"Me?" I was slipping again, falling behind in the race I'd been running with reality. The goal of understanding what was going on seemed to keep moving ahead, always that little bit faster than I could chase it. "How? Why?! What is this ... place?"
The glow faded from Triskeleth's eyes, and she blinked once, before drawing in a deep breath. "I had imagined many possibilities, but I will admit this one did not enter my consideration. Come closer, Torsten. Sit with me. I will tell you what I can, before you must go."
"I- ... I just want to-"
"Sit." She repeated it, firmer. "I will not harm you, and you may get some of your answers, though I will not promise anything."
I did as she asked, taking a seat on the stone bench next to her. She raised a hand, and one of the flitting butterflies that danced around her head alighted on the index finger. Its wings were decorated with swirling patterns of light and dark blue, and it fanned them, opening and closing for several seconds, before it took to the air again. She smiled, and turned to look sidelong at me.
"I am the high priestess of the Spirit of Water, and through her I am granted vision of what is yet to come. You are already aware of the gods; the three that live, and the one that does not?"
"Then you must know," she continued, "while their strength is terrible when unleashed, their judgement is fallible. They are mighty beyond any description that I can give you, but unlike the legends of your most-worshipped human divinities, the Spirits are not all-knowing. They are capable of mistakes, of belief that is wrong, of being deceived by other events, of conclusions that are dangerous and false. I do not merely speak of the dead god when I say this, but all of them."
Fallible. So, not just the Spirit of Fire, but ... all four?
"To us, the gods can be as distant and alien as dragons are to men. They inspire wonder, loyalty, adoration, and fear, in equal measure. Still, we possess a quality that is a great equaliser: the blessing of insight. All dragons have some capacity for insight, and it is ... unpredictablein when and how it functions. It may come unbidden, it may be asked for, it may be informative or it may be vague. It could be provoked from as little as a touch, a glance, an errant thought, just as it can derive from blunter affairs; a brawl, an argument, a greater upheaval. In every case, something of the possible future may be learned, and every individual, from the Spirits right down to the smallest hatchling, can be subject to it. You have encountered this yourself in those you have met, haven't you?"
One, in particular. Everything he said that was of any importance seemed to be about the future. A future that required my assent; that he told me, more than once, I had agreed to. Then, I began to realise that maybe, his insistence that I made this choice was not that I had literally already done so, but his own overbearing way of saying I was going to, and simply was yet to agree with what he understood as an inevitable future.
I didn't respond.
"For all the potential that insight can provide, it is often incomplete and easily misunderstood. Even the wisest and most cunning have misread it, and such mistakes can change history in ways that were never intended. Ultimately, however, it is from the heart of water that the clearest understanding of the future may be gained. There is a divine counterpart to our native skill, and where the latter is common, the former is unique. Only the seer, the chosen of the Spirit of Water, possesses the power of foresight."
"Why doesn't she have this ability? Why not just keep it for herself?"
"Because of what she is, what all the gods are. She is water; the oceans, lakes, seas, rivers, ice, snow, rain. Just as he is stone, rock, metal, the substance of the ground, and she is the sky, the clouds, lightning and wind. At the same time, they are conscious personalities that rose above, became organised and gained perception, with identity and intelligence that they passed on when they created us. You might not be old enough to know his theories, but the human neurologist Freud would call this the difference between the id and the ego; primitive unrestrained desires fighting against order and civilised rationale. The foresight I have comes from the deepest part of the goddess -- the element of water itself -- and for her to embrace it would mean immersing herself in the id at the expense of her conscious ego. Simply put, she could lose what she is, and commit the same sin her brother did -- become a vessel for nature to impose its passion and fury, unchecked, upon the world."
"So, she gave that power to her most trusted followers instead, because there is no risk that you will, um, go crazy and destroy everything?"
"Was it your kind -- the seers, I mean -- who predicted the future of the Spirit of Fire? Celeste said it was foretold, and that the prophecy outlined when everything would happen."
Triskeleth laughed. "Ms Rothberg-Cartier is not wrong and neither are you, though the foretelling is not exactly specific. The first seers made that prophecy so long ago, a pair of reverend elders, dragons both powerful and sagacious. Today, I learned that, after all this time, it will be a human boy, an untested youth, who will see the end."
"Me." I whispered. "Why me?"
"I am uncertain. All I can say is this: I met your grandfather when he was young, and we were friends from the earliest days. I always felt there was something different about him, but now I know it was not him, exactly, but what would follow him; his daughter, and then ... you. This was meant to be, though I do not understand why."
Meant to be ...
"You have many more questions, but they will wait. I have much to teach you, young Mr Wilde. To come here again, touch my scale and recall my voice, and you will find your way."
"No." She turned more where she sat, facing toward me, and her eyes lit up again, but this time only the iris in a dim glow. "No more questions, not yet. Tell your mother everything. We will speak again, but for now, you must go," her voice dropped in tone and the words vibrated with a sudden magical strength, "be honest, and wake up, Torsten."
In a blink, it was gone.
Then, my bedroom, discarded towel, upended box, the sapphire in hand, and my mother at the doorway, home from work, a pile of folders under one arm and her handbag in the other.
"Torsten?" She repeated my name, brow furrowed. "Honey, are you okay? You were staring off into space, like you're a million miles away."
"I- ... I, um," I tried, then I took a deep breath and another, desperately attempting not to hyperventilate, the shock of what I'd been exposed to during the past day starting to catch up to me, a panic setting in. "I think-"
"Hey. Hey, what's wrong?" With not a second thought, she was next to me, dropping what she was carrying onto the end of my bed, and making me sit. She was right there, her arm around my shoulders, and it took all my willpower not to burst into tears for what felt like the hundredth time in the last few hours. "Baby, what's going on? I know things have been crazy recently, but you know you can tell me anything that's on your mind, okay? You can always talk to me."
"Mom," I croaked, "this is- ... it's so overwhelming. I don't know what to think, and I haven't ... told you everything. A lot of it, but not everything."
"If you want to, you can. It doesn't matter how weird it might be, I'm not going to think any less of you. Don't be scared, okay?"
So, I took a deep breath, to calm my nerves, and then I told her everything that wasn't revealed during Celeste's history lesson.
The whole thing, from start to finish.
The dream, how I met Theo, Lucy's encounter with Darren, the strange visitor that Celeste scared off, Theo's friendship and flirtation with me, our first kiss, Araziah's warnings, and finally the events of the day -- Theo's attempted compulsion, my escape, the fight, its outcome, the subsequent argument with Araziah, meeting Sebby, and finally, the sapphire and Triskeleth. There was only one detail I didn't mention, and that was what I had just done in the shower, because the world would need to actually be ending before any teenage boy would willingly choose to discuss masturbation with his mother.
Still, despite how ridiculous my story was, it wasn't the supernatural part that was difficult to talk about. By far, the most stressful was what I had to say about my interactions with Theo, and then Sebby. I couldn't look at her during any of this, but she didn't let go of me, and listened without interrupting even once.
Finally, after I finished speaking, she didn't say anything, at first. She just pulled me close and hugged me.
Then she let go.
"Torsten." We made eye contact. "No matter what happens, don't ever forget how much I love you. You are my son, and it makes me so proud to see the person you are growing up to be. All of the drama you're suffering through, you don't have to carry any of it on your own."
"Mom," I mumbled it, sniffing, my voice hoarse, "how can you be s-so ... calm ... about all this? How can you accept it? It's- ... it's unreal. Supernatural. And I- ... I'm ... um-"
"I have to," she interrupted, "because I believe you, and because going into denial and pretending the supernatural doesn't exist, when I've seen magic with my own eyes? That won't stop it from being true. Besides, if I wanted to buy into some truly half-baked misconceptions and phony-baloney moonshine, I'd give your father a call, or watch C-SPAN."
My mother is ... amazing.
"And, you know what?" She drew me in again, to kiss my forehead. "Last week, I adjusted to the fact that magic is real, and there are dragons in human form walking the streets, some of whom are actively trying to engineer the apocalypse. This week, the fact that you kissed two of them and they both happened to be male hardly registers. It doesn't matter to me who you love, so long as you are happy and it's of your own free will. I trust you. I know you'll be sensible and look after your heart."
"Mom." Tears began to well up, again. "I love you."
"Oh, sweetheart, stop." She cracked a smile, her eyes glinting with a liquid sheen. "I'm just sorry you had to see something horrible happen to someone you liked. This 'Sebby' is right, though; you should remember Theo, but don't cling to sadness and guilt. It's not healthy and what Araziah did was his choice, not yours. If he shows up here wanting to reconcile, he better have an apology good enough for you, or he won't be getting in the door, dragon or not."
Though the mention of Theo was a sober thought, the idea of my mom shutting the door on a disgraced Araziah's face was too much, and I snorted, trying not to laugh.
"Oh, and you know what else? I said I trust you and I do, but I still want to meet anyone who shows a serious interest in you. That means any boy, and doubly so for mythical creatures that look like one -- dragons, elves, vampires, werewolves, that sort of thing. So, yes, this includes Sebby. I'd like to see what he's like for myself, and also to judge if he's up to the grade."
Vampires and werewolves? Elves?! My eyes widened. What 'grade'?!
Her lips twitched into a smirk at my expression, though she kept it mostly deadpan. "I won't have my son dating anyone who isn't at least a 9. Maybe 8.5, if he's extra nice."
My jaw dropped. Did she really just say that?
"It is just going to be boys, right? I had this whole sales-pitch about teen pregnancy as a backup plan, but if it's unnecessary, then I'll save my breath."
Am I actually having this conversation? "It's- ... um, I- ... I t-think so? I've, uh, never really thought that hard about it, but, um p- ... probably?" I spluttered. Wait, why was that the backup plan?!
"Good. Lucy owes me 50 dollars then. She was convinced you would, what was her wording, 'swing both ways, just much more to Romeo than Juliet.' Shows what she knows. A mother's intuition can't be beaten."
"Oh my god," I groaned, covering my face with my hands. "You made a bet over me! A bet where you think I'm- ... oh my god. You're unbelievable." Then a peek out the side at her. "Mom ... if you just asked me earlier, we could've had the satisfaction of splitting the profit and seeing Lucy be wrong."
She chuckled. "See, now there's the proof that you're definitely my boy." Then, an arm around my shoulder again and her head against mine, pressing us close. "I love that girl, crazy as she is, but, honestly, do you really think she'll be disappointed with the outcome? It's a win-win."
"I know." I sighed. "There aren't any down sides for her."
Mom giggled, and squeezed me again. "I've really missed talking to you. Tell you what, tomorrow morning I'm going to ring your school and my job, and tell them neither of us will be back until next Monday."
I gasped. "But ... it's only Wednesday!"
"I know, and I don't care. You need a break and I work too much. Honey, I know what you're going to say, because you've always been so tolerant of the hours I have to keep and because you really are a sweetheart, but I'm neglecting the most important man in my life. So! For the next four days, they're going to deal with me being on leave at short notice, and we're going to do whatever my son wants. Even if it's eating junk food and playing Skyrim until we pass out. That is," she paused, thoughtful, "if he can endure being around his mother for that long in one go."
I love her so much.
"Are you kidding? You're one of those moms other kids wish they had." It was my chance to return the gesture, and I put my arm around her. "Don't worry though." I shrugged, biting my lip. "I think it'll be a while before I play any game where a vengeful dragon god is prophesied to return and destroy the world -- even if I get to shoot him full of arrows."
It had been a while since I got to spend any amount of time with my mother, and although the drama of the day had left many things unanswered, she told me it could all wait. When we got a proper chance to speak to Celeste after she returned from wherever she had been, we could try to make heads and tails of everything. Though Mom didn't interfere much with my relationships with friends, she also made a point of explaining what had happened to Lucy, and letting her know we would have some family time before anyone else was involved. For her part, Lucy didn't bug me about it, apart from a few texts to express shock over Theo and extracting a promise that we would at least hang out over the weekend.
Until then, it was a simple situation: relax and have fun.
That's what we did.
Just me and Mom.
Thursday and Friday were exactly as promised; we did all the sorts of stuff I had loved since I was younger. Town, to go to the shops, the arcade, and just waste time at the malls in the commercial district. Home, for a lot of lazy time involving movies, video games, and junk food, as described. For many teenagers, having to be around their parents was the most embarrassing cringe-filled idea possible, but I hadn't exaggerated when I'd told her how cool she was. It wasn't an unwanted obligation to spend time with her. Instead, it was the opposite; she had a wicked sense of humour, a natural ability to make those in her company feel comfortable, and a practical sensible approach to dealing with difficult situations and people. Also, I knew some of the better parts of my own personality came from her; compassion, self-reliance and self-respect, tenacity, patience, and a sense of fairness. The icing on the cake was, according to her, my physical appearance. It was the reason she insisted I be matched with a '9' and reinforced by how much I resembled her uncles on the maternal side of the family, and not so much my father.
In fact, though she didn't speak about him often and my memories of him were fuzzy, it was a recurring theme just how glad she was that I barely looked or acted like him at all.
That didn't matter.
She'd always done the best for me. I didn't need him, and she was better off without him in our lives.
We were happy as we were.
Friday rolled on into Saturday. There was no contact from Celeste or Agent Crawley, and nothing more from Sebby. Perhaps most importantly, no sign of Araziah either. Not on the first two days after his departure, and even as Saturday stretched from afternoon into evening, there was nothing to indicate he was about to return.
Though what he would do was a thought that lingered at the back of my mind, it was hard to shake the feeling that he might actually decide to join with the Conclave.
I didn't want to think he would, but ... the idea just wouldn't go away.
All he would need is a persuasive argument or the right reason, and that would be enough.
It was unpleasant to consider that he really might be gone.
Still, I wasn't about to despair, and there were still two more nights before I would have to face the real-world again on Monday. Saturday night was a great time for movies, and Mr Atkinson had let Lucy come over to spend the evening with us. While Mom was inside responding to some work emails as we were waiting for Lucy to arrive, I turned the yard lights on and indulged in some target practice with the new set of arrows she bought me in town from a hunting supplies store.
Though such shops in the USA were full of compound bows that appeared to be equipped with everything from pulleys and cables through to ergonomic pistol grips and tactical scopes, the designs of those things felt strange, and the idea of using one like cheating somehow. The style I chose was the comparatively low-tech composite bow, a simple clean weapon that had been used in Europe and Asia for centuries. My love of RPGs and fantasy had combined with an interest in history, and the end result had been the bow as a birthday gift a few months earlier. Apart from some basic guidance for beginners, I was intent on teaching myself and bettering my skills on my own, preferring to experiment and practice solo than be tutored by anyone.
It was late enough to be properly dark, and I had taken two test shots, trying to get a feel for the new arrows and poor light conditions, when my phone buzzed where I left it next to the rear steps. Though, as I soon realised, it wasn't my phone.
It was Theo's.
I had kept it with me; the only connection left to his memory. Curious, I picked it up to see.
There was a new text message, from the same unknown number.
It said: you take too long, little one. The Scourge will finish it now.
I stared at the little line of glowing text meant for a dead 'boy' serving the wishes of the Conclave. The Scourge? Does that mean they're going to-
My thoughts were interrupted by a sound.
Footsteps, out the front of the house, on the pavement next to the road.
Swiftly, I sidled along to the corner of our house, bow still in hand, and peered around to see toward the front. In the low visibility I glimpsed several figures striding past from the direction of the neighbouring house. Detail wasn't obvious, but they were dressed and acting the same; dark colours, faces partially covered, walking quickly and with a purpose. They were heading to our front gate.
My blood ran cold.
They're coming ... here.
I didn't need to think. Snatching up the quiver, leaving the targets on the back fence where they were, I bounded up the back steps and was through the house in seconds. The first thing was the front door, which I locked and bolted.
"Torsten, honey," Mom was watching me from the kitchen table, her laptop open, "what are you d-"
"There are men outside. Conclave." I was rushing back through to her, my words as fast as my movements, though before I finished speaking, the door handle rattled, someone trying to open it from the other side. "You need to go into your room, and lock the door. Now."
She went pale, the message received, and immediately scooped up her laptop. With me on her heels, she was through into her room, the door clicking shut, the lock engaging, just as I was entering mine.
My goal, however, was different from hers.
I grabbed my backpack and stuffed the bundle of journals and the stone collection inside, zipping it up, and also snatched the rest of the arrows. Then, threading my way back through to the kitchen and out the rear slider in a flash.
In the same moment, one of the intruders rounded the corner of the house, having come through from the front. In the two seconds before he broke into a charge, I got a brief look at our invaders. Closely worn deep brown and black clothing, a hood, a face that was expressionless and almost vacant, and a smudge of red warpaint drawn in a horizontal line above his left eye.
Like someone in a cult; a minion of the dragons.
No hesitation. I'd done it hundreds of times to targets on the back fence, and my instincts kicked in. My arms moved in a reflex movement that was so speedy that I surprised myself.
Arrow to the rest.
The distance from the steps to the corner was short, but he was not close enough to reduce the damage of the projectile. It pierced his left shoulder and the man jolted, skidding and stumbling against the wall, trying to stay standing. I didn't stay around to watch, and was off, to the rear gate.
There were more footsteps behind, closer together and louder as more of them arrived from the front of the house. My heart was pounding, breath unsteady, when I threw the gate open, slamming it shut again on the way out, without looking back.
Not straight ahead across the open land as I did fleeing Theo days back, but instead a sharp right turn. Parallel to the back fence, I ran along the open field in the darkness, more houses to my right, Mirrorvale's bordering hills peeling away off to the left as it diverged from the town. Hundreds of feet ahead was the next neighbourhood, the one that bordered ours, a newer arm of houses and business stretching perpendicular toward the line of the retreating forest. In the middle of that arm, a narrow access path ran between houses through to the road, the concrete teeth of traffic barriers just visible at both ends.
I reached it in a few dozen seconds, and glanced behind for just long enough to see what was following. Five or six of them, maybe more; it was hard to tell with only the streetlights of Mirrorvale to go by, all dressed in the same creepy outfits, all running full speed after me.
Can't slow down now!
Yet, when I reached the road, I was faced with a split second decision.
This area was quiet in mid-evening. No traffic, no pedestrians, a largely residential zone. To the right, the road continued to Mirrorvale's centre, through the T intersection of my street and potentially closer to more of the weird cultist soldiers. To the left and ahead, the neighbourhood continued, streets branched off into more houses. In the middle distance there were larger industrial buildings, disused for decades due to economic reasons.
Going towards people -- the heart of Mirrorvale, or any of the nearby homes -- was probably going to get innocents killed. The ones chasing me didn't care about anything except what I was carrying.
I wasn't going to put other people's lives in danger. Not if I could avoid it.
So, lose them and hide.
The decision was simple.
I took off again, dashing across in the road, eyes several blocks away on the lifeless outline of the dilapidated Barents-Whitehouse manufactory.
Natalia Wilde closed and latched her bedroom window, hearing only the ebbing sound of her son leaving the house. Swiftly, she tied her hair back into a ponytail, threw her evening robe to the side, and went to the wardrobe. In the bottom, there was an old shoebox under some blankets, and she pulled out of it a Sig Sauer pistol and a full 9mm magazine. With care, she sat on her bed, inserted the magazine, worked the slide to chamber a round, and disabled the safety.
Then she placed it in front of her on the sheets, the barrel pointing at the door.
Was this what it had come to?
She was beginning to understand the stress Torsten was under, the type of pressure being put on him. Before, Natalia had believed what she was told by Celeste, as outlandish as it all sounded, but it had been disconnected. Just words, ideas, stories; a news report of something bad happening somewhere else, or a second hand account of a foreign catastrophe.
Now, it was real.
She heard it then, the low murmur of voices through walls, the movement of other people in her home.
In her home.
Picking up her cell, Natalia hit dial on the top number on the list.
The most important one.
He answered on the fourth ring, and he was breathing heavily, still running. The reception was not perfect, a slight crackle and static to it.
"Baby." Her voice cracked and she drew in a ragged breath. "Keep running. Do not let them get you. You do whatever you need, no matter what. D'you hear me? No matter what." She sniffed, wiping her face with the free hand. "I love you, Torsten. More than anything."
"Mom, I love you t-"
The call cut off, the line going dead.
In the same moment, there was a heavy thumping on her bedroom door, a fist pounding on it from the other side, and then a loud voice calling out. Leering and mocking, it was joined by the muted laughter of companions, a threat in multiple.
"Knock knock, lady. Come out and play."
The Barents-Whitehouse property was one of several derelict lots on the fringe of Mirrorvale, part of an older industrial park whose owners had gone out of business in the 1960s and 1970s. While a lot of the park had been rezoned into residential land and turned into suburbia, some remnants were still unsold and neglected. The largest of those was an old factory building that used to make machinery and car parts decades ago, but today was owned by Barents-Whitehouse LLC, as proclaimed by a weatherworn sign over the front entrance that had been there since before I was born.
The property boundary was marked by a twelve-foot-high chain link fence, crowned with bulbous coils of spiked wire that made it tricky to climb. There was a carpark with room for at least fifty in front of the factory, and truck access around to the rear cargo dock.
Then the factory itself.
Ignoring the massive padlocks and chains securing the main gate, I slipped through one of several loose sections of fence made by vandals and bored delinquents. I had almost reached the building entrance when I heard the rattle of the chain in the same place I entered.
I had kept my distance advantage, my fitness not letting me down, but they were still on my trail.
Ducking through a smashed pane of the foyer doors, my feet skittered on the broken glass scattered through the foyer's interior. I moved at a fast jog through the short cluster of rooms and passages that was the administration and foreman's offices, staffroom and utilities, and a stairway to whatever lay on the upper stories. It was grimy and dust-coated as expected, the tiles littered with random bits of junk and rubbish, stained and chipped; lightbulbs were missing, fixtures broken, and there was a complete lack of furniture.
Finally, the factory floor.
Of course, it made up the majority of the building's ground area, at least three quarters. A broad rectangle that was once filled with machine presses, conveyors, work benches and assembly stations, it was now empty, flat and clean. The only evidence of its original purpose were discoloured shapes on the concrete where the equipment used to sit. The ceiling was cavernous, three or four stories high, with a grid of windows on both side walls. The windows covered the upper third, with observation catwalks beneath them, at about half height. It was night and the sky outside cloudy, but there was enough moonlight to allow a minimum of visibility, the inside not completely pitch black.
My destination was on the far side: a double-height doorless exit from the factory floor through into what had to be the material storage and loading bays, and from there, a way out of the factory, for me to escape unnoticed and lose them.
From back through the building, I heard the sound of smashing glass and a clamour of voices, my pursuers not caring about subtlety. Breaking back into a run again, I was midway across the factory floor when to my complete horror, two cultists strode into view in the middle of my escape route.
I came skidding to a halt. The bow was up, reacting on instinct. The shot was near perfect, the arrow spinning slightly as it flew, bowstring vibrating on release. Going higher than my target point, I was afraid I had missed, but instead it impaled the right-hand cultist through the throat, the man's upper body jerking from the impact. He fell to the floor, choking and clutching at his neck.
Just as quick, I drew another arrow and repeated the motion. At the last second, the other cultist's hand rose, palm forward, and the shot deflected harmlessly away in a pulse of red light. There was a glowing fiery gem bound to his palm, the source of a magical shield.
"You can't win, boy." The man's voice was mocking and sinister, and his eyes and features had a sort of witless hollow look to them, that also managed to appear, somehow, hungry.
It was disturbing.
From behind, the rest of them burst onto the factory floor, and I turned to face the entrance, watching another six arrive and immediately begin to fan out wide, spreading to surround me. Two circled to my left, two right, and the final pair stayed together, straight in front. When the circle was done, all of them, including the one blocking the exit, began to close in, their eyes fixed on me, their advance slower now, deliberate, knowing I had nowhere further to go.
Oh fuck. Oh god.
I could barely breathe, nor think.
The only thought in my head was that I was about to die, and they would take ... everything.
Yet, about thirty feet away, in an eerie synchronisation, all seven stopped at the same time.
"My lord," intoned the cultist from behind me carrying the fiery gem, "he is yours."
Through came a tall athletic figure, with a measured casual stride. Auburn hair, glasses, freckles; I hadn't met him in person, but I knew who he was because of glimpses at school, and the notable resemblance to Theo.
He stopped where he was, just inside the factory floor's entrance, and gave an amused grin, hands in pockets, unperturbed by what was going on.
"Mr Wilde, I don't believe we've met, officially," he angled his head in acknowledgement, before continuing, "though I have to say, I have heard a lot regarding you. Such a shame about your mother, I was hoping to see more of her."
My ... mother ...
"What?!" I spat. "What have you done with her?"
"I'll ask the questions. Be a good boy, sit on the floor and don't use that bow."
The feeling of Darren's mental compulsion was much stronger than Theo's, and even with my best attempt at resistance, it was hopeless. I was kneeling against my will, the bow and newest arrow lax in my grasp.
"What a delightful chase you've led us on, but I'm sorry to say, it is over. Your Order friends are not around. You are defenceless. Finally, we can put a finish to this charade of subterfuge and take back a stolen birthright." He motioned to the backpack. "My future is in there, but for you, this is the end."
"End?" Another voice broke in, from above. "Isn't that ... premature?"
All heads turned to the source. The speaker was standing on the catwalk, indistinct but for the dim moonlight coming through the upper windows. Attention gained, he vaulted nimbly over the railing, hair swishing on the drop to the floor. He landed easily, the distance not a bother. As my eyes adjusted, there was no mistake who I was looking at.
"What a scene this is." He gave only a cursory glance in my direction, my presence no more than a footnote, his words addressed to Darren. "The commotion was hard to miss."
"Who are you?" Darren stared at him, an amazed curiosity at play. Then, almost as if I could see it happening, a realisation seemed to come from nowhere, the dragon's insight lending itself. "Could you be the hatchling my brother mentioned? The Conclave always has need of new blood, strong blood, and," he paused again, studying Araziah yet further, "you- ... I know your descent. It is in your markings, your face, your bearing. You are spawn of Kitrax, an offshoot of the Seventh House thought long destroyed. This is astonishing. We are kin."
If Araziah needed a reason, there was little more powerful than family.
Oh god. The two of them are ... related.
No. No, it can't go this way.
"Ah, this is perfect." Darren's smile grew. "Fate has called you here to find us. To become a part of your heritage."
"Araziah, you can't do this! Plea-"
"Silence." His refreshed compulsion was powerful and instant, and I stopped talking right away.
"He fears I will join you, and he is right to be afraid." The contempt in his tone was chilling and Araziah's attention quickly returned to Darren. "Hatchling." He chuckled. "Yes, I suppose I am, though you should know I am growing fast and my talents are ... many."
"Then let me be the first to extend you an invitation to take your rightful place." Darren began to speak, and while he did, Araziah started to stroll around the cordon of minions surrounding me. Passing the nearest, he looked the cultist up and down as he passed, the man averting his eyes in respectful deference to a draconic master. "The Conclave strives to restore our father to his dominion. All our kind shall reap the benefit of his return, and our noble house the most of all, for we are the arbiters of his justice. These labours will be rewarded with glory, prestige, and a place at the right hand of the god reborn, an honour our progenitor once held. If your talent is as you claim, a lordship of your own is guaranteed."
"That's quite an offer." He continued his lazy saunter, a visiting dignitary inspecting the allied troops. Out of the seven cultists, he stopped briefly at the foremost pair, the two directly between me and Darren, a man and woman. Again, a visual once-over of each, seeming to judge their value for whatever it was worth. "And these? You keep them dominated as slave fodder?"
"The Scourge are willing zealots. They choose the unavoidable, instead of fighting it. The lucky will receive their due in the new world. The unlucky?" Darren shrugged. "As you say: fodder."
Turning, Araziah ambled across to me. He stood directly in front, relaxed, but aloof. Our eyes met, and that little bit of hope I had left drained away. Unsympathetic and indifferent, I wasn't getting any help from him.
"I will accept your invitation," he responded, not breaking eye contact with me, "but for a question. What fate awaits this one here?"
"His family has blocked progress for too long. They will die, and their knowledge be claimed."
"Death." He murmured it, our stare still unbroken, and then there was the faintest smile. His eyes narrowed a touch, his head cocking ever so slightly, and his gaze suddenly darted away.
Down, to my bow.
Then up, to me.
Wait, what is ... this?
Once more; his left, my right, to the cultist at the two o'clock position.
Then back again, to me.
"Well, unfortunately, I must decline." Araziah whirled abruptly to face Darren, his hair following him in a graceful ripple of carmine. "Now, I demonstrate why."
Focused, quick and hard, he snapped a command to the pair of Scourge directly between the two dragons, his psychic power tearing them from Darren's control. "You. Cut his throat and then kill yourself."
In a hasty series of forced motions, the woman unsheathed a blade hidden in her clothing, turned to her male companion, slit his throat with no resistance, and then stabbed it into her own stomach. At the same time, I felt the grip of Darren's compulsion fray, lessen, and then vanish.
I didn't need any more hints.
Lifting the bow, I performed a rapid flick shot on the indicated cultist, not waiting for a full drawback before releasing, the arrow hitting him in the upper chest, the man toppling onto the concrete.
"TRAITOR!" Darren's shout echoed through the building, and the Scourge began to act, though sluggish and delayed; psychic domination being reasserted, control reclaimed.
But, too slow.
Araziah transformed in front of us, his size putting him in direct striking range of the entire group. His body moved in an agile counter-clockwise curve past me, stupendously nimble for such a large creature. Around the circle of foes he went, his tail and flank sweeping wide, the first two cultists simply hurled outward with such force that they flew dozens of feet to strike the walls, bouncing off like ragdolls to lie unmoving. The third, the one carrying the gem, was snatched up in a forelimb, Araziah's head simultaneously angling to the fourth. She was only beginning to move when the brief jet of fire doused her, turning the woman into a stumbling flaming mannikin that fell shaking to the floor. Next, he bit into the captive Scourge, the man's body compressing with a sickening crunch of bone, and then tossed the fractured body away.
Finally, he was back next to me, standing at my right hand, tail coiling to the left, the circle dismantled in seconds.
You are weak and blind, Araziah told him, just as your brother was.
"My ... brother." Darren's face was fury, his eyes incredulity, disbelieving that it was really a 'hatchling' in front of him, the 'betrayal' unfolding too fast to prevent. "Where is he?! What did you DO?!"
I killed Thyndorag. His head and front limbs lowered next to me, like a cat preparing to pounce, but he was making no further effort to engage Darren. This boy, his mother and his friends; they are all under my protection. Any who defy this, I will stand upon the ashes of their shattered husks, as I did to your brother. Tell your Conclave my choice is made.
"You side with THEM ... against your own!" The yell was enraged beyond anything I'd heard. "You MURDER your kin! You spurn your GOD, and for what?!"
I am free. Araziah snorted, a blast of hot air from the nostrils. I have no god, and if I should meet yours, his fall will be merciless and utterly complete. So, flee to safety, or ... challenge me and die.
"You are insane," he growled, "and your sin is disgusting! It will not be today, but I will have vengeance for your crime, KINSLAYER!"
With that, Darren stepped back, then turned and retreated, vanishing through the building.
Araziah rounded on the spot I was standing, and once again, my eyes met those of the dragon that had forsaken his own kind for me.
There was no time for anything else, though.
I was only thinking of one thing.
"Araziah, my- ... my mother."
Wordless, he shifted, picking me up. Reptilian digits and talons wrapped neatly and harmlessly around my torso, backpack hanging off my shoulder, bow still in hand. Then, a push of his legs, a couple of wingbeats, and we were in the air. He drew me close to his body as we rose, and with a forward lunge, we smashed straight through the spacious grid windows, glass scattering in our departure to the night sky above Mirrorvale.
His exodus from the Barents-Whitehouse destitution was a bitter torment, his temper driven to extremity. Theo, the only of his brothers worthy of deeper affection, was dead. He desired to reveal his true nature, and raze the entire town to its foundations from above; to burn and slaughter the humans for everything their wretched civilisation symbolised, and to end the undeserved influence over the planet they held.
It was only thought of the future, and the prophecy, that stayed his wrath.
Darren was consumed by it, and by the victory snatched from him through the claws of a betrayer. He strode through the abandoned carpark, the building now behind him, his mind awash with the trials and struggles of his pain and his cause. Yet, not so much that his senses could not detect what was incoming.
It arrived from behind and to one side, a shimmer of lightning, the dashing movement of supernatural momentum aimed at his right flank. In a mercurial flash it was past him, the blade cutting through cloth and skin with a sharpness that no human weapon had. Darren dodged forward, reeling to face the assault in a tight defensive spin, his hip and side bleeding.
The identity of the aggressor was unexpected.
Slight, pale, platinum-haired, he was quicksilver in the dark; a balletic pivot to a balanced fighting pose that was sublime in its ease. To the side was held a blade of translucent crystal, the gentleness and youth of his eyes and face at odds with the incredible keenness of the weapon's edge.
"You should not try." The speaker chose Celestial instead of English, the lilting enunciation of the draconic words as a buoyant flowing melody compared with the crudity of human linguistics, even though Darren despised it. "Others watch. We protect."
"So, it is done. The bitch-goddess calls her sister again to the fray." The loathing of his speech was palpable, both through the language itself and the tone. "Their assassins are children and hatchlings, with naught but toy knives and boastful pride to aid them. Desperation grows, destiny nears, and all I suffer are merest scratches and barbs."
The air dragon turned the blade over in his hand, carefully altering his stance and readiness, bringing his weapon hand in front; calm and poised. "Your Scourge here are culled. You are marked. Your time comes."
"No," Darren told him, "not yet."
With a flick of the wrist, an object was flung from where it was palmed by Darren's sleight-of-hand. The red orb flew, exploding in a tiny burst of fire and shock against the defensive block of braced arms. In the brief distraction, Darren leaped up, transforming, and in seconds more, a gale of displaced air beneath his wingbeats, the dragon was rising, climbing to freedom and the open sky.
"Perhaps I misjudge you," Sebby said it to himself, watching the shrinking shape against the clouds. Then he glanced down at his blade, and he smiled, fey and knowing. Darren's blood trickled along the edge and over the flat, trails of it wetting his fingers. "Or, perhaps not."
The elevator door slid open at the top floor, to a penthouse suite, and Tomas Sobran stepped through. It was one of the highest-end rental blocks in Mirrorvale, the apartment furnished with the most valuable luxuries humans could provide. He swiped his keycard in the floor's lobby, the door unlocking, and entered the lounge. It was expansive and plush, covering nearly half of the floor area. Sitting on the sofas, there were three beautiful women in cocktail dresses, champagne glasses in hand, laughing and chatting; a delicious mosaic of sensory candy for the entertainment of their host.
"Mr Sobran!" One of them spotted him and waved, glass in hand. "Will you join us? There are chocolate strawberries. It's Dom Pérignon!"
"Ladies." Tomas stopped as he approached, cool but not impolite. "Leave us now. I have business with your boss." He nodded, indicating the figure next to the window overlooking the town, standing with his back to them in contemplation.
The women pouted and sighed, but none of them protested further. Gathering up their phones and handbags, they stood, taking the ice bucket and platter as they went, and sashayed past. The same one who had spoken paused by him and whispered: "We'll be in the jacuzzi. Come find us later, handsome."
Ignoring the shameless flirtation, Tomas crossed to stand beside the other man next to the window, though neither of them spoke until the door closed, the women gone from earshot. It was only then that the man in the suit moved; a glance and a nod, understated as always.
"Thoravir." It was usually unsettling for 'Mr Sobran' to hear his true name spoken aloud, but the visitor was unconcerned, his host being trusted more than any. The man in the suit continued the greeting. "Friend, you are a welcome sight."
"The Fifth House is forever faithful to the Seventh." Thoravir returned the nod. "I came as soon as I was able. What need do you have?"
"Darren is compromised. The Order, or their associates, are too aware of him. His last gambit was effectively obstructed."
"Then what? That critical information is still required."
"Yes." The man in the suit agreed. "There is more, however. The sky goddess has declared herself. The temporary neutrality and her reticence is put aside, and she chooses the enemy, as we knew she would. The Tempest, also, discovered the court, and drove the other houses from the Fire Eternal. She destroyed it, and forced the rest of the Conclave into retreat. The American undertakings have become threatened. They withdrew from the east coast, to protect themselves, and us."
"Then it is true." Thoravir huffed, frustrated. "We are alone and our foes emboldened. Still, I am done with our subversive ventures in the Latin colonies, and have names willing to provide you relief. Should we aid your kin through strength, to finish this business for good and locate the Fear?"
"No." The man in the suit shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest, thoughtful. "Simple force will not work here. They draw their defences closer around the Wilde boy, hiding him behind unseen layers of cunning. Whatever you can spare from your house, instead send them to guard our sanctum and oversee Triskeleth's detention and interrogation. With that done, I will summon Nero and our cousins back to pursue another means. Ways remain to get what we need."
"Your ... cousins? I understand necessity, but this risk ... is it wise?"
He gave a blink of a smile, the most any could expect to see. "At this stage, every decision is a risk. The Order is oblivious, and we will play upon their ignorance."
"I will do as you ask." Thoravir shrugged, accepting the proposition. "My house and yours are bound through history. Our families will share the tribulations and the triumph."
"Indeed." The man in the suit concurred. "Oh, and regarding family, there is one last thing I should tell you before the chattel and their pleasures catch your eye. My youngest brother is dead."
"Thyndorag?" The sire of the Fifth House blinked, surprised. "How?"
"I do not know how it occurred." The reply was dispassionate, unemotional and detached from the news revealed. "Just that I am told it was a hatchling from the lineage of Kitrax; a prodigious youth of extraordinary stature who confronts those far older without fear. One who styles himself as if he were Xajarkith renewed."
"The lost branch? It lives! What is his name?"
"We will know him as a kinslayer," the man in the suit said, "but he calls himself Araziah."
Hmm, seems Darren just can't catch a break, huh? Being shot, having his minions slaughtered, his brother murdered. Life has been a roller-coaster for Torsten too; one crisis after the other, annnnd ... just what is Sebby up to?! Curious! Let us not forget Araziah, either. He isn't shy about his intentions, and it seems his intervention has gained the attention of a certain man-in-a-suit ...
The plot is thickening!
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