Bob snapped her Gatekey and the darkness swept up all around us. As it cleared, I felt a little sick.
"Hunh? Is this the hospital? Are we back in Chaos Realm?" Bob wondered.
A few eyes glanced at us warily, and a man wearing a yellow Offworlder bracelet screamed, but our arrival went largely unnoticed.
"Looks like it," I admitted with a relieved sigh. "We just appeared out of thin air and so far only one person's fainted."
"Nayru!" I jumped at the sound of my name and almost tripped over a dragon's tail as Horus jumped onto my back. He was covered in scratches and grinning insanely. I knew that had to be a bad sign. "Tuhk?" I wondered in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"I had an accident." Horus admitted, gesturing to the band-aids all over his face and hands. He didn't seem to be seriously hurt, and that much I was thankful for.
"Rembrandt came to get me," he sighed, jerking a thumb at the row of chairs where Rembrandt waited. Not far from him was Brin. She lay across two benches, her head wrapped in a roll of white gauze and seemed to be either sleeping or knocked unconscious. Though the staff at the public hospital was obviously stretched fairly thin, someone had at least seen to her injuries. A few eyes glanced at Brin skeptically, perhaps wondering if she really was who she appeared to be.
I didn't know where Vincent was. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Sighing heavily, I grabbed Horus by the arm and looked over his injuries. He seemed to be fine, and I was glad for that. On the floor some children sat, building a massive pattern of dominos.
"Where's Kesha?" I asked, glancing around the crowded city hospital.
"I don't know," Rembrandt admitted. "She told me you got her a job, but I didn't expect to be downtown today, so I didn't think anything of it." Rembrandt admitted. "Turns out this hospital is a pretty decent place. I didn't know until I got here to pick up Horus, but apparently Lady Mercy's can treat people… without fingerprints," he smiled slightly, gesturing to Brin. "I keep expecting someone will recognize her, but no one has said anything so far, not even the nurse who wrapped up her head." He gestured to Brin's bandage.
Horus stared at her. "Is she ok?" He wondered.
I shook my head, wishing I could be so confident.
"What about you, munchkin? You don't look so good. How'd you get cut up like that?" Bob demanded, turning to Horus. Rembrandt rolled his eyes.
Taking a deep breath and leaning close to me, Horus grinned triumphantly. "I jumped through a mirror!" He whispered.
"You idiot!" I gasped, grabbing him and shaking him a little more roughly than I had intended to. Horus giggled. "Do you have any idea how much trouble you could have gotten into?" I demanded. "Nayoh'ysk!" I cursed, and the kid laughed again. "Where did you end up?"
"Here," Horus laughed. "I was trying to find you," He sighed, sitting down on the floor next to the domino maze. "It's kind of hard to figure out what direction you're going in the dark, especially when you start moving really fast." He explained and I nodded, knowing exactly what he was talking about. Part of me wanted to throttle the kid, but at the same time I was... well, impressed! I'd been almost seventeen the first time I'd tried to work the mirror trick, and even then I'd almost killed myself. Horus definitely had a knack for Ta'ud... but of course, I wasn't about to tell him that.
"I thought I was really lost. But then I saw the word 'hospital'." He paused. "Except it was written backwards."
"Kieran does that." I explained. "He writes on mirrors in marker and leaves them places. I actually started it myself. He picked up the trick from me. Well, Andromeda sold him my secret, but I suppose that's my fault for telling her."
"It's a good trick," Horus agreed.
"Yeah, but it only works if you're not in a hurry!" I admitted. "And if you think you were moving pretty fast on your own, you should see how nasty it gets when you're jumping with someone else!" I sighed heavily. "If you ever get lost, look for 'safe' written in red." I explained. "Those are my spots. But seriously, no more jumping!" I scolded.
Horus rolled his eyes and a few of the hospital patients stared at the two of us, obviously having overheard the entire conversation. I turned to an obviously weary middle-aged woman surrounded by screaming children. Her eyes were fixed on me... an expression of disbelief on her face. "You think your kids are trouble? Try keeping tabs on a twelve-year old Traverser!"
A pay phone rang.
"Get it!" Rembrandt ordered, leaping to his feet "It might be for us!"
The pay phone rang for a second time and I jumped to answer it. "Hello?"
"Um, Felix?" Kesha wondered hesitantly.
"It's Kesha, everyone!" I shouted. Bob cheered and Rembrandt came running up behind me.
"Kesh, where are you?" Rembrandt demanded, leaning over my shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"I'm… fine." Kesha whispered. "Just a little… shook up. I… I got Raphael. Is Danilo with you?"
"Right behind me," I said.
"Gimme the phone, gimme the phone!" Rembrandt demanded, fairly shoving me out of the booth.
I held my hands up in a gesture of surrender and went to check on Brin. Her eyes fluttered a little as I brushed her hair out of her face.
"You awake?" I whispered. She opened her eyes and sat up immediately, gasping in surprise. Then she collapsed again, holding her head.
"Oh Gods..." She whispered, and then turned to stare at me, obviously still dizzy. "Felix?" She wondered. "Where… where are we?"
"Lady Mercy's." I replied.
"Is someone hurt?" She demanded.
"Just you. But the IR caught Vincent," I brushed her hair aside and helped her to sit up. "C'mon, let me see your head." The gash wasn't really as bad as it had seemed to be, considering the amount of blood it had produced... and I was thankful for that. I didn't want to think about what Raphael would do to me if he had found out that my plan to bust him out of prison had nearly killed one of his favorite relatives. "Raphael's safe. Kesha has him."
"Why are we waiting here then?" Brin wondered. "Let's go!"
She stood up quickly and almost immediately fell over.
"Oh dear," Brin whispered, holding her head.
"Hey, take it easy!" I advised. "You were shot."
"So were you," She observed, catching sight of my shoulder. The wound had stopped bleeding, but more than a few members of the hospital staff were staring at it suspiciously. It wasn't serious, but it was black and purple, which had to look pretty ugly from the perspective of anyone who didn't know that my blood wasn't red to begin with.
"You were shot in the head," I clarified. "It barely broke your skin, but you're going to have a nasty concussion."
"Kesh is in the kitchen at Shirley's. She called us a cab," Rembrandt explained, coming to meet us. "And as for you!" He glared at Horus. " Your mano says no more of that mirror-breaking bullshit!"
Horus mimed him silently, rolling his eyes.
"Don't you disrespect me, kid!" Rembrandt glared.
"Is this Immediate Care?" Brin wondered, searching the room with her eyes. Across from us there were two gangsters who looked like they'd been in a motorcycle wreck and a wizard with a nasty burn down his right arm.
"Yup. One of the only places I know of where you can actually wait for twenty-four hours without anyone asking what's wrong with you." I grinned slightly. "Even if you happen to come crashing through a mirror." I gestured to Horus who was lining up dominos on the floor.
"He did what?" Brin gasped. "But he's so young!"
"That kid was breaking mirrors long before I started teaching him anything," I shrugged.
"Teaching him?" Brin blinked in surprise. "You don't mean…"
"Either I teach him Ta'ud or he figures it on his own," I replied, not liking the look she gave me. "Like I said… he's got talent."
"Gods, that doesn't bode well, does it?" Brin stared at Horus.
I wasn't entirely surprised to see another child sitting on the floor with Horus. There'd been kids in and out of the room since we'd arrived, but that little boy was somehow... different. He and Horus sat on the floor in the middle of a massive domino construction, something way too big and intricate to have been assembled so quickly.
"And then you push this one over?" The boy asked. He was wearing an oversized green basketball jersey and had on a baseball cap that made it difficult to see his face, but the way he spoke sounded very familiar to me. With a decisive push, the boy in the cap tapped the first domino… and following that one, all the others fell. "That's very cosmic, you know." The boy pointed out. "How each one tips another one. And then eventually the momentum becomes so great that you can't prevent them all from collapsing. One fall shatters the whole pattern."
"They're just dominos," Horus argued. The boy shrugged and fell silent, methodically placing the pieces back in their standing positions.
I stared at the domino which had begun the collapse. It was the wild piece, the only one without any dots on it. Horus held it for a moment and then passed it to the other boy, who placed it in its position of honor. He grinned very broadly and at that moment I recognized him.
"Hey Tuhk, I'm going to steal your little friend for a minute," I interrupted.
"He's not my friend. I don't even know him." Horus replied, completely non-chalant.
I lifted the boy off of the ground and drug him to a nearby phone booth.
"Ow, jerk!" He pushed me. "What are you doing? I'm just a kid!"
"Cut the crap, Fate." I retorted… and the boy sighed in defeat, taking off his baseball cap. The disguise he was wearing instantly melted away.
"Well now… you've caught your mouse, Cat." He smirked, drawing one of his usual slurpee drinks out of thin air. He sucked on the straw as he stared up at me, making an obnoxious noise that had to be intentional.
"What were you telling Horus?" I prompted. "You seem awfully interested in him."
"Oh, I'm not." Fate replied innocently. "But… She is."
I knew who "She" was. A lump rose in my throat and I forced myself to speak anyway. "All right, so what were you saying to him about those dominos?" I prompted.
"Why do you care? They're just dominos."
"Bullshit! There's something going on here and I want to know what it is! You want to play dominos? How's this for dominos?" I demanded, seizing the pieces that Fate still held in his hand. The one was an eight and the other was a three. I held the two dominos up and pointed at Brin and Rembrandt where they sat in the waiting room. "You've got something planned for all of us, don't you? You're setting us up to fall over."
"Wherever would you get that idea?" Fate grinned wickedly. If I'd only been guessing before, I knew that I was right then. Like Ruby, Fate seemed to like being "caught in the act"… particularly when he was up to no good.
"Because you've already push the first piece!" I replied. "This domino..." I paused, holding up the first piece that I had picked off of the floor. "Is Artemis."
Fate grinned broadly and patted me on the back. "Good boy!" He exclaimed. "You should have a cookie!"
"All right, so why?" I demanded. "What do you gain from all of this?"
"Nothing, not that you'd believe me. None of this was my idea," Fate replied. "I'm altogether incapable of making complex decisions. Mostly, I follow instructions."
"Instructions from the Gods?" I pressed. "From… Creation?" I hazarded a guess.
"Hah!" Fate snorted. I'd only heard him sound so callous once before, and that was the night that Ruby and Teyame had cornered me at Day Owls. "The Gods are all insane and Creation is evil." He finished bluntly. "And in case you were wondering, I don't care about the World either."
"Then whose side are you on?" I demanded… but Fate had already vanished. I sighed and banged my head against the fat yellow phone book that hung from a chain against the wall. Finding out that there was some sort of vast overarching divine conspiracy going on didn't precisely surprise me. The look Fate had given me made me feel a little bit like a cartoon character pushed out of an airplane with an anvil. I was stuck to something that I couldn't drop and crashing fast. Hitting the ground once and getting squashed like a bug was nothing compared to what I was up against. If Fate had anything to say about it, I'd fall through every single floor of a skyscraper, stopping just long enough to realize that I was still going down. And right when I thought I'd finally hit rock bottom, I'd look down and realize that I was still about five hundred feet up.
And… that's all, folks.
Considering how the mess I was in involved the Goddess of Chaos, a perpetual downward spiral was beginning to seem like a distinct possibility.
"If you..." A voice interrupted my train of thought and I jumped to look behind me, my eyes coming to rest on the telephone receiver that I had knocked off the hook. "If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again." The machine recited.
Sighing in relief, I hung up the phone. There was someone standing behind me waiting to make a call… or at least that's what I thought until I turned around to face the stranger. Despite her pale blue scrubs, fluorescent red hair and very convincing "employee" badge, I recognized the "nurse" right away.
"Ruby?" I stared.
Before I had time to squeeze a question out edgewise, she hugged me. "You did it!" She exclaimed. Meeting her eyes gave me a headache, and so I looked at my shoes instead.
"What, what did I do?" I wondered.
"Well, um… nothing." She replied cryptically, seeming slightly flustered after her bizarre emotional display. "Yet." She clarified.
"Oh?" I muttered, scratching my head. "Do you mind telling me what I "will" do then?"
"No, I can't! Sorry, it'll ruin everything!" Ruby replied. "When are we, anyway?"
"It's June, 3674," I replied, not missing a beat. "I really don't know what today's date is it or what day of the week it is, but we're at Lady Mercy's Hospital." I clarified.
"Mm." Ruby paused, looking a little uneasy.
"Something wrong?" I prompted.
"The IR hurt Raphael," She admitted.
"Tell me something I don't know." I shook my head, thinking back to my conversation with Kesha.
"This is going to be bad. Really bad," Ruby sighed. "And I just don't understand why he felt that he had to go after Shea alone."
"Name one Traverser known for being rational." I sighed.
"Raphael," Ruby replied. "Well, usually, anyway." She paused. "That's why I'm so worried. If he needed to retrieve someone from New Babylon, why didn't he call out The Black Legion?"
While no expert on Tearsoldiers, I did know a little bit about dimension-hopping mercenaries. They traveled like Etone and any government could hire them for the right price. But among all of their "legions", The Black Legion was the most universally feared, the last-resort weapon of presidents and kings. It was said that they could do anything for the right price, and complete success was guaranteed on any mission they undertook. Why hadn't Raphael called out the Black Legion?
"There's no way he could think clearly, not spending all of his time around her. Whatever's wrong with Artemis… we've all got it now. All of us are going crazy." I gestured to Ruby and then to myself.
"Going crazy?" Ruby smirked.
"All right, crazier," I corrected, sighing in defeat.
"You're getting better at this sort of thing," Ruby observed, smiling slightly. "My disguise didn't even fool you." She snapped her fingers and her hospital scrubs became her usual red and black attire.
"I already caught Fate poking around," I admitted. "And he's not usually by himself."
"You caught Fate?" Ruby seemed surprised. "Heh. Not bad, not bad. So where's Eric?"
I considered her challenge for a moment and then shrugged. "Not here. I hope not anyway."
Ruby sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. "Are you honestly scared of him?"
"You're not?" I eyed her suspiciously.
"Point taken," Ruby replied.
"So now what? We both know all of this goes back to Artemis. Are you going to do something?" I asked.
"Are you?" Ruby echoed.
"I don't know if I should. I guess I'm kinda afraid that I might just make things worse," I paused and then considered the words I'd just spoken.
"Not easy being a God, is it?" She smirked.
I didn't say anything. What could I have said? There's a marked difference between believing something and knowing it to be true. You can stop believing when things get too hard. You can even convince yourself that you never really had faith. But once you knew… there was no turning back.
A wave of nausea washed over me and I steadied myself against the wall. I could hear my heart pounding in my head and the wound on my shoulder reopened, drizzling blood down my chest and staining the front of my shirt.
"You should get help," Ruby advised. "See a doctor."
"Not a chance," I retorted, putting a little pressure on the spot. I could feel my nails lengthen into claws and gritted my teeth.
"I'm just trying to help you," She argued, prying my hand away from my shoulder. She evaluated the wound for a moment with a grimace and then took a deep breath, blowing on the spot.
"There. That's done," She replied. I blinked in surprise. Not only was the bullet wound completely gone, but she'd also fixed my shirt.
"Um… thanks." I paused.
"It's nothing," Ruby shrugged. "Look, I know we haven't always gotten along so well. But I need you to… trust me, okay?"
"As long as you don't try to stab me again, I think we're good." I replied.
"No stabbing," She nodded. "Are we friends then?"
"Sure," I replied.
"Good," Almost hesitantly, Ruby put her arms around me and rested her head against my shoulder. She hugged me and I sighed heavily, hugging her back. It didn't feel strange. Even knowing what I did, I still couldn't help looking at her and seeing just a girl who'd had a really tough day. Or century… did it matter?
More than that, she was a friend of mine. Ruby wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt. She wasn't really crying, but her breathing sounded forced and a little irregular. "Do you want to go get coffee?" She asked.
"I've got a few things to take care of first." I admitted, gesturing to Horus sitting on the floor. "Raincheck, okay?"
"Okay. I guess I'd better get go too," Ruby nodded. "And Felix?"
I didn't have the opportunity to reply. She grabbed the collar of my shirt, kissed me, and then vanished.
I staggered back in surprise, hitting my head on the side of the phone booth. I'd been a little apprehensive at the Coalition Ball when Ruby had wanted to dance with me, but I'd written all that as part of her plot. I'd never considered that she might actually like me.
"So, who's the hot nurse?" Rembrandt teased, elbowing me.
"A Goddess," I admitted, still a little dazed. "She… she just kissed me, didn't she?"
"Must be your lucky day. C'mon, our ride's here," he smirked, turning on one heel and walking out the front door.
A few quiet weeks passed. Artemis lingered in her chamber, drifting hazardously between relative stability and insanity. Raphael did not make an appearance or even request an audience with anyone. Brin, emotionally scarred by Vincent's capture and her beloved uncle's refusal to see her, retreated to the library again and walled herself up in a quiet reading room with hundreds of old books.
Days later, she emerged, still clearly hurt but willing and able to play her part as Commander of the Second Order of Raedawn. A ball was to be held in honor of the newest Knights of the Coalition, a few freedom fighters from Vincent's world as well as the small, semi-suicidal contingent of Chaos Realm natives who had secretly been part of the daring attack on Malbolde prison, Andromeda, Kesha, Rembrandt... and myself.
The official memo read "For service to the Dynasty and the Emperor."
I couldn't have cared less for all of the silly formalities that went with being "knighted", especially by Brin... but my mother and grandfather beamed the entire time with pride and that, if nothing else, made the entire ordeal almost sufferable.
What I was looking forward to more than anything else was the after-after party... just a few of us close friends and relatives gathered together for our traditional Saturday-morning nightcaps at the only bar in town that would stay open indefinitely for certain select clientèle. Mad Mack's. It was around ten-o'-clock when the trouble really started. Rembrandt and Kesha had brought Horus straight from the affair at the palace to the bar and the time had finally come for him to return home and go to bed.
Like any twelve-year old, it was the very last thing he had any intention of doing. After a few pathetic whines and a moderate degree of foot-stomping, Horus grudgingly followed his mother out the front door. "I'll be back!" He promised, winking conspiratorially in my direction, and the bwips who hovered over the bar giggled insanely as Kesha tightened her grip on Horus's jacket collar and hauled him towards the street.
A shriek followed by a sharp cracking sound set all of us instantly on edge... until we heard Kesha's voice from across the street.
"Don't you ever claw me again you little monster, or so help me I'll drag you to the nearest church and dunk you in holy water!" Kesha scolded.
"A church?" Horus protested. "But aren't we Wiccan?"
"Hunh. Well, I suppose Uncle Mandela could bless you instead?" Kesha taunted.
"Mooooom!" Horus groaned. "No! No fair!"
Rembrandt rolled his eyes and poured a shot for himself. In an effort to find an excuse to spend a few hours more at the party he had assumed a position behind the bar along with the bwips... and though Cal had promised to pay him for helping out on what was most likely the busiest night of the year, it seemed that Rembrandt was drinking up his pay as the hours passed.
I laughed despite myself.
Kieran sighed heavily and finished off his drink. "You know, sometimes I think my parents were lucky not to be alive for most of my childhood."
"Just think what you have to look forward to," Cal snickered, setting a bowl of pretzels and a few fresh drinks on our table.
Kieran didn't respond but only glared at Cal coldly, an expression that got a good laugh out of most of the gathered, including Ruby who had just walked into the bar and inched into the seat next to me.
I didn't bother to ask her what she'd been up to or why she'd come to sit with the rest of us. It didn't seem important. All I knew was that Ruby was currently looking out for me for whatever reason, and that was a good thing, considering the circumstances. I watched Kieran, still scowling long after Cal moved to wait on some of the other paying customers.
What most people didn't know was that Kieran already had a child, and it was Raphael's search for her that had gotten the Emperor captured by the IR police and framed for a murder that he may have... or may not have actually committed. From what I understood, I gathered that Raphael probably did kill the IR Senator, though I guessed that the circumstances were most likely somewhat different from the story the Republic had been trying to publicize.
"What are you doing here?" Kieran wondered, glancing at Ruby suspiciously.
"Does it have to be something?" Ruby replied, snapping her fingers and drawing a half-frozen water bottle out of midair.
"Isn't it always something?" Kieran pressed.
"You know you love me," Ruby countered with a smirk. "Besides, I make things interesting."
"I've had enough of "interesting"," Kieran groaned.
"I have ice you know," Cal interrupted, seeming a little uncomfortable with Ruby's trick. He pulled things out of thin air himself, so I didn't really see what the problem was… but then again, not being a Mage, I guessed there could be some subtle art to the whole thing that I didn't have an eye for. "And if you really want a glass of water, I can get you one." Cal offered.
"I'll serve myself," Ruby shrugged.
I shook my head and returned to my drink, marveling at the fantastic sweetness of the ambrosia that Cal had dug out of the deepest reaches of Mad Mack's wine cellar specifically for our special night. It was definitely one of the better bottles I'd ever tasted... though I knew it couldn't be older than a few centuries.
"That stuff is disgusting," Bennet commented, wrinkling his nose. "It tastes like floor cleaner."
"You've tasted floor cleaner?" Rembrandt teased, throwing a towel at Bennet's head. "Clean up your party foul, will you?" He ordered, jerking a thumb at a puddle that was slowly working its way into the creases between the seats of the booth behind me.
Still grumbling, Bennet obliged, and his wife Jessica shook her head heavily and returned to her conversation with the girls two tables over. Bennet, in the most obnoxious and immature fashion possible, leaned over the table and adjusted the zoom of the video camera he carried around his neck, zeroing in until he had nothing but the one girl's cleavage in his view-screen. His wife Jessica hit him with her purse and he grudgingly returned to his seat.
"So, Felix. What are your plans?" Kieran announced, suddenly changing the subject. "You could get a good job if you wanted to, now that you've been knighted."
"And guard your pompous ass for the rest of my life?" I groaned. "Not likely."
"Have you heard anything more about that... Wolf and his friends?" Kieran wondered.
"No." I shrugged. "I told them to be patient."
"I see." Kieran nodded. "So, in other words, depending on how they took your advice, they could be burning and pillaging again tomorrow morning."
"Or two hundred years from now," Ruby corrected. "If it helps any Felix, I really do think you did the right thing."
"The right thing?" Kieran wondered incredulously. "Are you crazy? He could have been killed!"
"What would you have done?" Ruby demanded.
"I... I." Kieran fell silent. "It isn't the same." He argued futily.
"Why not?" I pressed, knowing what he was getting at.
"Well, if they'd attacked me I could have..." He trailed off into silence, backing up a little when his eyes met mine.
"Listen!" I snarled. "I know the fucking game! I know ten times more about the goddamn I'Eloshir than you do! I'll take what risks I want!"
"Felix, I just..." He shook his head.
"I don't need you to protect me!" I whispered coldly, about to walk out the front door.
"Hey," Ruby interrupted and I froze where I stood, slowly turning around to face her.
"What?" I demanded.
"I believe in you," She paused. "If that means anything to you, I don't know, but I believe in you and I thought I should tell you that."
"Ruby?" Cal wondered, raising an eyebrow. I was a little baffled myself.
There was always something very odd about Ruby, but that night she seemed even more distant than I had ever known her to be.
With a sigh she turned to look out the window, and then shrieked in horror. The sound of her voice resounded in my ears with something like the pain of an Order as she turned to glance at me wild-eyed for a moment before pressing her nose to the glass for the second time, as if she merely had to ascertain that whatever she had seen was more than a product of her extraordinarily powerful imagination.
A few faces in the bar turned to stare at us and Ruby leapt over Kieran with supernatural speed, dropping her bag on the floor... notebooks, fantasy novels... a magic 8-ball and a well-abused tennis racket spilling out onto the floor.
"Why is she out there?" Ruby demanded, shaking Cal... who started to say something I couldn't quite hear over the commotion that had started.
"Who?" Rembrandt wondered.
"I have to find her! She's loose... well, I knew she was loose, she's been loose since Kieran let Her out, but she was just here! Here! God, she was watching us and I saw her evil little eyes!" Ruby rambled insanely, pushing past me and running out the front door.
"Who?" Bennet shouted, racing after her, his video-camera jiggling as he attempted to turn it off and slip it back around his neck.
"Who do you think?" Ruby demanded, not stopping as she raced across the street. I followed her into the rain but then stopped short at the sight of a child's picture blowing in the gutter.
Drawn in crayon was a picture of a family; three children... one, a boy in dark blue with an awful scowl on his face, a girl with glasses, and a little one dressed in orange, bald headed with a fat cat on his lap. The children had two parents, a serious-looking blonde man with a beard and a dark-haired woman with huge eyes. Between the two of them, the mother and father held up a fourth child, a white-faced little girl with silver angel wings and a massive pink heart in her hands.
They all seemed so happy... and the moment I recognized the child with the heart, I realized I'd never seen anything more disturbing in my life. Touching the picture hesitantly... I was hardly surprised when it vanished into nothingness beneath my fingertips.
"Did you find something?" Bennet wondered.
"It's Creation. She's doing something new. Catch a cab back to the palace and get Lakshireh. Tell her we might need Knights... and lots of them." I ordered. "Kieran? Rembrandt? Follow me." Rembrandt's hand drifted towards his gun, and for probably the first time ever, my cousin didn't argue with me. Though his mother had begun teaching him something about the Ta'ud, his education was fairly minimal and whether he remembered it or not, the night he'd first seen me make a Tear Kieran had admitted I could kick his ass in sorcery, if not physically.
"Last call, people," I could hear Cal announcing as we ran off into the rain. "It's closing time."
For four hours we searched the streets for any sign of Ruby. Despite her argument that she wasn't really a deity, she'd certainly vanished like one. Finally, the three of us, Kieran, Rembrandt and myself headed back to Mad Mack's.
The door was hanging ajar, but the place was deserted.
"Why's that door open?" Rembrandt demanded.
"I don't know," I shook my head. "But I don't think I like this. Let's check it out."
In the darkness, the bar was quiet... too quiet. Back to back, Rembrandt and I slipped through the front door. Broken glass was everywhere. Bottles of alcohol were smashed all over the floor and the trashcan was overturned. The many framed pictures of the establishment's famous and infamous guests were scattered throughout the bar on the floor, impaled by glass into the ceiling and in the pools of alcohol on the bar counter. The destruction of the bar had been very systematic and clearly intentional. Even the vinyl seats of the booths were slashed with what looked like a box cutter. I didn't know a gang member in all of Zenith who would do such a thing. Mad Mack's was simply off-limits for vandalism. After all... it was Mad Mack's.
Kieran followed close behind the two of us, surveying the mess in horror.
"What happened here?" He wondered.
"I don't know," I repeated, glaring at him. "The three of us were together the whole time, remember? And after Ruby ran out, Cal said he was closing for the night."
A high-pitched laugh sent a chill down my spine and I staggered backwards into Rembrandt. In front of us on the floor, the overturned trash can rocked back and forth slowly.
Rembrandt got down on his knees and carefully reached into the can, pulling a few crumpled balls of newspaper and empty bottles away from whatever it was inside the garbage. Three bright eyes blinked, and with a chorus of terrible war-cries, the bwip bartenders launched themselves out of the can, flying past Rembrandt and latching themselves onto Kieran who screamed, beating them off.
"Damnit," Kieran swore, clutching the gash across his face. "Why the hell are they attacking us?"
The three bwips hovered more than an arm's length away from him and slowly began to circle, surrounding us, their sharp little teeth dripping with Kieran's blood.
"What the..." Rembrandt stared. Screeching insanely, the bwips swarmed after him. "Help!" Rembrandt cried. "Get'em off me!"
"Hold on!" Reaching into Ruby's discarded bag which still lay on the floor of the bar, I pulled out her tennis racket.
"Eeeeeeeyaaaaaaghh!" A bwip screamed, flying towards my head at a startling speed.
Bracing myself, I swung, firing the first creature directly into a framed portrait on the far wall. It collapsed with a heavy thud, but the second little monster latched onto my head. I'd been bitten harder... but still, the pain was startling.
"You sick bastard," Rembrandt muttered, gripping up on piece of paneling pulled from the wall. A third bwip launched itself at the bounty hunter. The sound of glass shattering revealed that the poor creature had somehow made its way out one of the windows
"Hey," I smirked, wiping a trickle of blood from the round bite-mark just above my left ear. "I'm half-demon. What's your excuse?"
"I kill things for a living," Rembrandt replied.
"Good one." Kieran grinned. He paled suddenly, perhaps realizing that there wasn't much of a joke to be had at Rembrandt's expense.
"He's serious?" Kieran hissed.
Rembrandt grinned, slapping the piece of wood against the palm of his hand. My cousin took a step back, utterly horrified and somewhat bewildered. I would have laughed, had there been anything even slightly funny about the situation, but if I'd learned only one thing since I'd met the man, I'd learned that Rembrandt deserved his reputation as one of the best skull-crushers in the business.
I turned my attention back to the broken remains of the bar, listening intently for more sounds. It was silent again, except for the clock that lay on the floor, its face smashed but its hands still ticking away the passing minutes.
"I'm gonna go call Germaine." Rembrandt whispered. "There's something very not right going on here and I think we oughta have a magic-user or two around for backup. You two guys finish checking the place out." Without another word, he left, sprinting across the street to the nearest payphone.
Creeping around behind the bar, I noticed that the front door wasn't the only one hanging open. The two of us alone, Kieran and I followed the scent of magic down into the basement. Nothing moved. Nothing breathed. Old arcade machines sat scattered amidst overflowing file cabinets and cardboard boxes packed heavy with art supplies, computer parts and books. A water cooler filled with something yellow sat in the far corner, dripping slightly. Kieran picked up a paper cup and put his hand on the cooler.
"It's cold. Smells like lemonaide," he observed.
"That's what it is." I nodded. "Lemonaide. Just lemon juice and sugar water but it might as well be ambrosia as far as our rabid flesh-eating bartenders are concerned. The stuff gets them seriously fucked up."
"I hope we didn't kill those poor guys," Kieran admitted.
"I don't think so." I shook my head. "Cal says they're resilient."
"This lemonaide's not gonna mess me up, is it?" Kieran wondered. "I've got to rinse my mouth out with something." He rubbed his bloody lip on his sleeve.
"There's no alcohol in it so far as I know," I sighed, examining the trash can by the bottom of the stairs. Kieran filled up a cup of lemonaide. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of an orange pill-bottle that had rolled halfway under the staircase.
"Wait!" I interrupted. "Don't drink that!"
"Why?" Kieran wondered, looking genuinely disturbed. Crawling out from under the stairs, I held up the pill bottle, opened it and poured the few remaining tablets into the palm of my hand. They were a brilliant blue and flickered faintly in the darkness. Anyone who had ever spent a night wandering the wrong part of town would recognize the drug on sight... and I'd spent the majority of my life running around the City Below.
"What is it?" Kieran wondered.
"Atrophos," I admitted. "It's a street drug. Dangerous stuff. Doesn't have a smell or a taste. Dissolves in water."
"So you think someone drugged the guys?" Kieran frowned.
"It's gotta be." I shook my head. "Cal would never have something like this. He doesn't even take regular aspirin most of the time." I put the bottle in my pocket and headed back upstairs, searching the area behind the bar.
"God, now I feel really bad about hitting them," Kieran sighed. "We've got to find out who's behind this."
"And why," I added. "This is beginning to look like a very elaborate set-up."
"A trap for us?" Kieran muttered.
"I don't think so. But Horus or Kesha?" I shook my head. "They're the ones in danger here. At my grandfather's house whatever it is... whoever was stalking them at Silver Point didn't dare make a move, but I think... someone must have recognized the kid when we were at the hospital the other day. And I knew he wouldn't listen to me when I told him not to try jumping again. Damnit, Kieran, if he didn't leave with his mother... if he is still in Zenith, he might have come back here looking for me."
"Why do you think that?" Kieran frowned.
"Because this is where I told him to go," I retorted. "And because if he dropped himself through a mirror, whether accidentally or on purpose, I told him about your trick. You know, how you write little messages to yourself on the glass? Makes it easier to focus?"
"Oh." Kieran paused. "I still don't understand."
"It was my trick first," I admitted, running back up the stairs. "There should be a mirror under the bar here." Digging through shattered glass and torn newspaper, I fumbled for the small mirror I had placed with Cal's phonebook and then realized that I'd already knelt on what little remained of it. I could sense the Ta'ud.
"Shit." I swore, closing my eyes. "Someone did come this way."
There was a crack directly between the letters "SA" and "FE"".
"Back door." Kieran gestured, nodding with his nose up, his eyes focused almost through the wall. Whether he realized it or not, he looked idiotically arrogant then, but I said nothing. Kieran was right. There was something out there, and I could sense it. I shuddered despite myself.
Stepping out into the alley was like entering another world. My senses tingled as the rush of cold rain hit me, pouring out of the gutters. It was dark, clouds obscuring the light of the moons, and very quiet… too quiet for midnight in West Quarter. A chill raced down my spine and I clenched my fists.
Curled up in a ball against the side of a dumpster was a little white-skinned girl in a pink jumper. She dried tears on the sleeve of her flowered blouse and turned to stare at Horus who was bravely attempting to stand between her and six huge thugs dressed in fatigues. Her silver eyes left me no doubt as to her identity. Ailumenas... the child Goddess of Creation. She'd picked a hell of a night to pretend to be human.
"Hey!" Kieran interrupted, stepping into the gray-washed light of the alley.
"What do you think you're doing?" He demanded.
"We'll handle this, Tuhk," I whispered, turning to Horus who nodded obediently.
"We're collectin' the kids. You wanna make somethin' of it, hero?" One of the thugs demanded.
"Walk away." The one who looked like the leader sneered. At very least, he was wearing a suit and he didn't speak with a Quarter-Trash accent. "This is none of your business." He drew a gun from a holster inside his coat.
"That's my brother! This is absolutely my fucking business!" I snapped at the leader who glared at me with a haughty expression, scowling at both Kieran and myself as if we were so far beneath him that our existence was scarcely worth recognizing.
It was then that I realized that not even the faintest flicker of fear lingered in his cold eyes. Either he was far more powerful and at least twice as arrogant as we had previously assumed, or...
I grinned. He was an idiot.
Kieran, obviously coming to the same conclusion that I had, turned to me. "He doesn't know."
"Man, I hate to say this... but this is gonna fun!" I agreed.
The first of the thugs came running, wildly swinging a broadsword and I dunked, sweeping the man to the ground effortlessly despite the fact that I was half his size and knocking him unconscious with a quick punch. Kieran stepped directly in front of the second mercenary's fist, the poor guy's hand breaking with an audible crack as he hit him directly in the chest.
Focusing on the leader, I took a flying leap over his head and grabbed the collar of his coat, throwing him flat on his back. There's really nothing in the world that compares to the feeling of being ten feet in the air and upside down. It's a rush like no other. I'd done cartwheels and handsprings as a kid, but the first time I'd jumped clear over someone's head had been like a religious experience.
"Shit... what the fuck is he, some kind of kung-fu master?" A thug demanded, all too quickly back on his feet.
The big thug with the broken hand who had punched Kieran whimpered in pain. "This guy's made out of brick, boss!"
Kieran shrugged and then shape-shifted. In his true form he was a full head taller than his usual substantial height, pale as ice with wings that flickered faintly like forged steel, a gray-white that was almost silver. He looked a lot like his father, and more than a little Ithraedol, which meant there was absolutely no mistaking him for anything other than what he was.
"Demon!" One of the other thugs screamed, attempting to flee into the darkness. I caught his arm as he bolted past me and he returned the favor with a blow to my jaw. Kicking him in the chin, I put as much force behind my next move as I dared, catching him in the gut with a sickening crunch that sounded like a few ribs had shattered. He landed on top of the first thug that I had injured, the one with the broadsword... still breathing but not moving.
The guy with the broken hand attempted to shoot Kieran, and the leader fired at me. Both shots went wide of mark as the two of us lunged forward and tackled the remaining would-be assassins.
Four hits and they all stopped struggling.
"Nice," I grinned, slapping Kieran across the back of the head. "I like the whole wall-of-stone thing you've got going, but we ought to teach you some acrobatics."
"You stick with what works for you, I'll stick with being built like a refrigerator." Kieran laughed. "Is that the last of them?"
"Yep. It looks like it's over." I sighed in relief, rubbing my own injured jaw.
And yet Horus and Ruby still stared... fear in their eyes and Lumi still cried feebly. I looked up slowly, realizing that more mercenaries had gathered on the rooftops above us, the red laser-glow of sniper-rifles painting the alley with spots, like hundreds of spatters of blood. And that wasn't even the worst of it. Within me, something stirred. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and I growled despite myself.
"Felix?" Kieran whispered, staring wide-eyed at the pool of light from the street lamp. A half dozen shadows surrounded us, and they weren't the shapes of men with guns. "I think there are more."
I clenched my teeth and tried to will away the presence that I felt surrounding us, enveloping us like a blanket. "Wait a minute. That guy, he said they were collecting the kids? Both kids! They're… they're not just after Horus! They came for Lumi too! Oh fuck! This isn't just a setup… this is a God setup! And we walked right into it!"
One of the shadows on the rooftop stretched his wings. I could see the light reflecting from his eyes in the darkness and felt very cold. "Is that why we didn't sense them?" Kieran whispered uneasily. "Shit, Felix… we're dead."
My gaze drifted from the street, to Horus who was still guarding Ailumenas and then finally settled on the pile of unconscious thugs at my feet. The men we'd taken down weren't marked with any gang insignia. It was impossible to tell who they worked for, but I knew they couldn't be Etone. The realm-hopping Brothers and Sisters... all of them, even the crazy ones were insanely proud of their work. Whoever had hired these killers didn't want to be recognized. I didn't want to jump to conclusions, but a sick feeling deep in my stomach warned me that the IR was involved.
I liked the idea of I'Eloshir working for the Republic even less than I liked the idea of them working for Boss Beluntri. In the past they had been too set in tradition to deal with mortals on equal terms... but without a strong leader ruling over them, it seemed that the I'Eloshir were only too willing to adopt modern conveniences. Like guns. And explosives.
In any case, the truth was impossible to ignore. Whoever had sent the mercenaries had to know about Ailumenas. Whoever was hunting her had to know that the Gods were at their weakest. More than that... they had to be powerful... because they were hiring I'Eloshir. Not just two or three either.
Ten... maybe more.
"How many?" I whispered fearfully.
"I count fifteen," Kieran replied with cold certainty. "And that's just the guys with guns. Seven for you, eight for me?"
"Had a good life, cousin?" I raised an eyebrow in Kieran's direction and he bit his lip, turning back to me with a faint sarcastic smile.
"Well, it wasn't as long as I would have liked. I was kinda hoping for at least a century or two," He admitted.
"Yeah, you're not the only one," I nodded.
"Hey," Kieran interrupted, his tone suddenly changing. "Felix. You know, you should probably do it about now."
"What?" I muttered, though even the mere possibility of what I knew Kieran was about to suggest made my heart skip a beat.
"We're not getting out of here until they're all down, one way or another." Kieran paused. "Do you have any of that medicine of yours left?" He pressed.
I didn't know how he had heard about my grandfather's miracle drug, but since Kieran spent so much time with the palace wizards, I supposed one of them had let it slip. Involuntarily, I reached for the vial, the single dose of Master Merlin's elixir that I had kept with me when I had washed my old coat, slipping it into the breast pocket of my new trench. Yes, it was still there.
I remembered what I had seen on Swohmei's television and knew all at once where I'd found myself… that moment on Channel 53.
"I'm not killing anyone!" I argued.
"We're not walking away from this! We can't! Are you going to let these assholes keep coming after your brother?" Kieran hissed.
"No way!" I shook my head.
"Don't be an idiot! It's them or us!" Kieran snarled.
"I can't do this! I saw this happen already!" I protested.
"What do you mean you saw this happen?" Kieran demanded.
"I saw the future damnit, I saw what's going to happen and I… I can't! I can't do it!" I gritted my teeth, banishing the memory of what could happen from my mind.
"Goddamnit, Felix! Get a grip!" Kieran snapped. "They're surrounding us!" Sure enough, I could see the figures on the rooftop moving, one man jumping effortlessly across a twelve-foot gap between two buildings, and another leaping over from a tall fence across the street. Some of them still looked human, but as they came closer… I knew that smell.
"No!" I shouted.
A loud, scraping sound from close behind me suddenly drew my attention and I froze. The I'Eloshir began to back away, whispering amongst one another, and finally took off running. A cold, sharp fear struck me then. Whatever they had fled from was something far more dangerous than I cared to imagine.
" … help me." Kieran pleaded... and I turned slowly to face him.
A strong, pale arm was wrapped completely around Kieran's neck, and though he attempted to dig his claws into the man's skin, they scarcely marked the stranger's marble-white flesh. I stared in utter horror as my gaze drifted from the arm to the man's scarred face, his expressionless black eyes sending a chill down my spine as I tried to place just how big he was... huge, far taller than Kieran or even my grandfather. On his shoulder, black as his wings was the telltale mark of Inapsupetra's mask.
"Maluh," I whispered fearfully, taking a step back.
"Meat," He sneered, his voice as guttural and jarring as an animal growl. He wasn't truly a man... he was simply a creature, the basest most terrible form of what the I'Eloshir held the potential to become, a beast that lived only to kill.
"Ireval!" I shouted.
"She cannot hear," Maluh interrupted.
"Ireval!" I shouted, my own voice echoing down the empty street.
"She cannot hear," Maluh repeated.
"Inapsupetra!" I yelled at the top of my lungs. Kieran stared at me, horrified… as if he had secretly suspected what I already knew, that there was far more to his mother's madness than anyone could possibly comprehend.
"You call upon the Gods?" Maluh laughed. "They will not come!"
Still struggling, Kieran clenched his teeth and attempted to pull his way free. Maluh simply tossed him aside like a rag doll and I stumbled back, my hand touching the hilt of the unconscious thug's broadsword. It was heavy.
I had no choice. Pulling the stopper on the vial with my teeth, I drank the medicine. Feeling nothing, I let the two-handed sword fall into the grip of my right hand alone. Its weight had become inconsequential, and I knew exactly why that was. Maluh's eyes widened in disbelief and he drew his own blade.
He never had the opportunity to strike. Fast as lightning, I brought my sword down directly across his chest, the cheap steel shattering into a thousand pieces. With a fury I had not known I was capable of, I took the beast down to the ground and tore my claws across his throat.
Kieran may not have been able to cut him with his claws... but the force I had put behind my blow did. Black blood sprayed everywhere and Maluh howled, flailing. Throwing me on my back with a tremendous blow, he held his throat as the blood poured through his fingers. I was undeterred. Grabbing the beast's fallen sword, I swung madly at him as he moved towards Kieran. Barely able to rise to his feet, Kieran touched his own chest and pulled away a hand covered in blood. The bastard had stabbed him completely through the back.
He'd tried to kill him. He'd had his claws in Kieran already when my cousin had begged me for help. Maluh had tried to kill Horus and Kesha and… who knew how many other people?
The others were obviously afraid of him. Wolf was right. Maluh was just an... animal, and when he was let out of his cage, he killed. A creature with a taste for blood, phenomenal strength and no mind to speak of. He'd probably traded owners so many times over the centuries that it hurt to imagine the numbers of cruel and ambitious lords and sorcerers who must have kept him... not out of charity as my mother looked after Gorse, but out of a perverse desire to harness his blind, raw power.
I almost pitied him. Almost.
Maluh grabbed the blade of his sword that I had stolen and wretched it from my grasp. I fell forward onto my knees and then dropped onto my chest, dunking and looking for any weapon I could lay my hands on, attempting to dodge another blow from Maluh. I wasn't fast enough. He caught me in the side with his sword, slashing from my hip up into my shoulder and the softest part of my wing.
I roared at him and lunged, blood pouring from the open wound, my vision dimmed by the pain. In a pile of old newspapers, a black-bladed sword lay, waiting as if it were not a real physical object but a fragment of a dream, waiting for my touch to pull the weapon into reality. I recognized it immediately.
It was Green Eyes Lady. As my father had professed... the sword of Inapsupetra herself.
I grabbed the sword, the ripples in its blade unmistakable mirrors of the night sky with all its stars, not an ordinary weapon at all, but passed from the hands of the divine into my own. Our blades rang out in the quiet of the street, sparks flying between them. Was I really wielding Inapsupetra's sword? I didn't care. It was a weapon I knew how to use, and it had appeared just in time to possibly save my life.
His strength easily ten times my own, Maluh brought me to my knees with the sheer force of his attack. I struggled to stand and throw him back, but his blade was nearing my neck and there was nothing I could do to keep him from finishing me at that moment.
Or was there?
I took a deep breath. Ta'ud swirled around me, phasing into visibility. Maluh's grip faltered for a moment as he stared in horror but he recovered more quickly than I could move. That didn't matter. For what I was about to do, I didn't need to be on my feet.
The realization when it came kind of made me sick, but there was no use in denying what I felt. There was a reason I'd been tied up in this whole mess since the very beginning, drawn into a world full of deities, monsters and ancient magic. I'd heard the voice of the Goddess of Chaos… and she'd called me her child. I'd wounded the Goddess of Chance and surprised the God of Time. It wasn't only because they were weakening either. There was a reason that Ruby had chosen me, as opposed to anyone else she might have pulled off the street. She was still powerful enough to stop an ordinary person. But an Ithraedol? Someone else with divine blood?
"Stop." I ordered.
Maluh's sword immediately clattered out of his grasp.
I ran my blade through his chest. My arm went numb from the shock. I bit down hard on my own lip and pushed him backwards, putting my foot on his sword-arm and twisting the blade I had run through his body as I pulled it out, wiping the slick black blood off of it with the palm of my hand.
He was dead. I'd killed him. It was all over. He'd dared to challenge me and now he was where he deserved to be! Dead!
He was dead. It was good. I'd wanted it that way. I tasted the blood on my fingertips, and spat on the ground. The bitterness disgusted me. I could taste the mortality in it. Stupid beast! It was a good thing, a very good thing that he was dead!
The next thought in my mind almost caused me to throw up. I dropped my sword and fell to my knees as a sharp cold pain cut clear through me. I realized then the enormity of what had just happened. I'd actually killed someone!
And now that I'd done it… discovered how easy it was, I knew that I could do it again. Knew that I would do it if I had to... and maybe if I didn't have to.
Maybe simply because I could. Maybe only because I wanted to.
Sirens echoed down the dark street but I couldn't bring myself to move a muscle. Maluh's body hadn't entirely faded into nothingness. His wings crumbled into silver dust, blown away in the night breeze, but his body remained, a heavy, very human-looking corpse with a black blade protruding from his chest. Kieran grabbed my arm, attempting to force me to my feet, but I stared at the body still, unable to move had I even wanted to. "Rembrandt!" He shouted. "Get over here! Help me!"
"Knights!" Rembrandt shook his head. He carried Horus on his back. "I gotta bail."
"Help me, damnit, you won't get in trouble!" Kieran snarled. "We've got to get him on his feet before the press gets here!"
Swearing under his breath, Rembrandt set Horus on his feet and slipped my arm over his shoulder. I fell forward limply and he cursed again, staggering as my wing fell over his back. "Shit! He weighs a damn ton! Where are we going?" Rembrandt demanded.
"Nayru, are you okay?" Horus demanded.
I couldn't bring myself to respond. I was too dizzy.
"Felix needs a Mender," Kieran shook his head. "Or at least a safe place where I can heal him a little."
"That black shit, that's blood isn't it? Fuck." Rembrandt muttered, sounding worried. "All right. This way!" He ordered, jerking me to the left. "Follow my lead."
For a moment I attempted to walk, leaning on Kieran for most of the support I needed, but then my vision blurred and I lost consciousness. The next thing I knew, we were running down a narrow hallway at an impressive speed... or at least Rembrandt and Kieran were running, Kieran carrying me halfway slung over his shoulder.
"I'm awake!" I gagged, accidentally digging my claws into Kieran's back. "Put me down!"
He set me on my feet and I immediately collapsed again, too weak to stand, dizzy from having lost so much blood. I couldn't move my right wing, the one Maluh had cut, and it drug on the ground behind me. "Ow." I whispered lying with my face almost on the floor. Shaking his head heavily, Kieran closed his eyes and immediately tried to heal me. I'd been healed of injuries before, but never by my cousin. He wasn't exactly an expert Mender and his raw magic was hot and cold simultaneously. It would have been fairly painful, had it not actually been fixing me. The pain dissipated some, and I could see out of the corner of my eye that I'd stopped bleeding, and almost too quickly, I could feel my wing again. It hurt worse than before, but at least I could move it. The gash in my side was another matter entirely.
"We're almost safe," Rembrandt offered me a hand and I accepted it. He winced, pulling me halfway to my feet and I fell into Kieran who steadied himself and put my arm around his neck. I was still bleeding. As much as he could help me, Kieran was also wounded. He could keep me from dying, but he couldn't do much more than that, not unless he took on one of my near-fatal wounds himself.
My head swimming, I scarcely recognized where we were... until I saw the television-altar in the center of the apartment. Rembrandt slammed the door behind us.
"Gammo!" Horus shouted. "Gammo, Gammo!"
"Mano, help!" Rembrandt yelled out.
"Danilo!" Rembrandt's mother cried, running out of the adjoining bedroom in a nightgown and curlers, throwing her arms around her son's neck. "Ba, ba no weju!" She gasped, noticing the cuts and bruises on his face.
"It's okay, Mano," Rembrandt shook his head. "I'm fine. Felix needs more help than me."
Following behind him, I slowly staggered into the light. Rembrandt's mother backed away slowly, looking at me with fear in her eyes. Bob the Skunk jumped out from under a multi-colored afghan on the couch, staring at me in disbelief. "Oh shit, I've been slacking! What happened to you, Nee-roo?" She gasped, scurrying over to my side, grabbing a towel from the kitchen counter. "Here, stop the bleeding!" Bob ordered. I held it in place for a moment and took a few slow breaths. Once she realized I was not about to pass out, Bob lifted the towel away carefully and I winced. "Good." Bob observed the deep gash in my side and sighed in relief. "He missed your vitals. You gotta stop getting yourself ripped to shreds when I'm off work." She chided. "Ferral is gonna have my head tomorrow for this one."
"I... I'm sorry," I whispered. "I didn't want to. I didn't mean to."
I tried to change back to my human form even though I knew it probably wasn't a good idea. A fresh new wave of pain seared through me. My vision blurred and I almost fell over. Desperate to catch myself, I opened my wings without thinking. When I rocked backwards, I knocked a clock off of the wall. Glass shattered as I fell forward, clearing everything off of the kitchen table in one involuntary swoop.
I collapsed to the ground, driving my fist through the tile and four inches into the floor… piles of shattered dishes all around me. Blood welled up in my mouth.
All I could feel was pain.
Questions rattled what was left of my conscious mind. Why? Why me? Why any of this? What kind of beast was I? I'd driven a sword through someone's body... and it had made me feel... good! Good, at least, until he died, and then, what did I feel?
Nothing. Everything. Insanity.
I tried to change human again. I don't know why I did it, but the moment I tried I felt even worse than I had after my first attempt. I fell onto the couch, tearing the fabric with my claws.
"Damnit, get a hold of yourself Felix!" Rembrandt shouted, and I turned slowly, staring at the red gun that was pointed directly at my face. "Look what you're doing!"
I stopped short and saw the broken clock, all of Swohmei's dishes shattered on the floor and the cracks in the tile. Very slowly I lifted my hand from the couch and saw the damage that I had done. Sitting in front of her precious television altar, her arms held up over her head in a gesture to ward off evil, Swohmei stared at me in silence. Bob crawled out from under the couch.
"I'm sorry!" I cried. "I'm sorry!"
"Stop trying to change!" Kieran ordered. The expression on his face made it very obvious that he knew what I had been doing and could feel the pain I was causing myself. "You idiot!"
"I… I want to die," I whispered, breathing in short, ragged gasps.
"Why?" Kieran demanded. "You just saved my life! You just saved Horus! You might have just saved a God!"
"You don't understand!" I protested. "I did it! I knew what was I was going to do and I did it anyway! I tried to stop myself and I still did it!"
"There was nothing else you could have done!" Kieran paused.
"I won't believe that! Nn... nothing is inevitable!" I snarled.
The pain struck me again with increasing sharpness.
I wanted to hit something, tear something apart… but I'd already destroyed Swohmei's entire apartment.
"Get a grip!" Rembrandt snapped. "So you killed a guy! So what? Yeah, maybe you didn't want to do it. Maybe you did! You think you're the only one who's ever done something he can't take back? I'm a fucking assassin!" It was the first time I'd ever heard him use that word. "And I hate it! I've been trying to get out of it for fifteen years! Remember that job I went on? I had to kill an old friend of mine. Can you imagine what that was like? It wasn't for the money that I did it. I did it for Kesh and Horus. So the Boss would leave em' alone. So that my kid wouldn't end up with my life!" Rembrandt fell silent.
It was quiet for a long while.
"Mano." He turned to his mother. "I'm going to go find Kesh, okay? We'll come help you clean up in the morning."
"It's late," Bob added. "I'll have to file all the paperwork on this tomorrow." She sighed. "Rembrandt's right, you know." Bob paused.
Swohmei nodded. Though still fearful, she grabbed my hand and Kieran's. "You are both needed." She whispered. "Keep him alive." For the life of me, I could not tell whether the last thing she said was directed at me, or at Kieran. In a way, I supposed, it was meant for both of us.
Bob hopped up to the counter to grab her little neck pouch. Dropping to all fours, she slipped out the door after Rembrandt and vanished into the darkness.
The little apartment was silent. Mopping up the mess in the kitchen, Swohmei dumped her wash cloth into the sink. Still crying, she picked up a box of tissues off the floor and went into her bedroom. Kieran fixed the cut in my wing before heading out the door himself, saying that he had to go back to check on things at the palace.
Alone in the room, I threw open the living room window and leapt into sky. Though it hurt to fly, I had to get away from the mess I'd made, as far away as possible. I needed to be alone. High above the narrow streets, I landed on the roof of a tall office building. Misty white clouds drifted around me, and for a small moment, as a strong gust of wind blew past... I felt healed. Then I remembered what I had done, and again, I was afraid. Curling into a shadowed corner, safe from the prying light of the moons, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
It was morning by the time I could breathe comfortably again. The smooth, cold concrete pressed against my back, reminding me all too clearly of where I was and how I had gotten there. Crawling on my hands and knees, utterly exhausted, I fumbled for what little was left of my clothes and finally threw down the remains of my shredded jacket in disgust. I was still a little wet. Feathers stuck to my bare feet as I made my way across the roof, wondering what the hell had happened to my shoes.
I looked like hell, not really bleeding anymore, but still badly injured. It was going to be a long, cold, suspicious-looking walk home for me. The keys to The Hades were in my pocket, and that was all that mattered to me. If nothing else, I needed to go retrieve my Spellcraft. More importantly, after the events of last night, I had a lot of apologies to make. I figured I'd see how Cal and his unfortunate bartenders were doing first.
And yet, I still felt strangely at ease, despite my cluttered memory flashing between visions of killing Maluh in the alleyway to Rembrandt's mother and her trashed apartment. As soon as I could find a way to repair the damage I had caused to the place, I would... though I guessed that the emotional scar I had left her with would take some time longer to heal.
Not sure where I wanted to go first, I headed down the building's fire escape and stopped at a little café... a green corner in the old part of West Quarter and sat down with a cup of coffee. I told the waitress that I'd been mugged and she believed me, offering to call the Knights. I persuaded her to find me a shirt instead and she came back with one that had a little red apple… the café's logo on it and read "West of Eden". Still barefoot, I headed for Mad Mack's. Birds whistled in the trees and a faint breeze carried on it the scent of coffee, roses and bread baking.
Bells rang and a mother with six children attempted to herd the little boys and girls in the direction of the neighborhood church, all of them dressed in their best. A troll street sweeper picked change out of the garbage, and a red imp on a leash scurried up a telephone pole on its owner's command, retrieving a pair of shoes tossed over the wires.
My shoes. Not that I cared.
A newspaper boy rode by on a bicycle, and a wizard chased by a hyperactive black rain-cloud attempted to fend of the shadow hovering over him with his umbrella. The owner of the comic book shop across the street opened up his storefront, and from inside the building, someone on roller-skates came sliding into the street.
"Ruby?" I wondered, catching sight of her familiar red-plaid shirt slipping around the corner and into a nearby alley. Ignoring my unfinished breakfast, I jumped to my feet, pushing the table out of the way and nearly knocking it over as I leapt the fence around the outdoor patio and followed the sound of wheels.
"Hey, Ruby!" I shouted. I hadn't had an opportunity to talk to her since before the events of the previous night and I desperately wanted to know if everyone was all right.
She didn't seem to hear me. Squeezing between two dumpsters, I looked up just in time to see her walk through a door in the back of the alley. A flash of recognition struck me and I gasped in awe. The dusty neon sign over the door was off, but I could tell that it read "Holy Lanes"... and the picture of the little bowling ball with wings was exactly as I had seen in my dream!
And yet I was awake, or at least I thought I was.
"Ruby!" I ran after her, catching the door just as it was about to close.
I stepped into the darkness. I wasn't sure what kind of place I had come into, but one thing was for certain. Wherever I was... was not a bowling alley.
Thousands of feet above me stalactites dripped water into a round, deep pool surrounded by the half-buried remains of great machines which hummed and rumbled, ancient gears grinding and turning. A seven-pointed star was reflected in the blue-black water rippled near my feet. Pale silvery creatures that looked almost like some sort of sea snakes swam in the depths. They were… ether raptors, I knew, and I was immediately afraid. Ether raptors are venomous, aggressive and very fast.
Out on the center of the water... barely touching the surface was a white plastic table with four chairs and a moth-eaten brown couch. Two children sat on the couch, a little girl dressed in a white nightdress with a rather frightening princess mask, and next to her, an older boy whose face was hidden by a plastic pumpkin. Yet I couldn't make out more than the basic shapes of the people who waited there, as if they were merely shadows of themselves. Only the princess seemed to be completely within the strange realm I had entered.
The very audible click of a light switch turning on startled me and I stumbled forward, expecting to fall into the blue-black pool, except that the water was gone and I was left staring at stained gray carpeting. A loud humming sound shook the machines around me and slowly, an empty bowling alley replaced the cave of ancient machines, the lanes stretching out infinitely in both directions. There were bathrooms, a desk, video games, a bar and a snack counter.
It was complete in every detail, yet something told me the place was too perfect. It couldn't possibly be real. I turned back in the direction of the four children. The pumpkin-boy looked up from the comic book he was reading and took off his mask. I gasped.
"Hey, Nayru!" Horus grinned broadly.
"Tuhk?" I wondered in disbelief. "What are you doing here?"
"Just playing," Horus shrugged. "Mom and Rembrandt are busy cleaning up Gammo's house."
The little princess waved, and on the floor around a chessboard, a Tree-Rat who was wearing a dinosaur head, and a robot... a familiar-looking boy in an orange robe sat, deeply absorbed in the movement of their pieces.
"Mouse? I stared in disbelief. "Fate?"
"Hi." Mouse grinned, taking off her mask. I found my gaze drawn back to Horus.
I was going to ask how he'd found the place, but it occurred to me that I didn't actually need to. He'd had a dream just as I had, but being a kid he'd gone along with the whole thing and hadn't tried to convince himself that what he was seeing was impossible. That was why he was such a natural when it came to working Ta'ud. Living amongst Etone, he'd never learned how to doubt anything.
"This isn't the safest place to play. Why don't we go down to the City Below?" I suggested. It seemed like the safest place we could go, and I still needed some shoes.
Horus shrugged. "Mepmac's kids are babies," He informed me. "These guys are way more mature." The way he said that word brought a smile to my face. I'd had one hell of a night, but it was hard to stay angry around Horus.
The Tree Rat on the floor grinned broadly, a chess piece stuck in each one of her nostrils.
"If you say so," I laughed despite myself.
Fate scowled and slapped her across the back of the head. Mouse shrieked and pummeled him, giggling insanely. Fate fell and rolled, attempting to worm his way free from the Tree Rat's grasp. "Stompin' on Baldy is one o' my spesh'eealities." Mouse announced proudly, standing up on Fate's chest.
"Among other things." Horus added. I'd heard the phrase before from Master Jeo. I wasn't sure what it meant, but I was beginning to suspect that it was some kind of Etone inside joke. Maybe Horus would explain it to me.
"We should really go," I announced. "Come on. I'll buy you ice cream."
"Awesome! I want chocolate chip!" Horus grinned, leaping down from the table. "See you later!" He waved.
"Hey!" The little princess interrupted. "I gotta talk to your brother before you leave."
"Why?" Horus wondered uneasily.
"I have to ask him something," she replied. "In private." The bowling alley immediately ceased to exist, Horus vanished and I felt a cold chill ripple down my spine.
"Well?" I paused, somewhat uncomfortable with the two of us standing there alone in the darkness.
"I'll cut to the chase. Right now I'm pretty interested in you. You've done some things that I've noticed." She interrupted sharply, walking with a well-rehearsed gangster like swagger that I recognized immediately. She was mimicking me... and perfectly! It was eerie. Even her voice sounded like a recording of my own.
"Who are you?" I demanded. I had my suspicions, but it was hard to tell for certain when the little girl was speaking to me with my own voice.
"Someone who cares," she replied. "That's why I have to ask. Do you really want to help Mama?"
"Yes, I do." I nodded. "I've been doing everything I can."
"Not everything," The princess paused. "I want to help Mama too. I want to fix her. But before I can do that… I need a Favor."
I hesitated. "What kind of Favor are you talking about?"
"You'll have to give something to me," She explained. "If you want to help Mama, you've got to give me something that belongs to you." She held out a black box in her tiny pale hands. "I'll put it in here for safe keeping."
"No, Nayru!" Horus shouted. "Don't do what she says! Don't!" I didn't know how he had gotten to the place where we were, which was very clearly not the bowling alley… and the little princess seemed surprised to see him there herself.
"Give you what? I don't understand," I shook my head.
"You're too special. You need to be less special." The little girl explained, slowly removing her mask. I stared in numbed silence, very much afraid. Creation smiled at me, tears in her silver eyes. "Part of you needs to go away."
All of a sudden it occurred to me exactly how Hannah and Vincent's cowardly ancestors had lost their power. Was it possible that the stranger they had bargained with was somehow… the same as the little girl I encountered then? And if so, why would Creation make such a bargain? Why were the Gods so obsessed with Traversers? I didn't know, but in any case I could sense beyond a doubt that Ailumenas spoke the truth, that she could actually do what she was suggesting… make me human?
"No way, Nayru!" Horus argued. "Don't listen to her!"
Why he seemed content to play with the little girl one minute and then started warning me away from her the next was something I did not understand… but there was something in his voice, a very genuine conviction. I ignored him.
"Are you serious?" I stared. "That's all you want? If I do what you're asking, you'll help Inapsupetra?"
Ailumenas nodded. "For one hundred years."
I shuddered slightly as I began to understand just what was at stake. If I did what she asked… I'd never fly again. I wouldn't be able to work Ta'ud that I was finally beginning to understand. A lot of things would be different. I'd age, and eventually… I'd die. But for a hundred years of peace, would it be worth it?
Ailumenas sniffed, rubbing her nose with the hem of her robe. "I hate it! I hate it, I hate it!" She shouted. "I want to keep you!"
"Then why are you offering me this?" I wondered uneasily.
"Because you're special!" Ailumenas cried. "You're special to me!" She paused, suddenly sounding far older than her tiny frame appeared. "Why don't you don't understand?" She whispered feebily.
"Well," I sighed deeply, suddenly aware of the enormity of the situation at hand. "If I do what you ask, this is what I want. I want everyone to be safe. I want Ireval to stop hurting herself." I added. "And I want one hundred years of peace. That's the important part. We all live happily ever after."
"Okay," Ailumenas agreed. She made a cross over her heart and bowed her little white head. "I promise."
"Then I'll do whatever you want," I replied.
She looked very uncomfortable with my response. "You should've said no," She informed me. The silence that followed seemed to last an eternity.
"Help me, Tuhk," Ailumenas ordered, and Horus bravely stepped forward.
I glanced at her momentarily, surprised that the Goddess would call Horus by his secret name, the one I had given him. And yet, in a frightening way, it almost made sense than anything else she might have called him. The boy had been raised by wild dimension-hopping Etone... but he was a Traverser. Or at very least... he would be. Rembrandt was right. That kid would raise unholy hell someday. Hopefully I'd live to see it.
"Are you ready?" Ailumenas wondered, and I nodded, clenching my teeth. Before she even spoke, I knew that whatever was about to happen would hurt, and badly.
"Here," Ailumenas whispered, reaching into my chest. Her hand burned like fire as she dug deeper and deeper and I snarled despite myself, digging my claws deep into the ground as I changed. The pain was excruciating, but not as terrible as what came next. "It's on the surface." Ailumenas reassured me. "That's the hardest part."
Drawing her little hand out through the side of my neck, she clenched in her pale fist something that looked like a string of black ooze. I gasped as she wound the black, pulsing leech-like thing around her fist and pulled it sharply forward. My wings disintegrated. My claws melted into my fingers. Delirious, I stared up at Horus who looked absolutely horrified as he stood there, holding something in his hands that looked like a heart made of obsidian wrapped in tentacles of midnight.
The heart pulsed and Ailumenas took it from him, shoving it into her little box and slamming the lid. Wisps of shadow drifted out of the box, waving piteously as if they ached to return to me. I reached out to touch one, just a single fragment, but Ailumenas pulled away from me sharply. She looked up as if she had just something very bad and I could tell that she was frightened.
I was frightened myself. Had I just made a mistake?
"Stop! Stop right now!" A very familiar voice snarled as a figure dropped from above, landing between us. A rush of wind blew me backwards into Horus as the shadow folded his wings. "I will not let you harm my son, you vicious little witch!"
Could it be him? Was it possible? In such a place, I assumed anything was.
"What's done is done, Lord Elhilom." Ailumenas whispered coldly, disappearing into the shadows.
"Don't think you'll get away with this!" My father snarled, waving his fist at her. The darkness melted around us. We were in the bowling alley once more.
"Help me... father." I whispered in Ekbahte, though the words didn't seem to roll off my tongue as they usually did.
Turning around, he knelt down beside me and slowly helped me to my feet. "Stand quickly. It is always good to stand quickly." He ordered, attempting to seem firm but I could see tears in his eyes. I felt weak, weaker than I had ever been in all my life! The world blurred around me. My father helped me into a chair and Horus came running, jumping up on the table in front of me. My father shifted into his human form and his clothing changed. He was dressed in all black with only very little gold… the clothing he would have worn in his role as a Black Robe and High Priest of Inapsupetra.
"Is he all right?" Horus demanded. "Is he going to die?"
"He will live," My father replied stiffly.
The two of them lapsed into Ekbahte. Tired as I was, I could scarcely follow the words. Or no, it was more than that. I genuinely couldn't understand either of them. The gift that I'd had, the precious little fragment of empathy that had always attached itself to words had deserted me. I could translate the tongue like any scholar of dead languages would have, but the intricacies of meaning and emotion that made Ekbahte somehow truer than in any other form of speech... they were gone.
"Bak nah,." My father ordered, holding out his flask. "Mahn bak sey'vah."
"What?" I wondered, disoriented. A child would have been able to understand the words as he spoke them... but they were foreign and harsh-sounding to me without their typical accompaniment of empathic sensations.
"Nayru, drink!" My father ordered, switching to the common tongue. "It may not be too late. Drink!"
Still confused, I took the flask and drank. My first thought was that the liquor would be ambrosia... that was what my father always drank, and I smiled faintly, anticipating the sharp sweetness and comforting icy-hot burn that always followed the first shot. But whatever he gave me, it was awful! It tasted... rotten, there was no other word for it... and so acidic that I couldn't even swallow! Hacking uncontrollably, I threw up and collapsed forward onto the table. My tongue was completely numb.
"Sorry." My father admitted with a grimace. "Maybe you shouldn't drink yet. You all right, Nayru?"
"What was that?" I demanded, slowly sitting up.
"Ambrosia," My father paused. "The same brew you've been sneaking out of my private stash since you were his age." He jerked a thumb at Horus.
"It's never tasted like that before!" I shook my head heavily.
"Oh?" My father wondered. "Maybe it's gone bad." He paused. "I was not aware that it did go bad." He laughed uneasily and leaned back in his chair. "Look at you!" He sighed and kicked his feet up on the table with a grin as he quickly changed the subject. I was relieved. Whatever it was that I'd just gone through, it wasn't something I wanted to talk about. Not yet, at any rate.
"Both of my boys. Ah, Tuhk!" He grinned, turning to Horus. "I've been looking forward to meeting you."
"You're really him?" Horus wondered.
"Yes." My father smiled, scratching his chin. "Can't you see the family resemblance?" He smirked, turning to put his nose in the air in profile.
"Are you really dead?" Horus whispered, a little fearfully.
"Are you really alive?" My father raised an eyebrow skeptically in his direction.
"Can you coming back to live with all of us?" Horus asked eagerly. Being a child, it probably didn't even occur to him that having his mother, Rembrandt, the frog-dog, my grandfather, my mother and our father together under one roof might be more than a little awkward. Knowing the kid as well as I did, I figured he'd like it even better if we could add his uncle Mandala and his "Gammo" out to my grandfather's ranch.
"I cannot," My father shook his head. "But I can be here when you look for me."
"Is this heaven?" Horus wondered.
"I don't think so." My father admitted. "I've done nothing deserving of heaven. And yet this place is too cold for hell." He shuddered, rubbing his hands together. "I think right now it's a bowling alley."
"Oh," Horus paused.
"Have you ever been bowling before?" He wondered.
"Once." Horus shrugged.
"No." I admitted.
"I play a lot these days," My father sighed. "There doesn't seem to be much else to do. Come along, we'll get shoes."
He turned on the lights to the lanes and Horus grinned broadly. "Cool. They go on forever! Look, Nayru!"
I stared. Sure enough, the bowling alley went on indefinitely.
"Sometimes they do," My father shrugged. "And sometimes they aren't here at all. You've been to this place before, Nayru." My father reminded me. "Show your brother where the balls are."
It seemed like the most utterly ridiculous thing to be doing in a place so eerie and timeless, a place that could not have possibly existed anywhere but outside of the real world. And yet, somehow... it also seemed perfectly right. Hours passed. We didn't talk about the past or the future. We just... played. We trashed the concessions stand, and when Horus couldn't win a toy out of the claw machine, I showed him how to open the back panel and take out all of the quarters.
"Teaching your brother to steal already?" My father laughed.
"These things are all rigged anyway," I argued.
Not a soul interrupted us. And so we bowled.
"Strike!" My father Ordered, and Horus's ball jumped out of the gutter and back into the lane, leveling all the pins. That particular talent of his was a thing I'd seen him use only rarely. I knew it was part of the Ta'ud, commanding objects to move with Orders but I'd never learned how to do it myself. I decided to see if I could work out the structure of the spell that moved the gates the next time I went back to Gelthar, and then scoffed at myself. I was forgetting the bargain I'd made. I had no power, not anymore. I couldn't have used the spell even if I'd even known it!
Horus laughed insanely. I rolled my eyes. "Now you're teaching him to cheat!" I teased, and my father sighed.
"I'm just helping him to stay in the game," he pointed out as he took a long drink from his flask and then offered it to me. "Drink?" He wondered.
"I think I'll pass." I admitted, and he laughed.
"Aieh, I suspect I'll have to finish it all then. Pity," he smirked. "Look, here come the scores!" He pointed, as the numbers appeared on the screen. "Bah, I played terribly! It seems you beat the both of us, Tuhk." He observed. "Very respectable!"
"Technically, I won." I pointed out. "Or I would have anyway… if you hadn't pulled Horus's ball out of the gutter four times."
"It's my handicap!" Horus argued.
"Ah, but you only get to have a handicap once! Next time you'll be on your own. Either you'll have to start bowling more often, or you'll have to learn to control the ball yourself."
"You mean I can make the ball jump like that?" Horus grinned broadly.
"Certainly!" My father nodded. "Nayru will teach you how."
I didn't argue with him. What could I have said?
"He's too young to learn Ta'ud," I said. "You're crazy."
"Perhaps I am." My father shrugged. "You try spending eternity in a bowling alley. I wonder which Gods I offended to wind up here. Probably all of them." He sighed heavily and put his hand on my shoulder. "Listen, my son. I will do everything in my power to help you. I don't blame you for listening to Creation, but you've no idea what you've stumbled into. Be careful."
"I'll be fine," I replied, not entirely certain of my own words.
"Well, it's time then. It's almost three o' clock." My father sighed. "You should go. People will be looking for you." Without speaking a word, we returned the balls and put our shoes away. "Come back again. Now that you know where to find me."
"Definitely!" Horus agreed.
And yet, despite the smile on his face, I couldn't help but feel as if my father knew... he must have known that neither of us would be back. Not after the choice I'd made. I'd wished the doors closed, and they would be. All of them. The bad ones… and the good ones. Horus ran out into the street, jumping up and down insanely, but I waited there on the first step, unwilling to leave.
"Father?" I wondered, squinting in the darkness that I could no longer see through. I could make out his shape, but I couldn't quite see his face. I wondered if he could hear me.
"Nayru!" Horus whined. "You promised me ice cream!"
"I'm coming," I shouted. Slowly closing the door behind me, I waited in silence for a moment, my back against the cool metal. There had been something that I had wanted to say, but I couldn't find the words. Fumbling through my pockets, I took out a little piece of crumpled paper and a short stub of a pencil. I wrote "Thanks" on it and slipped it under the door.
Just that one little word didn't seem like enough, but I didn't know what else to write. I wasn't really sorry. Artemis would be herself again. The world would be safe for a hundred years. I felt good about what I'd done. Even the immediate sense of weakness that overwhelmed me as I almost tripped, stepping out the door of the bowling alley didn't dampen my spirits. My grandfather probably wouldn't take the whole thing very well, but Kieran would understand, and I knew that everyone would be grateful in the long run.
More importantly, there would be no more insane deities, no more monsters! When I'eloshir came looking for Nayru Ithraedol... after breaking off ties with Boss Umeoth, they would never find him. Even Wolf would never believe that he and I had once been the same person, not if I were human.
Horus sniffed faintly and hung on my arm. I couldn't conceal the fact that I was dead tired. I tousled his hair and grinned. "You'll see." I promised. "Everything will be better now."
"It isn't fair that it had to be you," He argued.
"Would you have done it?" I wondered, and he shook his head.
"No. Even though it would make things better with my mom and Rembrandt," he paused. "I wouldn't do it. I would be too scared."
"I'm not afraid." I reassured him.
I brushed Horus's hair out of his eyes. "This is more important than me. Everything will be better now."
"You mean it?" Horus wondered.
"I mean it. Now, about that ice cream! Where should we go?" I asked.
"Sugar Bowl!" Horus decided.
I didn't say no, but I wanted to protest. Sugar Bowl was a little shop on Imperial Island. If we went up there, we'd probably run into Kieran or Brin, and I didn't particularly want to deal with either of them. Then I scoffed at myself. There was no use in trying to hide what I'd done. Everyone would know sooner or later. "Okay," I agreed.
We picked up the Green Line and took it across town to the Imperial Island trolley. I stared out the windows as we went up. It was an amazingly beautiful day. The sky was clear and the whole city seemed to glow golden beneath us in the afternoon sun. I emptied my pockets and managed to pull together just enough change to get Horus an ice cream at Sugar Bowl and a bottle of water for myself. I still felt a little nauseous and I guessed I was probably dehydrated.
We went out to the public balcony and looked out over Zenith. There was hardly anyone around… a few couples holding hands and walking the promenade, some Knights, some courtesans. A chill came over me and I turned slowly.
Ailumenas stood in the doorway behind me, an infinitely sorrowful expression on her face. In a flickering of light the little Goddess vanished.
"Nayru?" Horus wondered.
"Stay here. I'm going to go check something out." I ordered.
He didn't listen to me. Finishing off his ice cream and licking his fingers, Horus followed me up the stairs to the third floor.
"Raphael!" Artemis cried, throwing open the doors to her room. "Oh Gods, Raphael!" She shouted. "I'm cured!"
"Nayru!" She exclaimed. "Oh, Nayru! Look at me!" She laughed. "I'm alive again! I don't know what happened but it's a blessed thing indeed!" Artemis paused. "Where is Raphael?"
"In his room," I shrugged. "No one's seen him since Kesha brought him back from Malbolde."
"Goddess," Artemis whispered. "I can feel it now. He's in pain." She paused. "If only I had been well..."
"It's not your fault." I shook my head. "And it hasn't been long. It's not too late for you can help him now."
"Yes," Artemis agreed. "I will do that." She paused. "My son, Kieran? Have you seen him?"
"He's around here somewhere I'm sure," I shrugged. "I wish I knew exactly where, but I..."
"Don't worry," Artemis nodded. "He'll come when I call. Kieran!" She ordered. I winced, and Horus blinked in surprise.
Artemis knocked on Raphael's door. "Kyurae ki mato?" She wondered. "E'mahn edu ene kaa'reh!" She laughed, breathless. "Tem suweh, nah nayoh na'ak! Lekhe? Raphael? Bahte amul su e'ra itu? Raphael?!"
I couldn't follow any of it, not with how quickly she spoke and how much emotion was oddly missing from her words. Had I been able to understand them, I guessed that I probably would have been close to tears. Horus looked pretty bad at any rate, sniffling and wiping his nose on my sleeve. I knew he couldn't understand everything she said, but he could do something I could not. He could feel what she meant.
"E'mab nomo temel," Raphael replied coldly from within the room.
"Raphael?" Artemis paled. "What did you just say? Let me in this room! Now!"
"Kyul," He shot back.
"Raphael!" Artemis cried. "It is not impossible for you to open this door!"
"E'mab nomo nara mata tem kyul," He whispered, almost inaudibly.
"No, Raphael, why?" She whispered. "I'm cured, I swear it. Inapsupetra has healed me! I'm sorry I made you suffer through this, but you must believe me, I had no control over any of it! But now I am well again! Why can't you see me?"
The look on Artemis's face was absolutely agonizing. I decided that I much preferred to see her insane than in such a state. "It's impossible for me to see you?" Horus wondered. "Why would he say something like that?"
"Lumi!" I shouted. "This wasn't part of our deal! What's going on? Answer me!"
"She won't come," Fate interrupted. He sat on the stairs, almost insubstantial. I had never seen him in such a way, not a solid body but something like a ghost. "She's doing what she promised."
"She promised she would fix things!" I argued.
"She promised that no one would be harmed, and that this realm would have one hundred years of peace," Fate paused. "And that's what you'll get. But it may not be what you expected." He shook his head, slowly fading into nothingness.
"Yeah, well... thanks for nothing then! I suppose I'll be seeing you around." I gritted my teeth.
"No." Fate replied. "No, you won't be."
With that, he was gone. I gritted my teeth. This was another stupid game, another of the God's tricks! It had to be!
"Ruby!" I shouted. "Ruby, where are you?" I paused. "Teyame! Teyame, you're a bastard and I hate you! If I ever see you again I'm gonna kick you in the nuts! You hear that?" I shouted. "Are you listening to me? I kissed your sister!"
There was no response.
"Inapsupetra!" I cried, throwing my arms to the sky. "Inapsupetra!"
Echoes mocked me. Artemis fell to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably and banged on Raphael's door.
There was nothing I could do. And so… I walked away.
For the first time since the day we'd met, Horus didn't follow me. He only stared at Artemis, his little hand only a fraction of an inch from her shoulder, as if he would comfort her if he could only understand what had gone so terribly wrong.
The cracking sound echoed throughout the empty palace hall as my cousin's fist collided with my jaw. A few servants and courtesans stared but the majority of them were smart enough to scatter the moment Prince Kieran came stomping out into the corridor looking extremely pissed. A pissed off I'Eloshir is not a pretty sight. I held my breath and avoided making eye contact with him. Even if I could find strength enough to focus, I doubted I could hold his gaze for long without falling apart completely and whimpering like a baby.
Another thing I had never realized before making my pact with Ailumenas was exactly how absolutely terrifying my relatives would look from a mortal perspective. If I had been less principled... or less accustomed to physical abuse, I would have been broken and sobbing already.
"You did what?" He demanded with a snarl, lifting me off the ground by my throat. I gagged. Blood welled up in my mouth and I spit a tooth on the floor.
Kieran slowly let go of me and took an uneasy step back. I collapsed to the ground. He stared at the blood on his hands in horror.
"What, did you think I was lying to you? You think I take beatings like this for kicks, you asshole?" I demanded, and Kieran shook his head slowly, tasting the red on his claws almost fearfully.
Shuddering, he spit on the ground. "Nayoh'ysk!" Kieran swore. "It's bitter! That's impossible!"
"Go to hell!" I shot back. "I told you what happened... and I appreciate the thank you!" I muttered, wiping my face on my sleeve and glaring at him.
"I can't believe you'd agree to something like that!" Kieran argued. "You have no idea what you're dealing with!"
"Lumi promised that it would fix everything!" I countered. "Are you telling me you'd rather watch your own mother tear herself apart from the inside out!"
"No!" Kieran cut me off. "I only..." He trailed off into silence. "You shouldn't have trusted her! She isn't what she seems."
"You're saying she lied to me?" I demanded.
"No, not precisely. She... she just doesn't tell the whole truth." Kieran paused.
"She lies then?" I corrected.
"She wants to make everyone happy. She tells people what they want to hear." Kieran nodded quietly. "You're lucky you're still alive. Creation may have saved us before... but she also almost got us killed! Did you forget that?"
"I didn't forget! But I didn't have another option." I paused. "Damnit, Kieran! You know how it is, dealing with them. They're Gods! If they really want you to do something, you're going to do it before you realize how stupid it is!"
"Yeah, I know." Kieran sighed in defeat, putting a hand on my shoulder in an attempt to console me. I brushed him away. "Look, I'm sure we can find some way to reverse this." He finished, handing me a handkerchief to wipe my face with.
"Reverse it?" I shook my head. "No way! I think we're better off without those assholes running around. Sure, your father hasn't left his room and your mother's a little nastier than usual, but she's not tearing her hair out and breaking windows anymore!" I paused. "Besides, I think I kinda like being human!"
"You don't know what you're saying!" Kieran growled. "You..." He fell silent, composing himself. "Did you even think about the rest of us?" He whispered. "What about your mother? What about your grandfather?" He shook his head. "Lucy? Do you have any idea what this is going to do to her? I mean, look at what you've already done to Horus!"
"What?' I stared at him, a sudden sick feeling coming over me.
"You were that kid's lifeline! He wanted to be just like you… don't ask me why! But now he's scared. He's scared that he's going to have to protect you when he's already trying to protect his mother and doesn't even know if he can protect himself!" Kieran sighed and sat down, digging his claws into the arm of his chair. Clearly, he'd done such a thing more than once. The wood that remained had begun to look very brittle. Forcing myself to focus, I glared at Kieran. He watched my eyes, very troubled by the fact that they were no longer yellow and catlike, but a more subdued golden-brown color with normal pupils.
"I'm still here, aren't I?" I interrupted. "Don't start talking about me like I'm dead!"
"How many times have you almost been killed?" Kieran bit his lip.
"This month?" I shrugged. "Three times."
"You think that being human will keep people from coming after you?" Kieran demanded. "Keep them from coming after your family?"
"I'm not an idiot!" I shook my head.
"Just because you've decided not to fight doesn't mean you won't be forced to!" Kieran explained.
"Fuck you." I snorted, pointing to the blue-black bruise that was forming just above Kieran's eye. I, of course, looked considerably worse... but I had landed one good blow on my cousin. "I never said I was quitting anything, and I'm not giving up on the kid! I'm still going to look out for him."
"That's what you think!" Kieran shook his head. "Sure, you can brawl well enough... like any Etone can fight, maybe! But there are a lot of things you could have dealt with before that are going to be impossible for you now."
"So?" I retorted. "I'm not a superhero! I never was one!"
"No. But you could have been great," Kieran paused.
He'd quoted my father. I wanted to punch him, but I steadied myself and walked out. As soon as I knew Kieran had stopped watching me, I slipped into the library and sat down at a little reading desk in the corner, burying my head in my hands. I'd never meant to hurt Horus. The last thing I wanted was him thinking that he had to look out for me. What was I going to do?
The news of the fight between me and Kieran spread like wildfire through the palace. Some overly obnoxious social-climber had overheard our entire conversation... so the story was known too, or at least the important parts of it. Thankfully, through the Imperial Court telephone-game, facts had been skewed in such a way that the Gods were no longer mentioned, much less directly involved. Still, the rumor spread that in order to acquire a rare and expensive cure that would save the life of the ailing High Commander... her cousin had sacrificed his own immortality.
Some people found the entire story to be somewhat romantic or even heroic, but more worried that Kieran was right and I'd lost my mind. As it was, the moment word made it down from the third floor to the main lobby of the palace... phones began ringing off the hook. Nursing my own wounds, I almost drifted off into unconsciousness.
The doors to the library burst open and I shielded my head from the flurry of books that fell from the shelf above me. It didn't take a moment to recognize who'd dropped everything and crashed into Zenith not a moment after hearing the news. My grandfather and my mother stood in the doorway. I held my breath and hoped that my smell had changed enough that they wouldn't be able to find me. Then I chided myself for being stupid and childish, slowly rising to my feet.
"I'm over here," I announced, composing myself despite the excruciating pain I was still in.
My mother raced over to my side and my grandfather stared in horror, not moving a muscle.
"Kieran beat the shit out of me," I paused. "He's a little upset."
I didn't understand the next thing my mother said, but she was sobbing, her arms wrapped around me as if I were a small child, whispering little nonsense words that I knew I should have understood.
In a way, I almost preferred Kieran punching me in the teeth. My grandfather said nothing but only turned and walked out the library door. I knew what both of them were thinking, though neither of them would confess it to my face. They were afraid, as Kieran had been, that I had solved nothing... and that I had put myself and my family in greater danger than ever before.
I intended to prove them wrong. Physically, I still looked very much myself, eighteen or so… but I had fifty years worth of life experience. And even if I couldn't leap twenty foot fences in a single bound, I was still on a first-name basis with some of the most dangerous gangsters in Zenith. I wasn't about to become a burden on those closest to me, regardless of what they assumed.
And so, the very next morning I set out to prove myself. Most importantly, I had to embarrass Kieran. If my plan worked, it would serve him right for knocking one of my teeth out. I hadn't bothered to collect the tooth itself from the floor in the hall because I had foolishly assumed it would grow back in a few weeks.
Apparently I had a lot more to learn about being human than I'd thought.
Waiting late into the night down in the City Below, I ignored the wary and confused glances that Wolf shot in my direction each time he passed the bench I was sitting on. With my fancy trenchcoat and new haircut, I didn't quite look the same as I had the day I'd gone looking for him and his associates.
Still, he evaded me as if he thought he was in the presence of a ghost.
Some hours later, Master Jeo finally showed up.
"Is the illusion ready?" I whispered, and he grinned broadly, producing a necklace from his pocket, a little sapphire drop on a gold chain.
"You bet!" He agreed.
"Is it good?" I hissed.
"Only my best work ever!" Jeo smirked.
"Great," I paused. As much as I hated to say the words that were on the tip of my tongue, since I didn't have a substantial amount of money to hand over, I knew it was my only choice. "I owe you a Fa..." I began, falling silent as Jeo poked me in the nose.
"Nun-uh-uh!" He scolded. "You don't owe nothin'. A friend of mine called this one in."
"Someone wanted you to do a Favor for me?" I wondered. "Come on, who was it?"
"Psy Aiuste," Jeo admitted. "Don't tell no one I told you so, but she's real worried about you." He elbowed me with a wink.
"I'm all right," I muttered. It didn't surprise me that Mandrake had Seen what I'd done. That thought left me feeling a little cold and sick to my stomach.
"Although there is one thing," Jeo grinned wickedly. "I want that toy back when you're done with it. Couldn't you just see me as His Royal Highness?" Jeo stuck his nose in the air. "That would be soooo Eto-nay!" He cackled. "And I bet I could get my hands in somebody's pants, too!" He licked his lips dramatically and made a little motion with his quick fingers. "I was thinking about trying Duchess Raine ... or maybe even Sir Harwil, that pretty little pooftah from Thanbrul."
For a moment I nearly let Master Jeo have his illusion back immediately, knowing that whatever the mad Etone would use Kieran's appearance for would be far more entertaining than anything I could hope to do with it, but then I remembered why I'd arranged to have the thing made in the first place.
I had a few tricks of my own to play.
Early the next morning I headed out of The City Below up through the Harborside maze. It amazed me that I'd run into so few people I knew, and I was relieved that I was done explaining myself… at least for the time being. Mepmac had commented that I smelled like I could use a shower and the few White Cross clerics who sometimes stumbled around the City Below no longer shot me vicious piercing glares, but in all other respects, not much had changed for me in the underground.
It was an oddly reassuring thought. I smiled to myself and got on the trolley bound for the palace. Anyone who second-guessed me would soon have something new to talk about. Once I entered the glowing central hall of many columns and balconies, I slipped into a dark corner and put the pendant around my neck when I was certain no one was looking.
The faded yellow glow that surrounded me told me the spell was working. Taking a deep breath, I stepped out of the shadows with my nose in the air several inches higher than what might have been considered polite. Turning around the opposite corner, I bumped into Bennet who blinked at me, obviously startled.
"Oh, hey, Kieran," He muttered, scratching his head. "Didn't I just talk to you in your office?"
"I'm sure that you did," I replied.
"It was like two minutes ago. When did you change your clothes?" He raised an eyebrow skeptically in my direction.
"Right before I came downstairs," I replied, catching sight of Kieran talking to two Knights on the second floor balcony. "I'd better go." I replied, heading down the hall towards one of the offices of the Ardran Court. Bennet looked ready to say something, but I didn't have time to waste.
Once I was out of sight, I sighed heavily and laughed despite myself. I was ready and willing to kick back and cause a little mayhem... and if Jeo's gift had fooled Bennet, there was no telling how much trouble I could get into as long as I wore it.
I couldn't wait for the Ardran Court to start arriving. I had mapped Kieran's schedule perfectly so that we'd never cross paths... and since I was wearing Master Jeo's disguise, as long as I steered clear of any wizards I knew, no one would be the wiser. I intended to forge my cousin's signature on a few random petitions, make some embarrassing personal remarks in front of his friends and pose for some really awful photos as soon as I could corner a few members of the press. Nothing too harmful, but something he wouldn't soon forget. It would serve him right for knocking out one of my teeth.
"Prince Kieran?" A voice interrupted me from my reverie and I jumped despite myself. It was unusual to have to react to my cousin's name, but I knew that if I didn't at least make an attempt, my game would be over before it even began.
It was Kesha who stood in the empty hall in front of me,
"Kesha?" I wondered in disbelief. "What are you doing in the palace?"
"I… I came to find you," She whispered. She was shaking uncontrollably, and I was genuinely concerned. Even the extremely good illusion I was wearing seemed insignificant in comparison to whatever had happened.
"Look, you'd better go. I know you've been pardoned, but the Ardrans are going to be here any minute and if they see you..." I began.
"Just… come with me, please. I know I'm not supposed to be here but it's… complicated and I really can't explain," she paused.
I followed her obediently. She opened one of the doors to the Great Hall and quietly slipped inside. I entered the silent room, my eyes adjusting to the brilliant light within just as the doors I had entered through were slammed shut behind me.
I didn't know what was going on, but I could tell I'd missed something very important.
Kesha buried her face in her hands. Rembrandt rushed to her side. He had both of his guns out and his knuckles bruised and bloody, a long slash across his face. He searched the room with his eyes, his hand from firing as he traced the movement of something apparently only he could see. I wasn't sure how he'd managed to get inside the Great Hall with his guns... until I realized that the Knights who typically marched back and forth in front of the doors were missing.
"What the hell is going on?" I demanded sharply, and then looked up. All around the second-floor balcony, men in dark blue uniforms waited, each picking out the perfect shot at me from a different level.
An eerily familiar voice laughed nearby and slowly a shadow rose from its place on the throne, "Your people aren't the only ones in the multiverse who can hack the Gateweb." The man grinned maliciously, turning to face me. And as he moved from his place he drug with him a young boy, blindfolded and gagged with a silver filagreed pistol aimed directly at his head. My heart skipped a beat as I realized who the stranger was and recognized his captive.
"You've got what you wanted, Fairfax!" Kesha cried. "Now let my son go!"
The President of the IR? I hadn't seen him since Kieran and I had chased Orin Saade to IR World One. Though the leaders of the Republic generally operated more like mob-bosses than legitimate politicians, it was still a little shocking to catch one of them in the middle of some truly despicable business… like holding a little kid hostage.
"Release him," I ordered, taking a hesitant step forward.
"Now, now!" Fairfax laughed. "You know how difficult bargaining can be, Prince. I simply brought along a bit of collateral for a little extra... insurance of your cooperation."
"He's just a kid! He's got nothing to do with any of this!" I argued.
"He's one of your kind," Fairfax corrected. "And that does seem to mean something different, doesn't it?"
"He's my brother!" I snapped before I thought better of myself. Kesha looked confused for a moment and then covered her mouth with her hands. She'd noticed the necklace I wore and figured it all out.
"All the same," Fairfax shrugged, not noticing her reaction. "It's a simple trade I'm suggesting. You for him?"
He removed Horus's blindfold. Horus stared wild-eyed and terrified, his eyes quickly searching the room, from his mother, to Rembrandt to the men with the guns, his captor... and then finally coming to rest on me.
Grinding his teeth with a growl, Horus snapped and spit out the gag that was in his mouth, though his arms were still held. Fairfax tightened his grip and pulled Horus backwards, jabbing him with the barrel of his gun.
"Nayru!" Horus cried. "Help!"
Fairfax blinked, obviously surprised until a voice came down from the balcony, confirming what I had feared someone would notice all along.
"It's not the prince!"
Yellow gas wafted out from a dropped grenade at my feet and the amulet I wore flickered and died. Rembrandt spun around wildly, attempting to pinpoint the source of the Duricide bomb and Kesha slowly inching away from the guns that zeroed in on her, standing with her back against the far window. The smoke cleared and I stared in bewilderment, amazed that I wasn't hacking or gagging.
"Who the hell are you?" Fairfax demanded.
"Open these doors!" A voice shouted from outside the hall. "By order of Lord Errida! Open these doors!"
A terrible bang, followed by smoke billowing through the cracks in the door lead me to believe that someone had cast a spell. But still, the doors held. I could hear swords hacking at the wood, but even so, the process was agonizingly slow. Before they got through to us, we'd all be...
"You bitch! You weren't gone for ten minutes! How did you plot this?" Fairfax glared at Kesha, who immediately paled. He let go of Horus and shoved him hard, knocking him down the stairs of the podium. I rushed to help him, though by the time I reached the first line of chairs, Horus had already sprang to his feet and snapped his handcuffs.
Then he whirled around to tackle Fairfax, but already it was too late.
Shots rang out, echoing across the high ceiling of the empty chamber as all of the soldiers opened fire at the same time. Rembrandt was hit twice in the back and fell to his knees, firing shots from both of his guns. I'd never actually seen Rembrandt in a firefight before, but he had been Boss Beluntri's number oneassassin and at that moment I understood why. He never missed. Fairfax collapsed, two full clips worth of… probably silver-capped rounds in his gut. I was hit in the knee and the shoulder, overwhelmed by the fresh pain on top of injuries that had scarcely begun to heal.
And Kesha... Kesha was shot too many times to count. She teetered backwards, the rain of bullets shattering the tall windows behind her. With nothing to steady herself on she fell… down towards the open sea below in a shower of golden glass.
Everything moved slowly for a moment, as if in a dream. A bullet grazed my hip as I attempted to stand, and Rembrandt returned fire at the balcony, dropping half the gunmen with a single clip.
Without giving thought to the danger he was in, Horus ran for the window and lunged vainly to catch his mother's hand.
From where I lay on the floor, I could see the expression on his face... and I knew that he'd been too late. Tears streaming down his face, Horus lay frozen, staring out the window. Despite the danger, he did not move to stand but only knelt there, clutching the shards of broken glass with his bare hands.
As old as he had ever seemed, young as he was... he became infinitely older then. For a moment, I almost thought that he would spring upon Fairfax and tear him to pieces in one mindless explosion of fury. Though Horus was far from strong enough to change at will, too young and still too human, his face was a mirror of determination and Ta'ud rippled all around him, phasing into visibility of its own accord.
And yet, Horus only stared, as if he could not fully comprehend what had just happened before his eyes. Staggering to his feet, despite the enormous amount of blood that was pouring from his stomach, Fairfax drew another gun from within his coat, removing the safety with a click and pointed the weapon directly at my head.
"Go ahead!" I glared, forcing myself to my knees. "Shoot me."
Though I was barely breathing as it was, I knew that I had to challenge him, at least long enough for Horus to escape. I could envision with frightening clarity what Fairfax's bullets would do to my pathetic mortal skin, but I didn't care.
More importantly, Fairfax was a deadman. Rembrandt had shot him enough that no miracle of modern medicine or magic could stop him from completely bleeding out. Hopefully the period of confusion that always followed the death of any IR leader would be long enough to strengthen the Coalition and get Raphael back on his feet. I hoped so, because what I wanted to see more than anything was those hundred years of peace that I'd bargained for.
"Horus, get out of here! Go up the stairs!" I ordered.
I had spent so much of my life fighting to hold back my other side... and now, when I needed that strength, it was gone as I had often wished it might be. I searched for that well of power desperately, only to find it tapped dry and empty.
Nothing happened. The flame that burned so brightly within Horus had been snuffed out of me. In a disturbing way, I felt as if I had killed myself.
That thought brought me back to the present. I was still alive, and because of that, I could still do something. I slowly stood.
"Still breathing?" Fairfax brushed his gun softly with a white-gloved fingertip. His hands were covered in blood… his own, it seemed, and from the sweat that beaded on his face, I guessed he must have known how close he was to death. "How is that possible? Are you a demon?" He wondered.
I didn't say anything. I had a feeling that if I stopped clenching my teeth I'd probably just fall unconscious.
"Well then! Let's see some wings and claws, monster!" He grinned slightly. "Wait. You're the half-breed, aren't you? The cousin who gave up his immortality? Not a very smart thing to do, now was it? I'm sure you're hating every moment of this, feeling so helpless, knowing you can't stop me."
I made the fatal connection in that instant.
"Tuhk, RUN!" I cried, leaping to my feet and throwing myself in front of him. Horus looked up as the first shot struck me in the chest. A second shot rang out as a battering ram struck at the main doors of the hall. Help was so close, and yet...
Gritting his teeth, Rembrandt fired the last bullet from his gun, hitting Fairfax directly between the eyes. Somehow, he did not drop to the ground. Wavering only a little, despite the fact that he was a dead man already, Fairfax smiled victoriously.
Staring in horror at his own blood on his hands, Horus wobbled near the edge of the window. "He… He shot me." He whispered. "Help."
I reached out to him, though in my eyes, I could not place where he was, a flickering, distant shadow, too far away... too far to touch.
The world became a blur the moment he collapsed to the ground, and then the darkness took me. The last thing I clearly remembered was Fairfax's dead eyes staring into my own as he lay on the floor, the two of us only a few feet away, drenched in pools of red blood. A sharp pain wracked my body, and I gasped, releasing what I thought was my final breath.
"No one was supposed to get hurt," I whispered, feebly, futily.
Though his gaze was immobile, I could see his mouth move, the words clearly written on his lips as Fairfax replied.
"Diis aliter visum."
The language, it was one I was not sure I knew... but the meaning of the phrase was immediately clear to me.
The Gods... have decided otherwise.
Distantly, I could hear drums on the horizon.
I drifted for what felt like an eternity, floating disembodied in a sea of white stars... not bothering to try to move or think, assuming that I had stumbled into the afterlife. After everything that had happened, it was easiest for me to believe that I was dead. At first all I could remember about the fight in the hall was the consequences of my own stupid decision. I'd gotten a friend killed. I'd gotten my own brother killed. I'd probably gotten a bunch of other people killed too… but I'd never know who made it or who didn't because I'd never be waking up myself. I didn't see any way I could have done things worse.
I'd tried to save Artemis from her own madness, but in doing so I'd pulled the Gods right out of Chaos Realm. It had never occurred to me that doing just that might be a serious mistake.
How does that old Earth saying go? The road to hell is paved with good intentions?
If only I had realized sooner how intertwined everything really was!
I remembered the events at the palace that I'd always despised, rubbing elbows with knights, wizards and nobility from every corner of the Empire while wearing old jeans underneath silk robes. I thought of the time I'd caught Master Jeo roller-wrestling in the City Below, and smiled slightly as I recalled the expression on Gabe's face when Andromeda kissed him. I dwelled on all the things I had meant to say to my mother and my grandfather, and dreamt of the horses I was supposed to help train, my friends, my cousins and so many other things. Flying. Working Ta'ud. Bowling. That was what really stuck with me. I remembered bowling.
Would Kali want to come?
Maybe it would seem a little strange to her at first, going into an alley that didn't exist to play with time-travelers, Gods, the damned and the dead… but there was always a chance that she'd see as I did… as an adventure.
Except that now I couldn't ask her. Now there were no more chances.
I wondered where my father was. Did he know that I'd been killed? I expected that he did and decided that he must be looking for me. Settling in a pool of shadow, I waited to be found.
I don't know how much time passed. Time is a difficult thing to understand when you're outside of it. It moves more slowly than you can imagine. There are no suns or moons to gauge the passing of days, minutes or hours. All you can do is wait.
And sleep. You do a lot of sleeping. I was in the middle of another dream about Kali when I heard a sound that made me open my eyes. There were footsteps approaching.
Walking across galaxies reflected in rippling black Ta'ud, it was Ailumenas who first came to me. She looked very old and tired despite her childish face, and I felt a sudden wave of pity for the little goddess. I knew she'd done terrible things and I still blamed her for what had happened to Tuhk… but at the same time, she felt so sad. I was compelled to comfort her. She didn't know what she had done wrong, and she couldn't understand why her best-laid plans made everyone so upset.
"They're angry at me," Lumi whispered. "They say terrible things about me. I want to know the truth."
"The truth?" I echoed. It was the first thing I'd said aloud since I died. It sounded weird to me.
"The truth," Lumi repeated. "I want to know if what they say about me is true. Am I ugly? Am I... bad?" She avoided my gaze, rubbing her toe into the ground.
"You're a very pretty little girl." I shook my head. "And I know you're not bad. You tried to help me, just as you tried to help Kieran. I... misunderstood you."
"I didn't say it the way that I'd meant to." Lumi sighed heavily. "It's hard to say something without saying everything." She informed me.
I nodded. "I understand."
"You don't." Lumi replied. "But..." As she stared at me, her expression tightened into a determined grimace. "You could, if you wanted to."
"I think it's better if we don't make any more deals." I replied.
"Because you don't trust me." Lumi replied with profound distaste.
"I never said that." I replied.
"You thought it." She informed me. There was nothing I could say.
"Do you know why I don't trust you?" I asked.
"Because I am bad." Lumi replied. "Because I always hurt people."
"No. I don't trust you because you don't say everything." I corrected.
"I can't say everything!" Lumi wailed.
"Why not?" I pressed.
"Because!" She snapped. "Because you wouldn't understand!"
"You just said I could." I reminded her.
"I… If you wanted to." She nodded solemnly.
"I want to understand." I told her. "I want to understand everything." Lumi grinned very broadly, and I ignored the sick chill that coursed through me as my eyes met hers.
Since I was dead, what did I really have to lose?
"I'm glad," she told me. "I'm lonely. I want you to be my friend, like before."
I didn't want to ask what "before" she was talking about.
"There is one other thing," she admitted, closing her eyes and holding in her outstretched hands a tiny black box. "I want you to take it back. I can't stand it. It's too sad."
I recognized the box instantly from the runes carved into the top. It was the box she had put my other half into, whatever it was that made up the rest of me. Remembering the sight of the flailing, pulsing black monster in Horus's hands, I instinctively shrank away.
"Please," Lumi begged. "It's yours. It hurts me to see you without it." She sobbed. "It hurts me!"
"No!" I argued. "I don't want it!"
But even as I said that, I realized that I did want it, in a maddening, masochistic way. I shuddered at the thought. Despite how dangerous I knew it was to bargain with the goddess, I desperately wanted to seize that box away from her, to open it up and embrace the thing inside of it.
I desired that darkness. I needed it. But I knew I had to get more than simple satisfaction out of Ailumenas's deal. If I played my cards right, maybe I could force her to set some things right. Or… maybe not. I hung my head in defeat, avoiding her gaze, though all I really wanted to do at that instant was seize that box and pour whatever was in it back into myself. Was I crazy? Who knew what I was thinking?
"If I do what you want, will it bring Horus and Kesha back?" I demanded.
Lumi shook her head. "No."
"Will you stop messing with things?" I demanded. "Will you leave Artemis alone?"
"No." Lumi replied. "What's done cannot be undone." She recited, as if she were speaking the final line in a play. "Either you stay up and play or you go to bed. To bed." She pointed into the darkness.
"What if I refuse?" I countered.
"It will only get worse." She replied.
"How can it possibly get worse?" I demanded.
"Do you want to watch everything happen? You can watch from here you know. You can watch everything and never do anything about it at all." Lumi whispered.
I did not respond. I thought for a very long time and then I did the only thing I could do.
I reached out and took the box. Pain shot through my body as the shadow leapt into my chest, burning like a falling star. All at once I understood what it was that Ailumenas had taken from me. She'd never told me that it was my heart.
I laughed. Very slowly I rose to my feet, closing my eyes as that familiar burn coursed through my veins. With every intention of doing so, I changed... relishing my strength, my balance, my senses. I embraced everything that had ever made me feel like an outcast, everything that had made me hurt and made me angry... because it was also what made me whole. A raging torrent of Ta'ud coursed all around me. I didn't bother with words or gestures. As soon as I focused my will, it dissipated. For one brief moment, I enjoyed the illusion of being in complete control. And then I remembered where I was.
Taking a deep breath, I turned to face Lumi, wanting to thank her. And yet, when I looked, she was gone.
Feeling a presence behind me, I slowly turned around. There was a woman there, a woman who seemed to be I'Eloshir. She was terribly, numbingly beautiful, pale as snow with golden hair and white wings touched with faint glimmers of moonlight. Gasping for breath, she staggered forward and I caught her in my arms before she fell. "Oh," She whispered, awestruck as she reached up to touch my face. "I remember you."
"Are you all right?" I asked, a little shaken by how oddly familiar she looked.
"I am now, now that you're with me." She whispered, her eyes closed.
At that moment, I had a very difficult time believing that I was still dead. Flashes of memory shot through my mind, distant snippets of things that I knew couldn't have been from my own past. For one thing, I suddenly knew the woman I was holding in my arms. I remembered dancing with her, sleeping beside her and walking with her on my arm through beautiful gardens filled with golden roses.
But I also remembered other things. I remembered the touch of her naked skin, the smell of her breath and the sound of her laughter. I could see in my mind's eye what her face looked like when she was in pain. I knew the taste of her tears, but also the taste of her blood.
I remembered loving her. And I remembered killing her.
For a moment, my heart literally stopped beating. A chill coursed through me.
"Let me go get my clothes," The woman grinned broadly. "And then we'll go home."
Skipping across the infinite blackness, she picked up something tiny and white... and I realized suddenly that the beautiful woman was Ailumenas.
But had she always gone by that name?
No. She had another. I didn't know what it was.
"No! Hell no! This is seriously messed up!" I argued. I staggered back a few steps and fell back to my knees, covering my head with my hands and slowly resuming my human form in one bone-aching crush.
"No! No!" Lumi wailed, and I though I didn't dare raise my eyes, I could feel her kicking me and tearing at my hair, viciously, savagely and with a strength far beyond what I had ever expected, even knowing she was a goddess. "Don't hide from me! LOOK AT ME!" She Ordered, and I was compelled.
Frozen in terror, I only stared into her eyes, reminding myself consciously who she was and why the thoughts I had experienced only moments before were so horribly wrong and painfully dangerous.
"Look at me!" Lumi repeated, touching my face softly. "Why are you afraid of me?" She whispered, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Collapsing, she settled her head on my chest in a position that once again felt painfully familiar. "Don't be afraid." She begged. "Don't be afraid."
In a glimmer of flickering light, she vanished into thin air, leaving behind a single white feather that drifted to a stop in midair, sending ripples out across the shadows beneath my feet.
I stared out into the darkness. Someone else was approaching. It was Ruby. She came to a stop directly in front of me, holding Ailumenas's little robe. "She's not innocent any more." Ruby whispered, infinite pain in her voice. "She knows now. She knows we all resent her. She knows we hate her."
"Why?" I wondered in bewilderment. "She's… a child. How can you hate her?"
"She's not a child, she just acts like one. She's tens of thousands of years old and all of this is her fault!" Ruby replied solemnly. "Nayru, if it weren't for Creation... none of this would have ever happened! Everything's breaking because she's beginning to understand what she's been doing to us all along. She pretends to be innocent and it's damn convincing… but she knows how cruel she's been! She feels the pain she's caused, and she just can't contain it anymore. When you were shot and Lumi thought she'd killed you, she cried." Ruby whispered. "She really cried. Not a temper-tantrum or anything like that, but real tears!"
"She didn't kill me? I'm not dead?" I replied, barely able to comprehend what I had just been told. "
"No, you're not dead, Felix," Ruby interrupted. "You lived, and you're about to wake up. Come with me."
"I don't know if I should." I muttered, pulling away slightly, staring at the spot where Ailumenas had vanished. Something compelled me to stay.
"Forget about her." Ruby ordered. "If you stay longer, she'll do worse to you than she already has."
"Worse?" I wondered in bewilderment. "What has she done?"
"Probably what she thought was best." Ruby shook her head. "If she hadn't given your heart back to you… well, you were shot six times and you did lose a lot of blood."
I looked myself over quickly. I didn't notice anything different, but that didn't mean anything. If the Goddess had altered my body, she could just as easily distort my memories. Most likely she already had.
"Look, all that matters is that you're alive. You've still got your own mind and you're very adaptable. In time you'll be able to cope like an old pro. A very old pro, come to think about it." Ruby replied. "Now do you want to live or not?" She tilted her head and glanced at me with a cynical smirk.
I sighed heavily and reached for the Goddess's hand.
When I finally woke up, I couldn't even guess what day it was. Though Ruby had promised me that I was still alive, I'd only believed her halfheartedly.
I've since been told that I was officially dead for two weeks. I should have been buried long before I ever woke up, but my grandfather had stubbornly refused to allow anyone near my body. He was convinced that I would be returning to it sooner or later. I have a sneaking suspicion that Fate may have paid him a visit.
As it was, I woke up in my father's room of the Imperial Palace. It was ostentatious by any standards, decorated completely in red and gold, but at least I knew where I was, even if the sun glinting off the curtains gave me a splitting headache. Stretching, I yawned and brushed my hair out of my face, my hand suddenly coming in contact with the tip of my ear. There was a chain tangled in my hair. I recognized what it was immediately. I was wearing my father's tak na. The black crescent moon glittered faintly in the light, reminding me immediately of the timeless dark place I had just left. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar book… the volume of Tactics I had borrowed from Germaine sitting on the table nearby.
Still a little incoherent, I slid out of bed. I didn't know where my clothes were and since the door to the room was hanging open, I tried to sneak over and shut it.
"Hey!" A voice shouted from the stairs. His hands clenched firmly around the hilt of his sword, Bennet came marching towards me, flanked by a half dozen of the palace guards.
They gave me some pretty weird looks, but I assumed that was because I was standing there in my underwear.
"Who the hell are you?" Bennet demanded.
"What, don't you recognize me?" I stared at him in disbelief. "It's me, Felix. I just woke up." I paused. "Bennet… what's going on?"
"Well, I heard you were dead," Bennet admitted nervously. "And I've gotta admit, I may be used to seeing Kieran and Lakshireh running around, but I always figured you were more like Artemis and Raphael." He paused. "You know... discreet."
It was then that I realized what he was referring to. I would have collapsed to my knees if I hadn't instinctively opened my wings and completely thrown my balance off. Too clumsy to stand up straight, I stumbled and fell back into my father's room, slamming the door behind me.
"Will you please inform the Prince that his cousin is alive and awake?" I heard Bennet talking to one of the guardsmen through the door.
"Is everything all right?" One of the men wondered.
"Of course it is," Bennet replied sharply, not sounding very sure of himself.
Still shaking, I clawed my way over to the bathroom and stared at my own reflection in the mirror over the sink.
I had changed. Having wings was the least of my problems. I was also taller than I had been and my features seemed more refined. After not shaving in who knew how long, I looked more like my father than I ever had before, except that my black hair had somehow gone stark white in a little patch just above my right eye.
Why hadn't I noticed before? I'd felt perfectly normal when I woke up. Or rather, if Bennet was to be believed… I'd felt just like my usual self when I "came back from the dead".
I stared at my claws. They were gray still, as I'd expected, but their roots had gone completely black. Was I older than I had been?
Ruby had said that Lumi hadn't affected my mind, but with what she'd obviously done to my body, I was beginning to wonder.
I tried to change before anyone else saw me, but somehow I couldn't do it. Taking deep breaths and relaxing didn't seem to help at all. Then a thoroughly preposterous idea struck me. I decided to make myself human.
The pain was more intense than anything I'd ever experienced before, and when I finally managed to will my wings away, I almost passed out from the shock. Steadying myself, I splashed some water in my face and drank a little out of my cupped hands. My head had stopped pounding, but I still felt unsteady on my feet.
And I understood then what Lucy had said about things being different after I lost the human part of myself. I had fallen completely into her world, that place of locked doors and closed curtains where everything that meant anything was hidden behind a mask.
Taking a deep breath, I changed again. The second time didn't hurt nearly as bad as the first had, and the feeling of relief that washed over me was absolutely intoxicating.
I stared at my reflection in the mirror, trying to get used to the face that I saw.
Even though I was afraid, I didn't look it. I looked sickeningly arrogant. Perfect. How was it possible that my own face could fail to match how I felt inside? Why couldn't I be weak? I wanted to see my face wrinkled and red-streaked with tears, dark circles under my eyes… something, anything to prove that there was still a spark of mortality left in me. All my life I had felt inadequate, but never so profoundly as I did at that moment.
Without knowing why, I started to cry.
"Aeteh." A voice murmured as a soft hand touched my cheek.
"Aeteh?!" I jumped back in horror.
Sitting on the ground, dressed in pure silver... the white-skinned woman, the Goddess Ailumenas... smiled at me. A rain of snowy feathers billowed around her as her wings collapsed into nothingness. At that moment she suddenly began to seem very familiar again... and not in a good way.
"Why do you stare?" She wondered. "It's only me, Aeteh. Me... Ardra."
Ardra. The name rang out in my head like gunfire.
If anything my father had ever told me was to be believed… then the story of how Aeteh had killed Ardra was the true story of the birth of the I'Eloshir. Was this then the game that Ailumenas was playing, a frighteningly realistic reenactment of an affair that had taken place aeons ago? I didn't know what to think, but I was starting to believe that more than one of the gods might have something of an unhealthy obsession with me.
I wished desperately that I understood what was going on. Ruby would have known, if I could guess where she was, but as lost as I found myself then, I didn't even know where to begin my search. There was no mistaking the name Aeteh though... and the more my gaze drifted towards the mirror over Ailumenas... or as she called herself, Ardra, the more I began to see the reflection of the man she spoke of, beside my own face, the two of us so similar that such a mistake could easily be made by an eye so blinded by… love.
I was very much afraid. Ailumenas reached out to take my hand.
"Look!" I cried, pulling away from her. "Aeteh is dead. I'm not Aeteh. I'm Felix!"
"Oh Aeteh, stop it!" She argued, ignoring my desperate plea to reason.
"You did this to me, you little monster! Don't pretend you don't know who I am!" I snarled, pointing a claw at her. My hand immediately burst into white-hot flames and I gasped in horror, quickly attempting to extinguish the fire that I had summoned up without so much as a thought. The power dissipated, and my fingertips still tingled faintly, an all too poignant reminder of what I had just done.
Ailumenas has vanished completely and I was alone.
I knew immediately that I had to find my cousin.
Artemis would understand. Ireval would have a plan. And only Inapsupetra could save me from what I'd done to myself.
Unable to focus, I found that I could not keep myself passably human for any more than a few short moments. It didn't matter anyway. I couldn't imagine pretending to be in control… especially since I'd somehow acquired the ability to invoke fire.
I headed into the mirror hall and stopped abruptly before the doors of the ballroom. Within I could hear voices. I peered through the crack in the door and listened to the conversation.
"No." Lakshireh bit her lip, looking terribly ashamed. "I cannot. You know how I feel. Do not ask me again."
"I'm sorry." Kieran paused. "I just don't know what else to do. We'll all be dead if we don't fight... and they'll almost certainly come for us. There's no choice but to anticipate the worst." Kieran shook his head heavily. "I don't know the first thing about winning a war." He admitted. "And then, there's a feeling that tells me, I don't think I want to lead. If we do fight, I'll do what I have to, but…" He closed his eyes. "It not that I don't want what's best for the Empire, it's just that I can't make that choice. I don't have the strength."
"I understand." Ruveus replied.
Master Merlin nodded. "As do I. I've fought in battles before, but… killing still terrifies me." He trailed off into silence.
"I will assume High Command," Brin announced finally, and all eyes turned to her in surprise. "When I wore the Black Robe in Tirs Uloth, I remembered seeing... things. I think... I'm the only one who can. And if I can, then I must. For all our sakes."
"Where's Artemis?" I demanded, throwing open the doors, ignoring the expressions of utter bewilderment on Kieran and Lakshireh's faces. Brin stared wide-eyed and stumbled back into Ruveus, who helped her stay on her feet. "I need to see her NOW!"
I almost choked as I realized I'd just accidentally Ordered everyone in the room. Considering that I was supposed to be recovering from a near-fatal injury… I was disturbed by how simple it had become for me to use Ta'ud. If I was fully coherent, mentally grounded and prepared, I didn't even want to imagine what I could do. The ominous book I'd found at my bedside was probably a hint.
"Felix?" Kieran wondered. For the first time, my cousin looked me directly in the eyes instead of over the top of my head. "Is that you?" He blinked in disbelief. The shift in perspective was very odd. For the first time since I'd met him, I actually perceived Kieran as being what he was… about half my age. It seemed like only a few days ago, he'd been knocking me senseless in the palace halls, and yet at that moment, I realized that if he raised a fist to me, I could probably stop him mid-swing.
More importantly, I was at least as strong as he was, if not stronger. From the expression on his face, I could tell that Kieran recognized what had happened to me.
"I thought you couldn't change at all," Kieran whispered. "I thought you'd become completely human."
"It was her, wasn't it? Lumi?" Brin observed. "What does she want you to do now?" For a moment I was shocked by the startling depth of Brin's knowledge as something buried in her gaze warned me that she knew far more about what I had been through than she would ever tell. Then again, the Princess was a Seer.
"I honestly don't know." I admitted. "I was going to ask Artemis for help. It's… complicated." I shook my head a little and shrugged, a little startled by the sudden burst of pain that rushed through me as I noticed Lucy kneeling on the ground not far away. She was sobbing uncontrollably, in her human form, but with her shirt torn in such a way that I knew she'd only recently regained it. Every so often she shuddered, but not once did she look up towards the rest of us. I didn't know what she had seen but I knew it had to be awful. Pain cut very close to my heart. I winced, and Kieran shook his head heavily.
"I know you will not like me saying this, but when you entered the room I thought for a moment that you were Lord Elhilom." Lakshireh admitted. "What happened to you?"
"I told you, it's complicated, and right now I don't have time to explain!" I shook my head. "Where is Artemis?"
"It is too late to hide this any longer." The shadow in the corner interrupted, and very slowly, Raphael stood.
At first I didn't recognize him.
No one I knew, not even Artemis had been admitted to his chamber since Kesha had brought him back from Malbolde Prison. I'd been confused, and even afraid when I had overheard Artemis beginning to be let into his room. Raphael had turned her away, saying that he would never see her again. At the time I didn't understand why.
They were bound to one another in the way that few souls could ever be, living so fully through one another that they seemed like parts of the same whole. For them, being separated was a torture so intense that the mere residue of the emotion had been enough to bring me to tears. And yet, Raphael would not open his door. He had sworn to Artemis that he would never see her again.
I had never imagined how awful the truth could be.
My father had told me how his father, Arduh, had cut himself to pieces. In one of his bouts of madness, the Warlord had seized his sword and hacked off his own wings. After losing so much blood, he had wandered, disoriented, into a temple full of clerics and begged to be admitted into their order, vowing that he had cleansed himself of all his evil. In time, Arduh became Ardain William-Lawrence, a well-respected priest of the White Cross, a demon-hunter. And yet even to the time of his death, his many scars never healed, and no amount of prayer would completely soothe his tortured mind.
At that moment, as he stepped into the light, the Emperor resembled Arduh before the priests. He was a mess of bloodied rags, his wounds slowly healing into deep, white scars. I could tell from his hands that he was not attempting to cloak himself as human before us. The damage was far more terrible and cruel than even the Warriors of Tirs Uloth might have done. They at least believed that Traversers possessed the right to die quickly and honorably by the stroke of a sword.
Raphael had been whipped countless times with something that burned his skin so that it was awful to look at. He looked very thin, almost wasted, and hunched strangely as if he could not completely stand. There was nothing left of his once-great strength or his blue-white wings. His hands shook as he staggered forward, as if he was uncertain of where to step... as if somehow... he was blind.
Stepping into the light, he pulled the bandages away from his face.
Master Merlin gasped.
Brin cried in agony, falling to her knees and Kieran pulled Lakshireh close to him, shielding her from the horrible sight.
The Emperor's eyes were gone.
Of all the greatest and most terrible sacrilege, of all the tortures I knew those monsters were capable of, they had done the one thing so unforgivable that even Orin Saede would never have dreamt of it!
They had taken Raphael's eyes. They had stolen his immortal eyes!
Raphael only bowed his head and whispered softly the words I had most dreaded to hear. "She's gone mad, mad beyond all reason. I could not bring myself to let her see me. I knew what it would do to her. She was always so… fragile."
Fragile was hardly a word that I would have used to describe my cousin, but then again, Raphael knew her better to anyone. "She had a fit." Raphael paused. "Before I could go to her, and believe me, I would have… she left the palace. We looked for her, but she was gone."
I found myself stunned, cold and unwilling to believe that such horrors were possible. Horus and Kesha were dead... Raphael was broken beyond repair and finally the last die had been cast.
With Fairfax dead, I had hoped desperately that things would begin to fall into place... I had imagined, foolishly, that we might be given a little time to figure out why the ties that had once held all things together were crumbling into dust. There would be no peace.
Diis aliter visum.
The Gods had decided otherwise.
"Do you know where she went?" I whispered fearfully, already guessing the answer.
Lucy nodded solemnly, slowly turning to face me. "Home." She whispered.
"Tirs Uloth." I realized, remembering Artemis's mad ramblings. "Nayoh'ysk! How long has she been gone?"
"A few days." Ruveus shook his head heavily. "But the White Cross are already sending out reports. They said they've never seen anything like it. Huge armies, springing up overnight. Armies numbering in the millions."
"That's impossible!" I argued. "The Old World is dead! Or… dying anyway!"
"He is right!" Lakshireh agreed. "When I left my father's court, there were not more than two-thousand Warriors under his command! How could there be millions now?"
"That's the thing." Kieran paused. "We know something the White Cross doesn't."
"That Ireval is Inapsupetra," Brin finished.
Lakshireh turned to Kieran wide-eyed in disbelief, and Lucy stared at me, something like a curse word frozen on her lips. Master Merlin took a deep breath but didn't say a word. Ruveus only stared at me gravely. I could tell that all of them had suspected there was something wrong with their friend… and now they all knew what it was. Everyone stared at Brin, and then at Kieran and me, perhaps wondering why the three of us didn't seem shocked.
"It's true. She is the Goddess of Chaos" I nodded slowly. "And we've got to stop her. We're the only ones who can."
"But you…" Kieran began, trailing off into silence as I turned to face him, not wanting to get into our usual conversation about what I should and shouldn't do, given what he presumed I was capable of.
"I'm fine. Better than I've ever been, actually. And so all of you know, Lumi didn't trick me into anything this time. She gave me a choice." I replied. "I decided it was better to take my chances here than to stay where I was and just watch. She's going to try her damndest to manipulate me but she's not going to succeed. My father left me a weapon and I'm going to use it in any way that I can," I finished, tapping the tak na around my neck.
"Then… you actually did it? Like your father and Artemis all those many times?" Master Merlin exclaimed, realizing what I was getting at. "You came back from the dead!"
I grinned slightly. "Just in time to witness the apocalypse."