Chapter 12 - Challenge
With the clock ticking just past six we exited the 101 freeway a few miles west of where we’d visited the DPA earlier. From there we went south instead, passing into an isolated area against the hills complete with several small lakes as well as quite a few golf courses all surrounded by enclaves of houses better classified as mansions.
Unsurprisingly we went past these to a road marked “Private” to reach a higher plateau and its own sprawling complex that overlooked everyone else around as if to say, “You think you’re wealthy? Think again.”
It wasn’t until we passed the transition from paved blacktop onto grey paver stones forming a wide circle around a central fountain that I realized I had an issue.
This dress had absolutely no pockets nor did I have a matching clutch or purse.
While the limo pulled around to the front of this monstrosity of a “home” with its two massive wings and three-tiers of layered archways at the entrance, I rummaged in the bag again, pulling from the shorts my passport, driver’s license, and black credit card. “Here,” I said, handing them to Isaiah. “You’ve got pockets in those duds, hold onto these.”
He was smart enough not to laugh at my predicament and tucked them away inside the jacket. Though his smirk said plenty on its own.
A valet opened our door and Isaiah got out. Deciding to be a gentleman (despite that grin) he offered a hand as I stepped out onto the grey stones laid between parallel and treacherous gaps waiting to trap heels just like mine.
Saito stayed in the car, having already warned us that his task was delivery only and that he himself was not invited. As for Jim, he was allowed to follow us in - something Isaiah told me on the way over had taken serious negotiation using Saito as a relay. As other attendees were allowed their own security details, so was I. Not that I needed it, but Isaiah thought it would reduce perception of my status if I didn’t have one.
Not sure I agreed, but as long as Jim kept his focus on protecting Isaiah I wasn’t going to start a debate.
The entrance to the house was white on white on white, except for the small greenery in square planters that squatted before the ostentatiously boring columns. Before the open doors stood a man I figured was the majordomo, as his tuxedo had extra long tails. He also wore white gloves in contrast to the darker skin visible below the cuffs. Oh, and he was ridiculously tall. Taller than Brendan even, which was saying a lot. Flanking the doors behind him stood two men also formally dressed, but instead of standing as guards their eyes were closed with concentration as beads of sweat dripped from temples while lips muttered a steady stream of chanted Latin.
Before I could tell Isaiah about the magic these guys were swirling around inside the entrance the majordomo approached us.
“Welcome,” he said, looking down on our approaching trio. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the guy had been a former basketball player and hired for this gig purely to be able to tower over everyone as they arrived. Pausing to listen to someone speaking into his wireless earpiece, he turned to me first and bowed. “Lady Aradia, daughter of Prince Lucifer, we are honored to have you and Mr. Cohen as our guests for this evening.”
Formal spirit titles, eh? Okay then. “I thank you for the hospitality. But I must correct you, sir.”
“Madam?” The man straightened so he could look even further down his nose. It was a good thing the entrance had a two story high ceiling so he wouldn’t hit his head.
“My name is Aradia no longer,” I said, staring steadily into his face while hoping my neck wouldn’t cramp. “Time moves on.”
“Your forgiveness, please, if our information is lacking. If I may inquire, by what name and address should we use to announce your arrival?”
I grinned and gestured for him to lean closer so I could whisper into his other ear. After rattling off the latest collections plus a few more he would also need, I asked, “I trust you got all that?”
Being a professional the majordomo didn’t splutter as he returned to his full towering height - though his eyes did widen rather saucer-like in size. “I believe so. But may I inquire in which capacities will you be appearing this eve?”
Cheeks relaxed into what I pretended was a harmless smile. “Why, I am here as an ally and comrade-at-arms to my dear friend Kurohoshi Kami and his spirit self, the great dragon Drathonix. And Mr. Cohen has kindly granted his company at my request should I need counsel - for diplomacy in such illustrious circles is to me a novelty, you see.”
Another relayed communique via the earpiece and the man bowed again, deeper than before. “If you would please follow me, the pre-gathering has commenced.”
Pre-gathering? Sounded like the night was going to be a long one. What exactly had Haruko gotten us into? I waved towards the entrance. “By all means.”
Turning, he led us up the steps.
Behind us Jim muttered, “Still a novelty, my ass.”
Past the open doors was a gleaming marble entry-hall framed by sweeping dual stairways which circled upwards and were lined with decoratively forged iron-wrought railings. The passage between them opened to a large space for entertaining filled with couches and bright chandeliers already buzzing with a crowd of expensively-clad people and the sounds of an unseen chamber orchestra.
Except the magic still being muttered by the chanters at the front and again by two more at the end of this lobby clearly had something else in mind. Something which if Cecilia’s rates for such were correct was astronomically expensive.
Right before we crossed the threshold of their spell I said quietly to Isaiah (though loud enough for Jim’s benefit as well). “Brace yourself. Don’t fight it, and don’t stumble.”
Neither had a chance to say anything as the spell enveloped the three of us and that polished floor fell away.
As teleporting magic went this was a lot rougher than previous experience. There was a full subjective five second count of being swallowed by vaguely lit fog accompanied by a stomach-lurching free-fall before the stilettos again found purchase on solid ground as the mist swirled away to show a different scene entirely.
Despite my own advice, I’d almost popped wings to rip control from the imprecise magic, but that could have been interpreted as rude.
Instead of the previous sharp clicks against perfectly flat marble the shoes now clacked against rounder cobblestones forming a passage between lush vegetation towards a well-lit manor of completely different design and style to the one we’d just left. Spanish rooftops and walls of red and yellow all adorned with round columns and wider flowing archways instead filled our vision.
The temperature had also dropped a good ten degrees.
If the majordomo was expecting shocked reactions to the transition he was likely sorely disappointed. I was giving my best “bored-on-the-edge-of-annoyance” look (Hey, that portal spell really was not up to the standards I was used to - they should ask for a discount.), and Isaiah had slipped into the stoically guarded expression he had developed for court.
Oh. I guess Jim’s delayed and spluttered curse before spinning about might have satisfied the overly tall guy’s amusement. Poor Jim was probably still thrown off-kilter from hearing about my spirit’s parentage as well, come to think of it.
Tough night for the guy. Though I’d have bet good money he’d experience a lot worse before this event was done.
“This way, if you please,” said the majordomo, pointing towards what was clearly a sprawling hacienda.
Isaiah didn’t move. “Where exactly are we?”
“The domicile of my employer, Mr. Lopez, just outside Mexico City. Tonight as your host he embraces his true spirit, the Feathered Serpent and God of Wind and Rain, Quetzalcóatl. Come, most of the others have already arrived.”
Nodding Isaiah said, “Ah. The other party was a decoy.”
“Indeed sir. Security is paramount when the families gather.”
Families? A sneaking suspicion formed while being escorted arm-in-arm by Isaiah. The jungle-framed side passage reached an end and opened to a wide field of perfectly manicured lawn populated by a dozen canvas-covered pergolas containing plush couches and chairs all lit by tiki torches and kept warm by regularly spaced kerosene heaters. Guests, clad in finery from variations of tuxedos to full courtly dresses with long trains, gathered in clumps under the coverings while uniformed white-gloved servants carried trays of glasses and hors d’oeuvres.
Spotting one particular group in a corner I recognized many among them and realized our Jim was severely outclassed. I also began to get a picture as to why Haruko had been so worried.
Amongst many groups a quick scan had revealed to be almost entirely comprised of other dragon-souled individuals all radiating various levels of power, Kami Kurohoshi was the only dragon under his tent. He was also in a wheelchair.
This was not good.
With all eyes upon us the majordomo addressed the crowd. In a guttural tongue never suited for human throats he announced our arrival:
“Honored guests, it is our privilege to present the Lady Amariel, Seraph of Light, Queen of Gealltas, former General of the armies of Duke Valgor of Hell, and the First Angel of the Apocalypse known as Conquest. She graces us this night as friend and ally to one of our own, the Great and Wise Drathonix the Elder. Accompanying her as confidant and adviser we bid welcome to the Archangel Azrael, Lord of the Seat of Judgment within the House of El and the temples of the Most High, and Master of the Fourth Seal - he whose name is Death.”
I was impressed. He'd gotten it right.
Isaiah’s arm around mine flinched but he held his expression perfectly neutral. If he yelled at me later for revealing who his spirit was so be it - but maybe laying it on thick up front would cause folks to hesitate before being outright obnoxious to us.
One could hope anyway.
The majordomo continued. “We are blessed to have such esteemed visitors join our humble gathering.”
Hmm. Given how several enclaves of dragons were staring daggers of unconcealed hostility in our direction, yeah I don’t think they were feeling blessed by our presence.
But hey, at least they weren’t demons.
The majordomo, having fulfilled his duty of escorting us in, nodded and turned to head back to where we’d popped out. Just like that we were on our own.
Pulling on Isaiah’s arm, I started to walk directly towards Kami’s group and was about to take a step off the paved outer rectangle surrounding the lawn when Isaiah tugged sharply back. “You’re in heels. We should go around.”
Oh. In my defense I’d just spent the equivalent of a year marching through mud. Well-maintained grass as an impediment simply hadn’t registered. “Uhm, yeah.”
Shifting direction to take a more casual stroll along the edge, Isaiah gave a sideways glance of eyebrow-raised curiosity. “One of Hell’s Generals?”
I shrugged. “Long story. Tell you later.”
“Definitely will hold you to that.”
While the other enclaves were bursting with dragon energy, Kami’s was not. Instead his ops team surrounded him, along with identically suited Japanese underworld-looking soldiers.
In a tuxedo of her own that I’d bet was bullet-proof, Captain Isong was at attention behind Kami’s wheelchair standing much as she had when I first saw her back at a hotel in Cairo. Frankly the African warrior looked uncomfortable out of her usual tactical attire. Near the front of the makeshift gazebo sat Miguel, the Hispanic fighter and incarnate fire elemental who’d almost slipped into his next life on the roads outside of Aleppo. In a sparkling dress the same metallic blue as both her hair and the swords she could summon from thin air sat Tanya, the mercenary who had been recruited unknowingly into the failed assassination attempt on my niece.
But sitting besides Kami, surgical tubing running from Kami’s wrist directly into his own massive forearm, was Fred. Fred’s tent-like jacket hung on the back of the chair, and his pressed shirt’s sleeves were rolled up. Both shirt and coat had to have been custom tailored as Fred looked like a man who could single-handedly throw a tank.
The fact he was the team medic known as “Doc” not-withstanding.
Letting go of Isaiah, I put hands on hips and addressed their boss. “What’re you doing in a chair that needs wheels, Kami?”
The other guards (who screamed “Yakuza”) making up Kami’s entourage stiffened at my daring to take such a tone with their daimyo. Even his scar-faced Japanese attendant inhaled sharply at such temerity.
His team that knew me however just rolled their eyes and grinned.
“It’s easier than crawling about,” drawled the half-Japanese and dreaded underworld information broker.
I moved closer and risked some eye glow to diagnose the issue. “What gives?”
“Power exercised comes with a price.” All humor faded and the folks around him also ceased their smiles. Although Kami had clearly lost muscle mass and was sporting some new grey in the fuzz of his military-cut hair, his domineering presence on those around him hadn’t faded one whit.
Shit. I had to look deep, but I saw the problem. “Egypt.” Kami had manifested as his full black-dragon self to tackle a thirty-foot demon, using up reserves of mana at a rate his incarnate’s power channels clearly hadn’t been able to handle. The damage was extensive, the interface between spirit and flesh having become seriously singed - granted though, I’d seen a lot worse. But the damaged channels weren’t the heart of the issue. Behind Kami’s eyes lay a dragon deep in its caverned lair desperately fighting against the need for a century-long nap to replenish its running-on-empty reserves.
I took a look around the yard almost half the size of a football field to scan all the other groups. Upon more careful examination they were separated by geography: people and dragons from Europe, Africa, Latin America, South-East Asia, and Japan, each speaking in their native languages with the buzz and hum of politics. “Let me guess, these are all rivals who are drooling over the chance to capitalize on their eldest’s sudden weakness.”
“You grasp the situation.”
I inhaled. “How can I help?”
Fred, his healing-tonic blood pumping slowly into the other man, spoke up. “Can you refill him? You darn near overloaded everyone to exploding at the pyramid. What if you did that to the Boss?”
Kami snorted. “An overload caused the problem in the first place.”
I nodded. “Yeah. But I can help your system heal the damage. Same thing I did for a kid who’s spark got snuffed saving your daughter from a necromantic shockwave.” He’d also saved my niece, and darn near forever lost his magic in the process. Just as the team here had saved the world, so had he.
Because if he hadn’t, Danielle would not have lived long enough to be a hero all her own.
Putting a hand on Kami’s shoulder, Isong said, “Didn’t your experts say healing this was impossibly beyond their arts?”
Isaiah chuckled which got everyone’s attention. “Our Jordan here performs at least three impossible things before breakfast.”
“True that,” said Miguel with a nod. “And what’s this about you bein’ a queen?” He winked as he adjusted the yellow-on-black flame printed bow-tie at his neck. Despite the tie being more stylish than everyone else’s, he too was not comfortable in such a formal outfit. “Thought you were our princess!”
I gave him a warm smile. “Always.”
“Whatever she may or may not be able to do, now is not the time,” said Kami.
As much as I hated to see the man like this, I had to agree. If I pulled off what would be considered a miracle right here in front of everyone, then Kami would be known to be heavily indebted to me. It could undermine his political position. “Got it. So what can you tell me about tonight?”
His answer surprised everyone except his scar-faced and silent attendant. “Nothing.”
Yeah, so much for my smile. “Seriously?” Heck, that wasn’t even a cosmic-cheesecake worthy evasion. He didn’t even try.
Isaiah mirrored Isong’s gesture and put a hand on my shoulder. “I believe I understand the situation.”
Kami studied him - which must have carried some extra meaning between the two I wasn’t getting - and then said, “You both should go enjoy some food and drink.” He pointed towards the many servers hovering at the edges waiting for opportune moments to slip unobtrusively through the crowd.
And with that we’d been dismissed.
Huh. And here I’d been feeling all proud at catching the political nuances. But as I’d wanted Isaiah here to help deal with this kind of thing, ignoring him and causing a fuss would be stupid. Not that I didn’t grumble once we were out of earshot of the rest, of course. Well, except for Jim who lurked close behind.
“Darnit,” I whined. “What did I miss?”
Before he could answer one of those servers was instantly on our left offering fluted glasses filled with Chardonnay.
Ugh, I hated Chardonnay.
Isaiah took a sip then a long swallow. “Mmm. This is really good.” By his smirk he was clearly enjoying knowing something I didn’t.
“Savoring the moment, are you?”
He flashed a wider self-satisfied smile then got serious once the server wandered off to their next victim. “You know he can’t ask you for anything, or even be seen as implying doing so. I don’t have your sight, but if I had to guess we’re currently surrounded by dragons from around the world. True?”
Oh. I had actually assumed he’d be able to see spirit-side. Don’t ask me why. “Yeah. About two-thirds of the crowd. Kami is sailing solo on that front with his crew.”
“Then he can’t be seen even suggesting that he could use help from Celestials. It’s a matter of pride. Only worldly and elemental dragons stayed to incarnate when the Seals were put in place - they aren’t fond of Celestial spirits, a category which by the way includes angels.”
“And you know this how?”
Steel glinted in his eyes. “I remember.”
“Look, I understand that much. But he’s not even telling us what this gathering is all about.”
“Think, Jordan. Depending on what is about to happen tonight, simply informing you of it could be construed as asking for aid by your presence alone. As is we are both here solely due to your offering to visit him. Given your status as ally - and how you likely saved most of those present by your actions at the pyramid - he could hardly refuse nor could anyone else object.”
Well huh. Haruko’s inability to tell me anything wasn’t due to being ordered not to. She too had been silenced by the circumstance, just like her father.
Mentally I made a note that I hated politics. It sat atop a pile of similarly phrased sentences that had been gathering for awhile.
Another server appeared as if by magic, this time with a tray smothered with small cuts of barely seared beef wrapped by paper thin slices of grilled onion. Isaiah, having finished the wine (that was fast!) traded his glass for a napkin piled with the toothpick-speared samples. Popping one in his mouth his face lit up, all traces of brooding lawyer (or angel) disappearing in an instant. “Oh my god, you have to try these.” He held out the napkin.
I tasted one. Expecting the usual bite of steak I was pleasantly surprised. The beef melted in the mouth, barely requiring even chewing. The onion, being so thin you could see through it, added just a hint of additional texture and flavor which somehow really enhanced the meat itself.
“You know what this is, right?” He ate a second piece, eyes closing in culinary ecstasy. “Wagyu beef. Perfection!”
Sensing a fresh target, a parade of servers began strolling past. Immaculately clean white gloves carried tray after tray and Isaiah sampled everything with exuberance. Dishes included orange-colored cantaloupe slices wrapped in prosciutto (”These are Yubari King melons! Just one can sell for twenty-thousand dollars!”), lobster and egg frittatas piled high with caviar (”Almas Caviar from Iran, did you know that it arrives in tins of twenty-four karat gold?”), cured ham on lightly toasted bread with olive oil and Parmesan (”Not just any ham, this has to be Iberico!”), and more. Isaiah tasted every dish, each offering propelling him to even higher rapturous exclamations.
While I only sampled a quarter of the things he did, I couldn’t help but smile at my friend’s delight. His only consent to moderation was switching to sparkling water instead of alcohol.
Considering our circumstance of being surrounded by dragons this was probably wise.
He was in the middle of waving yet another napkin - this one supporting bites of bagels and cream cheese which literally was sprinkled with flaked gold (”It’s White Alba Truffle! C’mon, how can you pass this up?”) - when the majordomo appeared again at the edge of the lawn. Behind him was an entire procession of newcomers, some wearing western tuxedos and gowns but many attired in traditional Tang suits or Cheongsam dresses, the latter covered with softer artistic colors and flowers as if hand-painted across the silk.
For all I knew they may very well have been.
Standing beside the majordomo was a Chinese youth no more than sixteen years old. Unlike the rest of the entourage’s more conservatively colored attire his tuxedo’s jacket and pants were a bright yellow tinged slightly by hints of orange. Bow tie and cummerbund matched the rest, sitting atop a white silk shirt that honestly seemed lost behind all that yellow. His black hair was short, the sides not quite buzzed and the rest on top feathered just so to sweep to a side. As if the garish outfit wasn’t bad enough, he looked over the entire gathering with an absolutely arrogant gaze and a lopsided smirk formed at his lips when his eyes fell on Kami’s enclave.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the energy radiating from the guy’s spirit, a deep well of power that must have taken ages to accumulate. The kid was frankly bursting at the seams - and from what I could see of his pattern, his human channels had been carefully stretched and reinforced to expand his capabilities.
Whatever training he’d undergone must have begun as soon as the boy had been able to understand his instructors’ commands. Maybe even before.
Nearest to him were shorter men roughly the same age each with a beautiful girl on their arm; following those were a collection of scholarly long bearded men and grey-haired women.
Turning to bow low to the youth the majordomo again spoke in the draconic language. I wondered if he’d need a lozenge after each throat-scraping announcement.
“Let all who gather bear witness, for it is our high honor to present his Radiant Highness Huánglóng, Son of Heaven, the Yellow Emperor, Lord of a Thousand Years, and Patriarch of all Zhongguo.”
As one all the younger guys surrounding Mr. Yellow immediately shouted in Mandarin. “Hail Huánglóng, Son of Heaven!”
I was beginning to see why this kid’s ego might be a tad inflated.
The majordomo (whose own height was obviously irritating the nowhere-near-as-tall Chinese youth) stepped aside, gesturing towards the one as-yet unoccupied tent area with another bow. The guy in yellow barely acknowledged the majordomo’s existence and began strolling along the paved path towards the empty pergola and the rest immediately followed.
Naturally this was the area Isaiah and I were standing next to, having moved there to be out of earshot as best as possible from anyone else. The outer and non-grassy path to get to it went right under our feet.
I prepared to get out of the way but Isaiah’s arm firmly took mine again. Under his breath he said, “He already saw us. Don’t move.”
As the entourage approached, I overheard one of the younger guys (who was maybe fifteen and staring at me) snicker and say in Mandarin, “I wonder how much she costs?”
To which another replied, “I bet she’ll give that old guy a heart attack later.”
After further snickers one added, “He’d think it worth the coin!”
The whole front group then laughed, while the older generation behind them remained stoic.
I must have tensed up because Isaiah laid his other hand against my elbow where it was tucked around his. Not as reassurance but as firm restraint.
Fine. I’d hold back. For now.
When the crew got within half a dozen feet the fact that we weren’t going to just move out of the way became too obvious to ignore so they stopped. After giving me a look-over that lingered way too long on my body (because of course it would), the Yellow Dragon turned his attention entirely to Isaiah.
“Do you speak English?” he asked, his own accent perfectly neutral American.
“I do,” Isaiah replied.
“That is good. It was my understanding that Tanin’iver declined the invitation on behalf of his entire clan. Are you here then representing the Teli who no longer follow the Steed of Lilith?”
Heh. The guy’s senses weren’t that great if he mistook Isaiah for a Hebraic dragon. Since introducing yourself is sometimes considered ill-manners I spoke up. “Might I present-”
The so-called Son of Heaven immediately cut me off. “Your betters are talking, girl. Be silent!” He even threw in a dismissive flip of a hand.
Isaiah’s fingers on my elbow tightened further, likely to keep me from blasting this jerk on the spot.
Which was very tempting.
My friend took to verbal action to prevent my direct violence. “Sir,” he said in a voice coldly dripping with disdain, “As you missed our announcement we shall overlook your insult as merely being the impetuousness of youth. For only a fool would so dare insult a Seraph of the Most High, and surely you are not such a fool. Come, Lady Amariel. I do believe we can spend our time more pleasantly elsewhere.”
“If you so wish, Lord Azrael,” I said with a sweetness that totally didn’t match my glare. As we turned away from the youth whose own face was becoming an interesting shade of red, I remembered an old proverb I’d heard in college from a Chinese classmate. In Mandarin loud enough for all to hear I therefore added, “After all, a quarter of an hour is worth more than a thousand gold coins.”
I can neither confirm nor deny that an older woman at the back of the entourage chuckle-snorted under her breath hearing that.
Since we couldn’t exactly head directly back to Kami’s group we strolled slowly past it instead. Isong had moved to the back of the tent and her dark features offered an ivory smile as we went by. “Making friends?”
“Absolutely,” I said and blew her a kiss.
Our unique situation must have gathered the attention of the organizer of this fine soiree, as many of the serving staff were suddenly running across the lawn carrying two cushion-backed chairs, a patio umbrella, and one of the kerosene heat lamps. These they set up halfway between Kami’s camp and the next one over which was filled with its own collection of Japanese men and women who kept glaring with obvious antipathy towards the Chinese contingent.
Frankly considering the history between their peoples I would have kept those two factions at opposite corners. But that’s just me.
Taking our hastily-set-up seats with Jim posting up behind, another set of servers appeared at our lefts yet again. This time I accepted the offered wine, and was pleasantly surprised by a wonderful Pinot Grigio which utterly lacked the slimy aftertaste of Chardonnay.
“Hey Isaiah,” I said after the two ladies in suits with the identifying gloves of the staff were well away. “I just realized something. Did you understand what those jerks were saying in Chinese?”
“Yes. Though even if I hadn’t I would have gotten the gist. Each one of them owes you an apology.”
“Fat chance of getting that without beating their heads into the lawn first. But that wouldn’t be diplomatic.”
He laughed. “No, it wouldn’t.”
“So do you have the whole Gift of Tongues thing now?”
Removing glasses for cleaning (even though they looked perfectly clear to me), he shook his head. “Not entirely. I’m able to understand what is spoken, but I can’t always talk back in the different languages like you do.”
Huh. Interesting. “What about the angelic language? Can you speak it?” If he could, he’d gain some serious ability - and transcend even the physical realm’s rules for magic.
You know, like I kept doing.
He stared like I was crazy and, after tucking away the cloth, returned the glasses to their perch on his distinctive nose. “For me to do so could possibly break the Fourth Seal.”
“Oh. Guess that’s out then.”
From our isolated seats we watched the seemingly choreographed dance of servers and guests. Occasionally a member of one enclave would approach another, hold a discussion, then return to their own flock. While there were many things I wanted to discuss with Isaiah this was clearly not a good opportunity - as I wouldn’t have put it past such a wealthy host to have parabolic microphones (or their magical equivalents) aimed at pretty much everybody. There were certainly enough security agents lurking around the bushes and behind open windows of the Hacienda to accomplish such. As I’d not wanted to freak out any of the more sensitive members of the gathering I’d reduced my active scanning of things, something which had taken a measure of self-control to limit.
Just because they were dragons and not demons did not make them any less dangerous, or me any less exposed by sitting here in the open.
As for our (supposed) security, poor Jim was stuck on his feet behind us. Though I did convince him to have some sparkling water. His own poker face was fairly good - if he’d decided we were all insanely wealthy and crazy Live-Action-Role-Players he didn’t let it show.
Of course having been teleported from one country to another would make holding on to such a belief tricky.
Eventually a stocky gentleman sporting a handlebar mustache and wearing yet another perfectly tailored tuxedo stepped away from an enclave to slowly turn about before addressing the crowd, getting them all to hush the ongoing murmur of their discussions. The man’s bow-tie was a neat swirl of light blue and turquoise which imitated the style of Jerry Garcia’s collection - something that got me wondering if Nick Wright had started wearing such ties during his apprenticeship with Soren as I’d seen both of them wearing such. Nick had even worn one when he’d showed up at my house the day the madness started, and Soren had on another when we’d encountered him outside Aleppo. Admittedly the patterns were rather stylish.
Not that I’d get the chance to ask either of them, seeing as how both were still (and likely forever) stuck in Hell.
Isaiah reached over and tapped my leg to get me to pay attention as the guy had been talking, using once more the language of dragons which would have been the envy of Heavy-Metal throat-ripping singers worldwide.
“…has been ages since we have gathered together so. Not since the days of mighty Babylon and its ill-fated Tower have so many of our people remembered their true selves. And now, tonight, the powers of this world - the pantheons of deities, courts of Fae, the Lords of the Elementals - have again been invited to an Ecclesia. For the Seals that bind us are breaking - and the Kemetics Heru and Set have gained control of the mana our beloved world-spirit has replenished over these many years of bondage.”
He stared at Isaiah and me when mentioning the Seals, and there was no love behind the immaculately waxed mustache for either of us.
“What policy we as dragons and lords of the lines of power should undertake needs be decided prior to the greater Ecclesia. Since days beyond memory we have followed the oldest among us, their wisdom offering guidance by which we did abide. But the higher dragons from whom such council was forged did not incarnate. Only Drathonix, our eldest Dragon, he who rules the Secret Places Under the Earth, joined us in that combat against darkness before the flood swept away all. Dear brothers and sisters, are we again united behind our Eldest to heed what council he alone would provide? Or are there any among us who would give challenge to the Exalted Drathonix’s leadership? I, Quetzalcoatl, ask this. What say you?”
Even I could see where this was going - and why Haruko had been so worried. Because without delay a single voice called out:
“I, Huánglóng, Son of Heaven, declare my challenge!”
Chapter 13 - Glimpse
The Yellow Dragon was granted the floor (or more specifically, the lawn), and he moved to its center to address the enclaves - or more specifically each group’s individual leader, as it was clear they each were dominated by a single presence. The youth took a moment to steady himself, smothering nervousness with determination before speaking.
“I know compared to many here tonight that my incarnate-self is young. But unlike those who found themselves awakening only this past summer, as one who has within an elder spirit I knew at an early age who I truly am and was. Memories pleasing and horrifying haunted every dream, and through them the dragon inside has made his will known.”
He paused again, standing more and more defiantly in the orange-tinted yellow outfit. “I make no claim that we do not owe Kurohoshi a great debt for his actions in preventing the loss of the Third Seal from flooding the world with an overload only the strongest of us could have survived. But look where the guidance of his spirit, Drathonix, has led us! Trapped for ages beyond measure! And with each passing year fewer of us incarnate - the time between our iterations growing longer. And some have disappeared forever, either lost to an eternal sleep from which their spirits never awaken or cast beyond the trap forged by the Bene-Elohim to imprison their ill-conceived offspring.”
That last bit earned Isaiah and I a few more harsh stares. Not that either of us flinched.
“The time has come to end being bound to hapless mortal existences! The mana tide held in check by the Kemetic agents at the pyramids is rightfully ours. We are dragons of Earth! We are the caretakers of the Mother’s bounty, the proper guides of its sacred flow throughout the world! And look also what the defense of our world has cost. Look at the damage done to our own Kurohoshi and the price he has paid! Those within the barriers of the pyramids suffered no such loss. Only one of our own remains damaged from his sacrifice.” The kid then stared directly at me, the earlier anger again flushing his cheeks. “Even she who removed the bomb set in place by the treacherous Grigori has endured no permanent price. For there she sits, untouched and unharmed!”
Isaiah’s gloved hand was tightly gripping my arm. I’d risen from the seat and taken a step forward. Hissing a whisper he said, “Jordan! Don’t!”
With seething chest I stood still. But the so-called Emperor received the fullness of my rage-filled glare. No price? How dare he!
And the jerk sneered as he turned away.
“Tonight the powers of our world gather. They will debate what is to be done. And we can ill afford to be led by someone perceived as weak. Even someone as noble as our Kami Kurohoshi and the spirit of Drathonix within him. Therefore I offer challenge for leadership - though I ask that he yield as I have no desire to cause him further harm.”
Everyone looked to Kurohoshi who had wheeled his chair to the threshold his pergola. In calm yet harsh words he gave his reply. “I am in no shape for battle.”
Before the yellow bastard could gloat in victory, our mustachioed host interjected.
“Challenge has been issued. But with deference to the sacrifice endured by Drathonix and his incarnate - and fully within our traditions that have served us since this world cooled from primal fire to luscious bounty - I must ask: are any dragons willing to champion our Eldest?” Quetzalcoatl’s incarnate was staring deep into the Japanese enclave adjacent Kurohoshi’s as he said this, right at an older man whose wisps of white hair formed a halo upon narrow skull to preside over deep-set eyes. The old man shook his head. While he too was a powerful dragon, he was clearly no match to the power radiating from the so-called Son of Heaven.
Our host, disappointed at the lack of response, looked around. And then he spoke the magic words.
“Are there no allies who would lend their strength to Drathonix?”
Getting up and stepping out of Isaiah’s reach I called out in their language. “It would be my honor to stand as champion for Drathonix. For when I was in need he lent me strength. How could I not in good faith repay such now? By his actions was the ultimate sacrifice by my beloved fae-incarnated niece not made in vain.”
I didn’t need to see Kami’s slight smile to understand he’d been behind Haruko’s request-without-requesting all along.
Naturally not all were happy with my declaration. A middle-aged woman in a black and purple sarong whose brunette locks were flecked with silver objected. “She is of the Bene-Elohim! She serves another Master. Unless she is claiming that Elohim Himself is now a declared ally of Drathonix, she cannot be champion!”
Isaiah moved to my side. In their language (much to his own surprise, judging by his startled blinking) he said, “Amariel, the Promised of the Most High, serves only her unique and holy Word. The Throne of Elohim makes no claim to her service for she stands unbound and apart from the Host of Holies.”
Everyone was stunned to silence.
“So,” I said in English while grinning rather unkindly at his yellow imperiousness. “We doing this or what?”
It took about half an hour to get ready. The boy in imperial yellow needed to change out of his flashy mess of a tuxedo and I out of my dress.
Granted the dress and most of the accessories I simply willed away before tossing on the jeans shorts, t-shirt, and underclothes that had been left in the car. Jim had been sent back through the portal to retrieve them. His face was a littler greener when he got back, but he made it.
As for the golden wrist cuffs, I kept Camael’s gifts on.
Stepping out of the changing room and back into the chilled night air, I found Isaiah and Quetzalcoatl’s incarnate, Mr. Lopez, waiting. Isaiah was again looking stern, and the way he’d crossed arms made it obvious he was not comfortable about things.
Or maybe he was just unhappy that I’d made my hair short and spiky again. Even a long braid could be used by an opponent against you, and it’s not like I had a helmet to keep it all tucked away.
Being quite a few inches shorter, Mr. Lopez needed to lift his chin to look me in the face. “Are you sure about being Kami’s champion?”
“Heck yeah. What are the rules?”
“Such challenges mix physical with energetic power as befits a dragon.”
I considered. “Are weapons allowed?”
“He will likely wield Long Yuan, the Dragon Abyss. I hear the sword is in his possession.”
“Huh.” A blade straight from Chinese legend. Of course. “You wouldn’t happen to have a spear or a naginata I can borrow?”
Mr. Lopez stroked the side of his mustache. “I believe I have a Conquistador halberd or two, along with a few historical Aztec spears with obsidian bladed tips that were once hurled using an atlatl. Though I would expect that Long Yuan would cleave any of these into many pieces.”
That could be a problem. “How attached are you to those Aztec spears?”
I smiled. “Would you object if I altered one of them?”
He looked at me with baffled reservation. “In what way exactly?”
“Changed the wood into something sturdier. That’s allowed, right?”
Isaiah, his curiosity getting the better of him, spoke up. “What would you change it into?”
“Felwood. The stuff that grows in Hell is harder than most steel and a total pain in the ass to harvest. Which is why it’s so damned expensive. But it’s got a pattern I’m rather familiar with.”
Mr. Lopez’s eyes lit up. “Then it would become an item entirely unique on Earth! Let me fetch one from the displays!” He scurried off, leaving me and Isaiah standing alone under an archway leading back to the lawn which had now become an arena.
My friend took advantage of the opportunity. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Oh I think I do.”
“He’s trained his whole life to fight. Don’t underestimate him.”
“That boy is in desperate need of a spanking,” I said seriously, feeling again the core of hardness I had tried to put aside since returning from places below. “And this ain’t my first cage match.”
Isaiah opened his mouth to say more, but whatever he saw in me closed it again.
We waited in silence until Mr. Lopez returned with a seven-foot-long spear made of oak, its tip indeed of the black stone that is chipped and flaked into sharpness. Below the pointy end a long brown feather had been tied, with other feathering encircling the staff at a few decorative spots. Taking it from him, I looked it over and then swung it around a few times to get a sense of its length and balance.
Yeah, while the oak was nice, it felt lightweight compared to what I was used to. Planting the staff-end into the lawn I closed eyes and began whispering to the weapon, letting the words carry my intent and light-infused will.
Without needing to look I could feel the reddish oak twist internally as the essence of felwood filled its pattern, modifying and hardening the structure into something both similar and yet quite different. While I could have just created a weapon out of nothing, doing so required a lot more effort, and a magnitude higher amount of energy.
In other words I’d have needed to pop at least two wings to pull in enough primal light. Whereas working with an existing pattern and changing it was a lot simpler to achieve. Even if additional mass was being generated, from an abstract point of view it was a like-to-like transformation.
As for the obsidian at the end of the weapon, I decided to cheat even more by giving the stone extra density as well as enhancing the number of channels through which energy could be poured - all without sacrificing the razor sharp edge.
When I was done I held a feathered staff of knotted black-upon-black with a tip gleaming dangerously in the dancing light of the many torches scattered about the lawn.
Mr. Lopez was staring at it in pure dragon-hoarding desire.
“Thanks, this will do,” I said before patting Mr. Lopez on the back. “And don’t worry - I’ll return it when this is over.”
The dragon’s fingers twitched with hungry anticipation.
“Right,” I said, wondering why I kept getting stuck in the middle of these sorts of things. “Another duel. Yippee-kiyay.”
I left the last part of that quote unsaid. It didn’t seem polite.
The three of us walked out towards the middle of the lawn, though the Yellow Dragon had yet to arrive with his second. On the way I couldn’t help myself. Leaning into Isaiah I commented, “Hey, at least this time I’m not naked.”
His steps faltered and the shocked and confused look across his face as he stumbled to catch up was totally worth it.
Mr. Lopez had been right and His Imperial Yellowness came out holding a rather fancy-looking and wickedly double-edged straight sword, known as a jian. With a silver and blue one-handed hilt, the cross-piece was forged of two elegantly in-curving waves as if the sword’s blade itself was a waterfall splashing into the hilt.
It was actually quite beautiful - and also hummed with great power.
As for the incarnate of the Yellow Dragon, he had changed into (what else?) a yellow silk yi-fu, the kung-fu martial artist’s loose-fabric uniform. He even had matching color “Tai Chi” shoes.
We faced off after a perfunctory bow about ten yards apart, him with right foot extended and the left knee behind bent to act as the main support, holding the sword parallel to the ground so it would point directly at his opponent. His left arm was also held back and up almost like a fencer’s pose but with the fingers held straight and pointed towards me. He had good balance, though I was paying more attention to his chi energies and how he was drawing additional boost from the dragon spirit within to infuse muscles and tendons with greater potentials.
As for me I stood in my own balanced stance holding the spear in what Sensei Ito had called Jodan-no-kamae, or an “upper level position”. Basically the spear is held above the head in line with your feet while the pointy bit sticks out behind you. It’s a good starting form if you need speed and want to strike at a distance.
Also looks rather badass if I do say so myself.
Having moved safely off to the side, Mr. Lopez (Quetzalcoatl) didn’t belabor the occasion with any further colorful commentary and simply listed the rules. “Fight until one yields or is unable to continue. Killing a downed opponent forfeits.”
Good to know.
With a sharp shout of “Begin!” it was on and a fireball the size of a truck screamed towards my face.
Yep, I was expecting such immediate shenanigans. Call it a lesson learned from a certain demonic mercenary captain who was most certainly not resting peacefully.
More like in pieces.
Before the starting shout the kid had also channeled energy into the sword, preparing to instantly strike with the spellwork woven throughout the blade. Which in the end was still just standard magic as per the rules of this physical world.
In other words it had no defense against someone manipulating things on a different level entirely.
Instead of dodging the incoming flames I stepped into them, the spear flashing in a swept circle as the left handhold acted as the pivot and the right guided it overhead to sweep down across the front of the blast to split it into two before the flames faded into a shower of harmless cascading sparks. Which is what happens when someone unplugs the empowering magical mana from a spell by ripping it free and converting it back to primal energy.
Someone, that is, like me.
Around the feathered tip of the spear now orbited two balls of stolen light, pure and brilliant spinning circles half a foot out from the obsidian blade.
Still in the same starting stance, Yellow Kid’s startled expression quickly turned to rage as he charged forward to use the sword in the purpose its metal had been forged: hack and slash.
Letting enough of the light within to flip eyeballs into flashlights, I held the rest of that inner pillar in check - much as it was ever eager to shine forth like a Las Vegas sky-beacon. But I didn’t need that much more mojo, just enough to pierce the possible futures of the dragon-incarnate’s attacks so the no-longer-oak weapon could spin and weave to deflect the sword’s blows one after the other, each impact ringing through the metal blade and resounding as a thud against the solid felwood.
To most onlookers I continually escaped being decapitated by the merest of margins through swing after swing, and the kid’s eyes gleamed with anticipation that at any moment he’d connect and I’d fall to the damp grass in a bloody heap. Indeed many in the crowd were shouting encouragement, eagerly hoping that at last one of their own would take down a hated angel - especially an angel who had in her former life been directly responsible for entrapping their draconic spirits for thousands of years.
Aradia’s guilt lurked still within my heart. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to take him down fast and hard. Also he really was just a kid. His attacks, smoothly and beautifully performed with chi-infused speed and power, were in the end the products of tireless practice against training partners who could never measure up to what he himself could do.
This was, as far as I could tell, his first real fight against someone fully empowered. The more we danced and the more his strikes never quite landed, not only did his frustration grow - but also his fear. He really had poured himself into the training, striving as best as he possibly could to live up to the expectations of those around him.
While glimpsing moments in the future I caught fragments of his past.
“Again, Huang Bohai! Your footwork is sloppy! You may have been chosen by Heaven but these failures are yours and yours alone. Do not disgrace your sacred spirit!”
These were words he had heard endlessly from teachers, parents, and grandparents. Starting from before he had even learned to walk.
“You are the Lord of a Thousand Years! You are the vessel through which his greatness may once more walk this world! Do it again!”
Bruises and broken bones had been visited upon a child always loudly deemed a disappointment. Each wound healed only to be injured again. Until he grew stronger and the instructors began to fall instead to his assault. One by one he learned to crush them all.
Only then did he hear any approval from those whose external voices mattered most to the child still within. But lurking deeper yet was a rumble of steam and thunder, spilling past a pair of golden-yellow eyes staring out from the depths of history.
From Him all that emerged was eternal disgust and loathing for a creature of two arms and two legs, puny in stature, limited in capacity, and forever unworthy.
And here I was about to lend further proof to that exact sentiment.
The boy Huang Bohai became desperate, his attacks overreaching while sending spell after spell through the sword. The lawn ruptured and the air streaked with lightning and fire. Even high-pressure waterspouts lanced the space between us.
But all that did was increase the number of spinning orbs circling about the spear, each growing brighter and brighter with all his expended energy.
After a particularly potent blastwave he paused about five yards distant. Chest heaving and with sweat-drenched hair he stared in disbelief as I took again the same stance as I’d held in the beginning.
Out of breath he stammered, “How?”
Shifting the spear to a more defensive position held across my front, I replied. “You’re strong, Huang Bohai. But you’ve never faced a true opponent.”
That disbelief became disgust as anger fueled by self-doubt and fear snarled lips. “I cannot lose! Not to a Yiji like you! Victory must belong to Huánglóng!”
To the spirit within, Huang Bohai then threw open all the gates.
“No!” I shouted. “Don’t do it!” But my words were too late.
The Yellow Dragon’s power surged upwards as its incarnate fell backwards into the grass. Yellow sparks swarmed from the boy’s chest, more and more of them billowing forth with each heartbeat. The first part to take shape was the head, the numerous yellow-orange streamers coalescing into massive jaws and brilliantly burning eyes.
But underneath I could see that despite the boy’s training his channels weren’t up to it - he’d burnout even worse than Kami had done when fighting the demon at the pyramid.
Because this dragon did not care if his human-side lived or died.
Without thought I was airborne burning with a need of my own. Six wings of light blossomed to illuminate house and sky, and within that engulfing rush my will and the Imperial Dragon’s clashed, the air between us warping and twisting as the dragon’s head began to sink back into the human body lying beneath.
At the same time I siphoned away the released power the dragon was attempting to use to manifest. Doing so caused my vision to shift, the symbols and words comprising this planet flashing undeniably into view.
It was solid, this world, this physical manifestation. Spirit layered and blended with matter, the intent of the All held it fixed as a firmament of firmaments. But the more I looked, the more I saw at the micro-level, far beyond anything measurable, all these tiny gaps and spaces. Not weaknesses per-se, but openings.
And through them flowed minuscule spirals of the purest primal Chaos, bleeding ever-so-subtly into the overall pattern yet still held perfectly in check.
So astounded at this realization I pulled in more Light, broadening the focus further. There was more to see, more to understand, and the symphony which had once overwhelmed and swallowed every perception now danced and swayed as if only there to await my desired command.
As if simply waiting to show me everything.
Symbols parted, swept away not by darkness but separation. Wings of night moved all else aside until the scene of hacienda, lawn, and guests resolved again into view. Above them floated a sphere of white flame.
Protecting them from being burned unto destruction by the fires of raw existence was a man with left hand held upward, bare and black as the glove had burned away, while the spirit within shifted wave after wave of piercing and blinding energy into its spread wings of starry night and therefore into alternate - and safer - dimensional lines. Behind him stood another angel clad in gleaming armor of deep crimson lined with gold, gilded dark wings of her own spread free within the immense brightness blazing across everything. The golden shield pressed into Isaiah’s back kept him standing and helped keep his focus steady.
Lest the fabric of this realm, this space of spirit and physical no matter how strong, be rent asunder.
I didn’t want to. There was more, so much more. I could reach it. With a push I could examine all of Creation in its entire glory - to see how the tones whether rising or falling fit together and maybe, just maybe, perceive the thoughts and plans of the One Who Created Everything. It was all right there - the answers to all the questions, the meanings behind each and every note in the music that drove all things.
All I had to do was try.
A surge from the darker angel below tore at that greater vision like a dagger ripping across the mind. Senses failed, and when they scrambled a recovery I was falling and picking up speed. With a cry, two wings reformed to counter the last few seconds of gravity’s pull yielding only a hard landing as limbs, feathers, and torso tumbled through grass and mud.
Rising to sod-smeared knees I spat out a mouthful of gunk, and with a shrieked scream pounded the wet earth with a frustrated fist, sending clods flying in all directions.
I’d been so close. So damn close.
A half-dozen yards away a young man was also on the ground and staring. But not with the eyes of a troubled teen but rather an ancient being wracked again with a torment which had lasted millennia.
For he was trapped once more within human flesh.
“Look brethren, see the truth.” The Yellow Dragon lifted the boy’s head, glaring about with pride and pain. “The Bene-Elohim mean to keep us in bondage - even temporary escape is denied!”
The crowd, picking themselves up from the wreckage of chairs and ripped-free canvas covers, stared at us three: boy, man, and manifested angel.
Still shaking from the ultimate temptation having been ripped away, I struggled to push that aside and again find my voice. “You…you could have killed him. Must everything be decided by fighting strength alone? Whatever happened to benevolence and wisdom, or have they been forgotten?!”
“You dare speak of such principles, angel?” spat the dragon, yellow eyes boring into mine. “Then listen, and listen well. What matters the death of one human when the survival of our people is at stake! Did you not hear the words I gave him to speak? We diminish, year over year, imprisoned behind your curse without respite, and with no newborn dragons of this world to uphold our proper place! What good is waiting for the Earth Mother’s blessings if none are there to receive them? The only hope for our people is to tear that curse apart - no matter the consequences!”
Some distance behind him the Japanese man who our host had stared at when asking for champions used a toppled and extinguished tiki torch to prop himself up, his wispy white hair all a-tumble. He then called out in the language of dragons - though not to me nor to the Yellow Dragon.
“Kurohoshi! If you do not now reveal your greatest triumph, I shall!”
Still sitting in the wheelchair which had been held in place by Doc’s muscles, Kami’s eyes blazed and he roared with rising fury. “Oroshi!”
“If this is not the time, my brother, then when?”
Kami’s shoulders hunched, fingers digging into the arms of the chair, but he said nothing more.
The Yellow Dragon turned those eyes to the one Kami had called Oroshi. “What triumph? Of what do you speak?”
Pointing at his brother, Oroshi answered. “Kurohoshi Kami has succeeded where we all have failed! His daughter’s spirit is dual natured: human soul-spark merged with an egg forged of sorcery and the bond between Drathonix and Delphyne. From this sacred egg we shall bear witness to the birth of the first Dragon of Earth since our captivity! For in truth her spirit is as one!”
The first? Holy crud. I hadn’t realized that. The importance plowed into my brain like a runaway train. The same must have hit everyone else as the air suddenly filled with everyone shouting at once.
“Proof!” bellowed the Yellow Dragon over the rising din. “We must have proof!”
“I’ve seen it,” I yelled out. “It exists - an egg within his daughter that has yet to hatch!”
The dragon snarled. “An egg is not proof of what it contains. Did you peer within its shell?”
Truthfully I hadn’t. With the way the egg swallowed energy I’d been hesitant to let it slurp at mine - especially considering what had happened to the fae whom I’d let do just that.
Instead a woman near Kami gave answer. “I have witnessed the proof you seek!” Her accent was terrible yet Tanya shouted in the draconic tongue. “An Elemental Lord of Fire split his flame to prevent harm to the daughter of Kurohoshi. The Lord greeted her as the ‘bearer of the Dragon Lord’s heir’ and turned apart his fire to hold true to ancient compact! I was there, and I swear this to be true. I swear it upon the sword of my soul!”
The ancient Chinese dragon let the boy’s jaw hang open as the uproar from everyone began again.
Spotting the spear in the shredded grass, I picked it up and forced myself to my feet. Stepping across the wreckage we’d left of the lawn, I placed the obsidian blade at the neck of my opponent.
“Huánglóng,” I said slowly, “Son of Heaven, Yellow Emperor, Lord of a Thousand Years, and Patriarch of all Zhongguo - do you yield?”
Deep inside the boy a dragon exhaled a burst of steam and closed its eyes.
Chapter 14 - Roads
The jeep’s weak headlights tenuously split the night to illuminate a two-lane gravel road. While plans were in process to properly pave Uganda’s Gulu-Nimule Road, construction had yet to start as, with everything in this part of the world, navigating the bribes inherent in their engines of bureaucracy slowed progress to a snail’s pace. Considering the number of times they’d needed to stop to coax the right-hand-drive jeep out of yet another mud-hole, the need for improvement was clear to anyone who actually used the path from Gulu to the city of Juba, but government officials rarely visited the areas they actually oversaw.
It had been Irumba’s suggestion to make the run at night as the battered and rust-covered jeep’s air conditioning had died years ago and daytime temperatures would reach the mid-thirties in Centigrade, or as his blond passenger’s upbringing was more familiar with Fahrenheit, the mid-nineties. Instead of going north to Juba when they reached the road, however, they had turned south to drive through Gulu and then continue on towards a flight out of Entebbe.
While Juba’s airport was technically closer, South Sudan was not a safe place for travelers.
“The nurse isn’t happy you be leaving,” the driver said for the third time before swerving around another hazardous divot, downshifting a grinding transmission to recover speed.
“All the children have recovered. Our work there is done.”
“Yes, yes. But Apoka says it may have its own outbreak.”
“There is always another outbreak.”
“Maybe your new friend could help there too?”
“Like I’ve told you, she wants me to go to Cairo.”
“Is mess there now. Riots. You should go to Apoka.”
“Just drive, Irumba.”
Settling back into the threadbare passenger seat, the lab-coat wearing doctor closed eyes though he didn’t want to actually sleep. In slumber he’d found no respite from the dreams and the burning and terrible anger they arose within him.
She had promised answers. For the sake of his sanity, he needed to collect.
As the dreams had come to haunt his mind even when awake.
The tomb was sealed as the last magenta rays of the setting sun dipped behind its hill.
At the small cave now blocked by rocks and stones stood a shirtless young man and young woman, for their father had already departed. Having removed his woolen addareth, the young man’s skin glistened in the fading light with the sweat of gathering and stacking each stone to seal their mother’s final resting place.
“It is done.”
Moving to her brother’s side, the woman lay her head against his tall shoulder. Her raven locks swayed freely in the evening’s breeze while his remained taut within the wraps holding firm the two thick braids. From her lips whispered the funeral prayer of her mother’s people. “Al molay rachamim, shochayn bam’romim…”
While she recited the long prayer her brother stood still, lending not his own voice to hers.
“…Ado-nay Hu na-chalatah, v’tanu-ach b’shalom al mishkavah. V’nomar: Amayn.”
Only when she had finished, and into the resulting long silence, did he speak.
“He should have stayed.”
“Father’s errands are his to complete, as we have ours.” She gazed upwards, the first few stars twinkling into view by twilight’s arrival. “For she rests now within his hands.”
“This did not have to be.”
“Did it not? Against her body’s natural decay, Father could not interfere.”
“He could. If he truly wished it. Barakiel says-”
“Barakiel. Always it is Barakiel! How a Grigori sways so between wisdom and foolishness astounds. What nonsense has he now uttered unto your ears?”
“That Father is responsible. He holds the Books of Life and Death, and yet let this be Mother’s fate. Again he has done nothing.”
The young woman gazed upon her brother with deepening pity. “And again is the Watcher in error.”
“The Book of Life could have saved her.”
“Perhaps, but Father holds it no longer. For he has given it to another.”
Confusion spilled across the man’s brow. “But his Purpose, he is Judgment. That is his Seat, his sacred task!”
“Matityah,” she said, searching her sibling’s troubled expression, “the day Father wed Mother the Lord Azrael relinquished the Book. Lest the balance of impartial Judgment be broken across the holy script inscribed within.”
“How? Was it not a part of him?”
“From him an explanation was never offered.” Her eyes swept back to the sealed cave. “Yet I choose to believe he pursued a higher balance still.”
“What higher balance could there be than to save one’s own beloved wife and the mother to his children? What monster he must be to have done nothing!” Bitterness rose to his lips as eyes went hard and dark. “Surely he could have done more. The Bene-Elohim claim connection to grace, yet to her none was offered. None!”
“Oh my brother, truly you do not understand what they are.” The sister opened arms to embrace him, hoping to provide what comfort she could from the well-spring of her own mournful heart, but he turned away.
“I understand enough. I understand how he failed.” Picking up the covering addareth, he pulled it over shoulders chilled by wind and more. “Stay with the other useless messengers from on High if you wish. I shall not.”
Two paths led down the hill within which their mother lay buried. One wended its way towards a village where a greater family had gathered tribe and fortune under sun and stars. Only by the solitary Lord of Judgment’s wishes had they not all come to join in mourning. The other trail, more rocky and uneven, led only into a thick forest growing darker with the approach of night’s true covering.
With sandals stumbling across loose stones he refused to look back. He could not bear to witness the wetness upon his sister’s cheeks.
As the jeep’s worn suspension lurched over yet more pits in the gravel, the doctor groaned in sleep he hadn’t desired.
Shifting again the protesting gears, Irumba muttered to himself.
“You should have gone to Apoka.”
Chapter 15 - Allies
The Yellow Emperor’s retinue rushed across the busted grounds to carry away the semi-conscious teen.
None of them met my eyes as they did so.
Noting that my t-shirt was shredded and the sports-bra underneath smeared green with grass, I grunted and after shaking dirt out of iridescent feathers I reluctantly put away the still-glowing wings.
Somehow that was even harder to do than butting metaphysical heads with a dragon.
Carrying the spear I walked across clumps of lawn to stand over Isaiah. He was sitting with one knee pulled up and a brow furrowed deep with thought.
In fact he didn’t seem to have noticed my approach.
“He okay?” I asked the red-haired ghost standing beside him. Gone was the armor, replaced again with skirt and blouse, but the strength of presence remained.
Channeling a disapproving expression straight from Circe, she shook her head. “Do you have any idea how incredibly stupid your maneuver just now was?”
“What, winning the challenge?”
Her jaw set. “Manifesting towards full power.”
Watching the folks in white gloves running full tilt trying to get the pergolas reassembled and aid a number of folks who’d fallen temporarily unconscious, I sighed. “Explain it to me later.”
Isaiah, having finally noticed me (or maybe us?), held out a hand. “Help me up.”
With a quick tug I pulled him to his feet. “Are you alright?”
Pushing glasses back to their usual spot across his nose, he too glanced at the activity about. “As you said: we’ll talk later.”
I studied him for a moment then nodded and handed him the spear. “Here. Give this back to Quetzalcoatl or Lopez or whatever the heck he wants to call himself right now. I need to chat with Kami.”
He took the obsidian-tipped weapon, staring at the top with an expression both wistful and sad. As I walked away I heard Tracy ask, “Missing yours, Boss?”
If he answered I didn’t catch it.
Kami was still in his chair, flanked by Fred and Tanya. Captain Isong stood behind him but faced away towards the bustle of gazebo repair.
“You could have told me,” I said once I was close enough not to have to shout.
The chair-bound man looked exhausted but resolute. “Told you what?”
“That Haruko’s egg was the first ever.”
“Would knowing so have in any way increased how protective of her you’d be?”
“Of course not.”
His hard-focused gaze softened at the edges. “Then she remained safer by you not being able to let it slip to others.”
While I wanted to argue about it, there didn’t seem much point. “Fine.” I sighed and rubbed my forehead, a maneuver which likely smeared more crud across it. Yuck. “So when is this Ecclesia meet-up with the other supernaturals we’re going to supposed to happen?”
“Within the hour. But who says you’re going?”
I snorted. “Kami, please. If you hadn’t wanted me along I wouldn’t be here. More portals I presume?” I looked around but didn’t see any additional mumblers setting up anywhere.
“No portals. We’re going to Mount Olympus.”
That earned him a scowl as I looked up and down at all the damage to his energy channels. “You’re in no shape for spirit travel, bud. The cord could snap.”
“Doc will keep it anchored.”
Beside him the medic shrugged and held up the transfusion tubing.
“That won’t cut it - or rather, it will. Sure you can pull energy from his blood to fuel the trip, but that’d be like sandpapering an open wound. You need my help first.”
“And you think a sandblasting by you would be better? Forgive, but I am dubious. And also resistant to the idea of being flooded by celestial energies, no offense. Their flavor does not suit my particular palate.”
I ignored the suppressed chuckles from Fred and Tanya. “Your dragon-side is also fried. Big dark and scaly will drain everything Fred provides and more to maintain the projection.”
“No, he won’t.”
“I’m not sure he could help it.”
“You should have more faith in those who are your allies, Amariel.” The former soldier had to tilt his head back to look up at me from the chair, but somehow I felt shorter.
“Trust in what I’m telling you. Drathonix will not harm me.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because, angel,” he growled, his eyes filling with the experience of eons, “we are one.”
So saying, the great spirit of Drathonix the Elder stretched out phantom leathery wings - and much like I used mine as connections to the Light so did the dragon open his to the earth beneath our feet.
Whereupon an ancient ley line several thousand feet below pulsed in response, a conduit asleep for ages now waking to send a surge upward to envelop Kami and his spirit both. Even to those not sensitive to such things their hair would have stood on end, but for those of us who could see it the entire chair became surrounded by a powerful yet calming emerald glow.
Instead of an overwhelming surge each pulse was measured and exact as the dragon pulled precisely what was needed to stream a soothing balm to the mortal shell’s channels - even while pouring immensities into the much greater well that lay within the dragon itself.
Catching a hint of familiar pictograms at the edges I began to understand.
“Erica,” I said. “You made a deal with Erica.”
Breathing deeply, Kami gestured at Fred who quickly hustled over again to reinsert the pump so it could continue sending over his healing blood. With every passing second the patterns of both dragon and man regained their strength - and the energy even reached back to Fred and replenished his own mana as well.
Opening eyes burning with a will both dragon and human, Kami spoke. “Is she not also an ally? Her victory that day was paid in blood - yours and mine.” In a softer tone he added, “Though your loss was far greater than my own.”
Dammit, I choked up. “Danielle lost the most.”
“Loss is felt by those left behind.”
After a deep inhale, I nodded. “Yeah. It is.”
Behind him the canvas roofs were draped back into place and the white-gloved folks started to circulate again. Instead of flutes most trays were full of tumblers. Many without any ice.
“Yet,” I said, returning attention to Kami who was still letting the flow of energy work its magic. “You could have healed and recharged whenever you wanted. Why wait?”
It wasn’t the man in the chair who answered. Isaiah had come back over, one trouser leg wet where someone must have toweled off the grass stain from the knee. “Because he needed to be seen as weak.”
Kami inclined his head in acknowledgment.
“Seriously?” I looked between the two of them but then started thinking about it.
By being weak Kami had drawn out Huánglóng’s challenge. But what had he gained by doing so?
Well for starters it had forced the two sides of the upcoming debate regarding the Fourth Seal to come out now before the greater meeting with the Gods and everyone else. Except he could have revealed Haruko’s spirit-egg at any time to get the dragons on board without rocking the boat. Or would that have been enough…
“Dammit,” I said, putting hands on hips. “This was about me, wasn’t it.”
Isaiah obviously wanted to launch into a full explanation but Kami waved him off. “She’s on a roll, let her continue.”
Ugh. “Not only did this show that I’m in your camp without needing some kind of deal to act but…” I trailed off.
“But?” Kami prompted.
I stared at him. “Did you know I’d go all overpowered mode? If Isaiah hadn’t been here…except you wanted him here.”
He smiled. “As I understand, his presence was your suggestion.”
“Well that made it easy for you, didn’t it,” I grumbled. “Because you needed him to vouch for me being an independent actor. They wouldn’t have believed anyone else.”
“Not as readily, no. And it was necessary for them to witness the truth of your full nature.”
The dragon-incarnate smiled, and my mind filled with images of very large and sharp teeth. “Come with me to the Ecclesia and find out.”
“What about him?” I pointed a thumb at Isaiah.
To my surprise Isaiah shook his head. “They wouldn’t let me inside. You’ll need to go without me.”
There’s no way my friend would not want to go. Yet he wasn’t even trying to lawyer his way in. “You sure?”
Those dark fingers of his twitched. “The gods and greater spirits will be debating on whether to try and break the Seal forged by my hand. That - verges on being an insult.”
The green glow around Kami faded, all the sparkles of the mana flow fizzling out - much like a water main further up the pipe had been turned off and all the last dribbles were done. “It is nearly time,” he said. “And we should go early.”
“Yes. Are you ready?”
I hesitated. There were still so many questions, and obviously Kami had a lot more up his sleeve.
But as the man said, I needed to have more faith in my friends.
“Alright, Kurohoshi. Let’s do this.”
“Then follow.” He closed eyes and a black dragon of yore slipped free from the mortal skin to shimmer and stand tall over all of us in the spiritual plane. I’d seen him in full above the sands of Egypt, but never up close like this.
He was massive, and with Erica’s provided rejuvenation he again thrummed with power. Not as much as before, but enough.
Attuning to the spirit, I took flight and we left Mexico behind as quite a pair: one black-winged legend larger than a yacht and a smaller yet much brighter spark hastily chasing after.
Much like the trip to Arcadia we flew through realm after realm, though this time I had a better sense of the resonances we passed through. Once we were beyond the direct reflections of the physical we floated mostly between dreams forged both by people and places. Drathonix chose to travel with links relating to the globe: from dreams of Mexico to those of its history (oh hey, Aztecs throwing spears, neat!) which were then used to connect to Spain and therefore Europe. Interestingly he bypassed Rome but went instead through spirit reflections of the Alps and across the Hungarian Plain until spiraling above clouds so full they appeared like miniature worlds all their own.
When we broke through those mists we circled a mountain even taller still.
At the top, slipping past thick clouds of white scattered with touches of grey, was a mighty city carved straight from marble. For the mountain peak itself was just that: gleaming rocks of the purest stone ever imagined stretching towards the sky. Columned buildings with towering triangular roofs emerged as if chiseled directly by their master architects, many of the structures resting atop their own peaks shooting separately upward to form the whole. It was towards a wide oval open-air stadium that we flew, but Drathonix landed on a nearby outcropping which had been leveled smooth as if for just such a purpose.
Who knows, maybe it had been.
Waiting there was a phalanx of soldiers, clad in bronze chestplates and shoulder epomides over leather, all lined up with swords, shields, and pikes. With the added detail of the hair-plumed helms with the Greek-standard protective plates for cheeks and nose, the sight made me miss my old helm and even more, my armor. She may have been demonic, but she had protected me with all she had there at the end. Unfortunately when I’d emerged from the Chaos there had barely been anything left.
I’d buried the remaining fragments on the shore in Gabriel’s realm of Remembrance. It had seemed the right thing to do.
Landing beside the mighty dragon I shook off the memories and refocused on where we were. A breeze flowing across the summit was cool but not cold, though it carried with it the heavy scent of moisture gathered in the clouds below. The sun was a spotlight aimed directly from above, lending the perfectly polished marble a dazzling sparkle and shine.
A woman clad in a short white tunic spun with interspersed golden threads approached us. With brown curls pulled back into a tight bun she at least looked young, though her actual age was likely quite different.
“Hail Drathonix,” she called out in a voice melodic yet focused. “It has been a long time. Welcome again to Olympus. And who is your companion?”
The dragon sat back on his haunches, much like Khan would do before loudly declaring his bowl empty. “It is my privilege to be accompanied by the Seraph Amariel, she who was once Aradia.”
My being there must have been a surprise as the lady’s eyes flared and the friendly look she had first given the dragon disappeared into shock before turning quickly into a cold controlled anger. Despite that she was still very beautiful - slender yet with a well-toned physique that showed real dedicated use. Also she was somehow familiar, even if I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was that she too had gold bracers around her wrists, ones that nearly matched my own.
“I see,” she said in a tone that would have frozen (if you’ll forgive the graphic description) any man’s balls - titanium or not. “So this is why you wished to meet before the event commenced.”
Taking a step forward I refrained from joining in giving Drathonix a dirty look. “My apologies if my presence is somehow disturbing - I fear the dragon here has been quite busy. Indeed I only learned of this gathering earlier today and was given no details as to what to expect.”
She looked me over, her spike of rage fading the more she stared. It wasn’t my attire she focused on either, as the clothing had shifted upon arrival to match the realm with a tunic not unlike hers though still accentuated by all the accessories from the earlier party.
No, each curve and feature upon my face somehow filled silver-touched eyes with an ancient yet terribly raw sorrow.
As the moment reached uncomfortable levels I had to break the silence. “Might I ask your name, my lady?”
“Do you not recognize me?” She asked, pointed chin lifting as if daring the water welling at the corners of those proud eyes to flow.
“I…I am sorry. I do not.”
Drathonix’s deep voice boomed out. “She is the goddess of the hunt and the moon. She is the daughter of Zeus and Leto, twin sister to Apollo. She is Artemis.”
Oh. Oh heck.
Of course she looked familiar. While there were many who had mistaken me for Gabriel, there were differences between us. Like my nose was slightly longer, and chin and jawline a tad stronger - or even my being taller and more athletic. For some reason I’d thought all those as traits having been received from Lucifer along with the potentials for the light.
But such musings once pondered before a mirror had been wrong. The evidence of that was standing right there before me.
And with her next words the evidence became proof: