Authors: Silvers, Shayne
Dedicated to the most stunning creature I have ever encountered... Olesya, my wife. Not to mention my bearded little manling, Wyatt, and the tiny princess I get to meet in a few months, Mila. To the whole crew of godlings at Chateau Defiance - yes, my home has an entirely disproportionate nickname - this one's for you…
The gnarled oak desk quivered as a subsonic blast shook the entire room. I flinched involuntarily, my drink tinkling lightly between my long fingertips as the lights flickered. I blinked eyelids that seemed to weigh a ton.What the hell was that?Had I been asleep? I couldn’t remember the last few moments. Perhaps I had been drinking more than I thought. Indie must have already abandoned me for bed because she wasn’t beside me. And where was Dean? Or Mallory for that matter? Surely they had heard the sound.Feltthe sound. The hair on my arms was sticking straight up in response to my sudden adrenaline spike.
Then I heard the scream. Like someone was being skinned alive.
I bolted from the leather chair in my father’s old office — nowmyoffice — at Chateau Falco. Another distant blast shook the foundation of the house as I darted out the door and onto the landing that overlooked the first floor. Before I could move any further, a fiery comet suddenly screamed through the second floor stained glass window, barely missing my skull before it crashed through the banister beside me and into an adjacent room. The furniture inside instantly caught fire with a hungrywhoomp. Dust and debris filled the air as I looked up to see the remnants of the window crash to the marble floor, shattering into a billion pieces that looked like a detonation of Fruity Pebbles. The cloying stench of smoke instantly filled my ancestral home as it began to burn.
More screams and shouts raged through the night amidst a barrage of gunfire and explosions as I crouched, trying to ascertain where the sounds originated. After all, it was a huge fucking house. Seventeen thousand square feet was a lot of space to search. The single scream I had first heard didn’t give me any time to check on Indie, Dean, or Mallory. Someone was dying, right now, his or her scream full of tortured anguish. My home was under assault, by what sounded to be the combined efforts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
I briefly entertained what I would do to the prick that dared attack my ancestral home. Then I was running, formulating plans and discarding them just as fast, drawing the magical energy that constantly filled the air around me into a protective cloak. The energy that most people didn’t believe existed.
But I was a wizard. Special. AFreak, as some called us.
I couldseemagical energy. Feel it. Taste it. Hold it.
To dish out all sorts of hell when I felt so inclined.
And oh, did I feel so inclined right about now.
As I raced past empty room after empty room, aged paintings seemed to grimace in distaste at my lack of protection… as if I was the ultimate embodiment of failure for a once powerful family. I grunted, shrugging off the pain of those looks. It was my imagination. They weren’treallydisappointed in me. They weren’t evenreal. After all, I had instantly reacted to the attack, right?Or were you dozing through obvious signs of intrusion, awoken only by the sound of their victory in kidnapping one of your friends…
My Freudian Id is not a pleasant person. I ignored the smug son of a bitch.
I heard the scream again, and determined that it was coming from outside… along with the incessant gunfire. What the hell was going on out there? I sprinted down more hallways, zigzagging back and forth in an effort to get outside faster. Who was screaming? The voice was either in so much pain or so much rage that I couldn’t even determine if it was male or female, let alone human.
I finally reached the front entryway, grabbed the massive handle to the front door, and heaved hard enough to tear it from the frame as a surge of magic fueled my strength. I tossed it into the foyer behind me and launched myself into a scene straight from hell. The icy wind struck my face like a finely woven blanket of cold steel, sobering me instantly. I practically shit myself with my mouth wide open.
The night was chaos incarnate.
Dragons the size of utility vans stormed the skies, blasting fireballs at my home from every direction. The ancestral home of the Temples was on fire, and the centuries old construction wasn’t faring well. The porte-cochere above me leaned drunkenly, one of the supports abruptly cracking in half. I immediately dove to safety before the roof collapsed, nearly dying before I even had time to fully comprehend the situation. I rolled onto the balls of my feet, scanning the darkness amidst the dust, explosions, shouting, and dying. The fountain in the center of the drive was now a pile of useless rubble, and bodies decorated the once elegantly stained concrete. But now it was stained an altogether different color.
The color of fresh blood.
A dozen of my security guards lay in smoking…piecesthroughout the manicured lawn — bodies still steaming to my magically enhanced vision. Energy quested hungrily through the air, the waves of power coursing like gossamer threads of colored smoke. Power waseverywhere… I grinned darkly. I could use that to my advantage. I saw a dragon or two also littering the lawn, betraying the fact that my security hadn’t been caught entirely off-guard, even if their Master had been dozing in his office over a glass of whisky. I shook the guilt from my head. Despite the truth of it, I didn’t have time to feel sorrow. My guards knew the risks in defending my home.
Right? HadIeven expected an attack of this magnitude?
I shivered as the guilt of their deaths threatened to overpower me. I shoved it down harder. Later. Instead, I sprinted towards a small pocket of humans battling each other near the horse stable turned car garage a hundred feet away. I didn’t know friend from foe, but I was heartened to discover that at leastsomeof my men had survived. Reality seemed to abruptly shift, my vision rippling for a second like I had seen a mirage in the desert. I shook my head, frantically searching for the attacker that was messing with my perception.
But there was no one near me, and the group of humans was too busy fighting each other to bother with little old me and no dragons were close enough to sneak up on me.
After a few tense seconds, I took off towards the fighting again, dodging a small, jeweled box lying discarded in the grass. Thievery? A horde of dragons seemed like overkill for a robbery. I growled to myself. I would figure out thereasonfor the attack later. Now was time foraction. I instinctively made a choice, and launched a crested wave of ice at the most unsavory looking group of men. Some collapsed under the onslaught while others remained upright — now frozen solid — but all as dead as a doornail. The remaining faces that turned to me hissed with a sneer of triumph.
Shit. Wrong group.
The survivors launched themselves at me with a unified roar of bloodlust, casting battle magic at my face like I had just slapped their grandmother at a holiday dinner party.
I managed to dodge the majority of the numerous elemental attacks, feeling only a single blast of fire sear my forearm, but I ignored that pain. I shattered an arm at the elbow as I came within physical reach, too close for all but the most skilled wizard to use his birthright. It was my only chance against so many foes. I quickly realized I needed backup. A smile tugged at my weathered cheeks.
I bellowed out a single name into the darkness, never ceasing the lethal swings of my arms as they both physically and magically pounded my enemies. A deafening peal of thunder shook the heavens, followed immediately by a crackling bolt of black lightning, which spliced an unlucky dragon neatly in half, causing reptilian blood to rain down upon me. In it’s wake, a lamentingneighingsound filled the air with a very noticeable physical vibration.
Grimm— a seemingly Demonic black-and-red-feathered unicorn the size of a Clydesdale — entered the fray. The single pearlescent, gnarled, and thorny horn protruding from his skull instantly gored one of my attackers through the heart. I might have hesitated for a second as I saw the unicorn catch a quick swipe of blood with a hungry tongue. I might have shuddered with unease, but I was glad the Minotaur had introduced me to him. He had helped me battle dragons once before… to their detriment. I hoped we would do it again tonight. Flaming, orange eyes met mine in a brief, appreciative greeting before we both focused back to our enemies. I called out familiar whips of fire and ice, utilizing them like Indiana Jones on crystal meth to eliminate the crowd of wizards attacking me. I spun in circles of crackling volcanic and arctic fury, lashing a leg here and a face there, feeding off their dying screams as I lost myself in the mayhem. What could have been an hour later, I realized that all were dead. Grimm was staring at me with wide, concerned eyes. I was covered in gore, blood, and ash. And I realized I was grinning maniacally.
Before I could prove to the unicorn that I hadn’t lost my mind, a familiar cry split the night. “NATE!” The agonized scream shattered my mind into a million fragments of torment.
My breathing came in ragged grunts as I slowly turned, recognizing the voice.
The dragons had Indie. My girlfriend. The love of my life.
My Kryptonite. My Achilles Heel.
I spotted her standing atop the garage, a giant golden dragon gripping her in his talons.
Alaric Slate, the leader of the dragon nation.
My mind went fuzzy for a moment, my vision again rippling like a desert mirage. But…wasn’t he dead?No. Hecouldn’tbe dead. He was right in front of me. Holding the woman of my dreams in his razor-sharp golden claws. A swarm of dragons I hadn’t noticed until now unfurled just above our heads, simultaneously striking Grimm from behind. The mythical creature was obliterated in a millisecond, shredded into organic matter like he had fallen into a pool of piranhas. I screamed with vengeance at the death of such a magnificent beast — my friend — and cast my power at the earth around me in a fifty-foot radius. The dirt and rock exploded skyward, dropping the dragons into a ten-foot deep hole. A second later, I slammed the earth back over them like a heavy quilt, burying them alive. Tucking the monsters in for bedtime.
An amused chuckle filled the night air. I could hear Indie struggling, but I knew it was futile. I turned slowly to face Alaric, my vision throbbing with rage. He stood like a vengeful god — half shifted into his dragon form — a single golden talon pressing into Indie’s soft skin like a hot knife resting on a plate of butter. “Hand me the box, Temple,” he growled greedily.
I honestly had absolutely no clue what he was talking about. If I did, I would have given it to him. Hell, I would have given himanythingto save Indie. Even my own life.
Indie screamed. “Don’t do it, Nate!”
He silenced her by shoving his talon straight through her gut, causing her to grunt in utter shock, and then agony. I realized that I was suddenly closer, having instinctively raced towards him with murderous intent. He held up a claw in warning and I froze with one foot still in the air. His other talon was still embedded inside my girlfriend’s stomach. I was stunned, in shock, unable to think straight, but I slowly lowered my foot to the cold earth. How had it escalated so quickly? He had barely warned me. I glanced down at my feet, trying to control my rapid breathing while frantically assessing the situation for a way —anyway — to save Indie’s life. Her wound was fatal, not superficial. Alaric was a hunter. He knew my plight. He knew my skills. He had effectively demanded my obedience. He knew I would do anything to save Indie. Give up anything.
“Please!” I begged. “Take whatever you want, just release her!”
He nodded. “Of course. The box. Bring it here. Now. She doesn’t have long without medical attention.” Several new dragons were suddenly pumping their vast wings above me, hovering hungrily as an added threat. I followed his gaze and glanced to my side, only to see the same box from earlier sitting in the bloody, frosted grass.Wait… that can’t be right. I saw that near the fountain…
In a confused daze, I reached down, my fingers numb, discarding the single rational thought.
“Easy, Temple. No surprises. Bring it here.” I hesitated, not with any rebellious intent, but with simple confusion about how the box could have appeared beside me when I had seen it a dozen feet away only minutes ago. Alaric shook his head with a sad smile, abruptly twisting his talon inside Indie with a violent, final jerk.
“Nate…” She whispered between tortured gasps.
My senses instantly shut down. I was numb with disbelief and impotent fury. My body began to quiver, rattling the forgotten jeweled box that I apparently still held in my now numb hands. The lid began to pry loose from the box. I looked down curiously.Yes, do it. Do it now…a strange voice cooed in my ear. I listened to it, not even caring about its origin, and began to open the box, knowing that Indie was already dead. A part of me was now dead too. Only ashes remained of my heart. The world could burn, and thank me for it.
I no longer cared.
“No!” Alaric’s voice boomed as he tore his claw entirely through the love of my life, effectively slicing her in half. I felt the mass of dragons dive for me as one cohesive unit, a pack of claw and fang. As if in slow motion, I realized that my death would be a painful one, and I also realized that I was fresh out of fucks to give. I deserved it. I had inadvertently allowed this to happen. Allowed them to kill the woman I loved.
So I opened the box.
A wail of despair from the very pits of hell filled the night before my vision turned an amber tinted urine color, tunneling out to a single point. Indie.
The dragons’ claws tore into me, trying to prevent me from opening the box. But they were too late. The world ended in a climactic symphony of pain and sound as I embraced death.
Ijolted awake, shattering a glass of liquor that was clutched in my fist.
The other patrons of the bar sprang back from their stools with a shout. The man beside me was the only one to remain in his seat, casually raising his drink to his lips. I was panting heavily as if I had just finished a marathon. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, my eyes darting back and forth, trying to make sense of my new surroundings, desperately searching for Indie and the dragons. But I wasn’t atChateau Falco.
I was in a seedy bar.
What the hell?
Then it hit me. It had been another of the night terrors — now turneddayterrors — that had plagued me since the aftermath of the dragon invasion a few months ago. They were happening more often now. Escalating in their brutality. But I was getting used to them.
I began my usual mental process of rationally stating the facts in order to calm my racing heart.The dragons are no longer a threat. Indie is safe. I’m not at Chateau Falco…After a few repetitions and deep breaths, I began to calm down, and reality began to emerge from the depths of my fractured mind. I glanced at my watch and scowled.I’m in a seedy bar waiting for an unpunctual appointment. The man who called me with information on my parents’ murder. I had dozed off. Again.By sluggish increments, my breathing returned to normal.
I had lost track of the numerous variations of my terrors, but the mysterious box was always center-stage, and the vision only ended when I opened it. But while in the dream, I never at first recognized the box. Not until I opened it. Then nothing but pain.
I waved at the bartender. “I’ll sport a round for the bar. Sorry, guys,” I muttered. The bartender eyed me warily, no doubt wondering what would happen if he told me to leave. After all, I was the infamous ‘wizard’ and local billionaire,MasterNate Temple — theArchangel— as some now referred to me. Or as I liked to imagine myself, the Notorious N.A.T.
Biggie Smalls had nothing on me.
“I’m fine. Really. Let me make it up to everyone. Get me another one while you’re at it.” I muttered, plucking a few pieces of glass out of my now bleeding palm. I pressed a napkin in my fist to staunch the blood flow. After a few moments, the bartender finally conceded. Several of the men shook their heads and decided to drink elsewhere. I couldn’t blame them. The calm man next to me still hadn’t moved.
The bartender placed a new glass of cheap, gasoline-spiked whisky onto the warped, sticky oak counter. I scanned the room with a frown of both anger and disgust. It had been many years since I had been in aKill— a bar where violence was commonplace, even encouraged, and the hygiene equally dangerous — and was eager to pay my tab and get the hell out. After I got the supposed information about my parents’ murder from the cryptic caller who had asked me to meet him here. If only that fucking appointment wasn’t late I could be home already.
I sighed. No use. I was already here. Might as well wait a bit longer. My notoriety was apparent, judging from the hateful glares cast my way from various patrons of the bar. Which might say something about me. After all, aKillwas where only the most nefarious of supernaturals — orFreaks— hung out. My reputation had really jumped after the Solar Eclipse Expo a few months back, when a harem of were-dragons had decided St. Louis was the ideal place to host a ritual spell that would ignite the rebirth of the ultimate god of all dragons, as well as being a convenient locale to announce to the world that magic was in fact very real.
I hadn’t agreed.
And they hadn’t survived.
Now, even thelocalswere apparently terrified of me. And when I saylocals, I’m of course referring to themagicallocals.Mypeople. Where I arrived, death and destruction was now expected to follow. That dragon event was what led me here tonight toAchilles Heel— this supernaturalKill— waiting on my unpunctual appointment.
I swiveled a bit on the squeaky wooden stool, scouting the seedy bar in a way that I hoped seemed nonchalant, doing my best to look inconspicuously lethal…
And my clumsy bleeding fist knocked the drink plum out of the old gentleman’s hand beside me. Some of the liquor splashed onto my open wound, causing me to hiss in pain. I instinctively called to my gift, filling myself with magic in order to defend myself from the Octogenarian, doing my best to ignore my stinging palm.
Sure, he mightlooklike a frail old man, but you never knew in aKill. Plus, he hadn’t freaked the fuck out when I had my conniption a few minutes ago. He had steel nerves. Which usually resulted from having a severe case ofbadass-itis.
The man smiled amiably at me, waving me off with a forgiving hand motion. “It happens. No worries.” His eyes twinkled like arctic ice, seeming to glow. The silence stretched as I waited for him to make his move. His smile grew wider. “You can release your power now. It was just a drink.” I let loose the breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding, and then, slowly, my magic.
Thiswas when he would attack. Iknewit.Wait for it…I was ready for anything. I would never let my epitaph say ‘The dragon slayer that was slain by a nursing home patient.’
He shook his head as if amused at a child’s antics, and turned back to the bar, for all intents and purposes seeming to dismiss my distrust. I swiveled back myself, still tense as a spring.What the hell? Courtesy?I slowly began to relax. “Huh. Paint my lips and call me Suzie. You meant it.”
The man turned his mercurial gaze my way, and I briefly noticed purple flecks in his icy blue eyes. “Why would I call you Suzie? You are Nathaniel Laurent Temple, of course. Kind of a big deal.” He seemed amused at that. “And why would I say something and act otherwise? Is this a riddle? Or one of those New Age ideas that don’t seem to make a lick of sense? Are you a…Hipster?”
The word sounded unfamiliar on his lips, but I could see that he was proud to have used it, as if it was one less thing pulling him from the grave, a last clutch at his youth. But as I appraised him, I began to wonder if he was really as old as I had originally thought. He had a youthful…vibrancyto him. I managed to stammer a response. “No, never mind. I thought… you know… thisisaKill.” I finally grumbled, as if he were the one being strange. He shrugged and began to completely ignore me as he studied the bottles of liquor behind the bar, apparently deciding on his next drink.
Which was extremely odd. See, my reaction was an important stance in a place like this. I compared aKillto an African watering hole — where one went to do his business, grab a piece of water, and then efficiently retreat to his hidey hole — all the while watching his back for any threats. The place wasn’t full, big surprise, with it being cold as balls outside and a week night to boot, but enough patrons lingered here and there to justify the sultry guitarist idly strumming cover band music in the corner. And it was vitally important to keep this crowd entertained.
For they were primarilyFreaks, as theRegularfolk called them, or supernaturals.
Even though my new glass was a few inches from my hand, a distinct chime overrode the guitarist in the corner, as if I had tapped my glass with a fork. “Get him a replacement, please.” I mumbled to the bartender, and then reached out to down my drink. “Me too. But not this swill. Get me a decent whisky.” The grizzled barkeep grunted, and I received a new glass of Johnnie Walker a few moments later.
I lightly sipped the new drink in an effort to fuel my lidded eyes from drooping further.Mustn’t fall asleep again. I shivered to clear my head, noticing a pair of men down the bar whispering to themselves and glancing pointedly at me. I shrugged to myself. “I have enough friends.” I muttered under my breath. I wasn’t in the market for new ones.
The older gentleman rapped idly on the gnarled wooden counter with a bony hand as he spoke out of the side of his mouth for my ears only. “You can never have enough friends.Never. Also, this doesn’t seem like an ideal place for sleeping.” No one else had heard, I was sure of it. “I’ll take aDeath in the Afternoon, Barkeep.” He requested in a louder voice to the bartender, who seemed to be respectfully waiting for the man’s order.Absinthe and champagne, I mused, immediately interested, and a little alarmed at what quality of champagne they might have behind the bar. If any at all.
“Nice choice.” I spoke, suddenly curious that this might be my contact. He had been here since before I had arrived. Had he been assessing me before deciding to follow through with his information? I was suddenly glad I hadn’t stormed out.
The man glanced over at me, his unique frosty blue eyes twinkling in amusement. He was gaunt, skeletal even, but wiry with a resilient strength underneath, and he sported long, straw-colored blonde hair in a man-bun. He was dressed sharply; formal even, and seemed to fairly reek of money, looking like Don Draper fromMad Men. I concluded that he definitely wasn’t as old as I had originally thought. Just frail. He plucked a cigarette from an ornate silver case, casting me a curious brow as if asking my permission. “Coffin nail?” He offered me one. With a Herculean effort I managed to decline, waving him to go ahead. He lit up, speaking softly between pulls. “I became infatuated with the drink many years ago. It’s the color, I think. Silly reason, but there it is.”
I nodded distractedly, trying to catch a whiff of the second-hand smoke. I had recently quit, but still craved a drag. “It’s an inspiring drink.” I dredged through my exhausted eidetic memory. “Anything capable of arousing passion in its favor will surely raise as much passion against it.”
The man grunted in recognition. “Hemmingway was a great man, even though bull-fighting is slightly antiquated.” He appraised me with a sideways glance. “Shouldn’t you be attending some high society function or ritzy ball rather than entertaining a barfly in aKill?” He asked with a refined degree of politeness, as if only making idle conversation.
“The public has always expected me to be a playboy, and a decent chap never lets his public down.” I winked, trying to flummox him with a different quote.
“Not many have read Errol Flynn. Learn that at one of your fancy dinner parties?” He drawled, unimpressed.
I leaned back, impressed at his literary knowledge. I nodded. “Sociability is just a big smile, and a big smile is nothing but teeth. I didn’t feel like entertaining the crowd again tonight.” I decided, for simplicity’s sake, to refer to this stranger asHemmingway, after his drink of choice.
Before I could ask if he was my contact, I felt a forceful finger jab my shoulder, sending a jolt of power all the way down to my toes. Hemmingway chuckled in amusement at the stranger looming behind me. I lifted my gaze to the bartender and realized he was not moving.
At all. Not even to blink. Then I realized thatno oneelse in the bar was moving. No one but Hemmingway, the stranger, and myself. My sense of alarm reached a crescendo in the blink of an eye.
The sizzle of power still tingled in my feet from the stranger’s touch. This person was juiced up to a level I hadn’t seen in a while. And he had apparently gone to the trouble of stopping the flow of time in order to speak with the notorious N.A.T.
Knowing my luck, the night was about to get even more interesting. And I had allowed myself to become distracted by Hemmingway.
Who apparentlywasn’tmy contact.
Ilazily swiveled on my creaky stool to face the man. Time seemed to move slowly, whether a result of the stranger’s power or my sleep deprivation, I wasn’t sure. Delicious tobacco smoke drifted through the air in lazy tendrils. Every surface of the room was wooden, splinter-laden, and filthy — coated with decades of blood, smoke, and various assortments of dried booze — an arsonist’s wet dream. When fistfights and worse were frequent, why spend the money to spruce things up? Especially when the owner was Achilles, the legendary Greek Myrmidon, and sacker of Troy. No one dared challenge his aesthetic vision. Or lack thereof. Unless they liked having pointy things shoved through their jugular.
The man before me stood out like the Queen of England had entered theKill.He was dressed too nicely, and when I saynicelyI mean nicely as in formal wear a few hundred years or more out of date. He had a pompous air about him, as if about to check his shoes for filth. He sniffed idly, as if smelling something that personally offended him. He scowled at Hemmingway’s polite grin with equally polite disdain before returning his fiery eyes to mine. His long, black hair was pulled back into wavy order like a Disney Prince. “This is a courtesy call. I apologize for my tardiness; however your methods of travel are unreliable.” His gaze assessed me as I pondered his odd statement. “Stop digging into the murder. Nothing good can come of it. Accept that fact like the rest of them do.”
My rage spiked at his tone alone, not even taking the time to get angry at his message. “Them?” I asked in a snarl, surprised that this person was my contact.
“Yes, the humans. Do try to keep up.” He answered, sounding annoyed.
I didn’t dare risk asking himwhathe was, in an effort to not appear ignorant, but I noticed a faint glow around the man, something that would be visible only to wizards. Odd, because he was definitelynota wizard. I just didn’t know exactlywhathe was. He was wearing a bulky 1980’s era trench coat that clashed with the practically archaic dress clothes underneath, and he was much taller than me. He sported a clean-shaven, baby face, and moved with the grace of a Calvin Klein underwear model. My wizard senses picked up the smell of frost and burning gravel. Odd combination… I had never seen anyone quite like him. And the fact that he didn’t know how to dress to fit in with the modern day humans was unnerving. It meant he didn’t belong here. On Earth. No doubt a smart person to avoid.
But the cheap liquor and his unexpected warning had me wanting to vent off some steam.
“Am I to understand that you arranged a meeting with me — to which you arrived abhorrently late — in order to tell me to stop meeting people with information on my parents’ murder?” He nodded. “Our phone call would have sufficed. Otherwise, I might be inclined to think that you weredeliberatelywasting my time. And very few people would consider doing that to me.” The man shrugged, unperturbed. “What if I keep digging?” I pressed, idly assessing my surroundings for collateral damage, shivering as I remembered that everyone was frozen and unable to escape. That changed things. Hemmingway took a sip of his drink, watching the exchange with interest. Why was he not immobilized?
My contact assessed me up and down, not with overt disrespect, but merely as if wondering what form of creature sat before him. “This is a heavenly affair, not your… jurisdiction. But it’s your funeral.” Hemmingway immediately burst out laughing. I frowned at him. Was he drunk? My appointment was obviously powerful, and Hemmingway looked as if a strong wind would blow him away like a kite. Something the man had said drew me back away from the frozen patrons of the bar. The man had casually saidheavenly. Was he being literal?
“This is none of your concern.” The man hissed at Hemingway, causing my drinking partner’s grin to split even wider, revealing dazzlingly white teeth.
Him threatening my brand new drinking buddy pissed me right the fuck off for some reason. “Are you,” I began, giving the stranger a mocking head-to-toe appraisal, “threatening me?” The man… blinked, as if seeing a kitten suddenly sprout horns. It fueled my anger even more. I mean, I wasn’t the scariest kid on the block, but I was formidable.
“I don’t need to threaten a man hunting for death.” The stranger shared his glare with Hemmingway and gave a faint grunt. “Just a polite warning.” He began to turn away, business obviously concluded.
But I wasn’t finished. Not at all. He needed a lesson in manners. Since Hemmingway seemed content to merely watch, and the other patrons of the bar were immobilized, that left me to teach him.
I pulled the energy that filled the room from all the supernatural presence surrounding us deep into my soul into a cocoon of raw power. Enough that my vision began to twinkle with black flecks, and then I let loose a wallop of pure power straight into the stranger’s stomach. It punched him about as hard as a Mack Truck, and he went sailing out the front door, taking half of the frame with him. I grunted, nodding proudly. Hemmingway’s eyes shot wide open in disbelief and then alarm.
I was instantly surrounded by shiny, pointy things, all resting at my throat. I hadn’t even seen anyone move. Wasn’t everyone in the bar frozen? I swallowed. Carefully. Apparently I had misread the situation.
Then Hemmingway burst out laughing.
I looked at one of my assailants, my gaze cool despite the uneasiness squirming in my belly. “I don’t take kindly to pointless meetings, pointy things at my throat, or threats.”
“Don’t speak, mortal, or I will carve out your jugular.” The pompous ass threatened.
I shrugged slowly, trying to appear unconcerned as I studied the gang of swords. They were professional. Not a single wrist quivered, and eyes of cold, merciless justice met mine. They were pros. And they each wielded Crusade Era swords. The creature I had sucker-punched strode back into the bar a minute later, shaking off dust and debris from his trench coat, his face a thunderhead. For the amount of force I had dished out, he looked perfectly… unaffected. “Did you need some fresh air?” I sneered.
He halted before me and his gang lowered their weapons. “Do you have any inkling of what you just did, and who you did it to?”
“Man, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that line.” I muttered.
“Don’t be coy, wizard. You just struck an Agent of Heaven. I have every right to carve out your eyes.”
“But then that would makemethe holy one, and I was under the impression that was your shtick.”
The man scowled at me with disgust, not amused by my blasphemy. I could take any number of insults, butdisgust? That was just… confusing. Who had the balls to feeldisgustto wizards? I mean, we were some pretty heavy hitters on the block of the supernatural community.
He stared me dead in the eye as I somehow managed to formulate a parting threat in retaliation to his disgusted look. “Words have consequences. You should be careful how you speak to one such as me.”
He met my gaze, shaking his head with arrogant disdain. “One such as you…” he mimicked in amusement as if at a child. My anger was only growing stronger at the lack of respect he was showing my kind. He didn’t acknowledge my threat, but sniffed the air curiously. “You stink like Demons. This whole town does.” He leaned closer, taking in a big whiff of all the glory that is my aroma. “Especially you.” He added. His mob of thugs inched closer as if to protect him, despite the fact that I had just laid him out with my best punch, and he had merely shrugged it off.
I blinked at the change of topic, uncomfortable with a strange man smelling me so deliberately. “Do dragons count as Demons?” I asked, feeling the weight of the new bracelet against my forearm. The bracelet that held the late Dragon Lord’s teeth.
The stranger cocked his head. “It’s not your trophy. It’syou. Have you been consorting with Demons in your search for the murderer?” He accused, somehow seeming to gain a few inches of both height and width. His thugs grew tense, swords slowly rising again, ready to stab on command.
“No.” I answered honestly, too surprised to take offense. “Listen, you probably shouldn’t hulk out here. Achilles wouldn’t like it. He’s territorial like that.” My mouth wouldn’t stay closed.
He grunted, slowly returning back to his normal size. “It would behoove you to wash the smell away, lest it offend your betters. We believe that your parents’ murder was directly caused by Demons, which you stink of. We have people on the case, but these people,” he smiled proudly, holding out a hand to his gang of backup dancers, “are the kind to stab and exorcise first, saving questions for later. We wouldn’t want any damage of the…collateralnature now, would we?”
“Okay. If you want me out of it, that’s fine. But I demand progress reports.”
The man blinked. “OnlyOnecommands us, and you are notH-”
“Daily.” I continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Yes. Daily progress reports should suffice.”
The man actually let out a stutter of disbelief, then a momentous silence. I managed to control the urge to fidget. Barely. Then he finally spoke. “I would be cautious if I were you, mortal. Everyone has limits. Everyone should know their place in the world.”
“Hmm. I’ll take that as aNoon the progress reports then. If that’s the case, I will not drop my investigation.” I leaned forward. “Ineedanswers to this. There is more at stake than my grief. Although that is reason enough.” I leaned back into the bar, reaching out for my drink. I took a sip as I considered my next words.Why not poke the bear a bit more, the insane Id of mine whispered. I very stupidly listened. “I’m sure you know what it’s like to lose a father figure without explanation.” I managed to smile before I was suddenly slammed up against the bar. Although the man hadn’t moved, he was fairly tingling with blue power, and his shoulders were quivering as if threatening to bust out of his trench coat. Was he sporting a pair of wings under there?
Hemmingway sputtered out his drink, but the hulk of a man dropped me immediately, holding up his hands, placating… to Hemmingway.
“Peace!” The man commanded. Still, his tone was nothing but threatening. “Be careful to whom you blaspheme. My Brothers are not so tolerant. And my sons have no compunctions against violence inHisname. That is their purpose, after all.” His smile was ice. You’ve been warned. Consider yourself lucky.”
I let out a nervous breath. “And you’ve been given your answer as to my next move, pigeon.” I was playing a wild card, assuming by his words that he was an Angel, but the drinks had me feeling courageous. And I was pissed that he had slammed me into the bar without even a reaction on my part. A heavy hitter for sure. I would need to be on my A game if I wanted to tussle against him and his brothers. I was sure that Angels couldn’t simply ‘off’ someone. Which was why he had immediately backed off when Hemmingway reacted. Hemmingway knewwhathe was, and knew that he had crossed a line. Apparently, there were rules. There werealwaysrules. Therehadto be rules…
Ihopedthere were rules…
“Out of respect for what you are going through, I will let this minor annoyance slide, with a warning. If you ever strike a Knight of Heaven again, you won’t even have time to apologize. We will smite you out of existence. If our nephews and nieces, the Nephilim here, don’t find you first. They have less scrutiny about their daily duties than us Angels.” With that, he turned on a proud heel, nodded to his gang of warriors, and they all left the bar. His shoulders fluttered anxiously underneath his coat as if alive. Then he was gone, ducking slightly through the broken door.
I sat down, breathing heavily.
I had suckerpunched an Angel, and I was still kicking.
I noticed that a man down the bar was appraising me thoughtfully. Somehow, he also hadn’t been affected by the Angel’s manipulation of time. He didn’t look impressed at my bravery.
Or maybe stupidity.
Time jolted, and everyone in the bar seemed suddenly surprised at his or her abrupt locomotion, as if wondering whether or not anything odd had happened. Even Freaks hadn’t sensed the Angel’s ability to stop time. I heard the bartender begin shouting about the broken door. His eyes quickly flicked towards me but I was still at the bar, obviously nowhere near the damage. His brow furrowed in thought, no doubt wondering how I had done it. Hemmingway finally belted out, “Balls! You’ve got a titanic pair of balls. Or you have adeathwish.” He exclaimed between bouts of laughter.
“Shut up and drink, Hemmingway.”
Hemmingway smiled at my nickname, lifted his glass in salute, and downed his drink, shaking his head as he continued to mutter to himself.
What had I gotten myself into?
Icontinued to stare at the broken doorway with a frown of concentration, noticing the chill air from outside sucking out a good chunk of the bar’s heat. Thanks to me. People began putting on their coats, but remained inside.
I was too tired to connect the dots. I needed to clear my head. So, I stood and strolled outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Angel again. I entered the street, but saw no sign of him or his thugs. Just the typicalMardi Grasrevelers.
Apparently, someone sent fromupstairswanted me to stay out of my parents’ murder investigation. I just wanted justice. Nothing more. But someone was watching me. Did that mean I was close to the answer? Why were freakingAngelsinvestigating their murder? And to top it all off, I apparently reeked of Demons. But…why?
I had no idea. Shivering, I stormed back inside, ready to pay my tab and leave.
Sauntering over to the bar, the TV caught my attention. Someone had turned up the volume. As the words reached my ears, I groaned inwardly. Hemmingway seemed to be listening with rapt attention. It was the now familiar news rehash about me from the last few months. “Master Temple is still refusing to comment, so the world is full of speculation. As everyone is aware, a few months ago, our beloved benefactor, Nate Temple — recently nicknamed theArchangel —and heir of Temple Industries after his parents’ murder, was allegedly involved as a person-of-interest in a murder spree the likes of which St. Louis has never seen before. At this time, he is not considered a suspect.” Her tone said otherwise. “Alaric Slate — Master Temple’s business partner in a so-called coalition ofsupernaturals —is apparently missing, so no interviews with him have been forthcoming.” The news reporter then went on to declare that the high-speed car chase over the Eads Bridge involving aDemonwas no doubt a monstrous hoax. A womanhadbeen found at the bottom of the river, but it was determined that she was most likely just an innocent crash victim. They had yet to determine her identity. I scowled. She hadn’t been an innocent bystander. She had been a silver scaled dragon intent on mutilating me. My best friend — werewolf, and nowex-FBI agent — Gunnar Randulf had barely helped me out of that one. Literally. Silver and werewolves were not bed-buddies.
I idly fingered the bracelet of misshapen teeth on my wrist. Dragon teeth. Acquired from the late Dragon Lord, Alaric Slate. I had killed Alaric, and used his dental palate to make a fashionable bracelet. It had made me feel marginally better. When Alaric’s ritual had backfired, thanks to yours truly, the spell had then transferred the power and designationObsidian Sonto his offspring, Raego, making him the new de-facto leader of the dragon nation.
A twofer if I ever heard one.
Raego, always savvy, chose to break the morbid news to his fellow dragons by making my bracelet an award, like a god-damned Purple Heart, declaring me a friend of dragons everywhere. One phrase stuck in my eidetic memory like a persistent hunk of caramel corn.“He is the ultimate death for us. Our very own Grim Reaper for those who wish to act terrible to humans… or those who disappoint me.”I fingered the bracelet angrily. “I won’t be Raego’s fucking hit man.” I growled.
I felt Hemmingway turn to study me acutely. “What?” I snapped, nervous at the attention the news story might have caused, as well as my last comment.
But he didn’t acknowledge my idle comment. “Grandma, what great big balls you have!” He chimed in a falsetto voice, grinning wide.
“You already said that.” I muttered. He chuckled. I pondered my recent encounter. “You really think so? He didn’t look too tough. Although he walked off my sucker punch pretty well.” I continued, regarding my departed appointment.
“Well, does it take more guts to twice traverse a staircase in a burning building or to make a one-time leap into a volcano? Damned if I know, Kimosabe. All I know is when you’re making those kinds of calls, you’re up in the high country.”
I chuckled. “Never heard that before.”
Hemmingway nodded. “One of the Greats. S. H. Graymore. Interesting man.” He took a deep pull from his drink. “I hate those amoral ass hats.”
I choked a bit on my drink, biting back a laugh. “Pardon?”
“That was Eae, the Demon thwarter. But he’s nothing compared to the Archangels.” He looked me up and down. “TherealArchangels…” his eyes twinkled, alluding to the nickname the media had granted me.
I felt an icy shiver crawl down my spine. “So thatwasan Angel? I thought he might have just been a temp employee.Eae?For an Angel, that name’s pretty… lame.”
Hemmingway simply stared at me. Like,reallystared at me. I began to fidget after what felt like a full minute of silence.
“Okay. It’s a badass name. Terrifying. The Demon thwarter… interesting job description.” He continued to stare. I decided to change the topic to avoid his gaze. “Why didn’t you stop me from pissing him off? He could havesmoteme…smitedme… no, that’s not right either… Anyway, I could have used a warning.”
Hemmingway’s gaze finally broke with an amused grin. “You handled yourself well. Except for launching him into the street. You shouldn’t make that a habit. You wouldn’t look good as a pillar of salt. Then you called him apigeon!In front of theNephilim!” He roared in laughter. “Pigeon…” He muttered again before taking another sip. “He was right, you know.” He added, almost as an afterthought.
“About what?” I grumbled, still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had just sucker punched a freaking Angel. Andthenmocked him. And in front of his crew no less. I pondered his thugs. Nephilim — the offspring of Angels and humans. Supposedly powerful soldiers of Heaven, although I had never crossed swords with any of them before tonight. I hadn’t even believed they were actually real.
Boy was I damned.
Hemmingway scouted the bar carefully. Having already scoped the place out myself several times — keeping track of the people who had entered and exited — I noticed the man who also hadn’t been affected by the Angel’s time manipulation. He was down the bar, and glaring pure frustration at Hemmingway. I turned back to Hemmingway and watched him nod amiably at the scarred man. The Irish-looking man continued to scowl back, but finally gave a dismissive nod in return, swiveling to instead watch a pair of particularly cute vampires playing pool. I assumed the man was one of Achilles’ generals. Playing bouncer 2,000 years later must suck after such a glorious feat as starring inThe Iliad. Hemmingway didn’t seem concerned with the stranger, so I let it go.
Maybe I was reading too much into things. I mean, it’s not often that an Angel arrives in a bar to politely tell you tocut it out. How many other Angels were in the bar? Or Nephilim? Jesus. I had never considered tussling with an Angel. I hadn’t even known they were real, let alone on our plane of existence. Thankfully, no one was close enough to overhear us as Hemmingway took a long pull from a fresh cigarette.
My nervous fingers ached to reach out for the cancer stick, but I managed to compose myself. I had successfully remained smoke-free for a few days now, and was proud of my discipline. But I had just survived a smiting. Perhaps I deserved one. Just one. I shook my head defiantly.No. “So, what was the Angel right about?” I asked instead.
“You smell like Brimstone. It’s a pungent odor, and it could get you murdered quick if some of his more blade-happy brethren caught you unprotected.” I sniffed myself, picking up the light sulfuric smell, surprised that I hadn’t noticed it earlier.
“I don’t know why I smell like that. I haven’t summoned any Demons. Lately.” Hemmingway blinked at me with those eyes that seemed able to weigh my soul and judge my guilt. Was he an Angel too? Eaehadseemed nervous of him. “Honestly,” I said, holding up my hands.
Hemmingway shook his head. “I believe you, but regardless. This town reeks of it. And so do you. Rumor mill does hint at Demons being involved in your parents’ murder.” I blinked, suddenly pissed. This mysterious stranger, among others, seemed to know more information about my parents than I did. Hemmingway continued, unaware of my frustration. “Get rid of the odor as soon as possible. It will only attract the wrong kinds of attention, as you just noticed. Angels don’t make a habit of appearing to mortals, but when they do…” his voice and gaze grew distant. “Nothing good comes of it.” He finally finished in a soft voice.
He studied me for a moment before deciding to continue. “I once heard a story from a down-and-out farmer about Angels and Demons. It might put things into perspective for you, as it did me. Especially since you’re not bright enough to leave well enough alone.” He winked. “It shook me to my core. But I was a different man then. A virgin to the true ways of the world. Perhaps wiser. Perhaps less.” His eyes grew far away.
He shook his head after a moment. “Anyway, the man was distraught, filled with grief. And despite offering him a ride the following morning, I never heard from him again. He fled in the middle of the night. I’ve thought of him often as the years have passed me by, curiosity getting the best of me. Perhaps he was telling mehisstory.” Hemmingway winked again, conspiratorially. “Alas, I never discovered his identity…” He took a sip of his drink, gathering his thoughts. I nodded for him to continue and hunkered down, ready to listen. I would stay a little longer to hear this.
His next words enveloped me like a warm blanket. Stories from an experienced raconteur could do that. “I’ll tell it to you like it was told to me.” I nodded. He cleared his throat again, his voice changing slightly as he began to tell me a tale.
An exhausted local farmer was on his way home from selling his wheat at the market a day’s ride away. It was drizzling, but a true rain would fall soon. He knew these kinds of things after farming for so many years. He didn’t know how he knew, but he was right more often than not. He was eager to get home and see his family after a long day, eager to share his success, and eager to revel in the more important joys life had to offer… family. He wasn’t an established farmer, with vast fields and many clients. No. He worked only for himself and his family.
A prideful, peaceful, god-fearing man.
He trotted beside his horse and cart up the final hill to his home only to discover his son’s broken body on the lawn that led to the front porch. The farmer froze, unable to even blink. His boy was not even ten years old. His beautiful, daring, carefree son had been left to suffer, the long smear of blood trailing from the porch and down the freshly painted steps to the lawn a statement of his tenacity to escape. But escape from what? What could so terrify his bold, courageous son in such a way? Especially while mortally wounded? The farmer could not even begin to fathom, let alone truly accept the death before him.
His heart was a hollow shell of ice, liable to shatter at the slightest breeze. The wind began to howl, heralding the approaching storm, but it was a distant, solemn sound in his ears. He carelessly dropped the reins to the horse and crouched over his son’s broken body. He brushed the boy’s icy-blue eyes closed with shaking fingers, too pained to do more for his fallen, innocent offspring. But what he would see next would make him realize that his son had been the lucky one. The farmer managed to stand, stumbling only slightly in the growling, approaching wind, and entered the small, humble foyer of his home. Like so many times before, his wife greeted him immediately, although those past circumstances were never as abhorrent as this.
His wife had been tied down to face the open doorway. Her dress lay in tatters beside her nude marble-like form. There were many empty wine bottles on the ground, and several piles of ash from a pipe. Enough ash to signify that several men had bided their time in this room while he had been away at market bartering higher prices for his wheat. The house reeked of tobacco. And he wasn’t a smoker. He subconsciously knew that his future path would now lead him to darker places than he could ever imagine. His life would be forever changed.
I shivered, feeling the dark story touch a part of me that I had to fight to squash down. I had enough frightening memories to fuel my recent night terrors. I didn’t need another. But I knew Hemmingway would tell this story only once. Also, this story would be my only knowledge about Angels and Demons outside of the Bible. If Angels were watching my movements, Ineededthe information. I waited for him to continue, signaling the bartender to refill Hemmingway’s glass. The storyteller nodded in appreciation.
Upon seeing his dearly beloved murdered, the farmer crashed to his knees, the forgotten purse of money that was clutched in his fist dropping to the floor like a sack of wheat. The coins spilled across the gnarled wooden planks, one coin rolling toward the tear-filled, terror-laden gaze of his wife, before briefly brushing her long lashes and settling flat against the floor in a rattle that seemed to echo for eternity. That and the desperate panting of the farmer’s breath were the only sounds in the haunted house. But they were enough to fill it completely. He had been anxious to see the look of joy in her eyes at the coins.
The sensation of pride from her meant everything to him. It lent him his own pride. Instead he received this glassy, empty stare that would forever haunt his dreams. The woman who had made his life worth living, the woman who had saved him from his own darkness, the mother of his beautiful son, the woman who had made the endless hours of toil in the fields worth it lay before him, filling his vision like a never-ending scream that tore at the very fabric of reality. Thunder rumbled outside as if an extension of his grief. He would never be able to look at a coin again without remembering this scene. He had been proud to come home. Proud of his success at market. Proud of what the money would mean to his family. The prideful, peaceful, god-fearing farmer felt a scalding tear sear his weathered cheeks.
He distantly realized that he was no longer a prideful man.
A cold, amused voice emanated from the shadows.“Do you seek justice, farmer?”
The farmer jolted, hands shaking with fear… and something else. A feeling he had not experienced in many years. White-hot rage. He stared into the shadows, only able to see a hazy silhouette, wondering if it was one of his wife’s rapists mocking him. If it was, so be it.
Everything that mattered in his life lay dead before him. He would welcome the cold, merciless slumber of death in order to escape this haunting grief. Or he would avenge his grief on this wretched soul. It was a long time before the farmer answered, knowing that farming held no interest to him anymore.Nothingheld any interest for him anymore. Well, one thing did…
Vengeance. The sight oftheirblood on his weathered knuckles, the scent oftheirfear filling his nostrils, the feel oftheirdying struggle under his blade. The sound oftheirendless, tortured screams was the only sensation that would appease this once prideful, peaceful, god-fearing man.
“I do.”The farmer rasped, realizing he was no longer a peaceful man.
Lightning flashed, the thunderous crack instantaneous, rattling the open windowpanes, and billowing the curtains. With it came the downpour of rain that had been biding its time in the dark skies above. A new voice entered the conversation from another shadow of the room.
“Together, then. We must each give him a gift. To represent both worlds. He must agree to neutrality. To live in a world of grays, as the final arbiter of truth.”This voice was deeper, more authoritative, and obviously hesitant at the situation, judging by his tone. The voice addressed the farmer again.“After your vengeance is complete, do you agree to forget this past life, and embrace your new vocation? I cannot tell you what it might entail, but you shall never be able to deviate once the choice is made. I can promise that you will not be alone. You will have Brothers to aid you in your cause.”
The farmer nodded.“If I can obtain justice first, I agree. I have nothing else left to me.”
The first voice grunted his agreement with a puff of stale sulfur that the farmer could taste even from across the foyer. What could only be described as a Demon slowly uncoiled into the light, red eyes blazing with anticipation, his leathery, scaly skin covering an almost human-like frame. The horned, shadowy creature, pulsing with physical shadows of molten fire and ash, handed the farmer a gift, placing it over the man’s face, which instantly transformed the approaching darkness into a hazy green, the shadows evaporating under his newfound night-vision. The Demon stepped back, appraising the man before him with satisfaction and uncertainty… even fear, before waving a hand in the direction of the other voice. The farmer turned to assess the second creature, eyes no longer able to show surprise. The man-like being that stood before him crackled with blue power, like lightning given form. An Angel. Wings of smoking ice and burning embers arced out from the creature’s back, sparks drifting lazily down to the wooden floor, dying away before contact. The Angel extended a marble hand, offering up a gleaming silver gift. The farmer took it, the item familiar in his hands.
The two creatures spoke as one.“Gifts given. Contract made. He shall be the first. Now, ride forth into your new life. You shall find a new horse befitting your station waiting outside.”Twin peals of thunder, and the once peaceful, prideful, god-fearing farmer was alone again.
The farmer stood in the empty house, and realized he was no longer a god-fearing man.
Over the coming year, he found every last culprit in the crime that had destroyed his life. Their screams unsuccessfully attempted to fill the empty void in his soul, and he reveled in every sensation he created from their broken bodies. Immensely. But it was never enough. Then he faded from this world, to fulfill his new responsibilities, forever regretful of his decision to accept those cursed gifts.
Iblinked at Hemmingway. I could sense that he needed a moment to collect himself. I downed my drink, waving at the bartender to fill us back up. Once complete, I tried to comprehend the dark tale, leaning forward over the bar. “Wow. That was… dark. Really,reallydark. Are you Christopher Nolan in disguise?”
Hemmingway glanced my way, ignoring my last question. “Most true stories are. I didn’t do it justice. The pain in this man’s voice was something… something I’d never experienced before. Or since.” His eyes were lost to his past for a silent moment. “Desperation can lead men to do stupid, but necessary things. Or at least it might seem necessary at the time. I don’t know what became of the farmer, but be cautious of folly, lest you face the same choice as he.” I pondered that in silence.
“You couldn’t have done anything. I know what it’s like to lose someone dear to me. If the survivor wants to disappear for a while, he will disappear for a while. Solitude is sometimes the only true solace available for that level of grief. Perhaps this guy knew the farmer. A relative or something. Had too much to drink and shared his story. Felt guilty in the middle of the night, then left.”
It sounded hollow even to me. “Perhaps.” Hemmingway muttered. “All that to say that Angels are bad news. Demons are bad news. Both together are worse than bad news. Advice given.”
“So… the moral is to not make deals with Angels and Demons?”
“No. The moral is to notdeal in any way whatsoeverwith AngelsorDemons.”
I leaned back, considering. “What did they give him?”
He shrugged. “I told you the story as I heard it. The best stories are mysteries.”
“I guess.” I answered.
He made a dismissive gesture with his hands. “So, whatreallybrings you here?” He asked, seeming eager to change the subject.
My mouth began moving without thinking. And I told him my story. I told him everything. I felt like the man who had shared that dark story with Hemmingway so many years ago. Something about his presence pulled out the darkest part of my life like a moth to a flame. Perhaps he had an empathic ability to draw out the poison in one’s soul. I’m not sure if it was because of his story or the booze affecting me, but he was obviously privy to supernatural information most weren’t. Perhaps he would have some advice. I hadn’t been successful so far, so what could it hurt?
“I’ve heard the tales regarding your parents.” He answered once I was finished, raising his glass. “To Pillars of Society.” We drank deeply. “They were truly great people. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.”
I blinked. “Did you know them?”
“I met them once.” He studied my face. “One time, and one time only. They made a distinct… impression on me. Between black and white is not a gray area, but a quicksilver, honey shade; a shiny, enticing, and altogether beautiful dividing line. If employed correctly, that is. That was your parents. Takepigeon, with whom you just had the pleasure of meeting. His kind are as white as white can be. Now, there are varying degrees of white, yet for the most part, they’reWhite. Capital W. Then there are their brothers. The Fallen. Now, they’re considered as black as black can be, and for the most part, they are. But they didn’t start out that way. They just wanted more of a father figure. God upped and favored humans over them, and it rightly pissed them off. Now, end of story, right?” I shrugged uncertainly; curious of how this strange man was using present tense to describe something that had supposedly happened thousands of years ago. “Then there are theOthers. The Policemen. The ones with horses, if you know what I mean…” I visibly started in understanding, eyes widening.
“The Riders? Are you talking about the Horsemen? Of theApocalypse?” I stammered.
Hemmingway darted a cautious gaze about the bar, shushing me before finally nodding. “Them bastards have faces of justice. One look in their eyes, and you’ll shit yourself with your mouth wide open. Trust me. You ever did anything wrong, and they know it — however, they don’t rightly care. You are just a speck of dust to them. Literally. Their concerns are the Angels and the Fallen. Light and Dark. Black and White. They are the policemen of your very existence, the Universe’s Supreme Court. They are the Judge, Jury, and Executioner. And they take their jobsveryfucking seriously.”
I waited a moment, and then spoke softly. “Our.” Hemingway’s brows furrowed. “Policemen ofourvery existence.” I clarified.
Hemmingway frowned, and then downed his drink. “Yes, that is what I meant.Ourvery existence. Are you the grammar police or something?” He muttered something in an ancient middle-eastern language, but I knew enough to catch his gist.It’s hard getting grammar correct when you learned to speak a now dead language.So, I agreed with him. In roughly the same language. I think. Either that or it was drunken gobbledy-gook. Same thing to my ears.
Hemmingway started, slowly turning to face me with interest. “Well, I’ll be god damned.” He began to laugh, a deep belly sound. The numerous drinks caused me to play a very dangerous hunch as Hemmingway leaned over the bar.
“Aren’t you already?” Time literally halted as I was slammed up against a warped wooden pillar for the second time tonight, my head smashing against the splintered surface with a resoundingcrack, hard enough for me to see stars. Again, my magic had been useless. Everyone around me stood still as statues, not even blinking, as if they had all been encased in Jell-O. Just like with the Angel, Eae.
Hemmingway spoke with a gravelly voice. “No. I. Am. Not.” I gulped, holding up my hands in surrender. I was way too drunk for this right now. “Easy, Wizard. Let’s not cross that line. It’s not nice to accuse a stranger of being one of the Fallen.” Hemmingway was crackling with a vibrant green energy, different than Eae, like a fairy in a Disney cartoon. He stared into my eyes for a few intense moments before finally stepping back. “If I was one of them, do you think Pigeon would have just walked away?” I nodded carefully in agreement. “I’ve had enough to drink. Need another drinking partner some time, here’s my calling card. I might be bored enough to…assistyou.” He tossed a large, heavy card on the bar before scooping up a small set of motorcycle keys near his drink. Odd. He didn’t look like a motorcycle kind of guy. The keys had a miniature, curved blade of some sort as a small adornment. I picked up the card through blurry, alcohol-filled eyes, but my drunken state just made the colors swim wildly, so I stuffed it into my back pocket.
When I looked back up, he was gone. The world snapped back into focus at normal speed, and everyone had a slightly confused look on their faces for a second, as if they again sensed something wrong, but then they dismissed it just as quickly — as if they had briefly suffered another drunk spin moment — before carrying on. They were having a rough night, what with Eae and Hemmingway distorting the flow of time twice in less than an hour. I shambled out of the bar again, but saw no sign of the man. I spotted several SI Mounted Patrol Units trotting down the street, scowling at the drunks exiting the bar, but I ignored them as I stood on my toes, searching the street for Hemmingway, but I could only see more drunks parading around for theirpre-Mardi Grasshenanigans. I drifted back inside to finish my drink and text my ride. It was fucking cold outside.
As I waited, I decided to do a little mental decluttering of recent events in order to see if I was missing something glaringly obvious. It had been that kind of night.
My parents had been murdered a few months ago, by an unknown assailant.
At the same time,someone elsehad broken into their company, stealing a debatably magical music box from a secret stash of dangerous items they allegedly kept under lock and key. The lock and key I had yet to penetrate. Their Pandora Protocol. Said thief had been one of my closest childhood friends, Peter, tempted into working for the group of dragons that had recently plagued my city in exchange for power. I had taken care of the thief, and discovered that he had coincidentally had nothing to do with my parents’ murder.
I had hunted down, maimed, and murdered all known related dragons. With a little help from my friends. But I still had the bit in my mouth. I wanted the full story.Whyhad they been killed?Whohad killed them? Why had Peter stolen the supposedly magical music box from my parents, who had looked upon him as a surrogate son? What was the music box, really? Was it maybe worth a pile of money? It sure wasn’t magical, as I could attest to, after having experimented with it in every way imaginable. I sighed. One thing I did know was that it was nothing like the box from my dreams. It was just a plain fucking music box.
It only takes one yarn to unravel a blanket, and I was searching high and low for that loose thread as if my life depended on it. And I had apparently found the right yarn, considering Eae’s entrance into my life.
I rubbed my wounded palm idly, making sure no glass shards were embedded in my skin, and realized I was growing angrier and angrier.
You see, justice was important to me. It truly infuriated me that someone, somewhere, somehow had gotten away with murder, for some unknown purpose. I had even broken into Peter’s office in order to find clues. Again, nothing relating to the murder. Ihadfound an item I had created many years ago that magically cloaked the owner, most likely used by Peter to sneak into the Armory — their mysteriousPandora Protocolproject — but no other clues.
And now, apparently, Angels were investigating the murder, and wanted me to back off.
No pun intended, butwhat the hell?
I decided that it was definitely time to go home and get some sleep. This wizard was tuckered out. Maybe Indie and I could go on a last minute vacation to escape the madness.
Yep. I was booking a ticket out of town. Let the Angels do their digging. If they came up with nothing, I would pick back up where they left off when I got back. No harm, no foul. I had enough on my plate already.
Feeling better with a plan to escape to some secluded, hot sandy beach with Indie I let my mind wander. I had met two super-strong people today, neither of which was a flavor of supernatural I recognized. Knowing one was most likely an Angel, I considered that a lucky thing. What would regular folk think if they discovered that not only was magic real, but actual Angels walked among us? Or maybe I was just special. Maybe he had made his visit specifically to tell me to stop digging. It didn’t seem likely. It didn’t seem worthy of calling a soldier down to earth all the way from Heaven. That meant theywerehere, walking among us day-to-day. Perhaps my trash guy was an Angel. It made me a tad bit anxious. That was a lot of pressure to be good at all times — a skill I didn’t have. Yep. Beaches, here I come.
Waiting for my ride, I scanned the bar, watching the various freaks in their natural habitat. The belief of most of the world was that magic didn’t exist. We didn’t necessarily want to correct them on that grievous assumption. It was easier to stay in the shadows. It had never ended well when we with ability made our presence known to the world at large. Think of the Salem Witch Trials. Every culture had purges of a sort where they tried to banish, maim, or outright murder the freaks that stood out for their unique abilities. Although the world had progressed since those times, it was still a tough nut to swallow, and we liked it that way. We preferred it, actually.
However, recent events had blatantly smeared my name across the evening news as not only the well known, corrupt, billionaire playboy, but also a dangerous wizard. Most took it in stride, assuming the media had been desperate to sell copy that day, coming up with outlandish stories to garner viewers, but many more wanted explanations. Explanations that weren’t available by me. I wasn’t about to confirm their allegations. Do I look crazy to you?
I turned back to my drink — exhaustion threatening to overwhelm me as I took another sip — hoping the excessive amount of alcohol would help keep me awake. Any time I closed my eyes for more than a few seconds, it was even odds that I would be sucked into another of my night terrors. Maybe it was post-traumatic stress disorder from the dragon ordeal. I had never before experienced such a prolonged malady, and was starting to show signs of wear as a result. I shook my head clear of the twisted memories of my most recent nightmare, knowing Hemmingway’s story would find a nice, comfy spot in my subconscious for later nightmares.
The tumbler of whisky abruptly shattered in my fist, causing the blood to flow freely again from my previous wound. I hissed, sticking my palm to my mouth in irritation. I was systematically destroying all the glasses the bar had to offer. Before I consciously thought about it, I had slapped a crisp, new hundred dollar bill — the kind that looked like monopoly money — on the warped bar, prepaying for a new round of drinks. It spent the same as the old bill, although I was willing to bet the bartender had never seen one before. Sometimes I forgot how others viewed money. I had been born into it, and couldn’t fathom having to work my body to the bone in order to achieve it. My parents had created a multibillion-dollar company, Temple Industries, specializing in all forms of technology. I was no stranger tomakingmoney of my own, but Iwasa stranger to living on the line, never knowing how the next bill would be paid.
It was a humbling thought. What was I without my money?
Several patrons scowled at me. The bartender grunted as he poured me a fresh glass. “Try not to break this one,” he grumbled. I nodded, pressing a fresh napkin into my palm before taking a sip of the fiery liquor. I didn’t want any trouble, but I wanted everyone in the room to know that I wasn’t an easy target. Trouble in aKillended in just that — Death.
I quickly realized that I was unashamedly hammered after talking to the mysterious Hemmingway for so long. I didn’t realize how much I had been drinking. I had been so enamored by the man’s story, and the man in his own right, that I hadn’t minded my liquor. I realized this most obviously, as is most often the case, when I attempted to stand up, and consequently bumped the beer out of the hands of the man behind me.Come on! Twice in one night?The man’s hackles rose. Great, a werewolf. I spotted the same scarred knuckled man from earlier chuckling down the bar, turning his stool to watch as he gripped his mug like he was watching the last two minutes of a good football game. The werewolf bucked up, slamming his empty can on a nearby table. “Pay attention, wizard! Master Temple or not. You’re just another drunk here.” He realized he had the crowd’s attention. “Not safe without your pet guard dog, I see. Maybe I should show you what a real Alpha can do.”
I looked at him, trying to duplicate the intensity of Hemmingway’s gaze, but most likely looking like a roaring drunk.
Which was truer.
“Okay.” I peered past his shoulder, scanning the room. “And where is this elusive bitch you cower from?” Before I could react, the man literally growled as he violently grabbed me by the collar, lifting me high enough to catch a glance over his shoulder. Which is when I saw her.
A beautifully tiny woman stood in the broken doorway, limned by the light outside. She was wearing a cute polka dot dress and giant red heels under a little fur coat. Stiletto-saurus Rex. Her eyes shone like lightning bolts as she spotted the man holding me up. Tory scowled hungrily. I nodded back before glancing down at the Incredible Hulk of a werewolf holding me up in the air. “Oh, goody. Girl fight!” I sneered. He squeezed tighter in white-hot rage, frowning momentarily at my comment, but no doubt still angry about mybitchreference. I struggled to draw another breath before all hell broke loose.
“Release him now,Bitch.” Tory hissed. I instinctively laughed between choking for air.
“Yip, yip, yip.” I managed between gasps. The man continued to glare at me, ignoring Tory. Which wasn’t smart. I could taste the Budweiser on his breath as he dropped me back to the ground. My bracelet of dragon teeth got caught on his sleeve and snapped, scattering dragon teeth across the floor. He took an aggressive step towards me. But Tory was suddenly in the way. The man reacted instinctively, shoving Tory hard with annoyance in an effort to get back to me. She stumbled slightly, and her heel broke. She looked down at the six-inch heel now dangling from her shoe. I whistled as I leaned down to swipe up a handful of the scattered teeth and cord from my broken bracelet on the dirty floor. “You just fucked up your whole night, pal,” I chuckled.
“Go back to your tea party, girl. The adults have business to discuss.” He growled dismissively.
Tory decided to show her displeasure at his words by unleashing unrequited hell.
She let loose an uppercut that slammed the man into the ceiling fan above our heads. It splintered amidst a crackling shower of sparks before crashing to the ground near Tory. On the werewolf’s way down, Tory then unleashed a right cross to his angular, hairy jaw in order to politely break his fall. He flew across the bar, and struck the pool table with a thud that I felt in my boots. Tory was kind of a badass, way stronger than any three men I knew combined.
The werewolf didn’t get up. The music had stopped and the crowd stared at Tory in disbelief.
“My bitch bad.” I sang the rap lyrics from the Ludacris jingle into the stunned silence.
The crowd reacted like a fart had gone off in church, and an epic bar fight ensued. Someone began to take a sucker-punch swing, and a sickly looking man seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The swing wasn’t intended for the fellow, but he was about to be laid out. I cold cocked the attacker with the force only a drunken sailor could wield, sending the assailant clear over the bar, shattering all seventeen dollars worth of quality liquor stored there. The sickly man looked up at me and chuckled with a dry raspy sound, but nodded appreciatively before moseying down the bar, carefree. The fight was suddenly everywhere. I realized that the scarred knuckled Irish guy from down the bar was not taking part, and no one was bothering him. The guy I had just saved from the Hail Mary was right back in the middle of the fray, but was also not being bothered. Huh. He must be one of the ancient Greek warriors with a free pass from Achilles. I hadn’t seen the famous Greek warrior tonight, but hadn’t been looking for him either. Good chance this fight would bring him out, and I needed to make sure Tory and I were gone before that happened.
The vampires at the pool table were beating the bejeezus out of two more werewolves with their cues. A couple trolls were ganging up on a group of fairy men that looked like Abercrombie models. It was mayhem. I realized I was cackling maniacally.
I felt someone forcefully pick me up so I took another drunken swing, connecting solidly with a triumphant shout. I heard a grunt. “Damn it, Nate. It’sme.” Tory growled before lugging me out of the bar, not trusting me enough to let me go. I saw that the bar fight was escalating rapidly, but the Alpha werewolf was still incapacitated. Poor lil’ guy. Moments later, the frigid night air hit me like a bucket of cold water. Tory carried me a good dozen paces away from the bar. She wasn’t even breathing hard, but the uneven steps of her carrying me on a single heel didn’t feel great, like I was riding in a broken elevator that wentup,down,up,down, incessantly.
I spotted Gunnar perched inside an idling Mini Cooper like a gorilla in a golf cart, looking angry, as per usual. Tory set me down and I stumbled, the world spinning crazily for a few seconds. I almost decided to throw up, but the feeling slowly passed. The passenger window rolled down. “You cause that?” He asked, pointing to the sounds of insanity pouring out the broken door of the bar. I shrugged, stumbling slightly again. “You’re hammered!” He declared.
I scowled, leaning on the car’s frame for support. “And you’re a party pooper.” That earned an amused chuckle from Tory. “Give me a straight line to walk! I’ll show you that I’m as sober as a priest!” I bellowed. One of the St. Louis Mounted Patrol Units was watching my meltdown with mild curiosity, glancing from me to the loud bar fight, but wisely remaining on his horse. “You!” I pointed in his direction, kind of. He trotted over to us, and Gunnar almost had an apoplectic seizure.
“Nate, this is a bad idea.” He warned, his fingers momentarily transforming into inch-long, claws. Werewolf claws. They retracted after a glare from Tory. It was her car after all.
“How may I help you?” The dark-skinned officer asked guardedly. “Did you cause that?” He pointed at the bar fight. I shook my head. “Are you harassing these two? Ma’am?” He turned to Tory.
She shook her head with a laugh. “We’re his ride.”
“Sorry to hear that.” The officer stated neutrally from his high horse.
“Oy! I’m right here.”
The cop nodded at me. “So you are. What did you need? Xavier doesn’t give pony rides. Especially to drunks.” He stated blandly.
“Draw a line.” I snapped.
Gunnar groaned. I held up a righteous, wavering finger. “I want to show them my ability to walk a straight line.”
“I don’t have time for this. You have a ride. Get in. or I’ll bust you for disturbing the peace.” Ignoring him, I chose a long, straight crack in the sidewalk in front of a dark alley. And walked the shit out of it. Then backwards. The cop blinked. “Now, that is pretty impressive, given your state of inebriation,” he said, looking flabbergasted. He leaned closer to me. “Want to see if your luck extends to a breathalyzer?” He asked with a wry grin.
“No. Everyone knows that test is rigged. I think I made my point. Thanks. Sorry your rider is a smartass, Xavier.” I said empathetically to the horse. The beast neighed loudly in agreement. My head began to spin again so I leaned against the wall near the alley. The officer studied me thoughtfully, possibly recognizing me from the news, but finally turned back to Tory and Gunnar to verify that everything was all right and that they were in fact taking me home.
No one saw the claw-like hands grab me by the short hairs of my soul, and yank me back into the shadows of the alley. The claws — although invisible — whisked me into oblivion like a cosmic toilet being flushed, and I was shat into the very bowels of space.
It wasn’t pleasant.
Ire-materialized in a dusty, murky building; the sounds of the city were completely gone. Then I promptly threw up. On my captor’s shoes. He danced back with a hiss, letting me go with a shove that threw me into a wall. I bounced off said wall, dizzy, banged my shins against a metal beam of some kind, and collapsed to my knees with a shout of blinding pain. My head was spinning crazily, and my body felt tingly from the apparent teleportation, and shin bumps were the worst form of torture.
When my vision steadied a bit, and I had recovered from the blunt force trauma to my shins, the first thing I saw was shoes.
A fuck-load of shoes, no doubt belonging to an equal fuck-load of assailants.
“Okay. Now you’ve done it. I hope you all came prepared for an ass-whooping, but first, throw-up shoes needs to tell me how to apparate.”
I tried to stand, and was kicked in the ribs by one of the apparently steel toed shoes. I grunted in pain, the breath kicked out of me, ribs bruised but not broken, and remained on the ground for reconnaissance purposes. After a minute, I managed to find my voice, walling away the fire in my ribs and shins. “Fine. I’ll…” I gathered my breath. “I’ll just have to beat it out of you.” I wheezed.
I tried to stand again and the boot reared back to kick me. I feigned clumsiness, hopefully agile enough to catch the boot before a commanding voice shouted, “Stop!” The boot listened. My vision was only just now able to distinguish that bodies belonged to the shoes. I looked up and saw silver masks staring down at me and my heart stopped. Each mask was a depiction of different human emotions, and continued past the jaw like a silver cloth to their chests. This wasn’t good. At all. “I see you recognize us, but giving you’re state of drunkenness, I’ll speak as if to a small child. We are the Justices. The police of the Wizard Academy. And you have been found guilty of criminal actions on multiple counts. Your sentence is cooperation or annihilation. Which do you choose?”
I stared back; ready to unleash a smartass comment, but then the words froze on my tongue. I blinked. “I figured it out.” I said more to myself than to them.
His voice dripped sarcasm. “How very clever of you. You deciphered the riddle of who we are from the complicated words I used.”
I scowled. “No, daftwit. I figured out how to apparate. And I didn’t even go to Hogwarts!”
I didn’t knowhow, but it was as if the very experience of teleporting had shown me exactly how to do it. Perhaps my subconscious had been paying more attention than my drunken conscious mind, but I had never learned something that fast before. Ever. Especially not while roaring drunk. It didn’t make any sense. But I was confident I knew how to freaking teleport, thanks to these asshats kidnapping me.
“What is thisapparateword you keep saying? And what is Hogwarts?” The leader asked, genuinely confused.
“Only the finest school of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the world.” I mumbled, shambling to my feet. I swayed slightly, assessing my kidnappers.
“I’ve never heard of it. It must not bethatgreat.” Someone spoke roughly.
I ignored him. Anyone who couldn’t get a Harry Potter reference was beyond help. “So, couldn’t take the time to schedule an appointment with me over a cup of tea? Had to snatch me up while I’m hammered drunk? And what are these crimes I’m apparently guilty of, because they’re news to me. I never even got a ticket!” I grumbled, discreetly counting my assailants.
The eight thugs didn’t find it funny. Or maybe they did. It was hard to tell behind their masks. Paying closer attention, I saw the differences in each mask. There were smiles, frowns, scowls, tears, screams, and several other variations of human emotion. It made me think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I turned to the leader again, the only man not wearing a mask. “That makes you Snow White.”
“Jesus, he’ssloshed!” One of them chuckled.
“And I still kicked your ass.” I retorted sharply.
“Throwing up on my shoes hardly counts as kicking my ass. You only just managed to pick yourself up off the floor.”
“Oh, that’s right. The ass kicking comes in 30 seconds. Sorry, my mistake.” I took an aggressive step forward for a surprise attack I knew they would never see coming. Another masked man swiped my foot out from under me like a ninja. I crashed into a table, and then my nose hit a nearby chair, causing an orange explosion of light.
Sweet darkness took a hold of me, read me a bedtime story, fucked me gloriously, and tucked me in for a nice long nap.
What felt like a second later, an icy bucket of water struck me in the face, ice cubes stinging my cheeks like a swarm of frozen bumblebees. I gasped, yelping as I leapt to my feet. My nose was on fire, and I tasted icy, bloody water pouring down my face. I swung my fists wildly in all directions. A pair of strong arms grasped me around the shoulders. “Easy, champ. We’re only here to talk.”
“The hell we are, Gavin. This man is a criminal. You forget your place.” The leader’s voice growled.
“Of course,Snow White.” The man holding me muttered so that only I could hear. I smiled. I had won at least one of them over to my side. Maybe.
“What was that, Gavin?” The leader growled threateningly.
“I thought so. Now, where were we before we were almost overwhelmed by Master Temple’s daring attack against the chair? Ah, yes. His crimes.”
I knew this wasn’t going to be good. The nameless leader had told me they were Justices of the Wizard Academy. That was a very politically correct term for them. The honest description of their vocation waslegal hit men. They snuffed out rogue wizards and other supernatural criminals like candles on the daily. They were notorious, the grim reapers of our world. Which also meant they were badasses, and they didn’t typically show up just to talk. Usually the sentence had already been given, and they merely showed up to enforce the Academy’s will.
The silence grew brittle. My face was on fire, but my chest and ears were shivering from the ice water. I turned from face to face. “So. Anyone going to elaborate for me or am I supposed to guess?”
Snow White finally spoke. “We received your report on the events in your city a few months back,” he began. I stared back, hiding an insolent smile. Smartass comments would do me no favors here. I needed to tread carefully. But I do hate authority, and this guy reeked of it. He also reeked of loyalty and duty, one of those men who follows orders first, then thinks later, if at all. Not the type to question his betters, even when necessary. “Care to elaborate?” He demanded.
“Well, I assume that you mean that you didn’t justreceiveit, but that you alsoreadit, or were the contents above your pay grade?” The man kept his face a cool mask, devoid of any emotion, not rising to my bait. But I could tell that inside he was practically ready to stomp his feet and throw a tantrum. He nodded.
“Obviously, Ireadit. Sarcasm is the lowest form of humor, by the way, but if I was facing my impending doom as you are, I might be flippant as well.”
I nodded. “Nothing else much to say. As entertaining as this has been, I’m glad we got this all sorted out in a professional matter without me having to lay waste to your seven dwarves. So, can you be a good man and return me to the bar? I’m thirsty.” I smiled.
He arched a brow at me in disbelief. “Only the guilty or disrespectful would be scared to elaborate on the report that you emailed us from the free email account[email protected].”
I kept my face deadpan. “The other numbers were taken so I used seventeen. I had security issues, so set up the free account to get word to you and no one else. Seemed legit. My other choice was[email protected]”
Jafar quivered slightly. “We thought it was a prank until we saw the other reports. You should have come to explain yourself. For example, you didn’t mention that black magic had been used on an acquaintance of yours. Peter. An old friend, if our intelligence is correct. Using dark magic on Peter to shut down his brain for a night is a crime punishable by death. That wasn’t in your report. But I’m sure if you could produce Peter to tell us his side of the story, we could at least clear upthatcharge from your growing list of crimes. We have been unable to do so on our own. Almost as if he disappeared. Permanently. Which would also be a crime.”
I hid a nervous gulp. How had they foundthatout? Worse, did they know it was I who had used the dark magic on Peter? “I never found out who did that, or else it would have been in my report.”
The leader studied me for a moment, a look of resignation on his face. “Anything else you forgot to mention?”
“No.” I answered too quickly.
“Hmm. What of the bar fight tonight?”
Damn it. They had obviously been tailing me. “I didn’t start it… on purpose. I spilled someone’s drink. Then everyone freaked out. But it’s okay. Ifinishedit.” I added with a dark grin. “Since when do bar fights concern the Academy?”
“Since it involved Nate Temple. The rumored author of the coalition of supernaturals here in St. Louis. Imagine our shock upon hearing that. One of our own was not only outing magic, but was forming a fan club with a renegade were-dragon. At a national convention.” I scratched my several day growth of beard.
“Well, that wasn’t really my idea. I got bamboozled into it. I never said a word about it. To anyone. Check the records. I was declared an author of it, but nowhere will you find me talking about it to anyone. It was the Dragon Father’s idea of putting me in a corner. And nobody puts baby in a corner.” I glanced around the room waiting for a laugh. The mindless thugs stared back with their stupid silver masks. “Seriously? Nothing? Have you guys even heard of movies? Philistines! Regardless, it didn’t work out too well for Alaric Slate.”
“Yes. I’m glad you brought that up. We seem to have a new Dragon Father. A Black Dragon to be precise. A messiah of some kind to them. The Obsidian Son. And again, you were directly involved.”
I shrugged. “St. Louis is a happening place.”
“Enough. We have been requesting your debriefing about that whole ordeal for quite some time. Unsuccessfully. We demand an explanation of a great many things from you, young man.” He paused, wrinkling his nose, suddenly distracted. Then his gaze locked onto me like a bird of prey. “What. Is. That. Smell?” I froze, not knowing what he was talking about, but all too aware that he literally had the authority to end me, right here, right now.
“Brimstone, Sir.” Another wizard hissed in surprise.
“What have you been up to, Master Temple?” The leader asked, seeming cautious for the first time.
“Damn it! You’re the second person to say that. Do they make Demon Febreeze?” No one moved. “I was told that the whole city reeks of it, but that I smell the strongest of it. Test the veracity of my words. I don’t know why I smell like Brimstone. I swear it on my power.”
The man studied me, finally nodding. I had sworn it on my power, so I literally couldn’t lie about it. That was good… but it didn’t mean I was safe. The smell wasn’t why I had been kidnapped.
“Listen, I think we got off on the wrong foot. I don’t even know your name. Or the alleged list of other crimes against me. My city went to hell a few months ago, and it was either stand and fight by myself or let a group of were-dragons run amok, murdering civilians. I never once saw the Academy show up to help.” The thug who had kind of bonded with me shifted from one foot to another.
“Did you have something to add, Gavin?” The leader asked with menace.
The thug turned to his boss. “He’s got a point. How can he be guilty if he was the only one here to fight the threat? Condemning a man for being a vigilante when it was the only course available to him isn’t justice.”
The leader watched his man for a few tense moments. “It seems Gavin’s resolve is weak. Sympathy is not becoming in a Justice.”
“Maybe it should be.” He answered defiantly. I hid my smile. A partner in crime! I held out my hand for a fist bump. He ignored me, still staring at his boss. I scowled at the side of his head, lowering my hand.
The leader blinked. “We will discuss this later.” He shot Gavin a scowl that brooked no further discussion. “My name is Jafar, the Captain of the Academy Justices. Let’s move our discussion to a topic of much interest to the Academy. The Armory your parents supposedly stashed away. The cache of supernatural weapons. This was the reason the dragons were here in the first place, correct?” I felt my faint glimmer of hope sizzle out and die like a bug colliding with a bug zapper. He seemed to enjoy the look of shock on my face, enjoying my mental backpedaling. “No need to deny it. We have all heard the stories of how they stole artifacts from other families over the years, robbing graves, or outright buying items that should have been handed over to us for safekeeping. Until now, we had presumed them to be rumors, but your actions, and those of the thieving dragons, prove otherwise. Now, you are going to hand it over to us, as should have happened in the first place. Where is it?”
I hesitated. Dare I hand it over to them? Especially since it was… mine? But was it really? Had my parents stolen the rumored items that filled this elusive Armory? I hadn’t yet been able to prove that it was even real, despite everyone else seeming to know so much about it. But, assuming it was everything that everyone feared, did I have any right tohoardit? Did the Academy have any right totakeit? Thinking of their wrinkly, power-hungry hands caressing those items hidden away by my parents made me cringe deep down inside… like a dragon hoarding his gold. These men hadn’t been in St. Louis to help me with the dragons, but as soon as they heard about the booty to be gained, all of a sudden I was a liability, and they wasted no time in visiting my city to take the prize. But they hadn’t given a damn about the lives that could have been taken if I hadn’t stood up to fight back. And now they dared call the actions of my noble friends and myself a crime. Did the world need men like that with such potential weapons at their disposal? I decided right then that they didn’t.
Jafar continued. “I can see your dilemma. Do you die a martyr in a vain effort to thwart me out of some ill-conceived notion of honor for your parents’ murder? Get the last word in, so to speak? Or do you play it smart, and bow to your betters. The men who play the longer game. The Academy. The ones who make sure you can tuck your loved ones in at night?” His eyes twinkled as he watched me.
I looked from face to face, gathering strength, judging the Justices. Their silver faces were supposed to embody human emotion in an effort to prove their empathy for the greater good. But they weren’t good. They were just another breed of political animals. “Do you sleep well at night?” I asked softly into the still silence of the room.
“Pardon?” Jafar asked.
“Do you sleep well at night? You know, when you climb into your jammies, drink a glass of warm milk in your impregnable castle that’s guarded by hundreds of other wizards, before you close your eyes because you are tired from a long day of paperwork. Do you think about the people who were murdered here in my city a few months back before sleep takes you? The ones who had no idea what was happening, what they were dying for, the ones who were brutally murdered by creatures out of a nightmare, creatures that even I didn’t know existed. The innocents who lost their lives while you were safe in your ivory tower. The ones who died while you delayed coming to my aid. While you were playing thelong game, as you put it, people were dying. You seemed to have no problem coming to St. Louis as soon as you heard about the Armory. So, where were you when my people needed someone to ‘tuck them in safely,’ someone to keep them safe from the monsters of the night?”
The other Justices fidgeted uncomfortably. Jafar sensed it. “That was your own doing. Without the Armory, your city would have been safe. If your parents had handed it over, as was their responsibility, none need have died. Which is why we are here now. To prevent further bloodshed.”
“Tell that to the slain.Ididn’t know about the Armory. How could the Regulars have known? Regardless, peopledied, and it had nothing to do with the Armory. The dragons were after a book, not the Armory. And you can sit there with a straight face and tell me that my parentscausedthe mayhem? No one even knew why they were being attacked. Two of our own, my parents, were murdered and yet you did nothing. Who was there left to prove a point to when they were already dead? After that, you should have been here to help. That is your fuckingjob. To protect the innocent. Yet you failed. And now you kidnap me, accuse me of being a criminal for saving innocent lives, and dare have the audacity to critique how I saved those lives? Go sip your warm milk and get bent, Jafar. My city has no need for cowardly thugs.”
Jafar’s face purpled. “You dare speak to-”
“You’re still talking.” I said smoothly, tapping into the innate confidence of the Master Temple as my father had taught me. “What part ofget bentdid you not understand? I’ve never seen this Armory. I don’t know a thing about it, despite spending months trying to find the truth of it, but even if I did, I wouldn’t hand it over to the schoolyard bully.”
The Justices loomed around me. Some looked confused, not knowing whether to attack me, arrest me, or cheer in agreement. Jafar snarled back. “Your parents were criminals to deprive the Academy of these stolen items. We don’t tolerate vigilantes, especially ones who hoard stolen power. These things belong in the care of wiser, older wizards, who were appointed to be a collective think tank to keep all of us safe. Your parents had no right to take this into their own hands through thievery. The Hubris! And especially to pass on these stolen goods to an irresponsible wizard like you. Does this have anything to do with the Brimstone smell permeating your business? Have you perhaps already made a deal with a Demon to bring your sweet parents back in exchange for the Armory?”
Power exploded out of me. An explosion of pure force buffeted the Justices off their feet. One managed to cross his arms in some kind of warding spell and was merely knocked into a table rather than over it, but the rest were blown back into the wall none too peacefully. My outburst had been purely instinctual. “Say that again and I’ll have your head spiked to my front gate. Consequences be damned.” I hissed as Jafar struggled back to his feet. Several other Justices were also scrambling to their feet, gathering power to subdue me. “Enough!” I commanded, slashing all power from the room and tying it in a neat knot within a foot of my person. I didn’t exactly know how I did that, but no one was able to touch their power without getting into my bubble. They stared at me in what appeared to be blank shock, several masks having fallen askew. “That was in no way an intentional attack. Think how you would have responded to be accused of Demon-craft when your parents are not even six months in the grave.” I spoke softly, genuinely, letting them know I was not a loose cannon. “Your boss has a big fucking mouth to dare speak to me so callously, and he deserved much worse than getting his clothes a bit dusty from a fall. I mean no harm to anyone here.” With that, I released my hold on the loose energy of the room. I wasn’t sure I should have been able to do that, but it had apparently been effective.
“You will pay for that, Temple.” Jafar began.
“Shut it, old man. I’ve had enough of your wobbling dentures. It’s giving me a headache.”
Everyone stiffened at that. I had just mocked their boss. Probably not too smart. But after surviving an Angel, his title didn’t impress me much. One of the Justices spoke up, a female. “If what you say is true, how did you just manage to stall eight wizards while so obviously drunk? That is not usual. Despite your rumored strength, we are all battle trained and you just swatted us down like insects. How do you think that looks to us?” She asked politely.
“Probably like I’m a big fat liar.” I shrugged guiltily. She nodded, holding out a hand to show her point. “But I’m not. I noticed my power surge after my parents’ deaths. Are you implying that it’s not normal for parents to gift their strength to their offspring upon death?”
“That isn’t evenpossible.” The woman spluttered, turning to face Jafar with a curious brow. He nodded in agreement with her.
“Then I truly do not know.” I answered honestly. “Now, if you are demanding I turn over the Armory, go ahead and arrest me. I don’t know how to give you something I don’t have. Next, you are the second person to mention Brimstone. I was led to believe that the whole city reeks of it, but that I specifically smell of it. What would cause this? I have had absolutely no contact with Demons. To be honest, it never even crossed my mind. I never thought to seek out a Demon for an answer when no Demon was involved with my parents or the dragons. If you have any answers, please give them now. Otherwise, I cannot help you.” No one spoke for a long moment.
“Well, of course you would lie about consorting with Demons. It’s against the law.”
My gaze froze his scowl. “You told me I already broke a gazillion laws. If that’s true, what’s one more crime when you make it sound like I torture kittens in my spare time? And I already swore on my power that I didn’t consort with Demons.” He merely glared back angrily. I could sense that in no way had I turned the tables. I was still the enemy, and they were eight. I had merely shuffled the deck a bit on a few points. It was a start. “Now, all I’ve been doing is investigating the same rumors you’ve apparently heard. I’ve never seen this Armory. I’ve just been following any leads I could dig up. As you well know, my parents were murdered the same night that a thief broke into Temple Industries. The thief was not the murderer. There was a third party. I saw the video of the attack. That is all I know. I’m simply investigating the why, how, and who. Like any responsible CEO and son would do.”
“Let’s assume you are telling the truth,” Jafar began. “It is now time for you to hand over any information you have amassed on this Armory, and come with us to the Academy to answer for your crimes. You are in our crosshairs, Temple. You have repeatedly risked our secret to the Regulars. You never requested our assistance with the were-dragons, you allegedly used black magic — even if in self-defense, and a long list of otherscrimes.” So theydidknow it was me using black magic, I cringed inwardly. “Your parents’ actions were also unsanctioned, and therefore must be reviewed by us. Pass on this information and it will go a long way into removing you from closer… scrutiny. Hand over your knowledge of the Armory.”
“I can’t do that. I don’t have anything to hand over, but even if I did, I’m not sure I disagree with my parents. You haven’t exactly shown much discretion or restraint in this encounter. Imagine if you had nuclear launch codes and I accidentally bumped into you. You threatened me after I told the truth a few seconds ago. How can you say this alleged Armory is safe in your hands?”
“How about we just sniff around for the source of the Brimstone then?” He asked with a hungry sneer.
“Please. Be my guests. I’m just as curious about it as you are. I’ll set up an appointment.”
Jafar smiled a dark smile. “No need for the appointment. Do you not recognize where we are?” His smile stretched wider.
I blinked, finally scanning the room we were in. It was a warehouse. No, a laboratory. Several orbs of light filled the room as one of the Justices cast them against the far walls to stick like giant lightning bugs. Then I saw the symbol on the wall. We were at Temple Industries.
“We have sensed Demon-craft all over St. Louis, and think it might have something to do with you or possibly this Armory. The fact that you smell so strongly like Demons after admitting to researching this endeavor seals the deal. Now, show us the entrance to prove you are not consorting with Demons.”
“I can’t.” I answered softly.
“Can’t, or won’t?” Jafar asked with a disgusted snarl. Before I could reply, he continued. “No problem. We will just follow the scent of Brimstone.”
Huh. I hadn’t thought of that. But then again, I also hadn’t sensed the Brimstone in the first place. If it seemed to be centralized here, it made sense why I stunk of it so strongly. I had been here almost every day trying to get into the Armory. But why did my company smell like Demons? Were there Demons imprisoned in the Armory? I shivered. That was a sobering thought.
I had no choice but to follow them. The female Justice who had spoken earlier drifted out of the laboratory and down the hall like a dog on scent. Going straight for the room I had seen in the video footage. Could they be on to something? After a few minutes, we found ourselves in the fated hallway, staring at a blank wall. I bit back a smile. None of us could see anything unique about this section of hallway, as the room had apparently been spelled invisible by my parents. The first time I had realized anything was here was when I had seen the video footage of the attack, as the camera had shown through all magical energies, revealing the door behind the spell. The wizard waved a hand and a blast of hazy heat seared the protective spell from the air, revealing the giantOmegasymbol above a worn, ancient door that hadn’t been there a moment ago.
She smiled back at my surprise, and then placed a dainty hand on the door handle. After a deep breath, she yanked the door open, and instantly let out a yelp of surprise as a broom handle struck her in the mask where her eyebrow would be. I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
Jafar strode forward, peering into the closet angrily. “This doesn’t make any sense. This is where the Brimstone smell is the strongest. A mighty being manifested near here and spent a great deal of time on this spot. Repeatedly, in order to be this pungent. This must have to do with the Armory.” I laughed even harder.
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I mean, that mop is kind of dangerous, but I doubt it’s been spelled. You can have it for ten bucks.” Even though we were standing directly in front of the alleged Armory’s entrance, it was nothing but a broom closet. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I had of course already tried this. The broom must have been spelled because I had been armed for bear and had still also been hit in they eye. I didn’t know how it was possible, but the room was guarded somehow. It hadn’t been when Peter had broken in, but perhaps the spells had been ignited upon my parents’ murder. Without warning, Jafar slammed me up against the wall. “Give me the Key to the Armory. It belongs tous.”
“I will tell you one time to let me go. Exactly once. Then I will knock those fucking dentures out of your ancient mouth.” I spoke softly. His grip tightened. “Don’t think I can’t. I’ve already shown you my strength. Do you really want to look a fool in front of your crew? If so, I’m your Huckleberry.”
Jafar’s arm quivered. He was strong for an old man, but he finally let go. He turned away and took a few deep breaths to calm down. Then he turned back to face me. “Hand over the Key to the Armory.” I had no idea what he meant by aKey. He must have noticed this from my blank stare. “Magical crossroads like the one required to keep something like this secret for so long require aKey. You must have it. Your power is double what it should be, what it was last time you and your parents stood before the Academy on your Name Day.” That brought back the terrifying memory of meeting the Academy for my first time. The Name Day was an initiation day for young inherent wizards to be accepted for training. I hadn’t gone to their school as the majority of wizards did, having instead been ‘home schooled’ by my parents. They hadn’t been too big of fans of the Academy and the politics that were indelibly imprinted on her students.
“Give us your information on the Armory and we will help you. Refuse and we will take it by force. It belongs in our hands where it is safe, not with one family. Until you see the errors of your ways, we are assigning you a caseworker. One of our best detectives. He will shadow you at all times. Gavin?” the Justice who had seemed to agree with me stepped forward. I merely stared at him, refusing to aid him. Jafar nodded after a few seconds. “You leave me no choice then. Akira?” I flinched, having anticipated an attack from Jafar or Gavin. They didn’t move. Instead, I suddenly found myself set upon by the entire ring of wizards simultaneously. I struggled for a moment but they were too quick for my drunken reflexes. A warm blanket of energy began to settle over my shoulders, and then it turned to a tingling, icy pain as it was yanked away. I roared, feeling as if the skin was being torn from my bones. Darkness and a swirl of sparks filled my vision as I crashed to my knees.
When I came to, I was still on the floor, heaving through a raspy throat. Jafar’s face appeared before me. “You brought this on yourself. You have been cursed. From this day forward, your power will no longer restore itself. As you use it up, it is gone… permanently. This curse will remain in place until you choose to comply. You have three days. Then we will be back to hear your answer. I’m interested to see what happens if you use up all your power between now and then. Logic leads me to believe that if you use up your magic, it will be gone for good, but of course we have yet to test it out. Regardless, the longer the curse rests on your shoulders, the higher the risk that the power loss will be permanent. This is fitting, as the extra magic you briefly wielded was not truly yours, and could have only been granted through black magic or Demon-craft.” His smile mocked my fear. Was this really happening? What was I without my magic? Who was I if not a wizard?
I was about to find out.
“The only way we will remove the spell is if you comply. Or beg Gavin’s aid. It most likely won’t replace what was already taken, but will halt the continuous of deterioration of your magic. Again, all we demand is your compliance — your pledge to serve the Academy, and access to the Armory. It’s past time for renegade wizards to do as they please unchecked. I think we are done here, unless you have something to add?” He asked with a leering grin. The other Justices looked troubled, but resolute. This was all they knew. They didn’t know me. They knew their indoctrination into the Academy, and wholeheartedly believed the creed enforced upon them from such a young age. This was why my parents hadn’t let me train at the Academy. At least Gavin looked uncomfortable. That was a plus, right?
One fear plagued my thoughts. “How am I supposed to rid my city of Demons if my power is waning and you aren’t helping? You told me I should have asked you for help a few months ago, well, now I’m asking.”
Jafar looked at me with the cold eyes of a bureaucrat. “Of course… right after you give us what does not belong to you. Or when you come crawling back to us in three days, powerless. It’s up to you. In the mean time, Gavin will be there to make sure you break no further laws. Despite his insolence earlier, he’s a firm believer in order and justice. He’s a tough task master.”
I growled under my breath. “I’ll figure it out on my own then. Like I usually do. You know, this is the kind of action that makes wizards rebel.” The words hit me as doubly true after my conversation with Hemingway at the bar. He sympathized with the Fallen Angels… sort of.
With a rustle of fabric, everyone disappeared except Gavin and I. “So, this blows.” I muttered. Gavin stared at me through the mask that resembled a frowning face, offering nothing. “Are you not allowed to talk to the criminal?” I asked him.
He cocked his head slightly, and then tore his mask away. It disappeared in a puff of vapor. Huh. Fairy make? “My job is to make sure you don’t break the law. We aren’t friends. I’m not here tohelpyou, but towatchyou. To make sure you don’t cross any more lines. I’m not saying that I agree with the Captain, but I also don’t believe that what you did was right.” I simply stared at him, curious. Silence brought on the best answers, I had found, so I waited. “Order is important. Laws are in place to keep the greater good safe.” He said vehemently.
“I guess thegreater gooddoesn’t include Regulars then.” I said softly, watching his face. He looked torn.
“Apparently not.” He answered with a sigh. “Look. The current system is broken. I agree, but without a system we are animals. Something is better than nothing. What can we do?” He asked with a helpless frown. “You want to find your parents’ murderer. I understand. I won’t stop you. But let’s get one thing clear. I won’t let you hurt anyone in your effort to do so. Jafar was right. You caused a lot of trouble with the dragons. The Academy should have helped you. But even though they didn’t, it didn’t give you the right to take the law into your own hands. If all it takes is an ideal and the power to enforce it, how is a vigilante any different than a criminal?” He asked me with all the passion of youth. I sighed.
“Fine. Stay out of my way, and we won’t come to blows.” His shoulders stiffened. “Easy, kid. That wasn’t me picking a fight. You can tell by the fact that there isn’t a Gavin shaped dent in the drywall over there.” I waved at the wall with a wry grin that seemed to diffuse the situation. I tried to ease the tension. “About that curse… Was he literal? If I use up my power between now and my trial date, will I become a Regular?”
He studied me for a few moments, judging how much to say. “Jafar doesn’t joke. Or exaggerate. He’s old school. Very old school. When he says something, he means it. But he was also right when he said he’s interested in finding out what would happen. Theoretically, the effects would be permanent. It was either cast the spell or arrest you. He did give you an option, if you recall. Now he can justify his actions to his superiors on the Academy Council. He’s a thug, but an efficient and necessary one. He genuinely believes everything spouted to him from on high. And he’s in charge of the Justices, so they believe as he does. Most of them anyway…” he offered with a shrug. “Enough to matter.”
I nodded, turning back to the door. One problem at a time. I’d figure out the magic thing later. Perhaps I wouldn’t need magic to fend off Demons and Angels while I tried to hunt down my parents’ murderer. Yeah, right. I tried the handle and got bopped in the head with the damned broom, just like Akira. I bit back a curse as I heard Gavin muffle a chuckle. I turned abruptly, casting out a hand behind him as if we were suddenly under attack. He bought it, turning with his own hand cast out defensively.
That’s when I gathered my power around me like a cloak in a corny opera, cackling for good measure as I prepared to apparate back to the bar, using my memory of how the Justices had kidnapped me.
“Muah-ha-ha!” I pulled the room around me like a blanket, reaching for the darkness hidden in the air at all times, and grasped it like my life depended on it, all the while firmly imagining myself back outside the bar from earlier. I hoped I had gotten it right. I heard Gavin curse as he realized my ploy. Perhaps it was my evil magician stage laugh that gave me away.
The spell wrapped around me before I thought about how much magic it might use. What if it used up all my strength? But it was too late. I was hurtling through space at an alarming rate like a plate of Jell-O on a roller coaster.
My feet landed firmly on the concrete just outside the alley where I had been whisked away from not too long ago. Confident that I wasn’t about to throw up again, I cheered. “Boo ya!” I fist bumped the air in triumph. It had worked!
The chill hit me fast after the warmth of the warehouse at Temple Industries. I took a deep breath of the frigid air, trying to sober up a bit. The street was quiet. I scowled in the general direction of where Tory’s Mini Cooper had been parked. Since Gunnar and Tory had rabbited, I would just have to call her back and ask her to pick me up. Again. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any more bar fights. I dared not go back inside. Even though it was warmer. I was sure Achilles wouldn’t be pleased to see me.
The alcohol sloshed uncomfortably in my belly as I began to walk, but I let out a deep laugh. It took me a few seconds to truly comprehend the fact that I had just teleported. How freaking cool was that? But I was too scared to try it again until I got a better grasp of the curse that had been placed on me. What if I burned myself out? I shivered, nothing to do with the cold this time. Right. Dwell later. Get home now. With the important decisions made, I reached into my pocket and whipped out my cell phone.
And saw that it was dead.
I blinked at it. Had I not charged it? I had been forgetting more and more of these simple tasks as my sleep deprivation increased, which probably wasn’t a good sign for my mental well being in the long haul. Like an elevator button, I pressed the power button repeatedly, confident that persistence would pay off. But, like the elevator, it didn’t.
I looked up, judging how far I would need to walk to catch a cab. I wasn’t necessarily in a spot many cabbies visited of their own choice. That was fine. Perhaps a walk among theMardi Graspatrons would help sober me up a bit. Give me time to plan my vacation with Indie. Then I hesitated. But Icouldn’tgo on a vacation now, not with this curse. I scowled at nothing in particular. Damn Jafar.
I began hoofing it, striding drunkenly along with angry stomps of my feet. Jafar would pay for that, but for now, I merely had to get home. And to do that, all I had to do was make it to a main thoroughfare. Simple. I quickly realized that there weren’t many people on the street, but I could still hear them off in the distance. They had most likely congregated to a morehappeningplace. A place with more bare breasts than Achilles Heel. After all, starving college girls needed beads for food, right? Someone had to provide for them. I realized I was idly searching my pocket for beads, which brought my thoughts back to Indie. She was no doubt at Chateau Falco, wondering why I wasn’t back home yet. I wondered if Gunnar or Tory had called her, terrifying her with my abrupt disappearance. If so, I was in for a rough night.
I spotted a mounted patrol officer near a streetlight a hundred feet ahead of me and began to walk faster. He probably hadn’t seen me clearly yet. After all, I was standing in a vast pool of darkness between the dim glows of the aged lights. Neighborhoods like this one didn’t have too serious of a relationship with the city’s maintenance crew. More like casual one night stands. I smiled as I sashayed in a mostly straight line towards him. I wasn’t in that rough of a neighborhood if a mounted police officer was standing watch.
That’s when I smelled it.
The little hairs on the back of my neck jumped to attention as my eyes squinted, trying to retain any night vision I could. How had I missed the odor? Especially after being told repeatedly that I was doused in it. But this time it wasn’t me. This was fresh. I shook the thought away as a dry, raspy voice seemed to whisper directly into my ear. “Does the Master Temple need a ride?”
I jumped, twisting like a cat in midair, swinging my arms wildly in a carefully orchestrated defensive maneuver. Lucky for him, I missed entirely. But I knew it had to have scared him a little. It was a ferocious display of the pure essence of manliness incarnate.
“Was that a seizure?” Its voice crackled drily, pretending not to be terrified.
I didn’t speak as I continued to stare in the general direction of the voice, hoping to get a solid glimpse of what I was up against. In the darkness, a shape materialized out of nothing, as if unshedding the very night from his shoulders. A Demon. He looked similar to a man, but covered in gravel-like skin. Rough and rigid. Not scales, but like hardened, hundred-year old, weathered lava that had cooled off sometime before the ice age. Other than that, he was a beautiful specimen of the health benefits in Hell. I scowled. “No need to act tough. I know I scared you too.”
“Yes. Very frightening, mortal. Almost made me lose my appetite.” With a puff of ash, he was gone. I took a step back, questing the darkness, and flinched as his voice whispered in my ear again. Behind me. “Almost…” I whirled, trying to keep him in my sights, wondering how he had moved so stealthily. He chuckled, a sound like snakes slithering through dead leaves in the fall.
Fall.Fallen, my subconscious repeated, remembering my encounter at the bar.
I shook my head and briefly wondered exactly what Demons were.Werethey all Fallen Angels? Or were some just damned souls? I raised my hand. The Demon hesitated, cocking his head before nodding for me to proceed. “What exactly is a Demon? Are you just some poor bastard who made bad life decisions, or are you a Fallen Angel?”
He hissed in spittled fury like a doused cat. “Do not blaspheme against my master. You are not worth the breath the Fallen take.”
“You guys breathe?” I asked in disbelief. The Demon merely stared at me. “I mean, I guess I just thought that it was kind of hot and ashy down in hell, and that there wouldn’t be much oxygen. I’m not much of a geography guy, so I hope you don’t take offense. I honestly don’t know what’s down there. I’ve heard it’s … less than ideal though, you know? But what about you? You’vebeenthere and everything!” I slowly began walking as I talked, hoping to get closer to the cop I had seen a moment ago. The officer seemed to be watching me curiously, or at least squinting in my general direction, but I knew that if the Demon saw his attention, the man was as good as dead. “So, what’s your opinion on hell? Good, bad, need a bit of a renovation? You obviously find it more desirable up here, or else you wouldn’t be here.” Another step. “Are you even allowed up here without a hall pass?” Another step. I was now only a few feet away from the edge of the streetlight’s glow. “Or would a summoner do the trick? Yeah. That could work. Someone calls you up here, you answer. No harm in that, right?”
“Everything alright over here?” A deep baritone called out. “Who are you talking to?” It was the same cop from outside the bar earlier. “Master Temple?” The officer barked in disbelief, finally recognizing me. Tory or Gunnar must have told him who I was after my disappearance. “What happened to your face? And where did you run off to earlier? Were you mugged?” He began to reach for his radio to call in backup.
The Demon hissed in annoyance and frustration at my banter, having realized too late that he had missed his chance to take me out with ease. Then the Demon slowly relaxed. “This could have been so easy. I just wanted to introduce you to my master. But you had to involve the constabulary. Now I’ll have to paint the sidewalk with his blood. Loose lips sink ships. Give me a moment. I’ll be right back so we can continue our chat.” He grinned, gravel crackling off his skin as he exploded into motion. That’s when the cop finally saw what I had been talking to. Before then, the Demon had stayed in the shadows.
To the cop’s credit, he reacted pretty fucking fast. He moved his hand from the radio to his holster like Clint Eastwood. His gun coughed four times in less than a few seconds as the Demon hurtled towards him and his horse, Xavier. The majority of his shots rang true, judging from the puffs of gravel exploding from the Demon’s torso. The horse dodged the first swipe of the Demon by sheer luck, but the creature rebounded immediately, tackling the officer from the horse’s back like an NFL linebacker going toe-to-toe against a high school freshman team. I was on top of the Demon in a blink, not sure how I had moved so fast, grabbing him by the throat with one hand, my magic flooding through my arm for strength as I slammed his body into the streetlight twice in quick succession. Things inside of him cracked at the impact, but he wasn’t done. Then the horse reared up, planting an iron hoof in the Demon’s chest and sending him clear across the street to slam through a glass window in a tinkling shower of broken shards. The building trembled. “Alley-oop!” I crowed. “Good assist, Xavier!”
He snorted a nervous breath, eyes wide, but didn’t bolt. The cop was out cold, but was breathing steadily. I had no time, and didn’t want to risk duking it out with the Demon when I didn’t know how much power I would need to use to win, and with a cop who could possibly wake up at any second. Only to be brutally murdered the next second or two.
So I did the only logical thing my fuzzy brain could think of. I…invisibledhim. I cast a weak illusion spell over the cop’s body, hiding all trace that he was lying in the grass unconscious, and grabbed Xavier’s reins. I mounted the horse as I heard the Demon cursing from deep inside the building with feral roars of anger. Then we were galloping away into the night towards the masses of humanity celebratingMardi Gras.
The wind in my hair felt good, even if it was cold. Freedom and escape always did taste great. A few minutes later we were far away from the Demon, and there were people everywhere, many pointing up at me — a man who was definitely not a police officer riding what was definitely a police officer’s horse. That sobered me up a bit. What if a cop saw me? It wasn’t grand theft auto, but it was most definitely a crime. I couldn’t just leave Xavier to wander around on his own though. Some drunk would no doubt find the courage to mount the horse and cause some mayhem…
Pot. Kettle. Black. Yeah, I get there eventually.
The only way forward was to take the horse to Chateau Falco and find a way to discreetly return him in the morning. I didn’t have time to debate with myself. I had fire in my belly, an unconscious cop hidden a quarter mile behind me, a fine steed between my legs, and a Demon on my heels. I leaned over to a group of gawking sorority co-eds. “Beads, please.” A pretty redhead flashed me. “No, you’ve got it backwards.” I said with a grin. I flashed her my chest instead.
“Oh, right.” She giggled, obviously hammered, before handing me a fistful of beads.
“You’re Master Temple!” One of her drunken friends chimed in loudly. I nodded with a smile. Her group of friends froze in awe. Then they all flashed me for good measure. I laughed like a maniac, tossing half the beads back before spurring Xavier on. Time to go talk to Indie.
It took me a while, but it was a pleasant way to sober up, after growing accustomed to the rhythmic gyration of the horse’s stride. And even better, I hadn’t been spotted. Well, I hadn’t beenstopped. Plenty of people spotted me on my way home, which only added to the thrill.
I wish I could have snapped a picture of my Butler’s face when I pulled up to the gated drive of Chateau Falco atop Xavier. It was priceless. Of course, I didn’t offer an explanation, and Dean never asked for one. Despite this being a first, he was too proper to question the Master Temple. He merely asked if either of us needed refreshment. I patted Xavier’s head. “Horsey want an apple?” The horse snorted. I guessed that was a yes.
I tied Xavier off to one of the cars left outside the garage near a patch of withered grass. A silver bowl of sliced apples had been placed on the doorstep. I grinned, picking it up and heading back to Xavier. I fed him a few slices, and then walked him inside the garage to stay warm, as it was climate controlled inside, and definitelynotclimate controlled outside. I placed the bowl beneath him, but left the saddle on, unsure how to take it off successfully. I would have to see about returning him tomorrow. How the hell that could be accomplished discreetly, I didn’t know. I put it on my mental to-do list for tomorrow.
Return Xavier to the police. Secretly.
Find parents’ murderer.
Avoid Angels and Demons.
Take a bath to wash off the sulfur smell.
Find a way to remove Academy’s curse.
Gain access to the Armory.
Maybe get some milk.
That settled, I stumbled in through the front door of my mansion, locking up behind me before wandering through the house in search for Indie. I was trying to be quiet in case she was asleep. I knew it was late, but with my phone dead, I wasn’t quite sure of the exact time. I very disturbingly recalled the day-terror I had experienced at the bar with Indie being gutted in front of me. Being used to it, I managed to shake it off, causing my drunken brain to swim a little in the pool of alcohol in which it was currently floating.
I reached the stairs and was immediately assaulted. I was struck in the face by what felt like a hot iron shoved to the hilt up my nostril, right on the spot that had kissed the wooden chair at Temple Industries. Light flared as my mind shattered into a million blinding shards. I was knocked into a nearby vase, shattering the priceless clay. I lurched to my feet, letting loose an explosion of raw force at a nearby fluttering curtain. It shattered the window, which immediately set off the alarm. The sonic wail could be felt on a molecular level. I clasped my hands over my ears, eyes watering freely as I scanned my proximity for my attacker. And I found it.
My assailant was an overnight bag that had rebounded off my face and into the curtain. Of all the dumb luck. I might have overreacted a bit. Fresh blood poured down my face and into my mouth, which was becoming familiar to me. I clutched my head in pulsing agony, awaiting the pool of sympathy in which I would soon be swimming.
Someone was about to feel downright guilty for launching luggage at my face.
Indie and Dean both appeared on the landing in a flurry of stomping feet. “I’m so sorry, Dean!” Indie was yelling over the blaring alarm. Dean was on the phone. I couldn’t hear him over the screeching alarm, which was less than pleasant to my ears. A few seconds or an eternity later, the alarm shut off.
“Thank you, that will be all.” Dean said into the phone before hanging up.
My ears were ringing and my face throbbed. Indie was halfway down the stairs, crying hard. Here was my sympathy parade. Soft words, a soothing icepack, and a smoking hot Indie to tuck Nate into bed after a long day, but not before a full minute of apologies for injuring her boyfriend. “Nate! Are you okay? What happened?”
I braced for the attack. Her hug hit me like a train. I, being all that is man, survived it. But only just. “Shh… It’s okay, Indie. It’s just a window. No big deal. Don’t cry.” I said with an amused smile that she luckily couldn’t see as she sobbed into my shoulder.
“It’s not the window, Nate. It’s… Wait, you’re face is covered in blood! From the bag?” I decided to let her think that she had caused it. Easier than explaining my kidnapping. “And why do you smell like a farm?” she asked. My hopes for sympathy began to flicker and die. Surely any minute now…
“Is the horse comfortable? Did he appreciate his supper?” Dean asked wryly.
I nodded, impatient for the world to bow down to my desires for a nice bed with my feet propped up. “Horse?” Indie asked. “What is he talking about? You bought me a horse? What in the world would I do with a horse? I mean, the gesture is very sweet, and I appreciate it, but I don’t know a thing about horses. And isn’t it a bit late to buy a horse? I thought you were meeting up with a lead at the bar? I’m confused.” She looked horrible. Don’t get me wrong. Indie was a goddess. Beautiful on a level that was astounding, but she didn’t cry well. The pretty ones never do.
“I had to borrow the horse to get home. Gunnar and Tory rabbited.”
“Borrowed from the St. Louis Mounted Patrol Unit.” Dean offered helpfully.
“Thepolice?” Indie burst out. I glared at Dean. He was ruining my vibe.
“I can explain. And I’m fine. The bag just caught me off guard.” They stared at me blankly. I cleared my throat. “But first, please don’t worry about the window. It’s really not a big deal.” Dean harrumphed, implying that to him itwasa big deal, as he would be the one to arrange for it to be fixed.
Indie finally stepped back, mascara pouring down her face. “It’s not the window-”
“I’m fine. I already told you.” She shook her head. My hopes for sympathy began to die by crucifixion. I sighed. This just wasn’t my night. “The vase then. We can always find another vase.”
“Ahem. We most certainly can’t. That was one of a kind. As are most of the furnishings of the home. Macedonian, if I recall correctly.” He added.
“Nate, it’s not the vase either. It’s-”
“Jesus. I’m an idiot. I didn’t even think about it. Tory and Gunnar probably scared you half to death with their phone call. It’s fine. It was just a bar fight. Then someone…” I decided to play it safe, “wanted to talk to me about something. They were pretty mysterious and kidnapped me right from under Gunnar’s nose, which is saying something. But I got it all square. I-” Indie placed a finger on my lips.
“Bar fight?” she asked with a frown. I began to backpedal furiously, knowing I might need to resort to my beach vacation idea in order to escape unscathed.
“Well, yeah. Kind of. But Tory broke it up. Or brokehimup. You should have seen it. She laid him out flat. No problemWham,bam, no more werewolf.” I chuckled. “But really, it’s nothing to be concerned about. My phone died so I couldn’t call you. I’m sorry I caused you to worry. I have an idea though. I-”
“Nate. Shut up for a second. Gunnar never called. Neither did Tory.” She didn’t sound pleased about that little detail. “It’s… my mother. She fell and hit her head. She’s in the hospital. I need to go see her. “
“Oh. Is she okay? We can leave right now. I’ll pack a bag. I… crap. Can I erase the last few minutes from your memory and go back to before I mentioned my night?”
“No.” She was tapping her foot angrily. If she had been a cat, her tail would have been twitching like mad.
“Right.” I muttered. So, no sympathy and no vacation.
“So. Bar fight. Kidnapped. Stole a mounted patrol horse. Why don’t you flesh that out a bit while I finish packing?” I sighed as she turned on a heel and headed back upstairs. Dean coughed into a polite fist as he sauntered off into the house, leaving me to my fate. My life.
It took us a few minutes to get to our room where Indie had been packing. I threw myself onto the bed, careful of jarring my face too much. I fidgeted for a few moments, trying to get comfortable as Indie bent over one of the suitcases. I finally gave up on comfort.
“What is the point of this?” I fumed angrily, holding up a torturous sparkly throw pillow. I was lying on the bed, my head propped up against another of the expensive decorative pillows that sported even more tassels and sequins. No matter how I shifted, they bore into my neck like needles.
“They look nice.”
“Pillows are supposed tofeelnice. These feel like torture devices. Do you think Martha Stewart designed them while in jail? Out of spite?”
She shook her head idly as she continued packing. “They aren’t supposed to be used. Just to look nice.”
I grunted, rearranging the death-shard. “So, your mom… What happened?”
Indie shivered a bit. “I’m not sure. She doesn’t remember, but it looks like she fell and couldn’t get back up. Luckily, a friend came over when she didn’t appear for their weekly book reading club. They took her to the hospital where she’s undergoing tests to make sure she didn’t injure her brain. She broke her hip after banging her head on the kitchen counter.” The Life Alert commercial that many found humorous on a dark sadistic level very briefly replayed in my mind, but I wisely kept it to myself, even though I thought that it might have actually been helpful. This comment, I was sure, wouldn’t help me. “I need to go to her. She’s confused, not remembering exactly what happened.” Indie’s eyes were far away, as if recalling the event clearly in her mind. I wondered if she was telling me the full story or not. But I wasn’t about to press her on the details. Do I look like an idiot to you?
“I understand. Do you need any money? Need me to arrange the jet to take you there?” I asked, feeling helpless to make her feel better.
“No. Dean already booked me a commercial flight. It leaves in a few hours. He’s driving me to the airport.” She was not looking at me, and began stuffing a few more shirts into her suitcase distractedly. I knew how she felt, having recently lost my own parents. It was numbing to realize that the ones who raised you were, in fact, mortal
“He didn’t book two tickets?” I asked softly. She hesitated, still not turning to face me. I propped myself to see her better, suddenly understanding. “You… don’t want me to go with you.”
She threw up her hands with frustration. “It’s not that I don’twantyou to. It’s… complicated. You have enough on your plate right now. You haven’t slept in how many days now? You look like death, and I don’t think I want death looking over my mom in the hospital.” Well, that was harsh. “Plus, I saw the news today…” Her tone was suddenly icy, shifting as adroitly as a figure skater performing a… well, whatever type of move figure skaters performed. All that mattered was that anger replaced her concern in the blink of an eye.
“Oh?” I answered dumbly, hoping she was not referring to the blurb I had seen at the bar about my involvement with the dragon attack on the Eads Bridge a few months ago.
She stood, leaning against the closet door as she began to tap her foot. This wasn’t good. “I distinctly rememberbathingyour injuries around the time of that attack. You never mentioned it.”
“Oh, you know how the news is. Always jiving for a story…” I answered lamely.
“No, I don’t. You apparently didn’t trust me. You didn’t tell me you fought that dragon on the bridge.”
I shrugged. “Allegedly. They never found the body, and the city thinks it was a hoax. They also think I killed a cop at Artemis’ Garter. Or that Gunnar did. Everyone is fighting for their 30 seconds of fame.”
Her eyes weighed my soul. “Did. You. Fight. A. Dragon?”
I shifted uneasily, finally giving in. “Yes.” I admitted.
She looked hurt, and I felt like crap all over again. But her next response surprised me.
“Thank you, Nate.” I tensed, waiting for the trap to close. But nothing happened. I finally looked up at her. She looked pleased. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” She said softly. I felt my shoulders loosening. She was right. It feltgood. Almost as if I was the one who had placed so much pressure on the topic in the first place. Which was true. I had wanted to keep her safe, away from the truth so that she couldn’t turn into collateral damage later, but my answer hadn’t scared her at all. She was happy, relieved even. I let out a deep breath.
“It’s dangerous to tell you these things-” I began.
“You could tell the truth, you know, to the media. Prove yourself.” She answered, interrupting me.
“Yeah. I could,” Her smile stretched a bit, slowly, surprised that she had gotten through to me so quickly. Before she could speak, I continued. “And confirm Alaric’s very public speech about me being a wizard and starting a coalition of freaks? No thanks. That would bring back another, more violent, remake of the Salem Witch Trials. Not even considering what the Academy would have done tonight if they had believed that the coalition talk was legitimate.”
Indie watched me intently, no longer tapping her foot. “Tell me about this Academy.”
I hesitated. “I really shouldn’t.” Her foot began tapping all over again, making up for lost time. “Indie, they’re dangerous. There were a lot of them tonight. They’re like the Russian secret police from back before the Iron Curtain fell. Immunity from almost anything they feel justified about. It was only quick thinking that got me out of their version of jail tonight.” I didn’t need to tell her about the curse they had put on me. Indie had enough to worry about. Then again, perhaps their curse would drain me of magic. I would become a Regular and none of this would matter anymore. No more secrets from Indie. I shivered at that. But what was I if not a wizard? Then I shook my head. Who was I kidding? The Academy would never let me walk free with everything I knew. Even if I was a Regular.
“Fine. If you’re not going to tell me, I need to leave.”
“Indie…” I began, holding up an imploring hand. “These guys are heavy hitters. You don’t understand. They have all the sympathy the Nazi’s showed the Jews.” She began to shove things into her bag with more force than was necessary. “I just can’t, indie. Not right now. It’s too dangerous. You don’t know what you are asking me. It’s an unnecessary danger.”
“So you don’t think I can take care of myself? Is this how it’s going to be? You keeping secrets from me? That’s a great foundation for a relationship, Nate.” She snapped.
I frowned, growing angry. How did she not understand that I was only trying to keep her safe? “There are things that I cannot talk about, Indie. It’s nothing to do with me wanting to tell you or not. I just can’t.”Without putting you in grave danger, I didn’t add.
She was silent for a few seconds, shoving and rearranging items into her luggage. She finally spoke, and I wished she hadn’t. “I think you need a bit of time to yourself. To clear your head.” She turned to look at me, mascara still running down her cheeks. I wanted to hold her, comfort her, but I knew that was the last thing she wanted. We were going to be in for a long debate tonight. She never dropped things. Especially this topic.
Which was why I was surprised when she spoke. “You need to get some sleep. I’m worried about you. All you do is hit up the bars or tinker at your company, when you really need sleep. Uninterrupted peace. By the way, any news from the bar about what your parents were hiding? Or who killed them?” She asked, somehow able to bury the topic from a few seconds ago. I shook my head in answer to her question about my parents.
She sighed sadly, as if having hoped I had finally found something to help soothe my grief. “Nate. I’m beyond pissed at you. But I know you have a lot on your plate, and it’s not your choice to be in the situation you’re in. I know you would drop everything to come with me, but it’s not whatyouneed. Despite you’re brave look, I can see that you are close to a meltdown. You’re always working at the office, picking fights at shady bars, and you never sleep…” I sighed. She was too good for me. The night terrors had forced me to dive headfirst into work, digging for information on my parents’ murder, the Armory, and my growing magical boundaries. Well, growing up until tonight. Now I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I was on borrowed power. How long would it last? What were the long-term effects of the curse? I shivered, not wanting to consider it. But I knew I would find myself back in the lab in the small hours of the morning, tinkering, building, making things… anything to keep my mind away from the night terrors. I would deal with it then.
All I had wanted to do was to take Indie on a vacation, to get away from everything for a while. To smell the roses, so to speak. Indie was watching me sadly. “Nate… Maybe if you got some sleep you could look at it from a fresher perspective.”
I sighed. “I’ll try.”
She smiled sadly. “We started dating during one of the most stressful times of your life, and that stress hasn’t left. In fact, I think it’s only grown more intense. Not that I blame you, but I don’t think you gave yourself the time you needed to clear your head. I don’t want our relationship to suffer because you were repressing what happened with your parents. Despite Raego trying to help by keeping the dragons in line after the murders, you are still far from the answers you thought you would have. It’s eating you alive. We barely talk. You wake in cold sweats, murmuring, fidgeting, and even shouting in the little sleep you do get.” That was news to me. “Perhaps you need to talk about it with someone. Maybe you’re experiencing a wizard’s version of post-traumatic stress disorder.” Which was exactly what I had been wondering earlier. It wasn’t every day you went up against a harem of weredragons and survived. “You keep me sheltered, and that’s not okay. I hate to say it, but maybe this break is just what we need. I’ll go take care of my mom for a few days, and you can focus on yourself for a bit.”
I punched the pillow, scattering sequins over the bed. White-hot anger burned through my veins. Anger at myself. Guilt. Damn it. She was right. I hadn’t been there for her. She was great. Perfect for me, but I had been an ass. Rightfully so. Between the night terrors, dealing with the new mantle of CEO of Temple Industries, and spending every waking minute — which had been a lot — on finding the truth behind my parents’ murder had put a large strain on Indie and myself. I needed to get some perspective. I was also still concerned about her…Regular-ness. How could I bring her into my life of danger? Werewolves, the Academy, dragons, magic, and now Angels and Demons. It wasn’t fair for her. She had once told me that the danger would not keep her away, but I had. I had kept blinders on her, not allowing her to get closer than necessary to my oh-so-dangerous life. To keep her locked up in an ivory tower, not providing her the necessary training she would need to defend herself. And it had inadvertently hurt our relationship.
Indie looked pained as she watched my frustration. She climbed up onto the bed and placed a comforting palm on my thigh. “Nate, I’m nottooangry with you, or disappointed in you, or even mad about everything, really. I understand. What you went through… Well, no one should have to go through that. In my eagerness to be near you, I might have done you harm. I should have given you space, but I wanted so badly to be with you that I let my emotions get ahead of me. You needed space to figure things out, and I didn’t give you that. I blame myself. Now, you keep things from me. You don’t talk to me, or if you do it’s only surface conversation. You are scared. Scared to let me get close to the real you. Well, I think it’s time for you to put your big boy pants on. You’ve got three days to figure out what you want.”
Her timeframe momentarily chilled my blood. The same timeframe as the Academy’s curse.
“If you want me, then you will remove the walls you’ve built around yourself, or… we will probably never see each other again.” My heart stopped as I stared at her in disbelief, which started her tears again. “I’m not sure that I could go back to being a mere friend after knowing what we have, could have, together. So, while I’m in Colorado with my mom you need to really think about what you want. When I get back you need to tell me what that is. If you wantme, you will tell me…everything. No secrets. I deserve that.”
“Indie…” I warned, ready to tell her how bad of an ultimatum that was, how dangerous.
“Can it. I’ve been training with Tory and Misha. They’ve been teaching me how to take care of myself. Like you should have done.” That stung. “You’d be surprised what I’m capable of. Regardless, this is just something you will have to accept… or not. It’s all or nothing, Nate.” She smiled sadly at me. “Just know that if you choose wrong, I will be using everything Tory and Misha have taught me to hunt you down and teach you the error of your ways. Your magic won’t save you from my wrath. They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Well, you don’t have to scorn me to see my wrath, just piss me off.” Her pearly white teeth shone in the dim room.
I placed a hand on hers, nodding with a faint smile at her threat.
“And now, Dean is going to take me to Plato’s Cave to get some sleep. You’re still drunk, and after your shenanigans tonight, you don’t deserve to see Nurse Indie.” She winked darkly. I groaned. “Shush. You brought this on yourself. Bar fights equals no sexy time. And you have a lot to think about while I’m gone. You can start tonight. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right?”
“You’re a cruel, cruel woman, Indie. I know I’ve been keeping you at a distance, and you know why I do, right or wrong is irrelevant at the moment, but I would like to work on my communication skills with you while you’re gone. Would that break your rules?”
She assessed me for a minute. “Perhaps I should use this tactic more often. Look how malleable my Master Temple has become. I tell you I’m leaving for a few days and you’re already asking if we can talk on the phone. You’re a teenage girl.” She teased, pinching my leg. My face turned beet red as I began to blurt out an argument. She burst out laughing. She tapped her lips playfully, enjoying this way too much. “I would like that.” She leaned forward and kissed my brow for a long second, careful of my nose, and granting me an expansive view of her cleavage, which she definitely knew she was doing. She was sneaky like that. “Good night, Nate. Sweet dreams…”
Her hair tickled my neck as she trailed a kiss down to my ear, breathing huskily before she gave me a playful nip. My pants constricted as my subconscious threatened to take control and pin her to the mattress and sequined pillows. She placed a constraining hand on my chest, shaking her head as if she could read my thoughts. I closed my eyes, the alcohol dragging them closed as mercilessly as if she had spelled me. I sensed the lights flick off from behind my closed eyelids, and then she was gone, dragging her suitcase out of my room.
I was peaceful for perhaps ten minutes, rehashing everything she had said to me, realizing that she was right about it all. Then sleep dragged me under like a sack of potatoes, and the haunting night terrors waited anxiously to welcome me back to their domain like an old friend.
Istood alone in a field of fresh wheat; the purple sky’s humid air pressing down on me like a warm blanket. I was physically sore. Exhausted even. Wisps of clouds scudded across the fields like campfire smoke, leaving a faint aroma of damp earth. I sniffed the air idly, catching a faint hint of wood smoke that was not offensive, and somehow made me feel relaxed. I spotted a house on a hill, a quaint, primitive place one might find in ancient Greece, mostly stone, and surrounded on all sides by more fields.A farmer lives there. Something tugged at my memory, but the thought was gone just as fast. My memory seemed to do that a lot of late. Why worry about the house when I was merely out on an evening stroll in such a peaceful place. I decided to approach the house. Perhaps I would make a friend so that the next time I walked here I wouldn’t be lonely.
Loneliness.The word tingled up my spine like the fingers of death. Now why had I thought that? I wasn’t lonely. I had everything I needed. I had a woman, a steady life of farming, and a strong boy to teach my trade. I shook my head as I began to walk back to my house.
My house…that wasn’t right, was it? Then I was smiling as I imagined my wife greeting me at the front door, my son rushing out from between her legs to tackle me to the yard where we frequently wrestled. I dropped the reins to the horse behind me, as well as the tools I used to cut wheat as I began to trot up the hill. The house loomed before me, both larger and smaller than it could be in real life, but thiswasreal life, wasn’t it?
“Hello?” I bellowed as I reached the front door. “Papa’s home!”
Papa?I would never use that moniker. I was aDadkind of guy, wasn’t I?
No one answered me.
Then I smelled it. A sulfurous stink tinged with frozen stone — a cold, hard smell with a… coppery after-taste. That was odd. I had smelled that coppery flavor before, back when my horse had injured herself in a fall. Why would it smell like horse up here? No, nothorse… blood.I looked back in confusion, expecting to see my horse injured. But I was utterly alone in the field. I blinked.Hadn’t I just left the horse behind me?I shrugged after a moment. I must have worked harder than I remembered. Nothing that a good wine wouldn’t resolve.
I stepped up the creaky wooden steps only to hear voices.
A jeweled box stood in the open doorway, all by itself. Beyond the box, my wife lay motionless on the floor. My son sat on his heels, rocking back and forth. “Open the box, open the box, open thebox, open thebox, thebox, box, box…” he muttered to himself over and over again.
“Son, what’s happened?” I demanded. He didn’t seem to hear me, brushing his mother’s hair out of her eyes as he continued his chant. I didn’t understand. All I had wanted to do was to sit down beside my wife with my son on my knees as we played a game and ate dinner together. I didn’t want any violence, any problems, I had no enemies. I only wanted to be a good farmer. That was all.
I looked further on and a man stood between two creatures, speaking quietly. Now that I was inside the house, I noticed that it was storming outside. But…hadn’t it just been pleasant outside?I was so confused.
I couldn’t hear the words, but I saw my son look up at me, with a sharp rictus of a smile. “You mustn’t listen to them. Open the box, open the box, the box, box, box…” He muttered over and over and over, his voice sounding like nails on a chalkboard. I cringed, tuning out the Demonic voice. Something about this seemed all too familiar, but I couldn’t understand why. One of the creatures handed the man something and the world exploded in a green hue. My son screamed louder. “The box!” His words had a physical sensation to them now, like my very eardrum was the chalkboard. I grabbed my ears in pain, glancing up in time to see the other creature handing a tall tool to the man. The tip gleamed silver in the incessant flashing of lightning from outside. The world seemed to be tearing itself apart — the house imploding in an explosion of sound, wind, and distant screams from the blackest pits of hell. My son huddled over his mother as if protecting her from the insanity. I glanced over at his frantically pointing hand to see that despite the strength of the wind, which was pushing even me back from the door, the box lay unmoving as if bolted down. I clawed my body closer to it, dodging flying planks of wood from the destroyed windowsills I had made last year, and the box glittered encouragingly. I heard the snap as of great wings lifting a bird to flight and a crack as if the world itself had opened up. Daring not to look, I dove for the box, my son screaming over and over again. “The box, box, box box…” my fingertips touched the box in a flash of scalding skin and I managed to flick the lid open with my thumbnail.
The world went white and I heard my son scream as my mind liquefied.
Iwoke up panting hoarsely, realizing it had been another night terror. Had I screamed out loud again and woken Dean from his slumber? Then I remembered that he was either dropping Indie off at Plato’s Cave or taking her to the airport, depending on how long I had slept. Then he was out of town for a few days as well. I was entirely alone. Even Mallory was getting some sand in his hair and sun on his face for the next week. Pure bachelorhood. Again. I growled, squashing my puny pity with my mighty will power. I would be fine. I didn’t need anyone to watch over me. I was a grown ass man.
“Yeah. You’re a grown ass man.” I cheered myself on with pure testicular fortitude. The sudden movement of my face muscles almost caused me to cry out like a small child. My nose sure felt like it was broken. I touched it gingerly and winced, realizing my hands were raw with several hundred thousand tiny cuts from the broken whisky glasses at the bar. Oh well. Nothing for it. I glanced at my phone — which I had somehow remembered to plug in before I fell into a coma the night before — through sandy eyes. Six in the morning. I had been out for several hours, despite having felt like I had just fallen asleep. It might have been the longest I’d slept in weeks. Even catching some much-needed horizontal, I had the familiar sensation of being hung over. I groaned at the headache behind my eyelids as I rolled onto my back, trying to steady my furiously beating heart.
What the hell had my night terror been about? I realized after a few moments of deep breathing that I had dreamt of Hemingway’s story from the bar… kind of. It was as if I had been the subject of the story, but also an outsider. Then there had been the cursed box. Always the box. Every night terror I had revolved around me opening a box. The boxes changed in appearance, but they were always there, and despite the chaos of the dream, the only way to escape was to open the box. Which was always terrifying, and hurt like hell. I wondered idly, as I had a hundred times before, if the box was a subconscious replacement for the music box Peter had stolen from my parents’ Armory during his brief sojourn inside. But I didn’t understand how that could be true. I had tested the box. Again. And again. And again, to no avail. There was absolutely nothing special about the box. At all.
So why did I keep dreaming about it? Was it merely because it was all the evidence I had on the room?
And did I dream about Hemingway’s story simply because the grim tale had been on my mind? Or was there some deeper meaning? I shook my head, kicking my shoes off the covers — which I had slept on top of — to place my feet on the ground. Of course it had nothing to do with a deeper meaning. It was a dark fucking story, and I had heard it mere hours before passing out. Of course my dreams incorporated it into their mad funhouse of horrors. That was just how lucky I was.
I was simply over-stressed. Dreaming about the story from the bar, the damn music box, and obviously the Armory. I had already deduced another answer about the boxes from my dreams. My dad had had another moniker for the Armory… Pandora Protocol. Which was how I had heard about the Armory in the first place. He hadn’t elaborated, and I hadn’t asked, but had surmised the direction he might intend with the phrase, and it seemed I hadn’t been far off.
The Pandora Protocol, or Armory, was far from an idea. It was real. Real enough for the Justices of the Academy to hunt me down to obtain. My father had a flair for names. Pandora Protocol for the ‘secrets’ hidden away from mankind inside Pandora’s Box. He would have been a great stage magician, but I was merely glad that no one else had heard his pet name for the project. If the Academy had heard it, they would have no doubt killed me on the spot for thinking it was literal, when my father had merely been an elaborate namer.
I decided to go to the kitchen and scrounge up some food. Maybe snort a line of Tylenol for both my headache and what felt like a broken nose, even though the mirror showed me it wasn’t. I prodded it gently and winced at the insomniac panda staring back at me. The day was starting off well.
I needed to run over to Temple Industries to catch up on some work before Ashley and Gunnar left for Bora Bora. That brought a smile to my face. Gunnar was going to propose to Ashley in a few days.
Thirty minutes later, my phone began blaring from the nightstand while I was halfway through my pushup routine. I jumped to my feet, ignoring the pounding headache, and snatched up the device. “Gunnar.” I answered, breathing heavily.
“Nate! What the hell happened last night? We tried calling you for an hour. The cop thought it was one of your drunk tricks and wouldn’t take us seriously.”
“Yeah. I talked to him about it after.” I mumbled. If saving his ass from a Demon counted for ‘talking about it,’ we were golden. “I was picked up by some Academy… detectives.” Gunnar was an ex-FBI agent. He could relate to the termdetectives. Not so much,Assassin squad. “They wanted a de-briefing on the debacle a few months back.”
“Didn’t you send them a report already?” He asked, voice tight, as if doubting I had ever sent said report.
“Of course. It was all done up official and everything… via email.” Gunnar sighed. I continued before he could butt in. “They wanted a face-to-face. I gave it to them and told them where to stick any further inquiries.”
Gunnar was silent for a moment. “Which means they didn’t take it very well.”
“Relax. They understand the picture now.”
“That’s odd. Because I don’t even understand the picture.” I sighed. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re alright. I didn’t want to call Indie without solid news, and I heard her mother is in a bad way. I didn’t want to add to it. Neither did Tory, or Ashley.” His tone grew more responsible. “You put us in a tough situation last night. You continue to keep things from her, which makes us keep things from her, which makes a big fucking wall in the trust department. I would appreciate it if you would fix that. Pronto.”
I rolled my eyes. “On it. We talked last night. She’s going to Colorado to take care of her mom. She basically told me to get my shit together while she’s gone so we can square up for round two. At least I’m still in the fight at the moment.”
He sighed on the other end of the line. “Nate… I’m not the king of relationships or anything, but perhaps your love life would be simpler if you wouldn’t relate you’retalksto boxing matches. If anything, they could be related to tag-team wrestling matches. You’re supposed to be on the same side, not squaring off against each other.”
“I know.” I admitted. “But-”
“She’s a Regular. Yeah, you told me. It’s becoming smaller and smaller of an issue. Look at Ashley. She’s doing fine, and she’s dating a werewolf. You’re just some schmuck wizard. Really not even in the same league.” I could sense his shit-eating grin over the phone.
“Bad puppy. No treats for you.”
He grunted. “Ashley and I are flying out at 2 pm. Need anything from her before we are incommunicado for a week?”
“Nervous?” I asked seriously.
“Fucking petrified. Square me off against a silver dragon any day, but this… man, it’s a lot of pressure on a guy. What if she says ‘No,’ or waffles about timing? It’s terrifying. Now I know why you stayed single for so long. This commitment thing has a lot of pitfalls.”
I laughed. “Yeah. But this kind of opportunity comes along once in a lifetime. You have to grab it and assert your dominance. Hump the hell out of that leg, know what I mean?”
The line was silent for a few moments. “Nate. I am a werewolf, not a schnauzer. I don’t always think like a dog, nor do I need references made to relate human interactions to their animal equivalent to understand basic concepts.”
“Who’s a smart puppy? Gunnie! Oh yes, Gunnie is.”
“Nate. It’s imperative that you stop talking right now.”
“Oh? You’re packing for the most terrifying moment of your life. Proposing to Ashley on a romantic vacation. We won’t see each other for at least a wee-”
The door to my room suddenly imploded in a shower of splinters as a fucking mountain of white fur tackled me to the floor, jaws snapping amidst a flurry of drool and ivory canines. The phone had flown out of my hands to slam into the wall behind me. We tumbled into the nightstand before I managed to retract my instincts to incinerate the threat with magic. Instead, I rolled with my attacker and used my feet to launch him behind me into the dresser. The white haired werewolf sailed into the mirror, shattering it with a heavy crunch before bounding off the dresser itself and rolling to his feet. He sat down on his haunches with a panting doggy grin.
“God damn it, Gunnar!” I snapped, panting heavily as I tried to calm my racing heart and ease my pounding headache. I didn’t know how I had restrained myself from using magic. It had been a near miss. But the fear of the curse being permanent had flown into my mind at the last second. Then I had noticed the white fur. Before I had consciously made a decision, I had used simple grappling techniques to toss him from my personal space, but if it had been a real threat, I wasn’t sure I would have been so lucky.
He shifted from his hairy werewolf form to his usual self — a chiseled, blonde-haired, mountain of a man. His long blonde hair hung around his bearded face, framing his pearly white grin. And he was completely naked. I averted my eyes, which made him laugh. “I warned you to watch your mouth.” He chuckled, glancing at the shredded fabric dotting the floor. His werewolf form didn’t tolerate human-sized clothes very well.
“How the fuck did you get in here?” I answered, pointing at my wardrobe so he could nab a change of clothes.
He nodded in appreciation, opening the dresser as he answered. “Dean gave me a key a while back. To keep an eye on you and Indie. He didn’t know who or what might come looking for you two after the Dragon ordeal.” He cocked his head for a second. “Hey, why didn’t you Hogwarts my ass like you usually do? I mean, to be honest, you kind of just got your ass kicked. Like a little man bitc-”
Before I thought about it, I vaporized like I had learned last night, vanishing from Gunnar’s view to appear directly behind him. Part of my shirt tugged at me, and I saw a piece flutter to the ground where I had been standing a moment before, having been caught in the void of the teleportation spell and not making the trip along with my body. I used the momentum of teleporting — as it felt like riding a rollercoaster — to cold-cock my best friend in the jaw. The resoundingcrackwas satisfying as his head snapped to the side and into the dresser before he crumpled to the ground. It only took him a second to shamble to his feet, eyes wide as he blinked up at where I now stood and where I had stood only a second before. He was rubbing his jaw painfully in disbelief.
“Okay… give me a minute… that was pretty… I mean,wow. What thehelljust happened?” He asked in genuine awe.
I grinned back at his astonishment, slowly walking back over to pick up the piece of fabric that had been left behind, hiding my fear of both using my limited power for no real reason, and what might have happened if that little piece had been a more permanent part of me. “I justHogwarts’dyour ass.” I answered with a dry, mocking grin.
He blinked at me. “Is that one of the things you’ve been tinkering with in your excessive research sessions? I’ve never seen you do that before.”
“Kind of. Learned it from the Academy thugs last night. Apparently it’s a secret of theirs. They weren’t pleased I picked it up so fast… or at all. Hangovers give me a short fuse. Sorry. You all right?” I asked.
He shook his head as if to clear it. “Yeah. Just didn’t see it coming. How far can you do it? Just in close quarters like you did here?” He asked, curious.
“No. I teleported from Temple Industries to the Bar after my talk with the Academy last night. But that took considerably more power than what I just did.” I said more to myself, realizing that it had barely cost me any of my dwindling magic to clock Gunnar.
“Wow. Well, consider myself all apologized. Just giving you a hard time. I don’t think you pulled that punch at all, did you? Rage issues much?” He asked with a grin. Werewolves could take quite a bit of pain and keep on ticking. Anyone else would have been out cold from my punch. Gunnar was a tough son of a bitch to be sure, and I was glad to have him on my side.
I ignored the comment as he began to throw on a pair of slacks and a tee from the dresser. I kept clothes in his size throughout the house for events just such as this when he needed to replace a destroyed wardrobe. “By the way. Why did you send Tory into the bar last night instead of coming in yourself?”
“It was a powder keg in there, Nate. I can’t believe you could stand it, what with how much loose energy was dancing around in there. I could even sense it from outside. I thought things like that messed with wizards.”
“It does. I’ve just been so tired lately that I must not have noticed it. Or cared if I did. I’m kind of off my game. I’ve been somewhat… reckless lately.” I admitted.
Gunnar grunted. “That’s why I sent Tory in there. My presence would have just instigated a territorial fight from the wolves. Also, Tory isn’t necessarily an enemy of any of the creatures in the bar. She is just a woman with extraordinary power. A supernatural Switzerland to the creatures inside theKill.” At least that had worked in our favor, I thought to myself. “Which leads me to wonder why you were in aKillin the first place. You. Stupid. Bastard.” He enunciated with tightly bottled frustration.
“Easy, swear-wolf. Virgin ears here.”
Gunnar merely stared harder, if that was possible. “Looking for answers again.” I finally answered, plucking my phone up from the carpet. The screen featured a spider web of cracks, eliciting a grumble of displeasure from my throat as I held it up to Gunnar, hoping to change the topic.
He shrugged. “You’re good for it.”
I pressed a button and saw that I could more or less still make out important details. I tossed it in my pocket as Gunnar continued. “Now, back to the important stuff. I thought you gave up searching for information after you were booted from several bars. For life.”
“Nah. Can’t sleep, so I hunt.”
There was a long silence. “You’re still having the nightmares?” I nodded briefly in answer. “Well? Did you discover anything helpful?”
I hesitated. Did I want to bring him into this? Angels were a league of their own. I knew I could trust my friends, but I didn’t want them in over their heads. I had no choice, but they did. “Nah.” I lied. Kind of. “But I have heard a lot of stories about my parents lately. Apparently, a considerable number of people consider them scoundrels. Not as many as praise them, but still… enough to get me thinking.”
“What do you mean? Why would they say anything bad about your parents? They were saints.” Gunnar growled. True. They had helped Gunnar, and many, many others, with various magical maladies. Gunnar was no longer a slave to the cycles of the moon thanks to them. They had given him a rune tattoo that allowed him to shift into a werewolf at will. Most other werewolves couldn’t do such a thing. Unless they were super powerful or super old. Regardless of shifting at will or not, almost all werewolveshadto shift during the full moon. But Gunnar didn’t. All because my parents knew of an odd rune that allowed him to master his inner wolf .
Now that I thought about it, how the hell had they known how to do such a thing? If it were common knowledge to wizards, I would have heard of it at least a few times. Wizards would have sold that to trusted werewolves for a high price. Or maybe in exchange for an alliance. But I hadneverheard of a wizard doing a spell like that for a werewolf. Odd. Where had they learned it? And that wasn’t the only uniquely magical cure my parents had given back to the community. In fact, it was one ofmanymagical cures they had given out. Almost as if they had access to knowledge most wizards didn’t. A shiver ran down my spine as the obvious answer came to me. The Pandora Protocol.
“They allegedly stole some things a time or two, always from old families. Random things that don’t make much sense to me. I’ve heard these items described as heirlooms, paintings, and even ancient knick-knacks with no known nature or origin. Every story is different. But then other people denied those same accusations, admitting the items had been fairly purchased. Regardless, these stories are a decade old. Nothing useful to me now. Still, it’s an odd thing to hear. I think these informants all assumed that if they told me something juicy I could owe them a favor. So I discouraged that line of thought, which got me kicked out of the other bars. Everyone’s just scared after Alaric’s speech at the Eclipse Expo about outing magical creatures. They fear that if I give in, like Alaric told everyone I would, they would all be outed as freaks too. The world is crazy lately.”
It was almost as if the deeper I dug, the more I realized that I hadn’t known my parents at all. They were public tech-tycoons during the day, devoted parents at night, full time wizards with secret agendas at their own company, and now part-time thieves? But why? Had they amassed an armory of random weapons and artifacts in their Pandora Protocol? And what was the Titan warning on the video feed I had seen?
I could sense Gunnar still staring at me with concern. It ticked me off. I didn’t ask my friends to look after me. I was fine. “Anyway. Enough psychoanalysis. How are you?”
“Great. Terrified of this whole proposal situation though.” I smiled, but he changed topics back to me. “It’s probably a good time to get out of town, Nate.Mardi Grasis nuts in St. Louis. Maybe a vacation is what you need too.” I know what he really wanted was for me to stop digging into the darkness that was plaguing me lately. Maybe he was right. It would have been nice to get away, as I didn’t want to get mixed up in Angel business. Or Demon business. But the Academy had put a stop to that with their curse.
I was being forced into a lonely stay-cation.
Gunnar continued. “Our new gig as black ops wizards — or supernaturals — could get dicey, so I’m taking a vacation while I can.” He and Ashley weren’t wizards, but since the world at large considered any freak to be a wizard, our team’s title had worked for me.
“I’m happy for you two.” I was doubly glad I hadn’t mentioned the Angel in the bar, or the Brimstone stench permeating both my company and I. If I told them what had happened in the bar, they would no doubt cancel their plans. They were the best of friends. I couldn’t do that to them. I could handle it on my own. That reminded me.
“You have time to drop me off at Temple Industries before you leave, right? Dean is taking Indie to the airport, and then he’s hopping on his own flight out of St. Louis. He hasn’t left the Chateau in a while, so I gave him some time off. Mallory also left to get some sun and sand, so I don’t have a ride. Plus, my headache will probably impair my vehicular control. I’d hate to start off the day with an accident.”
“Yeah. Lately, with your temper and lack of sleep, an accident could easily turn into vehicular manslaughter. You could always take your new horse.” He added with a scowl of disapproval.
I blushed. “My horse?” I asked innocently.
“Yes. Xavier, if I remember correctly.” He was tapping his foot. “That’s a federal crime, you know. I don’t even want to ask how it happened. Plausible deniability.” He folded his arms.
I threw up my hands. “I didn’t have a choice. I’ll say this though. My actions saved two lives. So I’ll take the consequences any day. But I’ll have Dean return him as soon as possible.”
Gunnar grunted for good measure. “Fine. I’m already packed and Ashley is at the company wrapping up a few loose ends. Workaholic. This will actually save me time. We can leave for the airport from there.”
“Good. I have one more pit stop to make on the way.”
He studied me skeptically. “Okay… where?” He answered cautiously.
“The church on the way to Temple Industries has a fountain outside, right?” Gunnar blinked before nodding slowly. “Good. Take me there. I fancy a dip. Care to partake in the mornings debauchery?”
He cocked his head. “Nate. You do know its seventeen degrees outside, right? I think I’ll take a rain check.”
“Seventeen…” That was the exact amount of time Peter had been inside the Armory. “Of course it is,” I mumbled to myself. “I’ll be quick,” I added hastily before he could question my comment.
Gunnar shook his head. “It’s your funeral.”
I smiled, preparing myself for the chill. “Not my funeral today, Gunnie.”
This was one thing on my to do list I could cross off… “How’s the rest of the gang?” I asked idly, finishing up my pushup routine as he dressed.
“Raego is leaving for Europe to strengthen his rule. Tory and Misha are going with him to help, or maybe just so Misha can show Tory her homeland. It’s cute. You should see Tory wrestle with Misha’s… dragonlings.” We didn’t know what else to call them. “Disturbing, but cute.” He smiled. “I can’t blame them.” His gaze grew thoughtful. “With us all out of your hair maybe you will get time to clear your head a bit. Get some real sleep.” He smiled. “Or just get roaring drunk in a dangerous bar. I think they’re both the same to you.”
I wrapped up my workout, feeling marginally better, grunting agreement with his comments. As I got dressed for the day, I found myself hoping that I wouldn’t be attacked by one of my most recent enemies before lunch.
You look like a raccoon.” Greta smiled smugly, pointing at my rapidly forming black eyes. Then her eyes roamed with distaste down to the puddle at my feet, and continued back along the trail of wet boot prints I had left from the entrance. “A drowned raccoon. Or a slug.”
I very carefully stifled my anger, not rising to the bait. “Don’t change the subject, Greta. For the last time, I find it highly doubtful that thisfoundit’s way to my office via regular mail. This is junk mail.”
“Well, if you consider your eternal soul to be junk, then I’m sure you must be correct.” She answered drily. Her eyes grew softer, motherly. “Just read it. You might learn a thing or two.” With infinite tolerance, I pocketed the religious tract and didn’t crumple it up to throw in her face. She meant well. Really. I just didn’t take it well when people told me in a roundabout way that I wasn’t a good person. The title readJesus and You, Your Only True Friend. Gunnar was very wisely keeping a straight face.
We walked past Greta’s desk and into my office. I instantly froze as my eyes settled on the room. A giant cross was nailed to the wall behind my desk, at least six feet tall and extravagantly detailed. On my desk sat a fresh cup of coffee inside a mug I had never seen before. A depiction of Christ adorned the coffee mug handle. “Greta?” I called out warningly.
She shuffled into the room on arthritic hips with a curious look on her face, not appearing to see anything amiss. “Yes, Master Temple?”
“It seems someone took the liberty to find me the actual cross that Jesus was crucified on, and to hang it on my wall. And I seem to have a new coffee mug.”
“Oh, goodness. I thought perhaps you had purchased the mug after reading the various pamphlets you had been given. I don’t know how the Cross got up there, but perhaps reflecting on his sacrifice might ease your stress. Touching Jesus daily might help also.” She offered, pointing at my mug.
I stared at her in disbelief. “I’m sure palming his crotch would be a religious experience for some, but to me it’s merely distasteful.”
She prickled up like a cat sprayed with water. “Well, if I were in your shoes, I would consider the fact that someone must care for you very deeply, and I would cherish these gifts forever, regardless of your lack of faith. Someone obviously holds a great deal of concern for your soul, despite your mockery of their belief.” Her face was red, ready for me to command that the no-doubt expensive artifact be torn down and tossed in the trash. Religion was everything to her and it seemed her sole purpose in life was to ‘Save’ all the lost souls around her. Namely, me. It was sweet… and annoying. Plus, I was sure she had expensed the extravagant purchase to Temple Industries, meaning I had paid for it myself.
I wanted to lash out on the old woman, but knew it would do no good. I sighed. She was right. It was done with the best of intentions. “That will be all, Greta.” I answered in defeat. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? Didn’t you mention a charity event you were planning to attend after work? Why don’t you go there early and help them set up? You deserve it.” I said with a forced smile on my face.
Her beady eyes assessed me with distrust for a few seconds before finally smiling in victory and nodding. She very wisely didn’t press her luck and instead turned to grab her purse and leave for the day. She called over a shoulder. “One of the interns found a broom closet he swears was not there last week. I set him straight, but you should look into it. He said it had an odd symbol carved above the door. Interns should be seen and not heard,” she grumbled more to herself. My shoulders stiffened slightly, but she didn’t notice.
“I’ll check it out. Have a great rest of the day.” She grunted back, not looking at me. Then she was off. As soon as she was out of sight I almost instinctively used magic to tear the cross down from the wall before I thought better of it. Instead, I called out to one of the minions in a nearby cubicle. “You.” I pointed. It was the same man that I had terrified a few months ago when I had first met Greta. The kid was as unconfident as I had ever seen. I needed to help him grow a backbone, but working for someone like Greta seemed to make that impossible. “Take down this monstrosity immediately. Then place it behind Greta’s desk.”
The kid stared at me dumbfounded before stuttering an answer. “Um… you’re my boss, but she will literally kill me if I step foot into her Jesus-Zone. Then she will kill me again when she sees that I put the cross she gave you behind her chair. It’s bigger than she is.” He added nervously.
“Does she really call her workspace the Jesus-Zone?” I asked in disbelief. Surely he was exaggerating. But he nodded. “Tell her that you caught me trying to remove it and before I could throw it away you decided to put it in the only safe place on the floor — the Jesus-Zone.” I winked at him. “This is a lesson in politics. Finding a way to work with conflicting orders to your best advantage. It’s very useful information to know.” The kid shivered, doubting his future as soon as I was not there to protect him from the saintly secretary.
“Gunnar, let’s go find Ashley.” He nodded, chuckling under his breath as we headed to her office. “Can it. It’s really not that funny. It’s not like I’m a horrible person or anything. Where does she get off passively telling me that I’m such a wreck that I need an intervention?”
“It’s very… touching.” He answered, his laughter fading. Great, he was siding with her also. This was ridiculous. Why was everything going against me lately? I didn’t need to worry about religion when I had literal Angels scouting my trail. I was probably closer to heavenly scrutiny then Greta would ever be… I pondered that for a few steps. Maybe she had a point.
Nah. I was probably fine.
I was here to study the Armory if I could find a way inside. That was all. Then I could be on my way. Wherever that was. I still shivered a bit from the dip I had taken in the fountain on the way here, but it gave me peace of mind to know that perhaps one problem was now gone. However, my damp clothes didn’t feel very pleasant at the moment.
I began pondering the Armory as we walked in silence. I had spent practically all my time at Temple Industries trying to find some solid information on the secrets that were allegedly buried inside. But I had come up with nothing. Oh, sure, I had clarified a few points, but that was all.
Point one — Peter had broken inside the Armory the same night my parents were killed. The security camera that seemed omnipotent — able to detect the magical abilities and identities of almost everyone in town — hadn’t known what to make of Peter, as he had been shrouded in living shadows, belying the fact that he had used something to trick the camera and disguise himself. I had found proof of this after sneakily raiding his office once things had calmed down a bit. He had stolen a ring from my desk that helped one become forgettable, a spell of sorts I had been tinkering around with at one point in my life. It must have sat in my desk for years at Plato’s Cave before Peter swiped it. After seeing the video, and after the chaos had died down, I realized that the distortion in the video had paralleled the forgotten spelled ring I had once made. I must have mentioned it to Peter at some point, as he had made it a priority to nab it from under my trusting nose.
So, Peter had broken into the Armory and returned with an apparently useless music box.
Point two — some unknown person hadsimultaneouslybroken into Temple Industries to kill my parents. I now knew that neither party had been affiliated with the dragons. That had merely been a coincidence that the late Alaric Slate, then leader of the dragon nation, had capitalized on. Peter had immediately tried to sell his music box to Alaric in exchange for the gift of magical power. It hadn’t worked out for anyone, and I had gotten the music box back.
So, now I knew that some third party had been after either my parents or the Armory. Immediately after Peter’s intrusion, my father had locked down the room and then been killed by said third party, leaving behind a cryptic message on the security feed for my eyes only. Which made no sense to me. Even now. Then the wordTitanhad popped up on the feed, and the video ended. No one had been able to enter since, even after we removed the security door my father had activated. But if the additional security was now gone, and it was the same as it had been when Peter so easily opened the door, how could I not enter? It was baffling. Even more concerning was that now, thanks to the Justices, the illusion hiding the door was gone, leaving it visible to anyone.
Ashley appeared from around a corner, carrying a pile of paperwork in a manila folder. She smiled hungrily at seeing her beau, Gunnar, and then more professionally at me. Then she froze. “Jesus! Your face!” She blurted.
“Better not let Greta hear you talk like that or you’ll get an avalanche of these on your desk.” I tossed her the religious tract.
She caught it and then glanced around my shoulder, as if verifying Greta wasn’t here, before deftly adding it to her manila folder. “Been trying to save you again, eh?” She smirked. I nodded. “So, did she hit you in the face with a Gutenberg or something?”
Gunnar lost it, his laughter filling the hallway. I scowled at the two of them. “It’s not that funny, but yes, you could say I got punched in the face because of religion.”
She frowned in disbelief, but let it go. “What brings you two rogues here?”
“Easy, you two.” I answered before Gunnar could say anything gooey and romantic. He didn’t look pleased at my efficient slaughter of the mood.
“Why are your clothes wet?” Ashley was frowning at the trail of wet footprints I had left behind me. I hadn’t felt the cold, as the building was warm and I had used a quick effortless spell to squeeze out the majority of the water from my wardrobe. Any more than that would have used too much power.
Gunnar piped up. “Don’t ask. He’s completely mental. Howard Hughes mental. He went for a swim in a holy fountain, but wouldn’t tell me why.”
They both turned to me, hoping I would elaborate. But I didn’t feel like doing that. It would only bring about more questions.
I began walking down the hall, calling over my shoulder. “Shall we?”
Ashley and Gunnar began following as I silently made my way to the door that had started it all. I was at once excited, and terrified to gain entrance to the Armory. I wanted,needed, to know what was inside, but wasn’t sure if I was ready to handle it.Anythingcould be in there. It could in fact be the equivalent of nuclear warheads, as the Academy feared. What would I do if that were the case? I wanted to ask myself what my parents would do, but that was obvious. They had hidden it away, after all. I shook my head, noticing Gunnar and Ashley watching me discreetly as we meandered the halls.
Did the room have something to do with my night terrors and now daymares? They had started immediately after the dragon attack. Was it some form of lingering effect of the dragons’ mind-magic? But no, Raego had informed me that it wasn’t. Unless… he was in on it. I shivered. If I couldn’t trust my friends, whom could I turn to? I had even begun to look into the myth lore of Pandora — stretching for leads a bit since my father had named the project Pandora Protocol — but I had run into nothing substantial. Pandora had died, or disappeared, and no one had heard of her or the box — or urn as most stories elaborated — since. Maybe it was just an allegory — an example — of powers left best untouched that my father found fitting as a title for his secret project. After all, he was an elaborate one for names. A project that involved dangerous powers he wanted out of the hands of the community. What better name than Pandora? I had even pondered going to talk to Asterion — the Minotaur — to see if he knew anything about the myth. I mean, he would have been around during her origin. If anyone knew her story, he would.
Gunnar broke the silence. “So, made any new gadgets lately?” He asked me curiously.
I looked over at him, then away. I didn’t feel like talking about it, as Indie’s harsh words about me ignoring her for my ‘tinkering’ were still fresh in my mind. “No.”
Which was a lie.
It was all I had been doing since the dragon attack. Every time I tried to sleep, the night terrors were there to tuck me in to a scene of insanity. So I tinkered. And I had managed to create things of the like which I had neither heard of, nor seen, nor imagined, were possible. It was as if my sleeplessness had awoken a genius Leonardo da Vinci inside me.
Raego had provided me with a literal truckload of silver scales from the dragon I had killed over the Eads Bridge, and despite not knowing what I wanted to — or could — do with them, I had used them to create quite a few useful tools. The magical boost in power I had received after my parents’ murder had fueled me to new heights of creativity I was sure no one had anticipated, but I needed to be careful with those secrets. If anyone found out what I had been making, they could use my friends against me to divulge those secrets. Very dangerous secrets. Secrets that might become necessary if my powers failed me and another Angel or Demon knocked on my door.
We entered the hallway that housed the now visible door to the Armory. A crudeOmegasymbol was etched into the stone over the frame, causing me to shiver.The end. We were just down the hall from where I had been abducted by the Academy less than 12 hours ago.
“Um. Why is it out in the open like this?” Ashley asked nervously.
“I removed the spell hiding it, obviously.” I muttered. Gunnar eyed me doubtfully, remembering my mention of the visit from the Academy Justices last night.
But, like a good minion, at least Ashley accepted my answer. “We still don’t know how to enter, but your parents might have hidden their trail. They must have had some kind of key.” She offered cautiously.
“The Academy goons mentioned something about a key also. They seemed to think I had it on me, but I have no idea what or where it could be.”
Ashley raised a brow. “Academy? As in, the secret wizard police?” She asked with alarm.
I nodded. Gunnar looked more concerned by the second.
“Maybe we need to stay in town for a while to help you, Nate.” Ashley said, ever the corporate soldier. Gunnar’s gaze crashed and burned with both the resigned weight of responsibility to a friend and the dying dreams of his impending proposal. I couldn’t let that happen.
“No. You two need a break. They’re just fact-finding at the moment. They want to know what happened here. And they took their sweet time coming to ask. I don’t think they’re in much of a rush or they would have come knocking on my door sooner. I think they’re just trying to tie up loose ends for documentation purposes. They didn’t really seem that concerned.”
Gunnar’s eyes weighed heavily on mine, but I could tell that as much as he wanted to stay and help me, he wanted to propose to this amazing woman even more. I couldn’t blame him. He had spent his whole life looking for the perfect woman, never sleazing around, but merely waiting. This could literally be his once in a lifetime chance at claiming true love. If I told them anything about the curse the Academy had placed on me, or my new parole officer, Gavin, I would never get rid of my friends and Gunnar would never propose to Ashley. There are times when my life just really sucks. I could definitely use their help, butmyproblem did not constitutetheirproblem.
Thinking of Gavin out there somewhere in my city, scouting me unseen, made me nervous all over again. Maybe he was using an Academy trick to watch me even now… I shrugged that one off as a bit excessive. They wouldn’t have needed to confront me if they could do that. I hadn’t noticed anyone trailing me on the way here with Gunnar, butlackof proof of being tailed was not proof that Iwasn’tbeing tailed. It’s only paranoia when you’rewrong.
I quickly realized that having asked to see Ashley might actually destroy Gunnar’s big plan. I had to get rid of them. Now. I would have to figure this out on my own.
“Listen, guys. I’ll be fine for a few days. Indie’s out of town with her mother since the accident, and I could really use theme-time to clear my head. I know I’ve been impossible to be around lately, and to be honest, I’m not sure I dealt with my parents’ murder the healthiest way.”
“I don’t know. Slaying a harem of were-dragons felt very therapeutic to me.” Gunnar grinned.
I smiled back weakly, nodding. “True, but I’ve got a lot of Demons, you know?”No pun intended, I thought to myself. “And I need to find a way to banish them before it costs me my friends, the company, or… Indie.” Ashley’s eyes glistened sympathetically as she laid a hand on my shoulder for support. I was definitely speaking literallyandfiguratively, but they didn’t need to know that.
“Don’t worry, Nate. You’ll figure it out. You always do. Maybe you’re right. No distractions for a few days. Clear your head. Tinker around a bit, and we’ll be back to clean up the mess in no time.” I scowled back and she smiled mischievously through wet eyes. “You will barely even know we’re gone.”Right,I thought darkly. I would be too preoccupied with Angels, Demons, and the Academy to realize that my only allies were thousands of miles away, getting engaged. “If it wasn’t for Gunnar winning those airline tickets online, we might not ever have decided to go. Admitted workaholics.” She smiled, winking at Gunnar. I noticed Gunnar’s gaze shifting to mild concern as he studied my face, reconsidering based on something he saw deep inside my eyes. I couldn’t have that.
“Well, I’m glad he won the tickets. You guys really drag me down sometimes. An eagle needs to stretch his wings or else he becomes a chicken.” Gunnar growled. I smirked back darkly. “Really, I’ll be fine. Besides, I do have other friends, you know.” A thought sparked at the words, but I kept my face straight. I hoped I sounded genuine. Gunnar was an ex-FBI Agent who could smell a lie a mile away, not even accounting for his werewolf sense of smell.
Gunnar’s concern disappeared as Ashley reached up to caress the long scar on my jaw that had been caused by Alaric Slate’s death throes. She hesitated near my nose, for which I was thankful. “No repeats of last time. We need you in tip-top shape.” She spoke with concern.
Gunnar grunted. “Well played, Nate. I think we need to get out of here before he convinces you he’s a decent guy.” He warned Ashley, chuckling at my resulting sneer. Ashley punched him playfully on the arm, immediately flexing her fingers in discomfort afterwards. It wasn’t fun to punch a werewolf. Gunnar kissed her knuckles sweetly before they waved a final time and left me alone in front of the door. I shot Gunnar a last second thumbs up out of Ashley’s view. He scowled back with a shake of his head.
Great. I had gotten rid of any potential casualties.
Ihung up my cell phone with a marginal twinkle in my eye. Perhaps I would actually get some help without risking anyone’s life after all. It felt good to possibly be ahead of the bad guys for once.
With nothing else to do, I stepped closer to the mysterious door — or broom closet, as it now appeared to be — that led to the Armory. And I knocked.
Hey, you never know when something is going to knock back, and it costs nothing to be polite. I felt more than a little ridiculous knocking on a broom closet door, but magic was funny like that. When I opened the door without permission, it was a broom closet, but if I knocked… things might be entirely different. I waited.
And continued waiting a few moments longer.
But nothing happened.
I pounded the door with my fist. Nothing. So I slapped it in a fit of rage with my open palm, immediately breaking open the wound caused by the broken bar glasses last night. I saw the hot blood splatter onto the door before the sting of pain registered. “Motherf-”
But I bit my tongue as the door began to suddenly open with a long, eerie creak, like the middle of every bad horror movie. A warm wind buffeted past me, ruffling my coat. Huh. It wasn’t aKeyafter all. Maybe the password was an expletive. That sounded like just the kind of humor my father might use. Then a chill went down my spine as I applied a sliver of brainpower to the situation. It wasn’t a curse word. It had been myblood. My veins turned to lava as the long-term consequences ofthatthought entered my mind. That meant that whoever had my blood had the Armory.
Iwas the Key.
All one had to do was catch me, and they could use me whenever they wanted to open the door. That didn’t sound good.
Not at all.
This made me a free agent for any baddie out there.
If anyone ever discovered my secret.
A lilting, feminine laugh drifted from beyond the now open doorway, chilling in its innocence. “It’s about time, Nathaniel, my host.” I shivered, trying to peer through the darkness without stepping foot inside. Should I do this? Or should I wait for backup? But… I didn’thaveany backup. Everyone was gone. I guessed I could call that intern who was tearing down the crucifix in my office.He would make good cannon fodder, I thought idly. Then I blinked, surprised at my callousness. That wasn’t a good sign. I had subconsciously decided to let the lowly intern risk his life in order to protect mine. Granted, itwaspart of the job description of interns everywhere —five percent other duties as instructed…but still, that wasn’t like me to be so cold. Was it caused by my lack of sleep? Was I losing my empathy? I didn’t have time for that train of thought, so I shrugged it off.
Was I scared? That might sound like a dumb question. Of course I was scared, but normally that didn’t slow me down at all. I always confronted my fears. But I always made sure I had backup somewhere or an ace up my sleeve in case things got dicey. Now I didn’t. I was entirely alone, and my magical reservoir was capped off. I would have to play this game differently than I was used to doing. Normally I blew things up that scared me. Now I would have to think first, blow shit up later. If at all. To conserve my power.
“I didn’t know men these days were so shy.” The voice teased from the shadows.
I decided to answer back. “You’re not a Demon, are you?”
The cute voice that answered had an entirely different tone this time. It now barely restrained eons of experience at fatal threats. “Never.”
“Oh, okay. Well that’s a start. Are you going to eat me if I come in there?” I asked, not knowing exactly what was on the other side of the door. That hiss could have been a monster. It sure didn’t sound human.
“I am no beast. I’m a petite, curvaceous dream woman. No blades, fangs, or sticks. I swear. But I detest Demons.” The voice called, sounding more human again, and slightly… amused.
“Um. Alright. I’m coming in now.” I took a step and waited for the gates of hell to grab me by the short hairs. I realized my body was rigid, ready to flee at the drop of a hat. Listen, shemightbe a little girl, but shealsomight be a giant, dreadlock clad, flying, gorilla-vampire hybrid. One never knew. Sensing no inhuman presence ready to gobble me up, I took another cautious step into the darkness. The door slammed shut behind me, bumping me forward a few inches. My butt cheeks clenched tight enough to crack a walnut, not wanting to get pinched by a four hundred pound door.
In a blink, I realized the darkness was entirely gone, replaced by gold, crimson, and orange hues reflecting off thousands of metallic objects. Elaborate clothing, armor, and classic artwork from eras long extinct decorated the wall between a literal platoon of weapons and artifacts. The room I stood in had an open balcony with sturdy marble railings that ran right up to a sky that seemed afire from a vibrant sunset. A wide, long hallway stretched from the opposite end of the room, leading away for what seemed like forever.
And this was one room.
I could see dozens more openings spaced along the hallway.
The enticing voice floated to my ears from the balcony as I spotted a silky, lavender colored fabric fluttering in the wind. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” She teased.
I blinked. She was facing the opposite direction, but her thick auburn hair flowed in the breeze like a shampoo commercial’s wet dream. She could be hiding razor sharp Katanas in front of her, or she could have a gorilla-vampire hybrid’s face after all. I had to be careful here. I didn’t know the rules, but this obviously was not Temple Industries. I was somewhere else. It wasn’t sunset in St. Louis, and it wasn’t even remotely warm there. Here was almost toasty, as if I had stepped into a beach town near the equator. I didn’t even know whether this place was real or a mental construct… or maybe even another daymare. My eyes suddenly darted back and forth eagerly, searching for a box, but I found nothing. Then again… I wouldn’t even know to look for a box if this was a daymare, which meant that thismustbe real.
“Please turn to face me, if you don’t mind.” I called politely. Her amused laughter caused a pleasant tingle over my skin. It was captivating — the perfect mixture of amusement and darker, adult undertones. She turned to face me and my breath froze. Large almond eyes greeted me. Her face was oval and naturally tanned, with a sharp jaw and large, luscious lips, which were smiling up at me to reveal large, brilliantly white teeth. She was short, but a genuine goddess. And yes, she was definitelycurvaceous. Was that my parents’ secret? They had kidnapped a goddess? “You look… normal.” I said bluntly.
She cocked her head curiously. “Normal? Well, you sure know how to woo a girl. I’m curious, were youreallyexpecting a gorilla-vampire hybrid?” She asked mischievously.
I blinked.How the hell did she know that?I opened my mouth after a few seconds of silent gawking. “If you knew my life, you might not think that so odd. Can you-”
She interrupted me. “Yes. I can read minds. Most of the time. It’s my duty.” She answered softly, curtsying like a princess out of a fairy tale. “I am at your service, if you will have me.”
“I don’t think I need any servicing.” I realized how that sounded and instantly went on defense. “I mean, I’m all set in the servicing department. I’ve got this girl I really like, and she really likes me too. She services me just f-”
Her laughter cut me off, and my teeth clicked sharply as my face flared beet red. “Not that kind ofservicing. I guess you could say that Iworkfor you. Perhaps that is a more modern phrase.”
I nodded in relief. “Oh. Yeah. Of course. That makes more sense.” I studied her curiously, the silence stretching as she met my gaze with infinite patience. “Why do you work for me again?”
“You could call me a librarian of sorts. I was created to be the ward of this place.” Her eyes twinkled with excitement as she spread her dainty hands to encompass the room. “Here. Let me show you a few of my favorite things.” She was suddenly directly in front of me, seemingly not having crossed the space between us. I didn’t even have time to flinch before she eagerly grabbed my arm to lead me deeper into the room. I didn’t have time to stop her, and I was caught up with her infectious glee at finally having someone to talk to about her toys. And I was damn curious about that after having spent so long trying to gain entrance to this place. We rapidly moved from pile to pile, weapon to weapon, rug to painting, all the while with her name dropping ancient items of power that made my skin begin to crawl. I was flabbergasted as we darted from one astonishment to the next. Gems, jewels, art, weapons, maps, and hundreds of other things filled the vast room in every direction, and this was only one of many, many rooms. She had already pointed out a lamp with a genuine genie trapped inside, the Nemean Lion’s skin that had adorned Hercules, and even a few journals written by the Brothers Grimm — the sociopathic hitmen of the supernatural world.
The artwork alone was worth millions of dollars, not even considering the jewelry.
But it wasn’t just weapons. I spotted a collection of boxed action figures, signed baseballs, expensive antiques, and even vinyl records. It was a hoarder’s paradise.
And it was all…
It was slightly humbling. With only a handful of these items I would be practically unstoppable, and wouldn’t need to worry about my curse at all.
A small part of me felt like Smaug hoarding his treasure, but another small part of me began to grow concerned. Was I worthy of being the Amory’s caretaker? Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts…absolutely.
“You’re like a playboy bunny version of Jiminy Cricket.” I blurted, perhaps too honestly. “The conscience for this place, like Jiminy was for Pinocchio.” She smiled at my compliment, and released my hand. “Did my parents command you to keep watch over the Armory? Did theycreateyou?” I studied her more carefully. I had felt her hand, so I knew she was a physical being, but where did she get her nourishment? Was she merely a construct created by my parents and this was all happening in my head?
“No. They didn’t create me, and yes, I’m real.” Her eyes threatened to suck me into their depths, so I quickly turned away. She laughed, patting me on the arm innocently. “This is but one of the world’s armories. Albeit the most notorious. Your parents have transformed it into the greatest of all of them. But perhaps I say that only because I am here to help.” I nodded politely, not knowing what to say. She eyed me up and down appraisingly. Then she took a slow step closer, brushing the scar on my face with a gentle touch. “How did you acquire… oh, a dragon.” She had apparently read my thoughts again. “You are a warrior then, a dragon slayer? Yes. I see it now. You’re wearing war paint to terrorize your enemies.” She pointed at my black eyes. “I like it. Who are we destroying today?” She said it with the tone and excitement a small child might use to declare we were about to play tea party princesses. I shivered. “We have many weapons here if you so desire. You will never have to risk a scar again.” I took a polite step back and cleared my throat. She smiled, respecting my distance without offense. “Your parents’ didn’t tell me that they actually succeeded in granting you the power of a Maker though.”
She stared at me, waiting for me to speak. “A Maker?” I asked curiously, and with a small amount of alarm. She nodded, but her excitement slowly began to fade as she realized I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Have you noticed an increase in your power?” She asked instead. I nodded with excitement. Finally! Answers. “But they didn’t warn you? They never explained why?” She asked with disbelief.
“They never had the chance. They were murdered.” I answered softly, my hopes for answers crumbling to ashes.
She seemed to shrink a bit at the shoulders. “I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring that up. What I meant was that they took something from this place in order to give you a… parting gift, as it were. A workshop for your new gift to flourish.”
I stared back at her blankly, a little mollified that my parents had experimented on me without my knowledge. “Gift?”
“You are the first Maker to walk the earth in hundreds of years.”
I pondered her words. “Maker… That sounds kinda… silly.” I finally answered.
She giggled. “It is in no waysilly. It is how wizards came to be in the first place. It means that you can literally create new forms of magic the world has never before seen. Other wizards stick with the old tried and true spells, replicating what they have seen done before. They do not have the power to push the boundaries and createnewmagic. As a Maker, you can quite literally do whatever you can imagine. Whatever you dare attempt. Magic that your enemies could not counter, since they never would have experienced it before. It is a gift from the gods. Your parents wanted you to be strong enough to defend this place… and yourself.”
Createmagic? Unbelievable. My parents were pulling strings even from beyond the grave. “Well, it seems their hard work has only painted a bulls-eye on my back. The Academy wasn’t too pleased to notice my jump in power.”
She nodded sadly. “The world’s thugs never are. They don’t like things they cannot explain.” She straightened her shoulders. “Well, I hope you made a right mess of those vipers at the Academy. You are, after all, limited only by your creativity and imagination.”
“Well, I didn’t make aright messof them. They actually cursed me. My power is now fading, and will be gone in three days if I don’t comply with their demands to give them the Armory. It will fade faster if I use my magic up before their deadline.”
She locked eyes with me. “Then I must help you eliminate this wretched spell.” She closed her eyes and lifted her arms to point in my general direction. I tensed, but nothing happened. After a few moments, she opened her eyes with a low growl. “Impossible! I can’t eventouchthe curse. It repels my power like oil on water.” She studied me for another second. “Even with your new abilities, it is too strong for you to remove on your own. They must have used a circle of wizards.”
I nodded with frustration. “Eight of them, to be precise.”
She growled. “Cowards!” I liked her already. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all. “It seems that the only solution is for you to find more power.”
I blinked at her, not hiding my mounting frustration very well. “You and Asterion both. Simple, but efficient with your fortune cookie answers.”
She visibly started. “The Minotaurlives?”
I hesitated, not knowing if I had accidentally given up a State Secret. “Um. Yeah. We’re kinda’ bros.” She watched me, uncomprehendingly. “Friends.” I amended.
She continued to stare at me in silence, thoughts I couldn’t even fathom churning behind those magical eyes of hers.
“Anyway,” I continued, feeling uncomfortable. “How exactly do I find more power?”
She arched a brow, relaxing as she fought a growing smile. Finally, she sighed and lifted her arms at the Armory around us. I slapped my forehead in embarrassment, remembering at the last second to be gentle for my injured nose. Of course. Armory. Power. Duh.
“This is allyours. You can borrow items from here to aid you in your investigation. It’s fitting, really. Use your parents’ tools to discover their murderer. It wouldn’t be the first time some of these items have reentered the world. After all, you’ve already been transformed into a Maker.” I looked around, feeling slightly thick that I hadn’t considered the idea immediately. But like earlier, my thoughts grew concerned. These things had been locked away for a reason. Surely they shouldn’t be wielded out of the Armory. But… wasn’t I already contradicting that statement? My parents had already done just that to transform me into a Maker. Supposedly. Did I trust this woman? Could she be lying about their gift? Then I thought about it for a few seconds.
Ihadmade some remarkable discoveries lately. Tinkering had become a fiery passion where before it had been merely an interesting diversion. And I had learned to Apparate rather quickly, in a way that I had never before learned anything. Maybe she was right. It would explain the power spike that had so surprised the Justices.
I decided to change the subject, allow my mind to warm up to the idea slowly. “Why does everything I see remind me of the Greeks?” I asked curiously.
“Because they were brilliant marketers, of course. We have totems from practically every culture here. You just do not recognize them.”
“You said there are more places like this in the world?”
“Yes, but they pale in comparison. Your parents quite outdid themselves bringing additional items of power here.” She studied me as I scanned the room, fighting the selfish urge to arm myself for World War III. I could be all but invincible with even a handful of these items. I could take out the Justices, swat away the Angels, and banish the Demons with ease. No one could stand in my way.
But… and there was always abut.
My parents had locked them away for a reason. Power had a tendency to change a guy. And I liked myself the way I was. The urge was still persistent, but I squashed it. “Do as you will, but you are not without options.” She said softly, reading my thoughts. “You are a Maker and must not give the Academy access to this storehouse.” She warned.
“Is this Maker gift how I was able to learn how to teleport just by experiencing it one time?”
“Teleport? I don’t know this word.” She answered with a frown.
“You know. Moving from one place to another really fast.”
“You learned how to run?” She teased with a grin.
I scowled. “Over great distances in the blink of an eye.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Oh. You mean Shadow Walking.” She tapped a lip, watching my pensive frown. “You mean this is not common knowledge among wizards?”
I stared at her for a few seconds before shaking my head. “No. Apparently it’s only known to a select few.” I regarded her thoughtfully. This ability was nothing new to her, even though she had never heard the modern wordteleport. Interesting.Shadow Walking. I wondered where I had been when between locations. An alternate reality? Was it dangerous? Most likely it was or it would be common knowledge. Another fact hit me. The Academy was guilty of doing exactly what they accused me of — hiding power. Which instantly confirmed that I shouldn’t trust them. They wanted power for themselves. Not for the good of the supernatural community. They wanted control, weapons, and power. But why?
She had frowned in disapproval at mention of the Academy hiding knowledge like this from other wizards. She finally shrugged in answer to my original question. “Makers learn quickly. Their subconscious runs on overdrive. Always watching, cataloguing, learning.” Her eyes were thoughtful as she watched the uncertainty on my face. She was obviously finished with that conversation because she moved to another topic after glancing at a nearby sundial. “Your situation could be worse…”
I blinked. “Losing my power? I’m helpless with this curse. It won’t go away until I give them access to the Armory. Toyou. If even then.”
“Then you must die, Maker.” She didn’t even look ashamed at the comment. Seeing my reaction, her eyes grew softer. “Some men aren’t meant to find peace or happiness. They are meant to challenge Death. Fight Wars. They are meant to begreat.”
“Well, my death will put a damper on just about all of those things.”
She shrugged, changing the topic again. “Now that you are my new master, how do you wish me to aid you?”
I could sense that she wanted me to formally acknowledge her assistance, but I was a tad nervous about what that might obligate me to do. My father had always taught me that there was no free lunch. “I just want to understand what this place is and why it was locked away.”
She laughed. “Come now. Of course your parents told you of this place.” She intoned, sarcastically. I shook my head and she blinked at me in awe. “They never told you about this fortress? About…me?” I shook my head again, blushing slightly at her offended tone.
“Well, I am here to serve… you, if you will have me. I keep record of the items of power stored here. What exactly do you wish to know?” Disappointment was clear in her voice.
“Just answers, I guess. I don’t want to force you to tell me anything you don’t want to tell.” I said conversationally, looking over her shoulder at the vast array of items. As was typical for me, my gaze rested on a set of books that sat neatly on a table. I found myself wondering what their story was. Their spines were elaborately decorated, but they held not a speck of dust.
Her tone grew cold in the blink of an eye, arctic. Literally. Frost instantly coated the table and books. “But… you will if you must. Already you resort to threats. Against a slave, no less.”
My mouth clicked shut, realization dawning too late. “No. No, that’s not what I meant. That wasn’t a threat. That was just a statement. I merely meant that I don’t know the rules here. I am not like those you may have served before.”
She chuckled sadly and the frost on the table simply disappeared, which was entirely creepy. Shouldn’t it have melted rather than disappear? “Never heardthatbefore. I thought you might be different.”
“Look, is there anything I can do to prove that I’m not here to hurt you? I didn’t even know you existed ten minutes ago.” Did this mean that my parents had abused her? Was that why she was so jaded?
She watched me curiously. “We shall see,” was all she said. I was surprised that she hadn’t asked me to free her, to beg for my help. I didn’t think I would have said yes, but I wasn’t sure. Perhaps I would have. Everyone deserved freedom. But I didn’t know her story or the Armory’s history. Not yet. I needed to be sure she wasn’t dangerous first.
So I let her assume what she would. Cold, but effective. I guarded my thoughts with a sudden wall of impenetrable power so that she couldn’t read me. She squinted back, noticing my defense, and not seeming best pleased.
Confident my thoughts were safe, I thought for a moment. It was obvious why my parents had been killed. Someone wanted access to this place. “Butwhokilled them? Why am I having night terrors? Why does the door back there smell like Brimstone?”
Her sudden silence caused me to look up, realizing I had spoken aloud. Her eyes had changed to a milky lavender shade, gaze distant as if she could no longer see me. The difference in her voice caused the hair on the back of my neck to rise, as it was totally different from when she had spoken before — older, wiser, and more lethal — like a completely different person. Like… an entity of knowledgeshouldsound. “The doorway to death can truly be a hallway of opportunities. To tread the sharp edge of a sword — to run on smooth-frozen ice, one needs no footsteps to follow. Walk over the cliffs with hands free. Death will provide answers to thee.” Then she blinked as if just waking up, unsure what had just transpired.
“Are you telling me the only answers I can find will be through death?”
“Only theultimateanswer can be found through death.” She answered distantly, her eyes slowly returning back to normal as she caught a hand on the table for balance. What the hell? Then she chuckled, as if amused at her own words.
“Very punny.” I growled. “Now, what the hell did you mean, and what just happened? You almost fell over. And your eyes changed colors.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know where the words came from… it happens sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s the items here or something to do with me.” Her eyes darted back to the sundial and widened in alarm. “Quickly. We haven’t much time.” I blinked at that, but she was already rushing to grab my hand and lead me around the room. I had all the time in the world to give her. She was the only one willing to give me answers. But I allowed her to drag me to a new room, smiling at her excitement to point out various items only read about in stories. A cold chill ran down my neck at some of them. Excalibur. Armor designed by literal Gods. Vials of mysterious liquids and raw energy that she silently avoided. A blue phone booth…no, that couldn’t be theTardis… could it?
She finally looked content, having shown me some of the more dangerous items. Knowing this was one room of dozens — if not hundreds — I found myself again wary of my new hideout. “The Armory is a cache of magical items deemed too dangerous to fall into the wrong hands. Most things in here are deadly, but lethality is in the eye of the beholder. To the caveman, fire was dangerous, but one just needed to learn how to control it.” She paused before continuing, no doubt reading the question on the tip of my tongue with her creepy mind reading ability. “I don’t know why you smelled Brimstone outside. Perhaps the thief from a few months ago resorted to Demons in order to gain entrance. I don’t know how that could be possible, but he ultimately failed. Knowing what he desired, and how powerful it was, I tricked him.”
I felt myself lean forward eagerly.Peter. “What did he want?” This was it. An answer.
She appraised me wordlessly, judging me as surely as if I had been weighed to the ounce. “Power. He seemed fixated on the bathwater of Baby Achilles.” She idly waved a hand at the array of vials we had bypassed.
“Well, as power goes, that seems kind of a poor choice.” She arched a brow.
“That would be the water from the River Styx, which granted him his immortality on all but his ankle.” I shuddered in comprehension.
“Oh. Well… thanks for not giving it to him then.” She nodded. “It was as your parents would have wanted. Besides, why would I let him have what he wanted if he wasn’t able to grant my freedom?” My mind worked furiously. So shedidwant something.
“You could have asked him to take you with him in exchange for the water.”
She frowned. “Don’t think I hadn’t thought about it… or tried it in the past. Only the custodian may grant my freedom.”
She began studying the nearby weathered sundial nervously. “How can I find the man or Demons responsible for my parents’ murder?” I asked, remembering her odd comment about limited time. She laughed, as if the question was too simple to waste her time on.
“That’s easy.” She immediately shimmered with power before casting a crimson haze of fog at a map of Eastern Europe on the wall beside us. “Seek.” She whispered. The fog condensed to several locations on the map, glowing faintly. “That shows the current locations of Demonic presence.”
The freaky part about it was that I knew I could replicate it, but it would cost me a ton of magic. “Um. With my curse, that spell would drain me really fast. I would have to use a lot of power, which would leave me useless to confront the Demons I oh so cleverly discovered.”
She nodded mumbling to herself as if reading a mental catalog of the items stored here, and then dove into a pile of items on the edge of a desk. After discarding several priceless artifacts, she held up a carved bone the size of a birds egg. “Here. Take this. It works the same way, only doesn’t require your own magic. It’s instilled with the power itself. Merely think about what you want to find, saySeek, and hold it near a map.” She handed me the bone egg and I grunted in surprise at its weight. It was so dense that it felt like a lump of pure lead. It was completely covered in continuous runes, not a single millimeter empty. I idly wondered what could have been sharp enough to carve it. It felt… ancient. Upon my touch, soothing whispers abruptly filled my ears, murmuring seductively, introducing themselves by the hundreds. The voices sounded seductive, and… grateful. Almost as if they were eager to partner with a new wizard after eons of silence. I quickly pocketed the totem and the whispers ceased. I managed not to flinch in fear, and the girl nodded in approval.
“Thanks.” I finally answered, glad for the silence, and not knowing quite what to make of the voices. I felt conflicted about borrowing anything from this place, but what choice did I really have?
She nodded matter of factly.
“I guess now I understand why it took you so long to answer my call. Your parents never told you about me. I thought you would have to develop insomnia before you realized I was reaching out to you.”
That got me right in the stomach. The night terrors. “That was you?” I hissed, seething with sudden rage.
She began to chuckle, but her brow creased in confused alarm, not understanding my threatening tone. “Yes. I try to give all my hosts pleasant dreams.” She finally answered, looking uncertain.
“Is this some kind of sickjoke?” I bellowed, taking an aggressive step towards her. She squeaked, darting back a good dozen feet to the balcony. Then I took another step. Soon I was racing towards her, fury fueling my muscles.
She was as good as dead.
Iknewthis had sounded too good to be true, that she hadlookedtoo good to be true. She was the source of all my recent pain. Having visions of my loved ones being tortured and killed again and again andagain. Some might say I was slightly unhinged.
“I think there might have been a misunderstanding.” She spoke softly, suddenly standing just before me. I was panting with unspent energy, my muscles quivering to reach her dainty throat, but I was no longer running. I couldn’t move a single muscle below my neck, so I snarled hungrily, ready to bite her throat if that was my only path. But I couldn’t even turn my head. Her delicate hands reached up to touch my face, her soft fingertips gently caressing my scar and temples in a very doctor-like evaluation. I was ready to burst with rage, but my body wouldn’t respond, and even my magic was tantalizingly out of reach.What was happening?
She flinched back with a gasp. “Oh. That makes much more sense. Someone has been tampering with your mind. Altering my sendings.” She scrunched her face in thought, poking her tongue out the side of her full lips, Michael Jordan style, and stepped back up to me, grasping my skull more forcefully this time. I still couldn’t move. I opened my mouth to threaten her to step back and stop, but even my voice wouldn’t work. She was using some kind of magic to overwhelm me. Then, what felt like a bucket of warm oil slowly poured over my head, coaxing my neck, shoulders, and back into the equivalent of jelly. It was as if I had just stepped out of a warm bath after an exhausting spa day.
…Not that I had ever had such a womanly day. I could just imagine what it would have been like if I had.
My body shivered at the sudden release of tension I hadn’t realized I’d been carrying, and the girl stepped back with a curious frown on her face. I collapsed to my knees, muscles useless to support my weight. The slip of a girl stumbled up to a heavy table and sat down, turning to face me, looking physically drained and… concerned.
“Someone has been in your head.” She spoke thoughtfully, lifting a shaky hand to tap her lips in thought.
“And you only just admitted to doing that very thing.” I snapped, slowly regaining the use of my limbs.
She nodded distractedly. “My dreams were sent to tap into your subconscious mind and remind you of my presence. Your parents named this Armory their Pandora Protocol. A quotidian name for a place, but it fits.” I frowned at her. Noticing this, she elaborated. “Your father was quite the one for elaborate names. He deemed the items in this location to be too dangerous for the Academy and other wizards to get their hands on. So they named it after Pandora’s Box — the legend that housed the world’s worst horrors.” She looked amused.
“But in the bottom of Pandora’s Box was Hope.” I said softly. She flinched, looking into my eyes with newfound respect. Her gaze was like a field of lavender on fire.
“That is true. Not many know that part of the story.” She spoke softly.
I shrugged, relaxing. “Learning of their name for this place, I did a lot of research into the topic.”
“My sending was to place a box into your dreams, reminding you of their pet name for the Armory. Opening it would cause you pleasure.”
“Yeah, sure. If pleasure feels like your skin is melting.”
Her eyes fairly smoldered. “That was not I. I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, do that to my host.” She growled. She sounded sincere. What the hell didthatmean? Who else was in my head?
Instead of jumping downthatrabbit hole, I looked around the room as my muscles slowly began to awaken, noticing a vast array of armor against one wall. One item in particular caught my attention. Between two shields was an aged section of sheepskin.Goldensheepskin. “Is that…?” I asked, my mouth wide open with disbelief.
She glanced behind her at the skin, but shook her head in reply. “No, but Jason’s Golden Fleece is here. That is merely a replica your father liked, not realizing the authentic one was already here.” She answered as if pointing out a can of tomato soup in a grocery store. I blinked in astonishment. The Golden Fleece! Able to repel any attack. What the hell? I had a brief daydream of me blazing into battle against a horde of Angels and Demons wearing the Fleece, stomping ass and taking names. She interrupted my reverie. “What I’m more concerned about is your dreams. Someone has been melding his or her will into my own projections. Locked away in this vault, it is very difficult for me to project dreams, but it is not impossible. The fact that someone was able to mutate my sending is alarming. It means someone is after you specifically, and trying to do you harm without letting you know who he or she is. Have your dreams been… particularly horrifying?” She asked in a very clinical way, not at all concerned with how much harm they had in fact caused me.
“Yes. The city burning, my friends tortured and murdered, me helpless, but through it all was a box. The only way to escape the carnage was to open a box.”
She nodded distractedly. “That part was mine. Just the box. It was agreed upon by your father and I that I would entice you with these visions of opening a box. He said anything more forceful than that would cause you to ignore the call. He called you a bit stubborn, to tell you the truth. At least that part of the dream was pleasant.” She said softly.
I scowled back. “Opening the box caused me more pain than I have ever imagined. And each dream caused a newtypeof pain. Burning, freezing, skinned, and even buried alive.”
She looked crestfallen, and then… furious. “Opening the box was supposed to cause you pleasure, to lead you to me. Why would I cause you pain in order to lead you here? Like I said, your father mentioned you had an issue with authority, so these sendings were to encourage you to cometome, not scare youaway.”
“True. But who could possibly know about your projections, and how the hell would they tap into them? Were they trying to discover something inside my head? Could it be a Demon?”
“That is a very good question.” She answered slowly. “Why do you repeatedly fixate on Demons?”
“Because I was paid a visit by some… people, and they had the distinct impression that I and that door smelled like a severe whiff of Brimstone.”
“I would never allow a Demon to enter this place. And you do not smell of Demons.” So my dip in the fountain of holy waterhadworked! “This is my sanctuary. My home.”
Her tone sent a shiver down my spine. Even as small and young as she looked, she was obviously very, very powerful. I had been helpless in her hands. “Who are you anyway?”
“I could answer that if you accepted my servitude. I could be of great help to you in the future, but you must allow me to serve you.”
That sounded eerily like an unbreakable bond of sorts. And she had expressed her interest at freedom. “How about just a name for now.” I could see the frustration in her eyes. I felt an uncomfortable twinge begin in my shoulders that was all the more noticeable after her therapeutic touch.Get out, get out, get out…
The girl continued, unaware of my predicament. “Fine. I was a wayward soul. One who wasted her life on earth, trying to help those who couldn’t help themselves. One you would refer to as a witch. I was killed by my own people for what I was, and cast here to serve as a Guardian of sorts. You may call me-”
“Well, this has been great and all, but I really must be leaving.” I interrupted. I was suddenly on my feet and striding purposefully back to the door. “See you soon, Hope.” I don’t know where the name came from, but it seemed to fit from the story I had shared with her about Pandora’s Box.
The door back to Temple Industries opened before me and I stepped out. Before it closed again I heard Hope’s voice. “Damn that spell!”
The door shut with a solid boom and the uncomfortable sensation evaporated. Why had I left? I turned on my heel, pounding on the door to be let back inside. Nothing happened. I reopened my wound and pressed it against the wood. Still nothing.What the hell? I have more questions!But it was useless. The room was closed again.
Then it hit me. I remembered the odd fact about the room. When my parents had entered — and then again when Peter had entered — they had been gone exactly 17 minutes. I looked down at my watch. Huh.
Right on time.
Hope had mentioned a spell. That must be it. Perhaps Peter had hit the spell’s time limit and simply grabbed whatever he could before leaving, since Hope had been unwilling to assist him. Then he had ‘sold’ it to Alaric Slate, sealing his fate. I sighed. What a waste. He had been my friend for years, but I didn’t tolerate betrayal. At all.
So, this spell limited time allowed inside the vault. I wondered if there was a way around it. My parents had also been limited to the same window of opportunity — 17 minutes.
Thinking of my parents made me recall the last time I had seen my father alive. On the video recording taken from directly outside this door. I looked down at my feet. Almost exactly where I currently stood. I might or might not have shivered at that thought. I remembered his last message to me, when he had mouthed his dying words to the security camera that was currently blinking at me. Luckily, I knew how to lip read. I had only been able to see the video a single time before it had been deleted, but my eidetic memory recalled his message perfectly. It made me angry, but some of it began to inch toward an inkling of sense after meeting Hope.
I let it go, thinking about the door. I heard footsteps coming down the hall, but they stopped, no doubt someone picking up papers from a printer before running back to their lab. I ignored the sound, pondering the Omega symbol over the door. Why that symbol? I could think of no real reason other than to scare someone. Then there was the door itself, and my blood was the Key. If anyone ever discovered that, I would become everyone’s best friend. I couldn’t ever let anyone figure that out or I would be locked in a cell forever to be used as a tool whenever necessary. “I am no one’s tool.” I promised myself.
A withered old voice responded from the hallway behind me. “You obviously didn’t read the pamphlets I left you, for we are all God’s tools.” I sighed in frustration. Greta.
“I thought you left already.” I grumbled. I heard no response, so turned around. No one was there. I instantly tensed. No footsteps. I cocked my head, listening. After a few moments I relaxed. I was alone. Then I began to wonder if it really had been Greta or if someoneelsehad been lurking behind me, using her voice. Or had I imagined it? How tired was I?
That’s it. My paranoia was at an all-time high.
I scoured the hallways, searching for anyone, but found nothing. Not a soul. I gave it up as my imagination caused by sleep deprivation. After spending another hour at the door, trying everything in my power to open the Armory, I gave it up as fruitless and decided to leave. I was on borrowed time, with Demons hunting me down for the Key to the Armory, and the Academy’s deadline was only two days away now. After that I would be a magic-less wizard. I couldn’t stand still for too long.
I had things to kill and problems to solve.
Istormed out of Temple Industries, too distracted to be concerned with the brisk winter weather. It was the first time I had felt entirely relaxed in months, thanks to whatever Hope had done to quell my daymares. I was marginally dry from my brief stint in the Armory, and was ecstatic that I no longer sported the Demon’s form ofEau de Toilette.I was also overjoyed that I would finally be able to go get some real, uninterrupted sleep. Sure, I knew I needed to stop the Demons, but I suddenly felt practically comatose. I required sleep or I was likely to make mistakes. Also, thanks to Hope, I wasn’t even sure I could make it home before falling asleep. I was that tired.
Indie was most likely already with her mom. Maybe I should call her when I got home. If I wasn’t drooling and stumbling by the time I made it there. I was on borrowed time and I needed to figure out a way to appease the Academy while finding my parents’ murderer before the curse ran it’s course, but come on…sleep. I deserved a quick nap before I faced any biblical threats, especially after months of practical insomnia.
I dug in my pockets, searching for the keys to the emergency car I left here in the parking lot. I had found out pretty quickly that I usually found myself here after a few too many drinks, or being dropped off here by Mallory or one of my other friends, and rather than constantly waiting for someone to pick me up, I had set up a car to be left in the parking lot. It wasn’t as flashy as my other cars, but it was really just a driver anyway.
I finally found the set of keys in my pocket and hit the remote start. The Xenon lights on the Vilner customized Mercedes G-Wagon pierced the night as the engine roared to life across the parking lot. I stood there for a few seconds, admiring her beauty.
As if the sound of her glorious purr had been a signal, a team of black SUV’s suddenly swarmed into the parking lot on screeching tires, flashing lights in red, white, and blue. I froze. Was this a joke? The police? Then I thought better of it. Was it a ruse? Maybe some of the Demons had managed to possess a posse of officers to catch me off guard. I waited as the cars skidded to a halt in a loose circle, closing off any chance of escape for the big, bad wizard. I smiled at the unintended compliment.
The men — all wearing identical blue coats — launched themselves out of the cars in near perfect synchronization. “I smell Kosage.” I sneered to the closest man, who was unashamedly pointing a gun at my face.
His was the only voice to answer, so I assumed he was in charge. “FBI! Freeze!”
I blinked. FBI? My concern began to escalate considerably. “I’m pretty sure my balls resemble two ice cubes at the moment, so I think we’re set.”
“Don’t move!” The leader clarified, his meathead swiveling on slabs of beef that casually resembled human shoulders. He had no neck. As I scanned the men before me, I thought I saw a few familiar faces from the St. Louis Police Department mixed in amongst the unknown agents. What the hell had I done to get these two departments to join forces against me?
“Despite it looking like I’m moving really fast, I’m actually standing still. I know. Trippy, right?” I scowled. My exhaustion was letting my tongue run wild.
He glared back threateningly. “Don’t be a smartass. On the ground!” A few of the other men chuckled, but they didn’t lower their weapons. I heard several murmuring about my face and the obvious black eyes. I scowled in their general direction until they grew silent.
“I’m actually quite content to stand until I hear a reason for this detainment, and I also require you to show me some identification.” The man blinked. “You know, those flippy leather wallets you carry with a driver’s license and your shield? The one with the agent number on it that I will memorize in order to ruin your career for eternity if you don’t provide adamngood reason for postponing my nap.” I smiled through my teeth. This was it. If they didn’t provide proof that they were in fact agents or police, I was Shadow Walking my happy ass out of here, consequences be damned.
Two other agents stepped forward with their shields out. I pretended to look at their badges, but studied their faces instead, clutching the artifact in my pocket. If they were Demons, surely I would sense some change in it. I should also smell Brimstone now that I was searching for it. I sniffed, and blinked, which caused the officers to cock their heads in confusion. Regulars. Huh. I honestly didn’t know what to do next. I had been so ready for supernatural problems that I hadn’t considered what to do about the Regular old FBI or police.
That might say something about me.
“So, um… you’re official. What can I help you with?”
“You’re under arrest.”
“For wh-” I began, but I unsuccessfully failed at suppressing a sudden massive, jaw-cracking yawn. I could have literally fallen asleep standing up at this point. The agents pounced on my moment of weakness like a pride of lions on a gazelle. They tackled me to the ground violently, handcuffed me, and forcefully picked me up to press me against a nearby car door. I was so exhausted I let them. I wasn’t about to attack a squad of FBI Agents. They were supposed to be the good guys.
“What exactly am I being arrested for?” I wheezed, my anger beginning to wake me up a bit as the cuffs ground into my wrists.
“You’re wanted as a person of interest in an ongoing investigation. Missing persons. Alaric Slate. Among other things.”
“Like?” I asked, barely restraining myself from unleashing my power on them. But it would do no good, and I needed my power for the Demons. Best to go along with them. For now.
He held up his phone, which showed a perfect image of me cold-cocking the stranger from the bar last night. Then he smirked as he studied my face. “Looks like it didn’t end well for you.”
“God damn it. How many people were keeping tabs on me last night?” I snapped, more to myself. “And for the record, I totally kicked some ass at that bar fight.” I pointed to my face with pride. “This was from the fight afterwards with several someone else’s entirely, where I also kicked some major ass.” He looked doubtful. “But I digress. Since when are bar fights part of your jurisdiction?”
The bulldog agent stared me down. “We are on a joint task force with the local police. This picture just gave us a chance to bring you in. We also have you on corruption of a fellow Special Agent, Gunnar Randulf. Your assets have been temporarily frozen until we get to the bottom of it all. Last time the police brought you in, you threatened to buy off a politician to make sure Kosage lost his badge. He took that personally. I mean…professionally.” He corrected with a sadistic grin, shrugging his massive shoulders. His coat was barely containing his massive frame.
“Is that a smedium sized coat? You know, the size between a medium and a small that some people use to feel more manly? You must pop your collar on your days off too. Real stud.”
His face began to grow a pleasant shade of purple as his fists flexed at his sides. Then my phone began to ring. The man held out a hand. One of his subordinates handed him my phone from my pocket, chuckling at the cracked screen. “Nice.” He mocked me before answering the call on speaker. The other agents began patting me down. “MasterTemple’s phone.” He answered in a polite drawl.
“Who is this?” Indie demanded. “Let me speak to Nate.”
“This is the FBI, Miss. Master Temple is currently wanted for questioning and isn’t able to answer the phone. Can I give him a message?”
There was an abrupt pause, then, “You can go fuck yourself, thank you very much. Give Nate his phone. This is an invasion of his privacy.”
His face morphed back to purple, but he mimicked composure very well. “I’m sorry. I can’t do that. You should have just left a message. He won’t be calling anyone for quite some time. Unless he uses you as his one free call. Good day.” He hung up with more force than was necessary.
“Give me my god damned phone you self-righteous, no-necked, son of a bitch. I have broken no laws. You can’t arrest me.” He merely glared at me. I took a calming breath. “I’m trying to work on my communication skills with her. At least let me put her at ease. Then I’m all yours for questions. After which I will be leaving your tender loving care.”
“Uh-huh. You can talk to her…” I nodded thankfully, glancing at my phone. “As soon as youcommunicatewithus. It will be good practice. Put me at ease on a few topics. Like bribery of a fellow Special Agent for starters.” He winked darkly. The other agents finished taking everything from my pockets, turning off my car when they found my keys, and grunting in surprise at the weight of the bone Hope had given me. Then I was shoved into one of the SUV’s.
One of the agents jangled the remnants of the dragon tooth bracelet that had been broken in the bar fight last night. “Cute. Did you get this from Panama City Beach during Spring Break or something? One of those cheap souvenir shops? Billionaire wearing cheap shit like this? Must be facing hard time.”
“Times, you ignorant hick.”
He grinned wider. “Nah.Hard Time, as in, that is what you’re facing right now.”
I sneered back, not daring to use my magic to scare him. I used something else. “Those are the teeth of the Demon I killed on the Eads Bridge a few months ago. You guys must be very brave. I hear they even have footage of me killing it on YouTube. They call me something… what was it again…? Oh, that’s it.Archangel. I knew it was something catchy…” I leaned forward with a grin that showed my teeth. “And true.”
His smile evaporated as he turned back to the front of the car. A small victory worked for me. Still, I was fuming by the time we made it to the interrogation room of the local police precinct. Agent No-Neck had uncuffed me and brought me to his superior, Special Agent in Charge Wilson, who sat in silent stoicism, watching me with raptor-like eyes. I idly wondered if anyone knew about the horse I had stolen, but no one had mentioned it yet.
I didn’t have to wait long before a familiar face entered the room. I laughed. Hard. For a good, long while. Tears were actually wetting my cheeks before I calmed down. “If it isn’t my favorite hundred pound hero.” Wilson made a sound like a muffled cough but his face remained stoic. Kosage merely stared at me, embodying a cold rage that was only mildly warmed with the satisfaction of having me under arrest and at his mercy. “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.” I winked at Wilson, and not so discreetly pointed a finger at Kosage. The agent managed to keep his face neutral, but I saw his eyes sparkle with amusement, recognizing Shakespeare’s quote and seeming to silently agree. Then I turned to face the little firecracker himself. “Still toadying, Kosage?”
He scowled in response, his face slightly reddening, but kept his mouth shut.
“Go ahead, Kosage. I know you have something you would like to say to me. I’ll even let you vent a bit before I put you back in your place. Like last time.” I smiled, crossing my legs as I held out a hand for him to proceed. His red face grew darker.
Someone knocked on the door. Kosage and Wilson turned with a frown before the agent barked out a terse, “Enter.”
Agent Jeffries, the human lie detector I had met a few months ago, stuck his head in, and I grinned. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but he was a friendly. He nodded respectfully to his boss, ignoring Kosage entirely. “This has not been approved by the appropriate channels, Sir.”
“Back off, Agent Jeffries. This is above your pay-grade. You’re on my turf.” Kosage snarled.
Jeffries didn’t even acknowledge the vermin. I almost wished I had popcorn as I watched Kosage’s fury practically steam out his ears. “Permission to speak freely, Sir?” Jeffries asked his superior. Wilson nodded with carefully hidden amusement so as not to offend the already furious Kosage. He slowly turned to address Detective Kosage, his eyes resting a foot above his head — at the height most heads would reside. He gave a start, and then lowered his gaze to Kosage’s small stature with a look of genuine surprise. I almost lost it. It was a total dick move to pick on a little guy’s height. I liked it. He cleared his throat. “You’re telling me that this isabovea Federal Agent of the FBI’s pay-grade, but still meets the pay-grade of alowlycurb-kicker on the St. Louis P.D.? You guys must have one hell of a benefits package. Perhaps you didn’t spend a whole lot of time on criminal law over at the Police Academy. It’s understandable. It’s abigbook. Lots of pages. I, on the other hand, being alowlyminion for the great cog that is the FBI, studied it quite profusely. I’ll summarize for you. You can’t arrest someone without probable cause. Even if you really don’t like them. Even if — hypothetically, of course — they made you look like thetiniestlittle douche-bag idiot ever promoted to Detective that St. Louis has ever seen… Hypothetically.” Kosage was quivering with each enunciated word referencing height or size. I was quivering too… with barely contained laughter. “Without solid evidence, detaining anyone — especially the wealthiest person in St. Louis — is enough to make said curb-kicker look like nothing more than alittleNapoleon.Over compensating, even. Know what I mean?”
Kosage sputtered in wordless sentences, unable to speak through his anger, but I noticed that Agent Wilson was fighting a smile. “You should probably leave, Agent Jeffries.” My only chance at a legitimate escape nodded before turning to me with a shrug as if to say,Sorry. Then he was gone.
Wilson spoke. “He’s got a point, Kosage. Just ask your questions, and we’ll move on from there.” He turned to me, face composed again. “We do have surveillance of you at that bar last night. That should be enough to hold you for 24 hours if we really want to.” The translation was obvious: if we don’t like your answers to our questions.
Then Kosage laid into it, taking out his impotent aggression on me. Questioning me on everything that coincided with the dragon attack a few months ago — from the cow-tipping charge to the bribery of Gunnar. The alleged ‘Demon’ attack on the bridge. The cop killed at Artemis’ Garter. Alaric Slate’s disappearance. Then thecoup-de-gras“It seems that an officer lost his mount outside the bar you were caught fighting in last night. Know anything about that?”
I blinked, keeping my face neutral. I was so tired by this point that it was not that difficult. “You mean Xavier?” I asked with a frown.
Kosage leaned forward anxiously, slapping the table with a dainty palm as he finally heard something he liked. “How do you know the horse’s name if you didn’t kidnap him?” He accused triumphantly, turning to Agent Wilson with a grin. Wilson was watching me curiously, not acknowledging Kosage.
“Horsenap.” I mumbled after yawning.
“Pardon?” Kosage breathed anxiously.
“I think you would call it horsenapping. Calling it kidnapping seems disrespectful and… weird. If a horse is stolen, I think its horsenapping.” I kept my face straight, speaking as I would at an academic debate, or to a small child.
“Fine.Horsenappingis against the law-”
I swiveled to Agent Wilson excitedly. “Pleasetell me you got that on recording. Me being accused of … horsenapping?” Wilson’s eyes creased with faint amusement, but he nodded. “Great. That will be excellent in the courtroom later.”
Kosage lunged at me, but Wilson barred his advance with a solid arm. Kosage knocked it away aggressively. I shrugged apologetically at Wilson. “Toddlers, right? You just can’t win.”
“Xavier is a mounted patrol officer for the City of St Louis.That’sa felony. Where did you take him?” Kosage roared in retaliation.
I shrugged patiently. “I met him when I left the bar. His handler was a bit of a smartass, but he was pretty cool overall. He introduced me to his mount. Then I left. I was pretty drunk at the time, but I remember that much. Then I went home. He’s probably eating an apple somewhere. I hear horses like apples.”
Kosage scowled. “If you went home after that, why did the officer report some kind of attack less than an hour later by some sort of animal?”
I realized Kosage was actually waiting for me to answer that. “Perhaps it’s becausehe was attacked less than an hour later by some sort of animal?” I offered with a puzzled brow. I could tell it was infuriating Kosage, but I was loving it.
“The officer reported that someone else was involved.”
I shrugged. “And? It’sMardi Gras. There are people everywhere this time of year. The guy must have helped him or he wouldn’t have had a report to give you.” I hoped, feeling slightly guilty, that the confusion of the attack might have allowed the officer to forget my presence. Fog of war. “What kind of animal?” I asked curiously.
Kosage drummed his fingers on the tabletop angrily, realizing that he hadn’t tripped me up at all. “He didn’t know. I do find it curious that you were there less than an hour before he was attacked and his horse was stolen. You have a reputation for… unique events trailing you.”
“Just my good fortune, I guess. Can I go now? Oh, I’ll also need you to unfreeze my assets. I see no warrantable information to have done so, and I will definitely be speaking to the Mayor about this injustice. And about horsenapping.”
Kosage smiled sadistically. “Well, Nate. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, but you will be staying the night after all. Don’t worry. I made a reservation under your name, on the house, of course since you can’t touch your money. I will have more questions for you in the morning.” I looked at Wilson. The man shrugged. “Resisting arrest. Verbal threats. Also, the missing horse is curious. You might have been the last one to see him. We will need an alibi.”
“Your no-neck detective hung up on my alibi when he arrested me. Call her. Indiana Rippley.”
The man nodded, writing down the name. “Kosage also has video footage of you tossing the cuffs back at him in the interrogation room a few months back. Then you leave without being processed. He could make it stick. Tied to all the murders, it puts you in a funny spot. He just needed a little more mayhem from you to get a judge’s permission. Last night was it.” Wilson shrugged helplessly. I nodded, actually coming to appreciate that the guy was just doing his job.
“Fine. I’ll make sure you keep your job, but I predict that Kosage will be making balloon puppets for children’s birthday parties next week.” Kosage stood from the table angrily before storming from the room.
They processed me, and placed me in a concrete cell to wile away the rest of the day. I passed out instantly, despite fearing the Demons finding me while I slept. I literally couldn’t stay awake. I was lucky I hadn’t nodded off during the interrogation.
Sleep found me on the rickety bench, the equivalent of a mild coma to my exhausted body. I was smiling as I drifted off.
Ijolted awake as a drip of water struck me on the nose. It was warm. I blinked at my surroundings, trying to remember where I was. Nothing looked familiar. I was in a cold concrete room lying on a rusty bench that was bolted to the wall. Was this a night terror? Then I remembered. I was in the police station. Another thought hit me.
I hadslept. And had no horrifying nightmare! I wanted to shout for joy. Hope’s gift had helped me sleep in peace after all!
Another drop of warm water struck my forehead this time, startling me from my reverie. I reached up to wipe it off, fearing what kind of diseased water was leaking through the pipes. When my fingers touched the water, they came back slippery. Like oil. Or blood.
I jumped up, glancing at my fingertips in the filtered light from the other room. The fluid was clear. My spine tightened in sudden alarm, but I managed to maintain my composure.
It was drool. I slowly arched my head to look at the ceiling, recognizing a smell for the first time.
I had a cellmate.
“No one told me I would be sharing this cell.” I muttered.
“The situation of sharing the cell is only temporary. It’s about to be vacant again shortly, manling. Don’t fret.” A feminine reptilian voice hissed back softly.
I let out a breath. “Well that’s good. I was about to call dibs on the bench.” I stared back at the Demon as she unpeeled from the ceiling like a lizard. She was naked and her body was covered in scales, but cloaked in shadows of some kind. She landed on huge, webbed talons like a dragon. But she wasn’t a dragon. She was worse. The creature unfurled from her crouch, appraising me darkly, a shadowed cape billowing around her as if alive.
“We have something to discuss.” She hissed.
“Really? Because I can think of absolutelynothingI want to talk to you about. I mean, literally nothing. In fact, it would be best if you just left. I was having a really raunchy dream about exorcising this scaly, ugly son of a bitch.” I hesitated, appraising my cellmate more closely. “In fact, she looked a hell of a lot like you. Isn’t that weird?” I asked, shifting my stance in order to better react to any attack. The Demon blinked at me. Then she laughed.
“Exorcise? Me? You really are as arrogant as they say.” She shook her head, wiping a jagged claw across her face as if to wipe a way a tear. “They didn’t tell me about your sense of humor!Exorcise! Ha!” She slapped her knees, laughing, the shadows swarming around as if alive. She was creepy, deadly, and I was scared out of my mind, but I briefly thought it would be pretty cool to have a coat that looked and acted like a shadow. I felt whispers in the corner of my mind, hypothesizing, analyzing, and mentally discarding ways to achieve just that.
It was as if I suddenly had a team of mad scientists in my brain working overtime for my subconscious. My thoughts briefly snagged on a way to possibly make a cloak of shadows and I froze for a second. “Well, shit. That wouldn’t actually be that hard. How come no one else has figured that out?” I asked myself. I was pretty sure I could make one. I had a mental image of my subconscious scientist doppelganger sorting horn-rim glasses and a comb-over as he fist bumped with a successful screech at figuring out the shadow cloak.
I hesitated, wondering again if this was another one of those dreams. The Demon was watching me as if doubting my sanity. “What in the bloody heavens are you talking about, wizard?”
I shrugged. “I dig your threads.” I said, pointing at the wavering shadows.
One of the tendrils reeled back and hissed at me in the shape of a cobra.
I jumped back in surprise. Well, maybe I hadn’t figured itallout yet.
“Enough. I’m here to talk of my brother. You had a horse kick him. Through a building. That wasn’t nice. He just wanted to take something from you. The Key. I’m here to accept your apology.”
“Well, this is awkward. What did your brother look like again? I’ve taken out quite a few Demons lately.”
She watched me. “Apologize, and I won’t strip the flesh from your bones… as slowly as I originally intended. If you give me the Key now, I’ll even grant you a clean death.”
My muscles tightened. The Key again. What was with these guys? What could they want from the Armory, and how could I give them a Key that didn’t exist? I knew I was in for a scrap, and without using magic I would simplybecomea scrap… of discarded flesh and bone. I decided to stall as I sent my mental team of mad scientists into finding a way for me to beat this Demon without magic. Which probably wasn’t likely, but worth a shot. I would no doubt have to resort to tapping into my power or become a puddle of goo for the morning janitor. At least Kosage would enjoy my ending. In my head, I knew that any solution even remotely tied to me being a Maker would no doubt require a shitload of magic, which I couldn’t afford to do, even though I wanted to see what kind of things I could actually accomplish. I silently encouraged my minions to go old school.
“What exactly do you want the Key for? I don’t think Demons would last long in the Armory.” I said honestly, remembering Hope’s disdain for Demons.
“True. But the answer will not aid you.”
“The Angels really don’t want me talking to you.”
“You’ve spoken with them?” She hissed in surprise. I nodded, hoping this would scare her off. “Ah, but the Angels can’t reallydoanything in this realm, can they? There are rules, after all.”
“Rules?” I asked, feeling slightly better… and worse. If the Angels couldn’t directly act on this plane, then I might have a chance to survive being turned into a pillar of salt. It also meant that I would be killed sooner, like, right now.
The Demon smiled at me, revealing rotted, black, razor-sharp fangs. “Angels cannot act on earth. It would ignite Armageddon. If they acted overtly, the Demons could also act overtly. Which would start World War A.” I blinked.
“World War A?”
“Yes. As inArmageddon.” The Demon grinned wide, lips peeling back with excitement. “Everything must be in balance. If an Angel acts discreetly, a Demon can do something discreetly. This is why we use cats paws.”
I stared at him. “You mean possessions. Summonings.” It wasn’t a question.
The Demon nodded.
“Then how do Angels act? With the Nephilim?”
The Demon flinched at the word, watching me with renewed interest. But she didn’t answer me. “Enough. I’m bored. Time to give up the Key.” I shook my head, trying to come up with a way to fight this soldier from Hell. “So be it. Say hello to your parents from me.” She smiled.
Then she moved.
I juked to the side, causing her talons to dig into the concrete for a better purchase. I grasped the bench, and with a tiny boost of magic directed at the bolts securing it to the wall, I tore it away and swung it at her head. She raised an arm to block it. It crumpled over her arm and shoulders, leaving a Demon shaped dent that she shrugged off after a moment. Then she began to laugh. I pointed at her hand patiently.
“But I broke your nail. I bet a manicure for something like that isn’t cheap. Do you use bolt-cutters or something?”
She looked down at her claw, then used her fangs to forcefully rip the talon from her finger before she spat it out onto the floor. Drops of blood dripped freely from the wound, sizzling on the concrete floor like sulfuric acid. Heh. Sulfur…
She appraised me with a cocked head. “My turn.” My mind went a million miles an hour, trying to find a way to fight her without draining my power. But there was nothing else in the room though. It was magic or death. Even with magic, it would be like…
A prison brawl.
Demons were tough. After all, I had just hit a homerun on her arm with an aluminum bench and it had only broken her nail. She darted at me, her shadow cloak darting back and forth erratically so that I couldn’t really see exactly where she was. The only way to kill a Demon was to hack them to pieces or exorcise them. Exorcising was out of the question because I had been stripped of any items that could possibly help me do so, and I didn’t dare burn away the power necessary to do it without assistance.
Then I had an idea. I waited, stock still, knowing it was reckless, but that it might be my only chance. I let her hit me, her claws latching onto my chest. Her talons began sinking into my flesh, and I Shadow Walked. Kind of.
I teleported us a few feet away, releasing the hold on my magic almost the same instant we started to shift. I heard a gasp from her snarling fangs as they lunged closer, ready to eat my face. I twisted my head back to dodge the fangs and look where we had stood only a moment ago. The bottom half of her body had been cut off as I let go of the magic, essentially slicing her neatly in half. I had gotten the idea from the tiny piece of fabric I had seen when I cold-cocked Gunnar earlier today. It had been a piece of my shirt. Luckily, I had found out about the dangers of Shadow Walking on my tee, but it had come in handy just now. I shoved off the sudden weight of her upper body, careful not to get any of her blood on me. Her claws hadn’t sunk deep, but my chest still burned as I extracted them from my torso. She blinked up at me once in disbelief. “The Key is not up for grabs. Tell your boss I said so.” Blood pooled on the floor, hissing as it scorched the concrete. I sat in the corner of the room and hugged my knees, watching the life fade from her eyes with trepidation.
I didn’t have time for this. I could always Shadow Walk out of here, and hope that it didn’t use up too much energy. But that would only freak out every cop in the building and put me on the most wanted list. And I knew the cops would have to release me tomorrow. They didn’t have any solid evidence to hold me. And Ididneed the sleep. But apparently I wasn’t safe even here if that Demon had been able to enter my cell. They were taking great risks to get the Key to the Armory.
I didn’t have any of it to waste. I needed to find a way to remove the curse from the Academy. It was going to get me killed if I was always hesitating. Maybe I could talk Gavin into releasing me. Yeah, right. The Demon’s body disintegrated into a pile of ash with a puff, but the blood remained. That was odd. I watched as it slowly ate away at the concrete, edging closer and closer to me. I doubted it would actually reach me. It was already slowing down.
My thoughts went to Indie. I hoped she was okay, and that her mother was feeling better. I knew she had to be terrified after that son of a bitch officer had answered my phone. They had conveniently forgotten to grant me a phone call yet. My thoughts drifted on to the cops and FBI. They had frozen my assets. I was essentially penniless. I had no idea how legal that was, but with someone as rich as myself, perhaps they had different rules. I could, after all, buy my way out of almost anything. Maybe they considered that a flight risk. Kind of like a weapon. Huh. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it was pretty smart on their part.
This was the second Demon to attack me in less than a day, and they had both wanted the Key. The Key that was actually my blood. They hadn’t seemed too concerned about killing me, which let me know they had no idea how valuable I was. Which was good. If they killed me, they would never be able to get into the Armory. Hoorah! Temple wins by default! That reminded me of Hope’s idle mention of answers being found through death. And I shivered.
I understood how Demons were able to interact on earth, but how did Angels sneak around? I mean, I had been directly manhandled in the bar by one of the feathery saints and his crew of Nephilim. How was that kosher? Did that mean that even now, a Demon had been granted the opportunity to act overtly? Had Eae’s assault allowed the first Demon to appear only an hour later and attack me as well? Was that why the Nephilim had been with him?
Jesus. Had the Angel caused the war by coming to talk to me? I sensed the air with my powers, knowing that it didn’t actually use any of my magic to do so. Everything felt more or less the same. It didn’t feel Armageddon-y. I shook my head. Regardless, I needed to find out how Angels weresupposedto interact on earth, which was most likely the Nephilim, lest I be surprised by a third party in the next few days. I couldn’t afford a surprise attack. And I really didn’t know how I felt about killing a soldier from Heaven. Even though the only Angel I had met had been kind of a dick, he was just doing his job. He saw me as a threat for some reason. Still, I thought there might have been a better way for him to handle it. Like with a group prayer or something. I sighed in frustration. So far, I had managed to piss off an Angel, two Demons, three cops, a gaggle of Nephilim, and several Academy members, who had each given me contradictory demands. Abiding by one set of commands made mepersona non gratafor the other groups. Catch-22 to the third power. Even worse, I had limited power to fix the situation, and no friends to help me out. I felt my anger growing as I tried to think about what I could do.
Then the lights in the room abruptly winked out.
I scanned the darkness as I lurched to my feet, fearing another Demon was about to appear and jump me. I found my way to the bars and tried to peer outside my cell. I was pretty sure that the power to the entire building had just gone out. Emergency lights flickered to life, bathing me in a faint red glow. I began to get real nervous as I heard feet pounding down the stairs. I backed up slowly, ready to unleash hell. I had no idea who was here, but I had no doubt they were coming for me, and the only people coming for me were the biggest of the big hitters. Angels. Demons. Academy Justices. If I was lucky, they might create a joint task force to take me out together, like a dark Justice League. My thoughts ran with that as I heard a door finally open and the footsteps quickly approach my cell.
I raised my hands, ready to vaporize the intruder. I spotted my foe across the room, slowly creeping closer and closer as if on all fours. A green glow emanated at its hip, which made me think of hell. Then afacefrom hell materialized as it crept closer. Horns, and war paint covering the upper half of its head. Then it sparkled in the green glow. I blinked. Glitter? Bedazzled Demons?
“Pharos?” I heard a familiar voice call out quietly.
My fear was instantly replaced by confusion and hope. I raced back to the bars. “Othello?” I hissed in disbelief.
“The one and only.” She smiled, stepping up the bars to touch my fingers. Pretty girls make graves, and Othello was breathtaking. Shorter than some, but stacked more than most, she sported a thick, wavy pony tail, and she had a small oval shaped face, with plump cheeks just perfect for squeezing. I saw that she was wearing aLe Carnevalemask forMardi Gras. “Like my disguise? I have one for you also.” She cooed.
“What are youdoinghere?”
“You didn’t answer your phone.” I blinked. “I guess you could call me clingy.” She winked. I scowled back, shaking my head at her grin. “When you didn’t answer your phone, I traced the embedded GPS and saw, to my surprise, your phone was here in this government building. Of course, I decided a face-to-face was necessary upon this news. Nobody takes my Pharos. Especially the government.”
I smiled. Othello hated the government. Any of them. That was why she was one of the world’s most renowned cyber criminals. And they didn’t even know who she really was. She was good. For her to risk breaking into a federal building to save me had put her at great risk, and showed me how much she cared for me. Even after all this time. I wasn’t quite sure how she spent her time outside of cyber stuff, but I had reason to believe that it wasn’tallcomputer stuff. She had made several hints about having unsavory contacts in her debt.
Her glow stick illuminated my cell, and the carnage that was the Demon-shaped bench and the blood all over the floor. “Why is there… blood on the floor? Did they hurt you?” She looked murderous.
“I had a visitor. From my side of the park.” I added, emphasizing that it hadn’t been a human. “She wouldn’t leave when I asked her to.” Othello finally nodded after a moment.
“Stand back.” She commanded as she began fidgeting with key points on the barred door. I complied, wondering how the hell she was here, what the hell she was doing, and how the hell we were going to get out. This was the freaking police station. For St. Louis. Not really a Barney Fife type operation with a single cop napping outside. These police had military grade weapons and a SWAT team for crying out loud. It seemed I was going to need to tap into my magic pretty soon.
I was kind of pissed about this. Here I was, about to be broken out of jail, which would only put me further in the crosshairs of the police. When it was very likely they were going to release me tomorrow.
“Othello,” I warned. “This is crazy. They are going to release me tomorrow. I don’t have time to addAmerica’s Most Wantedto my resume. Just wait. I’ll come to you as soon as they release me and we can talk then. Go. Please. They will be here any second.”
She halted, looking up at me curiously. “No, they won’t.” She replied coldly.
My skin pebbled at that. She said it with such finality, as if there was no way the cops were going to come down here. As if… they were no longer a danger. At all. Ever again.
“Othello… what do you mean? What did you do to them? They were only doing their jobs.”
She blinked at me then laughed. “I didn’t kill them. Jesus, Nate. They’recops. I called in a threat to empty the majority of the precinct.” Her voice jumped an octave, sounding terrified as she mimicked a phone call. “Oh my gawd! There’s a bomb at Queenies, the gay bar downtown. They’re threatening to blow the place up to cleanse the way for God’s Children! I heard them say they would only surrender to a man named Kosage. I just came out here to dance, and now everyone’s running and screaming! I already see a news crew setting up a block away! I have to go!” Her malicious grin turned to me proudly.
“You’re telling me that you set up a bomb at a gay club to bust me out of jail. I assume it’s not going to explode in a shower of glitter and rainbows? You could hurt people!” I needed to get her out of here.
“There’s no bomb, Nate. Although that glitter idea would have been great. When the cops get there, they are going to see a poster-sized picture of your friend Kosage on a float wearing a pink unitard, with the song ‘I’m coming out, I want the world to know…’ blaring on three sets of independently wired speakers. I informed the patrons at the bar that a famous detective would be arriving tonight to come out of the closet and to support the gay community in St. Louis forMardi Gras. His fellow officers were gathering to support him, with flashing lights for a celebration. The news was also in on it, so they needn’t be alarmed.” I blinked at her, my mouth opening wordlessly several times, and then I burst out laughing. “The float is titledNapolean comes Out.” She continued softly. Apparently, Othello had been working on this for some time. There was no way she could have arranged this since my call to her earlier this afternoon.
“This wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, was it? How did you Photoshop a picture of Kosage in a unitard, and… why?” I asked in genuine amazement.
She began to laugh, doubling over as she placed the last gadget on the cell door. “That’s the best part.” She enunciated the next words concisely. “It.Wasn’t.Photoshop. I had intended to use the picture and float at the Parade, but with what he did to you, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It serves him right.
“I used sleeping canisters to knock out the rest of the officers upstairs so me and my team could bust in. I didn’tkillanyone, Nate. But they are not planning to release you tomorrow. I hacked into their phones. You weren’t going anywhere. That’s why I’m here. To bust you out. Something big is going down in St. Louis. And I think it has to do with your investigation into your parents’ murder.” She watched my face. “Later. Now I need to get you out of here. Step back. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when I push this button.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t-”
She pressed something and the metal at the door disintegrated in seconds, amidst a whining, grinding, and electrical sound like a thousand termites in fast-forward. It stopped after two seconds. The door let out a final groan before it fell into my cell with a resounding crash, barely missing my toes.
“Wow.” She said in surprise.
I blinked in amazement, but hadn’t sensed any magic, didn’t smell any chemicals, and it had not been an explosive. I stepped closer to her, staying on my side of the door, careful not to touch the gate that had fallen into the cell. “What was that?”
“Nanobots.” She grinned at the look on my face. “Put this on.” She handed me aLe Carnevalemask and a flannel shirt. I put them on. She adjusted it so that it was crooked, as if forced on me. “Good. I already grabbed your stuff from lockup, since the things you carry are usually dangerous to the uninitiated Regular. Now come on.” She grabbed my hand. Her fingers were feverish with excitement as we rushed out of the holding area and hesitated at the door. She peered through the window. I could see several bodies slumbering on the floor, and several spent canisters lying here and there like discarded beer cans at a party. She nodded to herself, rearranging my mask again slightly. “Okay. I need you to follow me. Act like you’re being kidnapped and that you’re drugged from the gas. That way they can’t suspect you in what happened, and what happens next.” She grinned at that. “Don’t speak in case the building is wired. Just follow me like a victim.”
I began to protest when she suddenly kicked the door open and jerked me forward. I stumbled, playing the part she had requested, but inside I was fuming. What did she have planned that was any worse than what she had already done? The mask scratched at my face, and ruined my peripheral vision, but I continued on, following her lead obediently, sluggishly.
Instead of heading for the front doors or even a back door, we headed into the office area for the detectives. This couldn’t be good.
Othello reached into her backpack and tossed an official looking folder on a nearby table.
She tossed another, different looking folder on a separate desk, then she jabbed me in the stomach, pulling her punch at the last second. I had tensed up for the hit in surprise, but quickly realized she was acting for the camera in the corner ceiling. She was good. I doubled over before allowing her to yank me the opposite direction. I followed on her heels, shuffling my feet as she led me out to a back alley where I discovered a limo idling for us.
“Here’s our ride. Let’s go.” I followed her into the backseat and slammed into the leather as the driver floored the gas. With that, we were roaring through the city. Othello tore off her mask and hooted out the open sunroof.
I looked at her in amazement. “Wow. You’re kind of awesome.” I said after a few moments. She grinned back, grabbing my hand. “You have no idea.”
She continued to hold my hand for longer than necessary. I politely pulled my hand away, using the excuse to take off my mask.
She hissed. “Your face!”
I grumbled. “Not exactly one for bedside manner, are you.” I scowled. She smiled guiltily, shaking her head. “What exactly did you put on that desk?” I could see a calculating look in her eyes at both my black eyes and the fact that I hadn’t resumed our handholding. But now wasn’t the time to tell her about Indie.Hey, thanks for risking your life to bust me out of jail, but I’ve got this kick-ass girlfriend. You two should meet. Maybe go shopping or something! It would be so much fun!
Her smile came back in an instant. “More pictures of our friend, Kosage.”
“What kind of pictures?” I asked carefully.
“BDSM.” She caught my gaze. “Again, not Photoshopped.”
I blinked at her. Then I hooted out the sunroof as well, finally laughing deeply. Despite what happened next, Kosage’s life had just gotten a whole lot shittier. Thanks to my little friend, Othello, cyber-criminal extraordinaire.
Life was good.
“I also included some photos of Kosage involved in some questionable extracurricular activities.” I shook my head, grinning.
Her eyes twinkled. “I didn’t like how he treated you a few months back so I made a file for him. Currently, he’s known to frequent Craigslist for Dominiatrixes. The file has some pictures of him in some compromising gear. Pink gear. He will shortly be on the news for an altogether different reason.” She didn’t elaborate, but I could hardly wait. “I don’t like people causing my Pharos trouble.”
“Who’s driving us?” The divider was up, so I couldn’t tell.
“Someone who owed me a favor. He repaid it with the extraction and the sleeping canisters. I think I about used up all my favors with this job. He’s taking us to a safe-house since I assumed yours was not usable anymore.” She leaned forward eagerly, squeezing my hand. “The other file I left was a ransom note for one Nathin Temple, by the way. Perfect cover for you. You can’t be suspected in your own kidnapping!” She looked triumphant.
I shook my head, smiling at her. Oh well, I was technically broke now, so I could use the money. If anyone paid. It wasn’t like I could pay my own ransom. I mean, all my funds were frozen. Things were getting interesting. But she was right. At least I had managed to escape without being an accomplice. “I guess we are about to find out how much the city likes me.”
Othello grinned. “They can’t afford you. I set it at One Hundred Million.”
“Oh, well…” At least I was free for now. I would just have to make sure that the FBI didn’t spot me in the next few days. Maybe I could call Jeffries to help me out. I didn’t want to ruin his career though, so I would only do so as a last resort. I knew if I spoke with Jeffries, whether I told him the truth or not, he would know. It was his gift. He could sense lies. Talking to him at all would basically get him involved on a level that could ruin his career. I couldn’t do that to a friend. Like I had with Gunnar.
And the party of one became two.
After several minutes of small talk, Othello reached into her bag and handed me my stuff from lockup. I eagerly turned on my cell phone and began shifting through the rest of my belongings as I waited for the phone to power up. Othello turned to watch the streets for signs of pursuit, but so far so good. I looked out my side of the car curiously, wondering where Othello’s safe house was as the number of graffiti scarred ancient buildings began to increase. We were miles from the police station by now and I felt my tension slowly evaporating with each passing block. The lights grew fewer and farther between as we headed through a more desolate section of the city. The air was cold, and the darkness of night reigned supreme, but at least we were police free. I turned back to my goodies, pocketing some of them until only the most relevant items still sat in my hands. There was the Demon-sensing stone Hope had given me, my wallet with a little bit of cash in it — which would come in handy now that my accounts were frozen — and a few other magical knick-knacks. I texted Indie the moment the phone turned on.Sorry about the confusion earlier with the FBI. Available to talk whenever you are. I didn’t want to wake you up in case you were sleeping. Miss you!
As I set my phone down, the Demon-sensing stone began to vibrate intensely in my lap. I picked it up and stared at it for a few seconds, confused. I hadn’t said anything to it, and I couldn’t hear the creepy voices speaking to me.
I could feel Othello’s tension rising as she watched me out of the corner of her eye. “Why is it doing th-”
An incredible force suddenly slammed into the side of the limo, knocking us into a nearby building with a squeal of tires and crunching metal. The side of my head rebounded off the door, making my injured nose flare with heat, and my skull ring like a Looney Tunes character. Broken safety glass showered the inside of the car and brick dust clouded the windshield, eliminating our chances of seeing outside the car to discern what had caused the wreck. I grasped the door handle to try and get us out, but it was pointless. I was wedged up against the wall of the building. Before I could speak, more glass exploded into the driver’s seat as a giant claw entered the car, latched onto the driver’s skull, and simply… extracted it like a berry from a bush. Blood splattered the interior, the glass divider between us, and the driver’s crumpled body before a wetthunklanded on the hood.
As the dust began to settle, I realized that it was the driver’s head; eyes wide open in shock, staring at us in confusion. I didn’t even know his name.
Othello began to scream, lunging towards me as another clawed fist shattered the back window and latched onto her leg. I grabbed onto her hands and we were both promptly jerked from the car, my side slicing over the remaining broken safety glass as my torso was forced through the small opening. Othello’s continued scream filled the night, but so did a malevolent, ancient laughter. Still attached to each other like the children’s toy,Barrel of Monkeys, we were then unceremoniously tossed into the brick building. My head cracked against the brick hard enough for stars to explode across my vision.
Lucky for Othello, I had hit the wall first, so my body significantly cushioned her impact against the ancient brick, which didn’t feel great for me in general, but especially didn’t feel great over my freshly scraped sides. We hit the ground heavily, my head ringing from the two impacts in less than a minute. I felt like Humpty Dumpty. I heard Othello groan as I gently assessed my injuries. She wasn’t cut out for this, and she had put herself directly into the game against forces she could not even fathom, let alone survive.
I stumbled to my feet, realizing that I was still clutching the artifact in my fist. My phone lay in the center of the street by the smoking limo.
Directly in front of a towering Demon.
He was at least nine feet tall and covered in knotted dreadlocks with broken teeth and bones woven throughout his coarse body hair like a sinisterly decorated Christmas tree. “They have people who do corn-rows in hell?” I mumbled under my breath.
The Demon snarled back at me from beneath his lion-like mane of hair around his gi-normous head, brushing the bones on his fur with a purring noise. I noticed now that there were so many bones that they might even work as an armor of sorts. Giant scarred fists flexed at his side as he let out another leonine roar, drool dripping off his fangs as he flexed his entire body, bulging with energy-filled muscle. A lot of it. “It speaks.” The Demon growled.
“Anditis about to whoop the living fuck out of you, Thundercat.” I took a step forward and felt a warning wave of heat strike me like an oven door had just opened. The Demon’s eyes flared like the burning embers at the center of a fire, halting my advance. There was no way in hell I was putting up with this right now. There was also no way we were surviving if I didn’t dig deep into my magical reserves. I could sense the energy pouring out of this monster like a furnace. There was no running. Only fighting. I was fine with that. I was done pussyfooting around, even if it would drain a big chunk of my power. I held up my fist, and the offensive heat diverged around me. I held my fist out as I began to stride forward again.
My phone began to ring. It was pretty close to his foot. “Hold on, pal. I need to take this real quick.” I began jogging towards the Demon, holding up a finger for patience.
The Demon stared at me in disbelief, and then lifted a giant clawed foot, ready to bring it smashing down onto my phone. “You won’t be conversing with your metal Familiar.”
My metal Familiar? Did he not know what a phone was? Rather than pondering that too long, I suddenly unleashed a hissing whip of purple darkness, the power the result of my energy manipulating experiments I had been tinkering on for months. It consisted of the coldest substance I had ever heard of, and once it grabbed onto something, it didn’t let go until I commanded it, literally causing the worse freezer-burn ever. I lassoed the Demon’s foot, the power of the substance burning straight to the bone in a second and a half, causing the stench of burnt hair to fill the street. The Demon roared in true pain. Then I swung the whip wide, hurtling the Demon straight into a lamppost across the street.
It bent into a ninety-degree angle.
The Demon crumpled to the street. I didn’t even wait to see if he got up. Thathadto hurt him. At least a little bit. I needed to answer my phone or Indie was going to kill me.
I snatched it up quickly, answering the face-time call through the cracked screen. Indie’s face filled the screen and I smiled at her. “Indie!” I shouted in relief. “Listen. I’m kind of tied up at the mom-”
“You don’t listen well, wizard.” A fist grabbed me around the neck, lifting me high into the air and holding me there as I futilely kicked my feet. The air was slowly being choked from me and I couldn’t even speak. The Demon plucked the phone from my fist cautiously, briefly staring at the cracked screen with slight anxiety, as if wary of the floating face cursing him. Then he pointed it away from his face in apparent fear.
Indie’s shriek filled the deserted street. “Nate? Whatwasthat? What’s going on? Are you okay? I got your text.Nate? Say something. Stop breathing into the phone like a creep.” She sounded exhausted, and frustrated, like she had been up all night crying.
“I am a Greater Demon. On the pathway to becoming a true Knight of Hell after this brief sojourn. And I am about to skin your lover. Your assistance will not save him, Familiar.” The lion Demon growled back at the phone aggressively, still apparently fearful of facing the screen despite his brave threat. He was on track to become a true Knight of Hell? What did that even mean? Was he, like, a recruit for Sir Lucifer’s Knights of the Crooked Table or something? A sword-bearer for the Prince of Darkness? I mentally upgraded him from Thundercat to Hell’s version of Lancelot. Sir Dreadsalot. Then he shattered the phone on the ground, stomped on it several times for good measure, and hooted in triumph. As I dangled there helplessly, my vision dwindling to a single point, I realized that this Demon honestly thought he had vanquished a great foe — my phone. He looked back up at me as if surprised to still see me dangling, choking to death in his fist. Then he tossed me over the limo, back into the brick building where I struck a bit harder than the first time, and then I landed on top of Othello in a heap of elbows and knees. It seemed to wake her up because she swung an elbow and clocked me in the ridge above my eye in self-defense. I gasped in pain as my nose flared with sudden heat. I blinked several times through the pounding headache. My breath came in through raw gasps. It felt like I had torn some important muscle or ligament in my throat, my breath making slight whistling noises. I could feel the bloody scratches from his claws on my neck burning slightly, frighteningly close to my femoral artery, or was it carotid artery? Regardless, it was one of my body’s important blood tubes, and the wounds weren’t deep.
I climbed to my feet and stumbled around the limo, noticing that the Demon eyed me more warily than before, the skin of his leg still smoking from my first attack. “Now I’m going to have to kick your ass, because she is going to kick mine for that.”
“I destroyed your metal Familiar. It is no more.” He pointed at the shattered device, shaking with a proud chuckle.
I blinked at him. Was he really that ignorant to the ways of the world? That was both a good thing and a bad thing. If he was really that ignorant, it meant that he hadn’t spent much time on earth, which meant that he hadn’t possessed anyone yet or else he would have had their knowledge at his disposal. Which meant that maybe he wasn’t exaggerating when he said he was a Greater Demon. Which meant that he wasreallydangerous, andreallyold.
God damn it. I didn’t even know if I had the juice to take on a run-of-the-mill possession, let alone a literal Demon that had been summoned here.
Then I blinked as that dawned on me. Theonlyway a real Demon was here on earth in the flesh was if someone hadsummonedhim. That meant someone else was calling the shots. Someone I didn’t know about. Before I could say anything brilliant, the Demon spoke, taking an aggressive step forward.
“You killed one of my daughters this night. I shall have my retribution by flossing my teeth with your flesh and adding your bones to my armor.”
“Well that’s uber-gross. But that’s not how this is going to play out, Sir Dreadsalot.”
The Demon chuckled. “You think you can defeat me? A Greater Demon?”
“We’ll get to that in a minute. First of all, I have a question. Being a Greater Demon, how is it possible for you to be here? Is it because Eae interacted with me at the bar last night? I don’t think even the baddest of wizards could summon a Greater Demon. Not without a whole bunch of people, and even then there are rules. Certain times of the year, rituals, relics, certain number of people, and tons of other particular things that I really don’t believe could have occurred.”
The Demon blinked. “You know more than you should about the rules of Heaven and Hell. How?” He asked me, genuinely appearing threatened by my knowledge. Shit. I had apparently figured something out that I wasn’t supposed to know.
“Your daughter told me.” I answered.
His muscles bunched together, increasing his size. “She wouldn’t.”
I shrugged. “How else would I know? It’s not like I summon many Demons. You should know the truth of that.”
The Demon’s eyes appraised me, and suddenly looked slightly afraid beneath all that life-threatening muscle, teeth and claws. I was pretty sure that I had just become a liability.
“Enough. I do not suffer liars. You attacked my son, and killed my daughter. For that you shall die. You will give me the Key, and then I will let you and your plaything die.”
“You see, Sir Dreadsalot, I don’t think your boss would like that. You know, the wizard who summoned you.” I clarified, unsure if he would think I was talking of God or Lucifer or something. I really needed to brush up on my hierarchy of Angelic and Demonic beings. I honestly didn’t know who worked for whom, and in what order, or if maybe some of them were free agents. “He wants the Key, which means that you have togetthe Key. I can honestly tell you that killing me would get you nothing, and I know a bit about what powers a summoner would hold over a Demon they call to earth if said Demon fails. They take a bit of your power for themselves. I don’t think you want that, do you?”
The Demon scowled back.
“Now, if you want me to help you, I need to know the who, what, and why of your situation. This is the third time I’ve been attacked by your kind about this Key, so it’s obvious your boss wants it and made it his condition to allow you to run free. I’ve been attacked by my own kind for this Key, and even the Angels have threatened me about it. I want-”
“The Angels have been in contact with you? How dare they interfere!”
“Yeah. Pot. Kettle. Black.” I said. I didn’t let on that I saw Othello creeping around a second parked car. She was holding something. Not good. If she entered the fight, there was no way I could protect her. “So, answers?” I demanded, attempting to distract him.
The Demon watched me thoughtfully. Then he pulled a freaking sword out of the Ether, straight from Hell. “We will do this my way.” Then he charged me. I backed up against the limo, and felt blood wetting my back from the driver’s corpse. It pissed me off. I held out my arms and cast a cloud of steam straight at the Demon’s head. It instantly melted the flesh from his face, and he shrieked in agony, diving away from the cloud and swatting his face with a meaty paw. I began to feel good. Like I maybe had a chance at survival. “Bad kitty.” I snarled.
The sword missed me by a millimeter, sinking into the limo by my shoulder like it was made of paper. I blinked. I hadn’t even seen him move. He had freaking hurled it at me. Then he was charging me again, on all fours this time. I could see his skull through the dying skin on his face as it peeled back at the force of his speed. I jumped to the left just as he swiped at me, and unleashed a blast of white-hot fire directly onto his back. He roared in pain and swatted me onto the ground where I bounced, once, twice, and then struck another nearby parked car. I lay there, suddenly noticing the power I had been throwing around. It was a lot. As I delved into my reservoir, I noticed that it was significantly lower than it should be. I gulped. That wasn’t good. I touched my head, noticed I was bleeding, and looked up to see the Demon slowly walking towards me with a grin. Then he hesitated, a new thought crossing his ugly melted face as he studied me on the ground.
“As much pleasure as I would get from skinning you, I believe I could cause you more agony by doing something else. I sense that your power is dwindling, but that you would use it all against me if necessary. Instead, I will allow you to live, and to keep what remains of your draining power. You will need it to choose who lives and who dies.”
I blinked at him, confused. “Pardon?”
The Demon smiled through his scalded face. “Every day you delay in giving my brethren what they seek, I shall murder one of your fellow wizardlings.”
I stared at him. Wizardlings. That was ancient terminology. It didn’t mean wizards, it meant any number of magical creatures: wizards, werewolves, fairies, witches, and vampires. “What do you mean?”
“Every day you delay in giving me or my offspring the Key, I will arrange for one of your fellow supernaturals to be murdered in a very public way. I’ve enjoyed my jaunt into your realm, but I tire of servitude. Give me the Key and we both walk away happy, with less death on your shoulders, and less annoyance on mine.”
I knew this was a tricky situation. Even if I wanted to save their lives, I couldn’t give up the Key to the Armory… my blood. Iliterallycouldn’t. Then who would stand up to the summoner? No one would even know who he was with me dead. If I survived, others would think that I simply gave up the Key like a coward. The Angels would be after me. The Academy would be after me. Or if I were already dead, my friends would pay. They would shun my name to the entire magical world, and I would become the most hated being ever to walk the earth, depending on who wanted the Key and what they were intending to do with it. My guess was that if the summoner was using Demons to get it he didn’t have noble intentions.
“Give me the Key to the Armory so I can give it to my master and be done with my servitude. I’ll even let you live, wizard. No one needs die, and I will cast my Demons back to Hell. Win, win.”
His offer chilled me. But I just couldn’t give him the Key. Even if I wanted to. I was kind of… attached to it. I briefly remembered Hope’s warning about Death being the ultimate answer and shivered. After a deep breath, I nodded, feeling something in my pocket that I had stashed away earlier. “On one condition. You tell me who murdered my parents.”
The Demon watched me curiously before nodding with a menacing smile. “Deal.” I pulled the small object out of my pocket, looked at it once in defeat, and then tossed it to him. His eyes gleamed as he snatched it from the air. He began to examine the music box that Peter had stolen from the Armory. I had tried everything, testing it every way I could think, but had yet to find anything dangerous or powerful about it. It was simply a music box.
But the Demon didn’t know that, and he seemed particularly aloof to the ways of my world, not even knowing what a cell phone was.
“Ikilled your parents.”
Time seemed to slow, then stop entirely.
My vision turned red and my blood instantly boiled, making me feel like an inferno of fire, as if someone had just lit a fuse deep in my soul. My parents’ murderer stood before me, and I was ready to burn away the last of my remaining strength to incinerate him so ultimately that even his cellmates in Hell would never recognize him.
He watched my impotent rage with an amused smile. “They stood between me and the Armory. Of course, back then there was no Key. But I knew they would prevent me from entering so I eliminated them. Then that thief snuck in while I was entertaining your parents, locking the entrance from me. Since then the room has been guarded by a Key. It all could have been so simple if it wasn’t for him.” He growled with minor frustration. Then he smiled at me. “But you know that already. If not for him, your parents may still be alive. Shame. He was your best friend after all. If that’s what you do to your friends, I’d love to see what you do to your enemies.” His fangs glittered in the moonlight. I could only see red. This was my parents’ murderer. Right here. In front of me.
And I couldn’t do a goddamned thing. I was tapped, magically speaking. If I fought this Demon here I wouldn’t have enough juice for the summoner, and he was the real problem.
He watched me trembling with rage. “Easy, wizard. You might use up the last of your strength. Then who would save your friends? Now that I have the Key, we will depart this plane.” He fidgeted with the box, and then frowned at it. He held it up to his ear. Scowling, he opened it to the effect of a tinny version of “You are my sunshine,” filling the street. He roared in anger, throwing it on the ground. “What trickery is this? You thought you could fool me?”
I smiled. “Well, technically Ididjust fool you. Don’t be offended. I do it to everyone.”
The Demon moved. And when I say moved, I mean faster than even I could clearly see. He raised his arm, a nebulous dark ball of energy coursing around his fist. Then it came screaming at me. I raised my trembling arms to block it, but it bypassed my defenses easily, and a burning sensation struck me in the forehead like he had thrown a well aimed, scalding rock. It instantly seared my skin like a brand. I found myself on the ground, staring up at the starry night. It had begun to snow, looking like the very stars were falling all around me.
Like Fallen Angels cast down from Heaven
I didn’t know how long I lay there, but it must have been only seconds, as I heard the Demon step up to me with a curious respect in his eyes.
“You shouldn’t have tried to trick me. You have now been marked. The Angels will see you as an agent of hell. Even their sons will hunt you, and the Armory will be lost to everyone, for they will raze it, and possibly your entire city, to the ground. Also, my previous offer of your brethren dying upon each denied offer of the Key still stands. Each night you delay, we will murder a member of a different supernatural caste. Since you seem to care for the werewolves so much, we will begin with them. One will die before sunrise unless you give me what I seek.”
I briefly wondered how many of his brethren were enjoying their stay in my city. How many I needed to fight to protect my people. Sir Dreadsalot took a step closer, leaning so that I could see his scarred, melted face more clearly. “I do applaud you on your trickery and that lucky strike though. Never seen anything like it. Do you make a habit of discovering new spells? Most wizards repeat the same old same old. Boring. But you, you’re…fun.” He seemed genuinely appreciative. “Don’t waste it here. Save it for our next encounter. I love anticipation. Foreplay. Mmmm… Just imagine how much fun the werewolf will have tonight.”
My soul hurt. I was basically condemning an innocent werewolf to die. For some reason, all I could imagine was someone killing a puppy. No matter how badass the werewolf was, I had just had my ass handed to me by this thing. No way would a werewolf fare any better. I shook my head. I couldn’t pass the Key over to them. If I did, the Academy would kill me. Literally. If I didn’t, the wolf would die. I had to find a way out of this before things got too out of hand. I suddenly was very happy my friends were all out of town. There was no way they could defend themselves from this thing, and no way I could watch over them all while trying to figure out what to do about it.
The Demon smiled. “Thank you for the dinner. I love me some…puppy chow. Is that the right phrase?” He asked with a horrifying grin. “When you come to your senses and realize the forces against you and are ready to discuss terms, ignite the Thirteenth Major Arcana in a confessional booth.” My breath momentarily caught at his comment, but he continued. “Or when you are entirely out of options and tired of being hunted by the Nephilim. They exist to destroy agents of Hell, which you now appear to be.” My blood chilled. The Fallen Angels had their minions — the Demons, whereas the Angels also had theirs — the Nephilim, the offspring of Angels and humans. Practically superheroes if the rumors I had heard were correct. But I had yet to meet a person who had actually encountered one. I was almost 100% sure I had met an entire gang of them in the bar with Eae and Hemmingway. “Both sides will now be hunting you. It’s delicious, really.Check, as they say Master Temple. Your Move.” He turned to go, but slowed. “Unless, of course, you are ready to make a deal now… I specialize in these transactions, and a deal from one with your reputation would benefit both of us… I could eliminate your curse and give you new powers to make up for what you already lost…”
“Not a chance in hell, Sir Dreadsalot.”
He shook his head in disappointment. “Don’t be so sure, mortal.” I fumed, stumbling back to my feet. My legs wobbled and I fell back against the car. The Demon watched me pitilessly. “I would love to destroy you myself, but in your weakened state it would feel like a cheap victory. Perhaps some other time when you have full use of your power. I honestly don’t see why you fight me so. Your own people have injured you, made you practically defenseless, yet you fight out of some mistaken creed on the side of those who have shunned you. Even Demons have honor. Some of us anyway.” He turned to walk away.
“What did my parents discover that warranted their deaths?”
He turned to face me. “That is none of your or my concern. Like I said, if not for Peter…” He winked.
Forget Peter. I knew the Demon would have killed them regardless of the poor timing on Peter’s part. The summoner. He was the real problem. I had to get to him. Also, I had to now watch out for the Angels’ minions, the Nephilim…
He noticed my growing anger. “Like I said earlier. Easy, wizard. You might use up the last of your strength. Then who would save your friends? Who would save your friend over there?” He grinned darkly over my shoulder behind the limo. Then noticed she wasn’t there, and frowned.
“Hey, pussycat!” Othello called from across the street behind a trashcan. The Demon whirled, directly into an attack that even I hadn’t expected. She shot something at the Demon, which he lifted his meaty paw to block. But whatever she shot at him stuck fast to his elbow. She shrugged. “That will have to do.” I heard a click, and the next thing I knew the Demon was on the ground screaming as a thousand nanobots destroyed his arm from the elbow down, eating absolutely everything before falling to the ground lifeless. His roar shook the windows, shattering several, before he disappeared in a cloud of smoke and ash.
I stared at Othello in awe. “That was… incredible.” She smiled weakly. “But you just made a very big, bad enemy. What were youthinking?” I demanded.
“You’re either a meal or a monster in this world. I prefer to be a monster, or to at least have others think I am. It’s safer.” She helped me up, supporting my shoulder, glancing pointedly at my forehead before brushing my hair to cover it up with a shiver. I didn’t care at the moment. I would check it in the mirror later. I had more pressing concerns at the moment. We glanced at the limo and stopped, staring sadly at it and the remains of its lone occupant. I studied our surroundings, shocked to realize that none of this had attracted any attention. We were in a commercial district of some kind, but apparently there was no business that operated after traditional work hours. Lucky for us. I was after all a kidnapping victim.
“What the hell was he talking about at the end? Ignite the Thirteenth Major something. That sounds… ominous.” I nodded, but didn’t explain.
She studied me, waiting, but realizing I wasn’t going to explain, she chose a different question. “What about the Nephilim? What are they? You looked concerned.”
“Let’s get somewhere safe first. Then I’ll tell you all about it.”
We continued to assess the car in respectful silence, Othello nodding her head in agreement that it was time to leave. The driver was obviously dead, having had no time to defend himself as he had been the first to be attacked. The side that wasn’t slammed up against the building was covered in a mix of both a little of my blood and a lot of the drivers blood. Then of course, there was his headless corpse in the seat, and his severed head on the hood. I shivered, glad that it wasn’t facing me. I glanced down at my side curiously, noticing a few shallow, but bloody gashes down my ribs. I had forgotten about them while being slammed into walls and such by the Demon. They weren’t fatal.
“He might be on surveillance with us breaking you out of jail. This car will definitely be spotted. It’s a burner anyway, but it could have trace evidence on it. If they link this to you, it won’t go well. Burn it all. No trace. He knew what he was getting himself into. He volunteered after hearing about you and the were-dragons a few months ago. As did the others.”
“Others?” I asked softly.
“I have some friends waiting for us at the safe-house. They have a few tools for us, but then their contract is up. Unless you have another $20,000 to pay them.”
I blinked, not turning away from the dead man. I didn’t realize I was such a celebrity with the supernatural mercenaries. “You paid them $20,000… to help me?” I asked softly, feeling both guilty and impressed. She nodded. “Using them over the next few days might not be a bad idea. I’ll write them a check.”
“Cash only.” She answered.
That made sense. “Oh. Okay. That shouldn’t be a prob…” Then I remembered that all my bank accounts were frozen and I scowled at life in general. “I guess we’re on our own then.” She shrugged. Knowing my power was dwindling, I agreed with her assessment of the evidence. I felt cold, deep inside my soul. This stranger who had helped me escape was dead. The money Othello had paid him wouldn’t ever be utilized. I didn’t even know the man’s name. I decided to honor the dead man by calling on the old Boatman. At least last respects would be served.
I summoned up a storm of fire and incinerated the vehicle without a single movement. Othello jumped back in surprise. “It still gets me when you do things like that. You didn’t even say anything. Or move. You used to have to do things like that to use your power.” I looked at her thoughtfully. She was right. I normally had to perform some kind of physical action to use some of my larger spells. But with the power spike from my parents’ deaths — transforming me into a Maker, as I now understood — I didn’t need any assistance for spells that used to be difficult for me. Of course, none of that would matter in three days when my power disappeared entirely. I called Charon with a whisper.
The boatman hesitated when he saw me, sniffing the air. I frowned. The Boatman had never done that before. Maybe my Demon cologne wasn’t entirely gone. Or maybe Sir Dreadsalot’s smell filled the street. But the Boatman departed with his usual acceptance of the man’s soul and a final wave of gratitude, sailing off into the curtain of falling snow before disappearing.
Othello waved back. I didn’t. I turned us away and began to shamble down the street, letting Othello know it was time for us to leave. A voice called out behind me. “That was a crime.” I froze. Othello jerked to the right, raising her nanobot gun. I turned slowly, and then held out my hand for Othello to stand down. She frowned at me, but complied. I scowled at Gavin, my parole officer.
“How long have you been watching me? I could have used some damn help.”
Gavin watched me, looking angry. “It seems like plenty ofdamnedpeople were here already.” He spat. I frowned, and then understood that he was referring to the Demon as adamnedAngel. AFallenAngel.
“Why didn’t you help?” I demanded voice raspy with barely bottled anger.
“It is not my job to help you. It is my job to prevent you from performing any more crimes. Which you just did. Also, you seem to be out of jail, where you rightfully belong. I should deliver you back to them.” He looked conflicted. “It would be the right thing to do.”
I blinked back at him in disbelief. “The right thing to do? Arresting the only person who seems to give a shit about Demons running around my city, slaughtering innocents, and raising hell? That sounds like theright thing to do? You’re one twisted bastard, you know that?” I spat back in disgust.
Gavin took an aggressive step forward. “Don’t tempt me. I could justifiably end you. Right here, right now.”
“Temptyou?” I snarled, quivering in disbelief. “I just fought a Demon in the middle of the street and you sat there and watched. Even theRegularjumped in to help me. What the hell is wrong with you? Are you honestly delusional enough to think you are wearing the White Hat here? The Academy has fallen a long way if that’s the case. You guys are completely brainwashed if the right and wrong side of this situation is confusing to you. I used to be proud to be a member of the Academy. But your actions disgust me.”
Gavin stared at me, trembling with rage and… doubt. In himself? But it didn’t last long. He was back to his arrogant self a second later. “There were no innocents here to defend. Only a criminal and his sidekick.” He argued.
“Now wait a damn minute. I am no sidekick. I just took out a Demon!” She hissed indignantly.
Othello was pissed. I looked from Gavin to her then shrugged. “Well, he has a point. It’s kind of what sidekick’s do. Save the day when the real superhero is down.”
She slowly turned her fiery eyes to me and I took a step back in case she had any more ammunition for her metallic death-eating minion launcher. I turned back to Gavin. “Regardless, you were a disgrace. After seeing me fight a Demon, I am pretty sure you can safely deduce that I’m not working with them. I nearly died trying to keep him from getting the Armory. And my power is fading. Fast. What the fuck more do you want from me?”
Gavin rolled his eyes. “The Key.” I took an aggressive step forward. “As you were commanded. You were also commanded to end the Demons in St. Louis. I don’t see how you believe this to be a noble reaction on your part when you are doing as commanded.”
I wanted to rip his face off. Slowly. “No onecommandsme, Gavin. Fuckingno one.” I was literally shaking with fits of rage and utter disbelief at his piety. “Especially a bunch of hypocritical little bitches sitting safely on the sidelines. I would rather slit my wrists than be associated with scum like you. You literally sat there and watched as a Demon fought me for your precious Key. Were you waiting for him to end me so that you could run to your boss and get a promotion for how good of a boy you had been? Pathetic. I’m finished with the Academy. You’re a stain to honor everywhere.”
Gavin slammed his fist into his thigh. A pulsing greenish light slammed into the ground and hurtled towards me, knocking me clear on my ass. I jumped to my feet ready to fight, but he still stood in the same spot, and looked… slightly embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have attacked you.”
He took a deep breath. “I don’t appreciate anyone making a mockery of my life’s work.” He shifted from foot to foot. “However, I understand your frustrations. Working as a Justice hasn’t been… exactly as I thought it would. I too sense… darkness in our purpose. It used to be as you say, honorable, but now, I’m not so sure. I see a lot of things happen, a lot of commands given that I truly do not understand, nor agree with. But if the group charged with being the good guys seems to be acting not to the standards I expect, does that mean I am in some way unworthy? That I truly do not know the greater good? I can’t seem to accept the fact that they are wrong or have bad intentions. They are theAcademy, for Christ’s sake. If I don’t work for the good guys, what does that make me? I just want to be a good guy.”
He looked genuinely torn. Huh. Was he really that naïve? He was so brainwashed that he didn’t know how to stand up to his superiors when they seemed to be making bad calls? Maybe that was how they had been trained. To never challenge their betters. In fact, it made sense. They wouldn’t want insubordination in a life or death situation. Like the military. But this seemed like a huge chink in their armor. I could see that Gavin truly wanted to be a good guy and just as truly didn’t know what that meant anymore. But he also didn’t have enough independence to realize that completely.
“Gavin, listen to me. What were you commanded to do?” I asked, managing to relax my shoulders into an unthreatening posture. I noticed Othello’s eyes darting back and forth between us, ready for anything, knowing me better than most.
“To watch over you and prevent you from making any deals with either party. The Key belongs to the Academy.” My fingers tingled. To make sure I didn’t make any deals. Well that was dicey. How could I use my trickery if I wasn’t allowed to play one enemy against another? Making a deal was pretty much the only way I thought I could survive long enough to get to the summoner, which was the only way to end the Demon presence and keep the Armory safe. In fact, it was pretty much a guarantee that I would have to make a deal in order to get a face-to-face with the true enemy.
“And if I were to make a deal, but hadn’t actually given over the Key yet, what were you commanded to do?”
He looked up at me with hard, but torn, eyes. “Kill you.”
My head sagged. “You understand that for me to get close enough to the bad guys to end this that I pretty muchhaveto make a deal, right?”
He nodded after a long wait.
“Follow that thought to its rational conclusion and tell me what you see.” I said gently.
He did, and I watched his shoulders begin to sag, but he didn’t speak.
“So, you realize that you were chosen to pretty much be my assassin. I am commanded to go after the Demons and end them, yet your boss bound my power so that I am not strong enough to accomplish the task. Which makes it 100% likely that I will have to use subterfuge and trickery to get close enough to finish this, meaning I would need to at leastpretendto make a deal. You were hired to watch over me and make sure that I don’t break any laws… but even if Ipretendedto make a deal, you were tokillme. So, the Academy has taken away my power to fight for myself, meaning I will be killed or lose my magic forever, but if I found another way to usurp them and made a deal, you would be there to kill me… toendme.” I watched as his shoulders slumped further. “You were hired as a hit man, not a probation officer.” I finally said softly. He wasn’t looking at me. “Look at me, Gavin. Look at yourvictim. Yourtarget. Yourmark. You know you couldn’t take me in a fair fight, so your boss helped you out, made your mark harmless.” He flinched at each word, as if I was physically striking him, but he didn’t look up. “LOOK AT ME!” I roared. Othello jumped in alarm. Finally Gavin lifted his gaze. I stared him in the eyes for a long time. “Do you still think your boss is wearing a white hat?”
He finally shook his head. “But if I can’t trust them, who can I trust?”
I sighed in resignation, rubbing my hands together for warmth. “Yourself, kid. Always yourself. You might not always be right, but at least you can rationalize all your actions and know why what you do is right or wrong, rather than blindly following some creed. It’s never good when you blindly follow some belief system or group of people without consciously deducing whether what they do is right or wrong. The number one test is to wonder what would happen if you openly, but respectfully, questioned your commander’s decision when you think it’s wrong. If the answer in any way resembles punishment, pain, or ridicule, rather than an explanation, you are probably not working for the good guys.”
Gavin nodded his head after a moment. “I want to do the right thing.” My shoulders relaxed for a moment. “But I still do not trust you, Temple. You caused so much chaos here with the dragons, and you hold the launch codes to the Armory. I will give you a chance, but that doesn’t mean I work for you. I work for myself… and possibly the Academy. I will not let their corruption get in your way, or the way of the innocents, but that does not make us friends. Understood?”
I nodded. “Thanks for hearing me out, Gavin.”
“Don’t thank me just yet. I won’t mention anything to my superiors about what happened here tonight. But I’m still watching you.” With a final nod, he Shadow Walked, disappearing with a faintcrackin the air. The falling snow pulsed away from the void as if repelled, leaving a faint circle of bare street where he had been standing.
Othello watched me in surprise, several fat snowflakes settling on her eyelashes. “So, he’s one of the good guys, eh?” I shrugged, letting her guide me in the direction of the safe house as my mind raced. Perhaps Gavin wasn’t on my side, but at least I knew he wasn’t a zealot for the Academy anymore. My thoughts drifted to the Demon’s threats. How would I protect the werewolf? Who was he? Where was he?
At least I knew it wouldn’t be Gunnar.
It’s the little things that matter.