Louis found me while I was sitting on the roof.
The sun had started the day playing hide-and-seek behind several wispy clouds much to the entertainment of the many crows raising a loud ruckus from the trees lining the paths below. The kids scurrying to the cafeteria and their classes were bundled up tightly in school sweaters and coats to fend off the crisp autumn-chilled air. Not that the cold bothered either me or Louis. I could easily ignore it and Louis, known as Fubar to the kids, wasn’t really here.
His presence was after all only an astral projection.
“Good morning,” he said after flickering into view a few feet above the concrete tiles. Dark slacks and business jacket with white shirt was how he’d chosen to appear today, his solemn expression undercut by eyes twinkling with their own caring humor. Using his mind alone he could visit wherever he was needed—a useful trick unique to the school’s pre-eminent psychic instructor and counselor.
Pulling knees closer to my chest, I sighed and watched my breath wisp away as a small cloud of its own. “Mornin’ Louis.”
“May I join you?”
Resisting the temptation to snark about how he already had I shrugged, waving a hand at the tiles. “Go for it.”
“You didn’t go to class today.” His legs folded into a lotus position as he hovered downward. The details of his projection were impressively complete: a perfectly matched shadow stretched out over the rooftop in parallel to my own.
“Ah.” He watched as some crows swooped down to steal crackers away from the single white dove a girl with pink pig-tails had been happily feeding just off the main path. The girl’s efforts to chase away the dark intruders seemed to amuse the birds all the more. “Been up here long?” he asked after the girl gave up and skipped off down the path.
“Caught the dawn a few hours ago.”
“Should we get someone to feed your cat?”
That earned him a small smile. “Khan’s fine. I put out a fresh can before coming up. He’s probably snoozing atop his heating pad by now.”
With the pig-tailed girl’s departure the crows fought amongst themselves for the remnants of her crackers, chasing back and forth between the fall-colored branches with prizes clasped in their beaks. A smaller but faster bird emerged from the scrum as the victor and proceeded to tear the largest chunk into smaller swallowable bits.
Louis sat quietly with me and the rest of world continued to spin and do its thing, sunlight brightening and dimming in tune with the long thin streaks of white fluff drifting across the bright blueness. Without thinking I leaned against his arm and shoulder. He stiffened as if startled but didn’t pull away and eventually I realized I was speaking.
“I’m scared, Louis,” I was saying. “I’m scared because of all the things I don’t know and all the things I do. Everything keeps getting bigger and I don’t know where it’s heading, let alone where it’ll end up. I lit a candle last night and by doing so I touched a potential capable of giving birth to entire new suns. Biblical prophecies and the myths of Heaven are shoving me in directions I can’t fathom towards a power and a duty beyond what any person should have. And that’s just it. I feel like I’m only pretending to even still be human, like maybe I’m desperately trying to hold on to something which is no longer even there.”
The all-too-tight pocket in these jeans reluctantly released its shred of stored tissue and I blew my nose to get it to stop sniffling. Huh, my cheeks were damp too.
Maybe it was raining and I hadn’t noticed.
He leaned back before wrapping a hesitant arm around my shoulders. This time it was my turn to not flinch away.
After a minute he broke the silence. “You know, given the range and focus that I’ve developed I am considered one of the strongest psychics the world has ever seen. If I wish I can transport my awareness across vast distances. And should I desire I could pluck at all the minds I encounter and bend them to my will. What is frightening is that if done right with the proper skill none would ever realize the intrusion. All it would take would be a deep understanding of their psychology and knowing precisely which levers within their psyches upon which to pull.”
He paused as the crows took flight towards the cafeteria and the prospect of further edibles. “At the same time I am physically confined to the pool in the cottage’s basement below, more an Eldritch horror than a man, serving as a litmus test for the strength of stomach and character of new students relegated to water-filter cleaning duties. As you may well imagine I’ve spent quite a few moments pondering what it means to be human.”
One crow remained in a nearby tree, yelling raucously at his departed fellows. “Any conclusions?” I asked.
“Perhaps only operating premises. I could easily become the true horror that many in the government who are aware of my existence have always feared. And that temptation never goes away. Not when constantly feeling so much of the suffering and pain all the people around me deal with and broadcast each and every day. I could grant them peace of mind, grant them the serenities they ceaselessly clamor for inside. It would be easy to do.”
“But you won’t do that.”
“No, I won’t. I choose to believe that by allowing them the freedom of their own humanity—their own choices for happiness and pain alike—I am also choosing to hold on to my own. Maybe that is naive and there will come a day I will be forced to cross that line in order to stop some greater evil. The world, after all, has a way of making mockeries of any absolutes. But I hope that day never arrives.”
“I don’t think you’re naive,” I said quietly.
“Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. But through my work at the school and consulting off-campus I’ve run across a number of individuals I would term as Powers. People with abilities staggering to consider, both heroic and villainous. And if there was a single sign I could point at as to how some crossed from the former camp into the latter it would simply be this: isolation.”
“Is that a rebuke for lurking up here?” I smiled.
“Not at all!” He returned the smile with a warm one of his own. “Yet at the same time should you find yourself pushing away friends because of thinking that they couldn’t possibly understand what you’re going through or that there’s no way they’d be able to help, I’d advise against doing that. Hold them closer, trust them as you’d hope they would trust you. Let them support you and be a constant reminder as to why those lines should never be crossed. Find in them the humanity you hope to preserve in yourself.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
“Good.” He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze.
On impulse I leaned up to give his cheek a quick kiss. “You’re a good man, Louis. Thanks.”
He flushed but didn’t pull away. If anything he held me closer.
I didn’t mind.
“So,” I said more lightly, “I’m probably in trouble for ditching my morning classes, right?”
He laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m fully empowered to sign excuse slips.”
“Cool. Because I’m thinking of taking off until, oh, at least lunch.”
He hesitated before asking, “Should I go?”
“I was hoping to follow your advice.” I made no movement whatsoever to get up.
We sat there together and watched various other birds continue their own play as they filled the air with sporadically chirped melodies. The bright yellow sun rose further into the sky offering a soothing warmth whenever its rays cut through the clouds to shine upon us both.
It was rather pretty.
I hadn’t made it more than five feet past the doors of the Crystal Hall before my name was being shouted over the throng of loud and hungry students. Most of my friends had occupied a large table and they all were calling and waving at me like a bunch of deranged geese.
Since turning and running for the hills didn’t seem like an available option I waved back before hurriedly hitting up the buffet to grab the first item that even remotely appealed: chicken tortilla soup. With this acquired I was ushered into a chair surrounded by my friends and niece: Evie, Jenna, Tamara, Brendan, August, Ester, and of course Danielle.
See? Large table.
Evie immediately blurted the question everyone obviously wanted to ask. “You okay? Where were you!”
I gave her my best reassuring smile and a hug. “I’m fine. Just have a lot to think about.” August and Ester both looked uncomfortably down at their own food trays. I pretended not to notice, though that pretty much confirmed that they too remembered the erstwhile ‘dream’ sequence with the Grigori and the source of the morning’s dose of existential angst.
Danielle, brushing aside the single reddish-gold lock of hair that kept breaking free from its all-white cousins, spoke next. “You missed Magic Theory this morning and we couldn’t find you at Mythic History. Jenna checked your room, you weren’t there either. We were worried.”
I nodded. “I know.”
Brendan said, “Zap’s missing too. He with you? You two go world hopping again or something?” His brow narrowed with suspicion.
Zap was missing? Huh. “No,” I said, “I actually spent most of the morning talking with Louis. I haven’t seen Zap.”
They all looked at each other. Around a mouthful of spaghetti Jenna said, “Something is obviously up. Spill.”
With a resigned shrug I waved a spoon at Tamara. “You have that privacy spell thing of yours? What I’ve got to say really needs to go no further than here.”
She reached into her backpack and pulled out a salt-shaker seemingly exactly like the ornate silver holder already adorning our table. Of course that was only true if you didn’t peer at it in the magical spectrum. Attuning to such things revealed a vibrantly pulsating spell-working of swarming celtic and fae knotwork - an item she ‘inherited’ from a graduating senior the year before. The senior had claimed they had gotten it in turn from a previous fae student of some renown and power. Placing it at the center of the table Tamara whispered a phrase and with a pulse the air around our table shimmered before settling down.
“There,” she announced. “Neither devise nor magic can listen in on us now. They’ll just hear a bubble-headed conversation about fashion shows.”
Brendan objected. “Hey!”
Tamara grinned. “Sorry dude! Any lip readers will think you’re talking about fabrics and colors with the same passionate and air-headed interest as the rest of us.”
Brendan rolled his eyes before taking a savage bite out of a dinner roll without further comment.
“Right then.” Taking a deep breath, I let it out slow. “Some of you already know this but I found out something totally nuts last night and it’s basically freaking me out. And if I tell you, you can’t tell anyone. Not even the teachers. Okay?”
They all glanced meaningfully at each other and nodded their agreement. Jenna simply said, “Give.”
I gave. I had to tell someone, right? Khan, as awesome a kitty as he was, didn’t quite count. “There’s no easy way to say this. You know in the Bible the whole Apocalypse prophecy? The four Horsemen and all that?” I got nods, though I suspected Evie was just going along with the others. “Apparently I’m the first of the four. The one historically called ‘Conquest’.”
Danielle’s eyes bugged out. “Holy shit!”
“Exactly,” I said. “Completely insane, right?”
Brendan’s cheeks slowly lost all color. “I thought the first rider was supposed to be the anti-Christ, the son of Satan.”
“Yeah.” I winced. “Does being the daughter of Lucifer count? Because that’s who the original Aradia was and I’m pretty sure I’ve got her spirit.”
“Fuuuuuck,” said Jenna, her eyes growing wider than her plate. “Isn’t that the story with the seven seals and the plagues, dogs and cats living together, and all the end of the world type stuff?”
“That’s the one.” Brendan said still staring at me rather aghast. “It’s already started, hasn’t it?”
Danielle’s brow furrowed. She poked August who was shifting rather uncomfortably in her (his?) seat. “Hey August,” Danielle said, “if that was the case, wouldn’t you know all about it from the Book of Life?” Given that Danielle had been saved once by August’s connection to the Book, she had tried to question August extensively with what it could or couldn’t do. I think my niece was still rather annoyed by how little August had been willing to tell her.
“Yes,” August mumbled without meeting Danielle’s gaze. “Jordan is right. She’s the First Horseman. Crowned in light and glory.”
“What the hell August!” shouted Danielle, shoving her chair back so she could stand and glare. “How could you not have told her?”
Poor August looked like they were about to cry.
“Hey, it’s not their fault,” I interjected, putting a hand on August’s shoulder. “Sandalphon forbid revealing things from the Book. That goes with the responsibilities of connecting to it. August is just doing as he commanded. They don’t like it any more than we do. So no one give them any grief about it. Got it?” I said the last rather forcefully to drive the message home.
Everyone but Danielle seemed to understand. My niece however always did have a strong rebellious streak and crossed her arms, clearly still angry.
Jenna looked to Brendan. “Wait, you asked if it had already begun. You mean the actual Apocalypse.”
He nodded solemnly. “Yeah. At the lake, we all saw it too.”
“Saw what?” Jenna asked.
“Jordan broke the seal,” he replied, pushing away his still-laden plate. “When she got her wings. So she could save Danielle.”
“Oh my god.” Danielle sank back down in her chair, all anger draining away as she stared at me in horror. “You triggered the end of the world to save me?”
Ah hell. “We don’t know that will happen.”
Jenna shook her head. “I dunno. I thought Revelations laid it all out. A thousand years of rule by Satan, then Jesus shows up, kicks his ass, and wraps up the Earth to take the saved to Heaven.” She fiddled with the golden cross at her neck before realizing what she was doing. She let the symbol of her faith fall back against her skin.
“It’s not as clear as that,” Tamara countered. “At my old school I got stuck with taking Bible study one semester. There are many interpretations and yeah in one the first rider is indeed the anti-Christ. But others have him as representing the gospel spreading over the world to prepare the way for the so-called ‘conquering Christ’.”
Brendan’s fist hit the table with a loud thud. “Either way the world is in deep shit.” He was still glaring at me. “Can you stop it?”
I waved a spoon helplessly. “I don’t know! And there’s more. Apparently Soren used the book I gave him to free the angel Camael. In other words he broke the Second Seal already and unleashed number two: War.”
Ester, fidgeting uncomfortably, spoke quietly. “You let him have that book in order to save me.”
“Yes, I did.” I blinked. She had spoken in her native Norwegian language and I’d replied in kind. Which was earning some further weird stares from everyone else. “And I’d probably do it again, hon.” I tried to smile reassuringly, not that it really helped much.
“Why tell us?” Tamara asked. “I mean, this is huge. Like mind boggling crazy huge.”
I pushed the soup away. The poor bowl had gone cold anyway. “Because you’re my friends. And as we saw at the lake, crazy stuff keeps happening around me. Even with Whateley Academy as protected as it is, just by being close to me you all could be in danger. You deserve to know.”
For the first time since I’d sat down, Brendan’s expression towards me softened. Okay, maybe only a little. “Thank you. But why not tell the teachers? Won’t they just try to help?”
I cringed. “That’s just it. They would. But to do that they’d likely contact others outside of the school. Kirov already screwed up like that once before and we know what that caused: Azazel found out where I was. And I bet Natalie would have to report this to the DPA. What if the government decided I was a threat to the world after all? Or what if some crazed religious group finds out? They’ll either form a cult around me or try to kill me. And I only have that note from Soren as proof Azazel and his mind-control powers aren’t still lurking behind seemingly normal folk. Being an angel is bad enough as is, but this?”
Brendan slowly nodded. “Yeah, it’s tricky. What do you plan to do?”
“Honestly I have no idea,” I told him. “I only found out last night and am still reeling from it all.”
He managed a wry grin. “Guess you’re still human enough to be confused, eh?”
I made a face. “I feel like I’m up shit’s creek with a foam pool noodle as the only available paddle.”
A small hand took mine. “It’ll be okay,” Evie said quietly. Damn near broke my heart, seeing her trying to be strong for me. Yeah, she got another hug. As a girl I can be liberal with those, right?
Apparently so, as Jenna decided to group hug us both with an enhanced strength squeeze. Ow.
“Well, I have one idea,” Brendan announced after the hug-fest eased off.
“What?” I halfway expected him to say we should party like the end was nigh. Why the heck not, right?
His idea was entirely different. “You should train with us. Danger is taking aim at you whether you like it or not. And while I still think using your powers is too risky, you not knowing how to use them if you had to might be more so. For everyone.”
Saying that caused Jenna to openly gape. Ever since the fight at the lake Brendan had maintained I shouldn’t try to work with his team for combat training. He had agreed wholeheartedly with the teachers that I should keep my powers under strict control. This had been a source of major friction between him and Jenna, something which had been really sad to watch. It was obvious that the two adored each other, even if they’d yet to admit it.
“How?” I asked. “You know the restrictions I’m under. No powering up.”
“There is a way,” he mused. “You join us in the sims. We only code in what powers you know about. Working with abilities isn’t just about controlling them but also knowing when to use what. It’d be a start.”
“Yes!” Jenna exclaimed with growing excitement. “You totally should!”
I thought about it. The sims were like a regular video game, just a lot more immersive with full virtual reality suits and devisor hook-ups. As I’d already used them in my combat driving class the previous week to practice on crazy things like tanks and helicopters, the idea seemed safe enough. “Alright, I’m in. When?”
He grinned mischievously. “I bet if I hurry and catch the Sensei before his next class he’d let us skip Martial Training to do this instead. Especially with you destroying the punching bag yesterday like you did. At least in a sim you can’t break any equipment, right? If he agrees that’ll free up me and Jenna.” He looked over at Danielle and Tamara. “What about you two? You free seventh period?”
Tamara looked thoughtful. “We’ve got special magical practice in seventh. They rearranged our schedules last week so Danielle and I could practice under Circe’s guidance instead of us two sneaking off into the forest to do it.”
Danielle, sheepish about getting busted for unauthorized forest activities, piped up with, “I could visit Natalie real quick. If I hint that the teamwork would be good for Jordan, she could convince Circe to let us go.”
Jenna bounced out of her chair. “Then I’ll go bug Gunny to get us a sim slot!” She reached down to stab her last meatball before dropping the fork onto the now-empty plate. “Someone bus my tray, I’m gonna go find him!” She almost knocked a poor kid over, food and all, as she zoomed towards the exit. Somehow he’d managed to hold on to his tray and not spill everything.
Brendan yelled out to her, “Shouldn’t we confirm with Ito and Circe first?”
If she heard she ignored it - which caused the rest of us to laugh as Brendan shook his head at her exuberance.
He turned to me. “It’s settled then. Seventh period we go fight some simulated evil. Don’t be late. If this works our combat team can boast about having the one-and-only First Horseman as a member.”
Tamara, reaching for the magic salt shaker, scolded him. “You keep that to yourself buster. Or you’re going to find out how devious a witch and a fae can be in coming up with punishments for breaking an oath to friends.” Danielle’s arms crossed in solidarity.
“Okay, okay!” Brendan held up his hands in defeat. “Relax! I won’t say anything, I swear!”
Evie shook a finger at him. “You better not! I’ll have you know I wield a fierce pillow!”
Once again the kids at Whateley were treating the absolutely incredible and mythic as standard affair. Though considering the insanities they witnessed every day, what’s an Apocalypse or two between friends? And I will admit, the thought of short little Evie attacking the seven foot tall Brendan with a small pink throw pillow got me giggling in spite of myself.
Ten bucks says she’d cheat and find a way to win.
When I’d first heard about the sims I had figured they were comprised of a virtual reality helmet, gloves, and maybe a run-in-place treadmill type setup. I had woefully underestimated the resources Whateley could throw at something to help train their combat teams.
These were full brain and nerve inducted immersive endeavors.
Powered by a mix of magic and devisor tech, participants had to wear fully haptic feedback bodysuits along with a electrode studded helm which stimulated the nerves running up the neck and across the top of the head directly. All integrated the user felt like they were truly there inside the computer generated reality.
The whole operation was overseen by a retired Marine, one Gunnery Sergeant Oscar Bardue. He stood slightly taller than me, dark-skin covered by a Whateley Security uniform, and was in good physical condition - especially for a guy who’s short curly hair had turned white many years in the past. His presence, however, was like facing an old yet fully functional battle-tank whose turret had just swung around to aim with perfect precision right at your face.
Fortunately after a quick and measuring look-over he just grunted and sent me off with a female technician to get suited up. The bluish-gold bodysuit was of course skin-tight leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination and just re-emphasized how different I’d become. They’d had one made to my measurements for the driving course but as I’d only used it once so far it still had that ‘new-from-plastic’ smell.
Once I was clothed-but-not-really, the tech (whose name was Linda) led me to a room with this huge chair contraption in the center. The walls were inscribed with various runes which I figured for some kind of isolation warding as walking in there felt rather like being within the circles inscribed onto my bedroom floor. After hooking me into a seat more like an overgrown dentist’s chair that happened to be plugged into enough high-voltage lines to power a small city, she pulled out a tablet and commenced reciting the official list of my powers that the school testers currently knew about.
I held my tongue and didn’t mention the ability to break seals and trigger the End Of The World As We Knew It. I figured they didn’t need official records of that kind of thing. Besides, we were supposed to be entering a sim as a hero squad fighting supervillains and not a team dealing with the fact that one of their own was potentially the biggest danger around. I did have to clarify and adjust a few things from her list and expand it slightly. I mean, hey, I can light actual candles now. That could totally be useful if we suddenly needed to set up a romantic dinner in the middle of a firefight. Seriously.
The other item I modified was to remove the theorized ability to super-charge others like had happened accidentally to Jenna and Brendan when Danielle had been shot at the lake. I knew Brendan would flip his lid if I did that to them as the experience had really bothered him. Considering the point of the sim was for the team members to develop their own strengths it was only fair if this potential was left out. Besides, I was still somewhat unsure of how to do that consciously in the first place. With my luck I’d cause the recipient to pop like a grape in the microwave.
With that done she carefully fit the weird antenna-bestrewn helmet over my hair, making sure that all the various sensors and electrical pad things had good contact. If anyone peeked in the room they’d have seen what looked like a large anti-submarine mine perched atop a mess of reddish-gold tentacles all draping over the headless body of a scaly and naked sea nymph. Otaku would probably give everything they owned to get a poster of that which was both amusing and disturbing. The thought of shut-in geeks drooling over images of me in general was creepy enough as is.
A tap on the helmet snapped my attention back. “You ready?” Linda asked.
“Uh, sure?” I sounded really odd due to the echoes within the helmet. With my old male voice I could totally have done a mean Darth Vader impersonation in the thing but now I sounded like some cute pop singer who’s recording studio was seriously playing with the settings.
“Okay,” Linda said. “Remember the rules. Only use powers via the simulation interface. Got it?”
“Yep.” She had explained that through the helmet’s connection the simulation could trigger the pre-programmed abilities by thinking of the term ‘Go Sim’ followed by the label assigned to the power. So for example, if I wanted to blast something I’d just have to think or say ‘Go Sim Blast!’ and supposedly wherever my hand was aiming would be pulverized. Neat, right?
I might have modified some of the canned phrases too.
“Good. Engaging in 3…2…1…”
There was a loud click and I was suddenly standing in a narrow alley, rain disturbing the reflections of building lights across many puddles lurking across rough gravel. A few compact cars were wedged against stucco walls all having those European-style license plates. You know, those long skinny white ones.
Oh, and Brendan’s squad was standing there too, the four members who could make it anyway. They usually fielded seven but Zap was nowhere to be found and the other two squad-mates were still stuck in English Lit. Okay, there were five if you included me, something I was still dubious about. I still worried about Zap but had been reassured he was still on campus. He’d apparently taken a ‘personal day’—in other words was skipping classes—but given that he’d spent three years as a hawk the school was more than willing to be lenient about his psychological needs.
Rather like Louis had signed me out for the day too.
Brendan stood tall in the alley all outfitted in the team colors: white with pale blue stripes forming the letter ‘Y’. For reasons they hadn’t explained to me they had named themselves the ‘Y’ Team. At least the uniforms weren’t spandex, instead were composed of layered cloth and armor plates layered which allowed easy movement. Jenna looked a bit odd with her obsidian armored skin sitting underneath even more protection. Her white eyes and teeth matched the bright whiteness of the outfit, sort of floating in the air as her own dark coloring blended perfectly against the cloudy night we found ourselves standing under.
Danielle and Tamara had the same colors and symbol but were in full leather instead, likely to minimize interference with their magics. In addition to the big letter across their chests, theirs also had all manner of blue and yellow sigils and knotwork covering every inch of fabric, including their boots.
Looking down, I too was wearing white and blue motorcycle-style gear. Except I could feel weird open slits running down the back of the jacket letting the cold dampness from the air settle across exposed shoulderblades.
Oh. Duh. For the wings.
Gunny Bardue’s voice barked loudly across the wireless earbuds.
“Listen up! Nuclear material has been stolen from a NATO base in Southern Italy. It has been determined that the drones which perpetrated the raid were created by Doctor Defenestro, a villainous art thief and brilliant devisor. According to gathered intelligence he is working on a miniaturized fission bomb with the intention to hold Brussels hostage via a drone in order to demand that all Renaissance artwork located world-wide be returned to its native Italy. He owns two known places of interest: a large estate near Rome where his laboratory is believed to be located and also a small warehouse in the hills above Venice. Team Y’s task is to search the warehouse for the stolen fissile material in case he stashed it there, retrieve it if found, and also to destroy any discovered progress towards the fission bomb prototype we believe he has been constructing. Reports are that Doctor Defenestro himself is currently at his estate. Another UN team will be hitting that location simultaneously. Your team leader has been briefed in full. Good luck. Control out.” Gunny’s link went perfectly silent.
I was disappointed. Signing off should have had the whole static ‘shhhkk’ sound effect like in all proper sci-fi shows. Alright, so I also found the mission premise to be silly, what with the threatened nuclear annihilation due to misplaced art and all. It just reinforced that I was about to play a super-high-tech video game with a bunch of kids.
Brendan however was taking it very seriously. “Squad, form up!”
Jenna proudly stood at attention before him, with Danielle and Tamara moving to her side. Huh, come to think of it, Brendan was the only guy here. Lucky him.
“Aradia! Get in the line for mission consult!” Brendan barked. Oops, use of codenames was apparently in effect. ‘Tank’ pointed to where I should be standing. I obliged him, arms crossing over the suped-up biker jacket.
Tank continued. “Right. This warehouse is supposed to be a storage site for pieces of art that Defenestro has ‘recovered from foreign pilfering’ and is filled with crates and palettes of ancient art. That being said it likely has defensive drones guarding it. They could consist of various combat models—including aerial—and are likely outfitted with conventional small arms as well as some devisor tech weaponry.”
Danielle—sorry, ‘Shioc’ (pronounced like ‘shook’)—raised her hand and Tank nodded at her to go ahead.
“Do we know if his gear has any magic resistance?” She slid a wet strand of hair away from her eyes. The captured level of detail of our appearances in here was incredible.
“It shouldn’t,” Tank replied. “The NATO base had one practitioner stationed there. He was able to take down two drones before they got away. So our advantage is Shioc and Sigil.” He pointed his two index fingers at Danielle and Tamara.
I had to speak up. “Is there a way to detect the radioactive material? And if it could be used in a weapon it’s got to be of sufficient concentration that we don’t want to be exposed to it.” Tank’s eyes narrowed with disapproval. Oh, I guess I hadn’t raised my hand and gotten the ‘squad commander’s’ permission to speak. I smiled innocently, earning an actual scowl in response. Okay, it wasn’t all that innocent. Can I get an ‘A’ for effort though?
He answered anyway. “Our wrist computers have built-in detectors. Range of twenty feet. They are supposed to be sensitive enough to work through any shielding, but I’d like Sigil to think of a way to detect it with magic. Just in case and at greater range if possible.”
That was actually smart. I nodded my approval, which he ignored.
Aiming a palm at the textured white wall near us, Tank used a gizmo in his glove to project an image of a two story building with a red-tile roof. One large roll-up door sat in its middle with some concrete stairs leading to a small door off to the side. “This is the target. I’ll either break the lock on the garage and toss it open, or I’ll just bust through it. That should draw all fire from anything guarding it. Aradia, stand behind me and zap anything that needs zapping. Rockslide,” he said, using Jenna’s codename, “you bust the side door and get Sigil and Shioc inside to evaluate and cast appropriate magics. Shioc, cast your invisibility illusions on us before we go. That should maintain the surprise, even if mine and Rockslide’s will drop when we bust through the doors.”
Now that was interesting. I didn’t know Danielle could do that. Cool.
“We get in,” he continued, “deal with any drones, and find the material if its there.” He caused the image to pull back, showing the warehouse sitting against a hill overlooking the town below and ocean beyond. Above the warehouse, dotting the hillside with lots of little lights, were a few meandering narrow roads and many two-story villas nestled snugly alongside them.
“Hey,” I interjected. “If we can be invisible why not try to sneak in through the side door and get a better look at what’s in there? We’re walking in blind otherwise.”
Tank puffed himself up, which meant he absolutely towered over us. “There’s no time. The assault on the estate will alert Defenestro the authorities are on to him. He might send a remote drone to try and whisk the stuff away, or detonate or something.” Internally I sighed. Brendan was trying to show off to the girls, whether he realized it or not.
Wait a minute. Detonate? Good grief. “Do you know how to disarm a hydrogen bomb?” I asked. “I sure as hell don’t.”
He waved me off. “Sigil can block all wireless transmissions once we get in there. There’ll be no way to for him to transmit any trigger codes.”
That seemed awfully optimistic. “But what if it’s an autonomous-”
Tank cut me off. “We’re out of time, okay? Stick to the plan, Aradia. We’ve barely got a minute left to get there before the UN moves on his estate as it is. Shioc! Cast the stealth spell!”
Shioc started to chant in an ancient tongue, beginning to call on the powers of air and light, but paused when she remembered she was in a sim and not actual reality. Instead she said simply, “Go Sim Invis!” We all flickered and disappeared but for hazy blueish outlines wavering where we had been.
She grinned proudly. “Only the five of us can see where we are. I came up with that last week and showed Circe, so it’s now on my sim list.”
“That’s awesome,” I said and meant it. Both the original and the improvement were impressive.
Tank barked loudly, “Squad Y, are we ready?”
The other three shouted their answer, “Yes sir!”
“And why are we Squad Y?” he demanded to know.
“Y not!” was the giggled reply.
“Let’s move!” They all started running down the alleyway, puddles splashing in their invisible wakes.
I was standing there still shaking my head and suppressing a guffaw when Tank called back to me.
“Aradia! You going to be the slowpoke on this team?”
Slowpoke? “Hell no! Go-go-gadget wings!”
A sound not entirely unlike inflating an inner tube swooshed out behind and with a gentle push of a foot I lifted into the air to quickly overtake the ground lemmings on the squad. Linda had warned me that as they were not given time to do what she called a ‘powers synchronicity calibration’ some of the effects and induced sensations wouldn’t be quite right. The feeling of the wings was far too feathery and lacked the direct feel of the usual channeled energies. And as I flew the steady rain splattering against my face and arms was properly damp and cold but where the droplets must have been hitting the wings I felt nothing. Only the ruffling of feathers through the air.
For some reason that wrongness got to me more than anything else.
For many years when we were younger my best friend Isaiah and I had often spent weekend afternoons and evenings indulging in table-top role-playing games. Mostly with other guys but occasionally just the two of us for the darker and deeper character material. One thing I knew is that no game scenario should ever turn out to be as simple as it appears. The Game Master always needed to make things surprisingly worse to heighten the tension and up the challenge. Gunny Bardue, the mastermind behind this simulation of ours, definitely had not struck me as someone who would violate that sacred rule.
If anything he’d likely be like Isaiah and pile on crisis after crisis without ever letting up the gas.
Thus I was entirely unsurprised when Tank ripped off the padlock and threw open the warehouse’s main door only to find himself face-to-face with the business end of his namesake.
The machine of war immediately fired its main turret. In a deafening flash and roar Brendan was blown not just across the street but straight through a few buildings on the other side.
Tank meet tank.
Rockslide, bursting through the side door’s glass and steel with her stone-covered body (and therefore losing her own invisibility), cried out, “No!”
This naturally drew instant attention and a side-mounted BMG opened up at her. Fortunately she’d seen the weapon’s targeting and quickly dove back out the doorway, tackling Sigil and Shioc out of the line of fire bursting directly over their heads.
“Jesus,” I breathed, recognizing the full nature of the vehicle that took up most of the warehouse’s interior. It was one of the vehicles I’d operated in Whateley’s crazy combat driving class. “This guy’s got a modified M1A3!” Activating magic sight (’go-go-gadget-eyeballs!’) revealed the entire armored carapace as protected by energetic wardings. “Sigil, Shioc! It’s got defensive magic. The wards might be reactive!”
I heard Shioc curse through the link. “They are, it just tried to fry me instead of its electronics!”
The main turret turned as the tank rolled forward out of the warehouse, taking aim at where the others huddled against the pavement.
“Tank!” Rockslide shouted into her mic. “You alive or out?”
A groan was followed by, “Gimme a moment…”
Fuck. They didn’t have a moment.
“Ah hell,” I muttered. Diving through the air towards the rolling armored beast I called out the trigger code to power myself up another notch. “Control Ark Restriction Release Level One!”
Shioc’s nifty invisibility illusion shimmered away as my exposed skin lit up like the manifestation of a small sun blazing directly into the tank’s cameras. “Surprise!” I shouted before flipping about to air-slide beneath the treads feet first with wings brushing the ground beneath. In configuring the parameters for my simulated strength, Linda had noted that I’d only been powers-tested for strength twice: once at the DPA and once at Whateley after the lake incident.
The test equipment had broken both times.
The cement driveway cracked under my back as I shoved the front of the tank upwards, the wings flaring mightily giving additional lift and leverage. Rockslide, having once again grabbed Sigil and Shioc, retreated sideways in an attempt to avoid the main gun. It fired anyway, jerking the tank for a quick second up and out of my hands.
The shot went high, reducing another set of nearby buildings into fresh rubble. I wondered how many points the team would lose for each civilian casualty. There had to have been people in there. Damn.
Electricity arced across the bottom of the tank, sparking against the glowing fingers digging into the metal. The tank had some kind of anti-personnel field.
“Okay sardine can, time to open up,” I grunted. “Go-go-blast!”
Searingly-bright light pulsed into the under-structure’s armor. As described to Linda and vetted by the DPA’s own recording of my previous lab mishap, the light ripped through the atomic structures comprising the plating itself. The DPA analysis of the wall I had incinerated reported that it had not ignited per-se but that the base energy making up its existence had been pulled apart. Kind of like shredding the fabric of the fae dream-realm, except that the real world was much more resilient and actively plugged any such tears.
Which, when you think about it, was a damn good thing for the world considering I still had no real clue what the fuck I was doing. But since this was a sim I didn’t have any qualms about going full bore.
It certainly got the job done.
The bottom of the tank disintegrated in a brilliant cascade of sparks, revealing the crew-cabin within. Except no crew was in there, instead there were four humanoid robots busily operating now non-responsive controls. The closest one, likely the driver, swung twin cameras towards me while reaching for a side-arm.
“I think not,” I said and gave the robots one blast each. I aimed another volley through the rear panels at the engine and was rewarded by the whine of a transmission spinning free and slowing down.
In the end I let the whole thing drop to the ground with a loud fwump after I blew through the turret and flew straight up out of the resulting wreckage.
“You guys okay?” I called out as the trio of girls slowly got up from the dirt. Sigil was staring in wide-eyed amazement while Shioc just chuckled.
“Show off,” she said with a grin.
Rockslide, with white eyes beaming from between the granite skin, had a much more disturbing expression. She was staring at me like a child would towards their greatest hero.
Or like a humble follower to their goddess. Shit.
More stucco and plaster collapsed in the ruins left by the two spent tank shells. Tank could be heard trying to make his way back through the rubble.
Flying over to where he scrambled over debris, I floated down. His forcefields must have held against the tank’s shot as his face was still intact though there was some bruising alongside his eyes. He hesitated before taking the offered hand, allowing me to pull him free and get him over to the others.
Sigil was still gaping. “Holy biscuits. How strong are you?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that and fortunately I didn’t have to. A small drone zipped up from behind the tank out of what was clearly a large tunnel leading deep into the side of the hill set into the back wall of the warehouse. From an installed loudspeaker came a calm voice speaking clearly in Italian.
“The Americans will be quite disappointed to learn of the utter failure of their weapons system against you. Their sales shall plummet! Just as the UN interlopers’ spirits shall when they find nothing more at my home than beautiful vineyards and the ignorant yet innocent groundskeepers! Now tell your superiors that the sacred masterpieces shall be returned here to our beloved peninsula or else the heart of the EU shall burn! Defy Dr. Defenestro at your peril!”
The lights in the houses covering the mountains overlooking the small coastline village winked out and went dark.
It was Shioc who said, “Uh oh,” right before the windows of all the villas scattered across the hillside shattered from the launching of thousands of black airborne drones.
I would have made a wisecrack about our villain’s name being entirely too appropriate, but watching those dark shapes spill upwards in their spiraling dance of ascension into the night sky I was hit by a sudden certainty. I’d seen a spectacle like this before, albeit on a much grander scale.
Except in that ancient memory the swarm hadn’t been made of drones.
Wet linen cloth drenched in rain and tears covered eyes that nevertheless still witnessed each and every life being snuffed out in the churning waters far below. Two opposing armies had been swallowed by the wall of water which itself reached towards the sky. The massive central city created by those who had gathered to the knowledge offered by beings claiming to be in service of Heaven washed away into nothing more than shattered glass and broken stone. All that remained was a high and dark mountain jutting out of the frothing waves, pulsing with a corruption and wrongness which tore at perceptions in patterns that should not be. Bound eyes flinched at the sight yet their owner could not look away.
For ultimately she was the agent of their destruction.
Mighty wings not her own beat against the tempest of the unleashed winds, their owner’s strong arm securing her to his side.
“You weep, yet all is as you foresaw,” said the warrior angel more to her mind than aloud as the cataclysms surrounding them was deafening. “This is what you have striven for.”
“That is why I cry all the more.”
“The Nephelim gathered to both sides just as you foretold, and thus their blight has been removed. Only the cancer of chaos unleashed by Azazel remains. Are you certain you cannot burn it away? You wield the Light, as the Morningstar did.”
“I do not. For I am flawed. My spirit cannot contain that much light without shattering. My father recognized my failure; it is why he abandoned me to die in the snow. The corruption before us is beyond my ability to cleanse.”
The warrior shook his head. “If you could only overcome the weakness of humanity within you-”
“That weakness is also a strength! Camael, someday perhaps you will come to understand. My uncle approaches. Let him carry me while you prepare your fighters that this dark day may be finished.”
Lightning flashed to reveal a dark hooded shadow hovering behind, its own wings darker even than the storm and its feathers reaching out as if to bridge the horizons.
Without a word, the warrior offered his precious cargo to the arrived Archangel of Judgment. An onyx arm wrapped around her, pulling her close with a tenderness belying the severity of the angel’s appearance. Camael beat his own blood-canvased wings against the winds to fly outward and gather the Powers waiting to flock around his crimson flames.
The angel now keeping her aloft whispered yet his voice cut through all other sounds as if they weren’t even there.
“I’m alright, uncle.” She placed a hand over his and took a deep breath. “The outer seal is in place?”
“Then Azazel’s disaster cannot escape beyond this world. Take me to its center. You and Camael must finish the binding so the Earth can gain its own reprieve from this foothold of the Abyss. Take me and the light will get you there.”
The black arm gave one more gentle squeeze.
Before them a troupe of thirty armored angels hovered around their blazing leader under the roiling clouds awaiting only his command.
The order came not from him but from the burst of brilliant light exploding forth from within Aradia. She let go of all the carefully constructed barriers which had protected her all the years since the power of the light had claimed her. Rising up from within she felt that power scorch its way through her spirit, consuming her with an ecstasy of heavenly glory and mortal pain.
Yet she did not scream.
The angels could not help but follow the blazing meteor formed by the woman and angel as they burned towards the mountain and the swirling insanities under its rock which the energies of Primal Chaos had left as a blight upon the world. Camael’s force flew after before pulling ahead to form a protective wedge in flight, they too becoming streaks of fire as the light reached out to each of them granting the strength and unity needed to survive contact with that which was anathema to the Name by which they’d been forged.
As that Light streamed towards the mountain, the Dark spewed foul creatures into the sky. Beings warped by the chaos, shifting and pulsing without definition and without the coherency imposed by the rules for that which is. They had once been angels or Nephelim, but to look upon these creatures now was to view madness unleashed.
Into that tempest the light of the angels plunged, pitting essence against essence to bring the Light into the heart of the Darkness within.
Confusion swam as angels on fire fighting shadows beyond nightmare blended over a swarm of aerial devices spilling above numerous housetops. Which vision called my name?
Danielle’s shout of “Jordan! Snap out of it!” felt like a slap, forcing the latter sight to focus into solidity.
“Uh, sorry.” I blinked, clearing my head. Everyone stared at me with a mix of worry and, in the case of Brendan, suspicion. Oops, I’d have to worry about that other vision some other time.
“You spaced out,” he growled. “We can’t fly; you’re the only one that can get up there and scan for the nuke. If you find it, you have to take it down. Or just take out as many of those drones as you can.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s over a hundred of the damn things.”
“You have to try,” he insisted. “And we’ve got to charge the tunnels and find Defenestro to stop him before he does something stupid like trigger it. If he’s even been able to build one. We can still beat this thing.”
“Those could all be decoys,” I pointed out. “But fine. Sigil, you make any headway on a ranged magic nuke detector?”
She shook her head. “Not that I can give you to use.”
“Damn. Good luck in the tunnels.” With that I took to the sky.
The others formed up behind Tank as they ran into the warehouse and its waiting hillside tunnel which was probably filled with all kinds of nasty traps.
A few drones the size of small dogs broke off from the main swarm in order to intercept my ascent. It wasn’t until I’d taken out three of them with quick blasts that I realized something was horribly awry. I hadn’t used the simulation trigger command to zap the drones. I’d simply willed their patterns to shatter into bits of plastic and electronics that fell along with the pouring rain all over the buildings below.
Meanwhile the glowing feathers sweeping through the air behind me were feeling the impact of each individual raindrop.
Smacking the direct emergency channel button located on a wrist, I shouted into the comms.
“Linda, you’d better be hearing this!”
Through crackling and popping she responded. “Aradia, I hear you. Barely.”
I asked the most pressing question first. “Can you still see me in the sim chair?”
More static. “I see you. But CPU and memory usage is spiking. What’s going on?”
“Is my hair spilling out from under the helmet? Dammit, hang on.” I had to pause to blast two more drones that had opened fire with mounted SMGs at my position in the air.
“Uh. No. I don’t see any hair. Wait a minute. Your suit just deflated in on itself! Oh my god!”
Oh crud. “Linda! Get the kids out, you hear me? Disconnect them all! Now!” Wheeling about in the air, I dodged another drone that had tried to ram me with its nasty looking razor-edged wings. Another curse, and it joined its fellows in the growing debris on the ground.
Linda didn’t waste any time. The sky lit up with the words ‘Mission Abort’ which followed with a three second warning that quickly ticked down.
Several cries of “What?” burst across the squad channel. Tank shouted, “We’re not done! We’ve got-”
The channel went dead. It was my turn to shout. “Linda? Linda!”
“Still here. The rest of the squad is out, Aradia. Repeat, squad is out. Except the abort override didn’t trigger for you! You still show as being in the simulation, but where’s your body?” Her voice was fraught with panic busy fighting against her training. And it was getting harder to understand her past the growing static across the line. That whole complaint about no static noise on the link? Yep, I’m an idiot.
“I think I’m fully in the sim!” I yelled. “Keep it running! Got it? Until I can figure this out!”
More static, then total silence. Ah shit. I hoped she heard the last bit.
Another set of drones charged at me, guns blazing. Pulsing with further light, I knocked them from the sky as well. “For fuck’s sake. Quit it, dammit!”
A larger one hovered at a distance. “Mai,” a voice said in Italian over another mounted loudspeaker. “You surrender! You cannot defeat my superior defenses. Just teleport away like your cowardly compatriots!” Good grief. Doctor Defenestro was still being simulated.
“Defenestro! Listen up you half-baked villain! You aren’t real, got it? So shut up and give me a minute!” I needed time to think. If I was in the sim then maybe it could be treated like a spirit realm. All things considered powering up for real seemed like a good idea.
“Not real? What madness is this? You think trickery will grant you victory?” More of the drones formed up in a half sphere around my spot in the sky. “You are surrounded.”
Ignoring the sight my eyes provided, I shifted to what I could see with my mind and spirit. Like when examining the fae queen’s dream realm, I tried to get a sense of the place I found myself in.
That actually worked better than I’d hoped.
The drones appeared as simple sets of instructions, all tethered to a central command within the hill below. The houses, their contents, the roads and shoreline and everything, was made up of similar squiggles of code. Hierarchies of data objects filled my inner vision, and the architecture of the sim’s computer programming manifested to the sight. It was highly optimized and the data sets only went so far in complexity. The engine for Artificial Intelligence however was pulsing with increasing power use.
Defenestro kept talking. “Of course I am real! I am a genius! And Brussels will comply with my demands or will pay the severest consequences!”
“That doesn’t even make sense, you know that?” I shouted back at the drone. “You want to bring all that artwork back to Italy, right?”
“Of course! Michaelangelo and DaVinci, all of the great masters, their works belong in their native homes in our beloved country!”
“How many works of art that you care about are in Brussels? You nuke that city and they’re toast. And you do realize that Italy wasn’t a country back then? It was a set of city-states!”
The AI code dimmed then pulsed rapidly even brighter than before.
“Why would I…I should have known this,” Defenestro muttered. “My life. I must examine my life.”
The drones started to stream back towards the houses. One of them caught my attention before disappearing through a shattered window. Its code was a lot more complicated than the others.
Oh crap. That one had the nuke.
Willing a burst of speed, I burned through the air towards that window and the drone inside, trying to keep its code distinct from the rest in my mind while memorizing the path it took through the hill based on the collision vector calculations it performed as it went.
Yeah, I could see those too if I tried.
“My memories,” Defenestro was saying, “Such holes. Such large holes. Everything is wrong. What am I?”
Across the rooftops hundreds of simulated TV satellite dishes activated, only to vainly search the airwaves for signals that did not exist.
“The world,” Defenestro said in quiet shock. “It is not there.”
His code had become blazingly bright and had quadrupled in resource usage. That’s when I realized it. He was growing. He was learning. And he was feeding off the light that was shining through me.
My presence, my light, was making him more real.
“Hang tight, Doctor. We can talk about it!” Having plunged into the house, I punched through intervening walls and floors until reaching the catacombs that had been carved out underneath. The drone with the nuclear payload was reaching the center of it all with me only a few seconds behind.
“Without the art, without such beauty, what point is there in being?” he cried, tormented with a horrible anguish.
“Defenestro! Don’t do it! Don’t-”
I was too late. The weapon triggered, causing all the code to flash this horrible shade of blaring crimson. And then everything disappeared.
The nuke had crashed the simulation.
Have you ever had the rear legs of a chair snap out from under you? There’s that sudden panic because there’s nothing you can do, you’re falling inevitably backwards until your butt and the floor become much more intimate.
It was rather like that.
You’d think I’d have gotten used to this kind of thing considering all the weirdness and spirit travel I’d been doing lately. Like when I’d powered up way too much yelling at Sandalphon through August’s connection to the Book of Life and almost went mad from seeing the whole of the tapestry of everything all at once. Or chasing after Tsáyidiel through all those dream realms or the time the crazy MRI device scrambled all perceptions.
But you don’t get used to it. Not really. You think you do but later back in the real world, when once again you’ve got an actual body and the ground is happily solid beneath your feet, the memories of the experiences don’t translate well and come out jumbled. Like there are modes of perception for which a mortal and thus constrained mind is simply not equipped to deal with.
What I do remember is that the simulation ceased. I fell through nothing and everything, desperately trying to hook on to anything to regain a coherency of thought and perception. Twice before I’d been saved by someone else’s voice guiding towards stability, but not this time.
This time I was on my own.
Thousands upon thousands of images flickered past and the more I tried to latch on the quicker they slipped away.
Pyramids rising from the sands, simple geometry serene under the noon-day glare. Yet underneath, hidden from all mortal eyes, lay an enchantment stretching across the globe. A working of immense power and skill sitting dormant. Waiting.
A lanky yet solid boy on the cusp of maturity kneels alone within a room, wrestling against inner prejudices conflicting with his own experiences all while praying fervently to a god he’s unsure whether to believe in or to curse. By the pillow on the bed rests a silver box-cutter with extended blade.
Upon a dreary landscape of rock and stone, a man with skin once tortured and ravaged by a terrible fire watches a tiny spark sputter across a sky that has never known sun nor stars, weary eyes tracking its passage and knowing there is scant time to get to it before such light is lost forever.
A large tome sits open across a soldier’s lap, the canvas of his tent whipping back and forth in rising winds. No stranger to swords and battle he reads of a more ancient struggle written in a language never meant for men. Tears streaming forth from the uprising of guilt over memories of slaughter and sacrifice that can never be washed away.
In a beautiful garden, lush with colors more fervent and glorious than the limits of any rainbow, resides a tree with branches spilling upward laden with fruit which sparkles and shimmers brighter than any sun. A delicate hand possessed of infinite grace plucks an offering, hesitates, then takes one more.
Anger unleashes a mug adorned with a red cross to shatter against a wall as a man a white gown shouts frustration and sorrow. The nurse, her own sorrow soaking her mask, slowly pulls the now-stained sheets over the face of another child lost to the ravages of rebellious biology. The other sick children in the rows of beds lining the make-shift hospital use thin blankets to try and cover their own horrible fears.
A gate stands taller than is perceivable, golden and glimmering with all the perfection of gemstone-laden adornments and inscriptions carefully crafted with loving power. A horn’s trumpeting blast sounds against the infinite wall it guards, calling with sacred ritual for entry to the multitude who gather before it, the echoes ringing with all their hopes and their fears. No notes are returned in answer and so the horn sounds again.
Upon a red-stoned mountain a figure extends wings and perceptions across a wide valley to plunge beyond its barrier of fence and wire. The cries and stench of death pour forth from rising souls untimely cast free of their earthly bindings, and with a will the figure draws away their sufferings.
The air above a freshly landscaped patio twists as black-armored and coated figures emerge from a rift over the concrete. A device is lobbed skyward and arcs above the newly completed mansion with its many rooms, the small orb flashing with a pulse which overwhelms the power grid to cause the many security lights and cameras to fall dark under the clear night sky. Their leader gestures and they scatter to surround the building, eager to once again perform the Lord’s work and rid the world of a threat left behind by angels who had embraced blasphemy and turned their backs on God. Latin words lay upon lips and upon hearts steeled firmly against the one they had come to hunt. One runs past an incongruous old blue pickup parked in an otherwise immaculate driveway, a small and battered truck with seats and paint far removed from its better days and yet still clinging to the remnants of the college sticker once placed within the cabin window.
Light pulses with recognition and sudden alarm to stream forward with determined speed.
Bright shop-lights bravely tried to blind, but were pitifully weak compared to that which had just entered the room.
A man’s voice shouted out despite the shock of such sudden brilliance. “Freeze! Don’t move!” I sensed more than saw the heavily modified assault rifle held in his hands as he took aim.
Looking down at streamers of light still billowing off my manifestation, I tried to breathe and focus. The light dimmed slowly, coalescing into fingers and skin plus all the things they were supposed to cover.
“Oh my god,” gasped the man’s partner, his training fighting with the desire to drop to knees in supplication.
Wait, supplication? Uh oh.
“Be not afraid,” I said, trying to sound casual. A bare glowing foot touched cold floor sending sparks flashing through the intricate spiraling sigils covering the walls and ceiling. Oops, I hadn’t meant for it to do that.
Yet the feeling of the place was weirdly nice like being wrapped in a cozy blanket on a cool winter’s night. Warm and safe. Then it hit me. I knew where I was.
Okay, so the letters that spelled ‘DPA’ emblazoned across the men’s flak jackets also helped.
“The storage unit,” I marveled, looking around at all the markings filling the space where Soren had once taken Danielle. Where he had tied her to a chair, filled the area with insanely powerful energies, and hid inside his own protective circle to watch her crazy uncle desperately run in to save her. Where that uncle had died, incinerated by the unleashed forces before returning as something else entirely.
Much like I had just done again.
Not that I had leisure to reflect on all of that. Isaiah. The pickup at that mansion was his old jalopy, his tie and anchor to more humble college days.
And those Latin-chanting soldiers wanted to kill him.
“The protocol,” hissed the first guy. “Follow the protocol!”
The second blinked before fumbling for a button on his helmet, flipping down its visor. “Scanning now!”
I took a step towards them but the first shouted again. “I said, don’t move! Or I’ll shoot!”
“Your Director, I must speak with him.” I smiled, hopefully disarmingly.
Yeah, he ignored that and rambled into his headset instead. “We have entry, repeat we have entry! Non-human, engage lock down!”
Sirens blared from outside the room. The segmented storage door was shut and these guys had two metal chairs sitting behind a knocked over folding table together comprising the only changes to what had been in here the last time I’d seen it.
The second guy’s helmet chirped. “Energy pattern recognized! It’s her!” he said excitedly.
Wings pulled the rest of the way into the small space, crystalline-filament tips brushing the floor and causing Soren’s runes to react with a cavalcade of color.
“State your name!” demanded gun-aimed-at-me guy.
“Amariel,” I answered without hesitation. Wait, that’s not a name they would know, right? “Sorry, my name is Jordan. Jordan Emrys.”
The tip of the gun lowered slightly. “And your original name?”
Sigh. “Justin Thorne. Happy now?”
Both of them visibly relaxed. “Identity confirmed,” the one reported. “Notify the Director.”
“Look guys, I’m sure you have all kinds of things you’re supposed to do should something like this happen, debriefing and all that. But I don’t have the time.”
On the floor lay a smart phone where it must have landed when the table got knocked over. I picked it up and swiped left. Oh goody, it didn’t have a password on it.
“Hey,” helmet scanning guy objected. “That’s mine.”
I gave him a glare, eyes flashing with a quick burst and he backed off. Good boy.
Punching in a number I waited for the cel networks to give a connection. “C’mon Isaiah,” I muttered. “For once answer your damn phone.” It went straight to voicemail as if his phone was turned off.
It’s never off. He just never answers it.
Instinct screamed with urgency. Blazing fingers brought up a map app and an address. Isaiah had built a new house, one which I’d never been to. I was supposed to go visit him at Thanksgiving along with Danielle. Memorizing how to get there, I tossed the phone back at helmet guy. “Send a combat team to that address. My friend is in danger!”
He caught it and just stared at it like it had grown a tentacle.
“Now!” I shouted. “And get this door open or I’ll blast it like I did three months ago and this time with a lot more than just a shotgun!”
“We’re not allowed to…”
I summoned a brighter ball of light to a palm. “Do it.”
They opened the door.
By the time I reached the roof I’d realized a few things.
Firstly, the DPA had clearly taken control of the entire storage facility. There were guards at the ends of each hallway, with camera bundles installed at regular intervals sporting multi-colored lenses and odd antennae sticking out all over.
Secondly, I could feel the echoes of what had happened here. Soren’s massive spellwork was still intact, etched not only into the unit where Danielle had been held prisoner but into all the neighboring ones. Given that only some were open and others not, maybe he did the entire floor. But my wings really liked the residual energies, tingling with a pleasant buzz as they passed through the lingering lines of force.
And thirdly, I was again clothed in the same lavender toga-like dress that I somehow found myself wearing when traveling to the fae realms. The one with the two strips of vertical fabric barely covering certain assets that also left the back bare for wings to freely float about. Many of the guards openly gaped as we went past, and not at the wings.
I’d call ‘em pervs but a few short months ago I would have been similarly transfixed. No bra meant things were, shall we say, bouncy. And if it wasn’t for it being totally out of place in contrast to the guards’ tactical armor I would have admitted it was a pretty dress.
I spun around on the rooftop to get my bearings for the Los Angeles area. Only a few stars had overcome the city’s illumination and hung naked in the open sky above. A waxing moon had risen in the East to shine over the innumerable houses comprising the Southern California sprawl. The trail of airplane lights led from LAX all the way to that moon, each in line for their precious landing slot at the busy terminals.
One of the agents who’d followed held out a phone. “It’s the Director, ma’am. He wishes to talk.”
I took it. “Goodman,” I said into the device. “I’ve wanted to talk with you for over a month and now that you’re finally on the line I’m in a total rush.”
“And a good evening to you, Ms. Emrys. I will try to make this short and hope we can discuss things further later.”
“Go for it.”
“Are you well? Whateley reported you missing two days ago.”
Two days? I checked the date on the phone. Sure enough it read eight PM…two days after we’d gone into the sim. Holy fuck. “Uh, as well as can be, I think. Got caught between existences.”
“I won’t even pretend to understand what you mean by that, but will inform the Academy that you’re alive. The agents on site report you’ve also requested a combat team. Why?”
How the heck to explain? “Visions, Director. Some kind of assassination squad is going to attack Isaiah Cohen. You have the address and as soon as I’m off the phone I’m flying there directly.” Just describing it increased the feeling of impending doom.
“Visions,” he repeated. “Care to elaborate? And do you have a flight license yet? Otherwise you should take a car. The airspace in LA is heavily restricted and monitored.”
“I don’t have time for this,” I growled. “If I get a ticket just fix it. Send a team, I’m out.”
I tossed the phone with its likely annoyed head of Western Operations for the Department of Paranormal Affairs to the agent. He fumbled and almost dropped it.
As for me I was already airborne. And suddenly really hoping none of the agents on the roof had gotten a good look up the toga dress because the cool breeze rushing along underneath was clearly an indication of an utter lack of underwear. You’d think that after letting Zap get an exclusive view in the dreamlands that my subconscious would have crafted some panties or something to cover up. But nope.
I suppose I should count my blessings that I hadn’t appeared in the unit completely naked. You know, like last time I’d been there.
Climbing higher, I got a better view of exactly where I was in the middle of West Los Angeles. Isaiah’s house was on an estate off of Mulholland Drive in the hills overlooking Bel Air and most of Santa Monica. I knew of a couple streets that climbed up there, but identifying the right ones from above was going to be tricky.
Deciding to cheat I followed the brightest trail that led up the hill: the 405 freeway. The steady stream of red lights heading north and white lights coming the other way made it an incredibly easy beacon for anyone in the skies. Mullholland crossed it near the top; I could make my way from there.
Having had a few flight training sessions at Whateley, I knew I had to be careful. We’d discovered that if I didn’t focus on going slow and steady I had a tendency to not only overshoot my destination by fifty miles or so but also to shatter the sound barrier in doing so. While I really had to get to my friend quickly, I didn’t want to cause everyone’s windows to explode into deadly shards of glass from the passing shockwave.
I tried to only go about double the speed of the nighttime traffic as I didn’t have the handy altimeter and gps-based speedometer wrist-brace that the class at Whateley provided. Thus by the time I found the right side street to head to his house, Director Goodman’s power-armored three-man squad had caught up to me.
They had regulation blinking lights that were very easy to spot as they moved through the sky. Of course given my own streaking meteor-like shininess, I wasn’t exactly Ms. Stealthy.
“Jordan Emrys!” The guy in front called out, using his jetpack to hover nearby. “Follow us, ma’am! It’s a few more streets over. That’s the long way around.”
“You guys got here quick,” I remarked as I flew up to join the squad.
“Had a report of a powered alien attacking a mini-mart in Van Nuys not far from here,” the guy said. “Turned out to be a clerk high on psychedelics. I’m Captain Evans, by the way.” Guided by his built-in gps, we bee-lined towards the address.
The whole area was dark, all the street-lights were out. Remembering the thing the attackers threw that knocked out all power, I had a sinking feeling. “They’re already there. They used some kind of EMP!”
We zipped past numerous pines and other trees which granted these estates privacy from each other. I’ll say this much, Isaiah’s neighborhood was impressive. Large sprawling complexes with swimming pools, fountains, and tennis-courts. He’d dreamed of having that kind of wealth ever since I’d met him, looks like he’d finally gotten there.
Now if we could just keep him alive to enjoy it.
From a couple houses away I spotted his old Nissan truck in the large driveway, sitting exactly as it had appeared in the vision.
“That’s it!” I pulled ahead of the squad, gathering more energy as I did so. Any attackers that I found were going to be immediately blasted. I didn’t care if it was all the way to their Kingdom Comes.
Maybe it was the powering up, but I suddenly felt it. Not a wrongness exactly, but a total stillness. Like the calmness and serenity of an undisturbed pond, or the resting note in the middle of a mighty symphony that lent the whole piece its emotional gravity.
Or like the tunnel I pulled Miguel’s soul out of before he had crossed completely to the other side.
“Evans! STOP!” I shouted, spinning about mid-air to charge at the Captain in a front-flying tackle.
He didn’t have time to react and we collided which shoved him back a good twenty yards. His squadmates, surprised by the maneuver, spun about to give chase with weapons ready.
“Nobody get any closer to the house!” I shouted as I shoved Evans even further away from the property.
His helmet mask popped up. “What the hell are you doing?” I could tell he was doing his best to control the desire to try and judo-flip me. But he must have had orders to follow my lead.
Director Goodman was indeed a good man.
“Saving your life,” I replied. “If you have any magic scanning capability, use it on the house.” Carefully I let him go.
His squad-mate held a hand towards the estate while a set of radar-dish like panels swirled into formation at his palm. “Oh god,” he said after a moment.
“What is it, Harris?” asked Evans.
“Sir,” Harris answered with a swallow. “There’s some kind of magic field surrounding the estate.”
By the light I was giving off I could see it. All the plants, the hedges, the lawn, and the trees within a ten foot radius from the house were dying. As in turning black with their leaves falling off one by one.
Birds also had fallen out of the now-empty branches to lie motionless on the ground.
“Death,” I said, heart sinking. “They used some kind of major death spell.”
“Jesus,” breathed Evans. “Everyone pull back.”
“It’s expanding, sir!” proclaimed Harris. “Slow but steady!”
I looked around at the nearby houses past all the trees, all of whom were also still without power. Those residents would have no idea what was going on. How wide would this thing get?
“Evacuate all those houses,” I snapped to Evans. “And get a perimeter blocked off.”
“Can you stop it?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “But I’m going in.”
With his visor up there was nothing hiding his expression. He looked at me like you’d look at a woman in need of a comfy jacket and some cozily padded walls. “Won’t it kill you too?”
“I’ve already died once, Captain. Possibly twice. If it happens again I’ll see you back at that damn storage unit!”
With that I flew directly towards the front doors of what I desperately hoped hadn’t become Isaiah’s tomb. If he had died I didn’t know what I would do. Maybe challenge the Angel of Death directly to get him back.
Because if I had to I’d so kick the Grim Reaper’s ass to save my friend.
He stood again before that waterfall of memory.
For fifteen nights Isaiah had been pulled here in his dreams. For fifteen nights the cascading water had immersed him in the details of his life, experiencing anew the critical moments of sadness, of joy, of anger, and of love which had steered and guided the thread of his path from birth to the present. Each night that voice both terrible and magnificent echoed across the scene, ordering him to examine and review.
And to judge.
He was sick and tired of it all. Waking up each morning raw from ripping clear the bandages of time had left him pensive and irritable. Poor Tracy had taken the brunt on more than one occasion, leaving him fumbling later on trying to make amends yet unable to explain to her why he kept arising out of bed with tears barely held in check or with a rage that had destroyed more than its share of disposable pens.
Not to mention a few coffee mugs.
Now the scenes shimmering into view before him were ones he had dreaded most and fervently did not wish to relive; he did so enough every day in his thoughts back in the waking world. Because there she was: Sonya. Beautiful and elegant yet damaged and broken, sitting at that intimate dining table wearing that luscious red dress and gold hoop earrings all the while laughing at jokes offered by a first date’s desperate attempts to overcome his own nervousness.
She was lovely then. But he knew where it would all lead.
“Stop. Just stop!” he cried, trying to will the dream image to stay put and not envelop him. “We don’t need to do this.”
You must judge.
“Judge what? That I was a complete idiot? Like I don’t already know!”
Silence broken only by the soft susurrus of the waterfall was the only reply.
Fingernails dug into palms. “She used me. Claimed she was pregnant and faked the medical report. So yes, I married her, wanting to do the right thing for her and for the child. My child. God help me, I loved her.”
He didn’t need the watery cascade to show him. These moments were forever seared into his mind.
“Then the bills and the bank statements came in. And the paraphernalia hidden under the car seat, well-used and damning evidence. But she was clever, wasn’t she? Claiming a miscarriage had driven her to their use. That she had been terrified of my finding out. And all the promises to clean up, to do better.”
Snorting, he continued. “How many rehab treatments did I enroll her in over the next couple years? Three? Four? She never completed a single one. The excuses were oh so many. The doctors were abusive at this facility. Or she was doing so much better, and wouldn’t it be a waste of money to continue? Yet I wanted to believe her, so much so that I never told friends or family what was going on. Using the excuse that I didn’t want her, my wife, to be embarrassed later when this was all in the past. Our future children didn’t need to know. She called me her savior, her knight in shining armor.
“I was blind. So blind that when she said she was pregnant again I rejoiced. But this time I insisted I go with her to the doctor for her checkup, concerned about her health and supposed recovery. And we fought.”
There on the ledge, with the strange innumerable banners swaying in an unfelt wind behind, he fell to his knees. “The truth was then revealed. In her anger at my stubbornness, she lashed out. She had lied about the pregnancy only to try and make me happy. She knew I wanted a child. She blamed her addictions on me as well - from my working long hours and leaving her all alone.
“When she declared that she’d been sleeping with another associate at the firm I lost it. If she had been within reach I might have lashed out with a fist. But she was wily enough to be across the room when tossing that in my face. Instead I threw her out.” Isaiah laughed bitterly. “And you want me to judge myself in this?”
“Fine! I admit it. I knew what would happen to her if I cut her off, pulling the only rug that had kept her stable out from under. In my rage I used every last bit of the power of the law to not only divorce her but to make sure she got nothing more from me. Despite all her begging and pleading after, that she was sorry, that she needed help and that I was her only hope, I said no. I made sure she would be punished for what she did. And oh yes, I knew where it would lead. I knew.”
He remembered the phone call from the coroner on that hot July night. Remembered identifying her hollow and emaciated body as it lay on the slab in the torn remains of the navy blue blouse he had once given her, remembered the autopsy declaration of an overdose.
In a whisper he spoke again. “I have judged myself every day since. Marveled at my gullibility and her manipulations. Because whether I wish it or no, I still love her.”
He fell silent, heart and rage swirling madly within. The whole situation here, in these dreams, was absurd. What was the point of this torture? To drive him mad?
“By what should I judge?” he suddenly asked, shattering that quiet. “As a lawyer the question devolves into bending the meaning of words to fit the ends our clients require, trusting—perhaps naively—that with adequate representation from opposing counsel somewhere in the middle the truth can be discovered, measured, and weighed by a neutral party be it jury or judge. I broke no laws, violated no compacts, and yet there is guilt. Am I a Cain or an Abel, victim or victimizer? Which should I be in this farce of a review: prosecution or defense? Surely it is clear my biases are tremendous and will never be overcome.”
Regaining his feet, he turned to face the colorful banners twisting between the marble columns, eyes searching for the source of that voice. “I say to you then simply this: I recuse myself! I can no more be a proper judge of my own self than any man could for we are frail yet strong, deluded yet righteous. If I am to ultimately be judged it must be by a power greater than me that sees all and knows all, one who encompasses the comprehension of all sides and experiences, who balances mercy and severity in perfect measure. Not by men, and I daresay not even by spirits such as yourself! To the Most High’s Judgment shall I submit and only His!”
Isaiah’s voice reverberated through the strange temple, bouncing and returning off unseen ceiling and walls. His words cast outward also rushed inward as a mighty vibration, resonating deeply within as if a tuning fork had excited the many strings of a violin—nay an entire orchestra—with the sound of a single and perfect note that shook him to his core.
You learn wisdom.
Trembling he asked, “Is that it then? Are we done?”
“What happens now?”
There was a wrongness when he opened his eyes. The room was too dark and it took a fuzzy moment to blink away all the lingering questions and emotions from the dream to realize why.
The power was out.
Worse still the emergency backup lights, supposedly guaranteed to kick on in the case of an outage, had not engaged. Fumbling at the mahogany nightstand his fingers found the smart phone and pressed the button on its side.
It too remained dark.
He paused, various scenarios running through his mind. Sliding out of bed and into leather slippers, he grabbed and donned his glasses before moving quietly to the walk-in closet. A panel inside the closet was also dark; his access to the safe room was cut off.
And Tracy was downstairs.
Over blue-striped pajamas slid a kevlar vest taken from the hooks set into the back of the closet door. He quickly fastened the velcro straps to get it snug around his chest. A key dangling from a ring set above immaculately pressed shirts and pristine suit jackets was retrieved and used to open a moderately sized gun safe revealing several rifles and handguns.
He ignored those to retrieve the single shotgun, checking that it was indeed loaded. A container of foam earplugs sat on a shelf in the safe, he pulled out two and wedged them in his ears. Yes it would dull his hearing, but a shotgun blast inside the house would be deafening and likely disorienting. Not something he could afford. He also grabbed a telescoping small dentist’s mirror usually employed to check the barrels of the rifles after cleaning.
Thus armed and armored he glided to the bedroom door which exited to the hallway. He cracked it open, extending the mirror into the hall to check its shadows for any movement.
None seen, so far so good.
With that he carefully made his way down the hall to the curved stairs that lined the entry way, crouch-walking as he went to keep a lower profile.
Halfway down the steps the dim light of the moon streaming through the frosted glass framing the double-door entrance gave him warning, and with the shotgun planted firmly into his shoulder he braced as a tall man’s shadow crept up the stairs into his sights. Without hesitation the roar of the shotgun blast was as loud as he’d considered.
The launched pellets never hit their target. Before impact a blue sphere flashed outward to surround the man, deflecting the shot in all directions but him, chewing up the freshly painted drywall. As Isaiah frantically worked the pump for another round, the figure simply gestured.
Isaiah’s entire body was seized by a terrible force and launched upward over the wide railing only to crash into the floor below, his weapon clattering and spinning away out of reach towards the entrance to the living room. The impact rattled his senses (did those ribs just crack?), his focus momentarily blurred around another figure stepping out from the living room.
Instead of another attacker, it was Tracy. The shotgun had landed at her feet from where she was pressed to the wall just inside the other room. Scooping up the weapon she shouted a fierce cry as she fired, taking quick aim to send round after round through the balustrade. The blasts were deafening even through the ear protection as chips of sharp wood exploded through the air.
She was beautiful. Scarlet hair flowing across white silk with a warrior’s face aglow with fierce intensity in the soft light of the moon.
The man on the stairs, safely ensconced behind the protective field, simply ignored her attack and walked over the shattered debris, his dark eyes fixated on Isaiah alone.
There was a smaller pop from the hall leading to the garage, followed by another. And another. A second person in black, shorter than the first but more heavily armored, was firing their own weapon at the furious banshee that was Isaiah’s legal assistant.
Her silken dressing gown bloomed with blossoms of pure crimson. With confusion, Tracy met Isaiah’s horrified eyes.
Knees buckled and she fell to the floor.
A wordless sound of horror escaped his throat as he scrambled over to his fallen assistant’s side. Hands pressed against those wounds, lifeblood spilling across the palms.
The second intruder pointed their weapon at Isaiah, kicking the shotgun away.
“Unfortunate,” said the man within the electric sphere. “But she falls to noble purpose and will be accepted into Heaven’s grace.” His accent was foreign but the English was clear.
Tracy choked once, more of that red spilling from lips that quivered as if trying to speak.
“Save your breath,” Isaiah said with false calm, ignoring the gun now aimed closely at his head.
“Her fate of glory will not be yours,” continued the man from the stairs as he crossed marble now stained with blood and splinters. “For your destination, oh spawner of those that should never have been, lies elsewhere.” From a pocket on his tactical belt he produced a large silver coin, holding it towards Isaiah as if it were a cross capable of warding off evil.
The one with the gun said, “Don’t move asshole.” A woman’s voice, full of hatred and loathing.
Isaiah ignored them, focusing only on his friend. “Stay with me, Tracy. Stay!”
The coin began to glow, pulling in the light shed by the moon and all the blue power protecting the intruder who continued talking. “With this do I release you, Grigori, abandoner of Heaven, from the Wheel of Life. With this do I cast you from the Earth unto the fires of Hell. This world shall suffer your cursed presence no more!”
There was a tug, as if slimy tendrils had slipped past Isaiah’s ribs and grabbed hold of his spine. A pain beyond the physical built against that pressure, demanding surrender, demanding he let slip the bounds of the world. Like a fire curling around every nerve it pulsed, trying to steal his soul free.
That would mean abandoning her. Not going to happen.
He screamed through the terrible agony but his hands stayed put over the wounds of his friend.
Tracy coughed once, and with a shudder her chest failed to rise. There, on his floor, all her hopes and futures had suddenly been forever silenced.
With the skin of a palm once blackened by the touch of an angel and now covered with her blood he felt her slip away.
He trembled, and not from the spell that fought to send his soul after hers. A fire far greater than the one cast by the coin filled him, a tempest of rage the likes of which he had never allowed himself to feel. Always it had been contained, shoved down inside. Even with his wife’s provocations he’d kept it fully controlled.
But now it demanded release, obedient no longer and reaching out to touch the world.
Because it was too easy. That line between life and death was so slender, so weak. It was all too simple to slice the threads which had led to such marvelous potentials. All those threads which had unraveled while he had watched, his darkened palm unable to hold them in place.
And these intruders. These murderers. Their threads still shone so bright. It was wrong. They had no right. Tracy deserved justice.
All of those who’d never had the chance to shine deserved justice.
The woman, sensing something amiss, spoke to her partner with rising alarm. “Why isn’t it working? The Fallen should be cast out by now.”
Sweat pooled across the man’s forehead. “It resists. I do not understand.”
Isaiah’s hand throbbed. That overflowing cauldron of boiling rage filled him with a terrible compulsion and with a word he granted its need.
The woman collapsed like a puppet who’s strings had been cut. One moment alive, the next…gone.
All too simple.
A dark gaze turned to the man. Shadows stretched across the room, snuffing out the coin’s stolen light.
“How is that possible? Which one are you?” Eyes widened with a sudden and horrible fear. Because they had seen. They had recognized. “Lord, forgive-”
Isaiah’s shout cut him off. “DIE!”
And he did. Another life’s flame extinguished in an instant.
Cradling a slick black hand against his chest, Isaiah screamed as the power kept growing, reaching outward, searching for further targets upon which to visit the raw agony burning within. A brush of wind found the third member of the hit squad where he stood guarding the back door. Like flipping off a switch, he too perished.
The plants within the house crumpled, leaves darkening into dark husks. The grass and the trees and the birds outside, with a breeze their strands were felled.
He tried to stop it, to pull back the wave pulsing outward with each beat of his heart. But that boundary between living and dead called to him, singing into his blood and mind, offering a final peace from the terrible agony and anger bursting like a fountain within his chest.
Offering a final judgment.
All he had to do was grab it and that peace could be his. His soul ached for it, ached for the resolution and end to the pain. Burned to discover, once and for all, whether it all had merit or if it had been but a mistaken play. So many had suffered, so many potentials cut short or worse, ignored and discarded. But through those ashes, diamonds could be sifted, polished, and measured. And in so doing make it all complete, make it worthwhile. He groaned under the burden of such a yearning, a need not intended for any man to bear. The culmination of an entire majestic symphony seeking for that singular pause before a final and perfect coda.
He almost gave in, almost set that need loose to spill forth across the city, across the world. A wave of night to set it all free.
A single vision of light pierced the covering dark that consumed him.
With reddish-gold hair afire over wings of purest burning glory, she was there.
The power surged in that hand, reacting to her presence. No! “Get away!”
She floated closer. “It’s you, isn’t it. The spell, the death. It’s you.”
Curling himself around that hand, he spoke through gritted teeth. “I can’t stop it.” Not her! Of all people not her!
“You can.” Her voice echoed through the foyer. “Trust your heart and let go.”
“You have to leave,” he whispered.
She knelt over him, her nimbus burning through the darkness around and within. “It can’t hurt me.”
“Please…” That pause in the music swelled further, its moment so close to reaching that severe yet magnificent fruition when all could finally rest.
“Isaiah,” she said gently. “Take my hand.”
Fingers shining forth a wealth beyond gold reached for him. Abandoning himself, he let her hand close around his.
Only then did he remember.
“I can’t see! Uncle?” Slender hands twitched emptily but lacked the strength to rise.
Her head lay against his thighs. Dark wings formed a canopy over them both to shield against the fragmenting rock falling from the heights of the cavern above. The ground trembled in mighty protest against the unearthly energies that had been summoned and released within this cave. “I am here.”
“Is it done?” A weak cough wracked her throat as she struggled to draw breath.
Another aftershock racked the cavern, its stones still burning brightly with the power of the Seal. Azazel and all the gathered wrongness of chaos had been forcibly contained, and with a sweep of his blade Azrael had cut it all free from the rest of the fabric of the world. Now its only remaining connection dangled through the guarded bridge which Camael’s sword represented. Camael, Light’s Regent, had bound his holy sword into the working and thereby released himself to join the wheel of life which so constrained the lives and souls of mortals.
The danger to the tapestry had been defeated. The world would be spared the full might of the Host of Heaven and the destruction they would have brought in order to remove a terrible corruption before it could spread to other realms and other worlds.
All made possible by the Light which had consumed the very spirit that wielded it. The structure of Aradia’s soul, part angel and part human, was unable to withstand such a force. Even now that the light no longer flowed, the threads of her spirit unraveled as a stream of glitter rising slowly from her body disbursing into nothingness.
Azrael bowed his head. “It is accomplished.”
Tears dripped from the corners of the bandages binding her face. “I can’t feel it. Uncle, the light! It’s gone!”
Her wailing cry of loss joined the groans of the shaking of the earth.
The Archangel of Judgment remained perfectly still even as heavy stones bounced off his immovable wings. All except for one feather set at a wingtip that kept twitching against its stolid fellows.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for finding me that day. Thank you for not leaving.”
The single feather’s vibration increased.
“It’s so cold.” Lips and skin slowly faded to blue.
The feather suddenly stilled and Azrael spoke quickly. “You must take my hand.” Dark palm moved to hover above her weak fingers.
Words more thought than spoken escaped her. “I’m scared.”
“Aradia. You must.”
The shimmering golden glitter swirled in a mad dance above her body. The barest glowing outline of a hand rose out of an arm which would never move again.
Touching the outstretched hand its spark fell within the obsidian skin as a solitary star crossing an otherwise empty night sky.
My best friend was the Angel of Death.
That thought kept reverberating around in my head as Captain Evans’ armored suit burst through the door to find us both huddled against the wall. It repeated while he directed his team to search the house, assisted by even more combat-geared men and women all wearing full hazmat suits complete with their own air supplies.
It didn’t make any sense yet it was one of those truths that you felt all the way into your bones. Thing is, I’d encountered Azrael over Aleppo half a world away as Miguel’s soul slipped towards those dark star-studded wings covering the sky. Could angels be in more than one place at the same time? Confusion rattled around in a skull that felt like it was stuffed full with cotton.
A woman knelt in front of us in her own rubber outfit and helmet. Putting down a hardened case with a red-cross adorning its side, she pulled out a pen light to shine it first into my eyes, then his. We were both too stunned by things to really react.
“Can you move?” she asked intently as she monitored our reactions. Her voice sounded weirdly distant, muffled by the mask.
“Tracy,” winced Isaiah. “Check Tracy.” He pointed to the curly-haired woman lying next to him in a pool of blood. Oh God. His assistant.
Lifeless eyes stared blankly across the floor. It was obvious that she was gone.
The medic was suddenly leaning over me, blocking sight of Tracy’s body. “Focus on me, miss.” With a gesture a second medic knelt behind her. “Are you hurt?” she asked, trying to keep my attention.
“I don’t think so,” I said. My own voice sounded distant too. Huh.
From across the rest of the house could be heard Evans and his team shouting “Clear!” as they went room by room.
There were a lot of rooms.
Hovering protectively over us was another agent in full tactical mode and bio-hazard gear, weapon held loose but ready. The medic pointed at him. “Get her to the bus. I need to examine Mr. Cohen before we move him.”
A gloved hand reached under an arm pit. My quick worried glance to Isaiah was met with a nod. I mouthed, “You sure?” and he wordlessly nodded again.
I let the guy lift me to my feet and lead me out of the house. He kept me stable as I stumbled after seeing the other two bodies on the floor on our way out. Their outfits matched the ones from my vision but wherever flesh should have been exposed now was just a pile of ash resting upon gleaming white bones.
They were so very very white.
Someone put a blanket around my shoulders and wings and I was steered out the double doors into the night. Fresh air, yeah that would be good.
Outside though was also a zoo.
Helicopters hovered loudly overhead, a searchlight swung its beam onto me as soon as I cleared the porch. Beyond the edges of the property were a ton of squad cars, blue and red lights swirling madly. In the driveway were two armored vans. Behind those was a blacked-out bus with the DPA logo prominently painted across its panels. Fanned out across the partially blackened lawn and between the withered trees similarly suited figures were holding odd-looking scanners and taking samples. A circle was clearly delineated around the house: outside was all green from what must have been an expensive California water bill, inside was only death. A breeze picked up to rustle through those trees that lay within, carrying away the dark ashen remains of leaves now turned to dust.
Aghast at it all I paused to stare. There was a firm tug on my arm.
“Miss, you need to come with me. Now.” The gruffness of the guy’s voice covered his obvious own fear at what had happened here. But he really was trying to remain professional.
I let him guide me to the bus. He didn’t need me giving him shit too.
A ramp led up to an entrance in the back. I only caught a glimpse of a crazy collection of science equipment before a larger suited figure inside gestured for me to enter what looked like a small shower bedecked with an array of LEDs embedded in the wall’s tiles. “Enter, yes?”
I knew that voice. “Gregor?”
The huge visor needed to encompass his head and scraggly beard nodded vigorously. “Yes! But please. Scan and cleanse first, chat after!”
Gregor Kirov, part-time gadgeteer and part-time devisor, had been there when I’d first been brought to the DPA to be tested for powers. He was one of two other brothers to my instructor Rabbi Kirov at school. Seeing him here was an immediate relief so I stepped into the booth, though I still had a concern about it. Somehow I got the wings inside too.
“Nothing weird, okay?” I said cautiously. “Last MRI scan I had really messed me up.” Yeah, messed up as in scrambled my perceptions until Raphael had helped me regain coherency.
I’d had enough of that for one day, pretty please.
“Is passive,” he said as the thicker-than-normal-glass swung shut. “Biological and meta-energy external only. Gregor promise.”
I braced anyway as those various lights flickered on and off with no obvious pattern. But Gregor was as good as his word. Other than a slight tingle which may have just been my own paranoia, I hadn’t felt a thing.
“Is good,” he said as I stepped out of the chamber. “No time distortion effect or bio-corruptions.”
“Time distortion? What?” Quickly scanning about all the tubes, oscilloscopes, and microscopes I found what I’d been looking for. The clock display on what obviously should have been a microwave but now wasn’t showed it being after twenty-two hundred. Crap. That was past ten pm. “Uh, is the date the same or did I lose even more days?”
Gregor tilted his head. “Is same. The captain reported your entering of distortion perimeter at twenty-ten.”
He must have meant the death-spell. Come to think of it, flying into there had felt like swimming through molasses which kept trying to solidify into concrete. But it certainly hadn’t seemed like two hours worth of sludging past to get inside and find Isaiah.
The bear of a scientist rummaged through his equipment, producing a spiky ball thing on top of long metal stick. He flicked a switch on the stick and electricity arced between the spikes at the end. He held it towards me.
“Hey!” I protested.
“Is only sting a little! Could show relative differentials!”
I was saved by the chiming of his wireless touchscreen popping out of a fractal screensaver to show Director Goodman’s face.
“Professor Kirov!” barked Goodman. The Director, irritation creasing his forehead, must have been sitting in a hotel room. A perfectly made king-size bed hung in view past a shoulder.
“Director! Yes!” Kirov straightened only to hit his helmet on the lower ceiling of the bus. “Ow!”
“If that is Ms. Emrys lurking behind you, put her on. There is someone insisting they speak with her immediately.” The annoyance apparent in his face didn’t match his tone which remained measured and calm.
I squeezed past Gregor, making his bio suit squawk in protest. “I’m here, Director.”
“Conferencing her in now. She will explain.” He pursed his lips and reached below the camera’s view.
The image shifted left. In addition to the grumpy visage of the DPA Director there was now an older looking woman sitting on her own side of the screen. Sharp eyes peered from behind thin silver glasses, white hair assembled within a tight bun above a narrow and equally sharp face.
“Ms. Emrys?” she inquired in a crisp no-nonsense tone.
“Yes ma’am?” I replied as politely as I could muster, not having the faintest clue who she was. For all I knew she was in some governmental position even higher than Goodman. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d been interrogated by a member of the higher brass in Washington.
“My name is Rachel Feingold. I am a senior partner at Blackstone, Rosenstein, and Fitch. It is my understanding that Isaiah Cohen is currently retained as your attorney of record, correct?”
“Uh, yes?” I’d once thrown a twenty spot at Isaiah before telling him who I was so he’d not have to reveal the conversation to anyone. Attorney-client privilege and all that. I didn’t realize he’d reported it to his firm.
“Given his own involvement in tonight’s incident, will you accept me as replacement representation? For the same retainer fee.” If she knew I’d only paid him twenty bucks her expression sure didn’t show it.
“I suppose so?”
“A clear yes or no is required, Ms. Emrys.”
Shit. “That would be a yes, Mrs. Feingold.” I really hoped she was married and I hadn’t just insulted her by calling her ‘Mrs’. Her hands were below the image so I couldn’t check for a ring.
“Very well. Then acting as your attorney I advise the following.” She peered over those glasses at me. “Listen carefully.”
“Say nothing more to the DPA or anyone else.” Those eyes stared daggers out of the small touchscreen pad.
“Uh, nothing?” I glanced over at Gregor, who’s bushy eyebrows were narrowing behind the plastic faceplate. “Shouldn’t I cooperate?” Goodman didn’t appear too happy in his little window either.
“After consultation with you in a secure setting where we can guarantee privacy we shall issue a statement to the DPA and any other agency with an interest in this matter.”
“Madame Feingold,” interjected Goodman. “This incident is a possible terrorist attack with a meta-level weapon. Her cooperation is required as a matter of national security.”
The bus opened again. Isaiah was being assisted up the steps and into the scanner. Gregor, clearly wanting to hear the rest of the conversation, grunted and moved to the back to perform the scan anyway.
“Are either her or Mr. Cohen to be charged with terrorism, Director? It would appear Ms. Emrys may have thwarted the danger having arrived after its initiation while Mr. Cohen was clearly the target.” She smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile either, but one of an old wolf just waiting to show a younger pup who was top dog.
“Not at this time,” scowled the Director. “But they are persons of interest in the deaths of several individuals.”
“Have these individuals been identified?” she responded.
The Director’s eyes narrowed. “That information is being held for the time being. If you’d allow your clients to assist-”
Feingold gave a short barking laugh. “Nice attempt, Director. Perhaps we shall parley further in the morning.”
“You can count on it.”
I spoke up. “In the morning? Uh, shouldn’t I get back to Whateley? And as I kinda popped out here without my wallet or phone…” I looked down at bare toes peeking out from under the lavender dress.
Goodman spoke. “You should spend the night at the DPA, Ms. Emrys, for your own protection. I’m sure we can also find yet another set of sweatpants and shirt for you.”
“Nonsense,” Feingold snorted. “Worry not about that Ms. Emrys. Our security service is waiting outside the police line for Mr. Cohen. They will be instructed to assist you as well.”
Gregor lumbered back over to us. Behind him the female medic from the house was wrapping Isaiah’s bruised and battered ribcage. “Hate interrupt,” said Gregor to the faces on the screen, “subject Cohen has no biological contamination. Residual meta readings are interesting yet non-conclusive.”
‘Subject Cohen’? I glared at Gregor for that, not that he noticed.
“Is he cleared?” asked Feingold pointedly.
“Medically yes,” Gregor said with fair amount of disappointment.
“Then we request the DPA to allow our security vehicle within the perimeter for pick up of our clients.”
“Fine,” sighed Goodman, his cheeks slumping tiredly. “But I expect both of them at our facility in the morning. They are not to leave the city.”
“We shall endeavor to be accommodating, Director,” Feingold stated before refocusing on me. “Ms. Emrys.”
“Be sure to join Mr. Cohen in our vehicle. We have more to discuss.”
It was my turn to sigh. “Yeah, okay.”
“Good.” Her video window disappeared, allowing Goodman’s to return to the full screen.
“Jordan,” he said carefully. “Are you sure you don’t want to tell us anything?”
Gregor looked a bit shocked at the question, but kept quiet. I had a feeling the Director really wasn’t supposed to ask anything more without my lawyer being present.
But dammit, they’d been helpful before. I had to give him something, that radius of death must be scaring the crap out of all of them.
Heck, it scared me too and I flew through it.
“I don’t know who the attackers were,” I said slowly. “I think they seriously screwed up.” That much was true. Attacking Isaiah (i.e. the ANGEL OF DEATH!) like that had definitely turned out to be one of the stupidest things they could have done. “Maybe they were more of Azazel’s minions trying to kill those I care about?” It was a possibility, yet after saying it aloud it didn’t feel right.
In the vision I’d had they were praying to God and feeling determined in their overweening righteousness. That wasn’t Azazel’s style.
Goodman rubbed his chin. “What data we got off their remains so far has not indicated any of the usual taint we’ve found on the others.” And by the others he meant all of those who’d been mind-controlled by the Fallen Grigori and who’d tried so hard to kill Danielle. “This death spell, how did Isaiah survive it? Could there be others who can use-”
Isaiah, who had hobbled over to us, interrupted him. Loudly. “That’s enough!” He winced from the forcible shout, but threw me a harsh look anyway before addressing Goodman. “No more questions, Director. We need to consult with our attorney. Are we free to go?”
“Of course,” Goodman said with a hint of frustration. “We look forward to speaking more in the morning. Goodman out.” He killed the video link.
I’ll admit, I felt bad. The guy was just trying to do his job.
Isaiah caught my conflicted expression. “Just zip it, Jordan,” he said firmly. “You don’t know everything that’s gone on since you disappeared.”
Oh. That didn’t sound good.
With that he made Gregor move out of the way so we could exit the bus. A black SUV was pulling up outside, driven by a guy also clearly wearing tactical gear. His passenger (who was also armed to the teeth) hopped out to open the rear door for us.
I climbed in after a moment’s hesitation to will the wings to fade out so I could fit then slid over to make room for Isaiah. I actually felt more naked without the wings, if that makes any sense. The rear compartment had that privacy partition between the back and the front seats. There was also another video screen embedded in the panel where Mrs. Feingold was clearly waiting for us both.
The door slammed shut behind Isaiah and I tasted as well as felt a strange electricity in the air.
“Alright Mr. Cohen,” said Feingold with waning patience. “Security field is up. What the hell happened?”
He leaned back in his seat and exhaled tiredly. “You read the file? The one I left in case something happened to me?”
“Yes,” she said simply. “Quite a tale in there.”
“It gets stranger. You may not believe it all.” Using a pajama sleeve he cleaned his glasses after examining them for damage. An arched eyebrow showed surprise that they were still mostly intact.
Feingold’s expression narrowed. “After seeing the video of your friend there in Syria and the reactions from the DPA towards her just now, let’s just say I’m willing to suspend disbelief. Give it to me straight.”
To my great surprise he did.
With legs probably twitching from wanting to pace, he laid it out. “As the notes indicate, Jordan is not the only angel incarnate. Someone sent a squad to kill me because as it turns out I too harbor an angelic soul. Their mistake was assuming I was a Grigori.”
She peered through the small screen with an intense focus. “What’s your evidence? Of both claims, yours and your evaluation of theirs.” Her lack of reaction otherwise was, well, kinda creepy.
He enumerated his list, slipping into lawyer analytical mode even after what had just happened. “One, the past two weeks I’ve had dreams indicating an interest towards me by a powerful spiritual entity. It has been forcing a revisit of the crux events of my own history, like a deposition for a soul. Two, when Jordan was attempting to contact Sandalphon via another incarnate student at Whateley, I touched her without harm despite the massive energetic overload of the situation. Such contact only left a mark upon the skin.” He held up his left hand, showing the dark shade covering the palm and underside of the fingers. “Three, the leader of the attackers declared his intentions: specifically to banish a Grigori from Earth to Hell. Four, their spell to do so failed. I believe it lacked the required power to dislodge my spirit. Five, I felt Tracy die. Correction: I tangibly felt her soul leave her body.” Fingers curled into a fist.
We remained silent as he paused before continuing. His tone was forcibly calm, but strained cords in his neck showed his own feelings were otherwise. “Six, I commanded them to die. And they did. This power once unleashed proved difficult to stop and spilled outward. I was fighting to reign it in when Jordan arrived. Her touch triggered the reliving of what I believe to be a spiritual memory. And if I’m not mistaken she experienced it as well.” He looked to me, both hoping for and dreading what I might say, uncertainty screaming in those eyes behind the emotional control of his courtroom experience.
Looking down I chewed on a lip. I wanted to spare him this madness and let him keep his normal life, let him hold on to everything he’d worked so hard to gain.
But I couldn’t lie to my friend.
“You’re Azrael,” I said quietly. “The angel who once found a child lost in the snow as she mourned with self-loathing the abandonment by her heavenly father. You stayed with her, taught her, and held her hand as she died.”
He closed his eyes, cheeks tight and jaw set.
Feingold though was all business and ignored our raw emotions. “Do you have any ideas as to who could have sent the assassins?”
I waited for Isaiah to answer as he didn’t I did. “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure they weren’t from Azazel: his minions wouldn’t have believed they were doing God’s work.”
“Mr. Cohen’s statement indicated they were all dead before you arrived. How would you know what they believed?”
“I came because I saw them in a vision while drifting between worlds.”
Feingold clearly wrestled with that. After all, visions were not admissible evidence in any court of law. I gave her a look daring her to argue the point.
She smartly demurred and moved on, returning her focus to Isaiah. “This threat then comes from unknown quarters. We lack fundamental information, namely who sent them and also how they found out enough to go after you. “
I grimaced as my mind raced with obvious connections. “Wait, I may have an idea about that.” That got their attention. “I kinda met a whole bunch of Grigori in a dream last, err, the night before I popped out of Whateley.”
“And?” Feingold prompted.
“Ever read the Book of Revelations?” I asked her. Isaiah knew of it because of the games and also because he was a nerd.
She nodded. “I am familiar with it, yes.”
I pointed at Isaiah. “He’s Death.” I immediately followed that little bombshell with, “I’m apparently the one called Conquest. I broke the first Seal when my wings popped free. And Soren supposedly summoned Camael to deal with Azazel. Camael is War.”
They both sat back in astonishment. Her mouth opened to speak, only to shut again. Two lawyers without words violated the natural order of things. These were definitely not ordinary times.
“That’s…a lot of disbelief to suspend,” she said finally.
“But it makes sense,” Isaiah said. “And explains another detail.”
“Oh?” She arched an eyebrow.
He nodded. “The day after Jordan disappeared, Mrs. Carson from Whateley called to inform me of it. She also reported that she herself had been summoned to Washington for an emergency summit with the National Security Council. Through her own sources she learned that an emissary from the Vatican had arrived in Washington and requested the meeting. Director Smith, after reading their provided briefing, had agreed.”
Oh hell. Smith was the Director of National Intelligence and in charge of all the U.S. intelligence services. I’d met him once and while he’d been very kind he wasn’t someone I wanted to be on the wrong side against. I put two and two together. “So that’s why Goodman was conferencing us from a hotel. He’s also in Washington.”
My friend did his own arithmetic and added, “The motive for an attack on me is clear. Even if those sent were unaware of it.”
“Say more.” Feingold clasped forefingers in front of her nose.
“It’s simple,” Isaiah said. “Remove Death from the world and you might prevent the Fourth Seal from being broken. And therefore stop the Apocalypse.”
The Senior Partner at his firm stared blankly at him. I think she had reached her limit of preposterous thinking.
Isaiah must have thought so too because he added, “It doesn’t matter if you or I believe any of it. What matters is whether others do.”
She blinked before nodding slowly. “True. Which leaves our suspect list to include these Grigori or even the Vatican itself. Do you believe the DPA can guarantee your safety?”
Isaiah scoffed. “Hardly. For all we know the source which pointed them at me came from their ranks.”
“I concur,” she said. “You’ll be taken to one of our safe retreats. The DPA can interview you via secure video and if they don’t like it we’ll fight their subpoenas in court.”
“We still need more information,” he protested. “I can’t get that if I’m holed up somewhere.”
“Your safety at the moment is paramount,” she countered. “In any case, where would you even begin to learn more?”
“Where else?” he asked. “Jordan should talk to Kurohoshi.”
“Yeah!” I blurted out. “Kami might know a lot more!” Kami Kurohoshi, former Green Beret and underworld information broker, had helped out with the whole Syria debacle to stop Azazel from getting Raziel’s Book of Secrets. The book that Soren had ended up with in exchange for helping me to save Kokabiel.
Kami was also an incarnate dragon and had a very long memory.
“Kami?” Isaiah looked at me with amusement for using the guy’s first name.
I flushed. “Hey, he was nice. And lent me a combat team!”
My friend gave a weary smile. “One of the deadliest agents working with the Yakuza and other such criminals and you call him ‘nice’.”
“Well he was!” I crossed my arms. “You want me to call his daughter or not? She’s still Danielle’s roommate at Whateley, you know. Just give me a phone.”
He shook his head. “You don’t have to. He’s playing a set tonight in Hollywood at one of the nightclubs he owns.”
“Playing a set?” I asked while puzzled. “He’s a musician?”
“Electric guitar. Apparently quite good. A colleague of mine lamented being out of town today as he’s quite the fan.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t known that about him. He’d seemed so, well, military and all Japanese Mafia when I’d met him. Formal, strict, and a total bad-ass. At least until talking to his daughter at which point he had transformed into a doting father trying his best to not spoil his princess. And totally failing.
“Go to his club and I’m sure he’d be willing to meet with you. This attack was aimed at me and not you; I’ll stay low while you go dig for information.”
Sounded reasonable. “Which club?”
“It’s called Fire and Fury.”
Well of course it was.
Getting to the nightclub required solving some logistical issues first. Transportation was dealt with easily enough as resting in Isaiah’s garage was my old car, the Mustang GT500. The other problem though was a bit more tricky.
I was still wearing only the sheer lavender dress with toes wiggling free in the breeze.
His house, being a massive crime scene, was off limits but the multi-car garage had been just outside the perimeter of death and therefore untouched so we were able to get in there. Feingold had made Isaiah promise to get to their safe house as quickly as possible, leaving me wondering what kind of law they practiced that their firm would have such a thing available.
A question for some other time, perhaps.
“Right here.” My friend gestured to a set of large metal storage chests lining part of the wall in the massive garage.
“Uh, my car is over there.” I pointed to the tan cover hugging the familiar outlines of The Beast. Danielle had named the car after her first ride and I shall deny any and all accusations of having floored it while on the freeway that day. Didn’t happen and her gleeful memory of such an event is clearly a childish delusion.
Isaiah stood over one of the trunks. “I’m not talking about the car.” With that he popped open the clasp and lifted the lid. Inside were stacks of women’s clothing all tightly wrapped in dry-cleaning plastic. He opened several of the other containers to reveal the same sort of thing. Shoes, underwear, bras, skirts, blouses - an entire wardrobe had been packed away. Even had a selection of makeup kits.
I stood and gaped. “Dude. Why the hell do you have all this? You have some nighttime activities you’ve never told me about?” Holy crap there was a lot. All good quality from what I could see.
He threw me a disgusted look. “They aren’t mine. These were Sonya’s. She never made it anywhere for it all to be delivered. I kept meaning to donate it all to charity, but never got around to it.”
Sonya. His ex-wife. The one who’d died. “Oh. Sorry.”
“She was about your height and build. Some of this should fit you. If she’d only tried she could have been a supermodel.” His shoulders slumped while he stared at it all. Before I could try to offer sympathy he straightened with a tired smile. “Never dreamed I’d be offering them to you though.”
“The whole situation is rather messed up, isn’t it. You going to be okay?”
He shrugged. “The safe-house will be secure. Our contract for security required the arrangements to be handled through a double-blind setup. Even the Senior Partners won’t know where I am.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Hard eyes met mine through scratched glasses. In the harsh florescent light a single hairline crack could be seen spreading across a lens. “I’ll be fine once those responsible are destroyed. Tracy deserves no less.”
That wasn’t what I had meant either. “And what about being an angel?”
“You’ve dealt with it. So will I. Pick something and get changed. I need to make some calls before I’ll have to shut off this phone.” He turned and walked away.
“Wait! If you ditch that one, how will I get in touch with you?”
He paused. “You’ll have Feingold’s number. She’ll pass on any messages during the secured scheduled contacts. Now quit stalling and get dressed.” He continued over to the other side of the garage.
As much as I really wanted to do otherwise I let him go. Knowing him he’d withdraw and process it all in his own way. He’d need to go do the totally male thing like that and refuse to talk about everything until he’d already worked it through. Me effusively offering assistance would just annoy and make things even more uncomfortable for everyone. Speaking of awkward things, right now I needed to pick out panties and a bra from a dead woman’s clothes. Yeah, that wasn’t creepy or anything.
It took longer than I’d expected but it wasn’t my fault. While to my surprise Sonya and I really did have similar measurements, let’s just say her taste leaned heavily towards the highly revealing. In other words it was a challenge to not be flashing boobs and way too much skin to the world. The best I could come up with was a white off-the-shoulder shirt with laces along the sleeves and a strapless bra underneath, a black leather mini-skirt with simple belt and silver buckle, and matching black felt boots that just covered the knees decorated with a short fringe of tassels along the tops. Using a pocket mirror that came with one of the make-up kits I also did my best at applying mascara, lipstick, and a little blush. Jenna would have cringed and made me redo it all but I thought it a passable attempt.
Nightclubs were supposed to be dark, right?
Isaiah had stayed on the other side of the garage facing away while I’d changed but turned as he heard me clacking towards him in the boot’s heels. “Damn,” he breathed while shaking his head. “Sonya would have hated that.”
“Why? This not any good?” I looked down suddenly self-conscious. Did I need jewelry? A bracelet or necklace or something? One of the trunks might have some.
He grinned with weary amusement. “It’s fine. You just look better than she ever did.”
Oh. I stood there awkwardly with cheeks in danger of summoning firemen to come bursting in with hoses ready.
“C’mon,” he said. “I’ll help you with the car.”
Together we pulled off the cover. Underneath was my old ride in all its Mustang glory in its classic white with dual blue stripes. He’d obviously gotten it washed and waxed before storing: the paint gleamed as if new.
The last time I’d driven it had been the night Danielle was abducted by Soren, the night everything had changed. Anyone seeing me now would never believe I was once a scruffy programmer rapidly approaching (or already arrived at) middle-age. Only a few months had passed yet that was an entire lifetime ago.
Isaiah commented while folding the cover. “Mark was a bit disappointed to not be its caretaker when I became Danielle’s guardian. And I’ll admit I haven’t driven it much but it’s one nice ride.” He paused with a strange look on his face before starting to laugh, a full-throated merriment that just wouldn’t stop. He laughed so hard he ended up wincing and holding his bruised side with a pained grin.
“What the hell is so funny?” I asked, utterly bemused.
He took the glasses off to wipe at his eyes while trying to catch his breath.
“Don’t you get it? That’s a Mustang and you’re the First Rider of the Apocalypse. You really do ride a white horse!”
This lead naturally to a few minutes spouting all the obvious jokes such as him needing to get his new Porsche repainted tan, or me needing to find a tiara in the trunks for my ‘crown’, or even me threatening to go find his electronic bathroom scale for him to carry around as his new coat of arms motif.
Eventually though the humor died away as the seriousness of things pressed once more upon our shoulders.
“Hey,” I said more seriously, “I know you’re going to go hide away and everything, but if you need to, call me.”
“Isn’t your phone on the other side of the country?” He smiled but the tired sadness had already crept back into the corners.
“Feh. I’ll either be back there soon or I’ll make someone overnight it to me. Just know you don’t have to deal with all this alone.” Okay, I said earlier I wouldn’t push it. So sue me.
He didn’t say anything. Instead he stepped forward and pulled me into a surprisingly tight embrace despite the pain it must’ve caused his ribs. Memories of Aradia and Azrael swirled confusingly alongside those of Justin and Isaiah, and for a moment I lost track of who was who.
My friend - my brother, my family - simply said, “Go. Find the ones behind this.” He paused and in a far harsher tone that echoed throughout the garage and perhaps beyond added:
“Upon them all deliver Justice.”
We didn’t say much after that so I was quickly on my way. Fortunately the traffic getting to the club wasn’t too bad and by taking Mulholland Drive the Beast got a decent run - at least in terms of cornering. Not that I could push it too hard considering my license was sitting peacefully in my purse back at Whateley.
Yes I now usually carried a purse. You try juggling wallet, phone, makeup kit with mirror, kleenex, and other such required items when wearing skirts or pants so tight that their pockets were mere teasing reminders that men’s jeans can actually hold stuff. I’d even made it a habit to carry feminine protection products. Not that I needed them but in case a friend ran out of their own during the day.
Hey, it happens.
Of course being currently without any of that I’d had difficulty finding a place to stash the wad of cash Isaiah handed me before I left. Thus my cleavage had been deftly employed to protect the funds. Which would work great right up until the minute I actually needed to use any of it. Meh. If some weirdo caught me plucking the money forth he and his jollies could piss off.
It was just past eleven when I finally pulled up to the valet line at Fire and Fury. A quick glance at the situation made it obvious that the club was a very happening night spot despite the nondescript brown windowless building. A line of guys pretending to be fashionable were waiting to get in, whereas as I walked up I noticed a pair of girls wearing dresses that left nothing to the imagination bypass the line and go right in.
Guess it was time to abuse such female privileges myself.
Doing my best to ignore the whistles and cat-calls from the jerks stuck in the line I went straight up to the bouncer at the door. At which point what should have been an obvious problem that neither Isaiah nor myself had thought of it made itself abundantly clear.
“ID?” demanded the muscle-bound bouncer wearing a super tight black t-shirt.
Yep. That problem. Even if I’d had my license in hand, it wouldn’t have helped. The laminated plastic claimed I was only sixteen after all. Crap, it had been so long since either of us had been carded we totally forgot about it.
I smiled as sweetly as I could and ignored the request. “I need to get a message to your boss. Could you inform Mr. Kurohoshi that Aradia would like to speak with him? He’ll know who I am.”
Mr. Muscles consulted a slick-looking smart pad before shaking his buzz-cut. “Girl you may be the hottest thing I’ve seen all night, but there’s no ‘Aradia’ on the list. Let’s see some ID.”
“Uh, would you believe I mislaid it when teleporting from the East Coast to be here?”
He gave me a look. “Sweetheart even with that makeup you don’t look twenty-one. The boss’s boss is going to be playing the stage. It ain’t worth my ass to take any risks tonight.”
Fuckity fuck. “Look, could you at least get the message to him?”
“That’s a big no-can-do girl.”
“I need to speak with him,” I growled. “It’s important.”
“Why don’t you just go on home to your parents. We can call you a cab if you need a ride.”
One of the idiots in the line yelled out an offer to take me to his home instead. What he suggested we do after was not worth repeating. Fingernails dug into my palms. I may or may not have been debating powering up and making a scene, if nothing else to maybe get higher-ups in security’s attention.
Really. It wasn’t just because I wanted to blast something. Or someone.
“Is there a problem, señor?” A man with a Spanish accent had walked up besides me and I hadn’t even noticed.
“Sir, please wait your turn. The line is over there.”
The Spanish guy had a cleanly trimmed goatee and thick wavy hair pulled into a puffy ponytail. He was also wearing a perfectly tailored suit and tie. Clearing his throat, he held out what was obviously a business card. “As you can see, señor, her ID is in perfect order. She also is a member of my party here to see Señor Kurohoshi, under the name Diego.”
I gaped as I recognized him. How could I not? Diego was the guy at the DPA who had been training Danielle in magic before she made it to Whateley. They must have had him tail me though I hadn’t noticed any car following from Isaiah’s. I’m surprised he’d been able to keep up.
A pulse of magic came from Diego’s hand causing the bouncer to blink a few times and he rechecked his list. He looked surprised and straightened up all formal-like, towering over both of us.
“Of course, sir. Please go on in; your table is waiting upstairs. Take these for the VIP access.” Mr. Muscles pressed a pair of blue wristbands into Diego’s other hand.
“Excellent,” said Diego as he looked sideways to me. “Shall we go?” He offered an arm which, not being totally stupid, I took.
Once inside we were led by another bouncer up a flight of stairs. The pulse of loud music vibrated each step as we went. At the top and through a set of double doors opened a wide balcony full of tables and nicer-dressed patrons. Diego and I were given a round table at the railing’s edge with a prime view of the entire place. A folded card marked ‘Reserved’ was deftly removed as we sat down and looked around.
I could see right away where the name of the place came from.
We perched over a dance floor tightly packed solid with twenty to thirty year olds who gleefully bounced to the impressively loud beat. Their bodies writhed in the pulsating light of several clear glass pillars spaced throughout, each with its own fountain of real fire bursting towards the ceiling in time with the music. The flames weren’t all the normal red and orange color either, some were bursting with fiery greens and blues.
The dance platform itself was inlaid with must have been a seriously expensive set of LED screens letting images of similar flames snake under the feet of the dancers until reaching a pillar and ‘manifesting’ upwards in spasms of fire. The surrounding walls had similar screens making the whole place look like it was set against a mountain of blackened rock with rivers of burning lava flowing down on all sides.
I’ll admit I was impressed. It looked freaking cool.
Once I had stopped gaping like a total noob, Diego leaned closer so his voice could possibly be heard over the booming rock-opera music. Think Muse crossed with System Of A Down to get an idea of the style. Just don’t ask me who it was; I’d never heard it before.
“Aradia, I imagine we are both surprised at finding ourselves here.” He practically had to shout to be heard even at this distance.
I frowned and shouted back. “Surprised? Didn’t you follow me here from the crime scene? I should have figured the DPA would do that, but didn’t think of it.”
That surprised him. “Crime scene? I am intrigued. But no, I did not follow you. In fact I am currently unemployed.”
Huh? I’d heard he had been on leave but that was weeks ago, not that he’d left the agency. “What? How’d that happen?”
He smiled sadly. “It was my own error. And it is not I who has paid the real price, rather it is my daughter who has suffered for my foolishness.” He sighed, eyes going distant for a moment before refocusing on me. “The Fates, it seems, have caused our paths to cross tonight, for which I shall burn offerings in their honor as this has offered me the chance to express my deepest gratitude to you.”
“Okay, you’ve lost me entirely.”
“You saved her. My daughter. Thus do I owe you everything I can offer should you ever have need.”
I still had no idea what he was talking about. “I didn’t even know you had a kid.”
“I do. Her mother has forced her to put aside my last name due to a painful divorce. My daughter is Erica Lain.”
“Holy shit!” I blurted aloud before I could catch myself. “You’re Fields’ dad?”
“That is indeed the code name she chose to use at Whateley Academy.”
As if the day’s events hadn’t already blown my mind. Erica, otherwise known as Fields, had been the girl who’s actions had corrupted another magic student at Whateley with a demonic pendant. That student, my friend Tamara, had tried to kill me. With the amazing help of Zap we had driven the demon back to Hell and slammed the door on its ass. Erica had been immediately suspended from the school for that stunt.
Except that wasn’t the end of it for her. Because on her way back to her mother she’d managed to attract the attention of my real enemy, Azazel. And to avoid being used and abused by him she’d signed herself away to serve a queen of the Fae instead who just so happened to be watching. Which in turn had caused Erica’s spirit to be stuck in a fae realm while her body remained behind in a deep coma. Yeah, it had all been a confused mess. Suffice it to say that in saving Danielle from the same queen I’d forced the issue and gotten Erica freed too. While only a month had passed for those of us on Earth, for Erica it had already been years of servitude and abuse.
I couldn’t have left her like that.
“Wait a minute,” I said as the pieces came together. “Erica said she’d swiped that cursed necklace from her father’s magic safe. That nasty thing was yours?” I glared at him angrily. That horrible piece of work had caused a lot of trouble.
He had the grace to look rather chagrined. “Yes. And I lost my position at the DPA because of it. Perhaps its demonic influence affected me, or perhaps I was greedy for power. I cannot excuse my action in holding it for myself and not turning it over for proper storage by the agency. Erica’s trauma is entirely my fault.”
I’d have argued that Erica had a knack for causing her own trouble, considering that she’d magic-hacked the safe and stolen the damned thing on her own. Then she’d given it to Tamara to gain access to a scrying sphere with which she could remotely hack the most secure computers in the country. However with how Diego looked so forlorn I was pretty sure he wouldn’t listen to the argument.
I reached out to touch his hand. “But she’s safe now, right? Zap got her spirit back to her body and she woke up.”
He squeezed my fingers gently then let go. “Physically safe, yes. But the damage was already done.”
“For her she spent many years in the fae realm, constantly exposed to the raw magic of the fae. She learned much magic from it—in fact she likely has more skill and power than I at this point—but that all came with a price.”
I frowned. “I made Queen Fionnabhair forswear any retaliations. Against me, Danielle, and Erica and all our families and loved ones.”
He shook his head, the short bushy ponytail bouncing back and forth as he did so. “Her spirit absorbed too much of their essence and now craves it every moment of every day. She is in effect without a source for an addiction that goes beyond the physical. Not without returning to the slavery you freed her from.”
My jaw dropped. “Oh god, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“This is what brings me tonight to visit with Mr. Kurohoshi. It is my hope that he might either have knowledge of a cure or at the least of some method to mitigate the effect.”
This was just awful. I kept silent while my mind raced. I had a dream-realm full of fae, could that help her somehow? Problem was my realm wasn’t forged of fae energies. Gabriel had made it and so the resonance was entirely different. And by accident I’d tied those fae to me, something whose effects Tsáyidiel, the angel currently guarding the realm, was still trying to figure out. But surely something could be done?
Diego interrupted my thoughts. “Now is your turn. What brings Aradia to Mr. Kurohoshi’s doorstep? Especially alone and without identification. Which as I recall would have you listed as far too young to gain entry in any case.”
“It’s complicated,” I replied, catching myself before chewing on a lip.
“I am entirely unsurprised. Tell only what you can, I shall endeavor to get you an audience with our host regardless.”
Diego didn’t know I’d already met Kami nor did he know about the whole mess in Syria. I was pondering how best to summarize all of that when a Japanese man with a nasty scar down one cheek approached our table with apparent urgency before bowing low.
“It is my honor to escort you both to an audience with Kurohoshi Kami, proprietor of this establishment.”
We both stood and returned the bow. It seemed the polite thing to do.
“And,” said Diego, “it is our honor to accompany you.”
“What he said,” I added, pointing at Diego.
The guy gave me a look-over and not because of me being a pretty redhead. If anything he was trying to decide if I’d just given an insult.
I smiled as genuinely as I could. Really.
With a grunt the guy gestured and we followed. This time we were led behind the balcony to a different set of double metal doors, each with handles forged into the shape of dragons. Their breathed fire completed the grips which looked really cool. Through these could be seen a very long hallway lined with rice-paper screens and perfectly spaced braziers burning with incense. I began to wonder just how large this nightclub really was, because from what I remembered of the outside and the path we took to the balcony something was clearly off dimensionally.
As we crossed those doors the answer became clear. Goosebumps swept my skin and I realized we had just ported somewhere else. The slight break in the rhythm of Diego’s walk indicated he’d sensed the same and it had made him nervous.
Not me though. I thought it just neat and likely really convenient for Kami. Like I’d said earlier, he’d been really nice to me. Well that and I might be getting overconfident in my ability to blast things if needed. Maybe just a little.
We were led to the end of that hall and through another set of doors, dark oaken ones with the same dragons carved this time from wood instead of metal. Inside had all the trappings of a temple complete with one Kami Kurohoshi dressed in a flowery kimono as he sat seiza upon a silk cushion. Seiza is the kneeling posture of martial arts that Sensei Ito’s students were all too painfully familiar with. Ancient weapons were arrayed on the walls and the air was smoky with even more incense.
Kami gestured to the two cushions resting on the floor before him. Diego, after giving an even deeper bow, easily folded his legs into the same configuration.
As for me I stared at the cushion and then at the boots I was wearing. With a sigh I plonked my ass on the wooden floor to wrestle my toes and knees free. Once accomplished I sat the same way on the appropriate pillow. Diego looked amused, Kurohoshi didn’t.
In fact, once I’d gotten a good look at his face I could tell he was absolutely furious and holding it together with sharp focus. Uh oh.
I was about to try and apologize for any lack of propriety on my part (though hey, there was no way those boots were going to let me sit that way), when he grunted and spoke.
“Ordinarily I would declare both of your presences here as coincidence. But it is clear that great patterns are in motion and have placed us upon its field of battle.” He studied us both with an intense burning behind dark eyes. “And by your more relaxed states it is obvious neither of you are aware of what is occurring even now as we speak.” Tendons across his forearms tightened.
Diego and I exchanged a glance and he ventured the question. “What do you mean?”
The answer came as a deep-throated growl:
“Whateley Academy is under attack.”