Michael’s departure from sleep was abrupt and disorienting. He struggled to understand why we was awake when he was still exhausted, even as the reason reasserted itself. “I want to talk to you.” Emily’s voice was as sharp as the fingernail she’d been jabbing into Michael’s shoulder.
Michael rolled away from her and struggled to pull cohesive words out of the clouds that filled his head and pushed his eyelids closed. “What?” was the best he could manage.
“You were a shithead to me, tonight.”
Michael cast his memory back through the evening, trying to recall his alleged acts of shitheadery. Emily had made moon eyes at some short guy wearing a T-shirt two sizes too small. Michael had said something about it, but he couldn’t recall what. Reese had seemed distracted. Ran looked really good in her new haircut, and that shade of lipstick worked so well on her. Sometimes—maybe more than sometimes, Michael got confused when he looked at Ran. The way she smiled was so bright, so pretty.
Jab, jab, jab! “Mike! Did you fucking fall asleep?”
Yes. “No.” Leaving his eyes closed risked falling back to sleep, but opening them was painful. Let’s try closed for now. “I told you I didn’t like what you were doing. And I didn’t. Don’t.” He sighed. His body was itchy, and his head was stuffed with cotton. Sleep promised to sooth both of them. Though he hadn’t opened his eyes, he could feel restfulness wash over him as though he was drooping his eyes in warm sunshine.
JAB! “That is not what I am talking about, Michael! And you know it!”
Michael opened his eyes and looked up at the garish ceiling, the light in the room knifing at the back of his eyes. Each blink itched at his eyes, which only made him blink more. He thumbed both his eyes, trying to rub away the scratchy feeling. “For fuck’s sake, why now, Em? It’s the middle of the night.” Damn it, his voice sounded whiny. He hated when he let her hear him like that. He didn’t like himself when he whined, and he didn’t like how it always encouraged her to berate him even more.
“I didn’t do anything! I looked at a guy, so what? How does that make it all right to embarrass me in front of the whole bar and our friends? You made me look like an asshole! And then, you talked to me like I was some kind of child all the way to the car, you condescending shit.”
He just couldn’t muster the energy to care. So tired. “OK. Sorry. Talk in the morning.” The last couple of words came out muffled, as exhaustion once again threatened to claim him.
Gasping, heart thudding, adrenaline flooded Michael’s system. What just happened!
Michael was on the floor of the bedroom with one cheekbone throbbing. She’d just—! “What the—? You shoved me out of bed?”
“Damn right.” Emily was kneeling on the bed with her arms crossed over her chest. “You need to talk to me.” She looked great, even angry, wearing panties and a T-shirt, with the smudging of the night’s makeup looking more sexy than messy. Michael wanted to punch her in the mouth. Hard.
Angry, adrenaline throbbing, heart pumping. Michael consciously unclenched his fists. He snatched that night’s clothes from the floor where he’d dumped them on the way into bed, and stalked out of the bedroom without saying another word.
“Where the hell are you going?” Emily called from the bedroom.
Michael didn’t answer. He jerked his socks on, shoved his feet into his shoes, and slammed the door on his way out of the house.
“You’re late.” Jordy didn’t bother to look up from the stick of deadwood he’d been whittling. He knew who was approaching by the sound of her gait. “I left a pretty girl to come to this middle of the woods and cool my heels for an hour. If you didn’t include an up-front bonus, I would have been gone forty-five minutes ago. As it is, I’m adding the time to your tab.”
“You will not,” came a smooth contralto from the dimness. “You will consider the time to be included within your retainer. You’ll find your account has additional funds to reflect your expanded role.”
Retainer? Jordy was already opening an encrypted channel on his phone to check his offshore account. His normally implacable face registered surprise. Maybe an hour or two in the woods every now and again weren’t so bad after all.
“Understand,” she continued, “that you will take care how you speak to me. I am no mob boss or guerrilla rebel.”
Jordy’s normal response would have been something cocky, flippant, but something in the woman’s voice raised the hairs on the back of his neck and his forearms. His instincts had kept him breathing though situations that left most of the other men he’d known dead or crippled. No need to ignore them now just for the sake of words a woman wanted to hear—words that didn’t actually touch his ego in the slightest. “Sure thing, ma’am.” He closed the secure line and tucked his phone back into his vest. “Your guy mentioned multiple possible activities, ma’am, but didn’t give me any real details.” Now he did look up at the woman but the only details he could add to his mental picture were a vague sense of her height—over 5’6”, under 6’, thanks to the uneven ground—and the fact that she was definitely lighter than morbidly obese. Her black hooded trenchcoat muffled all of the lines of her body, and the deep hood kept her entire face in complete darkness. Where did someone find a hooded trenchcoat? Jordy cleared his throat. “Ah, so, uh, retainer, huh? Er, ma’am,” he stammered. What the hell? He was never like this around anyone, particularly a woman. “I mean, that is, do you mean to give me general guidelines on what you’d like me to do, or does this mean a few things to be done?”
“You will find and keep tabs on this man,” she said, as though he had not spoken. A black-gloved hand tossed a manila envelope onto the ground at his feet. Jordy bent to pick it up. “In there, you will find photos, and personal details on Artur Motabi. Keep my associate updated on his movement and activities.”
She turned and began walking away.
“Wait, wh—?” Jordy stuttered and then cursed himself for stuttering. “Uh, ma’am, why do you need someone like me just to tail a guy? You could get a P.I. to do it a hell of a lot cheaper.”
She spoke over her shoulder without stopping or even slowing her pace. “Do not be found to be watching him, assassin. You have never encountered a more dangerous man, yourself included. If he sees you, you will die. Or worse. I must address other matters, and so must by associate, or I would set you to tasks more in line with your accustomed talents—which I will also assign you, after a time.” She did stop, then, and half-turned back toward him. “The Fates have given you an opportunity to demonstrate even greater utility than I had originally intended for you, but make no mistake: If you fail in this or reveal anything you know of any of this to anyone, then there is no corner of this world where you will hide from me.” Then she continued on her way without another word.
When his new employer was out of sight, even by the moonlight, Jordy let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “’Worse than dead’? ‘No corner of this world’?” Jordy shook his head. “Melodrama,” he sighed. “Well, if I couldn’t stay out of sight of one man who doesn’t know I’m there, I’d have been dead a long time ago.” He secured the folder inside a pouch beneath the back of his vest and strode back toward his motorcycle. No use opening it out here in the dark. Time to get to work.
The elevator was built to carry a mobile hospital bed; it was far too large for a single human being, Ran thought. It was at the same time huge and claustrophobic. Ran waffled between wishing it would hurry and stop moving entirely. She sucked on a peppermint and closed her eyes, only to instantly open them up as wide as she could stretch her eyelids. Closed eyes were worse! Much worse. No closing eyes.
Once the doors opened, Ran walked as carefully as she was able. Her stomach was roiling and making its intentions known that it would eject everything she’d ever eaten or drunk in her entire life at the slightest provocation. Or no provocation at all. She clutched a cup of coffee in her hand as a lifeline to firmness and fond memories of a quiet head and stable stomach. Ran spotted the nurse’s station for that floor and began to walk toward it, but only took two steps before catching sight of a small watching lounge tucked off to the side just past the elevators.
Vanessa was hunched over a cup of what looked to be coffee, staring into space. No steam rose from the cup, and it looked still mostly full. Vanessa shook herself and looked up at Ran. A faint smile spread across her lips, and then she actually laughed. “Shit, Ran. You look like you might actually feel worse than I do!”
Ran eased herself down into the seat next to Vanessa. “It’s birthday number twenty-one!” Ran toned down her voice; speaking up drew too much concentration away from keeping her stomach in place. “Twenty-two, I guess, if you count the one where I was wet and squalling.”
“Just ‘the one’? I think you’re forgetting a couple of other squalling years. As I recall, you told me Bobby Aaron had you ‘squalling’ and a whole lot more, and him far too old to—”
“Shush!” Ran laughed. “Ixnay on my exploitsay, Chiquita!” Ran shoulder-bumped Vanessa playfully. “But since you’ve already seen right through my smeared make-up and hat-over-bedhead façade, you think you could spare me some of that coffee you’re not drinking to cover up my eau de distillery? All I have left is this empty cup.”
Vanessa handed over the coffee cup wordlessly, the smile dying on her lips. “So?” asked Ran. “What’s the story?”
While Ran delicately sipped the lukewarm coffee, Vanessa recounted the events of her night. Never a great storyteller, Vanessa was even worse than normal, spouting raw moments and bare details as they occurred to her, her voice waxing between emotionless and tight with fear and horror. Vanessa told Ran that she got away with only some bruises on her back and cuts along her ribs and across one breast, and showed Ran more bruises on her wrist where the monster grabbed her arm.
“‘Monster’, huh?” asked Ran. “Tell me about that. Some kind of mutant bear or dire wolf, or something?”
“I’m really not sure.” Vanessa swallowed. “It was so big. Big as a bear, yeah, but not built like a bear. It had long, thin limbs like a wolf, and a muzzle like a…like a crocodile.” Vanessa’s voice was quivering slightly with the memory. “And its paws, its forepaws…they—” Vanessa unwrapped the bandages around her wrist: “Look!”
Ran took Vanessa’s hand, turning it over and inspecting her wrist from all sides. Ran forgot her hangover for a moment as she looked at the ugly bruises. They encircled her wrist, leaving imprints that looked less like an animal than a… “V. Did—” Ran cleared her throat. “Now I want you to be honest with me. Please.” Ran held Vanessa’s hand firmly and looked her directly in the eye; her voice took on an edge that reminded Vanessa more of Ran’s sister Reese when Reese was in cop mode. “Did Gabe hurt you?”
Ran was expecting either an admission or a lie. The half-hysterical laugh that escaped kind of worked, too, but only until Vanessa added in a voice that shook like a little girl just awoken from a nightmare, “Oh my God, no, Ran.” Tears suddenly streamed from Vanessa’s eyes even as she laughed again, maybe a little more than half hysterical. “Oh my God in Heaven, do I ever wish it was just that!” Vanessa sobbed. “Ran, I’ve never been so frightened—so terrified—in my entire life!” Vanessa sobbed again and pulled her hand from Ran’s to put her face in her hands. “It was a demon from hell,” she whispered through her fingers and didn’t speak again for a long while.
Ran put her arms around her friend and pulled Vanessa’s head against her shoulder. What the hell happened, then?
Moira stood at the entrance to the cavern—what was now the entrance. What used to be a well-hidden passage barely large enough to squeeze through before it opened into the rough-worked passages beyond was now a heap of rubble, with rock of every size tumbled down the hillside. Moira turned back from the scree down below her to survey the cavern. The crater.
Off to Moira’s right, a figure in torn black robes was crawling over the rubble through the egress she herself had cleared earlier. With a few of exceptions, proximity to the altar when the…event occurred appeared to have determined both relative capability with Power and the possibility for undesirable consequences. It had been effortless for her to eject the rubble and to form supporting buttresses to keep the new passage open. Of the others who had performed the ritual, the nine who encircled the altar—plus Art and Moira—had appeared to have both gained the Power and also been free of any of its consequences. Physical consequences, anyway. Moira’s throat and stomach still clenched, and tears misted her eyes, whenever she thought of the task the Other had set before her. How the hell was she supposed to find a bodiless soul—let alone capture and retrieve it?
The panting figure limped up to Moira and surprised her by making an effort to bow to her. Damian was of average height, and Moira thought she remembered he had blond hair, which was completely swaddled in bandages. Bandages also held gauze over his right eye, and more gauze was taped over the gash down the same side of his face. The right side of his robe had been cut open to splint his right arm, which had been nearly crushed beneath rockfall, and now lay in a sling strapped loosely against his body. As he straightened back up, the blue of his one visible eye seemed almost to glow in the dark. Perhaps it did. Damian had demonstrated that he could now see in complete darkness, and had used his new ability to help a couple of the others free his arm and then escape the fallen rocks where they’d been trapped. Moira blinked at a sudden memory; she seemed to recall that his eyes had been brown before tonight.
“M—ah, Moira,” he panted, obviously in significant pain. He paused every few words where his breath seemed to catch. He may have some bruised or cracked ribs, in addition to the rest of his injuries. “Some of the others are missing.”
A small furrow shadowed between Moira’s eyebrows. “Not beneath the rockfall?”
“No, Mistress. And there is more.”
Mistress? When did she become “Mistress”? She said nothing, but merely looked into Damian’s eye, waiting.
He cleared his throat, and the action caused him to begin to cough. He stopped immediately, his eye bulging and then squeezed shut, and swayed on his feet. He placed his hand against the wall to steady himself and slowly sucked in a breath and then another. Definitely the ribs, then. Moira waited placidly for his pain to subside enough to speak again. “Ah, hehm. Hehm.” Moira had watched someone clearing her throat in a stage production, once. The actress was wearing a wireless microphone and had to clear her throat without being audible to the audience during a quiet portion of the show. Damian looked now much like that woman had, though for vastly different reason.
After less than a minute, his voice came again, even more strained than before. “We have heard reports of strange beasts and occurrences from the city and at least one from the—ah! Hehm. At least one from the countryside. We must assume there are others in the countryside, as there are no Watchers out here.”
“You’ve directed Watchers into the countryside, already?”
“No, Mistress. There are not enough of them to cover even what is happening in the city.”
“Not enough? Damian…how many of the acolytes are missing?”
“We have not finished searching the debris, Mistress, but it could be as many as fifty.”
Fifty? Fifty men and women who knew too much to be roaming free, altered by undiscovered powers of the universe into the gods only knew what.
“Also, a couple were called away to their outside positions, but they remain in contact of course.” Outside positions—cover jobs. Without his having to say, Moira guessed that whatever “occurrences” Damian meant required additional emergency personnel.
Moira led Damian back into the remains of the cavern. She ground her teeth in frustration—focused on the frustration, in fact, to stave away the anxiety and terror that threatened to overwhelm her. If she could not find what happened to Di’s “soul”…but she couldn’t allow the transformed acolytes to run rampant, either. She pressed her lips together and forced her nerves to settle. Strife, conflict, adversity. Those created opportunity for those strong enough, capable enough to seize it. Kings were not made in times of peace.
“Enough or no, we cannot remain blind and deaf. We will assign two Watchers to comb the outer areas. Those of us not too injured—and that does include you—will be divided into four groups.” Moira continued to outline what was necessary to Damian as they returned to the interior of the cavern.
- Back to Chapter 5: Fates
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