The California sun had hours ago slipped below the evergreen-lined mountain peaks to the west. Leftovers from his lunch foray into the local town still sat mostly uneaten on the square patio table, sandwich and partially consumed plum resting on a plate. The porch-light remained off as stars twinkled into view between the wispy clouds hanging in the sky, leaving him as a motionless dark shadow resting on the wooden bench before the cabin.
Isaiah's morning and day had been rather uneventful, leaving him with too much time to think. The interview with the DPA, bounced as it was through several VPN proxies across Europe, had been short and terse. While Director Goodman clearly realized there was more to what had happened than either Isaiah or his attorney were willing to reveal, legally they had cooperated. By the same token the director had refused to reveal more about the attackers who had murdered the young and promising legal assistant or anything they had learned about the attack on the Academy.
Thus he had mostly spent the day sitting outside the cabin, waiting for the relayed (and thus delayed) messages regarding Jordan’s efforts in El Paso to arrive while pretending to work on legal cases he felt obligated not to abandon. The stillness and calm of the remote location appealed to him - a truth which could be interpreted as yet one more piece of a puzzle which kept showing pictures he didn’t want to believe.
“This is ridiculous,” he muttered into the night’s darkness. “I am me. Isaiah. Not an angel, not even a saint or a prophet. Just me.” A fist clenched tight opened to reveal obsidian skin now stretching outward along each finger as if the hand was ever so slowly sinking into a tar one could never wash off.
“Dammit, Justin. What did you do to me?” The hand shook in surly frustration. Which name of his friend and brother was real? Justin, Jordan, Aradia…or Amariel? Did he - now she - even know?
It was much simpler when the use of alternate names was constrained to the gaming table. Characters were just that: characters. But that of course was a lie. Into their imagined adventures they’d put so much of themselves that the characters had became alternate aspects of their personalities. Their lessons, their pains, and their growth all integrated into the sum which made up the player. Is that what he truly was? Just a character in some cosmic role-playing game?
Was Azrael sitting at some heaven-forged platform holding a character sheet upon which was inscribed the name ‘Isaiah Cohen’ along with a list of physical and mental statistics? If the thought hadn’t been so horrific he’d have broken the silence on the porch with a laugh.
A woman’s voice did it for him. “You can’t blame her, Boss. She’s as caught up in this mess as you are.”
The words wafted from the edge of the porch like a soft breeze. He didn’t turn to look, forcing himself to keep his view fixated forward so her shadowy figure could continue to lean easily against the wall. She had demonstrated a rude habit of disappearing if he tried to focus on her too closely.
“Hello Tracy. I’d ask how you’re doing but we both know the answer to that.”
“Funny. Though actually this ghost thing is not so bad.”
“Hey, I’m doing my best not to think too much about what I’ve lost. Instead I’ve tried to focus on what I’m gaining.”
“Yeah. It’s slow going but the answers are getting clearer. He said to avoid rushing it so as not to be overwhelmed and I’m trying to follow that.”
“Who is ‘he’? An angel?”
“Technically he’s you.”
“Ah.” Isaiah shook his head. “You realize that from my perspective the trauma of events has likely driven me mad. Therefore you aren’t actually here but rather are a hallucination conjured out of shock and guilt.”
“You should let that go, Boss. I’ve told you before it wasn’t your fault.”
“Comfort from a mental delusion is not exactly an argument of substance.”
“Even if I wasn’t real what I’m telling you is. And you know that. So don’t be so stubborn.”
He chuckled. “May as well ask water to not be wet.”
“Yeah.” She sighed. “You are who you are after all.”
Amusement vanished. “And just who is that?” he growled. “If my soul is something else - something so much greater - then what the hell am I? The me that I know myself to be? A footnote of behavioral patterns? A mask to be discarded when the masquerade ends? Answer me that!”
“I can’t. Not and have you accept it. It’s up to you now.”
“Up to me? I’ve only been shown glimpses of the past, ephemeral dreams of triumph and tragedy. Hardly enough upon which to base an entire structure of belief.”
“The seals are breaking. At the moment the only one blocking those memories is you. You just don’t want to believe.”
He didn’t reply, muscles in his jaw tensing. Her dark outline faded away in the following silence, leaving him alone with his thoughts and rising anger.
Didn’t want to believe? As if it were a simple matter of flipping a switch and not a fundamental reevaluation of one’s entire sense of self. All while standing at the summit of an inner climb where below tremendous and terrifying destinies swirled in a chaotic dance of unknown futures.
To take that leap would trade an old life for new, one bearing responsibilities far greater than could be properly imagined.
“That’s what you want, isn’t it?” he shouted to the empty forest. “For me to plunge into this mess and accept the burdens that go with it! But if you want me to do that I need to know what I am! I need an understanding upon which to build. Otherwise it would be just a leap without the faith. And I refuse to fall!”
Angry determination hardened the contours of his neck and face. “So show me. Show me who I am or you can forget the whole damn thing.”
The command was not directed at the trees nor the disappearing spirit. It was hurled towards the twin pillars of uncertainty and fear struggling to uphold crumbling walls bearing the comforting illusions which belonged to a life already irrevocably changed. With an effort of will Isaiah plunged straight between them.
Truth, no matter how painful, was paramount.
“What have you done?”
Two cloaked figures stood at the edge of ragged rocks and dirt protruding out of the mist thrust upward from the thundering waters below. Where once mighty rocks had separated churning ocean on one side from tracts of lower farmland on the other, a waterfall unrivaled in historical memory now shook the earth. With unstinting rain pouring from the cloud-swallowed sky the resulting floodwaters breaching the gap expanded across the land with an inescapable speed and fury.
The two stared out at the destruction wreaking havoc on all below, one leaning with slightly hunched dark wings against a tall scythe, one constructed by lashing the blade from a broken sword to the tip of a long and gnarled branch.
This very implement had just split the rocks and the mountain of earth below them to unleash raw ocean across a new and deadly conquest.
A man - for he had the form of one and had arrived by horseback and not by flight - repeated his cry past the howling air of storm and sea.“What have you done?!”
Straightening, the angel turned to the other. “Only what must be.”
Wind blew the hood of the man free of his features. His face held a shock and horror available only to youth, as if the foundations of his life were being equally swept away by the tsunami below. “But she’s down there! Edna! She’s still down there! As is our whole family!”
“Yes.” The angel’s hood refused to budge in the onslaught of air and water, leaving visible only a mouth lined with grimness.
“You’re killing her! Your own daughter! And all of them!”
To this no reply was given, only the clash of distant thunder and a wind resuming its shrieking wild dance.
A deep soulful cry escaped the man’s lips as he fell to knees which sank quickly into the mud. “She fought for you! I warned her against it but she was resolved and refused to listen. To stop the Fallen. For the angels of the Most High. For you!”
“Why? For the love of all that’s holy, tell me why!”
“This must be.” The last was spoken quietly but the winds around them slowed as if to honor the angel and allow his words to be heard.
“That is such excrement!” Grief and shock transformed into rage, veins along his neck pounding with fury. The man stood, taking a step towards the angel. Through tears he shouted, “Save them! You have wings, I know your power! What plan could possibly be holy and true while allowing this to be? Fly, father! Fly and stop this madness! You can still save her!”
“I will not.”
“Murderer!” spat the man into the mist and rain. “I curse you and name you Murderer and Betrayer!” With a fierce shriek he lunged forward with desperate hatred, fingers wielding a short knife which he plunged towards the dark angel.
A blade which never reached its target.
The angel’s image simply blinked from one state to another, from standing impassively to instantly having closed the distance with the angel’s left hand gripping the man’s throat to lift him from the ground while the right had seized the attacking arm with unyielding force. The scythe, upright and planted into the ground, moved not.
The knife fell to the stones below, bouncing once then twice and finally over the cliff’s edge into the thundering waters.
Unrepentant eyes glared over the angel’s grip. “Go on. Finish it! If this was the plan all along then I too am to be damned!”
The angel regarded him without expression.
A flicker of distant light approached through the storm, visible over the angel’s shoulder and the man choked out a laugh. “What, will you make Gabriel undertake this burden on your behalf? Is Death also a coward? Do it, father. If I am to die let it be by your hand and your hand alone! Do it!”
Still the angel did not move.
With a grimace the man added, “She loved you more than anything. And for that my hate is now forever equal to her love.”
The Angel of Death broke his silence to whisper but a single name. The name of his son.
No crash of thunder accompanied the name, no gust of wind. Only now a lifeless eyes and spiritless body dangled from the angel’s grasp. The body slowly and ever so gently was laid across the rain-slicked stones. With a gesture rocks turned to dust and mud, and his son’s body sank within the earth’s all encompassing embrace.
That is how Gabriel found him: standing to the side of wet packed earth and staring out over an onrushing ocean eager to fill all the lands below with salt and sea.
“Are you ready, brother?” she asked him.
“Camael and his cohort have chosen to remain within to see this day done. Thus we only need to set the seals in place and go.”
“I stay and also go. For that too must be.”
Gabriel, the braids of her strawberry hair soaking the rain and somehow making her appear even more beautiful, stared at him with surprise.
Lifting the scythe Azrael extended his left arm. Before Gabriel could shout a protest the blade descended and a neatly severed black hand landed upon the freshly created grave.
The angel of Death pointed the scythe at the hand whose blood now pooled across the muddy ground. “Thus do I remain. Thus do I go.” With wounded arm held against his chest, Azrael spread wings of darkest night and with a mighty beat of thunder and feathers faded beyond the world.
“Oh Azrael,” Gabriel breathed as she watched the pooling blood draw matter upwards from the earth. Matityah’s body provided the raw material coalescing onto the stump of the wrist, growing quickly into an arm and chest, until another Azrael complete with clothes, boots, and cloak rose to stand before her.
Missing only the Scythe and already bound to the Cycle of Life of this world.
This Azrael regarded his sister and spoke. “It is time.”
With a nod she moved closer, her wings of purest white spreading out behind to capture the lines of energy crossing through the realms of dream and spirit even as matching black feathers spread out around her brother to capture the force lines of physicality.
Each extended a hand towards the other: her right palm almost touching his left, almost touching that which had spawned the rest of his form.
Together with words and will they sealed the world.
Isaiah removed his glasses, folding and placing them with care upon the arm of the bench. He made it two steps before knees buckled under the weight of crushing and unstoppable tears. A terrible groan escaped the pit of his stomach forcing its way past lips and teeth, growing in furor with each sharp intake of breath until all the nearby forest echoed and shook from the release of pain entombed for thousands upon thousands of years.
Panting he found himself staring at a hand which was his but not his. The darkness of the skin had spread to cover fingers and wrist, black tendrils creeping further up the arm. With a croak he threw a whisper towards the sky.
“How, Lord? How could this be just?”
The distant stars offered no answer.
Having been stuck on stand-by and barely making it on the last flight out of El Paso, I arrived back at Hawthorne cottage way past curfew and promptly fell into bed. Khan decided I needed sleep because instead of curling up to my side for the usual belly rub session he instead flopped onto the pillow above my head. The cute little bugger then tried to ‘clean’ my hair, requiring an emergency removal of long strands from his mouth after he attempted to swallow a few which were still very much attached. Making a mental note to wash my hair thoroughly come morning, I rolled over and passed out.
If the time spent between worlds counted then I hadn’t slept in over five days. While the physical need for sleep mostly reset each time I powered up, given all the shocks and revelations the subconscious had reached a limit. The next thing I knew the sun was halfway through its morning jog and Khan was meowing insistently about his utter lack of breakfast.
Yes, he was given his tasty foods before I stumbled off to the showers.
After standing under the hot water for longer than intended, I got dressed and finally flipped the cel phone out of the airplane mode I’d ‘accidentally’ left it in. It immediately chirped loudly with a flood of waiting messages.
Scanning through them I got caught up: Danielle had, much to her expressed annoyance, been moved off campus by the DPA to an undisclosed location, Erica had arrived in the late afternoon and with Natalie’s supervision met with Tamara and Zap so they could find Zap’s special pyramid, Director Goodman wanted to set up a conference call with the powers-that-be regarding the whole threat of an even larger psychic nuke scenario, and lastly Jenna reported that Khan had been fed his dinner and that she could neither confirm nor deny any reports of him having been given a spoonful of melted vanilla ice cream.
I tried asking him about it but he feigned innocence while purring against an ankle. Totally suspicious.
Before going to the cafeteria I responded to two of the messages. First was to text Danielle saying I loved her and for her to be safe, and the second was to Jenna to thank her for taking such good care of my kitty. I’d deal with the gang searching the pyramids after breakfast, and as for the Director I left that thread alone.
When I’d spoken to Kami Kurohoshi about the situation before leaving El Paso he’d advised that I could be ordered to stay in the country and to stay quiet until he’d made more arrangements.
Fine with me.
In the middle of enjoying a non-military-guarded bacon and swiss omelet, Tsáyidiel made contact. This manifested as a tickle in the brain until I finally figured it out between bites of a perfectly toasted bagel and opened the mental connection.
“Tsáyidiel, is that you?”
“It is, milady. I have news.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Set and the fae queen are indeed together. However they have entered realms where I cannot follow without causing a disturbance.”
“Oh? Where’d they go?”
“Into the paths of the Egyptian dead, milady. Paths guarded by Osiris. Were I to enter it would be noticed and I would be underpowered without your presence. Doing so could also cause you difficulties.”
“Difficulties? For me?”
“Political ones. You have no agreements in place for safe passage of you and yours through Kemetic domains. Perhaps if Prince Heru were to join me I could continue, but even then lengthy negotiations would be required and likely make the effort of tailing the targets moot.”
Well shit. “Alright. Thanks for the update. Head on back to Gabriel’s realm then.”
He must’ve sensed my disappointment. “My apologies, milady. Your instructions were to remain unseen. Have I erred?”
“Good grief, no! You’ve done fine!”
“Thank you, milady.” His relief washed over me. Between him and Kokabiel I was beginning to wonder if angels were akin to puppies: needing constant love and support.
Granted if I’d been horribly abused for thousands of years like they’d been under Azazel’s control I’d probably react that way too.
I spent the rest of the meal thinking about them and how much I’d love to kick Azazel where it hurts. Camael - wherever the hell he was - may have done that already but I’d still like my own shot at the bastard.
After dropping off the cafeteria tray I called Natalie hoping to arrange a ride over to Erica’s hotel. Apparently Tamara and Zap were already over there for the day so they could continue their efforts. She said she’d been expecting my call and to meet her in the staff parking lot.
When I got there Natalie was already waiting by an eminently practical white Toyota Camry. A pair of mobile windshield repair trucks were moving down the line of cars as they all needed new glass to replace the damage from the bomb’s shockwave.
She noticed my raised eyebrow at her car being fully intact while sitting in the middle of the broken ones waiting their turn. “This isn’t mine. It’s a rental. Hop on in.”
I climbed in and buckled up.
It wasn’t until we’d cleared the campus gargoyles that she turned off the classical music CD and its softer selections from Mozart.
“How was El Paso?” she asked, pretending to sound casual. “Find out anything?”
“They haven’t filled you in?”
Her lips pursed. “No. I was only told that for now I should monitor and assist you students as best as possible.”
“Oh.” Mark had informed me that everything had been declared ‘classified’, especially with regards to the possible larger bomb on the loose. If the DPA hadn’t told Natalie about it all, that put me in a rather weird spot. “I’m sorry but I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say.”
“I was afraid of that.” Tense fingers on the steering wheel forcibly relaxed as she sighed. “Don’t feel bad, if that’s how it is then best not tell me.”
“I can tell you this much: what we discovered sucked rocks. Like industrial vacuum levels.”
“You guys are trying to deal with it though, right? Erica’s return and involvement was rather surprising.”
“How’d it go between her and Tamara?”
“Awkward. Erica was terse but I believe genuine in her apology. She really does seem to be a much different person from who she was when she fled the school.”
“Has she told you about her experience? I’m not asking you for the details; I’m just hoping she has at least one person to confide in. The damage is clearly not just physical, though I am also concerned about that.”
“I’ve talked with her some.” Yet more things I couldn’t tell her about, darnit. It wasn’t a state secret, but I doubted Erica wanted me to blab about her struggles with fae energy withdrawal.
“Good. How about you? How are you holding up?”
“I feel like I’m barely holding myself together using nothing more than chewing gum and toothpicks. I’m angry and scared, doc. And overwhelmed.”
“For some clients I encourage them to take a step back, to realize that the weight of the world really isn’t on their shoulders.” She turned the car onto the main highway heading towards town. “That’s probably not going to work in this case, is it?”
I found myself bursting into laughter. “Nope! Not a chance!” It wasn’t really that funny but I had to either laugh at the absurdity of it all or collapse into tears.
She beamed a sympathetic smile before returning her attention to the road and I sat there thunderstruck. There, in that one moment, the compassion within her bespectacled eyes matched perfectly a love and care I’d witnessed before.
Gabriel’s. When she had held me in the light after I’d died in the storage unit and was crying with despair. I’d told her I couldn’t bear it if Danielle were to die, that I had to save her. “Hold onto that purpose with all that you can muster,” she had said. “And go.”
Natalie noticed the sudden break in my laughter. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just remembering something important.”
She risked another glance over to me. Her therapist instincts were good; she didn’t say anything more.
Zap was scowling as he leaned against a wall in the rather spacious hotel room. Erica sat at the table staring down at a glowing crystal globe complete with hand-etched outlines of continents. The sphere eerily lit up the side of the earth where the sun should be shining while the night-side glittered with all the clustered cities mostly clinging to the beaches and rivers. Tamara hovered nearby anxiously holding a cup of tea while watching Erica handle her mother’s most prized possession.
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing there to see,” Erica grumbled to Zap after opening her eyes again.
“You’ve got to keep looking. It’s there.”
It was weird seeing Erica back in her teenage body after meeting her in the fae realms. What’s worse was how dark and tired her eyes were, yet still burning with purpose over sunken cheeks.
Frowning, Erica returned a finger over the globe’s miniature Egypt as it inched closer to the line demarking sunset. “I still can’t believe your mother is letting me use this.”
Tamara set her tea down again, fingers twitching. “Mom isn’t. When I asked she stared mutely for a minute before handing me the bag and saying she was lending it only to me. She then added that what I did with it from there was strictly against my own karma. Be it for good or ill.”
Erica paused and looked up at Tamara. “Thank you.”
Shrugging uncomfortably Tamara muttered, “Just don’t break it.”
“I won’t,” Erica said solemnly before closing her eyes to refocus. From the tip of her finger a small spark crossed the gap between sphere and skin, pulsing and shifting according to her concentration in a delicate dance of control. In some ways it was like astral projection except her spirit was still here, the crystal was retuning her perceptions to an entirely different place: Gisa. Home to the biggest pyramids - and the Sphinx, of course.
Talking while not breaking the connection, Erica said, “I’m staring at the main pyramids now. I can even probe right inside, there’s no wards or anything to stop me. Which is surprising unless they all ran out of juice millennia ago.”
“The machine is still there,” Zap insisted.
“And you know this how?”
“Well then get him on the line to tell us how to see it,” she snapped. “Because I’m getting squat.”
Zap turned to me where I sat cross-legged on the small red couch. “This is pointless. I need to just get there and look in person.”
“We’re working on that,” I told him. Stretching out my legs to keep the blood flowing despite the tightness of the jeans, I stood up. “But we’d likely have the same problems seeing this magic machine thing in person as she’s having with the crystal.” I frowned. “The guy who built it, what was his name again?”
“Yeah. Imhotep. He probably hid it to keep anyone from messing with it, right?”
“If he was smart that’s what he’d have done,” Erica said. “You thinking there’s a password?”
“Like that door in Lord of the Rings?” piped up Tamara. “‘Speak friend and enter’? Zap, you remember any riddle things like that?”
Zap crossed his arms. “No.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Could he have, uh, phased it out of normal space? I just saw that sort of thing in El Paso, though it took some serious mojo power to pull off.”
Erica broke off her focus to consider. “Zap said the structure was built from magic energies on the spirit-side.”
“It was,” he agreed.
I shook my head. “But doesn’t the spirit sorta ride along with the physical? What’s the effect if that physical part is shoved out of phase with things - won’t that pull the spirit along with it?”
“Maybe,” she said. “You’re right though that it would take a constant source of power to maintain. Otherwise it’d synchronize again as a shift like that is unnatural. And while the pyramids may have been built on sites of ley energies thousands of years ago, I’m not feeling much of anything there now.”
Tamara, eyes wide with rising excitement, blurted, “Ley lines! And death!”
We all stared at her.
Waving hands through the air Tamara continued. “Think about it! The pyramids are these huge tombs, right? And they buried a lot more than just the pharaohs around them. Like all their families, servants, even a ton of animals, all were buried to support the pharaohs in their afterlives. They’re like a massive platform to have the best stepping off point into the Egyptian lands of the dead. And Erica is not a necromancer.”
Erica blinked. “No. I’m not. But I’ve studied it.”
“Whateley doesn’t teach necromancy,” Zap said, looking at Erica suspiciously.
She rolled her eyes. “Of course it doesn’t. But my father, in addition to the forbidden cache of things he should never have kept in the same house as a curious over-talented child, also had a number of particularly dangerous tomes.”
“Let me guess,” Tamara said. “You read them all.”
“Read them?” Erica snorted. “I memorized them.”
Zap stared at the floor in obvious thought. His moppish head of hair fell over his face but he didn’t brush the strands aside. “That’s how it all works.”
I was about to ask him what he meant but Tamara stopped me with a hand on one of the bracers over my wrist. “Hush. He’s onto something.”
Pulling away from the wall Zap paced behind the table, still gazing at carpet with slumped shoulders. Then he looked up to meet Erica’s watching gaze through the forest of those bangs. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“I think you’re right,” she nodded.
“Hello?” I said. “Want to fill in those of us who are clearly idiots?”
Zap finally pushed the hair out of the way and smiled at me. “You’re not an idiot. But I’ll let Erica explain.”
Erica gave an amused smirk. “Yeah, fine. Gaia’s energy, that which was locked away so it wouldn’t be bled utterly dry beyond recovery, is based on - and fueled by - life. But there is energy in death as well. Necromantic resonance.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “That’s what Zakiel has been collecting in those crystals for the bombs, right?”
Erica agreed. “Exactly. So how do you build a containment mechanism - a dam - to keep a flood of life energy from overwhelming a world?”
“You build it out of necromantic power,” she said. “Death and Life, equal and opposite. Use one to constrain the other.”
“Okay. But how does this help you find the pyramid with the control structure?”
“It means I just need to retune to the proper frequency,” Erica said with a shrug.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
She gestured casually. “Ritual sacrifice would work. Someone or something has to die.”
I gaped at her. “Something? Like what?”
“Has to be a big enough death,” she mused. “A cat would do.”
“Fuck no!” I gasped. “That is so not happening!”
She regarded me all too coolly. “We could go to a local shelter and find one that’s already terminal if that would ease your conscience. But I’ve seen you eat steak so refusal to use a death to save the world is rather hypocritical.”
“Then get a damn cow! But no cats!” Both fists clenched stubbornly. “No dogs either.”
Zap gently touched my shoulder. “There’s another way.”
Erica raised a clearly amused eyebrow at him. “What do you have in mind?”
He squeezed briefly then let go. “Ordinarily I’d suggest invoking Anubis, but we don’t need him.”
She raised the other brow to match. “Interesting. Explain.”
“We have Jordan. And therefore we have Amariel. She’s not really an incarnate so she’s neither alive nor dead. I bet she can take your spirit across the boundary and back directly.”
All faces turned towards me while I blinked. “Oh shit.”
Erica objected. “I doubt Jordan knows how to do that and as much as I don’t mind certain levels of risk, I also don’t wish to die. Not permanently.”
“But I do know how,” I said quietly. Dark wings cut through my thoughts and the memory of the SUV’s cabin before they’d pulled skyward, sharp claws tightly carrying their gathered prize. “I saw it done. In Syria. I watched Kokabiel pull Miguel’s soul from his body by force. I chased after them into this tunnel before he could slip past Azrael’s curtain. Except I only got him out of there because Azrael let him choose whether to stay or to go.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment before Erica broke the silence. “Actually I shouldn’t need to be pulled out completely. I just need my spirit disassociated enough to effectively perceive the right channel while using the orb. That’s what a ritual death would provide in the first place: a ride on the resonance of the death to align the perceptions.”
“What if I pull too hard?” I asked, feeling the butterflies in my stomach gather nervously.
“Then you shove me back in,” she said with a scowl. “And we get Tamara to do a life circle around us first to help if need be. Ra-eye boy here should guard us while channeling sun energy to make the circle even more complete.”
“We’ll need to do this outside then,” Zap said.
“No shit, Heru-lock,” said Erica. “The forest starts behind the hotel; there are trails all over the place.”
Tamara carefully began to wrap the crystal orb in the patterned green silk her mother kept it in. “Pack up what you’ll need everyone. Bring plenty of water.” She considered for a moment. “And snacks. Definitely snacks.”
It took awhile to find a spot that suited both Tamara and Zap. She wanted a lush green area and Zap wanted maximum exposure to the sun’s track across the sky. Thus a group of teenagers - two of whom were not really kids - meandered around the trails through thick trees for over an hour. At least it wasn’t hot. The whole thing was surreal considering the last time three of us were in a forest together was because the fourth had caused one of us to be possessed by a demon.
Fortunately no one mentioned this. That would have been rather awkward.
Eventually a location was agreed upon and with everyone’s assistance Tamara finished creating a pentacle out of tree branches with the circle large enough for Erica to lie within and for me to kneel at her side. The crystal orb, resting atop Erica’s chest and stomach, cast a piercingly bright reflection of the sun above. Zap stood outside the branches, moving to a sport where a lance of sunlight could strike his bare chest. The rays penetrated the skin to envelop him with this golden aura pulsing in time with the flashes shining out of his right eye. As the aura danced his face blurred between the young man he was and the hawk-headed god of his spirit.
Tamara, also standing outside the circle, chanted quietly while weaving trails in the air with her fingers. Sigils flowed from those fingertips to spiral outward and merge into the circle’s branches, forging a mystic space where the connections to all the forests’ many aspects of life were made even stronger yet. Leaves on the underside of those branches rustled as tendrils of fresh roots crept out from the bark to plunge downward into the soft earth underneath.
Erica shifted the orb around so the palm of her hand landed squarely over Egypt. Muttering so only I could hear she said, “She’s gotten stronger, hasn’t she.”
Equally hushed, I replied. “Tamara? After last summer her dedication and focus to magic studies has been, well, fanatical.”
With terse exhalation Erica said, “And now my life is in her hands. Fate’s strange sense of humor. You ready to do your part, angel?”
“Only if you are.” Part of me hoped she’d say she wasn’t and we could call this whole thing off. Doing one’s best to ‘almost’ kill someone is not something I was comfortable with. What was left unsaid is that while Tamara may be holding her life, I was about to hold her soul.
Erica was undeterred. “Do it.”
With an unspoken mental prayer a hand of white fire plunged into Erica’s chest and pulled.
Three triangles sat within the silhouetted darkness framed by the passing of Ra’s reddish-gold power over the world below. Crystalline fingers of light stretched like long streams of clouds towards the gold-clad pyramids, and in that large shining hand stood a single tiny passenger.
The palm’s passenger, a woman wearing a simple white gown, took in her surroundings and issued a sharp command. “Carry me forward. To the center.”
Doing as it was bid, the hand lowering the woman closer to the entrance of the middle pyramid.
When only a few yards away the passenger signaled a halt. “Wait. We are not alone.”
Three men stood between her and the dark passage leading below the ancient tomb. Shaved heads were covered by cloths of striped blue and gold, two parts hanging alongside their ears to their shoulders with the back tied and braided within gold rings. Their chests were armored, crossing wings of gold relief embossed with azure gems all lying under a golden circle sweeping from shoulder to shoulder. Bracers wrapped wrists with matching guards for shins, and more of the blue cloth fell to their knees as simple skirts held in place by ornate belts.
They each bore a spear of a black metal that absorbed light as if draining the sun into places men were never meant to tread.
The three spoke one after the other, their voices echoing from each pyramid in turn:
“Who seeks that which was?”
“Who seeks that which is?”
“Who seeks that which shall be?”
The woman riding the iridescent hand did not hesitate to answer. “I do.”
Again the men spoke in turn, booming their challenge across the desert.
“What do you offer the past?”
“What do you offer the present?”
“What do you offer the future?”
The woman gave immediate reply. “I offer only what I truly possess: myself.”
The three bowed their heads, turning to point sharp spear-tips at the dark stone opening leading under the central structure. In unison they gave command. “The seeker shall approach. The seeker shall prove the offer worthy. Only then shall the seeker be granted audience.”
“Then I approach.” A wind flowing out of the darkness below the pyramid rustled the woman’s dress. “Set me down, angel.”
Carefully the hand sank to the ground and its passenger walked bare-footed across the sand towards the tallest of the pyramids.
From within the shadows of the entrance crimson and gold sparks flickered from some hidden inner fire, swarming through the air between the woman and the stones as if alive to thicken into a rapidly shifting collection of hieroglyphs which towered over her.
The images gained speed: fish, people, gods and goddesses, birds, stones, reeds, orbs. The symbols flashed in an endless sequence.
To the angel’s eyes of light the meanings were transparent, a language layering itself over the underlying structural patterns of this place. But the woman, sensing the angel’s innate understanding, quickly cautioned her transport to silence.
“No. Say nothing. I have to solve this alone.” So saying the woman sat in the dust to watch the display with a singular intensity.
Compassionate desire to help pulsed outward but the angel remained silent as bidden.
Long did the woman study the display, muttering occasional comments to herself as the minutes ticked past:
“This is not a simple challenge and response gateway.”
“The sequence repeats. It also expands.”
“Patterns representing more patterns. One symbol abstracted for many.”
“Something larger is projecting these forward. And it’s on a loop.”
Frowning the woman stared in enraptured focus, mind chipping away at seemingly endless possibilities of the magical working flashing across her eyes.
The angel began to shine with concern. Waiting too long carried compounded risk.
“Dammit, hang on. I’ve got something…” The woman’s speech broke off as eyes went wide with rare excitement. “I’m an idiot! And he’s a bloody genius!” Rising to her feet she reached towards the glyphs, pausing until the one she wanted flickered into view whereupon she seized it, pulling it free from the rest and leaving it hovering at her side.
This action she proceeded to repeat until a line of images surrounded her on all sides. Stepping back she examined them before nodding in satisfaction. “Okay you brilliant bastard, let’s do this.” Spreading arms wide she gathered the set of pictures into a single clump. With a command of “Run simulacrum!” she shoved her set of images straight through the wall still pulsing before her.
An explosion of light burst forth from the impact, but instead of dissipating outward it spun back to the center to pull the entire display together, coalescing into the image of a bald man dressed only in a small white loin-cloth.
The man regarded the woman with eyes forged of emeralds touched by flecks of golden sparks. “The seeker has demonstrated knowledge. That alone does not prove worth. Answer true, oh seeker. What do you seek over all other things?”
The woman paused. “More than all things?” Her eyes narrowed and she gave a bitter answer. “I seek to never again be a slave.”
Those remarkable eyes closed and he bowed his head. “I too have known the bondage of rod and whip.”
“Yeah, the scars are a bitch.”
His eyes opened to regard her again but now glowed with a new respect. “Tell me, seeker. Has the time come? Is divine purpose upon us?”
“Hell yes. The seal is about to break. So show me how to drive this damn thing.”
“You already possess this knowledge. To pass the challenge is to know my secrets.”
She shook her head. “Not quite. I need to know where to stand to do it.”
His head tilted. “To seek the new, one must stand at the beginning.”
“That simple, eh?” A wry grin parted her lips.
“But do not delay,” he added, turning his attention to a place distant in the darkness of the sky where night had already claimed its domain. “For others come. Ones who seek power for their own terrible freedom.”
“Got it. Angel, get me out of here.”
The hand of light lifted from under the sands to carry her upwards. With a quick burst of will, the soul was sent back along the silver cord leading to her waiting body and to where her companions’ efforts had kept the connection strong between body and spirit.
But curiosity tugged and the angel looked to where the man forged of magic had indicated. There, far in the distant plane to which the pyramids truly belonged, a strange-headed being of chaotic malevolence escorted a lady terrible in the beauty of armored bark turned black by flame. The pair traversed a labyrinth constructed of walls and sand whose dimensions warped beyond all rationality.
To the angel’s surprise the male with the head of an animal turned with a wide sharp-toothed grin. Somehow he managed to speak across the distance between.
“I see you little angel.”
With a laugh a spark of chaos slammed into the angel’s perceptions, knocking its carefully maintained focus sideways and causing the scene to fill with static like an old television tuned to an unused channel. In desperation the angel latched onto the only image immediately available: three triangles resting within shadow before the fiery sunset.
I tasted sand.
With a groan and a rising headache I rolled over. “Guys?” I asked, senses scrambled and confused. It was a lot warmer than it should have been and the air much drier. Eyes cracked open to blink themselves clear and peered upward.
Ancient stones, having long ago lost their once-brilliant gold coverings, towered mightily above the surrounding sand.
“Oh shit,” I squeaked. “I’m in Egypt.”
The dark outline of a woman in a simple sun-dress and wide-brimmed hat blocked the image of the ancient stones.
“Are you alright?” she asked, in French of all things, before offering me a hand up.
Taking it I got to my feet and looked around, gawking in awe at where I’d suddenly found myself. Giza! With the three pyramids and sphinx! Holy crap!
“Here, you’ll also need this.” The woman plonked a straw hat matching her own upon my head before placing wrap-around sunglasses over my shocked expression. “Hmm. Those wrist-bands are a little large but passable as eccentric choices in jewelry. However we need to pin your hair up under the hat.”
Blinking away the pyramidal distractions I finally took a proper look at this woman who just so happened to be carrying a spare hat and glasses. Platinum hair, drop-dead sexy body with polished red nails setting off the roses adorning her dress, and a face somewhere between sixteen and thirty years of age which could launch a thousand ships with but a smile.
Needless to say my confusion bumped itself up at least three notches. “Alal?”
“Of course!” She answered brightly. “Who else? Now turn around and let’s get this distinctive hair taken care of.”
“Wait,” I said as her hands spun my shoulders around so they could begin braiding my hair. “You’re not a dream?”
She gave a silver-chimed laugh. “Aren’t we all?”
“But on the plane. Weeks ago. You disappeared.”
“Considering your own method of arrival is that really all that surprising?”
“I… Hey! Did you pull me here?”
Fingers made quick work weaving strands into a thick braid then curled it into a bun. “Not at all. You arrived all on your own.”
Teleportation? Slipping between the physical and spirit was one thing, but now this? “How?”
After adjusting the hat so it would fit properly upon my head she tilted her own back into place. “How else? Surely by now you have realized this much. That only for those like them does where they are define what they perceive.” She casually waved at a group of tourists standing closer to the Sphinx busily taking selfies and group shots.
“Only for them?”
“Absolutely. But for beings such as you or I it is what we perceive that defines where we are. You see?” She laughed again as if she’d made a joke. Sensing my confusion she gently patted my cheek. The hand was strangely cold. “You’ll figure it out. Shall we join the tour?”
Without waiting for an answer she took my hand and pulled us over to mingle with the tourists and their cameras and phones.
Wait a minute. Phones!
A quick check of what I was wearing (jeans, blank white t-shirt, and equally unlabeled white sneakers) revealed empty pockets. And no purse. I’d put it aside outside the circle, dammit.
“Crap. I don’t have my phone. Do you have one? My friends, they’re probably freaking out by now.”
She raised a perfect eyebrow. “What use would such a thing be to me?”
“Uh, I dunno. Maybe you’d want to call someone?”
Ignoring my statement she pointed at the Sphinx. “Look! Isn’t that marvelous? No nose! Despite common rumors, Napoleon didn’t shoot it off. In the 15th century they noted that it was carved free by a Sufi named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr because silly peasants were making offerings to it. Couldn’t allow that, now could he?”
“Is that true?”
“According to their historian, it is. I was busy elsewhere at the time. They executed him for his misdeed, of course. Such a wonderful classic case of cutting off the nose to spite the face!” Immaculate teeth flashed a grin and I had that same uneasy feeling I’d had on the plane when she’d appeared before. She was beautiful beyond words but something was just not right.
She’d also just admitted to having been alive hundreds of years ago.
“Alal?” I asked tentatively, even as she tugged me further along around the ancient site. “Who are you?”
Her high heels stopped, spikes sinking into the sand. “I am, above all things, myself.”
Instant anger flashed across soft skin with a rage so all-encompassing it transcended madness and ugliness to a level of perfection all its own. Just as quickly it disappeared, her expression returning to the amused superiority of before. “Absolutely not.”
Good gried, that wasn’t disturbing or anything.
“Then why are you helping me? I mean, you were here, with an extra hat ready and everything, disguising me before anyone even noticed how I got here.”
“Why? Because for the first time the patterns of this prison lead to potentials of which I approve.”
“The seals. You want them broken.”
Her eyes didn’t gleam at the thought. No, they burned with a darkness beyond all darkness. “Oh what I desire is so much more than that.”
I shivered despite the warmth of the day.
“Now,” she said firmly. “Get on that tour bus over there. If you smile sweetly at the driver he won’t ask any questions. Keep the hat and glasses on and when you get to the hotel find a seat in the lobby.”
“Wait, you’re not going with me? Will you meet me there?” Her sudden practicality had driven home the truth that I was in Egypt without passport or identification. Not to mention any money. Gulp.
“As the pattern really enjoys its threes, we shall meet again. But not there. The bus is waiting, off you go!”
She pointed past a shoulder and I looked towards the parking lot. A group of tourists lined up to board one of those deluxe busses with high-backed seats. Turning back to her with another question I found she was already gone.
Because of course she was.
Getting on the bus had been as easy as Alal had said. The driver of the bus, a man in his late sixties who must not have seen a dentist since long before the Camp David Accords, just grinned crookedly at my chest while I boarded. He then turned to watch my ass until an older (and much stouter) couple from Germany blocked the view.
I took a seat way in the back by a window.
Soon enough we pulled out of the dusty parking lot and onto a road heading towards the ancient river that ran through the city, the setting sun now behind us. Having grown up in Los Angeles in the eighties I recognized a smog-covered sunset when I saw one. The sky was thick with the haze, painted gloriously by the sun’s crimson tints. The bus driver had packs of kleenex for sale to anyone having sinus issues due to the polluted air. Several passengers coughed up the cash and bought some as their eyes watered and noses dripped in protest.
As for the drive itself, it could only be described as Mario Cart on steroids. The road was wide enough for many lanes but their markings had faded so long ago they may as well have been laid down by the pharaohs. Not that anyone paid any mind to the notion of lanes in the first place, cars and trucks weaved chaotically through whatever openings may present themselves or could be forced by sheer chutzpah.
If I hadn’t already survived being kicked through a wall I think I’d have freaked out much like some of the wide-eyed tourists holding onto flimsy armrests for dear life.
At least the main road was divided by the line of palm trees down the center providing an illusion of structure to the entire crazed process.
After only a few miles we curved off to the left as the Nile was broke out in front of us, its waters dotted with various boats and trawlers. Further down an island split those waters where a single cylindrical building rose up to tower over the surrounding greenery. Which is precisely where we ended up after the bus crossed a bridge on the western side.
The cylinder turned out to be a hotel and a rather fancy one at that.
I followed the tourists off the bus and into the lobby, trying not to gawk at the high ceiling and huge crystal chandeliers. Making my way to a white chair in the middle with a view of the check-in desk and entrance, I plopped down on its cushion like any other annoyed and bored teen-ager stuck waiting for overly-rich parents who had rudely taken away her phone. You know, in retaliation for an obviously bad attitude towards the entire foreign vacation experience.
It was amazingly effective. Both guests and the staff ignored me completely. No one wanted to risk an interaction with a surly spoiled brat if they could avoid it. Of course maintaining the pose for minutes on end was tiring. I mean how many exaggerated sighs and re-crossing of one’s arms can one do without the performance bordering on comedy?
One had to add in a number of exasperated eye-rolls towards the elevators just to mix up the routine.
Unfortunately I’d not escaped all attention. A bell-boy youth kept staring every time he walked past - and not in a good way.He had a disturbing leer which widened with each pass even though I had done my best to not acknowledge his entire existence.
Monitoring his position in the reflections off the tall arching windows, I caught when he decided that now was his time to make a move as he changed course to head directly towards my set of lounge chairs. Shit.
I was mid-prep in mentally charting a path to the girl’s restroom to hide when a mountain of muscle emerged from an elevator wearing custom-tailored silk slacks with a matching dark blazer.
Those shoulders and bulging biceps were awfully familiar.
Scrambling out of the chair I ran across the lobby leaving my erstwhile creepy suitor stuck reconsidering his current plans.
As for muscles, combat-honed awareness had him spinning around to appraise a possible threat only to see a girl wearing sunglasses and a wide hat barreling towards him.
“Fred!” I shouted with a wide grin.
He frowned before recognition kicked in. “Holy shit. Princess?”
My arms wrapped around his wide chest without thinking. Fred, a.k.a. ‘Doc’, had led the team in Syria where we had saved Kokabiel and prevented Azazel from getting his hands on the Book of Raziel. He worked for Kami Kurohoshi and if he was here then I was no longer alone and penniless in a far away land.
I damn near sobbed into his pectorals with relief.
Once I’d gotten my emotions under control again Fred cautioned that I should say nothing and ushered me to the elevators. We went up to a suite that required his hotel key-card to even arrive at the right floor.
“Sit,” he commanded, pointing at a couch. I sat and he strode into the next room, giving me time to check out the suite. In addition to the amazingly comfortable couch the room had an incredible view of the Nile which stretched forth before us as this long water snake. It also had a full-on computer command center setup with consoles for three people and a ton of wide-screen displays.
All of which were showing satellite maps to various pyramids.
“Alright.” Fred emerged from one of the bedrooms with a rather sleepy hacker following behind. The groggy guy was rather scrawny and wearing only a battered old pair of Deadpool sweatpants.
“Princess,” he nodded. If he was surprised to see me, he didn’t show it.
“Coffee?” Derek pointed to a gourmet espresso machine that took over a good chunk of the kitchen’s counter space.
“Uh, got any tea?”
He made a face. “Eh, maybe. Lemme see.”
Fred shook his head, taking a seat in a leather recliner opposite the couch. “That can wait. We need a secure line out.” He waved a satellite phone at Derek.
“Fine, fine!” grumbled Derek. “Whatever happened to hospitality…”
“Now,” Fred scowled.
Derek to shrugged apologetically at me before flipping light brown bangs out of his eyes and letting skinny fingers fly across one of the keyboards. He didn’t bother with the office chair. “There ya go, man.”
“Is it tight?” asked Fred.
“Tighter than the bond between Siamese twins.” Derek yawned and headed into the kitchen, hopefully to fulfill the promise of caffeine for all.
Fred dialed the phone. It didn’t take more than one ring for someone to answer. He skipped the polite hellos.
“This is Doc. I need to speak to the boss. Like now.” Pause. “I don’t give a shit about what he’s doing, this is priority.” Shorter pause. “I’ll take all the damn responsibility, now get him on the line.” Longer pause. “Sir. The situation has changed.” Fred lifted his head to stare into my eyes. “The angel has arrived. Yes sir. She’s right here.”
He held out the phone. “Boss wants to talk.”
I took it while wondering if Erica could somehow intercept it in spite of Derek’s proclamations. “Heya Kami,” I said casually as if talking to an old friend.
Fred didn’t flinch but in the kitchen I heard Derek fumble a coffee mug onto the counter. Heh.
“Jordan Emrys,” said the dragon on the other end of the phone. “As of an hour ago intel placed you in New Hampshire after a jaunt to El Paso.”
“Yeah, well, I accidentally teleported here. To Giza.”
I told him all about Erica using Tamara’s scrying sphere to try and unravel the mystery of Zap’s - well, Heru’s - ancient pyramid scheme to save the world from the potential manna flood.
“I think she figured it out,” I added. “But we’re out of time. Before slipping sideways face first into the sand here I saw Set and the queen making their way through the spirit world towards the pyramids. And he saw me in return.”
I had a sudden question. “Hey, what are Fred and Derek doing here though? I hadn’t had a chance yet to fill you in on the Egypt stuff. Seems like a crazy coincidence.”
“It isn’t. They are tracking cargo which was smuggled from El Paso into Mexico before being loaded onto a plane which landed in Cairo twelve hours ago. Diego’s daughter has kept us at least partially informed.” There was a hint of rebuke in his tone. Okay, so it was more than just a hint.
“Shit. I’m sorry, Kami. There’s just been so much going on.”
“You should endeavor to keep your allies more in the loop.”
“Okay okay, I get it!” My mind then latched what he’d said. “Wait, El Paso? To Cairo? Fuck! Are you saying the the bomb has been moved to Egypt?”
“There is a high probability. We’re tracing the smugglers and the payments as well.”
“I bet those will lead back to the Grigori.”
“Yeah. To Sariel. Something I found out from Zakiel; he’s the one who harnessed the energies that Bishop used to make the bombs.”
“Sariel,” he repeated, his voice growling. “Then we know who to blame for the attack on my daughter.”
I swallowed. “Look, they only used a small device on the school. This new one could take out most of the middle east. And the queen could do the same with what she’s absorbed though she’ll save that power on the third seal.”
“And Sariel would use his to prevent her success.”
“Perhaps we should let him. He could weaken her before we make any attempts to confront her.”
“Not a good idea. I think if we’re not careful then the pyramids’ device to manage the energy surge could be destroyed. We need to protect that. Sariel might not even know about it and inadvertently wipe it out.”
“Then what do you believe are the alternatives?” He sounded like a teacher quizzing a student. Which given the gravity of the discussion was disturbing.
“Honestly? I think we try to win the race. Get Zap, Erica, and Danielle out here as quick as possible. Let Zap and Erica fire up the pyramid spirit-device thing and once it’s safely active try to get Danielle to blow that seal. Sariel, if I read things right, would probably withdraw to preserve the trump card of his bomb for preventing the next seal from breaking instead. The queen might then be amiable to bargain her own retreat in exchange for Zap allowing enough manna to flow to all the incarnate fae so their spirit natures could all wake up.”
“Is that possible?”
“Hell if I know. But if that seal is gone and the machine works then I also bet Danielle would have access to enough power to shut the queen down if need be.”
“And if we don’t get there in time? What then?”
“Then we damn well do whatever we can to keep everyone across the world alive and sane! You got any better ideas?”
“Not at this time.”
“Okay then. Right. Uh, how should we go about getting them all flights? The DPA is also going to want to know what’s up. Could the U.S. military help us any?”
“Not directly. Not without causing an international incident. The situation in Egypt is tense at the moment and their military is nervous.”
I thought of Tsáyidiel’s comment about politics and domains. “Oh. Yeah, okay.”
“Leave the travel arrangements and discussions with the DPA to me. Use this phone to contact your friends and have them prepare. A car will arrive at the school to transport them to the airport within an hour.”
“Danielle should already be hidden by the DPA and won’t be at the school.”
“That will not be an issue.”
“Gotcha. Anything else I can do while I wait for everyone to get here?”
“Yes. Stay in the rooms at the hotel where you’re at. Room service only and don’t be seen.”
“Uhm, not that I’m really in the mood to play tourist and all, but why?”
“Sariel and the fae both will have agents already in the city. If you are discovered they could make a preemptive strike against you.”
“Oh.” Come to think of it Alal was awfully prepared to keep me hidden from the moment I popped onto the sand. She also knew which hotel to send me to. I was tempted to tell Kami about her but felt I shouldn’t, though I wasn’t entirely sure why. It just felt like it could be a possible distraction from where we really needed to remain focused.
Kami switched from instructor to commander mode. “Prepare for all contingencies at the site before moving. Inform Fred that further instructions will arrive shortly. And one other thing.” He paused.
He hung up.
Phone calls were made to the folks at Whateley to make the arrangements. Of them all the hardest was to Evie. I’d promised her to always say good-bye before leaving and here I’d managed to accidentally disappear yet again. In resignation to the seeming inevitable she’d changed the promise:
I now was sworn to always return.
After a dinner of some amazing kabob ordered up from a place next to the hotel the rest of the evening was spent trying to be unobtrusive while browsing the web on one of the available terminals, Meanwhile Derek was wheeling his chair between the other two typing like a fiend whacked out on cocaine.
I left him alone.
Instead I did some basic research on the Djoser Pyramid. It was the first pyramid ever built and the Egyptian ‘Antiquities Authority’ had recently hired a foreign firm to help fix the ceiling above the center burial chamber. There had been a nearby earthquake in 1992 and concern was high that the entire structure - not just that ceiling - was on the verge of collapse. With the more recent massive quake in Syria a month ago, there was now a lot more debate between professors and architects as to the best way to fix it. The discussions reflected a fair amount of confusion due to various authorities not wanting to take responsibility for any actual decisions. It was just clear that the pyramid could fall in on itself at any moment.
Which was just freaking fantastic news and didn’t totally add an entirely new fucked up dimension to us going out there.
I was groaning when Fred brought me a fresh cup of tea. As for himself he had a large mug of coffee and sat down nearby to take a deep swig. He must’ve dumped a plantation’s worth of sugar in that mug as I could smell the sweetness from a few feet away.
“Hey, Fred?” I asked before blowing across the top of my cup.
“I never did find out what all happened on the ground back in Aleppo while I was busy being a punching bag in the sky.”
“Oh,” he grinned. “Nothing much, really. I kept trying to revive Miggy while your buddy Nick played footsie with a devisor-power boosted geomancer.”
“Earth magic apparently. Guy was lifting the ground and smacking us with it. Nick kept blocking his spellwork.”
“Yeah. Your sorcerer ran out of juice doing that too. If Miggy hadn’t woken up in time to nuke the geomancer’s ass we’d have been smeared across the highway.”
“Huh.” I took a sip of tea. Dangit, still too hot. “Wait a minute. When I got down there Nick was busy throwing shields up against Soren. How’d he do that if he was already tapped out?”
Fred leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied smile. “Oh that? Well I’ve got what has been termed as ‘manna-enriched’ blood. Usually fuels folks’ healing. But Nick figured out I could act as a battery for a mage just like our dearly departed friend the geomancer had used. Damn near drained me dry too, but it worked.”
“That’s pretty clever.”
“Nick seemed like a pretty sharp guy and kept his cool under fire. Sharp enough that I’d hate to go up against him. He clearly plays for keeps.”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to.”
“I hear that. Enjoy the tea. Then I’d suggest trying to get some sleep.” The big man stretched before getting up. “I’ve got a few more things to do before I can try that myself.”
“Okay. Thanks, Fred.”
He walked off, taking his over-sized coffee mug with him. On its side was a red-cross emblem painted to look like it was being held together by strips of duct tape and even a patch of chewing gum.
Deciding that while the tea was very good even more caffeine was probably not, I took the cup into my room and set it aside. Then I tried to get some sleep.
Yeah, that didn’t work. Every time I’d just about drift off I’d panic and worry I was going to slip off to some other dream realm, grabbing at the sheets to make sure I was still there. Eventually I gave up and just watched random things on the television with the volume turned down while pretending I wasn’t worrying myself sick about how the heck we were going to stop a mad faerie queen and an entire chorus of freaking out fallen angels.
The whole conversation about the throne in Heaven with Armaros tried to intrude as well, but nope. Wasn’t going there. I could only handle so much insanity at once and was already far beyond my limits.
At around six a.m. Fred poked his head into my room.
“Hey there Princess,” the big guy said. “The team is gathering. Rise and…shine.” He smirked.
“Ha ha, very funny,” I grumbled.
Having only one set of clothes it didn’t take long to freshen up and stumble out to where some new folks were already hanging out in front of the view over the Nile. An African woman with a commanding presence making her seem taller than she actually was stood at the windows. She wore a similar tactical outfit to Fred with all the pockets for ammo and other goodies and she had her hands clasped behind her back with thick boots planted as if at attention. A military camo-style cap perched over a short buzz cut to complete the ‘don’t-mess-with-me-dumbass’ look.
Sitting in chairs opposite were another woman and a man. Neither of these two looked like they’d slept much recently the blue-haired woman was glaring angrily at the guy who in turn was pointedly ignoring her. Across his lap was stretched a coat about the same color as the hands busily sewing up several large cuts in the leather. He was murmuring as he did so and I could feel the flow of power of the words as they merged with the thread and material to seal not just the fabric but spells entwined into the coat which had been damaged by whatever had sliced it up. Fred’s transfusion case sat on the table beside him along with a wad of used bandages and tubing.
I tensed abruptly. “Fred,” I said under my breath, “Are those two who I think they are?”
A big hand pressed into my shoulder. “They were sent by the boss. Is there a problem?”
Light other than the morning sun’s filled the room. “You’re goddamn right there’s a problem!” I snarled, stepping forward and jerking free from Fred’s grip.
The blue-haired woman instinctively pulled her feet up as if preparing to leap into action. The man’s eyes narrowed as if attempting to decide how much of a threat I actually presented.
If he only knew.
Her blue hair and the residual swelling along the guy’s jaw despite Fred’s blood treatment made it clear. These two were the assassins who’d tried to kill Danielle.
They’d escaped the military, they weren’t going to do so from me.
“Oh shit,” Fred was yelling. “Isong!”
With a shout of my own a bowling ball sized spark lanced outward from my hand towards the still-seated jerk aimed to knock his nose into his back teeth.
To my surprise the blast didn’t land. The lady at the window clapped, sending a shockwave ripping through the air which solidified as a speckled turquoise shield of power in front of the assassin. As the light shredded through the barrier she spun her hands and the shield rotated sideways deflecting the rest of the energy off to the side.
Instead of his face the window shattered, shards streaming towards the river below like fireworks glowing brightly before their fizzling end.
“Aradia! Enough!” cracked the voice of the woman who had launched the shield.
Another volley was ready in my hand but I held onto it. “They’re killers!”
“Stand down!” the woman commanded as she stepped between me and the stunned pair.
“I don’t know who you are lady but get out of my way!” A second ball of power flickered into my other hand.
The blue-haired woman’s eyes narrowed in concentration and the air near me twisted, like warps in the pattern of space. Danielle had told me about her, so I knew what that meant. I prepared to drop the human guise and use my powered wings as shields.
“Don’t!” barked the military lady but this time towards the other woman. “Tanya, break the agreement at your peril. Same goes for you Hassan.”
The man was staring at the edges of glass along the windowsill still shimmering with the residues of light. “Prime,” Hassan said, bruised jaw gaping with awe. “She wields prime.”
“The agreement doesn’t prevent me from defending myself!” Tanya protested, half standing on her chair. “I’ll stand down if she does!”
The lady in the cap spread her hands apart to prepare another one of her energy shields, when the door to the suite behind me opened. I didn’t turn to look, keeping focus on the two deserving justice but also wary of what the tactical lady might do.
“Hola everybody!” proclaimed a man who’s voice I recognized. Miguel, the third member of Kurohoshi’s team in Syria. “I got the kids…whoa, what the hell?”
“Stay cool, Miggy,” cautioned Fred. “Captain Isong’s got this.”
I sure as shit didn’t agree with that. Visions of all those innocent girls helpless in their beds from the psychic bomb filled my head along with all of Haruko’s new scars. The orbs in my hands gained intensity. Two orbs, two targets, and I bet if I filled them with enough intensity Isong’s shields would shred like paper.
Danielle’s tired voice interrupted the thought. “For fuck’s sake, Jordan. Put those away or I’ll launch you out the window into the river just to cool your ass off.”
“I know who they are,” she said firmly. “Kami filled me in while we were in the air. Now behave!”
She sounded so much like my sister I flinched and my hands lowered. “Surely he wants them dead too?”
Isong moved closer, still keeping herself between me and my targets. “The Colonel gave them a choice after explaining the depths of the mistakes they had made. They chose servitude.”
“You can’t trust them!” I growled. “They could back-stab us and return to Sariel.”
Tanya piped up from behind Isong. “For what it’s worth, if Hassan had told me up front what the mission was I’d never have taken it.”
“And him?” I pointed a bright finger at Hassan. “What’s his excuse? He knew exactly what the hell he was doing!”
Keeping hands carefully placed atop the coat he was mending, Hassan met my accusing glare with a steady and unflinching gaze. “I took a job which was offered for a price they knew I could never refuse. I have no excuse that would satisfy you.”
“Jesus,” Fred muttered. “You aren’t helping yourself there buddy.”
Yeah, I had to agree with Fred. “So money is more important to you than innocent lives?! Kami may have offered you a deal but I was never a party to that!”
“Money is nothing. Knowledge, that is everything.” Hassan’s fingers pressed into the leather.
His words made me sick. “Then you’d betray us in an instant to gain whatever Sariel offered.”
“The dragon has made it clear that I will cease living should I cross him no matter where I may go. And that he would not be satisfied with simply taking my life.”
I hesitated. That didn’t sound good either. “Did Kurohoshi threaten your family or something?” Fuck. Kami had been so helpful but what did I really know about his methods? He was one of the good guys, right? Given the circumstances and threat to the world did I have a choice to refuse his aid even if he wasn’t?
The world didn’t move but it shifted all the same, leaving me feeling as young as I appeared and equally naive.
Hassan shook his head. “No. He promised to strip the power and knowledge I have so carefully accumulated across many lifetimes from my soul. A fate far worse than any death. You have no fear of betrayal from me, oh wielder of prime. I would rather die fighting your enemies than risk such a loss.”
Danielle’s hand touched a forearm, gently pushing it down. “I don’t like this any more than you do. But right now we need the help.”
Zap had stood just inside the room next to Erica where they were watching quietly. Whereas he had put down his bag and taken a battle-ready stance, Erica stood impatiently with crossed arms. I asked them, “You both agree with this?”
Gesturing with open hands Zap spoke first. “They were sent to kill Danielle. If she says okay then how can I not?”
Erica just rolled her eyes. “You’re wasting time. Either kill him or quit grandstanding. We have work to do.”
Reluctantly I let the energy dissipate. Staring into the assassin’s mercenary cold eyes I really hoped it was the right thing to have done.
Captain Isong’s mission briefing was, as the term would imply, brief. Through a hefty donation (in other words, a serious bribe) the professor of antiquities in charge of the Djozer pyramid’s restoration - a Dr. Fahmy - agreed to allow three high school students a private tour of the inside. The story given was that Zap was the son of someone to whom Kami owed a favor and Zap had been obsessed with studying this pyramid in particular. His father, being an important figure, had insisted that Kami provide a security detail. Thus justifying the rest of the tactical team beyond Zap’s three other classmates.
The mission’s goal was summed up succinctly: get Zap, Erica, and Danielle into the pyramid and protect them while they did whatever it is they needed to do. You know, like activate a many-millennia old magical construct and possibly breaking one of the seven seals of the Book of Revelations all without causing an unstable pyramid to collapse on top of everyone.
Nothing major or anything. Ha!
We split up into three vehicles. As usual they’d gotten large SUVs, though this time they were white instead of black. Viva la difference? Danielle and I were in the middle car of the convoy, sitting behind Fred and Derek. Fred drove, of course, as Derek had his nose buried in a laptop to monitor our communications and make sure the little earbud devices he’d handed out worked.
I had a suspicion our car had a shield generator like the one in Syria because in the cargo area were several hard-plastic cases interlinked with awfully familiar heavy cabling.
As the car trundled out of the hotel parking lot out into the mayhem of Cairo’s morning rush hour Danielle took my hand.
I gave hers a gentle squeeze. “You okay?”
“No. Yes. I don’t really know.”
“It’ll be alright. I’ll be right there with you.”
She squeezed back but didn’t say anything more. I considered asking how her flight out had been but she didn’t seem like she wanted to talk. Given how uncertain I was about bringing her towards certain danger, I didn’t say anything either.
Maybe we were both afraid to trigger the other into backing out and running away. So for the drive we just held the other’s hand and stared out the windows at the Nile glittering in the early morning sun.
Compared to the larger pyramids at Giza the one in Saqqara was rather small. Unlike the smooth angled walls of the others the Djoser pyramid was built with huge rocks stepping upwards - hence being called the ‘Step Pyramid’. An outer wall embedded with various buildings surrounded the pyramid, though at some spots it wasn’t so much a wall as just a tall mound of dirt.
We stopped in a paved lot right by the entrance even closer than the usual tourist parking after ignoring the guys on the way who shouted that cars were not allowed and offering camel rides instead. Access beyond the parking area was guarded by members of Egypt’s security forces all carrying some rather serious looking hardware. With everyone except Derek having gotten out of the vehicles, Captain Isong approached a pair of soldiers hanging out by these ridiculously tiny covered wooden huts serving as guard posts. Before she could say much to them a well-dressed white-bearded gentleman rushed out from one of the buildings.
“Hello! You are Dr. Fahmy’s party, yes?” he said in English.
“We are.” Isong replied. “Is Dr. Fahmy here?”
“Alas, no. You must forgive him, but with the short notice of your visit he was unable to reschedule important meetings with the Antiquities Association. I’m sure you understand.”
“Please convey our sadness that he was unable to join us.”
“I will, I will. I am Dr. Ashour, one of Dr. Fahmy’s associates.” He smiled expectantly.
“I am Captain Isong, head of the childrens’ security detail.”
“Of course. And where is the boy we have heard so much about?” Dr. Ashour looked purposefully over at Zap.
Poor Zap shot me a look of ‘please shoot me’ before dutifully walking over to be introduced. The professor proceeded to wax effusive about how delighted he was (though he clearly wasn’t) that such a promising young scholar had evinced an interest in Egypt’s history and with an arm around Zap’s shoulders led him up to the main entrance that cut through the protective outer walls.
Since it was still early morning there weren’t too many tourists around but there were several construction trucks and various piles of equipment under tarps. Whatever renovations they had in mind had clearly already started or were about to, which may have explained the heightened security as there were quite a few soldiers standing around looking rather bored. Theft of supplies must have been a concern. Several of the workers stared as we walked past. Okay, in all honesty they stared at me and Danielle. Despite our sunglasses and wide hats there was no disguising that we were obviously girls and attractive ones at that.
At least we weren’t cat-called or whistled at. The hulking presence of Fred at our side likely discouraged any such inclinations.
Dr. Ashour led us through a narrow slit in the reddish stone wall into a narrow corridor lined with columns reaching at least thirty feet high. While the vertical stonework didn’t seem all that huge to me, it was impressive all the same. These pillars had stood guard at this entrance for over four-thousand years.
“Workers have already gone inside and some passages are fairly tight,” Dr. Ashour was saying, “and while sadly the accessible rooms were looted long ago there is still much to be seen here at Djoser’s pyramid!”
“His name was Netjeriykhet.” Zap’s said with annoyance.
“Ah yes, young sir, while that is technically true he has been referred to as Djoser ever since-”
“Since the New Kingdom,” Zap interrupted. “Yeah, I know. That doesn’t change the fact it’s not his proper name. I would think a professor of history would want to be more accurate, unless of course they were once acolytes of Budge.”
The professor’s eyes tried to bulge out of their sockets in indignation and he inhaled deeply to protest even more vigorously against such a slander when his entire expression went blank as if a switch in his head had flipped and turned him off.
When the eyes blinked to refocus the man laughed before speaking in a vocal register utterly unlike how the professor had just sounded.
“That’s funny, kid. Though they renamed him in honor of what we made them build. You know, all these fancy structures commemorating every time you’d kick the bucket again. And again. Aaaand again.” The grin on the professor’s face became scarily wide.
We all froze in our tracks. Isong had a pistol in her hand pointed at the professor’s head faster than I could blink. Holy shit she was fast.
But she didn’t pull the trigger.
“Say the word, Zap, and we drop him,” she said coolly.
The professor, who was clearly no longer himself, smirked with amusement.
Zap held out a hand to Isong. “Don’t shoot.” To the professor he said, “Hey there, Set. How they hanging?”
“Remains to be seen, don’t it?” The god pointed at Erica. “You brought the Queen’s expert. Interesting choice. Sure you can trust her?”
“More than I trust you.” Zap shrugged. “But if you’re here then the Queen is already at the seal. What do you want?”
“Yeah she’s darn near close enough to piss on it. And since she doesn’t care one whit about our contingency plans you’d best hurry the fuck up.”
“We’re on our way in.”
“Avoid the main entrance. I’m not the only one who can play puppets with these simpletons. Oh, and since you were stupid enough to bring the beacon you’re likely to get more entertainment soon. Enjoy!”
Having said that the eyes rolled up and Dr. Ashour collapsed to the floor.
“What the hell was that?” Isong demanded.
“That was the god Set,” Zap said grimly. “And we’ve got several problems.”
My stomach sank as I too processed what Set had said.
Isong pointed the business end of her gun at the floor. “Then elucidate the situation. And be quick.”
Erica’s eyes closed with concentration. “There are several fae spirits nearby. Their wizards are capable of possessing humans, a trick they don’t like others to know about. To have this many there’s got to be an anchor artifact somewhere or a human mage is acting as one; destroy the anchor or shoot the channeler.” She turned towards the pyramid outside. “Shit. They’ve likely already gotten to people inside the pyramid.”
Keeping his own weapon low, Fred asked, “What’s that bit about a ‘beacon’? Are we bugged?”
Zap looked to me. “Damn. Aradia shines in the astral, like crazy bright. She can’t help it. We should have thought of that. If the Grigori have anyone keeping an astral watch for where she pops up then they probably already know she’s here in Cairo and will be able to trace her location. We’ve already seen that Sariel can use portals. They’re probably preparing a strike against us even now.”
Derek piped up into our ear-pieces. “Hey guys? The security dudes here just left their huts and are walking up the hill with guns in hand.”
Isong didn’t hesitate. “Derek, launch drones! I want eyes on the courtyard asap! Prepare to use the shield generator to intercept anything that comes from the air. Protect the pyramid! Miguel, Fred, guard the inner courtyard exit. Summoner prep your magic shit and get us assistance. Tanya, you’re with me.” With that she sprinted towards the narrow entrance we’d just come in, the turquoise shield forming up before her.
“What about us?” shouted Danielle in a rather shrill voice as everyone she had named bolted to their assigned tasks.
“Use the comms!” the captain snapped as she slid to one side of the stone entrance with weapon and shield aimed outward. In a more measured tone over the links she answered Danielle’s question. “Find an alternate way into the pyramid with the assumption that the main shaft is compromised. Aradia, you stick close and deal with anything that gets past everyone else.”
Hasan began murmuring to himself, hands and fingers moving in strange patterns. I could see the weaving nudge the world’s physical threads closer to ones much more elemental and pure, forging a singular harmony. It was strangely entrancing.
Erica’s nails dug harshly into my shoulder. “Don’t stare at him, idiot! Find the fae’s anchor! Your sight should be clearer than mine!”
Blinking clear I nodded, taking a step back and letting the space behind me fill with glowing feathers.
Perceptions shifted immediately.
To the side I could still see threads of magic coalescing around and inside Hassan prepare an opening through which an elemental force could manifest. His mutterings also became clearer: not magic so much as a negotiation, bargaining a portion of his own manna reserves in exchange for aid - the limits of said assistance set to only use up half of what was given.
I’ll say one thing for the guy, he had one heck of a reserve.
Standing behind Isong’s shield Tanya was busy channeling her own energies, causing the seams of reality to distort and energy to flow into the matter taking the shape imposed by her subconscious: swords. Two nasty looking sapphire daggers slipped through the rifts to hover over her shoulders.
Whereas looking past the walls I could see the patterns of the pair of soldiers approaching with rifles aimed at the entrance. Within them I could see the silvery-blue outlines of very different people: slender, tall, and wearing all too familiar robes emblazoned with the same symbol: a golden crown over black.
Queen Fionnabhair’s heraldry.
Behind them in a full suit of the most elegantly curved silver armor I’d ever seen walked another fae in the astral. His face was covered by a stag-horned helmet yet I recognized him by his arrogant bearing alone: Gwydian, the queen’s champion, a black-hilted long sword hanging in a scabbard on his belt. On his chest hung a pendant: a beautifully detailed wolf with jaws wide grasping a crescent moon. From that moon lines of force stretched towards all of the fae possessing the Egyptian soldiers, some lines stretching down under the pyramid.
“Erica,” I said with a forced calm I certainly didn’t feel. “I don’t think the anchor is physical.”
“Unlikely,” she said rather dubiously, her attention still towards the inner courtyard.
“Well Gwydian is in the astral behind those guys coming up the hill. He’s got a pendant that looks to be linking to all the other fae.”
Zap stepped closer. “I’ll deal with him.”
Erica shot Zap an angry look. “Don’t get distracted, hawk-lord. We need to get into the pyramid.”
He objected. “And how do you propose we do that without first stopping the fae? If we attack the main tunnel they could retreat to the center, shoot out the ceiling, and collapse the whole thing!”
Danielle put a placating hand between them. “I can get us down there.”
Erica raised a single eyebrow. “How?”
“The earth will move out of my way.” Danielle pointed to the dirt floor we all were standing on. Her white hair was pulled back in a ponytail but that one golden lock at her forehead had slipped free to dangle besides her face. “We’re out of time. Aradia will have to deal with Gwydion, keeping him too distracted to notice us.”
My turn to not like the ideas. “I’m going with you,” I insisted.
She smiled then, though it was oddly sad. “You’re needed here. You’re also our best hope to stop Sariel.” Before I could say anything more she threw herself into my arms, hugging tightly. “I got this, okay?”
I choked up. “I’m supposed to stay with you.”
“Not this time,” she said and leaned closer to whisper in an ear. “I love you, uncle.”
“I love you too.”
Pulling herself free she took Zap’s hand and reached for Erica’s except Erica flinched away from the touch. As for me I hadn’t wanted to let go.
“Step back,” she told me as snowflakes began to fall, disappearing into her matching hair.
Reluctantly I did so. The wooden planks lining the path under their feet sank immediately, pulling the three of them down. I looked to Zap wanting to tell him to take care of her, but what I saw caught the words in my throat.
A hawk-headed warrior stood over him, one eye made of pure sunlight and a spear of electrical fire held tightly to hand. The completely stoic bird-of-prey expression was an equal match to Zap’s own.
The walls of their passage closed over them, leaving me staring at the solid dirt in the gap where the planks had been.
Derek’s voice broke my indecisive reverie. “Heads-up, Captain. I’m now detecting spatial anomalies about one click west.”
“Those are likely portals,” said Hassan and he stepped closer to me. He’d taken off his sunglasses and his eyes now swirled as a pair of miniature tornadoes spinning madly in the sockets. “I suggest we cross the yard and take defensive positions on the western wall against whatever is coming. Ignore the pyramid entrances and perhaps those within will come out to us where we can deal with them without risking the pyramid itself.”
I glared at the assassin. “The people being possessed are innocent. No killing them, got it?” I’d said it across the comms and added, “Isong, you hear me? No killing!” Visions of the poor guy who died in Whateley’s magic cell flashed through my thoughts. Azazel had possessed him and burned out his mind before leaving.
I didn’t want that happening to anyone else.
From her defensive position Isong replied, “We do whatever is necessary to deliver the package. That’s the mission.” Her head turned to look back over her shoulder to notice her ‘packages’ had disappeared. “Where’d they go?”
“Down to where we cannot follow,” said Hassan. “Now we must guard their flank.”
“Into the ground? Shit.” Isong thought for a moment. “Then we defend here and keep everyone else busy.”
“Captain,” I said, “You can’t reach the artifact that’s holding the fae spirits here and allowing them to possess the soldiers. It’s not something physical. But I can. It’s on a spirit behind the guys coming up from the parking lot. You should go with Hassan.”
“You sure?” Isong asked, hardened eyes reflecting the sparks alighting the feathers covering my back.
Isong stared for a moment before nodding. “Fine. Derek, swing a drone with light arms fire to give us cover across the yard in case we need it.”
“Roger that. Shifting one now.”
The captain was still looking at me. “You ready?” She tilted her head at the wall, having already guessed why I kept sliding slowly along it towards her.
I let the light flow brighter still. “Give the word.”
She repositioned, pulling Tanya more solidly behind her blue-green shield as they backed away from the entrance. “Do it.”
With a yell I launched the energies I’d been channeling into my hands at the walls just to the sides of the entrance. Huge chunks of ancient stone hurled outward in a tremendous cloud of dust, buffeting the men who’d been preparing to open fire and knocking them off their feet. The thought that I was damaging precious Egyptian heritage didn’t even enter my thoughts.
I was focused entirely on one thing: kicking Gwydion’s ass and hurrying back to Danielle’s side.
Taking a running start I flew through the gap in the wall now wide enough for the wings.
Descending below the ground Zap knew exactly where to go. Imprinted in his memories as Netjeriykhet were the details of all the rooms and passages along with all the riches and treasures which had been buried there for his spirit to enjoy in the afterlife. Except his spirit hadn’t lingered but instead had needed to continue on and on so the work could continue.
A work whose ancient purpose called to him.
“We’re far enough down,” he said. “Now we go forward.”
Wisps of light fluttered about the enclosed space Danielle was forging around them as they went through clay-hardened dirt that had not seen the sun in centuries. The small puffs of light sparkled and danced seemingly of their own volition even though they were simple emanations of Danielle’s magic.
Erica stared at them, raw yearning appearing on her face before being shoved harshly aside. “We need to get to the control room.”
Zap grunted. “To get there we first go to my burial chamber.”
“Why there?” Erica asked. “Isn’t the throne room the more likely spot?”
“Because the burial chamber is the best place for us to cross over.”
“Cross over?” Danielle asked while slowly pushing the firmament around them.
Erica nodded. “Yeah, alright. I get it. We’ll have to spirit project ourselves to the plane where Imhotep built the device. Halfway between the living and the dead, like a spiritual sub-station.”
“The last time my spirit went walking,” Danielle said pensively, “I ended up in Arcadia.”
“That won’t happen,” Zap said firmly. “The whole design here is meant to anchor spirits to the in-between.”
“What about the people possessed by the fae?” Danielle asked. “Do we fight them?”
“Bad idea,” said Erica. “The whole restoration project here revolves around trying to shore up the ceiling right above the Pharaoh’s corpse. If his old body is even still there, that is.”
“It probably isn’t,” Zap said with disgust. “Mummies were prime targets of looters. Idiots in Europe would buy them to make potions or just mix the crushed remains in with their damned tea.”
“Eww.” Danielle made a disgusted face. “That’s gross.”
“Necromancy usually is,” commented Erica with bitter amusement. “Not a path for the squeamish.” She then looked thoughtful. “If we can’t fight them I could knock them out with a spell. But that carries the risk of Gwydion realizing we’re already down here.”
“Won’t the fae sense us coming in any case?” asked Zap.
Danielle shook her head. “Hopefully no. I’m trying to work a glamour around us as we go to prevent that.”
“Then let’s bypass the whole scenario,” Zap said. “Get us under the sarcophagus if you can, just make sure to shore things up so it won’t fall, got it? But don’t break out into the room.”
Erica raised an eyebrow. “Think that’ll be close enough?”
“If we lie down right under it, yeah.” Zap demonstrated by holding one hand flat just below the palm of the other. “Slip across without them even noticing.”
“We’ll need a hole for air,” Danielle added. “Who knows how long we’ll be out.”
“Good thinking,” agreed Erica. The two of them smiled grimly at each other, acknowledging shared experience.
Guided by Zap’s precision knowledge they carefully avoided the existing tunnels and chambers, making their way down and around. Reaching a certain point Zap put a finger to his lips indicating they should shush then pointed to the ceiling before turning it into a count of four.
The message was clear: four fae-possessed workers stood in the chamber directly above them.
Danielle swallowed and was thankful for the cooling flecks of snow quietly swirling within their pocket of air. Moving the earth like this wasn’t easy but she exhaled and concentrated once again, making the ground slip aside.
Finally Zap held up a hand for her to stop, much to her relief as she crouched over knees to catch her breath. The air in their bubble had already started going stale a few minutes past which wasn’t helping.
Zap ran a finger along the forward wall about two feet below the ceiling and pantomimed scooping dirt out from there. Danielle, not feeling quite ready yet but knowing time was critical, pushed up and resumed her work.
Soon a space just big enough for the three of them to crawl into lay under what Zap knew to be the central focus of the entire structure above them. Punctuating that space were several hardened pillars of compressed earth Danielle had forged to better secure the top from crushing them while their spirits were away.
One by one they pulled themselves up and wormed their way in. Once positioned with Zap in the middle Danielle carefully turned a hand as if grasping a small valve and several pipe-like openings appeared which led to the open chamber above and allowed fresh, albeit also rather stifled, air to flow.
Zap took the hand of each girl and this time Erica didn’t object. The history and majesty of this place reached for him and his spirit. The massively coordinated efforts of his people had built this lasting monument to his kingship, carved their adulations into its bedrock and walls, all shaped by the will of the master architect. The stone and dirt sang to him their prayers and their hopes as now, after all these millennia of wandering he, Netjeriykhet, had finally returned.
He didn’t even have to try to project his spirit. As soon as he closed his eyes they were pulled to where he knew they would be: his throne room.
They stood on immaculate marble flooring with columns of marble and gold towering over them, each pillar topped with four golden ‘shelves’ wrapping the circumference. A great golden kiosk stood upon the dais, brilliantly painted with sky-blue faience depicting scenes of Netjeriykhet’s conquests and glory. Cobras, lions, and many other animals also decorated the entire structure. Each pictorial equally covered with massive blood-red rubies, heart-wrenchingly pure green emeralds, and more precious stones than could be counted.
At its center perched the throne chair flanked by two pedestals. Hanging in the air above the pedestal to the left was a large glimmering silver and sapphire wadjet - recognizable to Erica and Danielle as an ‘Eye of Horus’ - held between the wings of two bird guardians. The wadjet’s central eye flickered with the image of the moon and as the whole symbol rotated the moon’s phases shifted to match, crescent to full to crescent to dark.
On the opposite plinth hovered an equally sized milky-white evanescent pearl scored by lightning-blue tendrils swirling across its surface which cast emanations painting everything around with slow watery tides as if part of some sunken Egyptian pirate’s treasure.
Of course what Zap was really staring at fixedly was the interloper daring to sit upon the throne. Grinning sharply white teeth shining from under brownish-black fur was Set. A simple grey wrap-around skirt left the broadly muscled human chest bare as he leaned forward in the gilded chair. Held in one hand was a tall metal staff, two spikes forking at the bottom and a long slender hook at the top reminiscent of Set’s own strange elongated animal-head: his was scepter, symbol of his power and dominion over the chaos at his command.
In the other hand rested a jade-green ankh, one whose center eyelet was crossed by a pillar with four horizontal ridges that mirrored the tall columns of the room: the djed - symbol of stability and permanence.
Danielle, however, was staring off to the side of the dais at the ten foot tall free-standing stained-glass which pulsed its own multi-colored lights across the room. The kaleidoscopic ellipse was held by two golden-winged statues, both women naked in profile and their metallic feathers filling out behind. Through the many-hued glass she sensed a passage leading towards constrained energies the magnitudes of which were beyond her ability to rationally comprehend.
Beyond those depths a being of nightmare and terrible power already hammered against the Third Seal, causing the glass to tremble and shake in its gilded frame.
Set broke the silence lingering in the air after their sudden arrival.
“Well, that took you long enough,” he sneered. “What, you stop to fuck these two on the way in?” Straightening on the throne he added with a leer, “The fae at least is damn hot but the human was all kinds of stringy.”
Danielle flushed a bright red. Erica - who’s spirit self looked like a woman in her late twenties - only laughed. “I’ll grant you that one. My body’s definitely been through the shit lately.”
Set barked with amusement. “Ha!”
Zap however was clearly not entertained, electrical sparks gathering in eyes and fists. “You. Are sitting. On what is mine.”
“Oh this?” Set gestured at the chair even as the weird dog-not-dog’s eyes narrowed. “Only the strong get to sit here, boy.”
Taking a step forward, sparks cascaded along a line and formed a staff of power within Zap’s hand.
“Hey!” Danielle interrupted, looking between Zap and the god eager for a fight. “We don’t have time for that!”
Both looked to her uncomprehendingly.
“The queen!” she said with exasperation. “She’s already trying to break the seal. Stop being idiots and come over here and see this!” Danielle pointed at the vibrating chaotic mix of colored glass. “We need to stop her!”
Set’s wide nostrils snorted. “Stop? That’s not why I’m here. It’s time for that damn thing to fuck off and shatter. It’s time for the gods to get their heads out of their asses and rule!” He stood and casually tossed the ankh to Erica. She caught it in surprise and immediately wary. Set pointed at her. “Figure out the controls to Imhotep’s thing and get it set up. When the rush hits you’ll need a god to hold the tide until the power can be fed back onto itself and contained. That’s what those two things are for.” He turned a finger first to the floating wedjet and then the glowing pearl.
Danielle protested. “None of that will matter if Fionnabhair breaks the seal. She wants the world flooded; she wants the humans wiped out. Your device was designed to deal with a natural reflow but the queen will focus it all through the lens of all the death-gained fuel she’s gained from that manna bomb!”
Set shrugged and smirked. “Challenges are what make life worth living.”
“Jesus,” Erica said. “You really think you can handle all that?”
Waving at the multi-faceted glowing portal Set snorted. “The seal is already cracking. So if the fae wants to argue with her sister as to who gets to open it the rest of the way then she can. I couldn’t give a shit which of them does it.”
Danielle blinked. “You’d just let me go?”
“Sure,” Set said. “But just you. Me and the pup here have things to discuss. And the human needs to stop gawking and get to work.”
Eyes of palest ice looked to Zap and Erica, flickering first with doubt but shifting stubbornly to resolution. “Okay.”
Zap blinked. “You sure you can win?”
Snow gathered at Danielle’s feet. “No. But I have to try. You sure you can beat Set?”
The god of chaos, fire, and violence grinned wider while Zap’s glare hardened.
Danielle smiled sadly. “Give him hell, Zap. And good luck Erica.” She moved towards the madly colored portal.
Erica, holding the ankh tightly in hand, called out. “Kick her ass!” Then in the ancient language of the fae she added, “Good hunting.”
In a shimmer of snowy sparks Danielle passed through the portal.
Without missing a beat Set leapt off the dais, swinging a staff whose metal now bubbled and shifted like angry storm-clouds.
Zap barely had time to react and counter with his own weapon, the sharp collision of their staves resounding through the throne room like a hammer against a mighty gong. Leaning in towards Zap’s face Set bared long ivory fangs.
“Alright kid. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
It became immediately obvious why Gwydion held the title of Queen’s Champion. I’d hoped to bum-rush him by surprise and in the chaos of grappling rip the pendant off his chest.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Before I could smash into his perfectly polished armor he spun to the side, a mailed hand whipping itself onto my wrist while his other arm braced against my elbow to pull me past, knowing full well that at this speed I couldn’t turn quick enough to correct. Then the bastard pulled downward with brutal strength, trying to drive me face first into the dirt.
Two things saved my molars from a deep sand-blasting. First was all the experience getting thrown about by Tian and the trained instinct of ducking into a roll so instead of snorting pebbles I flipped and took most of the force on spread wings which did an amazing job of cushioning the impact. Second was his fist had closed onto one of Camael’s bracers.
The armor worn by angels of war are not just for looking badass. Crimson flames roared over Gwydion’s mailed fist, the metal instantly heating to the intense red-white of a forge. With a shout of fury and pain the Queen’s Champion dropped his grip and quickly ripped his searing glove free from the hand, tossing it to the side. The skin of the now-exposed hand steamed and sizzled but the Champion grunted and flexed it anyway before clenching a fist.
So much for hoping that it’d been disabled.
Rolling rapidly to one side I let the wings pull me back into a standing guard position, preparing for a counter-attack.
“Those bracers,” he said, the words echoing strangely from inside the helmet. “They are not yours.”
I shifted my feet to take a further step back. “They were a gift.”
“Only the owner could bestow such upon another and have them provide such a defense. So it is true then that Prince Camael has returned.”
Wait, what? Soren had given them to me, not Camael.
“Have you not wondered why angels crafted and wore such battle-armor? Why the power of your words alone was insufficient in war?” Gwydion held up his fist and blew across the burnt and crackling skin.
“Honestly I hadn’t given it much thought.”
“Then I shall enlighten you.” With a smoothly practiced motion he pulled the sword at his waist from its sheath. The black hilt was a cross-piece without any decorations, a simple blade forged from three feet of coal-blackened steel which was crude compared to the fae artistry of his armor. No runes. No fine metal work.
Only an aura of wrongness that spread outward as if reality wished desperately to pull away from its mere presence.
I gulped. I was staring at an item not of death but of oblivion, waves of a pure evil beyond all evil pulsing from that blade.
The Queen’s Champion pointed the tip of the horrid thing steadily towards me. “I am counted as old even among the long-lived fae,” Gwydion said as he sighted down the sword. “Few are aware of exactly how many ages I have witnessed, watching as the fortunes of my people have waxed and waned. I was there in the beginning, when we made our homes in the first realms to stabilize when all was new and the angels of Elohim lived in harmony with the other races of beings.”
One of his legs slid backwards into a fighting stance akin to that of a fencer. As heavy as that sword must have been he obviously had the strength to wield it as if it were a lightweight epee or foil.
“I was there,” he continued, “when the Archangel Samael had his disagreement with Elohim and felt compelled to demonstrate his convictions. Many of us Sidhe had fought with him as we stood against the early waves of the Primal Chaos. Many of us remembered it was not Elohim but Samael and his fiercely loyal warriors who always had arrived in time to save our villages and people from annihilation by the spawn of that Darkness which wishes to swallow all.”
He began to advance and I couldn’t help but start backing away.
“To kill an angel requires destroying first its connection to Elohim and second its holy word. But how do you truly kill an idea?” He paused, adjusting his grip on the weapon. “You do so with this.”
Even knowing it was coming the sheer speed and fury of his attack still was shocking. Without even a shout he crossed the distance, sword snapping towards my neck. While he’d been talking I’d pulled down as much light as I could without giving away that I’d done so, but now it burst outward as if trying to shield me in an aura of heavenly brilliance.
His sword sliced through the light like the moon eclipsing the sun to cast all into shadow.
I dodged and spun wildly away from his continual powerful swings. The warrior wasted no motion, moving like a precision machine designed to do one thing: puncture and cleave wherever it was aimed. If I hadn’t powered up I would have been shredded instantly instead of being barely able to spin away from each deadly thrust.
Knowing I couldn’t keep that up I shouted and launched a blast of light at him, hoping it would at least knock him back. He sliced through its light and to my horror the sword swallowed it up like a damn hoover vacuum cleaner.
Or like a black hole swallowing another star.
The bastard even paused to salute the attempt, allowing me to pull further away. “It was with blades such as this we proved to Elohim His weakness. Only to those deemed worthy did Samael provide such weapons, each pulled forth from the Chaos by the Archon who fought at his side.”
He charged forward even faster somehow, that blade relentlessly seeking any piece of me it could get. It was all I could do to maintain focus and predict where it would strike, willing myself to not be there when it did. But his speed kept increasing and the margin kept narrowing.
Finally with a shout of his own he swung at my head after pummeling me into a half-kneeling position. I did the only thing I could think of and prayed the hint given from his own words proved true. I blocked the sword with Camael’s bracers crossed-braced to catch the blade.
The bracers held, catching fire with flames eager to push away the darkness that dared touch its black and gold.
Gwydion leaned in on the sword, pushing his strength to shove me further towards the ground, the wolf of his pendant preparing to choke on its moon as it sat against his chest. “I was the only Sidhe deemed worthy. I was the only fae gifted a blade by the Archon Alal and recruited to her own company.”
Using the wings to gather my strength I slowly pushed the blade upward, digging in with a foot to gain leverage while staring at the pendant now only inches away. It was so close and I could see the chain was mere decoration as the entire thing had been welded to his armor. The spellworking inside it was a marvel of intricate patterns, runes interlocking with each other in a very precise configuration. “Alal? You owe her allegiance? That’s funny.”
He snarled with noble-born anger. “You mock me?”
“Nope. It’s just that,” I said as I felt my foot take solid purchase, “Alal helped me get here.”
He blanched in sudden surprise and I took the risk. Using one bracer I shoved his sword laterally with all my strength, fingers of the now freed hand grabbed at the wolf and moon. Into the damn thing I then poured all the light I had mustered directly into the delicate crafting. In a blinding flash the moon exploded, sending shards of armor not only outward but inward. Gwydion screamed with pain from the shrapnel and I screamed with him.
The blade hadn’t turned enough and its tip tore through the tip of one of my burning wings.
Gwydion stumbled away, gloved hand clutching his chest where red blood poured through the wide hole now ripped through his armor. “I do not understand,” he gasped. “Why would she help you?”
A gurgle was all I could manage for reply. Where his chaos-forged sword had cut deep across the wing I was rapidly leaking. Not blood, but light that shone forth from the wound like a searchlight desperately sweeping across the sky for a target it just couldn’t find. Try as I might to heal it the gash refused to close. A pulse from the burning bracers provided a crazy idea and feeling all my strength flooding out I went with it and screamed a second time as I reached over a shoulder.
I used the fire of the bracer to cauterize the wing. Holy fuck did that hurt.
Gasping for breath while still on one knee I looked over to the Queen’s Champion. He too had fallen to a knee a few feet away, pressing against his own wound. The chaos blade dangled loosely in his grip, its tip slowly sinking into the dirt as if swallowing the very ground itself pebble by pebble.
“I don’t understand either,” I said in a pained voice. “I didn’t even know what she was until you said it.”
A wind blew between us and his image rippled. Except there wasn’t really a wind.
“If she aids you,” he said as he began to fade away, “Then you are one to fulfill the will of The Destroyer.”
I got no reply as the asshole had gone. At least he’d taken the cursed sword with him.
Struggling to my feet I winced as the wing twitched from the movement. I stared at the fires surrounding the bracers for a moment trying to process all that he’d said. If he was right about them then Camael himself had given them to me.
Which meant Soren was Camael. And if that was the case, where the heck was he? I mean if he was supposed to be War, the second damned horseman, shouldn’t he be here helping?
Also, what the hell did it mean that Alal was an Archon of Chaos? I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant other than having heard something about one being the source of Azazel’s fully craptastic evil power and therefore starting the entire mess with the Grigori long ago in the first place.
Shit. However you sliced it, none of that sounded good. And being sliced definitely sucked, I might add.
An explosion in the sky over the pyramid reminded of more pressing matters. A bluish forcefield under the blast quickly turned red in a hemisphere projected by a score of drones floating above the stones. I watched as a second blast detonated and sent another section into the red. Someone was shelling the pyramid and Derek was trying to save it using a swarm of small drones unleashed from the open end of one of the SUVs.
I ran towards the new fight, stepping over the unconscious guards who had dropped with the pendant’s destruction. As I did I quoted words uttered by uncounted soldiers who had found themselves in similar shitty situations:
Erica gripped the jade ankh in a tight fist and stared into space. She had leaned up against one of the hieroglyphic-covered walls of the throne room off in a corner away from the two combatants who were busily smashing each other through the columns, the dais, and occasionally the throne itself. This spirit place was apparently designed for such a thing as all the shattered pieces of architecture and furniture kept restoring themselves as soon as the raucous battle had moved on to a different portion of the room.
She, however, was doing her darned best to ignore the two idiots and concentrate on the energetic patterns underlying the entire area which was coded in a self-invented mystical-yet-logical language created by a genius buried millennia ago. The scope of what had been constructed was too vast to comprehend quickly so she had resorted to cheating given their obvious time pressures.
Her other hand held her own silver pocketwatch, thumb hovering over the button. She’d lost count of how many time-limited puzzles and death-traps the royal fae had forced their human pet to solve for their entertainment. By necessity she had come up with a solution that at least had given her a chance. Failure had always been met with severe pain.
And spirits felt pain on whole other levels than physical bodies did.
“Neat trick,” said a voice off to her side.
Startled, she spared a glance away from the ribbons of symbols flowing past and was surprised with what she saw. “Aren’t you still busy ‘conversing’ with Zap?”
Another quick dart of her eyes confirmed that yes, Zap and Set were indeed still midair flailing at each other with their two staves in slow motion, one moving like a stormfront across a dusky sky and the other an answering thunderbolt eager to connect the clouds with the earth.
Yet sitting on a barstool next to her was also Set, now wearing cargo shorts, flip flops, and a black Hawaiian shirt covered in blood-red flowers. He even wore a wide-brimmed straw hat.
This Set held up a can of beer and expertly cracked it open with a single hand. “Advantage of being a god, chickadee. Besides, the kid’s doing well enough.” He chugged the entire can in one go, half the beer spilling out the sides of his long muzzle before he burped loudly and tossed the empty aside. “Figure all this crap out yet?”
“Imhotep’s control design? Working on it. Might help if you shut up.”
Set chuckled. “Didn’t mean just the machine. You’re supposed to be all kinds of fucking smart, right? So impress me.”
“Oh. That.” She rotated the ankh slightly, watching the effect doing so had on the stream of bluish-green symbols flowing throughout the room. “You want to be entertained? Then lets trade.”
The god cocked an eye at her. “What’cha offering?”
Across the hall the other Set and Zap launched energetic attacks at the other, shields forged from suddenly manifested sigils deflecting and grounding out the blasts.
“You tell me about Imhotep, what he was like, his whole dossier. And in return I’ll tell you what the fuck I’ve figured out.”
“Why you want to know about him? Just hack his shit.” A second can appeared in the god’s hand, this time he sipped instead of trying to drown himself with it.
“Shows what you know about hacking. We got a deal or what? You’re the one who asked, remember.”
The god scratched atop his long nose. “That’s fair, sure. So the guy was gifted in the intelligence department. Like in a contest of wits his balls swung on equal par with Thoth’s.”
“I knew that already. Had to have been to make all this.” She nodded at the magic surrounding them. “But alright, my turn. It was no coincidence that the queen decided to save my ass from Azazel that day. She’d probably been looking for an excuse to grab me for awhile, especially once Aradia showed up. I’m guessing that fucked with your timetables.”
Set grinned. “Yeah, caused a right panic when sparky appeared on the scene.” He barked a short laugh. “Gotta love it when a royal bitch can’t figure out whether something helps or fucks with their carefully laid plans. Sariel getting his hands on one of those bombs downright triggered a seizure in the old girl too. She demanded we move and pronto.”
“Imhotep was the pharaoh’s vizier, right? Right hand guy. He live the high life and indulge?”
“Hmm,” Set considered. “No. He could have too. Was offered all the best looking sluts as slaves but would whine instead about how the work was too important to waste time getting his rocks off. Got really grumpy at any distraction or chance for a thrill and used to yell about having only so much time to secure his legacy. What else you got?”
Moving the ankh again, Erica frowned. Did its apparent weight just change? “The queen needed access to the center of the seal forged by Siabh. Imhotep must have built that mirror over there to stay attuned to where it is. I’m guessing the center shifts randomly all over the astral in a pattern only Imhotep managed to figure out and he coded it into that kaleidoscopic mess of an eyesore. So she needed you to guide her here as this place is for all intents and purposes cut off in the spirit except through the Kemetic realms. You were her only way in. It was a pain in the ass to tune into here using the scrying sphere from the physical side of things as it was. You cut her a deal to provide passage.”
Set yawned, showing off impressively sharp rows of teeth. “Partial credit only on that one sweet-cheeks. I already told the kid about the deal.”
“Yeah but not the details. You didn’t tell him that I was what you got in return. More specifically, the fucked up time-warped training the fae put me through just to survive.”
“Shit, people don’t really learn unless their lives are riding on it. And you fucking nailed survival class. Those dumbasses at that school could never have taught you all that.”
“Stay on point. Did Imhotep marry? Have kids?”
“Yeah. His wife bore a litter of brats that he mostly ignored yet somehow they still loved his ass. Why you asking all this shit?”
Her answer was delayed by another partial-speed explosion from the combatants which caused the nearby columns to shatter into billions of shards of sharp-edged white marble. As Erica rushed to conjure a shield against being cut to ribbons Set gestured casually and the shards crushed into a fine powder which he proceeded to snort in a vortex right up his extended nose.
Catching the weird look she gave him he shrugged. “Saw some humans doing that. It looked fun.”
“They were doing cocaine, jerkwad. It’s a drug.”
“Oh.” He sniffed. “Got any?”
“Hell no. Thanks to your damned deal I’ve already got one addiction too many.”
“I can help with that, you know.” The god’s dark eyes twinkled. “One night with me and the only thing you’d be addicted to is my cock.”
“Hey, just offering. You gonna answer the question?”
She pointed the ankh at the stream of symbols, watching as they shifted course to swirl around the ankh itself before pouring through its central eye. “Imhotep put a password on the control functions.”
“So figure a way around it.” The god popped a third beer can and took a casual slurp.
Watching carefully as all the sigils flowed through the ankh Erica quickly flicked her wrist, diverting two of the symbols out of the flow to remain fixed in the empty spaces to the sides of the djed. With a feral grin she said, “No need. I’m in.”
The god’s eyes widened as the jade ankh burst into light and the hand holding it joined the brilliance. Erica’s astral body transformed into its own set of multi-colored symbols rushing directly into the flow transversing the ancient relic.
Set caught the ankh before it hit the floor and stared at the two glyphs still glowing in their respective slots. Their meanings were clear. One represented Humanity and the other, well, the other represented a single concept:
“Huh,” muttered the god as he watched both the Eye of Horus and the evanescent pearl besides the throne similarly disappear as the power they represented was pulled elsewhere. “Imhotep you crafty bastard.”
All the hieroglyphs painted on the walls lit up like they’d been wired with LEDs and began to move.
Overlooking the desert from the top of the western wall, Hassan al-Shadid was troubled and not by the two groups of armored figures running full tilt across the sand brandishing their technological toys. Nor by the mortar rounds being fired through one of the many portals now dotting the sand-filled landscape just beyond the boundaries of spirit marking the schism between the pyramid’s astral space and the desert beyond. These were all things his summoned Djinn, a Lord of Elemental Air, could handle.
No, it was the scent and taste of much darker magic wafting past in the gusts of sand the whirlwind djinn churned up as its manifested form of a thirty-foot tall tornado sped through the attackers, tossing them into the air where the Captain, using a drone-delivered high-powered rifle, picked them off one by one.
“Captain,” Hassan said into his throat mic, “the mission brief indicated that should the pyramid fall there would be consequences beyond the loss of those inside but lacked clarification.”
“Stay focused, Summoner,” Isong said as she took another thundering shot from her prone position which took one of those men through his chest despite the armor’s promise of protection. “Now is not the time for questions.”
“I disagree,” said Hassan evenly. “If we are facing my former employers - and given the nature of those portals that seems given - then we are likely outclassed. If they are determined to bring down the pyramid they shall inevitably succeed.”
Miguel, standing close to Fred as they guarded the other side of the wall, laughed. “Our ace is just getting warmed up. You’ll see!” Grinning he shot a few more rounds over the heads of the fae-possessed humans who were hiding behind the two wide stone cylinders poking up through the dirt in the middle of the courtyard. The fae had taken shots at them as the group had ran past but as Isong had drawn their fire all the rounds had impacted uselessly against the captain’s shield. Miguel was currently encouraging the fae to keep their heads down.
Hassan was not convinced. In truth his senses were screaming at him from multiple directions. He’d recognized the fae warrior the young prime-wielding girl was fighting from encounters in his previous lives. He knew too well the skill and power wielded by such a being; tactically he was hoping the girl would surprise him and at least wound the warrior before his assured victory.
That could give Hassan’s own djinn a fighting chance.
The second squad of suited soldiers activated jump jets and burst skyward, barely evading the tornado and leaving behind their other hapless comrades desperately trying to shoot the elemental to no effect. Those airborne flew at the wall while shoulder-mounted weaponry began peppering it with blasts of crimson energy.
Tanya hit the dirt besides Hassan shouting, “Get down you idiot!”
Hassan smirked and with a word and a flick of a hand the fiery bolts veered aside to blast empty ground yards away instead of blowing him to smithereens. As the flying soldiers broke off to avoid the immediate counter-fire from the wall’s defenders, Hassan gestured again - this time making a fist before pulling it sharply downward. The rear-most soldier plummeted straight into the hard-packed dirt at the top of the wall, jets firing madly as the guy tried to retake the air yet was unable to move.
“If you would like to make yourself useful, now is the time.” He nodded arrogantly towards the hapless soldier.
Giving Hassan a disgusted look Tanya’s eyes flared blue and several swords plummeted out of the air at high speed to plunge through the guy’s armor. With a gurgle the man thrashed about then lay still.
They both watched as the flying squad launched another salvo at the pyramid which Derek’s multiple drones managed to deflect, though at a cost. Several of the shielding drones caught fire from the overload and fell tumbling down the large steps of the pyramid. Only two remained and they too were already smoking.
The suited assault team broke off then regrouped to form up for another pass at the defenders on the wall.
Isong dropped the rifle and ran over to Miguel and Fred’s position. “Doc, hook him up! I’ll shield. Miguel, do your thing.”
“Fuck yeah!” Miguel shouted enthusiastically. Both he and Fred also dropped their guns and Miguel pulled off one of his gloves before extending an arm out to his side towards Fred.
Fred rapidly pulled long plastic tubing from his belt and after making a fist shoved the needle at the tubing’s end into his own arm at the crook of the elbow. Grabbing the shorter man’s arm he expertly plunged a second needle-tipped tube into Miguel’s arm.
The flying squad opened fire, this time directly at the three exposed fighters. Bullets and energy smashed into the turquoise barrier generated by the captain who screamed a mighty battle-cry in defiance.
To Hassan’s sight Miguel then did something utterly insane. While Hassan had summoned elementals by virtue of his talents as a variable avatar he always had brought them to the physical world by dint of magical contract and exchanged manna as offering. It was through such a contract the elementals could appear, bypassing the restrictions against spirits manifesting of their own volition which lay over the Earth.
Miguel however plunged his bare hand through a rift into the planes of elemental fire, reaching out to touch the swarming mass of pure flame directly.
His cries of agony and the pain generated by the searing of his naked flesh forged a momentary contract. And the fires gleefully accepted and burst forth into this world to burn with the glory of their raw essences. The airborne armored suits were instantly set afire but not externally.
The men instead caught aflame inside their suits, their own flesh providing the fuel as the exultant fiery spirits laughed and danced along their skin.
Hassan watched as the suits tumbled from the sky, the helmets insufficient to muffle the terrible sounds of their screams. Meanwhile Miguel had fallen to his knees clutching a skeletal wrist. All the muscles and skin were burned completely off.
“Jesus, Miggy,” Fred said rather aghast. “That’s gonna take awhile for even my blood to heal.”
Miguel grinned, though his face had gone rather pale. “Just tell me you ate your damn Wheaties this morning, Doc.”
“Hell no, mate. I had the waffles!” Fred adjusted a dial on the pump at his waist, speeding up the transfer of blood from his arm into Miguel’s.
Miguel’s shoulders relaxed slightly in response. “Ah shit yeah, that’s the good stuff.”
The blackened edges of the bone-exposed wrist turned red and then pink, creeping up along the bones to ever so slowly restore the hand.
Hassan was impressed. But he wasn’t given time to express it for a horrible roar screeched across the battlefield, pummeling eardrums with sheer decibels of sound.
They all froze as ancient instincts of primal terror awoke in response to that cry.
“Good god, what was that?” Tanya exclaimed, her voice sounding muffled from the shock to his ears.
Hassan turned to face the west, his stomach sinking as he beheld the largest portal yet and what lay beyond it.
“Captain, my fears were not idle,” he said slowly. “We are in serious trouble.”
“What the fuck is it?” demanded Isong as she grabbed binoculars from Fred.
The scent of sulfur filled Hassan’s nostrils as he replied in a voice filled with awe:
“They have opened a Hellmouth and summoned a Demon Lord.”
Where Zap ended and Heru began no longer mattered. All had been abandoned to the thrill of combat as the two gods struck and smashed at each other throughout the ever-repairing throne room.
Back and forth they clashed, dark spear versus light, ruler of chaos versus hawk-lord.
It was glorious.
Set had an edge with raw strength, his spear pummeling through columns, while Zap tapped the speed and clear sightedness of the hawk to duck and avoid, whipping his own electrical staff back into the elongated snout of his enemy.
They each glowed with mighty power, twisting through the air as they made use of staves, feet, teeth, and claws to send each other crashing across the floor.
Bruises were irrelevant. Gashes were irrelevant.
And as they kept fighting even victory became irrelevant.
Which is why when the walls suddenly came alight and the painted figures upon them began to move it took Set a long time to get Zap to stop swinging.
It required a rather nimble maneuver with both feet to launch Zap across the room and through the gilded throne to force a pause. Though it did require receiving a fairly nasty blow to the top of Set’s head in exchange. “Ow. Fuck. Nice one!”
Already on his feet, Zap prepared to charge across the shattered arena, but Set was holding out a hand. “Quit it, already! We’ve got a problem!”
Zap frowned, wary of a ruse by a rather cunning foe.
“Look at the walls, dumbass!” Set, rubbing his noggin with one hand pointed with the other.
“Where’s Erica?” Zap asked, still circling in preparation for another attack.
“That’s just it, you little shit. She’s in. And Imhotep fucked us.”
Confusion set in. “What?”
“Open your damn eye!” Set swung a claw around now to gesture towards the pedestals now sitting empty besides the shattered throne which was slowly pulling itself back together. “Your other eye and my…potency! Imhotep’s device just swallowed them!”
“Was it supposed to?”
“Fuck no. We gave them up to this crazy thing to keep it intact over the years. Without them we are up shit creek without a paddle. Not enough juice to hold the flow in check until the backwash does it for us. Wake up and smell the bullshit, kid.” Set kept looking around. “There’s gotta be something we can do.”
Zap lowered his blue-white staff and moved closer to an animated wall. “This is like a huge t.v. screen.”
“So, let’s video conference. HEY ERICA!”
The wall’s surface shimmered and reformed to show a gigantic seated image of Erica. Held in each hand was the wadjet and Set’s pearl. “Heya boys,” she said with a really wide grin.
“Give that back!” demanded Set. “That ain’t yours!”
“Not gonna be that easy.” Erica’s eyes narrowed. “Lets grant a few things and get them on the table, shall we?”
Set crossed his arms and fumed but said nothing. Zap shrugged. “Go ahead.”
“In a few minutes Gaia’s power is going to flood out whether it’s Danielle or the queen who opens it up. We all know this. Now I can try to wield your godly patterns myself, but let’s be honest, I may not be up to the task. Especially while riding control of the software. This baby is gonna need adjustments on the fly.”
“No one can handle my pattern but me!” shouted Set. “Wait,” he muttered, reconsidering. “That didn’t sound right.”
Zap snerked loudly and ignored the scowl thrown in his direction. To Erica he said, “Get to the point. What do you propose?”
“First things first. I’m in charge of the machine. What I say goes, got it? And we’re going to keep the power flow to the world restrained and only increase it slowly. I know we can’t hold it all back forever, but let the world have the chance to adjust.”
“Wasn’t that the whole idea?” Zap asked her.
“Snout-face there hasn’t signed on yet,” she pointed out.
Set stuck out his rather long tongue. “Snout-face will do as he damn well pleases. What’s the rest?”
“You both swear to keep humanity free. The gods, fae, and all the other mythical assholes haven’t ruled in ages. Keep it that way.”
“Yeah, that was a fucking obvious demand,” grumbled Set.
“We can’t guarantee that,” Zap said seriously. “There’s only two of us. When the levels reach the point where gods again walk the earth we’d be hard-pressed to stop them.”
Erica grinned again. “Not with me able to pull the manna rugs out from under their feet. Imhotep’s design has some nasty tricks to it. Besides, aren’t you guys supposed to be the masters of godly politics?”
Set and Zap exchanged a look and both burst out laughing hysterically. Zap even doubled over and had to wipe away a tear.
Looking back up at Erica, Set chuckled and asked, “Girl, have you even READ our stories?”
Before she could reply the room as a whole suddenly rattled as if something had just pounded on the walls.
Or maybe the floor itself.
“Crap,” Erica said. “Choose fast boys, the sooner we resolve this is the sooner I can get it prepped. And I think things outside are also heating up.”
“I’m fine with all that,” Zap announced as he turned to Set. “You in?”
The god made a show of thinking about it, pacing back and forth while scratching at his chin.
“Hurry up,” Zap growled.
“Don’t rush a genius, kid,” Set said before spreading hands wide. “Alright…on one condition.”
“What?” Erica said. “And be precise. No damn loopholes.”
Set smiled. “One hundred years. I’ll kick any throne out from under any other god’s ass for one hundred years.”
Zap cleared his throat. “Including your own. Ass, that is. Not that there’s any difference between your butt and your head.”
“Shut up you little shit,” Set snapped even though he was grinning. “Fine. You got a fucking deal. And in case you’re all wondering, the bird-brain here has finally got his shit together enough to not blow himself up doing this.”
Zap raised a brow. “That was a concern?”
“Yeah. Your beak is now officially long enough to blow yourself properly. Now take my damn hand and shake like a good pup.”
“Right then,” Erica announced. “Here you go.”
Reappearing on their pedestals, the wadjet and pearl immediately flew across the room to plow into the two gods. The wadjet flowed into Zap’s left eye, burning itself into the socket in a blaze of silver-white. The hazy pearl plunged itself into Set’s stomach like a bowling ball into a nine-pin.
Both gods flared with regained power, becoming taller, stronger, and somehow…more themselves.
With a hawk-like tilt of his head towards Set’s mid-section Zap asked, “Hey, you sure that’s where it goes?”
“Like I said, shut the fuck up. And get ready. This will sting like a bitch when it hits.”
The two gods summoned their respective strengths and braced themselves. All joking aside they knew what was about to burst free would strain the bonds holding together the very essence of their beings.
Before her stood a wide circle of standing stones.
She had fallen through dimensions of shattered colors where time warped with space to stretch and shrink in patterns streaming past faster than could be grasped. Even when it all blurred into a thick white fog it took her a few moments to gather her senses. Tall pillars of sandstone emerged from that mist, their carved surfaces filled with ancient fae runes. The circle however wasn’t what grabbed Danielle’s attention. It was what sat within and without.
At the center lay the capped well Siabh had shown her before, guarded now by the all too familiar ring of faerie magic upheld by each individual pillar and slab.
Leaning malevolently over a projected sphere of earthen protective magic grew a blackened tree with twisted branches reaching skyward as if to claw out the dim stars from the tapestry of night hanging so far above. Massive dark roots plunged below, ripping through the ground towards each of the pillars. Limbs stretched out to wrap around the tall stones, bark twisting into knots slowly crushing the rock with each violet pulse racing through the veins coursing through the sickly wood. The tree smelled of rot, a pungency invading her nostrils and coating them with the ichor of death and decay.
Several of the formerly mighty stone pillars had already succumbed, the songs inscribing their surfaces with dimly glowing melodies silenced forever. The emerald glow of the circle’s power flickered weaker in those areas yet held on.
With a cry of instinctive dismay she reached into the surrounding fog and let the wind of her fury harden the moisture into spears of ice. They launched at the corrupted tree sitting at the center spreading its poison into the heart of this once-sacred place.
The ice shattered against the tough gnarled bark without making so much as a mark upon the slick oily surface.
Not that there was no reaction. A single knot higher up snapped open to reveal a violet eye oozing green miasma as sickly tears. Under her feet roots snapped with the horrible crunching sound of stretching wood, vines lashing upwards around her arms and legs before she could manage an icy defense. Rotting vines snaked around her throat tightening as they hardened into yet thicker branches that lifted her higher so she could stare directly into that one eye.
As she struggled the power coursing through the tree sapped at her will, waves of despair and hopelessness infecting her through the thorns scratching past her skin.
She shouldn’t have come. Not alone. The strength of the evil manifested within this abomination of a tree was on a level far beyond hers could ever be.
A crack in the wretched bark exhaled and spoke in a woman’s voice. “Ahh. The little ghost has come.”
“Fionnabhair?” Danielle remembered the dream images of Arcadia and what had happened there. The queen’s skin had turned to bark, but not like this. “Is that you?”
A second knot not entirely level with the first cracked open a second eye. “Oh yes. Have you come to marvel at our victory? To let the last fragments of Siabh bear witness?”
“Victory? This is horrible!”
The thing that Fionnabhair had become snarled. “And yet by this nightmare shall our people be freed! You had your chance little ghost. You burned away the last pieces of my sister and left no other path!”
“You will corrupt the gate! If you break the seal like this then you will only spread this contagion throughout the world! You’ll destroy fae and human alike!”
The branches surrounding Danielle flexed, crushing arms into her chest before whipping about to slam her against one of the stones hard enough that the stony surface cracked in unison with her ribs. Leaves covered with blackened fungus snapped themselves across her mouth.
“You fool!” raged the being who once had been the queen. “Like Siabh you are blind! All that matters is the end to the abomination of slavery that my sister and the cursed angels inflicted upon us!”
Danielle tried to argue, tried to point out that the fae and other mythical beings very presence had drained Gaia’s manna almost beyond repair. Their own wars and infighting had wasted it all away. But the sickly tendrils clamped tight against her jaw allowing only muffled grunts as she struggled against the strength holding her in place.
She felt the stone at her back crumble further, the runes breaking and their weakening light going out one by one.
“Watch oh ghost! Watch as it is I who finally achieves the return of our glory! And let humanity weep that it has made us suffer so!” That horrible purple-black energy pulsed again in the veins wending through the tree and hammered into the remaining stones. Runes flared and extinguished, rock pulverized into ash and dust.
The sphere defending the well at the center shrank inward, becoming barely visible around the boards and stone.
As Danielle’s despair succumbed to panic Siabh’s words whispered again.
Our strength has always been hers, found within when we choose to seek it. But her power needs a guide.
A single rune in the battered stone at Danielle’s side flared, a fractal twisting tear across the rock’s surface from which streamed a solitary speck of starlight. A single soft note still managed to reach her ear.
And Danielle understood.
She thought of her mom and how even as the drunkard’s car crushed its way through her mother’s side her mom had thrown a hand out over her, still trying to protect her child even as her own life was ripped away.
She thought of her uncle who had taken her hand at the funeral and held it tight during the entire ceremony. Not once had he tried to let go no matter how hard she had squeezed his fingers as the tears had coursed down her cheeks.
She thought of Jordan, the girl her uncle had become by throwing himself into a room of madness to pull her free, and of how Jordan had held her close and promised to love and be there for her no matter what came. And then proved it by willingly letting go of another piece of her own diminishing humanity in order to catch her niece when evil had thrown her from the sky.
She thought of the angel, aflame with heavenly glory, willing to rip a realm asunder to see her beloved’s spirit safely returned home.
She thought of a young boy, head filled with inherited prejudice, fighting against all the conditioning to do what he believed was right and risk himself to save someone he had been taught his whole life to hate.
She knew of no better guides to follow.
With all the resolve she could muster she pushed her hand against the stone’s crack and let its light and music take her.
The rune-covered wood atop the well fractured inward as the ancient magic flared once more and her soul plunged within.
As I ran up the stairs to the wall there was this horrible ear-deafening roar. Reaching the top I took in the scene: Fred pumped his healing-factor blood into Miguel’s grotesquely burnt hand, Captain Isong with her black tactical gear smudged with fresh dirt peered out with binoculars while Hassan and Tanya gaped in the same direction.
“What on earth was that?” I asked as I stumbled closer. The wing was throbbing, running hadn’t done it any favors. Forcing more light into it also made the pain worse and I was scared I could damage it more by doing so.
“Not earth,” Hassan answered. “Hell.” He didn’t even have to point it out. Ducking under the limits of one of those distant glowing portals which itself had to have been at least forty feet tall stood something even taller. And horned. And red. And pure steroid abusing muscle.
Plus teeth. Rows upon rows of sharp nasty teeth.
“Holy shit,” I swallowed at the sheer scale of the power of that thing.
“Think you can take it, angel?” Tanya asked, her wide eyes filling with a panic she tried to keep from her voice.
“Uh…” I hesitated. Could I?
Hassan looked me up and down, eyes narrowing when he got to the state of my wing. “No. She cannot. Captain, unless you have another trump card to play I suggest we flee. Rapidly.”
Isong glared at him but after a moment’s consideration spoke rapidly into her throat mic.
Aw crap. I’d somehow lost my ear-piece in the struggle with Gwydion so all I could hear was her side of the conversation.
“Derek get me the Colonel. Now.” Pause. “Colonel I’m declaring a Scenario Gamma. Repeat, Gamma. Derek, send him a visual.”
One of the drones floating over the power-armor wreckage darted closer to the towering demon.
The bastard didn’t even swipe at it with a hand. He (and it was quite clearly a ‘he’ being as it was utterly naked and uh, large) simply spat fire at the drone with a fierce accuracy.
The drone fell smoking from the sky.
“Yes, sir,” Isong was saying. “Two minutes. Understood.” She set those determined eyes of hers on us. “We need to hold that thing at bay for two minutes.”
Miguel spoke for us all. “Uh Captain? How the flying fuck we gonna do that?”
Isong turned to Hassan. “Get your djinn to stall it.”
“Rih doesn’t have the power to stand against such a thing. But he can be commanded to try.”
The whirling elemental’s dust picked up speed and fury, spinning itself larger and larger until the top of the tornado was almost as tall as the demon. Extending a windy palm the elemental threw its power forward, a fresh cyclone which would have toppled buildings slammed outward into the demon’s scaly red chest.
It might as well have been a cool summer’s breeze.
Stomping into that blast the demon’s arms snapped forward with a speed beyond anything that size should have ever possessed. Its palms met with an eardrum shattering thunderclap right in the center of the djinn. When its hands withdrew the wind had stopped.
The djinn was gone.
Everyone looked at Hassan. “As I said,” the man said, eyes twitching under a sweat-soaked forehead, “we should flee. The demon’s summoner has a capacity beyond any mortal.” He pointed to a spot on the ground behind the demon.
To where a certain beige-coat wearing asshole stood within a sickly green circle of protection.
I swore. “Nick you unbelievable bastard.”
The demon took a colossal step towards us, the ground shaking from the impact. The pyramid swayed in response, dust and loose stones bouncing down its steps. Not good. Really fucking not good.
I looked at the tubes running between Fred and Miguel and thought about the fight in Syria. Patterns like to repeat, Alal had said.
If they came in threes then this was only the second round.
“Hassan, you know any geomancy?” I asked as the demon took another thundering step.
“I practiced it in a former life. But that does us no good, my well is dry.”
“Shit,” muttered Fred. “C’mere Hassan, let’s get you hooked up too. I’m gonna need a transfusion of my own if we make it out of this.”
“Not you, Fred,” I said as the ground rolled again. “Guys you need to slow that thing down. Buy the time for Kurohoshi’s cruise missile or whatever he’s got coming.”
“How the hell you expect us to do that?” Tanya asked, knuckles white as they gripped a pair of fresh blue swords.
“Be who you are.” Despite the pain I snapped the wings as wide as they could go and sent a prayer into that ever-present column of power within.
Lord, you’ve blessed me with this glorious light. I beg you to bless them with it too.
Closing my eyes I pulled down everything I could muster and poured it all into my companions.
For Captain Chizoba Isong everything was suddenly white with both great peace and also perfect clarity. She stood on the wall facing a horror straight out of one’s worst nightmares yet still was calm.
Her mother’s voice sounded clear as a bell in her ears, singing a tune Isong had long forgotten but always remembered.
Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo…all night, all day, angels watching over me, my Lord. All night, all day, angels watching over me…
Today she too was one of those angels guarding against the monsters of the night. With an ivory smile set against the shining ebony of her skin she extended her power.
The children of the world would sleep safe tonight.
Tanya had never wanted to be a thief let alone an assassin. As a child she’d dreamed of being one of those strong superwomen, defeating evil in style and standing proud. Filling the ribs of her attempted rapist with a multitude of shiny knives had shattered that dream.
He was a politician of fame and power. And she was but the daughter of a lowly mechanic struggling to get by as a single father. A man who had believed in the law and that it would take her side. Thus he had turned her in. She’d fled, not knowing at the time whether her dad still lived or had bled out from the battle caused by her escape.
All she knew is that the MCO and the police would hunt her down to face a fate likely much worse than death.
That new life had taught her to kill or be killed and that the only one she could count on was herself alone. She had taken the moniker of ‘Blades’ and many were those who feared her skills. And many more who wanted to employ them.
The light pouring into her revealed all without mercy: all the blood spilled only for the greed of her employers, all the relationships denied because trust could never be given. All the self-hatred buried night after lonely night into a festering core that gave back only ulcers and nightmares.
But within its rays shone something else, an offered visage of glory. In that vision she stood tall and proud using her ability of manifestation not for the scum of the underworld but to save countless others whom fate had also tripped and sent tumbling down paths of horror and pain.
Like a woman drowning she frantically lunged towards it.
There were voices. Many chattering voices swarming over themselves as they filled his ears and even his thoughts. Miguel had thought he’d buried the ceaseless noise long ago as a young boy praying in terror for inner silence, ignoring them so thoroughly he’d convinced himself that they had never been real.
By the angel’s light they returned and became more clear than ever before.
Why do you ignore us? We call because we are one and as one you call to us.
All around him swayed the flames burning only one step away from the physical, awaiting its chance to paint its glorious patterns across the world from every matchstick and candle’s flame to every roaring forest fire. All were one. All were the dance of heat and fire.
You have forgotten. Life after life clad in mortal flesh even your spirit takes their shape.
He knew that dance. He touched it every time he extended himself across that boundary to pull a piece of it back even against the searing pain it caused skin and tissue. Each time an agony and each time a secret ecstasy.
But we remember.
In the brilliance of the angel’s glory so did he.
Fred found himself floating over a different scene entirely but one all too familiar.
Afghanistan. The medical tent.
The docs were busy working on his buddy, Corporal Vincent Arroyo, who having stepped too close to an IUD now had a foot that was only so much spaghetti. The nurse had cursed upon discovering that Arroyo’s blood was O-negative. She quickly put out the request for donations because the field station was fresh out of the rare type. Fred’s dog-tags proved he’d be a match and they’d hooked him up.
That’s when the miracle occurred.
As Fred watched his buddy’s foot regenerate and everyone’s astonished reactions, a warm and friendly voice spoke to him.
You always healed quickly as a child.
“Yeah. No broken bones either. Figured it’d be useful in the army. Never guessed I could do this.”
What happened after your talent was discovered?
“Army wanted to experiment. Military Intelligence got involved. Shit got spooky fast.”
What did you do?
“Had a friend in special forces I’d met on a mission. He was a lot higher up and pulled some serious strings to get me assigned to his unit instead.”
Is that what you wish? To always be a soldier?
“I’m good at it. And my blood can save the team. That’s what matters.”
It is not your blood that saves them but the pieces of your spirit you gift along with it. Here, let me show you. For without your help now she may never recover.
Fred’s vision shifted. The princess stood on the wall, wings and arms extended as her aura of light linked itself to everyone on the team. Yet a darkness roiled under the gash in one of those brilliant wings and was trying to worm its way towards her heart.
Guided by the voice Fred got to work.
Hassan ibn Tariq al-Shadid, enveloped within the light’s bright nimbus, wept openly and knelt prostrate against the earth. Hands swept a circle around his body before drawing mystic symbols across the dirt. A throat quickly becoming raw with dust kept crying out the same phrase:
Plunging power into the mystic design and reaching deep in the ground to hold it steady against the demon’s quakes he knew in his heart of hearts he was unworthy of what he asked. But he begged Allah for forgiveness all the same.
“Astaghfirullah! Astaghfirullah! Astaghfirullah!”
My eyes opened to a very different scene.
The captain stood at the wall’s edge with arms outstretched as if bathing in the light still flowing through her, a light transformed and projected outward in the turquoise pattern of her shields.
Except this time the scale was immense. Her manifested defense stretched from sand to sky preventing the further advance of the towering demon who howled its fury against a barrier that refused to yield.
That wasn’t all he had to howl about. Swords the size of Buicks stuck out of his back, all shimmering with the same unearthly blue sheen. Tanya stood tall by Isong’s side as she conjured a steady stream of telephone pole-sized blades to rain upon the beast.
Said beast was also flailing its hands about its face trying to swat away a flying patch of flame which compared to it was no larger than a butterfly but was in truth as tall as a man. Scratch that. Because it was a man. The light from my hand connected to the fiery spirit and recognized it.
Miggy. He’d transformed into a being of pure fire and was gleefully tossing burning elemental flames into the demon’s eyes and ears. Even up the thing’s widely flared angry nostrils.
The demon stumbled backwards before slamming a massive foot into the ground to keep steady. The echoes of that collision visibly rolled across the sand and I winced as the wave through the earth approached.
It stopped before reaching our wall.
The ground around the pyramid complex held a glow all its own and the tremors flowed around as water rushes past outcroppings of rock at the edge of the sea. The glow’s power flowed from the sigils and magic of a man drenched in sweat as he chanted to himself within a circle crudely drawn into the dirt upon the wall.
Hassan’s geomancy was in full swing and the pyramid remained standing.
That left only Fred. To my surprise he was standing behind me with eyes aglow much like mine.
He spoke but he didn’t sound like the Fred I knew.
“Amariel, beware. Their patterns cannot maintain such glory for long without suffering damage. Even now there will be lingering effects.”
If my jaw wasn’t attached it would have hit the ground. “Raphael?!”
Fred blinked. He still shone with the flowing light but his eyes returned to their usual shade of blue. “Sorry princess. He took off. He helped me patch your wing but we can’t fully heal it. He said that was beyond even his power to repair. Go easy on it.”
“Thanks, Fred.” I flexed the wing which definitely felt better and unfortunately had to accept that this was not a good time to try to chat with an archangel. Raphael was right with the warning, through the connections with everyone I could feel the incredible strain on their souls from the energy coursing through their spirits.
I was going to have to cut them off and soon.
Isong had been listening. With determined concentration she commanded, “Leave me up until last. I can take it.”
Looking at her pattern I wanted to protest. The threads were burning so brightly their cohesion could snap at any moment. I was about to argue with her.
I didn’t get the chance. In the sky a shadow passed before the sun and that shadow let out a roar probably heard all the way in Jerusalem.
“Is that…?” I asked in utter astonishment.
Isong grinned. “About damned time.”
A black dragon with wings of glorious night as broad as the pyramid behind us dove downward with another roar to slam into the towering demon, both tumbling and leaving a huge ripping gouge in the earth as their wake.
Kuroshi had come.
Without wasting a beat I quickly shut down the streams going to the team. Everyone that is except Hassan.
I knelt outside his circle. “Can you hold?”
He interrupted his chant to look up at me with haunted eyes. “Inshallah.” If god wills.
I bit a lip while turning to watch the two giants pound each other into the sand and added my own prayer.
Nick cursed into mic hanging past his neck.
“A fucking dragon? Sardar, you seeing this shit?”
Sweat beaded across his forehead as he stood within the sickly green fires surrounding the circle he’d painstakingly carved into a wide marble slab throughout the previous night. The portal had moved the entire thing out to the sands, a feat incredible all by itself but that was Ms. Sardar’s doing. Or, if he was honest about it, Sariel’s.
For she was Sariel’s incarnate.
Thanks to a carefully handled chunk of Bishop’s crystal energy storage he had then done the impossible and made a deal with one of the Dukes of Hell. Not that the Duke had asked for much. The chance to destroy five thousand years worth of history as a snub to Heru was offer enough.
Nick had done his homework and picked a demon that the god had once offended by daring to kick its ass back to hell many ages ago.
Over the earbud the woman’s voice was calm and clinical. “Their struggle should be enough to collapse the pyramid. Kill the bodies of those inside and the day is ours.”
He shook his head, tattooed palms slick with the hellish energies keeping the demon manifested. Something as big as this wasn’t a fire-and-forget matter, it required constant focus.
Only two seals had been broken, after all. Though the loss of those two had actually made his contract with the Duke possible.
“The Summoner is doubling as a geomancer and protecting the structure,” Nick said. “And while Jordan just dropped channeling to the rest she’s still fueling his efforts.”
“Then she will burn out his talents. With the shield-bearer out have your pet take down Heru’s tomb directly and finish this. Their drones won’t hold against another assault.”
“With what? My guy’s got a dragon munching on his ass!”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”
“I assure you I am not.”
The giant beasts traded more blows, each bellowing their outrage as they tore out chunks of the other only to reform the gashes moments later. Nick didn’t know which of their energy was going to run out first: his own shard of the bomb feeding the demon’s manifestation or the dragon’s own obvious deep well of manna.
And with Jordan still lurking on that wall the dragon had plenty of power in reserve if it came to that. Unlike the humans the dragon’s capacity for energy was nearly unparalleled. She could blast into it all day without concern.
He needed to be more clever with his own supply.
On a brighter note that asshole Camael hadn’t bothered to show up. Barakiel’s rage burned brightly within Nick’s chest screaming for vengeance but Nick knew he’d be out-classed in a one-on-one with Heaven’s blood-soaked champion.
Besides, Nick thought while gritting his teeth, this wasn’t about vengeance. It was about all the souls of the remaining innocent Nephelim who deserved a chance. They hadn’t asked to be born, that was on the Grigori’s plate of guilt not theirs. It just wasn’t right for Heaven to slaughter them simply for existing.
With reincarnation lifetimes were countless. But soul-death was forever.
He should know. He’d watched a demon swallow the soul of the woman he loved and shred her essence into a billion parts. All because he’d failed to hide from her a cursed ancient tome he’d been loaned for research. She’d thought she was strong enough to use its contents.
He’d been foolish enough to believe her.
Snarling in a language no human throat should ever have uttered, Nick threw a command to the demon bound under his control by hellish compact. He beat the demon’s resistance to the idea with a further pulse of twisted green fire through the spell’s connection.
With the dragon’s jaws locked around one forearm the demon reached up with its other causing the dragon’s eyes to grow wary and claws rise up to prepare a defense.
The demon didn’t strike. Instead it grabbed hold of one of its horns and to the dragon’s surprise snapped the bone clear off from its head. With a twist of its mighty torso the demon whiplashed the arm to send the horn speeding through the air in an arc aimed for the pyramid. Two remaining drones maneuvered swiftly to catch it, managing to slow it down even as the weight of the horn crushed their ceramo-plastics into jagged shards of junk. The horn came to a halt against the rising steps of the walls of Netjeriykhet’s final resting place.
Power wasn’t everything. Knowing how to use it was.
Nick shouted another command before his opponents had time to react. The horn detonated in a fireball of that same greenish hellfire, the sulfur-infused smoke immediately blocking all sight of the pyramid.
He shouted with victory. “Booyah!”
His glory however was premature. As the smoke slowly wafted away in the wind from the mighty wings of the dragon’s continued struggle against the demon he saw clearly his failure.
The pyramid was still standing.
Defiantly it now glowed with electric fire while hieroglyphs raced along the steps in a mad swirl of protection all its own.
“Oh come on! That’s not fair!”
Feeling his concentration waver he snapped his attention back to the demon, trying at the same time to gauge the strength of Netjeriykhet’s new defenses.
Yeah they looked pretty solid.
“We’re fucked, Sardar,” he said into the comm link. “I don’t know where that shield came from but big red there is not capable of punching through it.”
“Then I recommend you abandon your demon and use the remains of your shard to trigger an escape.”
“Fine, yeah. There’s always the fourth seal. We can still stop that one.”
“You misunderstand me, Barakiel. I still intend to win this day.”
Puzzled, Nick looked around. Realization kicked in as a smaller portal opened up another kilometer to the south. He didn’t need to see it to know what was being pushed through.
He could feel its presence directly.
“Oh god,” he said as the blood drained from his face. “Sariel you total fuck.”
If Tanya and Isong had still been conscious they would cheered with the rest of us when the pyramid’s wards went online to defend against the crazy horned attack.
“Holy shit! Erica did it!” I practically bounced in the air with relief. Seeing that chunk of demon detonate had definitely sucked rocks. But did the pyramid’s activation mean that the seal itself had broken? Wouldn’t I have felt that?
Problem was that I did feel something. Spinning around to the southwest I looked past the ongoing titanic duel of raging fist versus tooth and claw.
I saw it the same time as Nick’s far-cast spell formed in the air nearby allowing him to yell at me. A large purple construct resting on the back of a modified and probably automated golf-cart was being driven through yet another portal.
Nick’s voice was shrill. “Jordan! You’ve got to get out of there! The damn thing is already triggered and it can’t be stopped. Egypt and Israel are fucked! Get out!”
Nick’s spell cut off as his green circle was swallowed by a portal leaving nothing but dirt behind. Dirt and a pissed off demon who’s source of power had just been lost.
The dragon roared triumph and went for its neck, oblivious to the larger danger behind it.
“Fred!” I shouted, taking to the air. “Take care of everyone!”
If he replied I didn’t hear it for I was already speeding across the sands as fast as patched wings could carry. Not that I had any idea of what he could to do to save anyone from what was coming. The magnitude of the power enclosed within that refrigerator sized crystal sitting in the back of the cart was insane. The total energy pegged off the charts of anything I’d managed to channel yet.
And I was already feeling the exhaustive effects from what I’d already used today.
What the hell could I even do? I’d seen how the device at Whateley had shattered windows. This thing was so freaking powerful that it was going to level structures for hundreds of miles around if not farther.
Not to mention wiping out the minds of everyone within thousands.
As the desert sand sped past below several possibilities crossed my mind, each like a miniature movie branching out in their own mental window.
Desperate I sorted through them, trying to find an idea which would resonate with a truth like the flows I’d stumbled upon in on the training mat with Tian where I’d just known how to move.
Could I fly the bomb into space? No. There wasn’t time, I’d never make it.
Absorb it like the queen had? No. My pattern wasn’t strong enough; Fred’s patch was good but something in there was still seriously messed up and had already torn free again. I’d pop like a party balloon hooked up to a firehose.
Heaven help me but everything I thought of just ended with billions of deaths. The bomb was going to nuke the pyramid and the seal - which I knew in that weird dream-like knowing - was only seconds away from shattering.
With the pyramid destroyed the resulting flood of energy was going to kill most of the world.
There had to be a way. There just had to. But nothing was clicking, as if there were no threads in the pattern of destiny that didn’t result in a tragedy beggaring all belief.
Dammit if there wasn’t a path I’d have to make one. In the simulation against the art-lover’s nuke I’d failed horribly, but now?
Failure wasn’t an option.
A totally crazy idea finally sprang into mind. I’d managed to teleport to Egypt and my clothes for once had come along for the ride, including Camael’s bracers. Alal had also dropped a seemingly flippant line about perception and location for ‘beings like us’. What if her words hadn’t been so random? What if she had said a literal truth? One deliberately spoken at that moment to plant an idea in my thick head? No instincts of fate seemed to resonate with it but so what.
It was all I had.
Leaving a trail of scattered light billowing forth from the wing’s wound ripping itself wider, I swooped in, grabbed hold of the crystal and lifted it free of the cart.
I slammed all concentration into visualizing the one place where I’d felt safe since all this crazy shit had started on that day Soren had stolen my niece. I pictured my bedroom back at Whateley: the purple bedspread, the wooden beams filling the rafters, the still-broken balcony doors, the mostly-empty bookshelves where Khan liked to sleep.
And I visualized those triple rings of protection carved into the floor meant to protect the world.
Already pulsing energy outward to trigger those prepared mystical defenses I landed on the bed with wings and arms cradling the doomsday device.
As the crystal exploded and the terror felt by slaughtered millions began shredding through my mind and body, I caught sight of Khan. He was standing by his food dish safely outside the circles looking back at me as the wards flashed on in full.
His fuzzy little face was rather sad.
In that moment I knew that the seal had broken and Danielle was gone.
The room’s reality ripped away and I didn’t care where to.
The shattering of the Third Seal rumbled through the halls of Netjeriykhet’s legacy, smashing raw and glorious power into the two gods daring to stand athwart the flow and slow the resultant tsunami. They strained to hold just long enough for the genius of the mortal’s device to route the power back into itself along fractal dimensions which themselves expanded infinitely within the moments caught between the transitions of life and death.
The hawk-headed god shrieked a mighty war-cry as his all-seeing eyes perceived every outflow of that stream, relaying precise directions to his animal-headed companion who in turn bent his immeasurable strength to force the multitude into the channels manifesting out of the hieroglyphic-forged reality by the woman riding the controls behind them.
Together in perfect synergy they lit up each and every pyramid across Egypt and kept the world from being overwhelmed by the energetic bounty bottled up within Gaia’s heart for so long.
A massive rotting tree of sharp spindles and jagged roots clawed and dug at the sides of the flow attempting to burst those channels and let the energy tear across the world. The two gods in unity and sheer focus of will shattered the nightmare’s trunk into innumerable wooden shards which were immediately swept away.
Around the globe every mystically sensitive individual felt the hairs on arms and necks dance with electric excitement to the presence of a new - yet safely contained - source of magic. And every fae spirit locked for millennia as human incarnates paused what they were doing to look around in puzzlement.
In their ears and in their hearts they heard singing.
The ranch house was modest, a single story under a shingle roof containing only a handful of small bedrooms and secluded behind the pines surrounding the few acres of property.
A long pebble drive lead to the house’s front where a U.S. flag flew proudly over a black and white POW/MIA flag waving underneath. The drive split to lead into a closed garage, but before terminating there it forked again to end in front of a modest workshop.
It was towards this workshop that Soren walked, long coat pulled closed against the Autumn wind. The shop’s roll-up door had been pulled up and the sound of hammer to steel rang out in a steady beat.
He paused at the entrance, watching the burly smith pound at the glowing iron as sweat dripped from the shaved head onto the protective leather apron covering a thick chest.
The smith grunted, using an axe to score a line down the center of the hammered-thin metal before folding it over and placing it back into the forge’s glowing embers.
As the smith used a wet rag to mop at his face and head, Soren spoke.
“Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Polk?”
The smith didn’t look over at his visitor, swinging the rag over a muscled shoulder before taking a deep pull from a bottle of water. “I’m retired.”
“Do soldiers ever truly retire?”
“Some do, some don’t. Who are you?”
“Callas Soren. I’d like a few minutes of your time.”
Putting down the bottle, the smith again picked up the metal tongs. “I didn’t ask what people call you. I asked who you were.”
“That is not a simple question to answer.”
A grin split the tanned skin of the smith’s face. “Sure it is, chief. You just aren’t sure how much I’d understand.”
The corners of the dark sorcerer’s lips turned upwards. “And how much would you?”
“Let’s just say I’ve been wondering how long it’d take for you to show. Figured it might be a few months, but heck it’s only been a few weeks since you shook everything up and triggered the dreams to come every damned night.”
“So you remember then.”
The tongs plucked the iron from the fire and held it over the anvil. The smith picked up the hammer and began to beat on the metal, causing the color to shift from yellow to orange and then red. “I remember enough. I remember the name I had when I once served yours.”
“Yeah. That’s the one. So now that you’re here, hit me with the pitch. What’s the plan?”
“I have been gathering the Powers that we may once again serve the Light.”
The smith frowned, the hammer blows missing a single beat. “We chose not to follow the First when the others winged their way after him.”
“I don’t mean him. I mean the one who aided us against Azazel.”
Rescoring the metal, it again was folded and returned to the fire. “Her light burned out, Camael. She couldn’t hack it and she’s gone.”
“She has been reborn, stronger than before. She will restore the Light to Heaven.”
The smith stared at his visitor. “Her spirit shredded itself granting us the power to hold Azazel down. There was no miracle that could have saved her.”
“Not then. But Azrael preserved the fragments and Gabriel used her own pattern to make them whole.”
“Impossible, even for Gabriel.”
“Do you remember the prophet we raised to Heaven to testify against the Grigori?”
“Enoch? The one who became Metatron?”
“Yes, him. Do you know how he was so transfigured?”
“Elohim spoke through him and it was done.”
“But first he had been given a seed. And when Gabriel was commanded to the garden to retrieve it, she took not one but two.”
“Azrael has not judged her actions so.”
“Mighty fine hair you’re splitting there. Not everyone will agree.”
“That is why I need those who once fought at my side.”
The smith peered past the other man’s shoulder. “And where is this new light?”
“She is somewhere safe, as safe as can be until we are ready. Are you with me, Nathanael?”
Pulling the glowing iron out once again, the hammer returned to its work. “Always have been, chief. Just give the word. I’d invite you in for dinner but you have the look of a man on a tight schedule.”
“There are more to find. Not all have remembered as easily as you.”
“I wouldn’t call it easy.”
“No, I suppose not. I will return when it is time.”
With that the sorcerer turned and walked outside. After a single step past the entryway he gasped as a knee buckled and his eyes filled with a crimson fire matching the smith’s metal. “This cannot be!”
Still holding the iron by the tongs, the smith too had felt a shift rip across the world. “Chief! You alright? What the hell was that?”
Straightening, Soren turned to face the smith. Strain and dismay surrounded those burning eyes. “The light, she falls beyond this world.”
“To what realm?”
“She burns past the gates of Hell.”
The smith pointed the glowing red steel towards his Captain.
“Then we’d best go get her.”