“Dammit August! Tell me where she is!”
Snow and wind assaulted the far corner of the cafeteria where August liked to eat quietly away from everyone else. Today that peaceful solitude had been bulldozed by a rather agitated young fae.
The plate of creamy chicken alfredo sadly offered no defense.
“I told you, I don’t know!”
“Did you even bother to look in the Book? She’s been gone for over a day!” Danielle leaned over the table, her usual perfect braids fraying and threatening to fall into the chocolate ice cream August had been saving for dessert.
August tried to scoot their chair further away from the tempest only to bump into the wall behind. “Even if I did I couldn’t tell you! Sandalphon said-”
“I don’t care what he said! We have to find her! She could need help!”
A sudden gust took August’s napkin with it. Watching it go, they wished they too could fly off but being stuck as an incarnate meant not having wings. Which was entirely part of the problem that Danielle wasn’t understanding. “She’s probably not on Earth, okay? And if she isn’t I wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway!”
“If she’s not on Earth then where could she be?”
“Some other realm or in between, maybe.”
“Then we really can’t do anything?”
August sucked on the empty fork. How much could they say? It’s not like they’d really seen a clear picture of what was to come, but enough details had filtered through to offer hints…
Sniffling, Danielle slumped into the chair and grabbed another napkin with which to blow her nose. The swirling storm surrounding her shifted to a softer cold rain. “I hate it. I hate being useless! We should all be helping her!” The napkin wiped away frost gathering at the corners of her eyes. “But Zap refuses to come out of his room or even answer his phone! Brendan keeps saying we’re all too weak to offer her any real assistance anyway and just keeps kicking himself for suggesting she use the sims in the first place. And Jenna thinks God needed Jordan somewhere else yet she’s still sick with worry. She didn’t even eat today!”
“Jenna didn’t eat? Seriously?”
“No! She went to class but as soon as it was out she rushed back to Jordan’s room, says she’s camping out there until Jordan gets back.”
August took a bite of the alfredo which had gone cold and crunchy. While not entirely unpleasant this was definitely not how the dish was meant to be served. “Uhm, you do realize you’re totally soaking my dinner, right?”
Danielle blinked, taking in the rain and the frosty layer covering the table. “See? I can’t even control that! Useless!” Breathing in and out slow, she tried to focus. The falling moisture dissipated though air currents still brushed past with an occasional dance. Sighing, Danielle slumped further in the chair. “Sorry.”
Giving up on the alfredo, August pulled the bowl of ice cream closer. At least this was supposed to be cold! Also, chocolate!
“Isn’t there anything you can tell us? Please?” Danielle was chewing at a lip much like August had seen Jordan do. Which wasn’t surprising considering the real relationship between the two—yet another thing August had seen but wasn’t supposed to tell anybody about. Sandalphon had been upset enough over what August had done at the Grigori gathering as it was. The archangel had huffed with disappointment and shook his head even!
Yet there had to be something they could say that could help. Maybe something the others could have figured out on their own? Yeah! That could work!
“What about Ester?” August asked cagily around a spoonful of chocolate. “They doing okay?”
“Ester?” Danielle frowned. “She was with Evie earlier. But she’s so reserved who knows how she actually feels.”
“She was acting normal?” Oops. Cream dribbling down their chin required another napkin.
“I guess so? For her, anyway.”
“Then Jordan must be fine.” August smiled broadly, relishing another tasty scoop. Sooo goood!
“I don’t follow.”
Waving the empty spoon in the air, August swallowed before trying to explain. “Ester is Kokabiel, right? And Kokabiel was saved by Amariel, which is who Jordan truly is. Amariel’s name is written on Kokabiel’s spirit. So if something really bad had happened to Jordan, then Evie would feel it. And not in a good way.”
August winced. “Trust me. Losing the name that connects you to the Source hurts.”
“Oh.” Danielle brightened at the thought. “So Jordan is okay?”
“Her spirit is at least.”
“Really?! I gotta tell the others!” Danielle hopped up and took off towards the cafeteria exit. “Thanks August!”
There was no point in trying to reply as the fae girl was already out the doors. August did manage to keep the napkins on the table in the wake of the speedy exit which was cool.
Their reflexes were definitely improving!
Savoring another chunk of chocolate, August thought about what they’d just said. Jordan’s—or more precisely Amariel’s—saving of Kokabiel and Tsáyidiel were events without any precedence. The restoration of one’s name opened up possibilities that no angel had ever dreamed possible. Would Heaven still slam shut its doors to those who had been redeemed by Amariel’s light?
Could they all finally go home?
Lost in such thoughts along with the creamy flavor, they didn’t notice yet another student approach.
“Hey!” A boy with unruly red hair and an all-too-grumpy face was standing there staring mostly at the floor.
“Dude! You are totally interrupting this chocolate experience.” The instrument of creamy taste-bud delivery admonished him for this grievous trespass.
He ignored it. “You’re one of them aren’t you. Like her.”
“Her? I’m not a fae, silly.” August pointed the spoon at the guy. “You’re Magnus, aren’t you? Didn’t you piss her off once? I heard that it didn’t go too well.”
Magnus glanced at the doors to where Danielle had just exited. “Yeah. And I did. But I didn’t mean her.” He glowered, fists clenched at his sides. “I meant Jordan.”
“Pffft. I’m not like Jordan. No one is. I couldn’t even begin to explain how special it is that she even exists.”
“But she’s an angel. And so are you.”
Raised eyebrows appraised the boy. “What makes you say that?”
“I’ve got the Sight. I can see your spirit.”
Magnus’s temples pulsed as he stood there, avoiding eye contact. The guy was seriously clenching his jaw. If he kept that up he’d crack a tooth for sure.
“Is that all you wanted?” August said trying to break the awkward silence. “To confirm that I’ve got feathers sprouting from my spirit?”
He shook his head. “No. Humans were slaves once. Long ago. That’s what my Gran and all the old stories say. And she says the fae want to rule over us again, every last one of them. Gran thinks they can’t help it, that it’s in their nature and it was the angels who saved us.” Eyes uncertain yet challenging rose to meet theirs. “That true?”
“Uh, it’s a bit more complicated.”
August reluctantly put down their bowl. “We angels showed up to help mankind after the world was pretty well fucked over, okay? Magic energy was all used up in the wars between fae, elementals, dragons, and the other empowered beings that called this place home. That left it vulnerable to a whole mess of evils and things shattered before all that was stopped. And yeah, humans were freed from their masters when most of the fae and others left but the poor things were totally unprepared to live in the emptiness that was left. So we came down to try and help. To teach them a few tricks so they’d make it.”
“Enough magic to survive along with the skills to master the physical world: blacksmithing, alchemy, the beginnings of real science. But we fucked that up too. As a result the world spirit was in danger of fading out from all the continued abuse. Which would have been bad. Real bad.”
“Gaia, right? That’s what Gran calls her.”
August shrugged. “The name works.”
“But if you’re all still here, you must have fallen. Been kicked out by God.”
“I don’t like thinking about it.” August tapped the spoon against the bowl. Clink, clink.
“I need to know.”
It was those pain-filled eyes that got to them. Flashing with an inner debate, they held back a fire ready to either lash outward or at places deep within.
“Fine,” August said slowly, reaching back to the strained memories of being Tamiel, of losing their heavenly grace and living in fear of their own brothers and sisters. “A few higher angels came down after hearing of the mess we had made. They needed to clean it up quick or else Michael would have roused the entire Host and cleansed the world.”
“What’s wrong with that? Evil should be destroyed.”
“Using the sun to set planets aflame with purifying fire is not exactly fun for the folks still on them.”
Magnus gaped and even his milky white skin managed to pale.
“Yeah. So instead there was a war here on Earth to try to fix things,” August continued. “Many fought against a corruption one of our own had unleashed. And, despite what it would do to her own people, a fae sealed Gaia’s heart-energy away so the world-spirit could heal in the aftermath. By doing that she doomed the remaining fae still here to lose their power and become bound into mortal lives.”
“A fae did that?”
“Just like humans, some fae are nobler than others. She paid a heavy price for preserving this world.”
“Did she die?”
“Yes. She became doomed to incarnate as mortal like the rest of us. With a spirit declared as traitor to her people.”
“A fae saving humans,” Magnus said quietly. “Then Gran was wrong.”
“Why are you asking all this, anyway?”
Ignoring the question he offered one of his own. “Is Jordan fallen? She has to be, right? Otherwise she wouldn’t be here; she’d be up in Heaven with the rest.”
“None of us were fallen when we first arrived, dude. When you look at her with your spirit sight what do you see?”
Broad shoulders hunched in on themselves. “Light. I only see light.”
“Then you have your answer.”
“But she’s friends with the fae.”
“She tries to be friends with everyone. I don’t think she could be herself otherwise. You should give it a try sometime.”
Magnus stared off over the heads of all the other dining kids. “That’s what the voice said. That I should trust in Jordan.”
August tilted their head. “Voice? What voice?”
“Just something in a dream I keep having.” He walked away without even saying thanks or goodbye. Rude!
A dream though, that was indeed curious. Something smelled fishy and it wasn’t the sushi the kid at the next table was eagerly devouring. Noting that the rest of their ice cream had sadly melted, August returned plates and tray to the proper spot in the cafeteria before hurrying back to their room in Hawthorne.
They needed the quiet.
Locking the door, they moved a stack of freshly tailored uniform shirts and slacks from the bed to on top of the dresser. Their growth spurt had taken everyone by surprise and they’d been needing new clothes every week. The gender confusion and ambiguity was also getting old, though the doctor’s exam had showed definite progress in one singular direction. The intrigued physician had predicted another two months of being stuck in between but after that August was going to be all boy.
The him-to-be couldn’t wait. It just felt right.
Of course that wasn’t important right now. Magnus’ dream raised some fascinating questions if not outright suspicions.
Donning sweatpants and a hoody August sat cross-legged on the bed and closed their eyes. In their thoughts they pictured the Book, and at the same time pictured Magnus with his inner-focused glaring and mop of reddish-orange hair. Sandalphon would probably yell at them again for this, but August didn’t care.
They needed to know.
The magical angelic script flowed across the pages, reaching out to envelop and pull the capable reader along the threads of the life they showed in full detail: Magnus’ birth and childhood in a suburb in New York, to the time his powers first manifested when his father had tried to enter the boy’s room to deliver an (admittedly deserved) admonishment for misbehavior only to find the entrance blocked by a shimmering force field, and when as a teen he’d used those barriers to foil an armed robbery and thus reveal to the plain-clothed MCO agent that he had powers. It was all there.
However August was looking for something much more subtle in the lines of the most recent past. Something had prompted Magnus’ questions and August was gaining a sense of these things, perhaps from Sandalphon’s spirit training.
They’d guessed right because they found it: gentle nudges in the thread-lines ever so subtly shifting the path towards a new choice, a choice with dramatic potential and effect upon the tapestry and all the rest of the pages in the Book. It was so small, barely noticeable unless you looked hard enough. Yet in following where it led the Book swelled to the size of galaxies as all the countless affected destinies burned their images into August’s mind, fiercely competing for equal attention across endless spans of time and space. Fiery letters spun incoherently through their perceptions with blazing speed, each flashing visions of what may be, threatening to torch August’s consciousness with an infinite flood of what could be forged from such a small change.
Crying out in anguish August tried to slam the Book in their mind shut, desperate to shake free. Blood flowed as a hot river from their nose to pool upon their sweatshirt. Overwhelming visions strangled their mind, lacking cohesion or meaning as a tumultuous and endless shrieking stream of color, taste, and noise.
For the briefest of moments they managed to clearly see the small source touching Magnus’ life before the torrential cascade of consequences pulled them under. Succumbing to blissful oblivion August once again whispered a single name:
Zap snuffed out the last of the burning incense and stared at the altar he’d created.
Nothing had worked.
He’d done everything he could think of. He’d gathered the ingredients for a proper kyphi incense from the botany club, bribed a gadgeteer to 3D print a model of the Ibis-headed god, researched proper chants and prayers, even kiln-fired some bluish faience with hieroglyphs embossed into the surface. All designed to get the attention of the God of Wisdom and Magic yet the net result from the Master of Mysteries was zip. Nada. Not a peep.
Thoth didn’t want to talk to him.
Opening a window in the solitary room nestled at one end of Poe Cottage, Zap fell back onto the bed. Normally he had the opposite problem of gods and goddesses constantly streaming in and out of his awareness, occasionally the shouting and screaming so persistent that withdrawing into the life of a simple hawk remained an acute temptation.
So why the silence now?
Ever since the conversation with Set the celestial murmuring had been quiet. It was awfully suspicious. Unfortunately the current failures left him with only one backup plan, a plan he’d really hoped to avoid.
If you can’t get a god to come to you, you had to go to the god.
But who would he be if he did that? The last time he’d projected his spirit self was to help Jordan at the behest of Ra and Anubis. His memory of the trip to Arcadia remained fuzzy as if filtered through a shimmering gauze, leaving him questioning whether his sense of self as Zap was actually real or if maybe his true self was the god Heru and Zap was just a convenient covering shell with no solidity. He was a thin mask waiting to be discarded when things of real importance needed to be done.
Not a pleasant thought. In fact it pissed him off. How dare they use and throw him away! He had his own life, his own hopes and desires, and since he was the one stuck to live day by day in this limited physical world all while still worrying about everything, it wasn’t fair to cast him aside. He deserved to know the real secrets and he deserved to make his own damn choices about them.
And if the gods or Heru himself didn’t like it? Fuck ‘em. Fuck them all.
Grabbing hold of that anger, Zap ripped himself free of his physical shell and threw himself into spirit with a burning need to, for once in his life, get his own damn answers.
There was a room and he was in it.
A quick check confirmed he was still wearing his jeans and black t-shirt. No weird loincloth, no sandals, and no funky hats. Good. Of course the scale of the room was intimidating. A wooden drafting table towered over him as if he were only a foot tall.
Not to mention the bird-headed guy sitting in front it sporting a ridiculously long dark beak was freaking taller still. Perched upon that beak were a pair of armless glasses, bent just so to cover the surprising blues of the eyes fixating themselves upon the small intruder.
“Well now, this is not something one encounters very often,” said the giant bird-headed figure. “A little Heru!”
Zap bristled, but the point was hard to argue given the obvious scale disparity. Instead he gave voice to the feeling prickling at the back of his brain. “You’re Thoth. I made it.”
“Of course I am, who else would I be? Thoth, Djehuty, Lord of Khemennu, and so many other titles that one would need an entire wall with which to list them. Hmm. I should add that in!” The god turned back to the drafting table and with a massive black feather sketched in an instant an entire edifice covered in symbols and pictures. “There! Oh I do like that. Nothing wrong with a pinch of self-promotion.” Insomuch as a bird could smile, Thoth managed. “Now, how might I be of assistance?”
“I seek knowledge and wisdom.”
The giant feather tapped against the desk. “You will need to be a bit more specific.”
Specific? Fine then. “Set is up to something. He says the fae queen needs his help and he also spoke of some plan, indicating I’d been in on it and should remember what it was. But I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Piercing eyes regarded him. “Are you sure you want to?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t!”
“Ah. I suppose not.” The feather pointed towards one of the blank walls surrounding the room. A Zap-sized door appeared, complete with a bronze doorknob. “In there you will find a pool. I’d suggest sticking to the shallow end.”
Turning the knob revealed not so much a room as a cave. Rock walls curved down to meet an underground lake that stretched out into the distance, waters churning with deeper blackness the further Zap looked. Dotting the bottom under crystal clear water near to him were chunks of shaped faience. A single piece carved into the form of a scarab about fifteen feet out emitted a soft pale maroon pulse as if calling to him.
Zap strode towards it, wading through the pool and sinking quickly due to the deceptive slope below. Ignoring Thoth’s warning, he took a deep breath and dove downward, driven by a need he couldn’t put into words.
His hand wrapped around the scarab, plucking it cleanly from the sediment at the bottom. As he pushed towards the surface, the scarab came alive. Bubbles of air escaped Zap’s lips from a cry of pain as the scarab bit into his palm and wriggled its way under the skin. Frantically he clawed at the it with his other hand, but it was too late. The scarab had already done its work.
A vortex underneath his feet and in his mind sucked him down.
“King Netjeriykhet, the prisoners await your judgment.” The captain of the King’s Guard raised a hand in salute.
Sitting upon a gold-clad ebony throne, King Netjeriykhet acknowledged the captain. “Bring them in.”
The order was shouted, echoing off the high and picture-ladened walls of the throne room. Spear-carrying troops marched past the ornate doors, escorting men clad only in white loincloths and chains. The prisoners’ heads were shaved and faces scrubbed clean of all adornment. With another command they dropped to their knees before the great king though one of their number hesitated, a boy who could not have seen but seven returns of Akhet, the Season of Flooding. The rest trembled in fear, knowing all too well that these next few minutes would likely be their last.
The king’s eyes narrowed with displeasure. “You were to bring me the rebellious priests. Why then is there such a youth among them?”
Before the captain could answer one of the men in chains collapsed to the floor, limbs thrashing uncontrollably. The surrounding warriors spun in an instant, leveraging spearheads towards this outrageous outburst.
“Hold!” commanded their king, halting the spears’ deadly thrusts.
The thrashing stilled as the thin man on the floor gave a short bark-like laugh. “That always tickles.” Ignoring the spears he rose, turning attention to the king. Where his expression had been of fear before, now it was challenging and defiant. Cheekbones and eyebrows stretched into foreign features utterly unlike what had been there during the march into the throne room.
The king raised a brow. He’d heard of this sort of thing. “Who are you? Your name, I demand it!”
With a chuckle the man replied. “You know damned well who I am. Just as I know who you are oh Heru, Lord of the Black Land.”
“Say your name and be revealed!”
“Really? You don’t recognize me? I’m hurt.” The man shook his head in mock disappointment then grinned. “I am Set, Lord of the Red Desert.”
The king gave no sign of the apprehension rising through his heart. “That would explain much. This troublesome rebellion amongst the governors is your doing then.”
“You ignoring their needs opened the door. I stepped through it.”
Many a spear twitched, wanting to strike down this insult to the king.
“I command you all to hold! And hold you shall!” shouted Netjeriykhet at his men. The spears pulled back, though not as far as before.
Rubbing his face the king regarded the god. “Your troops are defeated, all that’s left is mopping up at the outskirts. You have lost.”
“I don’t dispute it. Why do you think we’re talking?”
“You are known for your tricks. This is another one.”
The god snorted. “No tricks. You won. And if you weren’t stuck in these silly incarnations life after life, you’d already know what I need to tell you.”
Netjeriykhet, son of King Khasekhemwy who had defeated much greater rebellions in the North, had his whole life been told by the priests that he was the current incarnate of the god Heru. When his brother had died and left Netjeriykhet the throne many of the people believed his brother’s death had been meant to be so that Heru could again rule over them.
Netjeriykhet would have much preferred his brother still be alive, and as for the words of the priests he paid them respect but made no such claims himself in case they were wrong. Insulting the gods was never a wise move for any man, let alone a king.
Just like it wouldn’t be wise now.
“Forgive my ignorance, Lord Set. Please explain.”
“It’s simple. Too many seasons have turned since the fae priestess slammed shut the world’s manna and we gods left this world.”
“And you wish to return?” Legends had been told, though details were minimal, of a mighty war against giants who had threatened the gods themselves. As a result of that war the gods had departed, leaving the realms to be ruled by humans. It was said that the potency of magic was lost with their departure, that the gods had bound it to prevent mankind from ever threatening them in the heavens.
“Sure do, but that ain’t the problem.”
“What is then?”
“Think about it. All that energy bound for years, with just a little more created every day. It adds up. What happens when the rain season goes on too long?”
“The flood of the Nile reaches the towns, washing them away.” The king leaned forward on the throne. “Could that happen with the manna?”
“Yeah, eventually it will. Either that dam will burst or someone will bust it open. Maybe I’ll do it.” Set grinned. “Now shift your thinking. You’ve seen men starved before. Shriveled and weak, pathetically lingering on.”
As much as the king tried to keep the belly’s of his people full, there were always tribes or slaves who’d suffered so. “Yes.”
“Know what happens if you give a feast to a man so starved?”
Netjeriykhet considered. “No.”
“He dies. The body can’t handle the shock of it. You have to feed them slow.”
The king then understood. The gods had bound the energy and thus men were now starved for magic, having endured generations of energetic famine. He’d seen the priests struggle to do even simple things: to levitate a cup, start a fire, or even speak across great distances, things that according to the legends were once trivial and commonplace. The tolls on their bodies from even these efforts was high, despite years of training.
What would it do to the people should they all be overwhelmed with such power?
“Lord Set,” said the king cautiously, “We would not be talking like this unless you already had a solution in mind.”
“No shit. It’ll take deep strategic thought, something you seriously lack with all this single-lifespan-at-a-time crap.”
Netjeriykhet glared at the god, anger still held in check but rising. A king could only tolerate so much, even from a god. “Try me.”
Set nodded approvingly. “There you go. The plan is to maintain our people’s kingdom for generations and we build. No more infighting between us, fun as that is. At least, not until the device is complete.”
“Thoth has a grand design of stone and power. We build channels for the power to go. Restrain it by rerouting in endless cycles, so the rate at which it slams the world is slowed. Save our people.”
“You would do this? Declare a peace so this can be done?”
“What’s the point of being a god if no one is around to worship? There is however a price. For us both.”
“The design requires strength and subtlety. Those better be built in from the start or the whole structure will collapse. And they better remain to keep the whole thing empowered for the thousands of needed years. I’ll pay for the potency. I’m much stronger than you.”
“And what is needed from me?”
“Heru’s left eye. The subtlety of the moon and its vision to best guide the flow.”
The king shook his head in dismay. “How can I agree to that? I am not him! I am but a man!”
“Thinking otherwise doesn’t change a damn thing. You are he. We also will need my priests, and especially that boy.” Set pointed at the child standing with those still cowering in their chains.
“Why?” Was this the trick? All this talk of magic as justification to keep his rebellious ringleaders alive?
“Because you’re an idiot, being stuck as a human. The design needs to be given to someone whose brain won’t turn to mush by its complexity.”
“And your priests can do this?”
“They can train this boy to do it. He alone has the potential.”
The king rose from the throne. To his soldier’s dismay he pushed past their spears to crouch down before the kneeling child, dangerously close to the god-possessed man.
“Lift your head, boy,” the king commanded.
Eyes a mix of green and gold met the king’s.
“Do you have a name?”
The boy shook his head, afraid to even utter a word.
Looking back at the channeled god, the king spoke. “You promise peace until this great work is complete?”
“Without it the project fails. I will crush any threats to its success.” The god tightened a fist.
“If your men had won the battle, what would you have done?”
The god grinned darkly. “Forced you to agree.”
“Not kill me?”
“Your next incarnation might’ve had no spine and been useless.”
The king paused to consider. “I will need to consult my priests and their oracles. The Lord Ra must have his chance to speak.”
Set growled. “That will waste time. The old fool will debate and argue. For once act on your own! Be a true king and god!”
“They must be consulted.”
“You’re hopeless. And I don’t need to be here to watch you dawdle.” With that his eyes rolled up into his head and the man who he’d possessed fell unconscious to the floor.
The king pondered without comment before offering a hand to the boy. “Stand.”
Hesitantly, the boy took it.
“For the sake of our kingdom,” said the king, “you are to be blessed. You have been brought here with an offering of peace. Let it ever be remembered.”
After lifting the wide-eyed boy to his feet the king shouted his declaration.
“This boy shall hereafter be known as Imhotep! He Who Comes In Peace!”
Zap watched as years flew past. Imhotep grew into a strong man, becoming his most trusted vizier, guiding the construction of an absolute marvel of engineering. Sacred scrolls were written describing how to continue the work with each new generation, to build a network of structures to await the day when magic power would once again return to the world.
Their own contribution, the centerpiece, rose layer by layer as well as dug deep into the ground. Room after room was crafted, the layout all in accordance to Imhotep’s divinely inspired instructions—even when they made no sense. False entrances, dead end corridors, rooms full of vases and bowls piled from floor to ceiling, they all were made as ordered.
None of it was comprehensible to the king, but the resources of his kingdom were poured into it nonetheless. One part concerned him specifically: his burial chamber. Imhotep had expressed the need to guarantee which human life the king’s spirit would be born to next, to make sure that the plan would continue far after each specific lifetime was done.
The king’s last memory was that of being a ghostly spirit, rising from the remains of his old body only then to finally see all that Imhotep had built. A skein forged of brilliant energy channels winding their way in exacting circuits to pass between spirit and stone, life and death. Streams reflecting colors both possible and impossible elegantly tied together forged out of the purpose to protect those whom a king truly served. It was the most beautiful edifice Netjeriykhet had ever seen.
It was also the most beautiful thing Zap had ever seen.
A giant and slightly feathered hand pulled him up, the waters of memory dripping from his clothes and skin, taking the vision with them. If the hand hadn’t been so strong, he would have squirmed free to plunge back below.
“I warned you to stay in the shallow end,” sighed the bird-headed god. “But I think you’ve been gone just long enough, little one. Off you go!”
Like a fisherman tossing back his catch, the god threw him over the waters and towards a shore which faded from view as Zap opened his eyes once again to the walls of his own bedroom.
A rather cold bedroom.
Still disoriented, Zap sat up. It really was chilly in here. Had the cottage’s heat failed?
Shards of broken glass glittered across the floor away from a frame no longer holding an actual window. The curtain billowed with an Autumn’s nighttime breeze.
Had he done that? Or had Thoth?
No, that was unlikely. For if he had been the cause then the glass would have blown outward and not in across the room.
Something outside had gone horribly wrong.
It had been a stressful couple of days, as the extra excretions in his tank could testify. The poor students stuck cleaning out the gunk from his pool had needed double duty in order to keep up, and while they’d been assigned the task as detention for misbehavior Louis wondered if he should do something nice for them anyway. He’d mention it to Mrs. Carson when she returned.
Her absence was part of his concerns. She, along with Circe and Rabbi Kirov, had been summoned to Washington for a summit on the topic of, as she’d put it, the ‘angel issue’. While her demeanor had projected only calm and focus, he knew her better than that. She too was extremely worried.
The day before a representative from the Vatican had arrived at the school. They’d requested to meet Jordan, but of course with her disappearance that was impossible. Officials in Washington had not reacted well to that bit of news nor to the Vatican sending someone directly without consulting the government first and everyone had immediately departed for the capital.
The fact that another of their angelic students had again fallen into coma did not help things either. Not that they’d shared the details of August (or Ester for that matter) with the authorities, which was yet another thing he worried about. It had been Carson’s decision but he felt that Whateley had gotten caught up in something much larger than itself. Carson saw the individual’s needs (especially the needs of her students) as paramount, but whether he liked acknowledging it or not his own view strayed to a bigger picture. Having literal angels walking around campus was definitely part of some world-shifting series of events.
Hence the levels of stress and hence the ongoing fight to get the PH balance in his waters correct so the darned itching would stop and maybe, just maybe, he could finally get some rest.
It being the middle of the night the campus was quiet as he allowed his consciousness to float slowly over the grounds, noting the security personnel performing their routine patrols. In many ways the school was more like a military base than a proper academic institution, but Whateley had suffered dire threats too many times to be structured otherwise.
A single stray student caught his attention as they were out way past curfew and lurking in front of one of the girls’ cottages. Even odder was that the boy was mostly dressed in pajamas, shoes and coat thrown on as if afterthoughts. Louis was about to manifest his astral self and confront the boy on his late-night sojourn when something new impinged upon the psychic’s awareness.
Outside the wards there was a disturbance in the ether. Pain and horror emanated from beyond the warded perimeter, and as he mentally drew closer the intensity was rising fast.
Past the spirit-demarcation line and within the nearby forest a portal closed upon itself. Left behind in the damp grass lay a crystalline sphere about the size of a bowling ball. Upon perceiving it clearly Louis had to fight back a sensation he hadn’t experienced in quite some time.
The sphere formed a psychic black hole. All the worst and darkest emotions of humanity had been bundled within all too fragile crystal cords winding in tighter and tighter circles towards its center, binding an amount of fierce psychic energy beyond anything he’d ever experienced. Just brushing the edges had him touching the sensations of the slaughter of innocents, their blood and cries shrieking madness and despair. The device strained to contain what could only be described as a nuclear warhead of psychic terror, ready to plunge unshielded minds into depths of nightmares beyond imagining. Compared to it, Louis—with all his own considerable power and talents—felt very small.
Resting on top of this crystal psychic bomb was a small conventional device. A timer counted down and was only a few seconds away from zero.
He had only one possible course of action. With all the psychic muscle he could muster within those few precious ticks of that clock, he reached out to blanket the entire school with his considerable will. At every student, teacher, and staff member, at every precious consciousness he could touch, he forced a direct command deep into their minds.
He wrapped his own sense of self and will around every last soul he could reach and braced for an impact he wasn’t sure he’d survive.
Khan meowed and pawed at Jenna’s face.
With a groan, she rolled away. “C’mon kitty, lemme sleep!”
The cat dared a quick bite to an ear.
Groggily, Jenna flipped back to meet the insistent stare of the fuzzy attacker. With Jordan missing she’d taken it upon herself to care for the little guy. And since no one could tell her where Jordan had gone, Jenna had decided to sleep in Jordan’s room. It was the most likely place for her best friend to stumble back into should she ever make it back to the world. If she was hurt or needed help in any way Jenna was going be be there for her.
Sharp-toothed kitties not withstanding.
“Look fluff-ball, you’re cute and all but I fed you before conking out. Seriously, your bowl is full.”
Khan was not impressed. He meowed again even louder and turned to face the double doors of the balcony. Jenna sat up, the cat’s strange behavior making her nervous.
“What is it? Is it Jordan?”
Something flashed through the windows of the doors except it wasn’t light. In fact it was the reverse, as if a darkness had swallowed the moonlight bathing the distant forest trees. That darkness was racing towards the school.
“That ain’t Jordan,” Jenna said in sudden alarm, sliding her feet out from under the covers as if to get out of the bed.
With a hiss, Khan slapped a paw firmly down on her leg to pin it there with more strength than the cat should have possessed. Turning in place he faced the doors, large furry tail rising impressively in full angry floof-mode.
Jordan’s cat roared as the darkness slammed into the doors, sending glass bursting inward. Except he roared not with the growl of a housecat but the deep throated bellow of a large enraged forest beast.
The triple wards surrounding Jordan’s bed lit up as if afire, sending triple columns of white power rushing into the ceiling as the wave of darkness billowed into the room, smashing into that sudden protection and flowing around with the screeching of a wind which was not wind.
Khan roared again. Within the light of the empowered circles was the friendly fuzzy cat she had grown to love and superimposed upon him a larger-than-life silver and white tiger stood protectively over her glowing brightly with his own fierce energy.
That horrible darkness shrieked with the fury of a thousand howling voices tearing through the air and joining her own frightful screams. Everything on the shelves was sucked into that maelstrom, smashing about and bouncing off the triple-reinforced column of light surrounding the bed.
The cacophony was deafening and lasted far too long.
Yet as quickly as it had come it was suddenly over, books falling to the floor as if gravity had suddenly been returned.
The markings of the circles dimmed as the power faded. Outside their bounds fragments of glass and the bent spines and pages of Jordan’s book collection lay scattered across the floor mixing in with broken glass.
Khan, again his normal and smaller self, huffed. Moving off her leg he gave a softer meow, nudging her with his nose.
It took a moment to find what was left of her voice. “Is it safe?”
He nudged her leg again and looked towards the empty frames of the balcony doors. When she slipped out from under the sheets she wasn’t surprised to see that her skin had turned once again to protective stone. At least she didn’t have to worry about cutting herself on the many shards of glass.
The cat hopped down from the bed to pad with careful chosen steps to the balcony, stopping to look back at her and meep again.
He scratched at the wood so she went over to open them, even though the cat could easily have fit through an empty panel if he’d wanted. With a quick hop Khan was on the balcony railing. He meowed again insistently. Protectively.
She thought she understood.
Picking him up, Jenna leapt the railing, her stone-empowered legs easily taking the impact from landing on the grass below. With a squirm Khan then jumped out of her arms to race across the moonlit lawn.
Without a word she gave chase, struggling to keep up with the cat’s incredible burst of speed.
When she caught up Khan was sitting next to one of the school security guards who had fallen in the middle of the concrete sidewalk by the campus hospital. Bending down she checked the guy’s neck. Thankfully there was a steady pulse and he was still breathing. She spoke to reassure the cat as much as herself.
Khan bumped his head against her hand, looked at the hospital and then back at her. Another loud insistent meow caught at her thoughts as she regarded the scene.
The lights were all off and Doyle’s windows were dark. The emergency power generators hadn’t kicked in.
“Shit! If any patients in there are on life-support they’re scrfewed!”
This time she didn’t wait for Khan to run ahead; she tore across the lawn towards the back of the hospital at full tilt. The diesel generators were there and designed to switch over automatically but that crazy maelstrom must’ve fried the failover circuits. They were built to power not just the hospital in an emergency but all the special accommodation rooms needed in Hawthorne. Without power supporting their unique environmental requirements many of her friends could die.
She just hoped there was a manual override somewhere.
Danielle’s phone blasted a song from Iced Earth in all its heavy guitar glory. Haruko, her roommate who was curled up under a fluffy comforter on a futon instead of a regular bed, shouted across the room.
“If you don’t shut that thing up I’m gonna flush it down the toilet!”
With a groan Danielle rolled over, fumbling to grab at the insistant device. Sleepy fingers finally latched and thumb-swiped the screen. “Hello?”
It was a boy, but she didn’t recognize the voice. “Who is this?”
“You’ve got to come downstairs. All the way outside.”
Through crusty eyelids she peered at the phone’s clock. “What the hell? It’s one a.m. asshole.”
“I’ve got information about Jordan. I know where she is.”
That woke her up. “About Jordan? Tell me!”
“The doors are locked, I can’t come up. You’ve got to come out here. I’m out front. Hurry! There’s no time!” The guy hung up.
Danielle stared at the display. The call was from an unknown number.
Her roommate’s face peered out from under her covers. “What was that?”
“Some guy saying he knows where Jordan is. He’s outside, wants me to go down.”
With a frown, Haruko pushed back the blanket. “Sounds like a trap.”
“I dunno. He sounded desperate. Fuck it, if it’s a prank I’ll kick his ass.” Hopping out of bed she threw a fuzzy robe over her sleeping flannels and shoved toes into a pair of equally fuzzy Tigger slippers.
Haruko’s eyes narrowed and she too got out of bed. Except instead of grabbing warmer clothing she picked up the jade knife she always had hidden up a sleeve wherever she went. This time she kept it in her hand. “I’ll go with you. Whoever it is needs to be taught not to mess with our sleep.”
Danielle grinned and the two of them quickly made their way down the hall and the following stairs.
It was colder outside than she’d expected, not that it bothered her. Cold had felt more refreshing than anything ever since her fae nature had manifested. The crisp air made things feel more alive. Moving away from the doors, she looked around for the mysterious caller and disturber of dreams, Haruko walking carefully besides her.
“I’m really sorry about this. I really am.” From the shadows by a hedge a figure stepped towards them.
She knew him. “You! What bullshit are you trying to pull?” Defensive instincts kicked in and she reflexively reached out to the elements surrounding her only to be blocked on all sides as Magnus deployed those weird psychic barriers of his, causing the scene around her to warp and blur. Unlike the last time they’d tangled he included an additional barrier under her feet.
“Just hang on,” he said, face contorting with concentration. Oddly he’d put walls around not just her and Haruko but also around himself.
Her roommate didn’t delay, she jabbed the dagger at the forcefield. The point sparked an impressive cascade of shimmering waves rippling through the wall but the field didn’t break. With a fierce yell she lunged again and again, and while the blade didn’t penetrate Haruko drew satisfaction from the resulting grunts of her captor.
“Dammit!” Magnus snarled. “I’m not trying to hurt you! We need these to be as strong as possible!”
Even through the weird and wavering barriers Danielle sensed it, like a needle of wrongness sliding into her third eye. What was seen with those magic senses over Magnus’s shoulder was even worse.
“Oh my god,” she whispered as a sandstorm of virulent energy spun past the edge of campus. As it rammed into the protective magic guarding their school it proceeded to shred through them as like a tornado full of razorblades whipping its way through blocks of soft cheese. The mystic symbols and patterns comprising the academy’s key defenses flared and tried to hold but were peeled away piece by piece to fade out like spent fireworks.
And that terrible storm just kept getting bigger.
“Haruko, stop!” she cried, throwing arms around her roommate to prevent any more next dagger blows.
A shriek of fury came from the smaller girl as she slipped under the grab, checking herself barely in time from slicing at her roommate’s unexpected attack. But spotting Danielle’s horrified expression she too turned to look.
Whatever she said was lost in the deafening force of the impact slamming into the buildings and Magnus’ shields. Like a dust cloud covering everything in its path the power ripped past the buildings, glass and tiles shattering in all directions as each structure’s own psychic defenses were similarly stripped away. The wave smashed through them ignoring all psychic barriers and a manifested tumultuous wind of hurricane strength followed right on its heels.
Magnus, sweat openly pouring down his face, screamed defiance as the maelstrom plowed into his created barriers as he struggled to maintain the defense against a swarm of sheer insanity.
To Danielle’s amazement the forcefields held even as they were engulfed by a fury which had swallowed all lights with its passage. Within that darkness thousands of faces flickered in the black: young and old, bloody and on fire, all screaming with a terror and rage she scarcely could comprehend.
“Shut your eyes!” Haruko shouted into her ear. “Don’t look into it!”
The roar of its passage shrieked louder still but she did as bid, clenching eyes closed as strongly as she could. Together within Magnus’ pulsing and throbbing shields they held each other and all screamed.
They screamed for what felt like hours.
The following silence was broken only by the sounds of three students breathing heavily, throats raw and pained.
Danielle hesitantly opened one eye. She was kneeling on the sidewalk path holding her roommate tightly to her chest. Magnus, also on his knees, wobbled there with eyes slowly focusing on hers. Thin lines of blood seeped from each nostril and from the corners of his eyes.
“You have to run,” he croaked. “Hurry. They’re coming for you.” The curly haired boy fell face-first onto the sidewalk.
She went to move towards him but Haruko caught her arm.
“Wait!” her roommate hissed. “Look!”
A few feet down the path leading around the cottage electricity arced through the air. The glowing charge formed a line which split into two and opened a rift through which two dark hooded figures stepped. Once they were clear the portal crackled and closed.
The taller one paused to look around and quickly focused on the two girls. Under his hood a pair of eyes rolled with fire.
He grinned at them and the smile was clearly unkind.
Danielle reacted instantly. With a gesture she threw one of her most practiced spell from the battle sims. A weaving of illusion shot forth towards the pair of newcomers intending to scramble their senses and give a chance to get the heck out of Dodge.
The thick cloaks worn by the intruders absorbed the magic like a dish sponge sucking up soapy water. The man laughed.
“Anti-glamour protection, little faeling. Now it’s my turn.”
Flames erupted from not just his eyes but his face and hands, swirling before him as they grew in size to cast sharper and larger shadows from anything daring to block the fiery light.
“Crud,” choked Danielle as the flames coalesced into the outline of a man standing at least ten feet tall.
The cloaked man barked something in a language she didn’t know though at least one word was recognizable: Djinn. He commanded an elemental spirit and it was pretty obvious what kind.
With a crackling roar a wide stream of raw elemental fire flashed towards the trio of students, hot enough to sear concrete and burn the surrounding lawn to ash with its passage.
It took Zap several minutes before he finally was able to step out of the cottage and into the biting cold.
Of course he’d forgotten his jacket when running from room to room and had needed to go back to get it. All the electricity was knocked out so he had grabbed the flashlight he kept handy ‘just in case’ and had used that to find his way to check on the other students and the House Mother, Mrs. Horton.
They were all asleep. Breathing, but asleep. No amount of shaking or yelling at them had had any effect.
All the exterior windows had also shattered inward, sharp glinting pieces covering just about everything in the lounge. The total quiet of the cottage was absolutely eerie and with the lack of any emergency response from the rest of the school Zap had a sinking feeling whatever happened had hit a lot more than just Poe Cottage.
Looking around outside confirmed those suspicions.
All the lamps lining the paths between buildings were out and the only sound that could be heard was a chill wind blowing from the north.
Well, there was also the noise of a squad of power-armored men (or robots?) busily running between Schuster Hall and this large electric tear in the air lurking out in front of it. They were robbing the Administration building and Campus Security was nowhere to be found.
A disturbing thought crossed his mind. He might be the only one on the entire campus still conscious.
Zap knew that Schuster Hall held the Homer Gallery which housed a number of weapons and artifacts on display behind glass, but the rumors were that the truly dangerous stuff was properly hidden elsewhere. Which would make sense. So what were these assholes after?
A strange calm and clarity flowed through him, pushing aside any internal panic. Knowing that tackling a full squad armed-for-more-than-bears would be foolish, he opted instead to gather more information.
With a spoken word the young man shimmered and shrunk into a blue-grey hawk slightly smaller than a crow. After a quick flap of wings the bird glided silently between the buildings, landing atop one of the light-less lamp-posts overlooking the Hall’s main entrance.
While a hawk’s vision at day was massively superior to humans, in dim light they weren’t much better. Night hunting was left to the owls for a reason. Fortunately in the available moonlight he didn’t need superb eyesight to see what the guys in the strength-amplification suits were doing.
They were stealing stacks of gold. As much as their enhanced powered hands could carry.
Specifically they were stealing the gold all students got marched past to view on their first day on campus, a pile donated by a rather wealthy patroness of the school for just that purpose as if to show not only what a graduate could accomplish but also as a contrast to the other artifacts. Zap had always felt the stack of gold bars were more a statement about the value of wealth, that when reaching such a level of excess it served no more purpose than to be stared at by a bunch of curious (or bored) freshman while sitting there as inert metal accomplishing little else.
The hawk tilted his head to one side, content to watch the robbery. Trying to defend the gold at risk to himself would in a weird way invalidate its entire message. The whine of the servos in their suits kept up a good pace as all the ingots were rushed past the portal, joining the loud whistling wind which kept getting stronger bringing with it the clear smell of snow. Clouds built up in the sky above, enfolding the scene with wider shadows as they flowed across the moon. It would be wiser to find a covered tree branch to lurk in for the night.
Except the next guy out of the Hall wasn’t carrying gold. In his hands was clearly a computer, power cord and network connections dangling shortly behind having been severed clean to more easily rip the unit from its rack.
That wasn’t a desktop system, it was an Administration server blade. Where the details of the abilities of the students, all their progress and powers testing, would likely be stored. And not just students, but the evaluations of the teachers and the staff themselves. The kind of information that in the wrong hands could be a dire threat to each and every one of them. He knew the computers would be protected not just by encryption and passwords but by magical wards except whatever had happened to the campus to knock everyone out had also clearly ripped away all such protections from the buildings. Which meant it was likely that the magical wards preserving the precious data were also gone.
Being the middle of the night posed a difficulty. Ra’s sun energy couldn’t help him. The pendant he’d been gifted by the god for the journey to Arcadia had been used up fighting the fae and had never recharged. Besides, it was back in his cottage room anyway. The previous week he’d even tried to tap energy from the moon, figuring it was reflected sunlight and might work. The resulting migraine behind his left eye had been fairly convincing that such a maneuver was not recommended. Not to mention the vision he’d just experienced had hinted that the power of Heru’s moon-eye of myth and legend may be otherwise occupied and had been for a rather long time.
He needed a different source if he were to fight, at least if he wanted a chance to win.
A short beak lifted towards the storm-covered sky. A number of years ago a flash of lightning from a Thunderbird spirit had triggered his first transformation, and later he’d again caught such power to keep it from striking down a girl threatened by a demon-possessed mage.
This gave rise to an idea.
Talons released their perch to swoop towards the guy with the computer as he ran down the steps. With a precise shift of wings, the small hawk landed on an armored shoulder.
“What the hell? Shoo you stupid bird!” With his hands full the thief tried to wiggle his shoulder to dislodge its sudden petite rider. Razorlike talons dug in, refusing to yield their grip.
Another thief passing the other way laughed. “Hey Steve, you made a friend!”
“Shut up and get it off!”
A powered glove casually swiped towards the hawk just as the bird emitted a loud cry towards cloudy skies both in this world and beyond. The hand’s attempted strike never landed.
The Thunderbird’s blasting reply did.
Hassan ibn Tariq al-Shadid, known professionally as the Summoner, was not pleased. What was supposed to be a simple and quick contract had clearly gone sideways after an otherwise promising start.
After all, it’s not often that one’s target is caught outside awaiting for your arrival and thus removing any need to waste time in searching for them.
“Djinn! Keep the heat focused on the fae!”
The girl had reacted quickly, he had to credit her with that much. When her glamour had failed (as if he wouldn’t have been prepared for a fae target, ha!) she hadn’t simply submitted to the wall of crimson flame sent flying at her face. Instead the ground pulled itself up and over, covering her and her friends with a protective barrier of packed dirt to fend off the flames. Now they lay under a solid mound of earth reaching up to chest height. If it wasn’t so frustrating he’d have laughed at the literalness of facing an actual faerie hill, but he knew he was on the clock. A place like this would eventually get reinforcements and he had no intention of still being here when they arrived.
As the elemental continued to pour fire onto the already-blackened mound, Hassan’s female companion scoffed. “Well this is going swimmingly. I thought you said everyone was supposed to be unconscious or brainless.”
“All plans alter once engaged. Which is why I called you in.”
The woman pulled back a hood to reveal hair of metallic blue glistening with the reflected firelight. Looking at the buildings, she frowned. “Wait a minute. Where the heck are we?”
“What does it matter?” He crossed his arms, watching with no little amount of fascination as the elemental called unlimited flames into the world. Such power!
“Indulge me, Hassan. This doesn’t feel right.”
“We are presently at a place known as Whateley Academy.”
The thin athletic woman gaped at him. “Are you fucking insane? You sonuvabitch!”
“Their defenses are defeated. I fail to see the problem.” Eyes hiding behind remnants of fire glanced sideways at her. It would be a shame if she too had to be consumed by such a beautiful element.
“This place is under protection! By all the heroes and even the syndicates! It’s bad enough you didn’t tell me your target was a kid, but this?” She took a step backwards towards the rift that had gotten them there.
“If you leave,” he said quietly yet full of underlying menace. “All will know you as an oath-breaker. You owe me, Tanya. Or have you forgotten?”
Her step paused. “I’m no oath-breaker.”
“Then fulfill your purpose here. Protect me. No more and no less.”
Tanya glared at his back but stayed where she was. Her hand turned over and the hilt of a wickedly sharp looking short sword materialized within her grip.
“Good.” He returned his attention to the elemental. “Djinn! Are they still bound beneath this earth? They are not to get away!”
With breath formed from the purest of fires the djinn replied. “The two are still contained, Sahib.”
“Two? There should be three!”
Instinct gained from experience shoved Hassan into a forward roll just as a jade dagger sliced into the space where his back had been. The unusual dagger tore through the edges of the billowing magically armored cloak as if its protective spells were merely suggestions.
Haruko, having stepped up out of her opponent’s shadow as her father had trained, shouted a kiyai and lunged forward at Hassan.
“Djinn! Roast her!”
A fiery hand gestured and the stream bombarding the earth split into two, the new flow scorching the air towards the girl with unnatural and deadly focus even while the original remained on target. Haruko tried to dance to the side but to her dismay ten slender sharp stilettos had appeared in the air to not only block her path but also fly towards whatever vulnerable spots they could find.
Her surprise cost essential time and she turned to bravely face the massive heat that was about to surely end her life. Hands reflexively covered her stomach and she mentally sent an apology to the spirit that nested there.
Except she didn’t burn.
Instead the flames broke off, whipping past her head on both sides like a split tongue just barely licking hotly at the edges of her hair.
No one moved as the flames slowly died out. Not Haruko, not the girl with the manifested blades, nor Hassan. Into the stunned silence the djinn, the burning being of elemental fire, spoke—but this time to Haruko in her native Japanese.
“I greet thee, bearer of the Dragon Lord’s heir. By ancient compact mine flames shall touch you not. I also offer warning that I am currently bound and can grant thee no protection.”
With that the djinn placed fiery palms together and bowed.
Haruko, mind racing with adrenalin, returned the gesture.
“What did he say?” snarled Hassan, feeling his control of the situation slipping away even further.
Tanya summoned a second sword to her off-hand and stepped towards the smaller girl. “He said that it’s time for me to cleanse my debt and be done with you, you bastard.” Several other blades appeared in the air between Haruko and Hassan blocking any chance of the student reaching him first. “Come, girl. Let’s see how good you are.”
Haruko’s slender eyes narrowed further. With a rapid shuffling of sandaled feet the jade dagger engaged the blue steel of Tanya’s will-forged weaponry.
The air was stifling.
Under the earthen barrier Danielle lay across a semi-conscious Magnus, doing her best to reinforce the strength of the packed dirt valiantly holding against the external inferno. The fire elemental hadn’t let up, she could feel its power focused on one thing: scorching through the all-too-thin ground she’d pulled over them.
Magnus moaned and coughed, a reminder that there wasn’t much air in the dirt pocket. This was definitely not how she’d imagined her first time being so close to a boy would turn out.
When she’d imagined such a hot scene with a cute guy, this wasn’t the kind of heat she’d had in mind.
She reached inward towards that wintry center, the one that had unlocked itself back in that Los Angeles storage room full of crazy magic. The one that had seemed further away from any conscious control ever since she had let her previous self emerge back in the dreamlands to try and save its heart and people.
A momentary cool breeze fluttered against her face but ended all too soon. Like grasping at sand the inner chill slipped away.
“Fuck!” She fought back panic. At least Haruko might survive. At the last second the small girl had rolled to the side to disappear into the shadows like a true ninja. Maybe she could go and get help.
“Magnus, you awake?” Danielle asked. Spots of skin across her back began to sizzle. While she might be able to hold on due to her regeneration the boy under her had no such abilities. Fractal lines of glowing red were already spreading through the packed earth surrounding them, piercing the otherwise pitch blackness with their menacing message. Even if Haruko found someone, there wasn’t time to wait for help. They were only a few moments away from becoming barbecue.
He groaned again, emphasizing the point. “Hot.”
“Can’t you do your shield thing?”
“No,” he gasped. “Magic’s gone, s’up to you.”
“I don’t know what to do!”
“Figure it out.” He coughed again.
How? In her studies she had focused on trying to learn control to keep that wintry heart from bleeding out with all the snow and ice whenever she got worked up. Why wasn’t it doing that now? Glamour and illusions weren’t going to work due to the protective spells worn by the two intruders and if she were honest to herself the reaction to use the earth as a shield had happened purely by instinct. She hadn’t given it a thought, it was as if an ancient memory had triggered and she’d done the same thing by rote as maybe her previous self had done at some point in the far past.
Maybe that was it. She’d pulled Siabh, her former fae self, up from within to take control in Arcadia when they had needed her most. Siabh was ancient and powerful, handling a single elemental should be trivial for her. Yet there had been a strong feeling that Siabh had weakened in saving Arcadia, summoning her might now be impossible.
There was only one way to find out.
“Hang on, I’m going to try something.”
Magnus gave no response. The poor guy had passed out.
Ignoring the heat as best she could she focused again on that touch of cold that was always within. If Siabh was to be found she’d be there.
With an effort of will so was Danielle.
Bare empty bark rose up through a soft cloth of fresh-driven snow, illuminated only by a sliver of moon piercing an otherwise grey sky. There was no path through this silent forest yet her feet knew the way to tread, wending between the husks of trees awaiting a spring which never came. The unseen path carried her to a woolen cloaked figure kneeling over a frozen lake.
“Siabh.” Her lips spoke the name, cracking the silence.
Pale hands rested against the crystal clear ice. Below and encased in the immovable water sat an old stone well that rose up out of silty earth. Boards of ash and oak covered the well’s top held in place by thick bolts of steel, the wooden surface carved with runes that glittered dimly under the ice like constellations hovering behind a thin fog.
“Siabh,” she said again moving closer still. “I need your help.”
“The Goddess needs yours, child. Will you give it?” The figure stood. Woman and girl faced the other like reflections from a mirror showing either what was or what would be, the woman once a girl and the girl soon to be a woman. Hair as clear as snow with eyes matching the color of the frozen lake framed high cheekbones and slender noses. They were the same, separated only by time - and by the single stroke of yellowish-red hair dangling from the girl’s forehead alone.
“I don’t understand,” the girl replied.
Graceful fingers gestured towards the ancient boards capping the well. “Look closer.”
The girl knelt to explore the vision that lay underneath and examined not just the immaculately carved wood but the spells woven between them. Lines of stress criss-crossed the working, fractures spreading outward from two impact spots as if a pick-axe had hammered strongly into the boards. She felt the pressure underneath, a pulsing need straining to burst upward to become a geyser with power enough to flood the world.
The cracks widened even as she watched.
“It’s going to burst,” said the girl, swallowing cold heavy air.
“Yes. Aradia’s return and our song of need from Arcadia has weakened the spells. The time has come at last. ”
“Then the world needs you back.” Summoning what courage she could muster she added, “I am ready to let go so you can be.”
“Oh child.” Arms warm and comforting enveloped the girl who hadn’t realized she’d been shivering and not from the cold. “My time is past and done. The future is yours alone.”
“But what good am I? I’ve been captured, shot, captured again and damn near tortured. I couldn’t stop any of it! Uncle Justin saved me and look what happened to him! And then she had to save me again…twice! And it was you that saved Arcadia, not me. The only thing of use that I did was to let you take over so someone who knew what she was doing could get it done. And now Jordan is gone and yet another asshole is trying to kill me! I’m useless. I don’t have your strength. I just don’t.” She sobbed into the warmth of the woman’s cloak and a soft sleeve wiped away frozen tears.
“Our strength has always been hers, found within when we choose to seek it.” The woman took gentle hold of the girl’s hand. “For her power needs a guide. But beware, for the guide shapes the power as much as they are shaped by it.”
“I can’t guide anything; I can’t even guide myself!”
“Are you saying you are unwilling to fight? Would you abandon those who need you?”
A wind blew across the snow surrounding them, revealing more of lake’s hard surface. Under its ice new images flickered into view: an unconscious young boy with curly red hair drenched in sweat gasping for every breath while molten dirt seared into his legs and a slip of a girl danced in blood-stained pajamas parrying blow after blow from innumerable floating daggers.
“Magnus, Haruko,” whispered the girl.
“As the Goddess needs you, so do they.”
“How do I help them? How?”
The older woman pressed the girl’s hand against the ice, the cold pulsing with the power leaking from the cracks in the seal below.
“By feeling your need will you feel hers. And by feeling hers will you feel your own.”
Raw magic pierced her palm to charge up the veins and fill her heart. Siabh was right. The Goddess called for help.
A young woman reached into herself and knew she must answer.
Pain blossomed across Haruko’s body where the flying blades had left sharp trails across the skin. Strips of kimono pajamas hung loose to spin and weave as if they were but ribbon decorations in an elegant ballet as Haruko launched rapid lunges, kicks, and strikes against her blue-haired opponent.
She knew the moment she dared to pause to catch her breath what little air she drew would likely be her last. The woman’s talent to summon cold steel from thin air required time to focus, time Haruko could not afford to grant despite the disadvantage of her single jade dagger versus the twin short swords held expertly by the enemy and the swarm of less precisely controlled daggers. The blood dripping at her feet was a fresh reminder of what all those blades could do.
In this the harsh training received by her father’s hand served her well. Since a young age she had been taught by the best instructors her father could hire. Each of her birthdays had commenced with her sparring against her father directly, the fearsome Kurohoshi Kami. While normally doting upon his daughter with tremendous affection these annual tests had shown her father’s severe and demanding spirit. Many were the bruises she suffered at his hands and feet on those days. Only when the bouts were over and the respectful bows and forms complete did her loving father reappear as if by magic to personally tend with great care to all the marks and scrapes he had just caused to be.
Yet at the moments they had appeared upon her body there had never been a break or pause to let her recover. No, instead without a word he would press his attack with a relentlessness and fury that even as a small child she could tell greatly disturbed the watching instructors.
Each year’s birthday exam was a test for them as well. Should she fail to meet expectations those instructors would never be seen again and new masters would arrive to continue all lessons for the following year. Thus she countered strength with speed, age and experience with an immersive and total focus.
Plus the shadows were her ally.
The bright moon still shone from above to cast clear shadows upon the ground mixing with those caused by the blazing glory of the fire elemental’s blasts against Danielle’s protective earthen mound, creating pools of darkness Haruko could touch and use. She had learned ancient disciplines bestowed by her father behind closed doors when they were alone. “Hide these skills, Haruko,” he had told her. “Use them only when you must. Practice only in private.”
And she had. No instructor nor student at Whateley had witnessed those secret techniques. Indeed she had maintained the story that the spirit of the dragon egg she held within her prevented any use of magic to further keep these skills hidden.
Side-stepping her opponent’s swords she wrapped her smaller shadow across Tanya’s face, darkening the eyes if but for a moment. At the same time the blue-haired lady’s shadow rose upwards to take Haruko’s place only to be pierced by the strong counter-attack thrown out wildly by Tanya’s annoyance towards the first target glimpsed once her vision began to clear.
Having slipped behind the taller woman, Haruko spun and sliced through Tanya’s coat once more, the jade dagger - another gift from her father - whipping past protective spells to draw its own line of blood across the skin underneath.
Tanya cursed at the pain before giving a grim smile and nodding acknowledgment. Neither slowed however, and the competition between the longer reach of the swords against the speed of weaponized shadows and dagger continued unabated.
In the end it wasn’t her skill that failed her. If anything it was the narrowness of her focus.
Around her were many sources of malleable darkness: Tanya’s, her own, the one behind the man who controlled the elemental, even the building itself threw a blanket of delineation between darkness and light. Grabbing hold of them Haruko spun the blackness around herself while also creating mirror copies of her own image. Tanya, suddenly faced with several hazy outlines of the fierce and determined student, slashed through them one by one only to growl with frustration as the number never seemed to diminish.
Staying one step ahead, Haruko danced around those swords waiting for the right moment to strike at an unguarded side. As the opening appeared she darted forward hoping to end this fight by leaping into the real enemy’s shadow to try and plunge her dagger deep into his back.
A blade pierced her own arm instead with enough force that she cried out in agony, only to be followed by the blade’s twin slicing deeply into a thigh. To her horror the leg collapsed and she looked past Tanya’s victorious expression to the sky beyond.
Clouds had just covered the moon and stolen away the shadows.
Her own chest heaving from the exertion, Tanya placed a swords to Haruko’s throat. “Yield, girl. No need to die.”
Pride fought the spike of fear and she tensed as if to risk a desperate strike.
The countering materialization of several knives floating only centimeters above her skin won out. Haruko nodded and sank further into the cold and damp lawn.
Seeing tears not of pain but of shame, Tanya knelt beside the half-asian girl. “You fought well.” Glancing at a sky which rapidly was overtaken by thick clouds racing down from the north, Tanya added, “If it weren’t for those I think you’d have had me. There is no loss of honor when fate itself swings the outcome.” A flash from above and the immediate nearby crash of thunder seemed to punctuate the point and Tanya muttered, “Whoa, that was close.”
Haruko also studied the storm that had caused her fall. In a quiet voice tinged with pain she corrected her opponent.
“That is not fate.”
Too late did Tanya understand and her shout of warning to Hassan was never heard.
The earthen mound hiding the boy and fae exploded with eardrum shattering force. While a chunk of earth floated mid-air to keep shielding against the elemental’s fires, a being of an entirely different elemental nature stepped forth from the ground’s exposed crater.
With a gesture the icy-eyed fae commanded the full power of winter’s wrath against those who meant her harm. The wind and sleet sheeting down from the now-gathered storm forged itself into a whirling tornado at the behest of its new mistress and lashed out with unrestrained glee.
Haruko managed a coughing laugh as Tanya was lifted instantly from her feet and slammed into the walls of the cottage. As the whirlwind shifted towards Hassan he yelled at the being of fire to protect him. Obeying immediately, the towering djinn placed itself between the wind and its master by the expedient of standing directly over him, focusing all its fires in a circle to hold the icy blast at bay. Where before the flames had battered against a protective mound of dirt they now forged their own defensive dome of thick flame.
Unyielding fire met irresistible ice. The resulting explosion of steam burst outward in a continual boiling flow to quickly cover everything within thick fog. Through it all Haruko could still clearly see her roommate as a figure bathed in magic, the ley lines under the school having surged several orders of magnitude in size due to the flood of raw power the fae now pulled through them.
The strength of it took Haruko’s breath away and within she felt her precious spirit dragon egg twitch in response to the magic. The being inside that egg stretched beyond its cocoon to grab at the immense flow spinning past, siphoning off what normally would be considered a tremendous feast but in comparison was a tiny fraction of the whole. The ecstatic rush from within her egg in its magic-dining ecstasy pulled her senses to other worlds even as all her wounds closed and faded away in response to the egg’s powerful overflow.
Hassan, driven to his knees by the pummeling wind as he hid desperately behind his fiery protector, fumbled within his coat to produce a thick chunk of chalk. Shouting words unheard over the screaming air he frantically drew upon the sidewalk surrounding him. All hope of mission success had shattered with the arrival of the power now arrayed against him; his only chance was to reopen the portal and escape. He’d worry about vengeance against those who’d misled him into the nature of the target and the supposed ease of the mission later.
They had said she was but a school-girl fae-ling. Not a Goddess-empowered fae able to hold even a summoned Fire Lord at bay. How this girl could even stand within such a torrent of magic was baffling. He knew that should he be stupid enough to try and tap that rising power himself they’d be picking pieces of his bones out of the bushes for days, if not weeks.
“Master, I cannot hold this queen in check.” The djinn strained from its effort, the reddish orange intensity of its fire having shifted all the way to blue. If it weren’t for the djinn’s focus keeping the boiling steam away from him, Hassan knew he would have already been boiled alive.
“Just hang on, dammit! There!” Struggling to stand he tossed the chalk aside and started the chant to reforge the gash in space which would connect to the prepared staging ground within a hotel room in a nearby town.
His eyes had just enough time to widen as they watched yet another girl, one much taller, bald, and with solid gleaming obsidian skin, step through his fire elemental and land a fist of hardened stone squarely against his jaw.
Consciousness fled along with a good number of teeth from the super-human strength of the blow.
A blizzard blew between the hawk and his prey.
Perched upon the motionless helmet of one of his successful hunts, Zap intently monitored the entrance to the Hall for any signs of another attempt by those inside to reach the crackling portal that lay open behind him.
So far the count was bird: six, invaders: zero. Only four were left, peering occasionally around the edges of the shattered glass doors which no longer offered any protection from the bitter cold and snow that whipped past. Their companions lay inertly within their ruined battlesuits across the ice-covered lawn and steps.
If it wasn’t for the electrical glow offering its own sparkling warmth Zap was pretty sure his feathers would have easily frozen too. But he hadn’t just called down the lightning, he’d captured its power and now the tremendous vibrating potential filled his bones, sinew, and feathers.
Tilting his head, the hawk could hear the debate occurring between the ones stuck inside.
“What’s the remote diagnostic say?”
“Shit. The systems are all fried. We’ll have to leave ‘em. Our priority was the servers, if we don’t get these through we ain’t gettin’ paid.”
“And how the hell we gonna do that? That damned bird is still out there and it’s got some kind of shield! I know I nailed it square on but it just kinda laughed at me!”
Zap grinned internally. With all the extra energy provided by the Thunderbird’s generosity, his magic was highly amped up. Small hieroglyphs burned in the air around him in tight orbits. His main concern at the moment was making sure nothing else came through the portal and at the same time keeping these idiots from getting away.
The humming of the rift in space shifted its tone, rising in frequency. Its edges had begun to shrink towards the center.
“It’s closing! Spread the fuck out! We all go NOW!”
Four screaming armored figures, each with a server blade tucked under an arm, charged down the steps while firing their weapons one-handed towards the waiting bird of prey.
With an answering hunting shriek the hawk took to the air, pushing past the howling wind and spinning towards the portal. Bullets flew wildly past as his opponents could hardly aim properly but one managed to ricochet off the blazing azure barrier wrapping around him. As for himself he had one chance at getting them all and he was determined to take it.
His will reached to the sky to issue one more request of the elements as they danced in all their giddy frenzy in the sky above. The storm itself was unnatural (he could tell that much) and the Thunderbird spirits were gleefully playing with the unleashed potentials for all they were worth.
Landing on the grass before the portal the hawk’s image flickered to be replaced once more by Zap’s young human form. Spreading out his arms he cried out to the heavens even as the men focused guns at the larger target, bullets sparking and bouncing off the whitish blue glyphs spinning madly around him.
Even within their suits the hairs on all the men’s arms and necks stood straight up. One even had time to curse.
A ten foot wide wall of electrical glory plowed downward to slam into the space where Zap stood and he wasted no time in making use of it. Acting as a perfect conduit he flicked fingers towards the four to send lines of sheer force outward, flinging them off the ground even as all their electronic systems shorted out like small candles consumed by a rocket engine’s liftoff.
Yet that was only a small portion of the power he’d been granted. The majority he sent back through the portal to whoever may be waiting on the other side, the channeled lightning wedging itself between the narrowing edges and holding it open long enough to get its full payload of power through before the opening slammed shut.
If all the windows hadn’t already exploded the resulting thunderous shock of this blast would have taken them all out anyway. The ground itself rolled as it too tried to dissipate the forces, causing buildings to sway and groan.
Then the wind was still. Zap, steam rising off t-shirt and jeans, stood within a circle of scorched earth in the middle of all the powerless suits of armor lying scattered about like bowling pins. With eyes still sparking he noticed several other figures watching from a path that lead around the building.
Jenna, stony fists pulling behind her two obviously incapacitated individuals by their cloak collars, commented first.
“Daaaaaamn. That was awesome!”
Danielle, awkwardly supporting a rather exhausted looking Magnus with the help of Haruko, called out to Zap. “Are there any more?”
Zap shook his head. “I don’t think so. You cause the weather?” He pointed at the sky.
The mostly white-haired teenager grinned sheepishly. “Yeah.”
“Impressive.” He was about to say more but turned his attention to further below the clouds. A low sound approached over the forest.
“Helicopters,” said Haruko tiredly. “Many of them.”
Danielle clenched a fist and her eyes hardened. “Friend or foe?” In response the wind picked up again, snow collecting on all the students other than Zap. The ice melted into rain before it could land on his clothes and hair.
He peered past the weather and its flashes of distant lightning. “They’ve got DPA painted on their noses. I think it’s the cavalry.”
“Better late than never,” Haruko muttered.
“You can see that far?” Jenna asked, her own eyes blinking and failing to resolve the images through all the falling snow and distance.
Zap nodded with a wide grin.
A pair of F-16 Falcons dropped screaming from the clouds to buzz over the school. Along the road emerging through the fog spun the blue and red lights of many emergency vehicles speeding towards the campus. While everyone stared at those Zap heard a quiet chuckle from a nearby hazy shape forming itself from the shadows created by a helicopter’s floodlight suddenly bathing the area within its harsh brightness.
“Not bad, kid. You might make it to the party after all. Don’t be late.” With a flicker the shadow returned to being the proper silhouette of a lamppost.
No one else had heard or noticed. Well, no one except for a fluffy and frost-covered cat which had followed the others, green eyes shifting from staring at the shadow and then up at Zap. But the cat likely wouldn’t tell anyone.
Khan, Zap was sure, was pretty good at keeping secrets.
At Kami’s pronouncement I was instantly on my feet, wings unfurling and throwing eye-blinding light across the room. “I need to get there!” My mind spun frantically. Maybe I could shift to Gabriel’s pocket realm and from there back to the school? It might work.
Kami guessed at my intention and stopped me before I could even begin to try. “If you cross over can you be certain that you would arrive quickly from the other side? You only now returned after being missing for days.”
“Crap!” He was right. Who knows how long time would shift before I’d get back. And while I was pretty sure I could hit Mach 5 if they’d let me, that would still take over thirty minutes to physically get there. Plus whatever time spent dodging fighter jets sent to intercept. “So what do we do??”
He motioned with a forced calm at the cushion I’d just abandoned. “We wait. Information on the precise nature of the attack is not yet available. Response teams within reach are already activated. Sit. I shall make tea.”
I crossed my arms, more to try and contain the excess power I was generating than anything else. As for sitting, yeah that wasn’t going to happen.
Diego kept gaping at the wings while Kami Kurohoshi carefully prepared three cups on the tea-serving tray his man brought out. Steam rose slowly from an ancient teapot that Kami lifted with all the attention demanded by a most holy artifact. He placed crumbled leaves into its water and used a small whisk thing to stir the concoction.
Only once he was satisfied with the mixture did he pour the results into the waiting cups and offered them.
Diego took his with polite acknowledgment but I was still standing trying to contain wild emotions and the energies they had summoned.
“How do you know they’re under attack?” I blurted once Kami had finally taken a sip from his own cup.
“Intelligence is my business,” he said, now with genuine serenity. Something about the whole tea ritual had settled the fury which had been in evidence only a few minutes before. “Their electrical grid is out and the magical protections surrounding the school have been breached. Wireless communication via the cellular network cannot connect with any devices in the vicinity and the isolated hard lines are similarly cut. This has triggered certain emergency protocols.”
“Jesus,” I breathed, fighting panic.
Kami watched me carefully. “It will be a number of minutes before response from the DPA and army units from Fort Drum arrive along with the services from the nearby town.” He glanced at Diego. “Can I assume you are here in regards to your daughter?”
Diego nodded, sipping the steaming liquid from his cup.
After grunting, Kami returned his steely gaze to me. “Then it is your turn. Tell me why you have come tonight. It is likely pertinent to the operational scenario occurring at the school.”
“Assassins were sent tonight to kill my friend Isaiah.” Oh god, he was right! What if there was a connection between the attack on Isaiah and the school?
I nodded. “Yeah.” About to say more, I paused. Diego didn’t know everything and even if only on suspension was still a government agent. How much could I tell him?
The wizard guessed at what was behind my hesitation and carefully put down the teacup. “I am no longer with the DPA. That was finalized this morning. Thus I am under no obligation to report anything I might hear. I give you my word, sworn against the life-debt I owe you, that I will never betray your secrets.”
Weighing Isaiah’s privacy versus possibly helping Danielle with whatever the hell was happening at Whateley was a no-brainer: I spilled the beans. “They were hunters. You told me about them before. Specifically they thought Isaiah was an angel. They just had the choir of angel wrong: they were hunting Grigori, and Isaiah is something else.”
Diego’s eyes had gone wide again but Kami merely raised an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“He’s the angel Azrael.”
Kami leaned back, eyes widening. Wow. I think that actually surprised him. “Well, well, well.” With a steady hand (how could his hands be so steady??) he took another sip. “Yes, that does fit.”
“Madre de Dios,” gasped Diego. “Angelo de la muerte.”
“Yeah, him.” I paced a few steps and uncrossed my arms awkwardly, then not knowing what to do with them just recrossed them over my stomach, hands clasping at the opposite forearms. “It gets better - or worse, depending.”
Kami inclined his head in agreement. “Yes. The Horsemen are loose.” I really should not have been shocked that he already knew that much but I flinched anyway. Hearing a guy like him say it just made it all the more real. Kami began enumerating on his fingers. “You are the first, Isaiah would be the fourth, and I can hazard a supposition at the third. Any signs of the second?”
“War?” I asked. “I got pulled into a dream the other night with a bunch of Grigori. They think Camael was summoned by Soren using the Book of Raziel to break the second seal. Wait, you can guess at the third? That’s Famine, right?”
Behind Kami’s more serious eyes a dragon was laughing with humor. “Think, Aradia. What famine has covered the earth since angels last walked free upon her soil?”
I tried to figure it out but Diego answered first. “Magic. Our world once was awash with magic. And then the raw potency was lost.”
Kami’s nod hit me like a truck as I finally understood. “No. Please no,” I whispered. “It can’t be, she’s not…” Wings and legs crumpled to the floor and I with them.
“Not an angel?” The dragon’s mirth softened to pity. “Her spirit was once the high priestess of the goddess, a medium for the world’s spirit.”
Diego added, “Angelos means messenger. As a priestess of the fae, she indeed qualifies.”
I looked at him in surprise. How the heck could he know that Danielle was once Siabh?
He tried to smile, sensing my unease at his knowledge. “My daughter has told me of how she escaped Arcadia.”
Kami grunted again. “Danielle’s former self is the very one who sealed that magic away during the Flood. Who else would the third be?”
The room swam like I was falling and unable to stop. I’d hoped that after her confrontation with Queen Fionnabhair she could live her life out in peace and be safe from any of the further craziness busy ruling my own fate. How foolish a hope. One as naive as the teenager I pretended to be.
Because they were right. Danielle, my niece and the reincarnation of Siabh, was the Third Horseman. It fit whether I wished it or no. And events were going to pull her towards that destiny and a full confrontation with what had happened in the distant past no matter what I did.
“My god,” I choked. “If someone tried to take out Isaiah for being Azrael, then the attack on Whateley is an attempt to kill Danielle.” I spread wings across the room and let them lift me to my feet. “I’ve got to try to get there. Even if I’m late, I have to try.”
Kami jumped to his feet far faster than he should have been able. “Aradia, wait!” He pointed towards the closed doors which dutifully opened to allow the scar-faced guy to enter and bow. If the man was surprised at the wings he gave no sign of it for his attention was given to his master alone.
“Report!” commanded Kami Kurohoshi.
In a gravelly voice the guy did so with deliberate care. “The situation at the Academy is contained. DPA and local forces are on scene. Mrs. Carson is en route and will arrive within minutes. A magical device of incredible magnitude was deployed and somehow overwhelmed all energetic protections: both mystical and electrical. The power is still out and almost everyone at the site has been found unconscious but alive.”
My stomach sank. “Almost everyone? Who died?”
The guy answered but kept his attention on his boss. “No deaths are reported. Several students were still conscious and defeated a targeted assault.”
“And the target?” Kami inquired.
“A student named Danielle Thorne. She is among those awake who fought off the attackers and informed the emergency responders of what had occurred.”
I couldn’t help it. Tears flowed freely. She was okay. My niece, my sister’s little girl, was okay.
“What of Haruko?” Kami shouted, the dragon’s fury finally breaching his control. “What of my daughter?”
The man bowed low. “Haruko-chan was one of those awake. She is reportedly unharmed.”
Her father’s eyes closed and he exhaled. The many trails of incense floating through the air all shifted as if someone or some thing much larger had also expelled a mighty breath of relief.
I knew exactly how the dragon felt.
After Kami’s guy left the room to monitor for more information we took a few minutes to sit in silence while sipping more of the tea. I’d managed (barely) to put away the wings so I could get my ass back on the floor without squishing any feathers. Kami was deep in thought and neither Diego nor myself were brave enough to interrupt his meditation. The tea was pretty good though, some kind of herbal mix I was unfamiliar with. It certainly was doing a decent job of soothing on-edge nerves. I really should have had some while waiting for the update on the school, it would have helped.
Kami finally broke the silence.
“The hunters were likely misled into targeting Mr. Cohen. Their techniques for identifying an angelic are primitive and given his true nature that would have confirmed their initial scan to be a verified target.”
“So someone used these assholes and tipped them off with wrong info? Could the hunters have attacked the school too?”
“They do not have the power to take down Whateley’s protections. In fact I doubt there are many on earth who would have enough magical throughput to accomplish that in such a quick amount of time.” Kami frowned.
Diego spoke up. “Your man mentioned a device. If my suspicions are correct, the DPA has seen its type before.”
Kami considered then nodded agreement. “You are likely correct.”
“What?” I looked back and forth between them. “What are you guys talking about?”
“The manna bomb,” Diego answered. “The one presumably deployed by Señor Soren that night of your…ascension.”
Kami studied the wizard. “According to sources your agency tracked the device back to a warehouse but failed to find any others.”
“The place was clear and the trail went dead from there,” Diego confirmed. “But the massive energetic residue clearly pointed to the location having stored additional units. The ley-lines were warped and twisted.”
I was confused. “I thought with the seal on magic that such power was limited if not outright unavailable.”
Diego’s tone went somber. “There are other ways to raise such power. Though managing to store it for later use is a feat far beyond my understanding.”
“What are you saying?”
“Necromancy.” Kami said before refilling his cup. “In ancient practice powerful spells were fueled by sacrifices both animal and human. But given the strength of Whateley’s shields, tied as they are to the world node the school sits upon, it would take the slaughter of hundreds outside their gates to pull their defenses down.”
“If not thousands,” added Diego. I was clearly confused so he tried to explain. “Power is unleashed when someone dies. The binding energy of spirit to body is released along with the emotional strength and nature of the manner of death. The old sacrificial rituals tapped such power.”
“Like the Aztecs,” I said, not liking where this was going.
“Exactly,” Diego agreed. “Their priests were capable of performing miracles at the height of their reign.”
The imagination ran amok with images of lines of people being cut down in front of the school and I shivered. Yet something else didn’t add up. “I thought Soren planted the bomb in Los Angeles as another distraction to keep you guys busy so his shenanigans with me and Danielle would be unnoticed. Killing Danielle would be one of the last things he’d want; he started this whole mess for both of us in the first place!”
Diego ran fingers through his thin beard. “Nick Wright was correct about the one found downtown. I was allowed to examine it before my suspension from the agency. The energy was contained and the binding mechanism fully intact and unbreached. If anything, the structure had been recently reinforced. It seemed in truth designed chiefly to overwhelm our detectors and cause a panic.”
“Would Soren know how to make them?”
Kami nodded. “Of three individuals of whom I am aware that might have such knowledge, he is indeed among them. The first lives a reclusive life in a monastery in China and would sooner die than traffic in death magic.”
“And the second?” I asked.
“He runs a nightclub in San Fransisco. His specialty is empathic manipulations which add flavor to his business. I highly doubt that he has the energetic capacity to channel such a magnitude as indicated here due to a certain condition with his health. Although he may have insight into how it was accomplished and could lead in the right direction to find the source. Trace that back and we may find whoever was behind tonight’s attacks.”
“No human wizard could safely channel such power levels,” said Diego. “But what is this condition of which you speak?”
Kami regarded Diego steadily. “Let’s just say that he may find in your daughter a kindred spirit. For that reason alone I recommend you speak with him - if he is willing.”
Stretching with impatience I stood up again. “Then Diego and I should get to San Fransisco and check this guy out. If it wasn’t Queen Fiona-whats-her-name then it may have been one of the Grigori I met the other night. There’s a lot of them though and who knows who they’ve incarnated as.”
Kami grunted disapproval. “No. You need to be on the next plane back to Whateley.”
Say what? “Your guy just said everyone there is okay. The threat is still out there and the sooner they are found the sooner they can be curb-stomped. I can’t just sit idly by on this. They attacked my family!”
“Hai!” With an open palm Kami smacked the floor and it resonated like a drum. “They also attacked mine! My Haruko shall remain at the school. Pulling her out after her victory against assassins would dishonor that victory. Yet the campus lies defenseless! You are needed there!”
“What good would I be compared to Mrs. Carson and a fully alerted security team?”
Diego coughed. “He is right, Jordan. You should go back to Whateley.”
I spun on him. “You too? Or are you just trying to keep me out of things?”
“Not at all.” Diego met my angry glare without flinching. “The Academy’s wards are down. You may be able to assist in their more rapid re-creation. They need you.”
“Do not forget,” Kami added, “our enemy waited for you to be absent before making their move. They fear your potential. The wizard will travel alone to the city by the bay; his daughter is already there.” He nodded at Diego. “Take Erica with you to the club called Beyond Silk. The one to talk to goes by the name ‘Bishop’. He will find her story fascinating.”
I bristled to argue and maybe even fight. At the same time I was torn. I wanted to be there for Danielle and keep her safe, really I did. It’s just that the thought of yet another nameless enemy plotting out there had me seething. I wanted to go after them and to punish them for daring to threaten those closest to me.
Right or wrong I wanted them to pay.
Scowling, fingers formed fists. “Diego. You better contact me as soon as you’ve learned anything, got it? The last time a magus went off to figure things out he didn’t call until it was almost too late to save the situation.”
He nodded. “I understand, Señorita. I promise.”
“Fine. Then I’ll go back to the school.” I turned to glare at Kami. “There was supposed to be a summit in Washington with a Vatican rep to discuss the whole issue of angels once again walking around. You probably already know about it. I also want updates on what you learn of things from behind the scenes - especially if that rep has any ties to the team that tried to take out Isaiah. I’ll also need a chartered flight back to campus if you want me there quickly.”
“What’s wrong with coach?” He raised an eyebrow. Notably he didn’t object to the other request.
“My mutant ID and driver’s license are still in New Hampshire. TSA will shit a brick if I try to board without them with eyes like mine.”
“Lack of identification will not be an issue.”
“Oh c’mon, Kami. Diego doing some magic to get me into your club is one thing but airports have detectors and sensitives for exactly that sort of thing. Or,” I said, remembering my previous trip to Syria, “are you saying you can get fake IDs made that quickly?”
“There is no need. My people returned to me your lost property, Ms. Baghdadi. The items, including a certain headband, will be given back to you before you leave. You will find that as a French citizen your Electronic Authorization from last summer for travel to and from the United States is good for two more years.”
Huh. Jane Baghdadi rides once more.
Wait a minute, did that mean I had to wear a headscarf again? If so I’d need a new one. The last had blown off in the skies above Aleppo while fighting a mind-controlled soul-grabbing angel. And now the same craziness had attacked Whateley itself despite hoping that things might settle down for awhile. Would anyone believe that only a short few months ago my biggest worry was whether the corporate database I oversaw was being re-indexed regularly or if my cat needed his usual veterinary checkup?
Khan! He better be okay too!
Yeah, I was definitely going back to Whateley on the first flight out.
Given the light traffic at such late hours, the drive to the mountains had only taken a few of them. This had given Isaiah plenty of time to think which was both a blessing and curse.
On the face of it the entire situation was insane. The stories of the Christian Apocalypse including the Seven Seals had been used for creative gaming scenes before but now they loomed oppressively in thoughts spinning out question after question without answers. The possibility of it all being true and him having a direct part was too far-fetched to acknowledge.
Tracy’s death though had been all too real. Whenever his eyes closed he kept seeing her blood pooling over fresh marble.
The cabin retreat was nestled high up in the hills near a popular ski destination, far enough from the cities to be hidden away yet close enough to civilization as to still have all the amenities like a good Internet connection.
After driving the long isolated road past innumerable evergreen pines, he’d parked in front of an expensive structure made to look as if it had been assembled out of actual redwood lumber. The door opened to the key he had been given at the designated stop along the way in Azusa and the security panel accepted the provided code.
Exhausted as he was, he still pulled out a laptop and powered it on. He fixed himself a double shot of vodka in a UCLA shot glass while the computer booted up, then connected through multiple proxies to the secure message drop that had been pre-arranged.
Three messages were waiting for him from Feingold. All were marked ‘Important’.
The first said simply, “Whateley Academy attacked. Pending details.”
His left hand spasmed dangerously and he downed the alcohol, pouring himself another round before opening the next waiting message.
It read, “Your ward is secure. Assassination attempt failed, suspects in custody. DPA withholding further information. Interview via secure web-conference scheduled for 8 a.m. PST. You and I should have a discussion prior. Call in at 7 a.m.”
He finished the second shot more slowly than the first before filling it once more and clicking on the last message.
“Jordan returning to Whateley to assist. Discussion with Kurohoshi productive, former DPA agent Diego en route to San Francisco to follow leads on her behalf.”
As the glass was again empty he picked up the bottle, spinning it around to examine the label.
He stared at it for several minutes without reading a word before putting the bottle aside and making his way to a bedroom. He’d cleaned up before the drive, his blood-stained pajamas having been claimed as evidence in Tracy’s murder. He had packed lightly so he crawled into the bed wearing only a pair of silk boxers. The patterns of the stained wooden beams running across the ceiling offered no answers to the endless questions running through his thoughts.
Many minutes later he broke the silence that had been sacrosanct since he’d arrived.
“Alright, damn you. If I’m supposed to be Azrael then show me something! Every night the past couple weeks you’ve watched my life, now lift the damn curtain that covers your side. It’s your turn.”
With that said he rolled over and much to his surprise fell asleep.
Two waited within an emptiness. One with six wings so pure that to behold them was to gaze upon the perfection of undiluted light cast forth with no beginning and no end, and the other had wings also bright but with feathers edged by a band of contrasting obsidian such that in the contrast the black was darker still and the white even brighter.
It was the latter who broke the shared silence. Reserved and full of awe for the one at his side he spoke.
“Lord, he is coming.”
A smile answered him, a smile so broad, so genuine, that it could do naught but inspire confidence and a deep yearning faith.
The shape of their surroundings swirled as a third winged figure appeared, one taller and broader and wearing burnished armor that was all function in style with many harsh seams and deadly spikes. In the mailed fist a brutally designed mace was held by an unconquerable will.
Behind the black and featureless helm the newcomer addressed the brighter of the two. “You called. Why?”
The shining one laughed warmly. “Perhaps I just wanted to see you, brother! Would that have been so bad?” White silk-covered arms embraced the other’s defensive metal, ignoring how his brother stiffened and gave only a noncommittal grunt in return.
Letting go, the first flew higher still above the others and gestured widely to the emptiness with arms and many wings. “In truth, you are both here because I had a thought. An idea. We are in need of a place, a focal point.”
“A focus for what, Lord?” the shortest of the three asked as he too floated upwards. Like the wings, his robe was a whiteness lined with contrasting dark strips, culminating with a hood under which deeply dark eyes tried to shake being mesmerized by the light manifesting through the first’s entire being.
“For us all, dear Azrael,” replied that perfection. “For us all.”
Gauntlets readjusted the hold on their weapon and the warrior grunted again. “The Chaos is at bay. You risk disturbing it further.”
“We must,” said the one in all white. “Because we could be so much more. All of us who emerged from the Source, each with our individual resonances and patterns, could be and do so much.” He leaned towards them with a burning eagerness. “Can’t you see it, brothers? Can’t you see the potentials that exist should we intermingle our energies and natures? Surely you cannot ignore that we have been more effective fighting together than as individuals.”
That earned a snort from the warrior. “We fight. We survive. That suffices. Only some, like you, have expanded their personal domains enough for the lessers to form - like this one,” he gestured towards the angel hovering at his Lord’s side.
“No it is not enough!” Light pulsed outward before regaining its control. “You are driven to defend, Beliel, and well do we love you for it. There are many of us who owe our existences to you thanks to the bludgeon of your power against the enemies of manifestation. But we must do more, we must BE more.”
“But Lord,” Azrael asked carefully, “Can you foresee the consequences of such a focus?”
The figure of light shrugged. “I foresee the necessity and that suffices. But I need the two of you to make it happen.”
The thought of the First, his Lord of Light, needing assistance in any way confused the angel with charcoal-tipped wings. “What use could I possibly be, Lord?”
“Ah Azrael,” smiled the First. “You are to be a check against my impulses. To accomplish what I have in mind a space must be infused with such a light as I’ve never channeled before. Yet it must be contained, or else it would flow outward into the infinite. Be the Terminus, dear brother. As the recent shift in the hue of your wings has foretold, you are to be the boundary that marks the edge of what is…and what isn’t.”
“The Deep will respond,” Beliel said sourly. “A space for all the little ones would lack a specific anchor and it will react to that weakness. Even once created, it will be a continual target.”
“A space for the collective intent of the Source,” Lucifer countered. “We will defend it together and in so doing forge a tighter harmony. And our own realms of higher thought shall be joined to it and become as one.”
“Foolishness,” grumbled the armored angel as he shook his head. “But knowing you, you would do this with or without me.”
“I still fail to understand,” Azrael said nervously. Compared to the power of these two originals, archangels who had fought the Primal Chaos directly at the moments of their creation, he felt weak and untested. For he had coalesced within the House of the Light - the space and realm that existed only because the First existed. How could he who had yet to stand unassisted against the Deep hope to contain the unleashed power of the First?
“You will, little one,” Beliel chuckled darkly. “Or else you shall end.”
Lucifer glared at Beliel but that only caused the Second to laugh louder. The Prince of Light spoke quickly to reassure his servitor. “Worry not, Azrael,” Lucifer declared, and his words filled with the power of the light. “Your Purpose is Here, your Purpose is Now, and in its Fulfillment shall you never fail.”
Those words sank into the core of the younger angel, kindling an answering fire within. “I am ready, Lord.”
With a nod, Lucifer floated further away. Bringing forth all six of his wings he pulled himself into a tight ball to begin gathering all the energy he required. The continual light that shone from within pulsed blindingly, yet its attention was inward and to Azrael’s sight it was as if a lance of power had honed itself down to a point sharper than perfection could attain.
With a booming cry the Lightbringer wielded that unfathomable point to pierce the fabric of existence, ripping a hole directly to the Singular Infinite:
LET THERE BE LIGHT!
And there was light.
The brightness slammed through Azrael with an urgency beyond comprehension, the torrent sending him spinning in confusion as the wave of brilliance burst outward from what was now a Lucifer-sized portal open to that Infinite. Such a power should have ripped their essences to shreds.
But it didn’t.
His own Name, the Word at his center, caught fire as it absorbed this light surpassing all other lights, formed from the sheer intent to exist and more: the burning need to create, to grow, to expand and explore. He felt it all as it rushed through and past him, spilling forth across the Deep, focused by the Lightbringer’s desire to carve out a section where, unlike the churning and endless instability of the possibilities inherent in the vortexes of Primal Chaos, it was instead cast upon the anvil of Lucifer’s unparalleled willpower whereupon structured things could be forged and hold steady. A slate of power, a slate of possibilities, but ones that could be controlled, ones that could be made stable and permanent.
An unyielding intent to hang a Firmament where before all was Formless.
Ripples scorched across the region without form, tornadoes of change lashing out with a terrible and glorious sound that was not sound, and violent pain that was not pain. Entities coalesced from the madness at the edges where Something met Nothing, ripping at both sides in a frenzied counter-reaction desperate to restore the tranquility of raw emptiness.
The Something had invaded and the Nothing wanted it destroyed.
“Here they come,” Beliel shouted. “Azrael! These are my task! Stay focused upon yours alone!” With that he was off, smoky wings burning with their own dark purpose as Beliel radiated a singular and distinct frequency all his own: survival. A need pure and focused lashed out with the immense hammer of its power against the screeching things-which-were-not-things pouring up from the endless Deep as they desperately clawed against the light that was their anathema.
In a frenzy Beliel rode the waves emanating from his brother’s light and center, to bludgeon, pummel, and cast unto oblivion the manifesting backlashes against the brilliant will of the Infinite. He was everywhere along that wave, spinning and smashing with the focused power of his own Name.
Yet that Purpose was not enough by itself to sustain the growing arena the light called forth. The Will to Be by itself was not enough. Azrael caught glimpses of the potential within this act, flashes of possible futures beyond imagining, of multitudes of angels, of beings of power both great and small, and the cavalcade of their ideas, stories, and meanings which all would explore and be embodied in every thought and every act.
For in the love that lay behind the intent of the Source to create such possibilities lay a deeper hope, the hope for a day when that which was Created could exceed the Creator. A desire to create something greater than the Unity itself.
Even though it would take an eternity of convolutions to achieve.
The First continued to cry out as all this poured forth from the open singularity punctured into himself, his hands clawing into his own chest at the portal as if to rip himself apart and by so doing allow the Light to overwhelm all. He couldn’t help himself for it was too much, the size of the new manifestation growing exponentially with each passing moment. Beliel became stretched thinner and thinner, fighting to maintain coherency along a boundary seeking to become as Infinite as the Source from which it sprang.
Azrael moved across the apexes of those waves of light and potential. A long and deadly slender sword sharper than a thought and shining like the night against the day was in his hand, a shield for his sight and mind against the glory overtaking the Prince of Light. Instinctively he felt the danger: a true infinite manifestation must need be all things at all times and therefore be nothing - if unchecked it would transform all into the very Chaos Beliel even now fought so fervently against.
This needed separation. This needed definition. A tapestry of possibilities but not uncontrolled. It required a mechanism, it required an ordering, or else all meaning would not only be lost but never have been.
A mighty swing of this new weapon forged of that understanding carved through the primal energy as Azrael’s focused will gave that infinite underlying Light the Boundaries needed to fulfill all the foreseen promise and potential. The slender blade, forged by terrible and glorious purpose, cut that which Was away from that which Was Not.
A shriek of agony echoed across the All. For Lucifer was the Light, and Azrael’s stroke was as a slash across his heart cutting him free from the ecstasies and madness which had overwhelmed him. Out of that that shining and terrible pain streamed two distinct drops of blood.
One spun near the center, gathering light from the reverberating brilliance to grow larger and gain definition, fueled by the intent coalescing within the boundaries created by Azrael’s blade.
But the other shrieked away from that light, away from the Source, escaping as a blood-stained streak outward past the mace-wielding angel to vanish into the Deep.
Beliel was instantly behind Azrael, mace held with transcendent fury and ready to smite with a vengeance. “You cut him! You harmed one of us!”
Azrael didn’t hear for his own gaze had been transfixed elsewhere towards the drop even now disappearing into the unknowable.
“Beliel!” Lucifer called out tiredly, hand pushing against the gash on his chest to seal the wound. “Leave him be, it was necessary. He has fulfilled what needed to be done.” With a slow twitch of many wings, Lucifer drifted closer to the nearby figure slowly turning into a ball of glowing wings, arms, and legs. An angel had manifested, one with six wings of a brilliant white matching his own. But where Lucifer’s hair flowed a golden-blond, hers was a shimmering crimson to match the stark red of Lucifer’s wounded pain, the heart-blood of the Light.
“Your name, little one,” Lucifer said quietly as he bent over her, for she had become a small fragile looking thing. “What is your Name?”
Emerald eyes twitched open, gazing upward in adoration at the one gathering her into his arms. “Gabriel. I am Gabriel.” Her voice was the purest of music, calling to them with the first notes of a new and grander symphony.
A mighty hand fell upon Azrael’s shoulder, one no longer flexing with anger. Looking past the visor, Azrael saw the dark eyes of Beliel soften as the mighty battle-hardened angel whispered, “She is beautiful.”
Azrael wanted to speak his agreement, but the announcement of her name rippled across his vision as he beheld what had been wrought by their efforts.
An empty and open Firmament had been forged. Unlimited yet contained possibilities filled the space, waiting to support the merged collaborations of countless angels and their own unique essences. It burned bright with ordered possibilities, ready to advance the goals of the Infinite to the very ends of time and space. The future unfolded within his sight, glorious in complexities and subtleties wherein everything had purpose and everything could shine its most perfect potential. Constructs and edifices beyond all scope of previously conceived beauty swirled within that potential, merely requiring the right angelic hand to pluck their magnificence from the abstract into manifest order.
Within the space arrived several winged figures. The originals came, those who had stood back to back holding the chaos at bay at the beginning to fight and establish enough order within which to maintain themselves. Samael, Lilith, Anael, Raphael, and Abaddon. Out of that first wave along with the Lightbringer and Beliel they were the only to survive. Others, hundreds of them, flickered into view as well as they flocked to the leaders of their respective Houses.
Lucifer watched his brethren marvel in astonishment at this new pocket of stability, an edifice wherein they could exist without the sheer dependence on their archangels. “Brothers! Sisters!” he shouted, his glory enveloping each and every angel as he spread wings and arms wider to shine into them all his joyous exultation:
Isaiah awoke. Overwhelmed by the dream’s vision he stared up into the dark rafters trying to cling to that remembered feeling of rightness and truth. It was like trying to hold onto a summer’s breeze after the season had turned, ephemeral and more distant with each passing moment.
It took him several minutes to realize that there was someone sitting patiently in the shadows upon an upholstered chair besides the closet.
Adrenalin sent him fumbling under the pillow for the .45 placed there before bed.
“I already got shot once today, Boss. Let’s skip the repeat.”
Isaiah’s hand froze on the trigger. The voice was a woman’s, one he knew all too well. “Tracy?”
“Yeah. It’s me. Try to breathe, okay?”
The gun stayed on the target while he scooped up his glasses with the other hand. It took a couple attempts to get them on properly, but his aim didn’t waver. The driveway’s lamppost threw scant illumination past the blinds but the shadowy figure on the chair once in better focus had the right proportions. “You died.”
“Way to state the obvious.”
“Are you still…?”
“Still dead? Yup. Deceased, kaput, shuffled off this mortal coil, all of that. It hurt by the way. Don’t recommend.”
“I’m dreaming. Somehow I’m still dreaming.”
“Far from it. Look, I don’t know how long I can keep this up.”
“Keep what up?”
“Talking to you. Not that I’m going anywhere so don’t worry about that. Communicating is tricky is all.”
There was a lump in his throat. “Tracy, I’m so sorry.”
He heard more than saw her smile. “Not your fault, Boss. You’re you and have some important things to do. As for me, let’s just leave that be for now.”
“You’re saying it’s all really true. About what and who I am.”
“I can see your wings from here, Boss. Kinda hard to miss.”
“This can’t be. The whole idea is absurd!”
The silhouette wavered and she muttered, “Of course you’d make this difficult.”
“Well it isn’t-”
“Dammit, you’re closing up so listen quick. You were saying something in your sleep. I think it’s important.”
“What was I saying?”
“You kept repeating, ‘All is metaphor. All is real.’”
“Does that apply to the dream? What does that even mean?”
He received no answers. She was gone.