Chapter 5 - Exams
First things first. Feed the starving and pathetically meowing kitty: open can, scoop into bowl, give reassuring pets.
Skip shower, curse the hair for being short again and not fitting in a scrunchie all while struggling with a hairbrush to tame strands of wild fire.
Give up. Clothes next.
Strip off pajamas (were they lavender when I went to bed?), grab the folded martial arts uniform from the top of the clean laundry pile. Hop into the leggings, pull on a hopefully-clean sports bra, wrap the top of the gi around the torso before fiddling with the strings that hold it in place, slap the equally white belt around the waist and take three attempts to get the proper knot.
Good enough. Prep complete.
With one last (okay, a few last) scritches to the kitty I ran out the door before bounding down the stairs because the elevator always took forever. Sprinting across the wet and frost-covered campus lawn I realized I hadn’t put on any shoes.
Oops. Oh well.
Taking the outdoor stairs leading to the double-doors three at a time I burst past and into the gym-turned-dojo. A line of teachers stood waiting. After skidding to a stop I bowed low towards the three of them - lower than I probably should have. More oops.
“You are late.” The shortest (yet somehow most imposing) of them scowled and took a step forward. Sensei Ito also wore a gi, though his had the navy blue hakama leggings. The older Japanese man’s fierce scowl made well-earned wrinkles have creases of their own.
He snorted. “Late you were to the first class; late now to the last.” The wiry warrior’s examination traveled from head to toe, lingering on the grass-stained feet.
“The clock got away from me, sir. Time here is not as time there. I lost track.”
Circe (yes the Circe, foil to Odysseus himself) perked with curiosity. Why the Chairwoman of the Mystic Arts Department was here I wasn’t sure, and my therapist, Natalie, was standing next to her. Obviously they were in cahoots about something. Circe, wearing a dark green blouse and long brown skirt, wished to probe my statement. “There being where exactly?”
Hmm, how much to say? Rising from the awkward bow I debated with myself while catching sight of the many fluorescent bulbs dangling from the ceiling. The lights from each glowed through these colorful small rainbows cast by imaginary butterfly wings as they all flitted about in lazy circles.
Oh crud. The party’s nectar was still messing with perceptions.
“Uh, a dream realm. For fae. I popped out during the night again.” Trying to refocus on the serious ground-bound trio proved difficult and required multiple blinks as the world kept shifting between the physical and spirit. Circe’s immense magic capacity glistened brightly and Natalie’s compassionate heart twinkled this amazing shade of pink.
Sensei Ito however was solid as a rock so I centered all focus on him to stop the swaying. With the discipline of his spirit steadying things I straightened up again.
Natalie first looked puzzled then frowned. “Jordan, are you…drunk?”
I fought back an embarrassed grin. “There was some revelry. In celebration.”
The sensei’s eyes became almost-closed slits, never a good sign. Drinking alcohol was absolutely forbidden at the academy, and not just because the kids were all minors. Intoxicated supernaturally empowered children would be ridiculously dangerous. But Natalie interjected before the martial arts master could start shouting.
“Were these fae the ones who came with you when you retrieved Danielle’s spirit?” After many sessions the therapist had wheedled out of me various details of things otherworldly. Not sure she believed them all, but maybe she did.
“And what were they celebrating?”
“I made them a home. A real one.” I pondered. “Well, okay, a dream of a real one. But it’s solid to them.”
Circe startled. “You…you created a realm?”
Despite the magically maintained cheeks, Circe paled. “In one night?”
I shrugged. “I sang, they sang, it manifested. So they threw a party. I couldn’t exactly refuse to join in.” I decided mentioning that the moose was insistently huge would not be helpful. Even though he totally was!
Natalie clearly wanted to ask more about the festivities but after peering past glasses at the other two teachers said instead, “Perhaps we should reschedule this exam. Give her time to recover.”
“No!” Gah, that came out louder than I’d meant but it did get all three’s attention. Shaking my head I said, “Whether I’m still affected or not doesn’t matter. Battles don’t sit around waiting for a soldier’s buzz from the night before to clear.” Taking a deeper breath, I forced it out slow while willing perceptions to quit trying to dance about at anything flickering at the edges.
That earned a grunt from Ito. “The exam is now.”
Circe nodded. “I agree.” Her dark eyes bored into mine as she laid out the details of the test. “Jordan, seeing as how we cannot toss you into the usual combat finals we’ve come up with an alternative. You will treat this as you would any real-world attack. However! Use of your angelic-gained powers is disallowed, any detection of such will be an immediate forfeit.”
Maybe it was the nectar but that didn’t sit well. “You realize without using those ‘angelic-gained’ powers I wouldn’t be able to stand here? I’m not human. Not anymore.”
Natalie coughed. “We know that your abilities have saved you time and again, but-”
“I meant that literally,” I said, cutting her off. “Look, my presence is a projection. Sure it feels solid, but it’s not. Not really. I spent a long time in denial about this; those days are over. I am what I am. But fine. I’ll limit things to just the physical manifestation as is.” Even if doing that was stupid. I didn’t say that last part aloud - the nectar had only loosened my tongue so far. “Who am I to fight?” Two rather suspicious souls were pressing up against the door to the locker rooms and obviously listening in on everything; it wouldn’t have been the first time for the sensei to send me against multiple opponents and those two were certainly no slouches.
Though I still wouldn’t want to go all out against them.
Sensei Ito walked to the other side of the circle inscribing the dojo floor. “Your opponent is me. Alone.”
“Are you kidding?” What the heck? The Sensei, as skilled as he was and as masterful his control of chi energy, was not enhanced. He was a bog-standard human, no magic or extra boost. Sure his training and experience exceeded mine, but even limited by decree my physical manifestation was stronger and so much faster - and unlike the first day I had arrived at his dojo I’d since had years fighting demons. Not to mention the training granted by use of an archangel’s bracers.
If I wasn’t careful I could seriously hurt the old man if we went at it hard. If not accidentally kill him outright.
Natalie spoke up. “We believe you’ve been holding back ever since your return and have not been taking your training seriously. This exam is to see how far you’ve really come.”
“You don’t want me to fight him,” I protested. “Not for real. He’s too good to not have to hurt him to win.”
“Yes. For real,” Circe said. “Other than the restrictions already stated, fight as if your life depended on it.” She gestured towards the circle. “Prepare yourself.”
I glanced at Natalie but the therapist was staring stolidly. Good grief, was Ito secretly armed? Could he have a tranquilizer syringe hidden up his sleeve?
If so I hadn’t seen anything. Nor had he been magically boosted by anyone else’s magic. This was nuts.
Moving to the circle I bowed to Ito before stepping within. He watched for a moment before bowing and crossing into the circle himself.
Actually, this was too crazy. And with a nectar-fueled thought I made a decision.
Circe raised a hand and threw it down.
No sooner had she shouted her command that I did the only thing that made any sense.
Dropping to my knees I shouted, “I yield!”
The sensei, who hadn’t even moved yet, remained still.
Circe snarled. “Jordan! Did we not just warn you about the need to take this seriously? Fail the exam and you fail the course!”
Staying put I locked gazes with Ito. “I am absolutely serious. You said to treat this as real, right? Well if Sensei were to actually attack me like this I would yield.”
Natalie put a restraining hand on Circe’s arm. “Explain yourself.”
I gestured to the warrior across the circle. “Sensei Ito is a good and honorable man. He would not attack anyone without reason. He would need solid cause to do so, in my case perhaps to try and prevent me from doing something horrible. Or to keep others who’d been ordered to take me in from having to make the attempt themselves, with the hope that for him I’d go peacefully. Heck, he might even be protecting me by doing so.”
“And if he was under some form of mind control?” Circe snapped, pulling away from Natalie’s touch. “Something you couldn’t detect? We’ve all seen that happen.”
I snorted. “Then he’d ignore my declaration and charge in anyway. And I’d know that he wasn’t himself and be forced to defend as carefully as possible. Because otherwise? This man would never fail to respect an opponent’s given word. But should he stop - as he just did - I would go with him willingly to find out what was up and why.” Nodding to the sensei I added, “And dammit all, I’d rather fail a class than cause harm to a friend.”
Ito straightened and then offered a very low bow, the lowest I’d ever seen him do. As he rose back up there was a sparkle past the wrinkles that hadn’t been there before.
His gruff voice filled the gym. “You pass.”
On learning that I had not yet had breakfast the two suspicious eavesdropping souls insisted on taking me to the cafeteria, grabbing us a table while I perused the morning offerings. How the kids without super-charged metabolisms avoided gaining a ton of weight at this school was still a mystery, though I suspected the regular gym classes for even those not doing martial arts were probably vigorous enough to burn off the ridiculous in-take of calories.
Such as the ones upon my tray: super cheesy Denver omelet, toasted plain bagel (with real butter!), not-too-greasy hash-browns, pile o’ bacon, and a few sausages for good measure. And this most important item: steaming mug of Earl Grey tea.
Finding them across the Hall was easy as Brendan towered over everyone - even when sitting down. The crazy thing was that despite having passed seven and a half feet he still hadn’t finished growing. He’d needed new school uniforms every few weeks, the poor guy. Jenna, at her more modest six foot two, looked small in the chair next to him.
Making my way through the thin mid-morning crowd, I took a seat opposite the pair. At the next table over a few kids picked up their trays to move further away, one girl in the group especially giving fearful glances over a shoulder.
“Don’t let them bother you,” Jenna said, glaring at the kids’ retreat.
I tried to ignore them. “Eh, I’m getting used to it.”
“It’s your aura.” Brendan took a swallow from the bucket of soda held easily in one hand. “Some energy sensitives are afraid of becoming addicted to the feel, others it just gives a headache. Normies like me though, I can see why they’re scared of you.”
Jenna cocked her head, the long-haired blonde wig holding on as she’d actually used the glue today. “Scared? Of her?”
“Because she’s always on edge.” He put the bucket down at peered at me. “Tell me, how many students and staff are in here? And how many exits?”
I didn’t need time to think. “Sixteen kids at the tables, plus three at the buffet, and two in the bathrooms. Eight staff between monitoring things out here and the kitchens. Three exits from the main cafeteria, two from the kitchens - one behind the offices and another for the loading dock. Though the windows are all security-grade glass, they could shatter from the inside if hit hard enough.” Crunching a slice of crisp bacon, the smoky flavor filled my mouth. Mmm salty too.
“See?” Brendan glanced at Jenna. “Told you.”
Jenna gaped. “Dang.”
“What?” I shrugged, following the bacon up with eggs oozing cheese along with chopped ham and onion compatriots.
“Could you have taken him?” Brendan asked, voice serious. “Even without powering up?”
I didn’t want to lie. “If I had to. Though it wouldn’t have been pretty.”
He studied my face. “I’ve sparred against you since you got back. Some bouts I even won.”
“Fighting for points isn’t the same as using killing blows.”
“So they were right.” His face went taut. “You’ve been sandbagging.”
I shook my head. “Sparring isn’t about who wins or loses; it’s about training and getting better.”
“But you let me win.” The tiny plastic chair underneath him creaked dangerously.
“I gave you openings which at the start of the semester you wouldn’t have even seen. You’ve improved.”
“And if you had to fight me, as they put it, for real? Life or death. How would I fare?”
I put the fork down, staring at food no longer holding the same appeal. “You really want to know?”
In monotone I told him. “Without powering up I’d need to put you down fast. That would require exploiting the weaknesses inherent to your telekinetic shielding and your healing abilities. It would end quick.”
Meaty hands clenched as biceps threatened to split yet another pressed school shirt. “Bullshit.”
I pushed away the tray. “Your shield protects your body against sharp or sudden external pressure impacts to prevent penetration and concussion. You deal with joint-twisting threats using your natural strength. But with proper leverage your bones will still snap.”
“Which I’d heal,” he growled. “Faster now than ever.”
Meeting his eyes I felt hollow. “I’d force a compound fracture of your forearm. My own strength is enough for that. Then I’d rip out the bone and slam it into either your heart or through an eye socket to get to the brain. Your shielding won’t stop the blow - it’ll surround and let the bone through because it was part of you. And being such, your healing ability will lock up trying to mend the bone fragment and the impact site together. It’ll fail at both. Prevent any pulling out of the bone and you’ll die.”
He stood, towering over the table. Anger-flushed cheeks slowly drained of their color as he realized the truth of it.
In a quieter voice he said, “You were right about one thing. You’re not human. Not anymore. I’ve got exams to study for.” With that he walked away, ducking out the closest doors into the light rain which had started up again.
Jenna sat in shock watching him go. “He didn’t mean it.”
Staring at the cooling omelet, I shook my head. “Yeah, he did.”
We sat there uncomfortably for a minute before she spoke again.
“I’m sorry. For last night.”
“Nothing to apologize for.”
“I wasn’t there. You say it wasn’t possible, I believe you. It’s just…heck, I dunno.”
“The thought of it, of going back into the Chaos…” Hands began to shake and I put them under the table.
I don’t know if she noticed because after more awkward silence she asked, “Were your fights like that a lot?”
“What, brutal and messy?”
“Sometimes. I wasn’t able to power up. And doing other things was too dangerous.”
“Geezus. That’s awful.”
“Demons don’t fight clean.”
“But you’re not a demon.”
I stared through the crystal dome above us but I wasn’t really watching the rain cascade down the glossy sides. Instead thoughts filled with a memory seen within Gabriel’s Monument of the archangel Camael, blood-soaked wings dripping across shoulders while he stood atop a mountain of eviscerated bodies as defeated enemies filed past without daring to give challenge. In that battle it wasn’t demons that he’d slaughtered. “Angels don’t fight clean either. Nor do men.”
“Have you talked to anyone about it all? To Natalie?”
“You should.” She held up a hand, cutting off my obvious protest. “I’m serious. You really should. But not to me. I once lectured you about how none of us in our cottage were innocent, but honestly? We’re still kids.” Lowering them, she curled fingers almost to a fist. “Last night I spent some time thinking, and you know what? I had hoped to be part of a super team with you. Especially after the fight by the lake when I got a taste of your power and the…the divine. It’s why I pestered Brendan to get you to group up with the rest of us.”
“I kinda figured.” I managed a smile for her, one she didn’t return.
“And when Danielle went off with everyone to Egypt I was really jealous I didn’t get to go along.” She looked away. “Then she died. As did you. I felt horribly guilty, you know.”
“For what? Why would you feel guilty?”
“Because! I should have been there to help, maybe I could have made the difference.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“And I also felt guilty just for being alive.” Her shoulders hunched forward and she stared hard at the table’s laminate, a finger tracing the lines of the wood underneath.
Blanching, I said, “Never feel that way, hon. Never.”
Swallowing unshed tears, she muttered, “Can’t help it.”
Pushing back the chair I went around the table to pull her into one of those awkward sideways hugs.
She stiffened but didn’t pull away. “I can’t do the things you do. I can’t fight like you. After punching out that jerk of an assassin, I thought I could. But I can’t.”
“You don’t have to. No one is asking you to.”
“No one asked you either.” Her fingers dug into my arm.
“A long time ago in a different life, I think I asked it of myself.”
“You mean as Aradia?”
“That’s so not fair. You know that, right? You aren’t her. You should get to choose.”
I rested a cheek against the back of her head, and the wig smelled of baby powder and glue. “I do though. Every damned time.”
She finally relaxed into the hug. But then she straightened and changed the subject. “Haruko came by the cottage earlier looking for you. Said it was important.”
Letting my friend go I leaned against the table. “Alright, I’ll go find her and see what’s up.”
“And I’ve also got August’s address.”
“Oh? Dang. That was quick.”
Her lip pouted, sticking way out. “I’m not sure I want to give it to you. Every time you go off crazy things happen.” Her expression was exaggerated but there was genuine worry underneath.
“Yeah. But think of what would have happened if I hadn’t.”
Reluctantly she rattled off the address. It was in North Carolina which earned a groan. “That’ll be one heck of a ride on the bike to get there and back.”
“You’ve got wings. Why not fly?”
“The various powers-that-be have given me orders to not streak across the sky like a low-orbit comet and cause a ruckus.”
She snorted. “First off, do you really care about what they say? And second, didn’t you just go off on Circe about not really being here?”
“Hey, I’m trying to be good and maintain a low profile. But how does what I said to Circe apply?”
“Don’t fly in the physical, doofus. Shift to the spirit or astral side of things, fly there, and shift back. You always shine like a miniature sun in the spirit anyway, right? That’s what all the sensitives say; I’ve even overheard them muttering about wanting to craft spiritual sunglasses to block the glare.” She waved at me. “So go pretend to be a ghost or something.”
My mouth dropped open. “That’s just freaking brilliant yet totally obvious.”
She patted my cheek and cracked the start of a smile. “And that’s why you still need me. Because you’re a bright and shining idiot who’d be lost without my expert guidance.”
“Darn right. Absolutely just so.”
We smiled at each other. Then Jenna caught sight of the clock on the wall behind me and gasped. “Is that the time?”
I looked over at it. “Unless they messed with the display again, yeah.”
“Ack!” Hopping up from the chair, she wrapped me in a hasty additional hug before taking off at a run. “My history final is about to start!”
She at least was wearing shoes.
I found Haruko in her cottage room, the door left open. Half the space inside was perfectly neat and orderly, books carefully arranged on the shelf and desk, clean uniforms hanging properly in the small wardrobe, and a well-dusted set of Japanese swords placed atop the dresser. A rice-paper scroll calendar hung above the center of the desk and instead of the standard bed with those cheap metal runners a blue futon filled the space. Shoes were kept in tidy pairs within small wooden cubes stacked just inside the door.
The other half though was a mess.
A green plastic hamper was wedged partway into the closet while overflowing with skirts, sweaters, and blouses. Only one complete school outfit hung in that side’s matching wardrobe, looking to have been hastily shoved onto a hanger that tilted towards the front. Leggings, socks, and shoes were scattered randomly throughout, and the bed’s thick comforter lay in a lumpy pile of whites and blues next to a haphazard pile of pillows, each a different color with none matching the blanket. Push-pins held a number of heavy metal band posters to the wall at deliberately non-level angles, but one in particular stood out. Iced Earth.
It had been her favorite.
I must have stood staring at it for too long because eventually Haruko cleared her throat to get my attention. The small-yet-deadly girl was sitting at her desk still in uniform, holding a manga which she’d been reading by the light of a small green-canopied lamp.
“You can come in.” She closed the book, placing it on the desk next to a short dagger made of jade.
The poster still held me fixed in place. “You still have it up.”
“It’s not mine to take down.”
“Danielle’s gone. She’s not coming back.”
“No one touches her stuff. No one.” A hand picked up the dagger and dark eyes glared from behind equally dark bangs.
“Okay. Got it.”
She watched for a moment then slowly put down the blade.
“You, uh, you wanted to see me?”
“Yes.” She sat up straighter, swiveling in the chair to face me more squarely and putting hands over the school-colored skirt. The threatening expression disappeared into a blankness that went beyond casual practice. It was entirely - and spookily - neutral.
That by itself was even more concerning. “What’s up? Something serious I take it.” I did a quick scan of her - seeing again the weird spirit egg lurking inside. To my relief its shell was still intact - and still swallowing as much magic mana from Haruko as she allowed.
In a perfectly modulated tone she switched to speaking Japanese with full formal cadence applied to each syllable. She knew that I’d understand her. “It is my knowledge and belief that you are one who would wish to aid my father should an opportunity present itself.”
Her father? Oh boy. Haruko’s dad was Kami Kurohoshi, former Green Beret and current heavy-hitting underworld operator specializing in intelligence gathering. He also happened to be a badass ancient dragon who personally saved the day when a pyramid I happened to be standing next to was attacked by a sixty-foot manifested Lord of Hell. Kami in need of help was not good.
Not good at all.
Choosing words carefully I replied in the same language. “Your statement aligns with truth. Kurohoshi Kami is a trusted friend and comrade; I would readily come to his aid should he call.”
“You understand that neither I nor my father through me are asking for your assistance.” She paused and stared with that neutral expression, holding her posture rigidly still.
I let that sink in. Whatever was going on, Haruko was obviously under strict orders regarding the situation which likely included not being able to say anything about it. Orders which she was clearly attempting to circumvent without actually violating the direct commands. I had to play this just right.
While giving a partial bow I said, “I humbly ask for your assistance in being better positioned to be available should your father ever have need.”
She gave a slow nod. “It would be disrespectful to ignore such a request from one of my father’s allies.”
“Then you have my heartfelt gratitude.”
“Being located across the country from his whereabouts makes being available to my father difficult.”
“I have found this to be true.”
“An offering of transport may remedy this. At your request a private plane shall be arranged for this afternoon to arrive at LAX.”
I blinked. This was much more urgent than I’d expected. “I believe I have a faster method of travel. But upon arrival, assistance with navigating traffic would be useful.” Haruko hadn’t said exactly where he was, though I knew Kami lived in Los Angeles and also owned a nightclub. If she wasn’t allowed to tell me anything, she could order a car to take me direct to wherever she needed me to be without revealing the destination directly.
Yeah, okay, that was a mighty thin hair to be splitting. But a hair nonetheless.
“It would be a simple matter to provide transport which can convey you to a place more convenient should my father decide to call upon you.”
I thought fast. “I know an excellent lawyer who lives in Los Angeles, one who would also wish to be better positioned to offer his services.”
“My father has many lawyers on retainer.”
“None like this one. He is absolutely unique.”
“My father will personally judge his usefulness should your friend accompany you.”
I darn near choked, but Haruko’s steady delivery gave no indication she was aware of the extra meaning her phrase contained. Maybe she knew, but maybe she didn’t.
That’s the problem with conversations like this. You can’t just ask.
Putting a hand on the doorjamb, I thought it through. Switching back to English I said, “I’ll have to arrange things with the school and, well, other parties. I also need to stop somewhere else before reaching California. It’s what, ten o’clock now? That’s seven in the morning out there. A car standing by outside a certain storage facility in the westside around one p.m. local time should do the trick. Any advice on what to wear?” As Danielle had told Haruko the story of her transformation, there’d be no mistaking which storage units I was referring to.
She thought about it then replied, “There are times when formal attire is suitable.”
Huh. Guess I won’t be going clubbing then. “Okay, we’ll figure something out.”
“The driver will know excellent places to acquire apparel and will be at your service.”
“Alright, thanks. Anything else?”
The mask of imperious neutrality faded, replaced by an intensity of barely controlled emotion. Hopping off the chair Haruko ran right at me. For a moment I was afraid she was attacking, but instead she threw arms around my waist and squeezed hard.
I squeezed back and pretended not to notice how much the girl was trembling. What was unexpected was the spirit-egg within her reached out tendrils of energy as if it too needed a hug.
Chapter 6 - Books
On the way back to Hawthorne, I dialed Circe at her office in the magic department. She was holding study hours for the rest of the morning for any students needing help prior to their own exams so I knew she could be reached there. The rain toying with the idea of snow was steady, but I ignored it along with all the kids who stared as I casually strolled barefoot through the wet while still wearing the martial arts outfit.
Ah yes, Caller ID. You don’t need to identify yourself to folks on the phone anymore. I kinda missed that.
“Hiya,” I said to the thousands-of-years-old teacher. “Just wanted to let you know I’m going to be missing the test for Principles of Magic at three. Something came up.”
“Really. Such a shame then that you’ll fail the class after so narrowly passing the martial exam this morning.”
Narrowly passing? Pffft. “Well, about that - I respectfully submit my creation of a new realm last night as a final project to take the place of Ophelia’s multiple choice scantrons. With your blessing, of course.”
“Interesting. What proof can you deliver to substantiate the claim?”
“Have a dreamwalker on staff visit my room spirit-side at midnight. I’ll tell Tsáyidiel to give them a tour of the new digs and the residents can vouch for me directly. Just, uhm, warn them not to drink too much nectar if offered any.”
“I see. And what is so important to re-occupy your afternoon?”
“Need to port to the west coast. I was specifically not requested by Haruko to go help her dad. There’s clearly some event about to happen - probably tonight - but that’s all I know at the moment. And before you say anything, yeah I’ll tip the DPA about it once I get there. That’s if they’re not monitoring this phone call already.” I resisted the urge to call out to the DPA Director in case he was listening.
“You aren’t supposed to leave campus. The government wants you safely contained.”
“We both know I’m not still here because of the desires of panicking officials. Until I figure out what I should really be doing, I’ve got to plan as if there’s a possibility of a life here somehow - which means a diploma and that scholarship payout. Legally I don’t own a cent otherwise.” This was true. Danielle had inherited what little fortune I’d had, and as her legal guardian Isaiah now controlled those assets. While I was sure there were options to get hired for “special operations” work, independence felt important so those were out. Besides, my kitty had made friends here.
“All the more reason to not neglect your studies this week.”
“Look, Haruko is worried. And she’s smart. Whatever is going on she obviously thinks I can help. She’s been through enough already, don’t you think?”
Circe didn’t argue that point. Only a few weeks ago Haruko had fought off assassins trying to set her entire cottage on fire. “This sounds like it could take more than one night. What about your other classes?”
I suppressed a laugh, hard as it was. “Kirov assigned an essay due at the end of the week for Ethics. Cassius will likely write most of it, and then I’ll rewrite it. I can do that remotely from anywhere. As for the Rabbi’s directed study hour, I think escaping Hell should qualify for a ton of lab credits, don’t you? And for Ballroom Dancing, the dance last Friday finished the course. That just leaves the magic test this afternoon, and your final in Mythic History on Thursday. Though I have an idea for that as well.”
“Why am I not surprised.”
“Hey, as much as I’d love to sit down with a pen and demonstrate the memorization of all the reading material, I’ve got something better to offer. Want to hear? I think you’ll like it.” I grinned. I don’t know why, but yanking on Circe’s chain had become a favorite pastime. Maybe it’s because she’d let it slip she didn’t like angels much when I first got to the school. Calling me a ‘bad egg’ in Greek, for example. Sure we’ve been getting along better, but still.
She hesitated then sighed. “Alright, I’ll bite.”
“I’ve typed up notes on everything I remember from Gabriel and Aradia’s point of view regarding the Grigori war and the creation of the Seals. You want it, I’ll send you a copy. That ought to be Mythic History enough to pass your class, right? Heck it should count for the entire year.”
“Are you sure you didn’t work out these offers with Mr. Soren as one of his infamous contracts? Unless this blackmail is simply a byproduct of having studied at the feet of devils directly.”
“Sounds like damning praise to me.” I snerked.
She didn’t laugh. Instead she literally growled over the phone. “You know full well that Charlie would howl for hours if I turned down a chance for him to witness a newly forged spirit realm. And Rabbi Kirov - along with every other professor of mythos the world over - would crawl over broken glass to read a first-hand account of the conflict described in the Books of Enoch and Genesis.”
“Admit it. You’re curious too.”
“So we got a deal?”
“Yes, Ms. Emrys. We have a deal. But aren’t you forgetting a class?”
“Oh. I took the written test already for Defensive Driving right after passing live on my bike. You know, so I could park it on campus. They don’t dare plug me back in the simulator to get a grade on helicopters and tanks. Not after what happened.”
“I see. Then I wish you good luck in Los Angeles. And Ms. Emrys?”
“When you return we should talk. You, me, and Mrs. Carson.”
That sounded suspicious. “What about?”
“Your future. Don’t get into too much trouble until then. If you can.”
She hung up without waiting for a response. See? Like I said, prejudiced against winged-folk. Yep.
With the phone shoved back between layers of cloth and wedged behind the belt I approached Hawthorne and came across a sight one doesn’t usually find in the middle of a winter storm: a girl in a yellow bikini soaking in the rain as if it were sunshine on a beach lounger set off the path in the grass. About ten feet from her also sat a small tent-roofed pavilion underneath which two girls with purple hair (one sporting a ponytail, the other’s strands trimmed short more page-boy style) were equally wearing swimsuits and playing cards on a patio table.
Skidding to a muddy stop I halted by the dark-haired girl pretending she was shore-side on a hot Summer’s day. The copper tone of her skin could almost be mistaken for a tan unless someone knew better. “Hey Penelope.”
Opening eyes she peered up with a grin. “Hey Red!”
“Enjoying the cool?”
“Chill for you, just right for me! Wow. You’re soaked. Want to warm up?” She gestured towards the two card players. “I’m testing some new environmental spells. Evie and Ester volunteered to monitor the stability.”
“Nah, I’m good.” I looked over at the game, seeing a discard pile and a suspiciously thick deck next to it.
The longer-haired girl pulled a card from the deck to add it to her own hand, studying it carefully. “Hmm. Got any sevens?”
Her playing partner, after giving a hesitant glance in our direction, shook her head.
“Darn.” Evie scrunched up her face then slapped the five of spades onto the discard pile. Seeing me staring at them, she beamed a smile and waved.
I waved back. Speaking softer so only Penelope could hear, I asked, “How’s Ester been doing?”
Responding in an equally quiet tone, the rain-bathing girl said, “Not too bad. Evie says she’s not had night terrors for three nights running.”
“That’s great.” Ester Berglund had been one of Fate’s victims, kidnapped as a toddler by Azazel’s minions because she was an incarnate of the Grigori angel Kokabiel, one that Azazel had enslaved millennia ago. Neither I nor the therapists knew exactly how much Ester remembered of her entire childhood, and frankly it was one of those situations where not remembering may be a kindness. As for her spirit, I’d come to the conclusion that leaving poor Kokabiel alone to, well, “sleep” inside of Ester was also for the best. The two (who were really one) deserved a chance to rest, feel safe, and just live in peace. “August’s leaving was rough on her, but looks like she’s attached herself to Evie now instead.”
Penelope snorted. “August getting pulled out of school and you supposedly having died was harsh. But yeah, she trusts Evie. They’ve become like sisters.”
We watched the two alternate turns. I was still trying to puzzle out exactly what game they were playing (Go fish? Rummy? Blackjack??) when Evie laid down her collected hand.
“Straight flush and a pair of jokers! What about you?”
Frowning at her own cards, Ester shrugged and revealed them. She kept looking hesitantly between them and Evie.
“Oh, hmm,” said Evie as she leaned over the table. “Five sixes and an ace! Wow, you win again!” She smiled at her opponent.
Ester grinned widely in return before swirling a hand over the cards for Evie to quickly gather them up and deal again.
That got me to blink. But sure enough there were five cards with sixes on them, two of them sharing the suit of clubs.
“Unusual deck,” I commented to Penelope.
The girl essentially showering in the rain chuckled. “Hawthorne’s game cupboard is a bit random. Two decks, each with cards missing, got merged.”
Seeing Ester’s enthusiasm to play their clearly made up game again put a grin on my face too. “Perfect.”
Penelope stretched and sat up, folding legs into a cross-legged position. “Yep. So when are you off to visit August?”
“Huh? How’d you…oh. Let me guess: it was you who dug up their address.”
The answering grin was conclusive. “Jenna didn’t say who it was for, so don’t get mad. It was just obvious who’d want to know.”
“Yeah well, thanks.”
She shrugged. “No need for thanks. She now owes me something.”
“As do I.”
“Nope. Not the way it works. She asked, she received. Her deal with you is hers, not mine.”
“You have my thanks anyway. As for when, probably as soon as I can change clothes and finish experimenting.”
“Experimenting? That sounds interesting. Need an assistant?”
“I don’t know, what’s it going to cost me?” I laughed.
“My usual fee,” Penelope said with false seriousness. “I get to take care of Khan while you’re gone!”
That got Evie’s attention and the loss of mirth from the girl’s expression wasn’t faked. “You’re leaving?”
I wasn’t about to lie. “For a day, maybe more.”
“People need you.”
Evie thought about it. “You going to die again?”
“I hope not.”
“It’s ok. My dress is really pretty. If there’s another funeral I’ll show you the pictures when you get back.”
“You got it.”
This seemed to satisfy the purple-haired teen and she turned back to the made-up card game.
I looked to Penelope who was shaking her head.
“That exchange was entirely too surreal.” She hopped off the chair. “You trying stuff out here or in your room?”
“My room is likely best.”
“Then let’s go.”
With a wave goodbye to Evie and Ester, we went inside. I would have gone to hug them both but I’d had a realization: Evie was being brave for Ester’s sake and a hug would have cracked the control she was trying so fiercely to maintain.
Honoring her intent was hard. I hoped it was the right thing to do.
“Hey Penelope,” I said as we got into the elevator. “Jenna may want to challenge you over rights to caring for my fuzz-buddy.”
“Have you forgotten already?” asked the copper-skinned senior with a mercantile smirk. “She owes me.”
Sliding doors closed and we went up.
After first changing out of the damp martial arts outfit and then feeding the persistently hungry kitty his second breakfast, all so he could happily munch away in the small bathroom while pretending to be an even furrier hobbit, I explained the idea of attempting to be a traveling ghost to Penelope.
She was instantly dubious. “You’re forgetting something.”
“I am?” Despite the rain continuing outside I’d opened the balcony doors so the room would cool off even further for my temperature-sensitive visitor. It’s not like I wasn’t used to cold, and Khan loved romping in snow so he wouldn’t mind either. As a result a wetly chilled breeze ruffled the sheets hanging off the bed where Penelope had perched while I took care of Khan.
“Yup. You want to get to North Carolina, right? But if you shift to the spirit-side, the path is gonna be different.”
I frowned. “Wouldn’t I just need to follow the highways? I should be able to see both sides.”
“Yeah except the map on the other side doesn’t line up. Resonances rule, not geometry. Like our school here is surrounded by thick spirit forests, to even see the road heading out you’d need to walk to it first before shifting over. Fly along it as a spirit and you might find yourself zipping over any of the dirt roads in the north-east that have the same feel. The map of the physical world doesn’t apply over there.”
Dangit. I should have remembered that. Like how Set had to guide the fae queen through the Kemetic spaces to get inside the Djoser Pyramid.
“Huh.” Thinking more about it I got confused. “But how does Louis do it? He found me easily enough when I was flying back with Danielle after she got shot.”
“Fubar? Dude’s a psychic. The astral/mental projection thing is unique. Way it was explained in class is that he just senses minds and can trick them into perceiving his presence. So physical world mapping and distances still apply, he just has like this insane range.”
“Then how come I can touch him? He feels real to me.”
She shrugged. “If I had to guess? You wanting to touch him makes it real. What your energy does is nutso, girl. Like this room - stepping in here is like stepping into another world, you know? Crisp, shiny, and honestly uncomfortable - at least to me, no offense. Every sensation is weirdly magnified.”
That caught me. “No one’s said that before. Tamara and Jenna have been in here tons.”
“Look, not to be insulting but Jenna isn’t sensitive enough magically. Tamara though is a lot stronger than I am in that department and she’s probably used to being around high-powered rituals because of her mom so she’d take it in stride. It’s not bad. Just, I dunno, overwhelming.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Dropping to the floor outside the triple circles inscribed around the bed I folded one leg under the other and hugged a knee. “I may not have time to get to August before I need to pop to Los Angeles then. Bike is gonna be too slow.”
“Los Angeles? You didn’t mention that. You got a flight later or something?”
“There’s a spot there I’m pretty sure I can port to. I’ve done it before.”
“Anywhere near August you could do that with?”
I bounced my forehead off the knee. “Nope.”
We remained quiet while trying to think. Khan strode over to first nudge the knee with his head before settling down next to it, lips smacking happily. I scritched the fur over his ears as he began cleaning his back with his tongue.
“You just need to not be all super bright when flying, right?” Penelope finally asked.
“Yeah. And with how they’re probably monitoring the school with satellites, I’d need to be invisible to not get intercepted by F-16s.”
“Wow. Paranoid much?”
I gave her a look. “It’s not paranoia if they’re really out there. They’ve got my phone bugged; I can see the unauthorized transmissions about where it is. It even occasionally turns on the microphone to try and listen in too.”
“I could probably twist things to block it, but they’d notice and get even more freaked out.”
She blinked. “Wait, you can see outside the visible spectrum?”
“If I try. It’s all light - and filled with primal energy. I mean, I don’t see it like normal stuff, but I can see it in the pattern of everything.”
“And you can mess with it?”
“Same way as I can pull magic energy out of everyone’s spells. Like with Magnus.”
“Can you shove all the visible light coming off of you into a different spectrum? Then maybe pull it into a tight beam to zot it off into space. Wouldn’t that make you practically invisible?”
My hand stopped moving over Khan’s head, causing him to give it a whiskered nudge. “It’s all energy,” I said slowly while resuming his pets, “light, heat, even the magical mana flowing through ley-lines. Frequency conversion requires either removing or adding energy. But magic is all about converting mana to and from physicality in one way or another.”
Penelope grinned. “So can you go the other way? Convert physical light to mana?”
“Maybe.” I stood up, ignoring the immediate protesting meep from the kitty. Stepping over to the balcony doors I held up a hand and studied its pattern, specifically focusing on all the light particles bouncing off the skin mixing with the thermal ones generated by my metabolism. The inner vision balked at resolving the script underlying reality at that resolution, and with an annoyed grunt the main two wings flashed out behind me.
There. Now I could see it all properly. Wrapping intention around the hand I whispered commands into the observed matrix, rotating the vectors containing information regarding the hand’s presence into alternate dimensionality before letting the broadcast continue. Even though the mechanism was totally different, it reminded me of the Grigori perception-displacement swords back in Hell. Those had done a lot more but I was trying to limit how much I impinged on the physical realm.
The consequences of messing that up would likely be bad.
“Whoa!” Penelope hopped off the bed, circling around the wings to stare.
“What do you see?”
“If I stop trying to look with magic senses, your hand is totally no longer there. But if I scan for it, it’s like this ghostly mana blob. That’s so cool!”
“Hmm. Then the question will be whether the government has any magic-tech in place to track that kind of thing.”
“Can you link it to the ground? So I can’t see even that much?”
“That’ll just paint the earth with the mana. Not sure I want to push this that far.”
“What about the rest of you then? A hand is one thing, but those wings? That’s something else.”
“Yeah. Hang on.”
In the end it was like building software. Core routines reused by multiply-launched threads got the desired coverage. After a few minutes of adding more and more pieces Penelope finally said, “Ok, think you’ve got it. Congrats! Unless someone has magic talents, you’re totally the invisible angel.”
Khan though was less impressed. He trotted right over to impatiently head-butt an ankle. When I touched his fur with a hand wrapped in tiny angelic script the little guy flopped over to show his white-fuzzed belly.
It was of course a trap. As I knelt down, my hand was quickly wrapped by four paws as teeth gnawed against the skin. Not hard enough to hurt though, because he knew better. With a grin I wrestled the little wide-eyed guy around, sliding him across the floor.
Penelope just stared. “Your cat sees through it.”
“Kitties use their sense of smell to track stuff. I’m not masking that.” Despite the fierceness of the clinging pin I managed to stretch a finger out to boop his nose.
That earned a few kicks to the wrist from the rear paws.
“Still,” she said, “that ain’t normal.”
Unable to help it, I giggled and cheated by adding my other hand to the game. “Of course not. Khan isn’t normal, he’s awesome!”
Against the double assault he squirmed all the more happily while his paws went at it with wild-eyed abandon.
Eventually I had to face the fact that the clock was ticking and there was a lot to do. After reminding Penelope to not let everyone overfeed the mischievous kitty, I pulled up maps of the east coast on the computer to trace out the route and thereby memorize it.
Angelic memory did have some advantages.
Leaving the traceable smart phone on the desk, I bid both Penelope and Khan goodbye and took off from the balcony into ice-flecked moisture. As the storm hung low I could only go so high while maintaining a view of the road leading out of the school.
I noted that the military had left the concrete pylons for their checkpoint behind. They’d just been shoved off to the side out of the way.
Skimming below the thick clouds it didn’t take long to follow the path and reach the I-95 South which would take me through Richmond before splitting off to the I-85 which was needed to get to where August and their parents lived in Greensboro.
Flying felt absolutely incredible. I’d been allowed so few occasions to take to the sky, usually only when some pressing issue required it. Teachers, governments, and common sense had kept me earthbound - not to mention all the time in Hell spent believing the skies had been denied me forevermore.
But not today. Sneaking now through the air invisibly, I was free to spin and tumble all about however I wished. Rain, wet and frozen, slid past grinning cheeks to mix with the underlying perceptions of the majesty of the storm as its patterns of chilled dampness sought their return to the ground.
Skipping in and out of the clouds I couldn’t help but flip upside down and pretend to be a starship pilot navigating the surface of the enemy’s base and searching for the mission-designated trench from which to start an attack run.
C’mon, you know the trench.
Giddy with freedom, the remembered words spoken to a certain droid regarding increasing power gave me an idea.
I wanted to see what I could really do.
Making sure to line up with the highway and recreating other famous car and motorcycle scenes while dodging through traffic, I popped out two more newly-burning wings and willed a burst of acceleration. How bad could it be? It’s not like I went for all six.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
No sooner had I wanted to go than everything blurred. Grey clouds smeared and the ground below blended into mostly greens and browns. Before I could blink the grey burst into blinding sunlight and everything underneath went bluish-white.
Forcing a panicked stop I found myself maybe a hundred feet above endless water under a clear sky with the midday sun hanging in the middle.
Good grief, I was over the ocean. Yikes.
Crossing arms to chew on a thumb I tried to get my bearings. Okay, with the sun at that angle I should at least still be in the Northern Hemisphere so I was likely hovering over the Atlantic. Off to the left was a cruise ship made tiny by the distance, but that wasn’t the direction needed to find shore.
Or so I hoped.
Turning so as to keep the sun directly on the left I put away the extra wings and built more carefully up to maximum speed on the usual single pair of feathered engines. Considering that was still pretty darned fast, I felt rather stupid about having tried for more.
Though it did give some interesting ideas of wanting to practice that kind of thing for combat. The memory of the battle between Lucifer and Michael came to mind which caused the stomach to knot due to another round of the usual “holy shit, what am I truly capable of?” thoughts.
With a shoreline coming into view, that was a worry for another time. Starting as a long strip on the horizon the shore quickly rushed closer as if visible through a camera lens and someone was playing with the zoom settings. Slowing down I found myself hovering over a sandy beach that had a rock-lined harbor entrance off to one side, and a set of buildings about forty stories tall sitting in front of resort-style swimming pools all surrounded by palm trees and other greenery. Two buildings in the front were silvery in the reflected sunlight, and the taller one just behind was a weird shade of red. Past these a harbor could be seen, in fact the entire beach stretching off to the right was more a sandbar providing thin protection for ship-going waterways which had even bigger buildings lining their shores.
None of this sparked any recognition. Closer to the harbor entrance an elderly couple sat on a concrete bench under a few tall palms jutting right up from the rocks. Both wore wide-brimmed hats and while the lady (who wasn’t exactly skinny) was wearing a pink one-piece swimsuit under grey shorts, the man was styling these beige shorts, thick black socks, sandals, and sunglasses. The woman was fighting the wind’s game of tossing silver bangs across her face as she tried to apply sunscreen to the man’s bare chest - a chest that was like a beat-up and scruffy white towel which had definitely seen better days.
Making sure no one else was around, I landed and disabled the invisibility workings by the simple act of pulling in the wings. Without their added power-up I couldn’t maintain it. I was however grateful that my chosen outfit mostly fit the scene: purple jogging shorts, pale blue t-shirt over a sports-bra, short socks and running shoes. While I’d probably get stuck in a dress later to deal with Kurohoshi, these were something I could more easily fight in should anything unexpected occur. Like, you know, it usually did.
As for Camael’s black and gold bracers sitting on the wrists, they probably looked weird but whatever. And yes, there was a bit of added focus needed to repair the patterns of the clothing which had been displaced by the mostly-energy-but-weirdly-physical-anyway wings.
It had taken two weeks of practice to get that right I’ll have you know. The number of destroyed t-shirts used for practice was frankly embarrassing.
“Excuse me,” I said, stepping closer to the couple.
The old man didn’t react, but the lady did and after again brushing hair out of her eyes she gave me a look up and down. “Yes?”
Aha, she spoke English. That meant hopefully this was still somewhere in the U.S. which was a relief. Gesturing to the sidewalk and back towards the buildings lining this peninsula I said, “I kinda zoned out while jogging and got turned around. Which beach is this?”
She looked at me funny and not because of the bracers. “This is South Pointe. See the channel?” Using the sunscreen bottle as a pointer she extended it towards the waterway.
“You’re at the south end of the peninsula. How long have you been jogging?”
I shrugged. “Few hours maybe?”
She shook her head. “Ah to be young again and have such stamina.”
The old man looked over a shoulder, blinking in surprise to see me there but he didn’t say anything.
I gave him a small wave. “Uh, hi?”
“Don’t mind him,” the lady said with a chuckle. “He’s got the hearing aids in a pocket. Otherwise the wind causes a constant whistle.”
Wrinkles on his face folded into a smile and accompanying nod. A few blobs of sunscreen rested atop ears that had a few stray strands of grey all their own where she hadn’t smoothed it out.
“You a tourist?” she asked, tilting owl-like sunglasses down so she could focus in on the bracers. “And I must say, those are the oddest wrist-weights I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m definitely not from around here,” I admitted. “As for these, a friend gave them to me.”
Her eyes darted to examine my left hand, looking for a ring. “A close friend?”
“Eh, if I had to describe it at this point he’s more like a crazy uncle.”
“Don’t overlook the crazy ones, dear,” she said, turning back to the man with a smile. “They can be princes in disguise. Sixty years we’ve been together, Jacob and I, never a regret.” With obvious adoration she squirted more sunscreen onto a palm and began rubbing it onto Jacob’s arm. “And he was certainly an odd duck back in the day!”
Jacob revealed he could hear well enough even without the aids as with a gruff voice he added, “She is as pretty now as she was on the day we met.”
She blushed. “Jacob!”
Eyes shining he smiled back.
Patting his arm she said, “We’re playing tourist here too, though we’re more snowbirds really. Fifth year in a row we’ve come to Miami.”
Wow, I’d made it all the way to Florida. “Where are you two from then, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Virginia.” She sighed. “I love snow, but the cold just makes the old bones hurt.”
Jacob put a hand on her thigh and squeezed.
“And you?” the lady asked, frowning while adding more to a spot she’d missed on his shoulder the first time. “Winter break with a special someone perhaps?”
“I’m here by myself. Kind of on a road trip.” Or sky trip, but it’s not like I was going to explain that.
“Surely a girl as lovely as you has somebody waiting for them back home then?”
“I don’t think so. I’m…not entirely sure where home is at the moment to be honest. Life is a bit complicated.”
She peered through the darkened wide circles resting atop her nose. “Then take this advice from an old bitty: you’ll know it when you find it, hon.”
“I hope so.”
Finishing up his arm, she popped the top back into place on the bottle. “Now, if your hotel is on the beach just go straight along from here and you’ll have to pass by eventually. But if you’re hungry there are some nice restaurants right over there you can try out first.” She pointed towards the clumps of buildings further in but which still overlooked the harbor.
“Thanks. It was nice meeting you both.”
They smiled their goodbyes and I turned to head up the path. Once far enough away to restore the wings and the disappearing spell, I glanced back at their bench.
He had put an arm around her and she rested a cheek against his shoulder, together their spirits emitted a singular and beautiful glow.
Something inside ached at the sight yet it took a long time to look away.
Finding the way north was simple enough. I-95 - which stretches down the entire East Coast - was just on the other side of the harbor and taking it up to I-74 after crossing into North Carolina worked. Okay yes, I did cut along Route 38 for the shorter path, but at the speeds I was flying I’m not sure it made that much of a difference.
In any case I zipped on through Greensboro and quickly found myself lingering before a pine wreath-decorated front door. It was set on a lovely southern porch complete with hanging ferns, white painted railings, and several matching wooden rocking chairs all lined up to face the road.
As to why I was lingering, well, I was stuck wondering what I was doing there even though it was fairly ridiculous to be standing on their porch asking that of myself after flying all this way. I mean, I knew I was there to try and remember what had happened in the Chaos, but did I really want to know? What if I didn’t like what I learned?
A queasy stomach was certainly unsure about the prospect.
Annoyed with myself I reached a finger for the button but before I could push it the door unlocked on its own. Even having been warned, I wasn’t prepared for who opened the door. For one thing, his cloud-grey eyes were now level with mine. Gone were the feminine cheekbones, the long brown hair, and the innocent eagerness that had once burned behind glasses that were no longer needed.
“Jordan!” A young man threw arms around me in a fierce hug.
Oof. He’d definitely been working out.
“Hey August,” I said, awkwardly hugging back.
Letting go, he stepped onto the porch and the door shut behind him. “I’d say I’m surprised to see you, except I’m not.”
“You knew I was coming?”
He grinned. “I’m still in the Book. Your signature on the threads is hard to miss - it causes ridiculous headaches when it shows up.”
I winced, trying not to think too much about the implications of that. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault you were bound to it.”
“Pffft,” he snorted. “Thanks to you, my spirit again touches the Source. Never apologize for that. Seriously! You really have no idea how much of a miracle that is do you?”
“Thought so.” He leaned back against the door. “So what do you need? Even though we’re both angels, you know I can’t tell you what I see of the future in its pages, right? Sandalphon has yelled at me enough as is.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t come here for that. Not really, anyway. I think I came more in case I could help you.”
“Help me? With what?”
“Uhm, your parents? They pulled you out of the school after my funeral. I could, you know, talk to them. Or even show them-”
He burst out laughing. “Show them what, your wings?”
“Well, yeah. I heard your dad was really upset.”
“Can you blame him? The school got hit by a psychic bomb resulting in the military and CDC showing up. After that two students - well, okay, one student - got killed on a special field trip all the way to Egypt because magical terrorists unleashed a massive demon at the pyramid they happened to be visiting. To top it all off his lovely daughter transformed into his totally handsome son. And grew as tall as him too,” August added proudly. “Which kinda then let the cat out of the bag about Mom telling him the whole shout-at-Sandalphon thing for Danielle was nothing more than a prayer circle. You know, when Circe was talking with her asking for parental permission.”
Ouch. I hadn’t known that. “But you went to the school to learn magic. And I ruined that.”
He blinked. “Jordan, you’re sweet but did you not hear what I just said? Stop blaming yourself for everything! I’ve found exactly what I was looking for and so much more. What could the Academy teach me at this point anyhow? Our abilities as angels are completely different. Even the rabbi told you he couldn’t help with them. And I’ve got a real teacher now, one I don’t need to be at Whateley to see.”
“You’re still in contact with Sandalphon?” Sandalphon was an archangel, and until now was the only angel with a link to the Book of Life and able to write directly onto its pages. Which was a rather scary amount of power when you stop to think about it.
“Yep. So as amusing as it would be to watch my parents faint right over at the sight of a bona fide manifested angel - especially one as shockingly bright as you - I’m good here. Okay? I mean, sure I miss everyone, but like my whole family needs time to deal with what’s happened with me.”
“Did you seriously just travel a thousand miles to try and get me back to the school? You’ve heard of things called phones, right?”
“Mine is tapped by like every three-letter agency the government has.”
“Huh. But why be so worried about them listening to a discussion about my parents?”
“They don’t know about the Book, or about you. Besides, it didn’t seem right to not ask in person.“
“So you waited over a month to fly down?”
I fidgeted. “I was under orders to not light up the skies; they’d have scrambled fighter jets to follow. And uhm, as much as I’m embarrassed to admit it, it wasn’t until last night that Jenna suggested I shift to spirit and fly. Though that wouldn’t have worked, so I found a method with Penelope’s help to sneak off anyway.”
He suppressed a snicker which instead came out more as a quick snerk. “I keep forgetting how new you are to all this.”
“Yeah. I’m an idiot, what can I say.” I sighed then looked at him more seriously. “But I also wanted to ask you something - something I didn’t want anyone to hear. And not about the future.”
“Oh? What’s up?”
“Everyone’s history is written in the Book, right? Well, I’ve got a chunk I can’t remember.”
“You should have like perfect recall since becoming, you know…” He waved a hand. “Heck, even I do now when I really try.”
“Not for this. There’s a blank spot and it’s been scratching at my brain something fierce.”
“That’s not…wait, really?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “It’s about how I got out of Hell.”
A multitude of tentacled arms tightened around my waist pulling me under, Camael holding blazing sword in a farewell salute…
I shuddered. “I was pulled into the Chaos - that layer between what Is and the Abyss. Then next thing I knew Isaiah - you remember him, right? My lawyer friend?”
“I do.” Grey eyes focused intently. “And I know who he really is.”
“Well, he reached to the edges of spirit and pulled me back to Earth.”
“Holy shit, really? Wow! So what’s the problem?”
My feet shifted awkwardly. “The problem is I feel like there were things that happened in between. That the transition wasn’t instantaneous, that something else occurred. It feels important - and honestly also terrifying somehow - but I have no idea what or why.”
August scratched his head. “Angels don’t forget things. A blessing and also a curse.”
“I know. I learned that much while in Hell. But if the past is recorded in your Book maybe you could-”
He cut me off. “Won’t work.”
“Two reasons. Chiefly is that you are no longer in the Book. Not directly, not since Justin died and you came back as Jordan.” He let that sink in. Honestly I knew that I’d already died, but I’d thought - never mind, it doesn’t matter. I was wrong.
He continued. “As a result, the pages have nothing written on them directly for you past that point. Only all the events you’ve influenced - when you’ve touched the lives of those who do belong in the Book. Through them you do show up, though since you’ve gotten back from Hell it’s more like you’re this powerful interference. Which is why you cause headaches.”
“And the second reason?”
“Angels have perfect memory because of what we are. A soul exists upon the pattern of Creation, its experiences are recorded internally even as it pushes on the threads holding everything together. Whereas we are those threads, connected entirely to our past and present. In a way our memories are written into Creation itself. You don’t remember the Chaos because for that time, and I hesitate to use the term ‘time’, you were Outside. We aren’t meant to ever go there.”
“Yet Lucifer did it. Likely more than once.”
“He’s the First. And how he managed to do so safely is a super crazy secret that no one knows. Well, except for him of course.”
“Wonderful,” I groaned. “Does this mean I need to find Lucifer to figure this out?”
August shrugged. “Could work if he’d tell you.” He peered past my shoulder towards the afternoon sun. The light was dimming behind clouds threatening to thicken with more rain. “Hey, what time is it? My folks will be home soon.”
“You need me to go?”
“Hate to say it, but yeah. Be easier than trying to explain to Dad why the girl who’s funeral service I attended is standing here.”
“Oh.” Hard to argue against that. This time I grabbed him in a tight hug, using enough strength that he was the one who went ‘oof’. “You take care, okay? If you need anything call me. And if you need it private, I’ll fly again.”
“Will do! Thanks!”
Just as I was about to spread wings and figure out my next move he waved frenetically.
“Jordan, wait! I had a thought!”
“Camael! He found you in Hell, right? And he believed you’d manage to get out?”
“He was fanatically convinced I would. How’d you know that?”
“Because the Book has the record of what he told Nick and Isaiah. Not through him, but them. But that’s not important.”
August was bobbing up and down on his toes with excitement. “No, because I bet he left it here for you to find!”
“Something which could have all the answers, or at least ways to get them.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“I think you came all the way here to ask about the wrong book. But I bet I can use mine to find out who Camael saw before he went after you in Hell.”
“August, spell it out! What do you mean, ‘the wrong book’?”
“Remember Aleppo? You traded Raziel’s Gift to save Kokabiel.” He grinned wider as I finally got it. “Girl, you totally need the Book of Secrets!”
Well heck. Why hadn’t I thought of that? “That’s…brilliant. You really think you can find it?”
“Camael’s presence gives the same kind of pressure on the pages as you do. Eh that’s not quite right, he’s more subtle and less all shiny-blasty but same difference really. I can try to trace out whose lives he touched and let you know. Raziel’s Book should leave a strong trail all on its own as is.”
“If you can send me to it, that’d be amazing.”
“You still have a phone?”
“Yeah. Wait, actually no, it’s not on me. Could you email to Penelope? I can keep pinging her from where I’m going.”
He tilted his head. “You aren’t going back to Whateley? Don’t you have finals?”
“Those are taken care of, for me anyway. I’m heading to L.A. next. Haruko thinks something is going on with Kami. Tonight.”
August tried to look innocent and utterly failed. “Uhm, nothing?”
I glared at him. “You really can’t say anything to help?”
With a cringing half-smile, he spread hands wide. “If you’re gonna be there then things will change anyway. You’re like a Joker’s Wild wherever you go.”
“Great. Just great.”
“Try to enjoy! The hors d’oeuvres will be the most amazing stuff ever!”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
He threw a pair of thumbs-up and I disappeared again while he went back inside. He was right, though. If Kami was hosting a big to-do of some kind, the food would indeed be first rate as well as ridiculously expensive.
Kami Kurohoshi was just that kind of guy.
But before dealing with that I needed to get back to the city where I grew up. Which required repeating something I’d only done three (well, maybe technically only two) times before:
On one hand I probably knew my old house well enough to use it as a destination, seeing as how I was raised there and all. But even though Isaiah still had possession of it I didn’t want to go there. Getting distracted by memories wasn’t on the schedule, and if I went back I’d get lost staring at pictures of my departed wife, or thinking about my folks who also were gone, and of course facing the room still full of most of Danielle’s stuff.
Besides there was an easier target, the one I’d popped into after getting lost between world-spaces. It was also the place Gabriel had sent me back at the beginning when Soren had transformed it into a channel of holy energies the likes of which hadn’t been seen probably for millennia.
The storage facility.
When I was last there the DPA had taken over the building as they were still cataloging the intricate spellwork that Soren (a.k.a. Camael) had laid throughout. Somehow I doubted they’d relinquished it yet.
Spreading wings wide I let myself slip into the spirit-spaces, much like what it takes to return to Gabriel’s dream pocket. But once reaching that in-between transition I refocused on the feeling of that one storage unit.
I remembered how it felt to re-appear the first time within the blinding agony of energetic overload, and also how it happened the second time when I’d needed to act after experiencing a vision of armed hunters preparing to invade my friend Isaiah’s home.
Both events were moments of extreme focus and need. No shocker then that it took longer to find the right frame of mind and perceptual attunement this go-round. What was surprising was that when the four walls finally shimmered into view unlike last time there weren’t any guards present.
What there was however was all new spellwork overlaid across the remnants of Soren’s previous efforts. Spells which instantly tried to slam the space shut around me like a bear trap.
Symbols blended with names in Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic, all inscribed within the circles and various shaped stars decorating every surface. Their binding energies reached out to grab hold - which in a weird way may have helped anchor my arrival. Except they felt wrong. The driving forces behind the working was the use of various names of God - primarily Elohim and also YHVH - all commanding in His name that any celestial visitor remain tightly bound within.
The net effect was that of a massively binding prison.
My reaction was instant and performed without thought.
Two wings flashed into six and with an angered roar of my own true name all bindings ripped asunder from the thundering blast of primal fire. The aluminum door blew across the hallway even as the walls to the sides dissolved into spark-filled piles of discarded matter.
From the ceiling was suspended a twelve-inch tablet that amazingly still flickered to life while I both regained my bearing and wrestled with a surge of unpleasant emotion.
A rather grim-faced man with short cropped grey hair and a bushy sheriff’s mustache appeared on the screen.
Bright eyes glared at the image, even while scanning for more offensive traps. “An explanation for this insult had best be forthcoming.”
The Director of the DPA slowly examined the destruction revealed through the video feed. Along with the damage to door and walls I’d also done something else:
Every stroke of each sigil and name they had added to this space had been burned away.
Steepling fingers before that mustache, he stared through the screen. “Apologies. These protections were not meant for you. You should have called first.”
“Believing thus poses a challenge.”
“Our experts claim the shielding from unwanted spiritual visitors at that location is weak. Your initial manifestation struck the first blow, and Callas Soren and Nicolas Wright’s subsequent departure weakened things further. With the loss of three of the Seals, penetration of the fourth might be possible at that juncture and as such protections were implemented. Though those very same experts stated categorically that even you would be unable to break them, at least not right away. Clearly they were wrong.” He then added, “I’ve been trying to contact you. I assume you found out by other means and came immediately?”
“Only for the fulfillment of mine own task have I come.”
He paused then said, “Power down, angel. Please. I need to speak with Jordan.”
While not physically present, through the electronic connection spirits still could be perceived. The man was burdened by worry, not for himself but for an entire nation if not a world. His demeanor refused to let the buried emotions show but I felt and knew. Like a sailor lost to a storm at sea he feverishly grasped at what lines of safety may be within reach, while holding no illusions that such would turn the tempest which had claimed him.
Yet he did everything he could all the same.
Wings folded away and the amount of light in the room dimmed considerably. I had, after all, just shattered all the fluorescent bulbs both in this unit and down the entire hall.
If not within the whole building.
Blinking still glowing eyes and trying to shake off the weird confusion of multi-layered awarenesses, I scowled at the government agent on the tablet. “Okay, what is it?”
“Spit it out already. Why were you trying to call me?”
“Because of what occurred on the steps of the courthouse downtown an hour ago.”
“Courthouse? What happened?”
“A sniper with cursed ammunition attempted to kill Isaiah Cohen.”
I swore. Jenna was right.
Things definitely went crazy every time I left.
Chapter 7 - Birthright
It had been another late night. Not that such was unusual, though in theory being a partner at a major law firm should have meant being able to delegate the midnight hour candle-burnings to the hordes of associates.
This however was one skill Isaiah’s own obsessive and detail oriented mindset had refused so far to acquire.
A court hearing awaited in the morning and therefore it was needed to understand every infinitesimal footnote of applicable case histories and all possible information regarding the opposition. And while his own team’s arguments and precedents were overwhelming such that victory was all but assured, nothing would be left to chance. Every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed, and every potential legal minefield mapped to the last inch of booby-trapped interpretation.
If only life outside the courtroom could be that well understood.
As he shifted on his side, the mattress foam slowly settled to accommodate the new position. With his eyeglasses already nestled on the nightstand the room looked mostly a blur: vague streaks of dark were punctuated by slivers of brightness from the exterior lights that kept the grounds of his home illuminated for the on-premise security team. Having armed guards on patrol around the house bothered him, and not just because of the mounting cost of such services. Their presence was a constant disturbance to the solitude and retreat a home and sanctum should provide.
The ghost sitting on the chair by the window’s long curtains gave reminder of why added security was necessary. If he’d listened to the firm’s security suggestions maybe she’d still be…no. He shouldn’t think like that.
What’s done was done.
The spirit of his personal assistant, lost to assassins sent only for him, whispered across the otherwise empty room.
“Get some sleep, Boss. Anything happens, I’ll wake you.”
He didn’t respond other than to shut tired eyes. But he wondered still how his spirit in all its power had let events in the past go so wrong. Events that haunted him (in this case literally) even now.
Had Azrael, the Archangel of Judgment, really done everything he could? Or was all of Creation suffering and paying the price because he’d made a mistake.
Was there really a Holy Plan?
Disturbed in both mind and spirit, Isaiah rolled over and after many more minutes finally fell asleep.
His subconscious, however, continued to churn.
A voice spoke not in English but Hebrew:
“And in the fourteenth jubilee Methuselah took unto himself a wife, Edna the daughter of Azrael, the daughter of his father's brother, in the third week, in the first year of this week, and he begat a son and called his name Lamech.
“And in the fifteenth jubilee in the third week Lamech took to himself a wife, and her name was Betenos the daughter of Barakiel, the daughter of his father's brother, and in this week she bare him a son and he called his name Noah, saying, 'This one will comfort me for my trouble and all my work, and for the ground which the Lord hath cursed.' “
Upon a high mountain summit, its view unobstructed of the valley below where farms clustered against a river whose waters brought life and abundance, sat a boat.
Tall beams of the strongest of wood formed the interlocking structure holding the curved hull in place, each brace wider around than anyone could wrap arms for this vessel was the largest any man had yet crafted upon the Earth.
Workers, wearing but woolen loincloths and sandals, swarmed the structure as final touches were added to the deck and accommodations. Several blacksmiths, their fires and equipment busy within numerous tents surrounding the ship, rang out the beats of their trade between hammer and anvil. Livestock of sheep, cows, oxen, goats, and camels bleated within many wide pens, all eager for their daily rations of grain and water.
Before the coordinated activities stood a tall man, muscles deeply tanned from many hours below an unforgiving sun, wearing only a red-dyed woolen skirt and well-crafted sandals. The mass of curly hair - a straggled mix of salt and pepper - was bound by a strip of leather to keep his face clear, and a beard now more grey than black hung low over the bare and scruffy chest. Gesturing with a shepherd’s crook, he called out orders to those scrambling to obey his commands, occasionally pulling out a scroll from the many tucked in his waistband to consult the contents before shouting anew.
Peeking out between gathering clouds the hot afternoon sun reached down to press against his back. As he returned a scroll to its holder, a shadow stretched past his feet - one formed by wings with span greater than any bird’s. Lowering the staff he quickly turned and knelt, head bowing low to the dark-cloaked newcomer whose hood kept features hidden within light-less folds.
“Lord, I bid you welcome.”
The one covered in cloth as if by the deepest of caves examined the man, noting every scratch and scar upon the skin - each a testimony to the life he had led. With the sun keeping him but a dark contrasted silhouette, he responded.
“Are you here to check our progress?” Noah lifted his head but knees remained upon soft dirt.
“The ship is nearly complete, Lord. As per your instructions. All will be done within a pair of Sabbaths.”
“It is Good.”
Tugging on beard for courage, Noah gave voice to the question still burning in his mind. “Lord, you have provided plans full of marvels. The advances in metal-working alone have the blacksmiths eager to finish this project and take home that which they have learned. Same for the shipwrights. But you have yet to tell us why this vessel needs be built - and especially why up here away from all water? It is a ship worthy of deeper seas - the triple hull as specified is too deep for our rivers.”
“The need is here.”
Moisture dripped across Noah’s brow as he stared both at the burning sun and the Messenger of the Lord. “Our family’s entire wealth has been sunk into its construction. The innovations within the given plans are treasures worth a fortune, but as per your order each was used simply to purchase the crafters’ services. The whole ship is a wonder of the world, yet here it shall be worthless to me and mine. They consider me a fool, and my beloved wife wonders-”
The visitor’s voice boomed out, reverberating within Noah’s ears and body. “This shall be your salvation.”
“I do not understand.”
“Hear me Noah, son of Lamech, grandson of Methuselah.”
A shiver ran up Noah’s spine and his head bowed once more. “Yes, Lord.”
“Upon completion of the work move that which is yours unto this vessel. All supplies for man and beast shall be stored within. All creatures whether they fly, walk, or run which provide sustenance or joy shall you preserve. All vegetation be they shrub, bush, crop, or tree which you would see regrown, their seeds shall you gather and secure. Let none other than family aboard.”
Clouds above obscured the sun, their shadows sweeping across angel and man.
“What is to happen, Lord?”
“War. An End. And a Beginning.”
Fear pressed into his chest and Noah pushed palms and forehead against the earth. “I hear, oh Lord, and obey.”
“You shall be visited but once more, son of Betenos, grandson of Edna. From the Holy of Holies shall my brother come, he whose words offer healing. Through him shall your birthright be restored.”
“That which was given unto Adam shall in turn be given unto you. Defend it, study it, that its wisdom may serve in the days to come. Yet be aware: to read its pages is to fathom the depths of Creation. Knowledge, as all growth, comes not without sacrifice.”
“What must I sacrifice?”
A pause and then was answer given.
Wind whipped through Noah’s hair and when he looked the angel was gone. Noting the thickening darkness lurking within the gathering clouds he stood as wide drops which were not of sweat ran down both cheeks.
The rain had begun.
The pre-trial hearing had gone according to plan. As expected opposing counsel was mounting an “unclean hands defense” by claiming that Isaiah’s client had deliberately waited to file suit to increase potential damages, but their motion to dismiss was quashed by the judge after Isaiah’s rebuttals.
Their tactic was pure baloney, of course. But fighting it at trial would require an immaculately prepared timeline of events from when the client had first discovered the theft of his intellectual property through to when Isaiah had overheard his soon-to-be client complain about the situation to the proprietor of the local gamer enthusiast hobby store.
In truth the case was classic intellectual property theft. A student of magical theory had decided to try his hand at using the mystic arts to overclock his computer rig, and to his amazement succeeded beyond all expectation - by several orders of magnitude. Realizing the value, the student had contacted a leading chip manufacturer to sell the technique and had been smart enough to get a signed NDA prior to the meeting as well as filing a provisional patent application. All of which the company had naturally ignored after seeing the details and realizing the student had no financial means by which to sue them. But with potential winnings in the billions it was easy to get Isaiah’s firm to take the case for a high percentage.
It was his case. He found it, he brought it in, and his contracted personal cut would pay off the equity loan he took to buy in to the firm as a full partner. And there would even be plenty leftover.
He just had to win.
With the judge referring the case for trial scheduling, Isaiah was done for the day. After a check-in with opposing counsel regarding whether they’d be willing to settle for the already-offered amount, he was ready for lunch. The leader of the opposing team had declined, though only after staring at Isaiah’s tie for a full count before meeting Isaiah’s open (and predatory) smile. The tie was dark blue with gold slanted stripes formed from thin-font letters repeatedly spelling out “UCLA” one after the other.
The opposing counsel - as Isaiah knew - had attended their rival college USC.
One of his hired bodyguards, Jim, was waiting just beyond the metal-detector cordoned portion of the lobby. Wearing a nondescript navy jacket and slacks, the older ex-military operative almost blended into the small crowd of folks going in and out. The broadness of shoulders and muscles bunched under the jacket however were fairly distinctive. Seeing Isaiah, he motioned him over.
“The car is pulling up now, sir,” Jim said, relaying the report received through an ear-piece. “Alright, let’s go.”
Following as instructed, they crossed towards the glass exit doors on the right and into daylight.
It all happened so fast.
Isaiah had gone down two sets of concrete steps towards the sidewalk when he was shoved hard from behind as a voice screamed in his ear.
Lurching forward he crashed into the back of the taller bodyguard. Ten yards to his left a hole punched into the steps only to be followed by the sound of a loud crack.
“Shooter! There’s a shooter!” Without hesitation Jim spun about, arm snapping across Isaiah’s shoulders to propel him towards the waiting SUV parked at the red curb between a coin-operated newspaper stand and a tall lamppost. “Keep down!” With one hand pulling Isaiah into a crouch, Jim threw open the rear door. “Get in! Move!”
Isaiah scrambled into the back seat, crawling all the way over to give Jim room to follow. The driver was staring through the heavily tinted windshield. “I don’t have visual!”
Slamming the door shut, Jim then reached across to shove Isaiah forward into the foot-space behind the driver’s seat. “I said keep down!” To the driver he snapped, “Drive, dammit! Go!”
The driver punched it and with a lurch the SUV shot forward towards the nearby intersection. “Which way?”
“Straight! Full speed!”
Peering between the two front seats over their armrests, Isaiah took in the view. They rapidly approached a wide empty construction lot on the left and across an intersection a parking lot framed by thick trees sat on the right. There was also a ghostly hand covered by a gauntlet of bright gold and crimson reaching past the window to grab the steering wheel above the driver’s own grip. Seeing this reminded him of his own hand: the one with skin turned obsidian which had once wielded a terrible power. Heart racing on full from the adrenaline kicking through his system, he focused past the glove covering the flesh - attempting to connect through to the deeper spirit he’d spent the last month trying to forget.
“Quit it, Boss! I got this.”
The armored hand jerked the wheel to the left, and with a squeal of tires the SUV lurched to one side as with another crack the windshield gained a hole in front of the empty front passenger seat.
Also gaining a hole was the seat itself as the bullet slammed through entirely and plunged directly between Jim’s legs on its way out of the bottom of the car.
Fighting to regain control, the driver swore and for a moment the car straightened out. But that didn’t last long as the wheel suddenly twisted the other way - and Isaiah’s door gained a hole of its own.
Jim instantly yanked Isaiah away from that side of the car and into the middle. “You hit?”
“No.” The lawyer shook his head as fingers which had been curling into a fist instead grabbed hold of the side of the driver’s chair. “The shots have to be coming from past that lot on the left.” He marveled at the calmness of his voice.
Struggling to deal with a car seemingly with a mind of its own, the driver made a decision and slammed both feet on the brakes, instantly triggering the anti-lock system to loudly complain in a fierce staccato as the vehicle rapidly decelerated.
A chunk of the road in front of them burst upwards as the pavement took another round right where they would have been.
“Screw it!” The driver threw the controls into reverse. Looking over a shoulder and past Isaiah’s head, he floored it again - this time heading backwards directly into the intersection they’d just crossed before wildly spinning the wheel.
The light was red and several cars screeched tires in protest as the SUV whipped about, throwing Isaiah into Jim. Not waiting for a complete stop, the vehicle was flipped into drive and gears groaned in protest as they engaged forward - narrowly missing the stoplight and peeling into the oncoming traffic’s right-turn lane.
This however took them behind the many full-canopied trees dotting that corner.
Maneuvering past the now-honking traffic, they slipped further into green-covered safety. As they reached a stretch of the parking lot where the trees along the sidewalk thinned out, Isaiah was able to see past the foliage to the buildings they’d almost driven directly past.
A corner office of the taller structure on that block which faced the courthouse exploded in a flash of light, glass, and smoke.
As they accelerated away Isaiah had one main thought:
Jordan was so going to read him a riot act once she heard of this.