what with the smuggling you out of the hospital and such. But we believed you to be in danger which required us to move fast.”
“Danger?” His own voice croaked, throat parched and dry.
She ignored the question. “Do you know what is truly frustrating about holy men? They reach momentary enlightened states, gain access to higher levels and perceive things not meant for mankind. And then they proceed to scribble it all down on paper, even though they are quite literally incapable of ever reading, let alone understanding, a single thing they write. Then they leave these legacies of dangerous knowledge behind to their successors, akin to handing a bucket of live grenades to curious children. I’m sure you know of what I speak.”
“The Codex.” He flexed arms and legs slowly, discovering to his surprise that he wasn’t secured to the bed. Interesting.
“Yes, exactly. The Codex’s missing pages and other works like it. We know you were tracing the ancient language, the one mankind is not meant to read.”
“I thought I’d been discreet.” He coughed, the resulting pain providing a detailed map of the worst bruises over his back.
“I’ll be honest,” she said. “We were truly lucky in finding out about your efforts . And you yourself were equally lucky that we did, or else you would be dead by now if not worse.”
“I’m afraid so. There are many interested parties in such works, some less savory than others. We knew there were things hidden underneath the synagogue, things too difficult to transport safely during the riots in the forties and thus entrusted to the protective workings you endeavored to undo. Unfortunately, the men who had personally seen and knew what was down there died in the unpleasantness during the war in Europe. But if we are correct, at least one item buried and protected therein is a danger to you. And to me. Thus, you see, my concern.”
“Yes. You obviously did not have anything on you when we removed you from the hospital, but you had been working down there for many days. There was more than one magically sealed compartment, so I must ask which one did you trigger? And if you opened any of the others, where are their contents now? Your life, my life, and the lives of quite a few others may depend upon your answer.”
“Lady, you’ve admitted to kidnapping me. At the moment I’m also clearly drugged, so why would I trust and tell you anything? You haven’t even told me your name.”
“Because whether you believe me or not, we should be on the same side. And at the moment events are barreling forwards in ways no one could have predicted even as of last week. If we are to survive what is coming, we will need to work together.”
“Sounds like a bunch of horseshit, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“It isn’t. Sadly, you still have not remembered anything. And we may not have the luxury of time to wait for you to do so.”
Remember? He thought through the events of the past week again. Vault one had been complex, but by virtue of Soren’s exhaustive mental training, he’d been able to map it out. A handful of pages were recovered, gibberish to him but he hadn’t had time to study them carefully. Their letters and symbols kept shifting on the page making such study tricky.
The second vault, though, was protected by wardings at least ten times as complicated. Whatever it contained was the true treasure of the site, of that he was sure. The third had appeared empty, but he hadn’t spent the effort trying to confirm the lack of another security illusion. The second was too tempting a focus.
All told, his memory seemed pretty good to him.
“I only worked on one alcove,” he lied. “Thought I had it figured out, but I was wrong. Way wrong. Hence… kaboom.”
“Is it still secure? Or was it a one-time protection?”
He chuckled and winced from the motion. “Why don’t you dig through the rubble and look for yourself?”
“Syrian security forces have the site contained. Someone with pockets deeper than ours is already there.”
“In that case, keep away from it. I can think of only one guy who might be able to get that damn thing open. The trap replenishes itself instantly, if my calculations are correct.”
As much as he didn’t want to give out information that much should be harmless. They’d either have figured it out by killing themselves, or not. Better to seem cooperative, if even just a little bit.
“One man? Who?”
“The inscrutable Callas Soren. Good luck getting him to help, unless you want to owe him one humdinger of a favor.”
“Soren.” She paused in consideration. “I recognize the name, but never have had the pleasure.”
Good. Then they probably didn’t know it was Soren’s work in Los Angeles that led him to the Middle East and this mess. Keeping it that way seemed like a decent idea. “Sorry, I no longer have his phone number. I lost it in a poker game; never try to cheat at cards against someone with precognition. So what now?”
“You should rest. Food will be brought shortly and I may have more questions, of course.”
“Relax, Mr. Wright. If you stay right there for just a short while longer, I believe you stand to gain the answers to a number of your own mysteries.”
“Well, isn’t that a cryptic statement.”
“I suppose it is. Patience, Nicolas. Patience.” She must have been standing nearby, as he could hear footsteps walking away. Likely high heels, too. The sound of a heavy door opening, then clunk. Closed.
Not even a single glimpse of light had flickered from the door.
He waited in the absolute darkness counting out the minutes by mentally singing a pair of Eagle’s songs to mark the time. Witchy Woman and Already Gone. There had been no further sounds throughout so he decided that was enough. Time to see where he was being held and get the heck out.
Without sitting up he reached out with both hands. The skin still felt tight after healing the burns they’d received from catching the white fire of Soren’s ritual - the same flames that had consumed and then restored Jordan. The magical healer he had visited in Jerusalem could only do so much for this kind of damage, but he was grateful for what they’d accomplished. Flexing the fingers, he mentally aligned the tattoos which had survived on the palms and brought them together.
The spell, instead of emitting a soft steady glow as he’d intended, flared brightly like a camera with the flash stuck on. Feedback from the spell scorched still-healing hands to send pain cascading down nerves towards his waiting brain.
As the nerve-fire overcame his senses, he caught a glimpse of his surroundings: a warehouse-like room, at least two stories tall, with every surface covered in hundreds of circles and sigils. His own magic had just been used against him, triggering a connection with a working that must have taken months to get right.
A mocha-skinned woman in a simple long black skirt and creme-colored blouse stood over him. There had to have been two people in the room, both female and only one had exited - duping him into thinking he’d been left alone. The other had remained behind in perfect silence.
With a mind screaming with the pain from the backlash of the surrounding spell, his vision latched on to a silver pendant hanging around her neck. Dangling there was a strange sigil he did not recognize yet felt like he should know. It grew larger and larger and he fell into it, but as he did he heard the woman sigh tiredly.
“You always were a stubborn one, Barakiel. Sweet dreams.”
A crash of distant thunder pulled him under.