It wasn’t working.
Trying to infuse the book with more energy just caused the pages to flake more quickly and fall away. The hills surrounding the lake rumbled and cracked, colorless fractal lines spreading outward.
The fae panicked. Their Queen shouted orders which only some heeded.
“Form up! We need to get a portal open to the nearest dream. Target Alfeim!”
Gwydion, still holding his two-handed blade, argued with her. “Without an anchor waiting on the other end, we could miss and open to the void. And not all of our people will survive such a transfer!”
“If you have a better idea Gwydion, say it now! We won’t all fit on the cursed angel’s island temple, and likely if she leaves it too will fall!”
Zap put hands over mine as they clutched at the strands of the mystical rope, even as the ends frayed into glittering dust.
“What do I do?” I cried to him.
He closed his right eye, covering the burning sun that lay within and opened his left, revealing an orb of the moon shining as a waxing crescent. Lifting our hands, he examined the threads with the lunar light. But he shook his head with somber dread. “This is not your story, nor is it mine. This is Gaia’s tale and her dream. A tale with only a beginning and an end cannot stand, you’ve ripped out the structure that ties the two together. Either you bind them all to you, drafting them into your story and source as you did when reforging this temple, or we take your niece and flee.”
Danielle managed to get to her feet. “What’s happening?”
Zap answered bluntly. “Aradia has caused the collapse of this realm.”
“I didn’t mean to!” Tears of guilt welled at the corners of my eyes, but crying wasn’t going to help anything. Dammit!
“How do we fix it?” Danielle looked between us both.
“They cannot.” Queen Fionnabhair approached, shedding the bark from her skin as she did. Zap tensed, preparing to continue their duel, but the queen raised her hands. “There is no time for fighting, Lord Heru. For you are right, either this angel binds us to her energy to support them all, or a miracle of a different kind is needed.” Her anger roared within her, yet she spoke with the forced calm of a queen keeping it together. “I have no wish to be a slave of Heaven, but if it will save them that is a price I will pay. However if you would allow, there is another possibility.”
Zap inclined his head, letting the Queen step closer and join her hand atop ours. “Your energy will burn me, angel,” she said, “but perhaps it would allow me to slow the dissolution and give us time to create safe passage elsewhere.”
Gwydion, hearing this from where he stood at the edge of the temple stones, immediately shouted his protest. “My Queen! It would destroy you! You cannot take this burden, let me!”
“No, my knight, the burden is mine. As it was upon my seven brothers before me, and would have been Siabh’s should she not haven taken her priestess vows.”
“Siabh,” Danielle murmured. “That’s who I was…”
“Yes, child.” Fionnabhair sighed wearily. “And who I hoped you could be again. Fate, it seems, has decided instead upon this cruel tragedy.” In the distance, an entire mountain shook and collapsed into awaiting darkness. The surrounding fae screamed in panic, some huddling together, others yelling at the sorcerers who were chanting at the blue portal desperately trying to send it outward to any distant place of refuge.
“Could she… could Siabh have saved this place?” Danielle asked, looking to the Queen. The resemblance between them was striking, they shared the same icy eyes filled with the same growing sorrow.
“Aye, but only if Mother answered her call. And no matter how hard I pushed to awaken my sister within you, nothing succeeded. She is gone.” Fionnabhair said the last quietly.
“No, she isn’t,” Danielle said. “I resisted and fought back each time. I’m stubborn to a fault. Just like my uncle.” Shooting me a meaningful look, Danielle placed her hand atop the growing pile of fingers all wrapped around the fading threads of the realm’s story. “Fill me with your power, Jordan.”
I trembled at the thought. “If you wake her up, I could lose you! I can’t!”
“Yes you can,” Danielle said firmly. “They’re my people. I’ve felt and known that since I woke up while wandering among the broken stones. If I did nothing when I had a chance to save them, how could I live with myself? Could you?”
She was right. I couldn’t. I nodded to Danielle, and both Heru and the Queen took a step back from us. Khan nudged my side with his tiger muzzle, did the same to Danielle, and also moved a few feet away.
“Do it,” Danielle said, her cheeks having gone as pale as the freshest of snow. “Before I chicken out.”
I reached within for the heights of the tower of light and beamed all I could into Danielle. Her scream echoed across the realm, resolving into a singular name.
The high priestess chanted within the towering circle of Mother Stones, searching deep in the Earth to find the connections that bound all magic, and all entities forged from that magic. The circle sat on the edge of a plateau overlooking a plain darkened by a mighty storm unleashing torrential rain and ear-crushing thunder on all below.
Within the shadows of the storm flashes of fire could be seen and echoes of the screams of war reached the circle above. Two armies fought bitterly, arrows and spears, swords and spells, all clashing as blood spilled upon raw reddened earth.
They were too busy fighting to notice the tremendous wall of churning water rushing towards them, its white peaks touching the sky.
“Hurry, Siabh! There isn’t much time!” Aradia’s blindfold had become shredded rags, revealing scorched eyes leaking blood as tears down her cheeks. Wings matching the shade of that blood descended swiftly from out of the storm, their owner landing behind her.
“Aradia, you must come. Now.” The armored angel’s voice cut through the wreckage of sound thickening the air.
“She’s not done yet!”
“There can be no delay. The Grigori’s corruption must be bound before he is desperate enough to unleash it, and your uncle’s task must then be fulfilled. The priestess does her part, now we must do ours.”
“But the waters will kill her!” Immovable arms wrapped around the glowing woman as the powerful wings lifted them both above the circle falling away below their feet. “Let go! Stop!”
The concentrating priestess left behind conjured a sphere of bluish-green around her, a barrier against the incoming tidalwave’s fury.
“That won’t be enough!” Aradia struggled against the one carrying her away. “She doesn’t have the power for that unless I help her! Damn you, Camael, put me down!”
Bracer-clad wrists held her tighter, and the warrior’s voice was pained with anguish. “I am sorry. But this must be.”
The tsunami of all tsunamis crashed into the circle, shattering monoliths that had stood upright for thousands of years. In Aradia’s sight the small bubble held against the deluge as Saibh completed the final incantation, sending forth through all the ley lines of the world the sleeping Mother’s command.
Shoulders slumped under a snow-colored robe as the priestess looked up to where she knew Aradia would be watching. Her energy exhausted the bubble imploded and the wintry waters of the flood swept her away.
A final thought reached the daughter of light:
“Aradia, beloved, this is not the end.”
The woman held tight within the angel’s grasp screamed. “No! Siabh!”
Someone was singing.
A woman’s voice hummed softly as if slowly pulling a melody from the deepest recesses of her soul.
Fionnabhair gasped as the humming shifted to flowing words filled with the beauty of a language predating the Celts and even the fae. A pure tongue growing in strength as Danielle gave herself over to the spirit within, all youth falling away leaving a countenance much older and haunted by innumerable years of experience and loss.
Siabh’s song reached out to touch the standing stones forming the circle around us, and each rocky edifice began to chime with answering resonance and power.
She sang of the dawning sun, its gentle light brushing tips of velvet petals as they gracefully open to welcome the new day.
She sang of the insects and birds taking flight to dart and swoop over and between lush fields of wild growth seemingly chaotic in their mix yet merging into a greater and harmonious whole.
She sang of the animals of the ancient cycle of predator and prey propelled by the balance between frenzied motion and quiet stillness, of ruthless cunning and strategic patience.
She sang of the glory of spring as life bursts with displays of all possible hues and the world embraces sensuous dances of love, of mating, of life creating life, with that warmth shifting to a heat that ripens all things before the brisk autumn harvest slides into ice-covered wintry days of solitude only to lie still and silent waiting for the moment the circle would begin anew.
She sang of the power of the elements, of the fury of thunderous hailstorms and the unleashed brilliance of the sky’s fire, of unfathomable blue oceans hiding secrets under endless white-capped waves, of explosions of fiery hot rock releasing immense burning pressures upholding the mightiest of peaks.
But mostly she sang of magic, of the energy generated by the swirl of nature and life, with all that potential offered as a sacrament to the Mother, flowing and swaying within the greater tapestry to coalesce and take form into lives of their own. She sang of the stories that gave them shape and will, of epics of wonder and delight, and also of terror and fear. She sang of paradise and nightmares, of light and shadow, and how the Mother’s dreams of each breathes life into beings forged and bound by the tales carried within the imaginations of all who live.
The denizens of the fae from tiniest brownie to mightiest troll joined their voices with her song, the call irresistible. Their sound, filled with immense harmonies and counter-harmonies, rose to a mighty crescendo with a single magnificent chord as they sent their plea through Arcadia’s heart and back to its origin and source, back to a Mother who slept so deeply she had forgotten to dream.
The realm’s heart gave a single quiet beat and all held their breath, hoping, waiting, balanced on a sword’s edge between exultation and despair.
Another weak beat, and then another. The joyous thundering chorus of an entire realm joined the next tremors as they steadied and grew, the pulse sending at first a trickle - then a stream - and then a mighty river pouring through the once-shriveled energetic passages anchoring and sustaining the dream which was Arcadia.
The Mother’s love for her special dream and people had returned.
Beside me Fionnabhair gripped her sister’s fingers tightly. Siabh’s pale eyes shone clear, and within a single lock of her white hair slid a new shade as if a freshly flowered golden-red poppy had emerged to declare its glory in the middle of unending snow. Freeing a hand from our collective pile, Siabh took hold of that small piece of color and smiled.
Her voice came like an echo from long ago. “Sometimes you only need to find the right words.”
“Siabh…” I choked on her name, emotions from the past warring with the present.
“I told you it was not the end,” she said softly. “But some cycles demand sacrifice in order for new life to bloom.”
Before I could respond, her eyes closed and the Queen caught her as she fell. Siabh’s gentle wisdom faded away, leaving only the exhaustion and uncertainty of a young girl.
“Did it work?” Danielle asked hesitantly, startled to be in Fionnabhair’s arms.
I have never before felt such a simultaneous conflict of relief and loss. The Queen’s own sudden flow of tears expressed the same.
The aftermath was awkward. There we all were, huddled at the center of the Temple, having gone from trying to kill each other to now standing around wondering what we should all do.
Okay, I was wondering what I should do. The Queen collected herself far more quickly.
“If you wish to restore her spirit to her… mortal life, you’d best do so quickly. Her fate is still tied to humanity’s Wheel, and having become disconnected from its old shell her spirit seeks to find a new one.”
Zap figured it out before I did. “That’s why she was bound to the power lines of this realm. You were keeping her from slipping away. With the strongest anchor you had.”
Fionnabhair nodded and I blurted, “Wait, you didn’t grab her when she was shot?”
That resulted in a look of sheer disdain. “Siabh came to wander at this Temple on her own.”
Putting a strong hand on my shoulder, Zap squeezed it hard to keep me from doing something stupid. You know, like putting toes further past my tonsils.
“Queen Fionnabhair,” he said carefully. “As Aradia provided the power to boost Danielle’s awakening of Siabh, she has, in essence, fulfilled your demand for the restoration of your realm. This Temple and area is again tied to the firmament of Arcadia.”
Anger flashed across the Queen’s face, but it quickly faded into a deep weariness. “So be it. We will not argue. Take our sister’s spirit, take our mortal servant, and take any fae still touched by the angel’s power who wish to follow her. But do not delay, lest we decide the true effort was performed solely by Siabh. Your presence has caused enough damage for one day.”
I might have protested that hey, we weren’t the ones who attacked first, but Zap gave my shoulder another squeeze even more painful than the first. Ow.
Holding his hands out for Danielle, Fionnabhair gently handed her over. Zap closed his eyes in concentration, and Danielle’s body sparkled then flowed into one of the charms dangling from the bracelet on his wrist, some kind of small little jar.
“What did you do?” Holy hell, maybe a better question was not what but how?
“A gift from Anubis for our quest,” he replied calmly. “It will secure her spirit for traveling, but only for so long.”
The Queen, seeing Gwydion standing nearby and trying to get her attention, spoke. “We have matters to attend to. As this is where you arrived, it is a fitting place for your departure.” With that she walked off towards her people. All the fae who had been wounded - but not killed - were again standing, finding themselves healed thanks to the realm’s restoration.
There were still far too many bodies lying lifeless upon the ground. Their lives, and their stories, had been lost forever. The realm and the entire situation suddenly felt real enough for me to feel sick.
“What about me?” Erica asked, having made her way to the Temple from the safety of her rock. “I’m not sure I can walk the same paths you all took to get here.” She gestured towards our wings to make her point.
“Lack of wings is not really an issue, but if you agree I can ferry you as well,” Zap offered, holding out his bracelet. “You are still connected to your body back on Earth; I can see the astral line and follow it to get you there. It may be a safer method for your spirit-self. We are unlikely to travel unnoticed.” He gave me an amused sideways glance and I flushed with embarrassment.
At least he was no longer angry.
“Will it hurt?” Erica asked, looking a bit dubious about being sucked into a charm.
“No. Your spirit will merely, in a way, be asleep.”
Frowning at first, she shrugged. “Guess that works.” Stepping closer she gave me a surprise hug. “Thank you. When you see Tamara, tell her I was a stupid selfish brat. One who was messing with things far beyond her comprehension. And while I’m probably still stupid, I am sorry for what I did. I know that for her it’s only been a short time, so also let her know I won’t blame her if she hates me and can’t forgive.”
“I’ll tell her.”
Erica studied me, her expression undecipherable. “I owe you, Aradia. I could have been stuck here until the realm died on its own if not for you. Someday I will repay this debt. I swear it.”
“You don’t have to,” I protested.
“Yes I do.” She turned to Zap and pointed to the charm at his wrist. “Alright, do… whatever it is you do.”
He concentrated and she joined Danielle within the small jar.
“My lady.” Tsáyidiel was beyond the circle, still in his towering gryphon form. Arrayed around him were about six dozen fae creatures including various pixies, brownies, sylphs, an owlbear - and Bristlebeak. “These few wish to join you.” The collection of beings all bowed, in their own fashions, to me.
“Uh, can they travel with us? They don’t all fly but maybe the ones that do can carry enough? Tsáyidiel, in that form you do have a wide back…”
Zap chuckled. “Like I told Erica, walking is not a problem. We can lead them through paths appropriate for feet and not wings. It may take slightly longer, but we should have time.”
“But where can they go? They can’t cross to the physical, right?” What the heck would I do with them?
Tsáyidiel gave a possible answer. “You have a space of ocean, cliffs, and sky. They would be sustained there. Indeed, with an infusion of power you could expand it however you wish and build them a home.”
That confused me. “I thought that place belonged to Gabriel.”
The gryphon tilted his beak. “It responds to you as if you were its originator. Is it not yours?”
Zap interrupted. “Mysteries can be debated later. I agree with Tsáyidiel that it will suffice to sustain the fae folk. We should get moving.”
Seeing the warrior fae reforming their ranks along with the glares Gwydion kept throwing at us, it was hard to argue the point. The sudden landing of a kitten on my shoulder certainly indicated that Khan agreed. Also, this time when he dug in for secure purchase the little sharp claws pierced skin through the fabric of the dress.
Wincing at the tiny perforations, I said to Zap. “Yeah. Get us home.”
With an accompanying gesture, Zap’s sun-filled eye beamed fire and created a passage in the air to spirit paths beyond. “Then let us go.”
Led by the tall gryphon, our crew quickly crossed through Zap’s gate of sun-fire. Bristlebeak paused to give me yet another deep bow, then scampered after the rest of the fae. Shaking my head still bemused about the whole thing, I walked through so Zap could follow and close the gate behind.
There were quite a few more beings on my list than I’d intended, but we had Danielle’s spirit and that’s what mattered. But the Queen’s words had me worried. They implied Danielle really had died from that gunshot, and maybe my own power plus the healers at Doyle had only kept alive her discarded physical shell.
Whatever that could mean, it didn’t sound good.
“How many did we lose, Gwydion?”
“More than estimated, Your Majesty, but not as many as we feared. Heru’s arrival was unexpected, but the realm…”
“Is healed, yes. The gambit succeeded.”
“What of the plan? With this we have the means to wait. Considering what we have witnessed, should we pause?”
“Absolutely not! Our people are still chained to mortality. Every day, every hour they remain so are ones spent in slavery while the numbers of we few who escaped dwindle further. We have labored far too long and suffered far too much to put our trust in the ephemeral prophecies of madmen or the capriciousness of the Bene Ha’Elohim!”
“As your majesty commands.”
“You’ve received a dispatch. What news from the sorcerer?”
“He sent word that mortal authorities are attempting to trace the source of the manna bomb he deployed in the coastal city. Our operatives have emptied its original warehouse and swept it clean, all constructs are accounted for and secure. He has since disappeared and not responded to further attempts at contact.”
“Hmm. He fulfilled his end of our bargain, and we ours. Very well. And the supplier?”
“His work continues and is on schedule.”
“Good. Proceed as planned, my noble knight. The fair folk will be free, or humanity will pay the ultimate price. Now come, we still have guests to entertain.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
I’m sure Tsáyidiel and Zap led us all through many wondrous places with amazing sights, but fortunately we weren’t accosted along the way so I honestly didn’t pay much attention. Before I knew it we were walking along a familiar cliff, with an ocean teasing the sand below.
For all the time I’d spent in this dream staring out over the waters or up at the distant city occasionally lurking on top of the puffy clouds, I had never really examined what else lay on the cliffs further inland. Oh sure, I had a vague notion of wild grass in that usually foggy direction, but that was about it.
Imagine my surprise when the guys led me and the random assortment of fae past the grass to a forest bound by mountain rising as if wide fingers were trying to clutch at the sky. The trees were mostly pine, maple, and oak, the needles and leaves forming a thick ground cover crunching under our feet. I even spotted signs of the presence of deer and other animals scattered about. I may be no woodsman, err woodsperson, but I know what poop looks like.
Zap addressed Bristlebeak and the other fae, asking, “Will these woods do for now?”
With all seriousness the little bundle of twigs sprouting the toucan-like nose huddled with his compatriots, a low murmur of discussion barely audible. Right about when I was getting nervous - after all, where else could I take them if not here? - Bristlebeak approached us. Well, towards me more specifically.
“Aye, and a fine set of trees if I do say so myself. ‘Tis odd, though. This is indeed the lady’s place, for we can feel the recognition and welcome it offers, yet there are subtle differences in the, shall we say, resonances.”
Flummoxed, I pulled in energy. Maybe I could see what the little guy was talking about. Zap shook his head and stopped me. “Not now, Aradia. We have more pressing concerns.” Khan’s tiny meep on my shoulder and head bump against my cheek registered his agreement.
“Oh. Right.” I gestured to the fae. “But what can we tell them?”
Zap pondered, nodded to himself, and spoke to the gathered fae. “The young lady has yet to fully claim her power, her story is just beginning. This place was created by another, and quite possibly left here for her to discover and use.”
Bristlebeak straightened formally. “Then, good sir, we shall endeavor to tend this small garden so that our lady may find it a place of comfort and rest as she grows and comes into her own!”
And here I thought it annoying when the teachers treated me like a child. Yeesh. Still, it was a sweet sentiment. “Thank you, Bristlebeak. Will you all be safe here though?”
Tsáyidiel rumbled deep in his throat. “With your permission, my lady, I can serve as guardian until such time as you have further need of me. Your affairs return you to the physical and at present I have no anchors there.”
I smiled, suddenly feeling a lot better about it. “That sounds like a great idea.” I looked to Zap. “Okay, so how do we get Danielle’s spirit to her? Do I portal us back or what?”
He held up the bracelet, touching the small charm with a finger. “Her room is warded against any spiritual incursions. You must convince the warder to lower them, so I may enter and deliver her spirit directly. Also, the re-bonding of her spirit could be difficult. If they know magics that might help, they should use them. I can convey a spirit, but the boundaries of fate that divide life and death are not my domain. As soon as that is done, I will trace Erica’s thread and do the same for her which will likely be easier. Her body calls loudly for her return, I can hear it.”
Standing there in the non-directional light of this place, the outline of his hawk’s head shimmered over his human-like features. While I wanted to think of him as Zap, after seeing him fight it had gotten harder and harder not to just call him Heru. Clearly the being standing before me now was not really the boy I’d been taking dance lessons with. I mean, he was, but also… he wasn’t. Older, wiser, and just as Siabh’s eyes had been haunted by experience - so were his.
Enough to make a heart ache and want to hold him close to ease such ancient and terrible pains.
“How much will you remember when you wake up?” I asked, resisting the urge as best I could.
He smiled gently. “It will be as it was - a dream. And like all special dreams, it will be as real as we wish it to be.” So saying he leaned in to kiss my forehead. No, I didn’t protest, nor really wanted to.
I focused instead on the doors to the attic’s balcony and the triple circle that lay behind them. Sparking into existence those doors appeared between two nearby trees. The lights in the room could be seen through the glass, young Zap still slept in the bed with a ball of greyish-black fuzz curled tightly against him.
Giving the Khan-kitten on my shoulder a scritch, I whispered, “C’mon buddy. Let’s go home.”
Opening those doors, I stepped through and left the dream-world behind.
According to the clock it was just after two a.m. of the night after our departure according. Khan immediately woke up to stretch and yawn, only to curl back into his warm spot. Zap, of course, didn’t stir. His spirit was waiting for me to get my side of things done. Noting that I was still wearing the elegant white dress made by the crone seamstresses (which miraculously had not been splattered by anyone’s blood), I quickly kicked off the matching high heels and slipped on some sandals before racing out the door towards Doyle.
Changing clothes would have taken too much time, but I did pause long enough to power down.
I’m sure the kids had seen much stranger things than a random girl running through the night wearing a dress suitable for the prom. Though they might have wondered at her sanity for doing so in the middle of a major hailstorm. Crossing icy frozen lawns to take a more direct route, I lost one of the sandals and kept on going through the sheets of falling frozen stones. Never did find the thing later. Of course running like this really should only be done in a sports bra and not a low-cut dress, which prompted a few choice words to join the journey. Hoping no one was around to look closely, I held my bouncing chest in place as I ran to prevent a complete wardrobe malfunction.
Should I ever learn proper magic, a spell to assist such moments was definitely a priority.
After raising a ruckus at the hospital to force the nurses into making phone calls to people they really didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night, both Charlie and Circe arrived at Danielle’s room. If they were shocked by my soaked muddy bare feet and formal attire they didn’t show it. Instead they remained focused on the given summary of what was needed, namely that Heru required to spiritually get inside Danielle’s room so he could deliver her soul.
They spared no time getting to it, and within a few minutes a pressure I hadn’t noticed fell away from my skin. Weird.
As soon as that feeling dropped a blue and silver hawk swooped right through the walls, talons clutching what was a much larger jar than the little bracelet charm had been. Instead of being metallic, this looked ceramic and was closed with a simple hawk-headed lid. The hawk delivered the container with a loud shriek by simply dropping it straight onto her before gliding on through another wall. The thing slid right into her chest and as it disappeared her all-white hair gained the same touch of golden-red that her spirit had acquired after saving Arcadia.
“A canopic jar,” Circe said. “Quick, restore the wards in case her soul gets pulled away!”
They put their hands on Danielle’s side, chanting to themselves in very different languages. The strange pressure returned, leaving me feeling like it was harder to breath. I mean, it wasn’t really, as I could breathe just fine. It just seemed that way, not that it mattered.
Charlie, his disheveled bed-hair pulled into two messy braids, kept up a stream of words much like a meditative song. He waved a lit stick of sage over Danielle but she didn’t wake up. After a minute of her own spellcraft, Circle took a step back.
“Will she be alright?” I asked, trying not to disturb the medicine man still busy at work.
“Only time will tell,” Circe answered. “The bond of her astral cord was lost. Whether the full thread of her life has also been cut, only Atropos knows.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
A steel gaze turned to me. “I believe you have done quite enough for one day. We will sit with her and call your room should her condition change. Expect a summons to a debriefing in the morning about both your journey - and the item you had delivered to August.”
Wait, what? How did they know about that? Unless… “Something happened, didn’t it.” I didn’t bother making it a question.
“You are fortunate that the child appears to be none the worse for wear, only suffering a temporary loss of consciousness.”
Oh. My stomach fell towards the knees. Between getting my niece shot, blazing the rescue party’s location out into the void, almost destroying a fae realm and causing a lot of them to die, and now this - potentially harming an innocent young student - I had caused far too many fuck-ups. “She’s okay, though?”
“For now. Which is why you have time to rest.”
I sighed wearily with a body feeling as heavy as my heart. “For the record, Jenna is blameless. She just did what I asked her to do.”
Circe waved a dismissive hand. “Save your proclamations of guilt or defense for the morning.”
Echoing Heru’s last kiss to me, I leaned over Danielle’s bed and gave one to the patch of newly vibrant color where it rested against her forehead. The smoke from the sage bundle filled my lungs as I did which left me light-headed but I paused before getting clear of it. “Danielle,” I whispered, “If you can hear me, just know we’re here for you. I love you, sweetie. And I’m so sorry.” Without looking at either Circe or the medicine man, I left the room to go back out into the storm.
The freezing cold and wet outside was exactly what I deserved.
Despite the late hour, Mrs. Cantrel was waiting when I got back to Hawthorne.
“Dear me, you’re soaked right to your bones!”
Before I could protest she corralled me with her hover-chair and shoved a thick green towel into my hands. She also spoke a few drying cantrips under her breath as I tried my best to towel off, the dress sticking rather revealingly to my curves. Ugh. I must have given the folks at Doyle quite an eyeful without realizing it. The careful ballroom braids in my hair had also fallen loose from all the running and ice. Yeah, I was a mess.
“I caught Zap on his way out,” Mrs. Cantrel told me. “He left a message for you. ‘Tell Jordan that Erica should be fine’. He looked exhausted and went back to Poe to ‘sleep properly’, as he put it.”
“That’s good.” I felt some relief. One less worry on the pile.
She looked at me curiously. “As I understand it, you were spirit walking to save Danielle, right? So who is Erica?”
“Long story. We found Danielle’s spirit, but she still hasn’t woken up. We also came across Erica Lain, she was stuck in a similar situation as Danielle. We got her out too.”
Cantrel’s expression clouded on hearing the news about Danielle, but raised an eyebrow at the rest. “Erica Lain. Isn’t that the girl behind all the fuss with the demon corruption of another student?”
Mrs. Cantrel gave me a long stare before putting curiosity aside. “I know you must also be very tired, but if you think you’re up to it I have to ask. Could you make one detour before going upstairs?”
I whimpered. “Where?” Good grief, what now?
“I believe Evie needs to know you are alright. She took the news of your departure rather hard and locked herself in her room. The newer empathic wards are holding, but they are slowly beginning to show the strain. We’ve tried talking her out but she has only shouted for us to go away. She’s still responsive, so we haven’t forced the door but…”
Ah hell. Not good. “I’ll go and do what I can.”
Thinking any further delays could be bad for everyone, I booked it towards Evie’s hallway and skidded to a halt in front of the locked and lurking door.
Knocking gently, I said, “Evie? You in there? It’s Jordan. Can I come in?”
There was a cry echoing my name as the door flew open, and a purple-haired girl pulled me inside.
“You made it!” Evie clung tightly to my chest, ignoring the lingering dampness. “I was worried!”
When she had thrown open the door I had braced myself to throw energy at any dark floating eels that might be in there, but before I could take care of the few that hovered about Evie’s own relief unconsciously sprouted a couple of those luminescent orbs. They zipped directly towards the black oily things and as I watched in stunned silence, obliterated them.
She squeezed tighter still. “You didn’t say goodbye.”
“I’m sorry, hon. I was in a hurry. But I asked Jenna to tell you where I was going and give you a hug from me.”
“It’s not the same.”
Sighing, I maneuvered us over to the bed so I could sit. “I know. And I’m really sorry.” I was careful to not get muddy toes on her comforter.
She finally let go enough to look at me. “You’re all wet. And your hair is a disaster!”
I tried to smile. “I’m a total wreck.”
Looking askance at my disheveled state, she bounced to her dresser and returned with a hair brush. “You don’t want it to dry like that,” she insisted, hopping onto the bed behind where I sat to drag the brush through soggy tangles.
Wincing at the snags, I watched with fascination as a lingering softly-shining orb bobbed slowly about the room. It had no more dark emotional manifestations to chase away.
“What happened? Did you save Danielle?” She tugged harshly at one of the worst knots.
I bit my lip. Sitting here, away from everyone and with the immediate need for action gone, self-control slipped and tears escaped. “Yes and no. We got her spirit back, but I’m afraid she may never wake up. Even after everything that got sacrificed on the journey, it may have been for nothing.” Images of fae soldiers falling and dying flashed past, showing them being burnt alive and having their bodies opened to let loose their crimson rush. So many of the little ones my light had touched had been crushed by trolls into smears of bloody paste and the full impact of their losses slammed home. It wasn’t just a weird dream full of mystic landscape and fantasy. No, it had happened, and it hadn’t been special effects or something one just wakes up from to shrug about before making tea and breakfast.
It had been real. Just like the truth that I was being hunted by something horrible and wanting to kill everyone I cared about while willing to use people like poor Orlando as disposable kleenex. My carelessness had left Danielle standing at Death’s door, and I had made so many other mistakes beyond just that. So many.
“It’s all my fault. I don’t know what to do.” I sniffed, trying to clear a nose flooded with gunk and guilt. “And here I’m supposed to be comforting and helping you and all I can do is cry.”
Hairbrush forgotten, Evie wrapped arms me. “No. It’s not your fault. You taught me that.”
“I should have known better. Going to the lake was stupid. I can’t escape being responsible.”
“Really? Have you ever been hunted before? Or done anything like what you’ve had to do lately?”
In games, I wanted to say. But that’s just it. Those were games. Done for fun, for challenge, for entertainment. Put aside at the end of each session for pizza and laughter before returning to normal life. “Not for real, not like this.”
“Did you do something to cause whoever it is to hunt you?” She asked forcefully.
“No. I think they want me dead just because of who I am and what I might do.”
“Then it isn’t your fault. They’re the assholes, remember?”
Just like Evie’s parents had been. But I had told her it wasn’t her fault because she was a child, she hadn’t known any better. Whereas I … shit. Truthfully I didn’t know any better either. Not really. The so-called experts on our security and hiding out at Whateley hadn’t prohibited us from leaving campus, even they had been caught flat-footed.
Thinking I could go spirit-walk like I was heading down the road to the mall had been incredibly stupid though. If Zap, Tsáyidiel, and even Khan hadn’t been with me, wow, what a bigger mess it would have been. But that’s why I didn’t go alone, right? Plus Tsáyidiel needed me there to have the power to fight properly, so I had to go. After all, only he knew how to find Danielle and her time was running out.
What other choices did I have?
A strange sense of peace and clarity washed over me and a luminous orb peaked out from between my boobs. Evie was holding me close, her eyes clenched tight in concentration. A merciful pause was trying to get me to see everything from a clearer perspective.
“You’re right, Evie,” I said more calmly as tension simply melted away, marveling at her talent. “But while ultimately it’s not my fault, I do bear responsibility for my choices and actions. Some could have been a lot smarter.”
“Then do better next time.”
“I… I’ll try. No, scratch that. I will. I have to. Or more of those I care about will suffer for it.”
“Stop beating yourself up!” She bopped me on the back of the head with the hairbrush to emphasize her point.
“Ow! I’m not!”
“Yes you are! Don’t make me use this again,” she threatened, waving the hairbrush.
“Seriously, it’s just the truth.” I couldn’t help it, I had to giggle at the sight of this little purple-haired girl offering violence with an equally purple implement of tangle-torture. As I did the orb still poking out of my chest flashed brightly and popped, leaving behind a tingling sensation all the way down the fingers and toes. “Oops, I think I just burst your bubble.”
She stared at me and was trying hard not to giggle herself. “That is just silly.”
“I know, but it just popped out that way.”
She groaned and applied the brush to my hair again. “Hold still, you need pun-ishment.”
“Did you just…? Oh it’s on. As soon as I can pun-tificate another one.”
She stuck her tongue out. “That’s awful.”
“I’m full of awe? Why thank you! Also… ow!” The hairbrush struck a bad tangle in the remains of a braid and Evie forced it through anyway.
“See? Told you!”
We managed a few snickers between my exclamations of hair-induced agony and continued tossing horrid puns at each other. Eventually it was clear we were both far too tired to continue.
Bidding each other good-night, she did extract a promise from me: if I ever had to go off like that again, I’d come see her first to give her a proper goodbye.
It wasn’t a hard promise to give.
The damn phone was ringing again, interrupting what would have otherwise been restful and dreamless sleep. The after-effects of Evie’s glowbulb had tried to grant me that too, but whoever was calling ripped that away.
The first rays of the morning sun were teasing the windows through thick but quieter clouds. That meant it had only been maybe three hours since stumbling back to my attic refuge and collapsing onto the cozy and waiting bed. Khan had even moved out of the middle so I could flumph into his warm spot. This had earned him a minute of chin scritching before sweet oblivion carried me away.
Infernal technology repeated its summons, and with a few unmentionable words I made it to the desk to shut it up.
“What!” The rather unfriendly greetings slipped out before I remembered the administration might be calling to issue a summons to the impending reading of a riot act about August.
“Jordan? Shit, it’s early there again isn’t it.” The audio stuttered, but I recognized the caller immediately. Adrenalin hit the system and they had my full attention.
“Nick! Oh my god, are you alright? I saw the news of the explosion at that temple! They said you went missing at the hospital-”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Look, I don’t have a lot of time to talk.”
“I got your package, what was that thing?”
“I’m glad you’re doing alright too.” What kind of answer was that? With the little I could hear in the background of the spotty connection it sounded like he was in a car. Oh, huh. He must not have been alone. “But listen,” he was saying, “I need you to get a message to Goodman. Tell him that the synagogue is now under guard and they’re excavating the site. Whoever is behind it has some serious clout and money. With the equipment we saw going in, they may intend to raise the entire alcove and its contents out of there intact. Maybe move it to wherever they think they can disable the guardian spells.”
He said ‘we’. Yep, definitely not alone. “Sure, I’ll tell him. But what’s still in there?”
“I’m not sure. Whatever it is, its wards are insane and defeated my initial attempt to crack it. There was an entire third working hiding beneath the second. Caught me by surprise.”
“You were trying to hack the spells on something and you don’t even know what it is?”
“I traced references to that weird script to the synagogue and checked it out pretty thoroughly. I found an abandoned catacomb underneath. A really old spell had kept it all secret so I was curious.”
“So who would know what is in there? Other than those trying to get it, that is.”
He swore, muttering to whoever else was there to drive more carefully. I couldn’t make out their response, but they sounded female.
“What?” he said back into his phone. “Oh. Not sure, but on a long shot see if you can get Goodman to ask Kurohoshi. Goodman will know who that is. The Director will have a much better chance of talking to him than I do, otherwise I would have tried before leaving Israel.”
“I’ll tell him. Anything else?”
“You staying out of trouble?”
I thought of Danielle getting shot by mind-controlled MCO agents, cleansing a fallen angel, sprouting wings, threatening the queen of a fae realm and nearly destroying her domain, and answered, “Of course.”
“Good. Tell Goodman I don’t like the auras of those monitoring the site. They’re tainted.”
Ugh. Sounded like more minions of Azazel. Wonderful. “Will do. You getting somewhere safe, then?”
“Fuck no. If they manage to either disarm the wards or extract it all intact, we need to at least try to track where it goes.”
“Nick, why didn’t you just contact Goodman directly? Why call me?”
“Lost all my stuff except for this sat-phone and my coat. You’re the last person I called, your number is in the redial.”
“Take care, Jordan. I have to go. I’ll call if the situation changes.” The bugger hung up before I had a chance to say goodbye.
Plonking the receiver back into its cradle, I leaned back in the chair. Clearly whoever Nick was with was not someone he trusted fully, but he also hadn’t asked for help getting him out of there. And whatever he had discovered sounded potentially very important. The only clue we had for the stuff he found was the scroll, which Jenna had given August only to cause the poor girl to pass out.
A proper shower would have to wait. I needed to find out what happened to the magic-language girl before talking to anyone else. Jeans, shoes, and for the hell of it considering how things had been going lately I pulled on a sports bra before the t-shirt.
If my meeting with the administration went really poorly I bet I could out-run them. Worth a shot.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one up early, although considering it was now Monday and classes began at eight I shouldn’t have been surprised. At least the rain and hail had stopped, otherwise there would have been a lot of soaked miserable kids grumpier than usual for the start of the school week.
Speaking of grumpy, Mrs. Carson was already in August’s hospital room.
“Ms. Emrys,” she said, hitting me with an imperious gaze as soon as I walked in. August was sitting up in the bed hovering over a breakfast tray. She was still hooked to the weird brain-scan device but otherwise looked awake, and dare I say it, perky.
“Hi Jordan!” August waved a bite of pancakes at me.
“Uh, hi,” I gulped, all ideas of a confidential consult with August having been rapidly defenestrated. “Should I come back later?”
“Not at all,” Mrs. Carson said frostily. “Come in. I believe Ms. Rose also deserves to hear your answers to some questions.”
Oh boy. Inquisition time. I shut the door and moved further into the room. “Yeah, okay.”
“Lets start with how you acquired this scroll she was just telling me about.”
I wanted to ask what happened to August, but nope, the Headmistress’ inquiry was going to be first. Doing my best to not leave anything out, I spilled the beans: Nick’s sending me the scroll, his note, August and her ‘made up’ language matching the writings, and asking Jenna to give it to her. I finished up by saying, “… and I knew there was a chance I might not make it back from the whole dream-walk trip, but thought the scroll could be important. And that honestly, August might be the only one who could read it.”
“I did a lot more than read it,” piped up August. “I think I swallowed it!”
Wait, what? Holy crap!
Mrs. Carson held up a hand to forestall August from saying anything further. The girl shrugged and took another bite of syrupy carbohydrates.
“Do you have any idea,” Mrs. Carson said to me, “how dangerous magical books or scrolls can be?”
“From direct experience?” I said while the mind went crazy trying to understand how a scroll like that could be swallowed and what the heck that might mean. “Uh, no? But Nick must have examined it before sending, and if he thought it was dangerous to read or look at, wouldn’t he have put that in his note? He’s supposed to be an expert on such things-”
“Nicolas Wright,” she said firmly, eyes closing in exasperation. “How much do you know about him?”
“He helped me find and save Danielle from Soren, and he figured out what I am. And he works with government agencies as a subject matter expert on magic.”
“Not on magic. Demonology and otherworld powers. His expertise is on deities and demons.”
“Oh. But then he’d probably know even more about old books and such things.” Jesus. Had he known what would happen?
“And has a history of complete recklessness,” Carson added as I was again affixed with a serious glare. “Tell me, did he - or anyone at the DPA - tell you why he was removed from a rather prestigious magical program at Oxford?”
“No. It was just mentioned something had happened.”
“He discussed the art of summoning demonic entities with his girlfriend at the time, a fellow practitioner of the mystic arts. However, she wasn’t prepared or schooled on how to protect one’s mind to such things and as a result of her own experimentations after their conversation she lost her soul.”
I paled. Shit.
“His instinct for what is dangerous or safe is not likely to be trustworthy.”
Just like he had tried to remove the wards on an unknown magical artifact discovered by happenstance inside an old synagogue. Oh man. And he’d sent me the scroll from the one alcove he’d successfully disarmed.
“I didn’t know,” I said quietly. “If I had…” I hung my head, cheeks flush with guilt.
“The fault is partially mine,” Mrs. Carson mused, much to my surprise. “Circe warned us of the danger which would follow your arrival. We thought we would have enough time for you to attend classes and learn these things. But events have moved much more quickly than even we could have anticipated.”
She caught my confused look and gave a tight-lipped smile. “Rabbi Kirov has been trying to get us to understand the scope of what your manifestation could mean. He has spoken eloquently of the tapestry of our reality shifting and pushing things forward at a pace dictated not by our wills but by the destinies writ large in the stars themselves.”
“They’re not in the stars,” said August casually. “They’re in the book.”
Our attentions snapped to the girl, but Mrs. Carson was the one who asked the question. “Book?”
The girl nodded. “The, hmm. The Book of Life. Might be the best term for it. Jordan’s scroll? It was a transcription of a couple specific pages from the book. Cool, huh?”
This time it was Carson who was speechless, so I seized the chance. “August, what happened when you tried to read it?”
“I just remember reading the names. I totally recognized them! And then there were nurses all shouting at me, and Jenna was trying not to freak out. But I remember the words. Also, I can feel it.”
I had to ask. “Feel what?”
“The connection. To the book, like all of it. I haven’t really tried to read more yet, I’m not sure I’m ready. The whole thing triggered all these weird memories, I’m still sorta sifting through them.”
“Memories? Of Tamiel?”
She nodded. “Yeah. I think you were right. I was once her.” She caught Mrs. Carson’s raised eyebrow and added, “The Grigori, Tamiel. That was me, like a long time ago. Jordan recognized the name in my magic notebook, I’d written it in my script. She can read that language too, it’s why she gave me the scroll. And the scroll showed me a ton of that existence, reminding me of who I had been. Kind of hard to argue against, really.”
“Wait.” I had a thought. “Is the book real? Like, could it be manifested here somehow?”
August puzzled over the idea, but shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Well not the way you’re thinking anyway. The world itself is sorta its proper manifestation. Why?”
Looking at both her and Mrs. Carson, I had to stop myself from biting through my lip. By now the poor thing probably had a bruise. “Because there was another item in the catacombs where Nick found the scroll. Its protections are what blew up the synagogue, but he doesn’t know what it is. He called me this morning. Someone is digging up the wreckage and is obviously trying to grab whatever it is. He described the people there as being tainted, and wants me to inform Director Goodman about it.”
“Oh wow,” August said. “If there are more transcribed pages they’d totally be dangerous in the wrong hands. Mess with the Book, you mess with the entire world!”
Mrs. Carson’s expression hardened. “Eliot is likely eating in our cafeteria as we speak. Come, Ms. Emrys. Let’s go disturb the breaking of his fast.”
I nodded. “Sure.” Turning to August, I said, “For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry I put you in danger.”
“I’m fine!” August protested. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve been trying to convince the nurses and doctors of this ever since Saturday! I just need a new pair of glasses is all.” She grinned and took another bite of the pancakes before we said our goodbyes. They smelled awfully good. I had some hope that maybe I could get something tasty for myself since we were going to the cafeteria anyway.
While waiting for the elevator down the hall to arrive, Mrs. Carson spoke while staring straight ahead at the closed doors. “Don’t think any of this removes the need for disciplinary action, Ms. Emrys. Prophecies or no prophecies, stars aligning or not, your act was still reckless and deserves proper emphasis to encourage self-reflection.”
I wondered if I was going to be scrubbing the bathrooms in Hawthorne for the rest of the school year if all of this finally got settled. Then again, if things actually did turn out okay? I’d gladly do it.
Cleansing things is something I seem to be good at, after all.
Director Eliot Goodman was indeed at the cafeteria with Isaiah. With Mrs. Carson glaring at them imperiously, they said they were close enough with their meal to be finished. After quickly bussing their trays, they walked with us back to the administration building.
In other words, I didn’t get the chance to eat anything. Dangit.
Circe and Rabbi Kirov were contacted on the way over, so once again I found myself standing in front of a bunch of seated people waiting for me to report on the latest batch of insane happenings.
I filled them in: the trip to Arcadia, finding Erica, freeing Danielle, and of course, Nick’s phone call. I didn’t describe the memories of Gabriel and Aradia that kept swirling around in my head. Those felt private.
They all found different parts of the story fascinating. It was amusing watching their interest in the various parts wax and wane. Circe was the most focused on Arcadia, Kirov on the encounter with the Kerubim and revelations about August and the scroll, Mrs. Carson on Danielle’s condition, and the Director on the conversation with Nick.
Isaiah though, he was intently focused on the entire telling from start to finish. My friend hardly blinked.
Stealing a line I’d used too often after doing software design reviews - you know, from a lifetime which was now all too far away - I ended the data dump by saying, “Thoughts, questions, comments, criticisms?”
Isaiah spoke first, more to himself than to the rest of us. “The faerie queen is quite clever.”
“What?” I asked, baffled. After all that, this was his comment?
He waved a hand. “I’ll explain later. It’s not important to the tasks at hand.”
Director Goodman raised an eyebrow. “Which are?”
“Twofold, the second having higher priority. First - the lawsuit against the Academy by Felicia Lain. If her daughter has indeed woken up and is willing to describe what actually happened at the airport, we can petition the judge to dismiss the case. It also adds further weight to the clearing of Jenna Beltran and Brendan Rogers for their actions against the corrupted MCO agents.”
I knew it! Erica was indeed Mrs. Carson’s ‘other student’, and the whole case Isaiah had been recruited for as Whateley’s attorney must have been this lawsuit. Holy shit, Erica’s mom was trying to sue the school? Wow.
Isaiah continued. “Second - the situation in Aleppo regarding this hidden mystical object of Mr. Wright’s. If the entity that has been trying to kill Jordan is after that object, then it is clearly in our interest to prevent them from its acquisition. It would also help to get as much intelligence on what that object could be. Mr. Wright’s suggestion to contact Kurohoshi is an interesting one, but that would take time. Kurohoshi prefers all discussions in person, as I understand it.”
What the heck? Isaiah knows who Kurohoshi is? Though the name did seem familiar.
Goodman pulled on his obviously-in-law-enforcement mustache. “I can speak with Director Smith. He might find a way to contact Kurohoshi, even if through outside contacts. We’ve heard of his exploits at the DPA, but haven’t crossed paths.”
Curiosity got the better of me so I piped up. “Who is he anyway?”
Both Isaiah and Goodman started speaking at once, but Isaiah waved the Director to go ahead and he did.
“Kami Kurohoshi is a highly decorated Captain who earned the Green Beret. After leaving the service he became something of an underworld information broker and negotiator. From what little I know, his father’s family has been traditionally Yakuza in Japan. As Kami is only half Japanese by blood, he was not allowed to take a seat at that table.”
Isaiah added, “He’s someone the Syndicate and rival criminal organizations call in when their own conflicts get too heated. Generally either a compromise is worked out, or the leading violent instigators on both sides cease breathing. Needless to say, he is not a person to invoke attention from without a damn good reason. His connection to mystical artifacts and their lore, however, I will admit is beyond me.”
Mrs. Carson spoke up. “I believe we here at Whateley have the answer to that. According to his daughter, the man is a powerful avatar.”
“Oh shit!” I blurted as my memory finally clicked. “Haruko!”
With a smile Mrs. Carson nodded. “Yes. Danielle’s roommate is Haruko Kurohoshi, Kami’s daughter.”
“Think she could give us his phone number?” I asked.
Goodman pondered. “He most likely would not agree to speak to a government official. But if we’re lucky he might be willing to speak to a classmate of his daughter.”
Isaiah’s eyes narrowed. “He will demand a price in information, specifically he’ll want to know Jordan’s complete story. Count on it.”
Looking thoughtful, Goodman said, “Perhaps part of the condition could be him holding that information secret. For a timed delay of say five to ten years minimum. He might agree.”
“You want me to tell him what’s been going on and trust him?” I asked, rather baffled by the idea. “What about all the secrecy…” After all the lectures on not telling people stuff, this made no sense. I mean sure, Azazel already knew where I was, but how many other evil things were out there who’d want to snuff out a new angel on Earth? Or use her for their own infernal ends?
But Isaiah was now nodding his head too. “He’ll find out eventually if the rumors about his informational organization are true. Plus if he talks to his daughter, she’ll likely tell him about meeting her sidhe roommate and then about the sidhe’s angel friend. If she’s anything like her father, she most likely has already compiled complete dossiers. His interest will be piqued, and he’ll follow up. Use the information now while it is still valuable and lock him into confidentiality. His honor, according to all sources, is paramount. If he is truly interested in mystical information, as Nick’s suggestion indicates, this should be very hard for him to pass up.”
The way they were all nodding to each other in agreement was disconcerting. And while he hadn’t said anything at all, I didn’t like the momentary nervous look of guilt on Rabbi Kirov’s face regarding the discussion of secrecy. If I hadn’t already been paying attention to their expressions out of amusement from earlier I likely would have missed it, but it was there. Dammit, the man told something to someone. Question was, to who and what?
Goodman spoke. “If this object is dangerous to the world we need to move quickly. Mrs. Carson, I hate to presume, but could Haruko be spared time from her classes to talk this over with Jordan? Time may be important. I’ll go brief Intelligence Director Smith and see if he can offer any insights as well.”
“As much as I hate interrupting a student’s day, when she is out of her current class I’ll have her report here. Jordan,” she said as her attention shifted to me, “I suggest you hurry back to Hawthorne, shower, and return wearing your uniform.”
I looked down at my t-shirt. “Oh, for the psychological factor when talking to this Kami guy?”
“There is that. But it also is a school day, and as far as I know you are still enrolled here as a student and thus ought to be properly dressed for class.”
Oh. Whoops. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll hurry.” With a nod to everyone, I took off to run back to my cottage.
See? The sports-bra was the right choice!
Haruko was dubious. She had joined me and Mrs. Carson in the conference room after coming straight over once her magic class had finished. Isaiah had tried to stay, but Carson shooed him out, something about not risking having two alpha males getting competitive. This, of course, left my ego confused as to whether I should be insulted or not. Then again, hard to be considered an alpha male while wearing a school-girl’s skirt, slip, and stockings.
“Convince me,” Haruko said once the room was clear, her expression going hard and focused. ”Dad says to only call if it’s an emergency.”
I looked to Mrs. Carson for help. The headmistress met Haruko’s stern expression with one of her own. “We would not be asking if it was not important. Given the potential of the lesser artifact recovered, knowledge of the main treasure is paramount. It could make the difference between strike teams being deployed or not.”
“You’re talking about war?” Haruko raised an eyebrow. Holy shit, even I hadn’t thought that far. This was Indiana Jones level of craziness. Oh hell, if the main treasure actually turns out to be the Ark of the Covenant I will give up. My life will have gotten way too surreal.
“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” Mrs. Carson said. “Your father may have insights into the proper level of reaction the situation requires.”
Haruko considered and asked me, “Could it help Danielle? You said she’s still unconscious.”
I grimaced. “I don’t know. As much as I’d like to say maybe, thing is I really have no clue. And with how people are treating things, I don’t want to lie or mislead. I’ve already screwed up by not taking things seriously enough.”
Crossing her arms, Haruko ran a palm over a sleeve, adjusting the fabric to lie smoothly over more than just her arm. “Alright,” she said after we’d let her think for a moment. “I’ll do it. But just me and Jordan.” She gave Mrs. Carson a challenging look. “If Jordan is the one bargaining with Dad for information then she gets to choose who to share what she learns with.”
“Very well. You can use the conference room’s setup. We’ll be waiting outside.” With that Carson exited, making sure the door closed firmly behind her.
Haruko quickly signed in and launched the video conference application.
“Any tips on how to deal with your dad before we do this?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said while she typed. “Don’t be stupid.”
Great. Guess I’ll have to fake it and pray.
The upper torso of a Japanese man dressed in an immaculate business jacket and tie filled the wall-screen. He saw Haruko, immediately bowed, and said, “Nice to see you again, Kurohoshi Haruko.”
She bowed and replied, “Nice to see you, Yamamoto Ryoga.”
It took me a moment, but whoa, they were speaking Japanese and I understood them. That was kinda neat.
“Do you have a message for your father?”
“I need to speak with him, Ryoga-san.”
The guy gave a slight frown. “The Oyabun is not available. I will gladly take a message.”
“Yamamoto Ryoga! This is not a request but a command! I will speak with him. Now!” I couldn’t help it, I jumped back. Haruko’s tone had gone from polite warmth to cracking sharply at the guy like a whip being snapped to drive horses into a panicked stampede.
Flustered, the guy bowed his head once more. “Haruko, he has said to not be disturbed.”
The small girl next to me literally growled. “If you do not want him finding out about your indiscretions in Kyoto last summer, you will go and tell him that his daughter requires his attention!”
All the blood rushed away from his face and his eyes became as wide as saucers. His responding bow was so low it took him off the screen. “Hai! At once!” The audio carried the sound of bare feet scampering off.
“Idiot,” Haruko muttered to herself. “If he thinks Dad doesn’t already know…”
The scuttle of feet returned, and a still pale Ryoga appeared. “He is in the meditation room. A laptop is being brought. Please wait just a moment!”
Haruko growled again with impatience, but not as loudly. “We shall wait.”
More bowing. I’ll admit, if she was aiming all that fierceness at me? Yeah I’d probably do a lot of bowing too. Yipes!
Ryoga looked up momentarily as he reached for a keyboard under the screen on his side. “Transferring you now!” With a click, the image shifted.
A room filled with the implements of martial arts took over. We’re talking spears, poles, axes, bows, swords, pikes, maces, you name it and they hung on or leaned against the walls in proper formations. At the center of the room a man sat lotus style on a mat between the two incense burners placed at his sides. He had on a dark silk kimono with the pattern of many koi fish and had a military bearing to his shoulders and to the shortness of his graying hair. He didn’t look Japanese, not really, but that ancestry could be seen in his features if you looked for them.
His expression brightened upon seeing Haruko. “Haruko-chan! How is my favorite daughter?”
“Daddy!” Haruko squeeled. I blinked, for the scary girl had instantly transformed into a happy schoolgirl.
“Are you alright? And did you threaten Yamamoto? He looked like he was about to faint!”
Haruko pouted. “He wasn’t going to let me talk to you. And it’s important!”
“Mmm… I see. And who is there with you?” The guy shifted his attention to me.
“Daddy? This is Jordan Emrys, she’s a friend of my roommate Danielle.”
I moved further into the video frame and bowed low to him. “Hajimemashite,” I said, meaning formally, ‘nice to meet you’. I hadn’t even thought about it, the words just came out.
He greeted me in return, and I raised up. As our eyes met, his face focused with astonishment and recognition. “You!”
Behind those dark eyes was something I, too, had seen before.
He was shouting at Haruko to guard the door as the past once again claimed my attention. You’d think I’d have gotten used to it, but nope. Still took me by surprise.
A massive coliseum stretched its seats upwards into a night sky. The bleachers were filled, not by people but by gods. Pantheons gathered within their own sections, and each area conformed to the style of those who sat within. Towering marble columns demarked the area of the Greek deities, Zeus on his own raised seat at their center idly playing with lightning between his fingers while proud Hera sat nearby sipping ambrosia from a crystal goblet. Monoliths covered with the symbols of Egypt flanked the pyramidal canvas tents giving cover for the deities of Kemet. Ra and Isis, clad in golden bejeweled garments, presided. Norse, Hindu, Fae, Djinn - even dragons - all had gathered and turned their attention to the two figures standing at the arena’s center and their images which had projected high to stand at equal height with the top of the stands.
One was clad in mooncloth robes, the other in a simple blue dress with the same azure silk binding her eyes. The latter was speaking to the crowd.
“I give you Siabh, High Priestess of the Mother.”
With that said the woman took a step back, offering the floor to the priestess who took a moment to gather her thoughts. When she was ready she began by throwing her arms wide.
“Oh gods and goddesses, oh spirits of wisdom and grace, oh strong denizens of the elemental realms, I greet thee! Aradia, daughter of Artemis and Lucifer, has called you all here seeking aid to confront the threat of the Nephelim, and has detailed how it is in your interests to grant it. But that is not why I wish to speak to you. For the spawn of the Grigori are, if defeated, only a temporary cause for concern. Their corruption - with great effort! - can be cleansed, and the agents of Heaven have dedicated themselves to that task. Whether you wish to help in this endeavor or no, that is your choice, oh powers of divinity.
“I speak now instead of the damage done to Mother. She slumbers by necessity for her heart struggles to heal the pain caused by the Sundering. Manna lines wither, dry, and disappear from the landscape and thus the physical world can no longer support our combined presences. Already the weaker of us fade away, unable to maintain their existence. This will only grow worse, unless severe and drastic measures are taken. We must, all of us who are formed by the essences of spirit and not of raw flesh, depart the Mother’s physical domain and allow her time to heal.”
A thousand voices speaking to one another rumbled like thunder.
Siabh held up an elegant hand, waiting for the crowd to quiet. “This need not be permanent! But it will take the turning of an age for Mother to regenerate the reserves she has lost. Lost, need I remind you, due to our mistakes and our follies of the past! The price to be paid has come due. And with the agents of Heaven lending their power, it can be accomplished such that one day Mother shall again bloom with the abundant flowering of essence as she did when the world was new!”
This time the rumble was more an earthquake, as several beings jumped to their feet in protest. Many called out, but it was the growling voice of a mighty dragon that carried the loudest.
“The Host of El rendered no aid when we fought at the darkest of hours, how can they be trusted now? They themselves are the cause of the current plague of corruption which threatens all, and you would bargain with them to banish us from Mother?”
Shouts of agreement shook the coliseum, but Siabh patiently raised a hand again to wait for the uproar to die down before answering.
“Yes, this current darkness is of their doing. Those they sent to help humanity have twisted their mission to one of dark conquest instead. But the Archangel Gabriel has agreed to do what is needed. The Nephelim threat shall be eliminated, and a great barrier shall be cast upon our world. No angel nor demon shall again cross into physicality, and any of the Bene Ha’Elohim who refuse to depart shall be bound unto the Wheel of Life, incarnating as nothing more than humans themselves.”
“And we are to share that fate?” One of the most ancient of dragons, with obsidian scales as old as the bones of the world, spoke. “Is this what you propose, Siabh of the Mother, formerly of the House of Elm?”
“Yes, great Drathonix. We should withdraw to the surrounding dreams, and those who remain behind shall likewise be bound upon that Wheel. Furthermore, in such a binding shall their memories be suppressed and locked away lest our knowledge and powers find flaws in the great barrier and bring it down from within before the appointed time.”
Heru, sitting by Ra and Isis, rose to his feet with passionate objection. “And how are we to guide and lead the very peoples and lands we have taken under our care? You ask too much, Siabh!”
“Those who incarnate as humans will manage this instinctively, King Heru!“ Siabh answered. “While memories are put aside, our spirits will hold true. And there are humans who have the capacity to host spirits greater than themselves. Through these our purposes shall continue. They will be our channels to the world, but limited and therefore unable to drain Mother unto her destruction. It is the time of humanity and while we can guide from beyond, they will carry the burden of responsibility for their world.”
Heated discussions broke out amongst the various deities. Anthropomorphic entities argued with elemental beings, and the coliseum trembled from the weight of their words.
The forceful bellowing of the dragon quieted them once more. “Hmmph! What you propose has some merit, but also a glaring flaw. While Gabriel is beloved by all who know her, she serves El. Unless Elohim gives agreement, binding His word to the endeavor, then we cannot trust the Host to not release themselves from the restrictions once they are in place, all the while keeping everyone else out. We must hear it from Him.”
Two figures walked out from the shadows at the edge of the arena to join Siabh and Aradia. An angel, face covered by a dark hooded cloak, carried a tall and wicked scythe as he led a scraggly elderly human clad only in simple linen and sandals.
Many deities leapt to their feet, shouting down to protest that a human had been allowed presence at this symposium of the gods and broken its sanctity. The deluge of voices threatened the foundations of the spiritual space holding them all.
The hooded angel slammed the end of his scythe once upon the ground, a burst of tremendous force instantly cutting all sound into total silence, much to the shock of many.
Pushing forward the human, the angel gave a simple command. “Speak.”
The salt-and-pepper bearded man swallowed nervously, his stammering voice somehow filling the silence. “Lords, Ladies, mighty guardians of this world, my name is Enoch. The angel Azrael,” he said, giving a nervous look at the scythe, “has commanded me to speak to you. But I do not know what to say…”
The mightier of the deities present found their voices and again raised them with thunderous voices, and once more the angel slammed his scythe upon the ground to cut away the cacophony into quiet. “Speak.”
Enoch, eyes wide with the surety that his entire existence was likely to be snuffed out within moments, shook his head. “What can I say? I have no words!”
The dragon bellowed once more. “Azrael! What is the meaning of this? Do you jest at our conclave?”
A third time the angel’s scythe pounded the arena, and he commanded the man before him. “If your tongue sits empty, then pray for it to be filled.”
Enoch raised trembling hands towards the sky. “Lord God, grant me guidance, give me your words!” Closing his eyes, he kept repeating his desperate prayer.
This time the arena paused its clamor, for power gathered and all of it focused upon the terrified human. His chanting was interrupted by a squeal of alarm as he slowly lifted off the ground. The gathered divine spirits witnessed the man’s weather-beaten skin begin to glow, the intensity growing so bright that the garments he wore burst into flame even as the flesh underneath remained whole, indeed the ravishes of time etched into the wrinkles on his skin slowly burned away leaving his beard a pure and shining white.
Six wings of fire exploded outward from his back as he gave a deafening shout that echoed through the coliseum - and beyond.
“BEHOLD THE METATRON, VOICE OF ELOHIM! HIS WORDS ARE OURS, OUR WORDS ARE HIS, FOR OUR NAME IS IN HIM. WHAT MUST BE, MUST BE. BINDING TO ONE, BINDING TO ALL.”
The suddenly exalted angel opened startled eyes of holy flames, his channeled message delivered from on high. Gabriel took to the air from the sidelines to give comfort to her newfound brother while the crowd broke into a tremendous din of debate and argument.
The obsidian dragon turned an ancient gaze back towards Siabh and snorted a large puff of heavy smoke. “He always was overly dramatic. But that will suffice.”
Bare toes sank into cold damp and gritty sand. I was somewhere else, but I didn’t panic. Probably from not yet being mentally coherent.
I was on a tropical beach, complete with green foliage lining berms spotted with bright flowers next to wispy taller grasses. The sun was at my back and casting a fuzzy shadow onto the beach, a hazy image that included wings with their own glow causing the sand underneath to glimmer as if made from a frosted glass.
Kami Kurohoshi, the guy from the meditation room, stood wearing the same kimono as he had in the real world. We were in some kind of astral space, and along with that knowledge came the understanding that he had pulled us here.
What did not surprise was the shape of the shadow behind him that covered the entire sand dune. A dragon. More specifically, the dragon from memory.
I spoke its name. “Drathonix.”
Kami nodded slowly. “You remember?”
I answered after a frustrated sigh. “I have fragments. Seeing you just triggered one.”
“Ah. I, too, have only pieces. Although more and more have come cascading in over the past forty-eight hours. You have named me, but not yourself. You look much like two from the past. Which is the truth?”
That confused me until I realized that having wings could muddle his impression. Aradia hadn’t been an angel, but Gabriel with her red-hair was. And as Aradia was Lucifer’s daughter, it made sense she (and I) looked like one of his sisters. That was my current theory, anyway. “Aradia. From what I can tell, I was Aradia.”
“Hmm.” He studied me, gears clearly churning away in his head as he digested the implications.
Deciding to just get to the point, I said, “I’ll tell you everything, but I was instructed to bargain that information in exchange for your aid and knowledge. And also require you to keep it confidential for some amount of time.”
“My aid, or that of Drathonix?” Those dark eyes regarded me coolly.
“I don’t think they know you’re Drathonix. Actually, they think you’re an avatar.” His aura, which was all too clear in this place, showed only one spirit standing there. He was the dragon, no doubt about it, and therefore an incarnate like me, Zap, and August.
“It would be well that they continue to think so. There are many who not only fear but also violently object to non-human souls walking freely among them, hidden in plain sight as it were.”
That made a lot of sense, actually. Shit, wish I had used that story myself.
“So then,” he said. “What is it you think Kami Kurohoshi can do for you?”
“Well, it’s a little complicated…” I told him the story of Nick and the alcoves in Syria, even mentioned the scroll he sent and its connection to the Book of Life. No, I didn’t mention that August had absorbed it. Not yet. Instead I emphasized that we needed to figure out what the other magic-trapped artifact was, and whether it posed a serious risk to the world. You know, in case Azazel got his tainted hands (or whatever he used to grab things) on it.
He listened closely. In fact he reminded me a lot of Isaiah from earlier when I was telling everyone about my journey to the fae, carefully considering every spoken word. Huh, maybe I should get a second gig as a storyteller with how often I had to keep describing things that happened. Either that or get some damn flash cards with everything written on ‘em to hand out. Eventually I concluded the tale, or as much of it as I was willing to give up front.
“Nicolas Wright,” he said, his tone dripping with a fair chunk of disapproval.
“Uh, yeah. He did mention that you likely wouldn’t talk to him.”
“The man is a gambler, and like all gamblers they only sometimes win. And in the long run they mostly lose.”
“That may be, but this sounds a lot bigger than just him, regardless of any opinions of the guy.”
He pondered for a moment. “Walk with me while I think.” He gestured down the beach.
I shrugged and we walked. The sun was at our left and seemed to be slowly rising, though every time I looked over at it somehow it had returned to its starting position right above the horizon. That was weirdly more disconcerting than the whole being yanked here in the first place.
After a few minutes of silent strolling, he finally spoke again. “Your Mr. Wright is seeking items relating to the angelic tongue. And I do not mean Enochian, the sixteenth-century invented nonsense of Mister John Dee.”
“Yeah, we encountered that kind of writing used in a ritual so he was trying to follow up on it. I think he was hoping to understand more of the ritual we saw.” I didn’t know anything about this ‘Enochian’ he mentioned, I’d have to look it up later. Though if it was nonsense like he said, it probably didn’t matter.
“Interesting. I presume details of that ritual are part of your offer in trade.”
“For my part I can offer information about the scroll and its history. As for the still-hidden item, I can only give educated speculation.”
“Your guess, err ‘speculation’, is likely a lot better than anything we’ve got.”
He smiled at my attempt at a compliment. “Now, as for what course of action to take, until and unless you tell me the rest of your story I can not make specific recommendations. But if I had to guess about you, I would assert your original name in this life was Justin Thorne, and Callas Soren has been a very busy man.”
That stopped me short. “If you already know all that, then what value is there in me saying anything more?” I tried to control the surge of irritation, after all getting angry would fall under the category of being stupid and I was told not to do that.
He faced me, taking a very military stance with arms behind his back. “Everything. The details are everything.” There was no eagerness in his expression, only a complete and total patience. Whatever I chose to do would be fine by him. In other words he was leaving it all up to me.
Shit. No pressure! But could I trust him?
“You were a Green Beret?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered simply.
“Why did you leave the military?”
“My true nature awakened under the stresses of combat.”
“Oh.” I’d just seen trolls, a gryphon, and a god make a right slaughter of things, and I remembered just how gigantic Drathonix was in that ancient gathering of spiritual heavy-hitters. The dragon had required his own damn section of the coliseum. Such a power unleashed must have been both impressive and scary as hell.
“Tell me what you are balancing your decision against,” he said. “Expressing such things often makes them clearer. If you are who you claim to be, it is not likely I would take offense to your thoughts.”
I chewed an astral lip. “Just by being who I am, some really nasty entities have tried to kill not only me but those I care for. One is still in a coma as a result and we aren’t sure she’ll wake up. I worry that telling you more would just put them all in further danger.”
My shoulders slumped. “Everyone seems to think that this other item of Nick’s could be really dangerous, maybe to the whole world. But unless we can offer solid intelligence, it would be hard to convince the military or whomever to take action. The DPA only works within the United States itself, it doesn’t do missions overseas. This will take like, I dunno, a Seal team or something.”
“The operational theater in Syria is complicated. Further - and I offer this for free - if I am correct about your situation your enemy has agents entrenched within the military complex and would be tipped off by any U.S. agency moves, no matter how clandestine.”
Fuck. He was probably right. If Azazel had people in the MCO - and could take over who knows how many more - then him having administrative or even combat ready minions within other organizations standing by would make sense. “That makes it so much worse!”
“It does.” He stood patiently.
I threw a prayer out asking for guidance, but nothing answered. The only thing I had was that in the past Drathonix had agreed to help Siabh do what she felt was necessary for the world. And in his own way, he had forced God - err, Elohim - to bind His word to that task as well.
It would have to do. And as it was, the guy already seemed to know way too much anyway.
“Dammit. Let’s walk and I’ll tell you it all.” I turned around to head back the way we came, although the direction probably didn’t matter much here. He joined me and after a deep breath I started at the beginning.
“I was trying to get home after work and traffic was sucking worse than it had ever sucked before…”
He listened to it all, only interrupting with requests for clarifications. I got worried about the time, but he reassured me that in the real world the clock had only ticked forward perhaps a minute or two. I had to wonder how often he pulled people to this beach to have lengthy conversations.
And no, I didn’t hold anything back. It was one of those all cards on the table kind of moments, and if you’re going to go in - go in full. Time would have to tell if I, or others I cared about, would come to regret it.
The revelation about Tsáyidiel’s restoration clearly startled him, but he hadn’t commented and only urged me to continue. To provide the corroborating evidence that the scroll Nick sent really was part of the Book of Life, I had to explain about August. Which, of course, meant mentioning about her being Tamiel reborn.
At the end I told him how even though we’d restored Danielle’s spirit, she still wasn’t waking up. He’d been polite and ignored the few moments of tears I’d had throughout the entire tale, but this time he put a hand on my shoulder. His impassive expression shifted to something I wasn’t expecting.
It filled with compassion.
“It is never easy to deal with the loss of family,” he said quietly.
“She’s not gone yet!” I snapped, jerking away. Crossing my arms I said, “I’ve told you everything. Your turn. Let’s start with the scroll. What was it?”
His arm lowered and the neutral evaluation returned. “Your August Rose, Tamiel, is correct. Transcribed pages from the Book of Life, albeit very specific ones.”
“We incarnates - like Tamiel, like you, like me - have been hunted throughout the ages by those who believe we should never have polluted the ranks of humanity. Those hunters target primarily incarnate Nephelim, but all of those with non-human spirits can attract their attention.”
“Well that sucks.”
“They once sought holy men to discover a way to find us, and many priests and rabbis died trying to fulfill their request. One finally succeeded. It cost him his mind but he produced that scroll. It lists all of us: who we were and more dangerously, who we are in our current lives. Written in the language of the Host, it updates with the latest patterns.”
“Oh. Oh shit! And these hunters, are they still active?”
“Very much so. They were a factor in the ending of my military career and the start of my current endeavors. They are avatars for Powers who have bent themselves to this end for a very long time.”
I couldn’t help it. I buried my face in my hands. “That’s the last thing I need. A whole new threat.”
“Keep Ms. Rose safe, and the information of what happened secret.”
Ugh, I was going to have to interrogate Rabbi Kirov about that look of guilt before he put her in danger too. “I’ll try.”
“Do better than try. When focused on a task, angels of that particular chorus are without mercy. They are the gladiators of Heaven, front line material. Think of them as the special forces of Heaven.”
“How do you know all that? You must remember a lot more than I do.”
“I have faced them over many lifetimes and the scars on my spirit from those encounters remain. My first recovered memories were of them.”
Ouch. “Okay. Badasses of Heaven, keep August safe. Got it. What about the big mystery thing that’s still in Aleppo?”
His face went sharp and determined. “We go get it. You can’t trust that the Grigori hasn’t infiltrated the Pentagon, so they are not to be told what we’re going to do. Not even those you would trust to render aid.”
“We? Wait, if you’re going to help directly, how dangerous is this thing?”
“The only other artifact of which I am aware written in the true angelic tongue that could have survived the ages is not one we can risk anyone else taking. I have reservations about it even being in my own possession.”
“Wonderful. So what could it be?”
“Something revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden by the Archangel of Mysteries himself, explaining the deepest secrets of the universe. You were a programmer so think of it as a fully detailed user manual to reality’s operating system, and then ponder what a destructive hacker could do with that kind of information. What is likely hidden in that alcove is nothing less than the Book of Raziel.”
I stared at him. “You serious?” The several tomes from Soren that I’d read thanks to the new speed-reading powers had mentioned it. Feeling sorry for Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit and got tossed from Paradise, the angel Raziel had given his book to them hoping it could eventually guide them ‘home’. There was even stuff about other angels getting pissed off about mankind even having the thing and then stealing it, with the book being restored to mankind later by God himself. It was supposed to have made its way to Enoch, then Noah, and eventually to King Solomon. You know, the guy who was somehow able to summon and control countless demons and made them build the First Temple in Jerusalem. Where the Ark was kept.
“I am deadly serious,” he said harshly. “I will agree to send my own team to assist with its recovery on one condition.”
The butterflies in my gut knew what that had to be, but I asked anyway. “What?”
“Only you and possibly your Ms. Rose can determine whether any recovered item is genuine, and she should not be risked. You must go with the team.”
“What about you?”
“I will be busy doing something of even greater import.”
Huh? “Like what?” With this kind of reveal, what the heck could he think was more important right now?
Dark eyes met mine, his voice slipping deeper and stronger as if coming from a throat the size of a smokestack.
“Working to uncover the bigger picture behind current events. For we have but scratched the surface of what lies behind this turning of the great wheel.”
With that the dragon kicked me out of his astral-mental space back to Whateley’s conference room where his daughter was waiting. Thing was, he was right. Which meant I had to go do exactly what Haruko had warned against: be stupid. Because it was insane to go charging off to a foreign country into a den of enemies in order to save an artifact that would have remained safe if a certain risk-taking magus hadn’t gone poking about.
I hoped that whenever we found Nick I’d get the opportunity to kick him in the shins.
Kurohoshi had me send in Director Goodman and Mrs. Carson to discuss how they were going to get me to Syria, something about the DPA being faster at forging the necessary documents. Which was amusing because they were planning on getting me fake documents to protect the fake identity I was currently using.
Will the real Justin Thorne, Jordan Emrys, or uh, Jennifer Baghdadi please stand up?
I did thank Haruko before she was sent back to class. She told me to go kick ass and to keep my eyes open. Sounded like good advice to me.
That left me and Isaiah standing in the hallway, and I had to explain to him what was about to go down.
“I don’t like it,” he said, crossing arms over his suit jacket and, I kid you not, actual suspenders.
“Well of course you don’t.” I said in an upbeat tone just to annoy him further. “What’s not to like?”
He scowled at me. “It’s too risky. You aren’t trained for such operations.”
“No shit,” I said more seriously. “But what if they pull a ringer? Kurohoshi is right. They need me there to confirm they get the right target.”
“Mr. Wright can do that.”
“Only if one, he’s actually there, and two, he can be trusted with the book if it turns out to be what they fear. What if he tried to swap it for a fake to keep the genuine article for himself?”
“How much do you trust him?”
That question got to me. Did I? Nick finally spoke truth to me a couple weeks ago, and he genuinely was trying to figure out what had happened and, more importantly, why. Yet I still barely knew him and he definitely had a reputation. Kurohoshi thought him careless, and Goodman from what I could tell thought him a loose cannon. Plus the whole matter of girlfriends losing their souls from hanging out with him? Ouch.
I tried to put it into words. “I think he wants to do the right thing. Problem is, from what little I’ve heard about him? He may not be trustworthy to do it in the safest way. Like maybe the kind of person who would be tempted to use an artifact that would be better off being destroyed, you know, a Boromir type.”
Isaiah got the Lord of the Rings reference immediately as I knew he would. Duh, we were gamers.
“And you?” He peered over his spectacles intently.
It was my turn to scowl. “As you well know my characters only used such things when all other choices vanished as part of your dramatics. But real world? Never been tested for real.”
I met his eyes. “Yeah. And don’t think for a moment I’m not terrified.”
He awkwardly patted a shoulder. “You should do fine. Just don’t be stupid.”
I couldn’t help it, I had to laugh. “You’re the second person to tell me that today.”
“It’s good advice.” He smiled.
A thought occurred to me. “Hey, what did you mean earlier? About the queen being clever?”
As quickly as it had arrived, the smile disappeared and was replaced again by calculating focus. “She was.”
“How so? I mean, from her perspective she just lost not only her sister but a lot of face in front of her court by me shoving my demands down her throat.”
He shook his head. “What did I just say about not being stupid? Tell me, how would you feel if after thousands of years Helena (and I apologize for using her as an example) suddenly was back, but you were honor bound due to her actions all those millennia ago to put her on trial and execute her?”
My heart wrenched at the mention of my dearly departed sister, Danielle’s mom. “Uh, I’m sure I’d have forgiven her by then and want most of all to reconcile. But I’m not a queen, nor a fae.”
“Exactly. As queen her hands were tied, she had to do her duty to its fullest according to their laws. From the fae’s point of view, the High Priestess, Siabh, banished them from their homes on Earth and locked the rest of their family and relations into unthinkable lives forever. There would be no appealing the required verdict for doing such, unless there was a solid reason for it.”
“Solid reason? Okay, you’ve lost me.”
“Think about it. Only a priestess, especially a High Priestess, could accomplish what you described her doing: restore Arcadia. Danielle was there in their time-line for what, weeks? And the Queen had spent that time trying to wake up Siabh’s memories. I would imagine the ostensible reason for that kind of delay would be to hold a trial where Siabh would have a chance to argue on her own behalf or undo the magic of the past and ask for mercy. Otherwise it could be claimed to have been a false proceeding. But what if it was actually a tactic to give the Queen more time to figure out alternatives? And what should happen then…”
Seeing where he was leading, I said, “Her friends showed up trying to find her. Like an angel who sort of restored the Temple on a whim. Shit.”
“Now carry that thought through. What did the Queen do at that point?”
I paused, rubbing at a soft cheek that would never have whiskers to stroke. “She invited us to her ball, and sent a spy in to talk with me, probably listening to the whole thing herself. Thus she’d know or could figure out who I was.”
“And then what?”
“Holy crap. She dangled Danielle out in front of us. Clearly in distress and visibly bound by a magic which if threatened directly could endanger them all.”
“Now you’re getting it. She baited you, and you bit. Forcefully enough that, according to your telling, she swore that Danielle would be safe from not just her but all her vassals. In front of her court, all in order to save their lives.”
I sank to the floor in the hallway in shock, school skirt spilling around me. “She used us. To save her sister, she used us.” Leaning my back against the wall, I stared up at him. “And she sacrificed some of her own people in that fight to do it.”
“In such a way that none of her own could ever make claim she hadn’t done her duty. Including taking on Heru by herself when called out.”
“That’s… that’s messed up.”
“It worked. She saw the opportunity and she took it. And now Danielle is safe from the vengeance of her people. Like I said, clever.”
“But the whole realm was going to die because I didn’t know how to fix the damage!”
He nodded. “Perhaps she gambled that an angel who could restore the temple would know how to control it otherwise. In that respect she did err.”
“Fuck. She trusted that I was competent.”
“Either that or she had faith in her sister’s spirit. That with Arcadia itself in dire need, Siabh would return to set things right. Which she did because Danielle was willing enough to let go and allow it to happen.”
“This is making my head hurt.”
“Get used to it,” he said firmly. “You were lucky, her goals and yours aligned. They may not the next time.”
Dammit, he was right. Not only did I need to start using my brain more, but also pay closer attention to the motivations and subtleties of others. Which reminded me…
I hopped lightly to my feet. “Think they’ll be busy in there for thirty minutes or so?”
“We need to track down Rabbi Kirov. He’s probably in his office considering we’re in the middle of the class period I’m supposed to have independent study with him.”
“You said ‘we’. You need me there?”
“Absolutely. We may need to intimidate him, and as I’m far too cute like this to pull that off, your sullen mug will have to do the job.”
He chuckled. “I think you underestimate how intense you can be. But why would you need to interrogate the rabbi?”
“Because,” I said while ushering him down the hall towards the stairs, “I think the guy leaked information. And before I go stick my neck into a new noose on the other side of the planet I damn well want to know to whom.”
The rabbi was indeed in.
Marching into his office, I decided I didn’t have the patience for subtlety so I started off by shouting.
“Rabbi Emmanuel Igorov Kirov! Kto vui skazal?!”
Of course, I meant to say ‘who did you tell?’ but it came out in Russian. The reaction was priceless.
Kirov dropped his metal-clad glass teacup, spilling the contents all over the papers on his desk. “Jordan!”
Ignoring Isaiah’s own shock, I continued towards Kirov. Still speaking in Russian, I barked, “I know you talked. Tell us to whom, and what was said!” To Isaiah’s credit, he rapidly ditched his own surprise and moved to my side, giving a good solid glare in support.
“I… I spoke with a good friend! In Tel Aviv!”
Dropping into one of the rabbi’s guest chairs, I folded my fingers together in front of my nose. “Who, exactly?”
“Rabbi Levin! He is a devoted man of god with much knowledge that I lack! But… how did you know? And when did you learn Russian?” Shaking hands grabbed for a pile of napkins to try and dab away the mess.
“Your face betrayed you this morning. What have you told him?” I ignored the second question, mainly because I figured Isaiah would be greatly wondering the same thing and I wanted to enjoy his bafflement for a few more minutes.
“Last night, when we spoke with your friend Jenna about what happened with your scroll, I became curious. Seeing August’s sketchbook, well, I had to find out more!”
“Curiosity could get us killed.”
He shook his head. “I did not inquire for my sake. But when an ancient artifact… merges… with one of our students, how could I not act to discover more about its nature? August herself could have been, and still be, in danger!”
“He has a point,” Isaiah said, taking the rabbi’s side. Hey, he was supposed to be my heavy! “The safety of the girl requires knowledge. However, others should have been consulted before revealing anything off campus!” Ah, there’s the stick.
Kirov slumped in his chair, still clutching the wet napkins. “I did not identify Ms. Rose as the person involved, nor even say they were a student. Only described the scroll and events as told to me. But as it turns out, Rabbi Levin is one of those whom Nicolas consulted before going to Aleppo! He is, naturally, intensely interested in her mystic symbols.”
Behind rather thick glasses, I caught Kirov glance momentarily at the phone on his desk before quickly looking away.
I pounced. “You spoke to him on the phone? Directly?”
Kirov nodded. “Yes. Using technology provided by my brother to keep the connection secure.”
“Only last night?”
He cringed. “And again, this morning.”
Isaiah’s eyes widened. “After the briefing? After learning what the scroll could really be?”
Another nod. “Yes.”
I couldn’t believe it. “Dammit, Kirov! How well do you know this Levin guy? He now knows that there is a person here, at Whateley, with a connection to the Book of Life!” Shit, and if they knew anything about me then that’s who they’ll think it is. Though that did have good possibilities for keeping August safe…
“You don’t understand!” Kirov protested. “With such a connection, miracles may be performed!”
“The kids at this school perform miracles every day,” Isaiah commented. Frankly, I had to agree but Kirov was emphatically waving those napkins at us.
“No. Not like this! Within the book is written not just the record of every life, but their potentials as inscribed by Hashem. Including when they should - or shouldn’t - end!”
Wait. I paled. “Circe mentioned Atropos…”
The rabbi’s face lit up with excitement. “Yes! Exactly!”
Isaiah looked between us. “I’m missing something.”
I was speechless, so Kirov was the one to blurt it out. “August might be able to use her connection to the book to save Ms. Thorne!”
Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy.
For one thing, August had no idea how to use her connection, even looking at the words within the book for too long could damage her human mind according to Kirov. But the crux of the problem was simple.
The clock was ticking.
“We are already in the Yamin Nora’im,” Kirov was saying. “Rosh Hashana was last week, thus we have until Saturday.”
Isaiah nodded as if he understood what that meant, so I had to ask. “Spell it out, I’m not Jewish.”
They both looked at me with amusement. Ha ha, I got it, the angel in the room didn’t know the religious things they were babbling about. Real funny.
“Yom Kippur is this Saturday,” Kirov said. “It is the Day of Atonement. During these High Holy Days, the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Hashem inscribes the names of everyone and their fates in His book for the next year. On Yom Kippur, our Sabbath of Sabbaths, the judgments as written in the book are sealed.”
I chewed a lip. “So you’re saying that if Danielle’s problem is that she was meant to die when she got shot, then we have until Saturday to get her name back in that book. Okay, how does August do that?”
The rabbi lost his exuberance. “I do not know. Traditionally a person prays and atones for their sins against Hashem for the past year but Danielle is unconscious. While we may pray fervently on her behalf, and believe me I have, Ms. Rose’s interaction with the scroll could prove more effective. Perhaps she could simply write Ms. Thorne’s name within its pages directly? Though that is practically blasphemous to consider and this is why I needed to consult with Rabbi Levin. There may be something in his histories that can be our guide on the best approach.”
My stomach sank like the Titanic with an entire tank division wedged on the promenades. “I’m about to go all the way to Aleppo! Who knows if I’ll be back in time!” Fuck! And did I also mention? Fuck!
Isaiah tried to offer comfort. “August may not need your help. We will do everything we can for Danielle.”
I looked to my friend. “You’ll stay here? All week? And work with Kirov and August, and if needed his rabbi in Tel Aviv?”
He nodded solemnly. “Absolutely.”
Just hearing that eased some of the current acid burbling of anxiousness. I knew he wasn’t an expert or even had any experience with this stuff, but it helped just the same. “Okay.”
There was a buzzing in Isaiah’s pocket. Frowning, he fished out his phone before announcing, “Mrs. Carson sent a message. Jordan should head to Hawthorne and pack for her trip, the house mother will have a few extra items for her to take.”
I breathed in deep. “I guess I really am going.”
Rabbi Kirov pushed his glasses back up on his nose. “Jordan, we will pray for your success. Leich I’shalom.”
Go toward peace. “Thanks, rabbi, I’ll try. And I’m sorry for yelling at you like that.”
“It… well, it certainly was startling.” He noticed all the wet napkins still in his hand and tossed them in the trash by his desk.
Isaiah cleared his throat. “Before you run off - and may I just comment that for all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you run this much - how have you been speaking Russian this whole time? And with absolute fluency?”
Kirov answered immediately before I could say anything. “The Gift of Tongues.”
We both stared at him so he added, “Hashem’s messengers cannot do a very good job unless they speak all languages, yes?”
Well I’ll be… holy? For everyone’s sake, I hoped so. I gave Isaiah a hug goodbye, deciding to tease a little by kissing him on the cheek. Then for equalities sake, I did the same to Kirov before rushing out the door.
I’m not sure who blushed the brightest, them… or me.
Darting back into Hawthorne at speed I almost bowled someone over but skidded to a halt in time.
“Hey.” He had changed clothes and his tussled hair was still wet. Given the ‘I-still-need-coffee’ expression, he must have woken up, showered, and come straight here.
Mrs. Cantrel called out from behind her lobby station. “Jordan! We need to plan your wardrobe for your trip. I’ve gathered a few items that may help. Just give me a few minutes.”
Zap raised a curious eyebrow at me. “Trip?”
“They’re putting me on a plane to the middle east, possibly today from the sound of it.”
He blinked tired eyes at me. “What?”
“Yeah, it’s crazy, and a long story. What happened with Erica, though? Do you remember everything?”
With a nod, he scratched the back of his head. “I think I’ve got most of it. I… Heru dropped off Erica’s soul. She was at a hospital somewhere in California, or at least her room had an ocean view. Her eyes popped open immediately. She was the only one in the room, and she obviously saw me because she told me thanks and that she owed me one too. I took off after that and woke up in your room upstairs. What about Danielle?”
I shook my head. “Still unconscious.”
His face and shoulders fell. “Damn.”
“Hey, you did more than I could ever have asked. If you hadn’t gone…”
“You mean if Heru hadn’t gone.” He looked away.
“Heru is your spirit. He is you. So thanks to you Danielle has a fighting chance.”
He didn’t seem too convinced. “But it didn’t work.”
“Kirov is working on something that might help.”
“Anything I can do?”
“I don’t know. Unless your, you know, godly family can do something. Like maybe Anubis?”
He grimaced and looked down at his shoes. “When he gave me the charm bracelet he said something. We could help transport a spirit, but beyond that she - meaning Danielle - was outside our domain. And they show up when they want to, not when I want them to.”
“I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly.
Pulling him into a hug, I said, “It’s okay.” Mrs. Cantrel hovered on out behind him and was clearly waiting for me so I let him go. “I need to run. If you want, check with Kirov or even Lodgeman. Maybe they’ll have something you can do.”
He stiffened at the mention of Lodgeman, but just said, “Yeah, alright. Good luck with your trip, doing whatever it is you’re doing. Be safe.”
I managed a smile. “I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.”
We stood awkwardly for a moment, and Mrs. Cantrel coughed. On impulse I kissed his cheek too, after all that seemed to be the trend today. Before he could react I scampered past him towards the waiting elevator. “Take care, Zap!” He was still standing there when the doors closed and the lift started its way up to the attic.
Mrs. Cantrel broke the silence. “Girl, that boy has a fierce crush on you.”
“He’s a good one. You break his heart, we gonna have words.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that so we rode the rest of the way in silence.
Once upstairs, Mrs. Cantrel laid out a silk green long-sleeve dress on my bed, along with a dark headscarf and darker green shoes. “Wear skinny shorts plus a sports bra under this, and no socks with those shoes.”
I groaned. “Another dress? Do I have to change now?”
“No, you should change in Paris.”
She handed me two boarding passes: one from New Hampshire to JFK International that left in a few hours, and another from JFK to Paris. “When you arrive at De Gaulle, there will be a package waiting for you. It will contain a different set of papers for your travel to Damascus, and from there to Aleppo. Here.” She produced a new cellular phone and gave me that too.
“This seems heavier than usual,” I commented, hefting the device in my palm.
“It doubles as a satellite phone. Take it out of airplane mode each time you land, we will be forwarding your calls here to that one in case Mr. Wright calls again.”
I grinned. “And I bet it has a nice GPS tracker on it so you’ll know where I am.”
“Any other cool features? Lasers? Wire cutters? Magnifying glass?”
Mrs. Cantrel stopped folding the dress and glared. “You aren’t in some kind of spy thriller, girl! Where you are going will be deadly dangerous. Treat it seriously. And study the materials already loaded on the phone, about local customs especially. Your fake visa should have you listed as a European national visiting family in Syria, so don’t blow it. Keep your arms and legs covered in public, and wear the head scarf. Avoid attention.”
I tugged on a lock of shiny scarlet-gold hair. “Unless Gregor Kirov can give me a new devise like the one I had when I came here, I’m going to stand way out.”
“He did.” She handed me a black hairband and also a carrying case for contact lenses. “Should his toy fail, use the head scarf to keep covered as best you can.”
Grabbing my small dufflebag, I started loading items into it. Underwear, hairbrush, you know, the essentials. I had to scoop Khan out of it a couple times, much to his protesting meep-meows. “I’m sorry, buddy. But this is one trip I don’t think I can take you on.”
The poor little guy really didn’t seem too happy about that, and kept head-butting my hand.
“Penelope has agreed to take care of your familiar. I know that most witches can be distressed when separated from them, will you be alright?” Mrs. Cantrel was genuinely concerned.
“I’ll be okay. We need him to stay here and keep Penelope and Jenna and Evie safe. Right, little guy?” He meowed again, clearly not convinced. “Crap, speaking of Evie, I better say goodbye to her in person.”
“I promised her I would if I ever had to leave again. Just didn’t think it would be this soon.”
“Hmm. She is likely about to have lunch in the cafeteria.”
“Lunch! Is it that late already?” I looked at the clock. “Gah, no wonder I’m so hungry!”
Mrs. Cantrel frowned. “Haven’t you eaten today, girl?”
“Not since yesterday, no. You know, before traveling to Arcadia and all.”
She shooed me away from my half-prepared bag. “Then hurry and grab something. I’ll finish this and take your cat to Penelope.”
“Thanks!” With one last nuzzle to the top of Khan’s fuzzy head, I ran out the door and took the stairs.
Considering I was about to spend at least fifteen hours traveling to get to the destination, I wondered if I could get them to make me a couple to-go boxes. Airplane food, while having gotten better than when I had been young the first time, still mostly sucked after all.
The rest of the afternoon zipped past in a blur of goodbyes, lectures on being careful, and yet another debate about whether I should go at all. Circe won the discussion. She dryly noted that if you gave her fifteen minutes she could have a book filled with mystical looking energized chicken-scratch that would dance on the page confusingly when anyone looked at it. Who else but me could tell the genuine article from something like that at a glance?
No one had a good answer, so I got loaded up into a car and taken to the airport.
And yes, I did find Evie at the cafeteria. Along with Leland and Jenna, actually. Evie started to protest, getting emotional enough that I was worried she might have another episode.
Jenna was the one to calm her down by saying, and I quote, “Jordan is an angel - she must go where God sends her. Even if we cannot go with her.” The last was said while giving me a rather grumpy glare and she added that if I didn’t come back safely she’d track me down and kick my ass - angel or no.
Evie, after a few more reassuring hugs, seemed to be okay with it. Mostly.
Isaiah, the Kirovs, and pretty much everyone else wished me well and good luck, that sort of thing. Except for Mrs. Carson who merely noted that I should hurry back, as I’d have to make up my schoolwork when I did. Okay, she also gave me a rather warm hug immediately after, totally blowing her headmistress persona for that moment.
Considering the butterflies were busily swarming and thinking of becoming full-fledged dragonflies instead, I appreciated it.
Thus I found myself hours later having changed planes in New York, and settled in to a rather comfortable seat for the long haul to Paris. Kurohoshi had been kind enough to spring for the cost of first class tickets.
I’d been warned about not sleeping on the flights if I could help it, so was seriously loading up on caffeinated beverages. Mostly tea, both hot and cold. Shining brightly and flickering in and out of existence was not recommended as a way to stay unnoticed when out in the general public. This went with the further warning of not being discovered as a meta-powered individual in any way when arriving in Syria. Oppression of mutants (and therefore metas) in the middle east was even worse than their dislike of those who prefer partners of the same sex. We were apparently just demons and needed to be exterminated. Joyous, right? And while being an actual living angel might help with that, it’s not like I had a Flying License from Heaven as an ID to prove such.
Anyway, the luxury airline seats had their own screens and individual movie choices. I’d picked an old classic, The Princess Bride, because something purely humorous was what I needed. The seat next to mine was empty too, though I wondered if Kami had bought it out so I’d be undisturbed. He seemed like a guy with very thorough thinking.
Imagine my surprise when a woman interrupted my giggle-infused watching of the movie.
“Mind if I sit here for a minute?” She asked, gesturing towards the empty seat.
Pulling headphones from my ears, I paused the movie. “Uh…”
“Oh don’t worry, I won’t stay long. My seat is in the front row, wedged between two idiot businessmen debating which of their companies has the bigger phallus. I just need a break from it.”
Looking forward, there was indeed an empty seat stuck in the middle of two older heavy-set guys who were busy arguing and gesturing widely with fingers adorned with overly ornate and ugly rings. “Oh. Sure, lemme move my stuff.”
Once I got my bag off the seat, she sat down with an amused smile. I should also mention that the woman was pretty, as in drop dead unbelievably gorgeous. Platinum blonde hair was professionally styled to dance over perfect shoulders, and she was wearing a slinky one-piece silver dress that somehow reflected a cherry red when she moved, and matching sandals on a body that would have caused Playboy Bunnies to weep with envy, if not with murderous intent. If you took a picture of her just as she was right there, sitting on an airplane several hours into its flight, and put it on the cover of a magazine? Those issues would have flown right off the shelves no matter the cost or that it was a trade publication on how to properly drain and clean sewage systems.
In other words, she put the exemplars I’d seen at Whateley to shame. Me included. It wasn’t all about how she looked either. It was how she sat and moved, totally unrestrained and relaxed, brimming with a confidence that could put your standard narcissist to shame. Clearly she knew her effect on people and reveled in it.
“Thank you. It’s also nice to meet other talented people.” She winked at me.
Wait, what? “I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else…”
She laughed, like the tinkling of musical bells. “Sweetheart, when you’ve been around as long as I have, you can recognize other enhanced people rather easily. You are far too pretty to be otherwise, and I bet the eye color hiding under those contacts is simply dazzling!”
I swallowed. Shit, I’d barely started on this journey and already I’d been made.
A perfectly manicured hand touched mine. “Oh do relax, I really just want to chat. I won’t breathe of this to another soul. You’re American?”
She sank more comfortably into the plush first class seat. “I’ve always had a fondness for America. ‘Land of the Free, Home of the Brave’. Built by intelligent men with a solid understanding of the importance of the individual.”
Her accent sounded perfectly Hollywood-esque to me. “You’re not from the United States?”
“Not at all. In truth, I find the whole concept of countries amusing.”
The gleam in her eyes was unnerving. “And what would you suggest in their place? A dominant one-world unifying order?”
Another burst of melodic laughter, as if I’d just said the funniest joke in the world. She may be an absolute bombshell in her looks and demeanor, but there was definitely something ‘off’ about her.
“I’m sorry, but that’s just too funny. I would most likely fall under more of an anarchist category. People free to do as they willed, with nothing oppressing them whatsoever.”
“That’s a nice dream, but I don’t think it’s all that feasible. Without cooperation and structure, societies collapse and people die.”
“The way things are now, I’d agree. It would require everyone to be absolutely self-sufficient, equal in their ability to create what they want whenever they wanted it.”
“Want or need?”
“Is there a difference? But what about you, how would you classify your own political stance?” She leaned in with intense, and somewhat uncomfortable, interest.
“I guess I’d be more libertarian? A structure where any collective organizing serves the purpose of supporting the individual’s freedoms and ability to live their lives as they wish, provided they aren’t harming anyone else. This includes gathering together for defense from outside threats.”
“Free will unencumbered by the state, but rather supported by it?”
“I guess you could put it that way, sure.”
She smiled again, this time though it was more genuine somehow. “Sounds a lot like my father’s opinion, actually. He always was a brilliant individual.”
Another light-hearted laugh. “Not that I agree completely, mind you, but there is room for common ground. I’m Alal, by the way.” She offered her hand and I took it.
“Jordan. Nice to meet you.”
“Wonderful meeting you too. I think I’ll go use the ladies room, perhaps we could talk more later?”
She gave another supermodel-quality smile and walked sexily down the aisle towards the bathrooms at the front. I couldn’t help myself, I was curious and risked a moment of my eyes glowing to try and catch a quick peek at her spirit.
Her image didn’t even flicker. She looked the same, dress and shoes included. But there was this weird feeling of seeing some kind of projection as if from a place my mind was unable to even begin to grasp.
The bathroom door closed behind her, but it never latched and kept showing as unoccupied.
After ten minutes I got up. I went over to the bathroom, knocking lightly. “Alal? You okay?” Tentatively I pushed the dual hinged metal door inward. The little room was empty. She was gone.
Shit. Had exhaustion overwhelmed me and I just dreamed the whole thing?
There was no way to tell.
Unnerved by the entire possible dream encounter, I stayed in my seat trying not to think about it for the rest of the flight. And no, she never appeared again. A third businessman returned from the other restroom to take that empty middle seat between the other two. He must’ve read the newspaper he was holding at least three times given how long he was in there.
Arriving seven hours later at the Charles De Gaulle airport, a flight attendant stopped me as I disembarked down the ramp. To my continued amazement, I’d understood their spoken French perfectly, and the guy hadn’t commented or made any faces at my response. My accent must have passed muster. Well, okay, maybe he was just polite. Either way, he handed over a small soft-leather attache case explaining that my bag had been found.
I thanked him, and hurried to a restroom by the gates. In my nervousness I almost went into the men’s room by mistake, but caught myself at the last second.
Finding a stall, I pulled off my jeans and t-shirt, and opened my travel dufflebag to remove the green dress Mrs. Cantrel had packed. Below the dress in the bag was a dark silky vest and matching shorts, along with a note written in impeccable penmanship saying to wear them under the dress. Feeling the material, it seemed weirdly both thick and thin.
I examined the note further and found more writing on the back. This will not stop a .50 BMG round, but will be good against most firearms and aid against knives or even some magical attacks. Be safe - Cantrel. P.S. Dispose of this note.
Not in a spy-thriller my ass!
Activating Gregor’s hairband and wrapping my head in the scarf thing, I was now a citizen of France on her way to visit a dying grandmother in Aleppo, Syria. I shoved my ‘real’ identification into the special pocket in the attache case I had been told to expect. The pocket sealed itself closed and the spot where it had been felt just as thin as the rest of the inner liner.
The name’s Baghdadi, Jane Baghdadi. Okay, it was actually Jennifer on the papers, just hush and get me a martini.
Feeling ridiculous in the headscarf, I gathered my things and headed over to the gate for the next flight. Oh, and the note got shredded and flushed. Anyone wanting to reconstitute it has my sympathies.
My next two flights - four hours to Damascus with one hour through customs there, following with another hour to Aleppo - went smoothly. Being able to answer in Arabic to the officials in Damascus made things a lot easier, and I will admit I played up the part of being the young girl traveling for the first time, explaining how I was supposed to fly with my brother but the airlines had screwed up and he was forced to take an earlier flight. And yes, he would be waiting for me in Aleppo. Walking through the airport and having all the signs in Arabic make sense as if I’d known the language natively was a real trip as well as really helpful. The weird thing was that it felt like I was still thinking in English, but was I? The translations of the concepts behind the words were so automatic to whatever language was needed it was difficult to tell.
The real hard part had been staying awake, mainly due to boredom. I hadn’t wanted to walk around on the plane much, as that too could attract attention. I read and re-read the material they’d loaded on the phone and watched more movies. I even picked some foreign ones and found it pretty darn cool to no longer need subtitles.
Hey, if you can’t play with and appreciate your own crazy abilities then what’s the point of having them?
In any case, I arrived at Aleppo’s airport aboard a dinky propeller plane that sounded like it could use a serious mechanical overhaul. It did manage to get me there in one piece, and for that I was grateful.
At the end of the ramp was a seriously tough-looking buff dude wearing one of those stretchy black tank tops along with combat boots and matching pants holding a sign that said, “Abdulla 119:105”. The name was meaningless, but the numbers were the code I’d been told to look for on arrival. I went over to him and announced, “I made it.”
He looked me over. “Nice dress.”
“Oh shut up. Lead on, James.”
“Name’s Fred, not James.” At least he was grinning. “I was told to remind you to check your phone.”
Phone? Well shit, it had been in airplane mode through security in Damascus. The thought of trying to talk to Nick in English while standing in front of those machine-gun armed guards had prompted me to turn its communications off.
Flipping it back to active while I walked with tall dark and military, it immediately chimed that there was a message waiting. I held it up to my ear and listened to the recording. Yep, it was Nick, but he didn’t sound happy.
“Jordan! I hope you got the attention of the right authorities and that they dispatched something useful, because I think I figured out what these schmucks are trying to do. If they can load the entire alcove onto the truck that pulled in this morning, my guess is they figure they can disarm the main ward simply by driving the whole bloody thing far enough away from the ley line its powered from. Once they have it loaded that truck is going to move. They get out of town and if they extract whatever is in there, keeping tabs on where the prize goes will be damn near impossible. Call me as soon as you can or at the very least scream at the authorities that their window to act is closing rapidly. Nick out.”
Shit. I checked the time of the message, it was stamped only an hour ago.
“Trouble?” I’d stopped walking and Fred was at my side hovering protectively.
“Yeah. They are trying to load an entire chunk of the basement of the synagogue onto a truck. Get me somewhere more secure and I’ll call him back. If that truck is already moving, I bet he’s tailing it.” I started walking more briskly.
Mr. Muscles easily kept up. “Shit. Our team isn’t all assembled. We’re missing more than half.”
“How long till they get here?”
“Two hours. Flights got delayed.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know if we have the time to wait.”
“If we must, we go with four. You included. You have any training? The brief was sucktastic.”
“Then it probably told you to keep me safe, just don’t do it at the cost of your own lives. I can probably survive a lot more than you’d expect.”
He didn’t respond to that.
Another black SUV (what else?) was waiting at the curbside pickup. Fred opened the rear passenger door for me and I climbed in. He then swapped places with the driver, a much shorter Latino guy in a matching don’t-mess-with-me outfit who hopped into the front passenger spot.
In the back sat a younger-looking guy wearing shorts and a black Metallica t-shirt. He’d kicked off flip flops to pull up his knees and was staring at a computer tablet. He never even looked over at me.
Introductions would need to wait as I had a phone call to make. I thumbed the phone and breathed a small sigh of relief when Nick answered on the fifth ring. “Jordan? This better be you.”
“You’re damn right it is. I’m in town with some calvary, where you at?” If talking tough would actually help my screaming nerves then I’d be fine. Really.
“The bloody truck is heading towards Antakya Gate. My guess is they’ll swing from there to head up to Shihan and then take the Two-Fourteen out of town to the North-West.”
“Already? Crap.” I relayed the details to Fred, hoping he’d know where the hell all of that was.
He cursed and started up the vehicle. “Got it. Tell him we’re on our way and keep him on the line. Get a description of his vehicle for Derek, he’s the nerd in the back seat.”
I activated the speakerphone and asked Nick about his car. He answered with, “I’m in a piece of shit white Toyota Corolla.”
“Stay on the phone, Nick.”
“If my battery dies, just follow the route I gave you. I’ve had the damn thing on too long waiting for your call. You’ll recognize the truck. It’s huge, carrying two massive lumps covered with black tarp, with two escort Hummers. And you can’t miss the fucking helicopter with the side-mounted machine gun flying high above it.”
The guy with the bare feet next to me grinned. “Cute!”
Fred grunted. “Hang on, we have a ways to go to catch up.” Putting his foot down, he started weaving through traffic.
Oh, guess this is the car-chase part of the spy thriller. I hoped I wouldn’t throw up. The Latino guy in the front casually took hold of the oh-shit-grip above his door to hang on.
Nick cursed again. “That’s it, phone’s out. Better see you soon.”
“Hang in there!” I shouted at mine. “We’re coming!” But the line was dead.
No one said anything as we raced through the traffic. The sun was just past the zenith and I was hit with how hot it was outside. With the rush out of the airport I hadn’t noticed, but yeah it was at least a hundred degrees out there.
Babbling more out of nervousness than anything else, I asked Fred about the numbers on the sign at the airport. “Any idea what one-nineteen and one-oh-five actually means? Seemed awfully specific.”
Without skipping a beat while darting around a white van, he answered. “It’s a Psalm. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. The boss picked the code, but I wasted too many days in Sunday school so I looked it up.”
Oh. Seriously Kurohoshi?
The other guy up front finally said something. “If the boss is tossing prayers around, we’re fucked.”
I disagreed. “He wasn’t praying.”
That earned a look from Derek away from his screen. “Then what? I agree with Miguel.”
I chewed on my poor lip again. “I think your boss is telling me not to hold back.”
Derek tilted his head. “Hold back what?”
“My power. Just get us there, Fred.”
The guys up front glanced at each other and bumped fists.
“Roger that, girl!” Miguel said with sudden enthusiasm. “Let’s go blow some shit UP!”
We took another sharp corner and ahead in the distance could be seen a helicopter. My eyes were good enough to make out the huge cannon stuck to its side.
Kurohoshi may not have been praying, but right now with the heat and the burnt-oil smell of far too many cars which had never submitted themselves to California smog regulations, the danger seemed far too gritty and real.
I tossed my own prayer upward asking for all of us to make it out of this alive.