The sun beat down on the manicured lawns of the estate, glinting painfully from the hoods of luxury cars parked along the gravel drive. Caleb scowled and pocketed the key fob of his rented Nissan. He glanced back at the tall wrought-iron gate guarded by three men armed with automatic rifles. Not easy to get a permit for those things here, assuming that his employer even cared about permits. He turned back to the house and crunched across the gravel towards the broad stone steps which climbed up to heavy oaken doors.
Turning his back on the armed guards made Caleb’s scalp tingle. This job paid well, but with the cash came an expectation of following orders without question. This time, the boss had insisted that Caleb travel all the way to his estate in Britain on only a day’s notice, and that he come unarmed.
Around the right side of the house, Caleb spotted the white cloth and thin ropes of a pavilion tent rising beyond the manicured hedges. He swore under his breath and hoped that this would not turn out to be some dull garden party. Hobnobbing with his boss’s elite supporters he could handle, but the moment somebody tried to rope him into a game of croquet Caleb might just snap.
Two more armed guards awaited Caleb at the front door. He presented his passport, stood patiently as they checked him for weapons, then proceeded into the foyer of the manor house. The house bespoke decadence, from the glassy sheen of the deeply polished parquet floor, to the embroidered curtains hanging over the windows flanking the door, to the gilt candelabra which glittered overhead. Caleb scowled as he scanned the room, automatically noting the high ground at the top of the broad curved staircase, the exits, and the many corners where the dim yellow electric light gave way to inky shadow. In one of those corners, just to the right of the door, Caleb spotted a young woman dressed in long gray robes standing at a podium, studying the yellowed pages of an antique book by the light of a small adjustable lamp.
The woman looked up at Caleb and nodded slowly at him, the serene expression on her pale, chubby face remaining fixed in place like an overly cheery Halloween mask. She stepped away from the podium and reached out with both arms spread wide. Caleb offered her his left hand, interrupting the intended embrace. She clasped his hand in both of her own without hesitation. “Welcome, Caleb. The Master told me to expect you.”
Caleb nodded his bald head, eyes widening only slightly in surprise at being recognized.
The woman smiled genteelly and released his hand, then gestured towards a paneled door to the left. “The Master will be down momentarily. If you would, please join the others in the gathering chamber.”
Caleb nodded, saying nothing.
He followed her to the door, wondering as they crossed the room whether she was a human or one of the immortals. Whatever she might be, she certainly was not like him. You wouldn’t catch him wearing wizard robes and studying dusty old tomes, or calling anyone master. Caleb had come into the employ of Zedekiah because the man had offered him a lot of money to leave a job that Caleb did not like to begin with. Sure, the boss claimed to be immortal and had shown Caleb a few things that could not be dismissed as parlor tricks, but that did not mean Caleb intended to worship him.
The woman pulled the door open and waved Caleb into the next room. He stepped through and paused, surveying the crowd as the door clicked shut behind him.
The gathering chamber was a ballroom, the walls frescoed with garden scenes outlined with gilt plasterwork. Tables and chairs for a couple hundred people were set out on the hardwood dance floor before an elevated bandstand, but as Caleb surveyed the room he counted fewer than a hundred in attendance. None of the thirty-odd tables were unoccupied, but while some of the guests gathered in clusters of three or five around a table, the majority of the tables were occupied by solitary figures who looked as if they would as soon knife anyone who approached them to order a drink.
Caleb worked his jaw, calculating which seat was least likely to get him killed. Deciding, he strode across the room to a table near the southern wall, where he figured he might be able to jump through a nearby window if the crowd of immortals decided he was a fitting sacrifice.
“This seat taken?” Caleb said, laying his thick fingers on the ornate back of an empty wooden chair.
The robed figure sitting at the table raised its head to look at him from the depths of a voluminous hood of red silk embroidered with golden needlework. Caleb caught a glimpse of a curved nose set low between the cold glint of two silvery gray eyes. A craggy, strangely accented feminine voice emerged from the hood, carrying with it the scent of jasmine and a cloying, smokey substance that brought to mind films set in nineteenth century opium dens. “What brings your kind here?”
“My kind?” Caleb said, pulling out the antique chair and settling his broad, muscled bulk into it. He hoped it would not collapse under him.
“You are not one of us. I can see it in your spirit. You are not even a bound acolyte.” The robed woman raised an arm and gestured with her long, draped sleeve at a cluster of people sitting several tables away. “Those sycophants are all bound to their masters. You though. You are as independent as any human I have ever scried.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Caleb grunted. He glanced around, looking for a waiter. He needed to keep his wits about him tonight, but a tall beer or glass of Scotch would be just the thing to take the edge off his table companion. Seeing no waiters he leaned back in his chair and prepared for a long evening. “I’d kill for a drink,” he muttered.
“Zedekiah prefers to dispense with business before dinner,” the robed woman hissed.
“That’s fine with me,” Caleb replied
Several minutes passed in silence. Caleb studied the others, noting that even those who sat together tended to speak in short whispers, holding their heads close when they did. He tried to work out which of the people at the tables were human acolytes and which were immortals, and he thought he had just about worked it out by their body language when his companion spoke.
“You are Caleb,” she said.
Caleb raised his eyebrows and turned to look at the robed woman. He tried to peer into the hood and see her features, but he saw only the glint of her eyes, the tip of her nose, and the flash of white teeth as she laughed at him. Her laugh was loud and bitter. It echoed through the room, causing several of the others to turn towards Caleb and the woman, but they quickly turned away.
When she had finished laughing, the woman took a long pull from a pipe, returned it to the folds of her sleeves, and said, “You wonder how I know that. You suspect that I have read your mind.”
Caleb nodded his head to one side in mute acknowledgement. He cursed Parker, his previous employer, for getting him involved with this lot. Sure, the money was good, but he had a bad feeling about his long-term prospects working among these people. Immortal or not, they reminded him of a council of warlords he had been assigned to advise back in his special ops days. That had ended with two of the warlords getting their throats cut and several dozen opium fields transferring ownership, which was frankly a more peaceful result than he had expected.
“Perhaps I did,” she said. She looked away from Caleb and nodded towards the bandstand, where a door, previously concealed amid the plasterwork and frescoes, had opened.
Zedekiah emerged from the dark doorway, dressed in a crisp gray suit with a starched white shirt and a deep maroon tie. He walked confidently forward with only the slightest of limps, choosing to carry a mahogany walking stick in his left hand like a swagger stick rather than lean on it. Reaching the edge of the stage, Zedekiah surveyed the assembly with narrowed eyes. The right side of his mouth twitched ever so slightly and he began to shake his head.
“What has become of us?” Zedekiah cried, slamming the tip of his cane down beside his left foot. He slowly swept his eyes across the crowd, his scowl deepening to a sneer as he took in the assembly. “Brothers and sisters, we were sent here to observe humanity, to document their development after the catastrophic emergence of sapience among the human race. We were meant to be the silent guardians of Eden, and what became of it?”
Caleb raised an eyebrow. He already knew that his employer claimed to be an immortal, but this was the first time he had heard any details about Zedekiah’s past. He wondered if this was the moment of no return, that in hearing Zedekiah’s words he was committing himself to a life of service that could only end in death. Of course, there was always the chance that the boss was speaking metaphorically. People like him tended to do that.
Zedekiah continued, punctuating each sentence with strikes of his cane on the stage. “We became complacent. We watched as humanity fed upon the shards, no matter how deep or far we hid them. We sat back while they assembled into tribes, kingdoms, nations. We did nothing as the soul of this newborn race was corrupted.”
Caleb looked away from Zedekiah to observe how the assembled crowd was reacting to his passionate, but seemingly senseless tirade. The robed woman at Caleb’s table was leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed across her belly, a faint trail of sweet smoke spiraling up from the shadows within her hood. Many of the others were watching Zedekiah with the same air of sardonic detachment, though several appeared to be agitated, even angered, by his statements. At one table, three hooded figures sat with their heads close together as one of them stabbed at the tabletop with a long, gloved finger.
“Many of our kind were content to watch from the sidelines. Some even fell to the ways of this world and bore children with the humans,” Zedekiah spat.
One of the three hooded figures who had been angered by Zedekiah’s speech slammed his fist on the table and stood. His rasping, aged voice thundered across the room like a distant lightning strike. “Stop speaking in generalities, Zedekiah. I am proud of the sons and daughters I have fathered through the centuries. They have accomplished great things and done much to better this world. And do not pretend that you are innocent of defying our mandate!”
Zedekiah rested his hands heavily on his cane and leaned forward, glowering at the speaker. “You speak truthfully, Jaques, for you are chief among the offenders. How many bastard half-breeds have you fathered among the humans?”
Another of the hooded figures leapt upright, hood falling back to reveal the head of a young woman. She pointed a finger at Zedekiah and cried out, “You insult father’s family because you never…”
Jaques lay a hand on her shoulder and turned his head towards the woman, speaking to her in a harsh whisper.
“Control your whelp or I will have it removed,” Zedekiah snarled, brandishing his cane at Jaques and his companions. “I will not be spoken to with such disrespect in my own dominion.”
Caleb leaned forward and steepled his hands on the table in front of him. This was an interesting development. He had witnessed countless power struggles and, despite the elegant surroundings, this felt more like a land dispute between armed opium poppy farmers than a hostile takeover announcement in a corporate boardroom. He kept his gaze roving over the whole room, even as the tension between Zedekiah and Jaques mounted, watching for one of the other attendees to leap from their table and brandish a weapon.
Across the table from Caleb, the woman in the red robe expelled a cloud of sweet white smoke and muttered, “Watch him, human. This is the part where the master of lies attempts to convince us that he is acting in the best interest of your kind.”
“And such is the downfall of our kind, and this world,” Zedekiah cried, sweeping the tip of his cane across the crowd. “I foresaw all of this. Centuries ago I gathered some of you to me and we set about recapturing the shards which humans had discovered and hiding them far away from humanity again, where they could do little harm. We destroyed what records we could find…”
“Slaughtering innocents in the process,” one of the lone figures called from a table to Caleb’s left.
“Making necessary sacrifices to protect the human race from that which it did not understand,” Zedekiah replied, his voice remaining level, his face serene. This was a topic which he had given much thought, Caleb was certain. “That which it can never understand. And for a time that was sufficient. My compatriots and I succeeded in returning the development of humanity to a more measured pace for nearly three centuries. I know that many of you believed that to be improper, that to take direct action went against our original mandate, but I believed it to be correct. Unfortunately, we were unable to capture and relocate all of the shards. In particular we now know that the human who spawned the ancient myth of Odin All-Father traveled extensively throughout Europe, tainting thousands of self-styled intellectuals with the revelations that in time would give birth to the so-called enlightenment.”
Caleb sat up and cocked his head to one side. He glanced around the room, waiting for one of the immortals to protest his employer’s statement. Some of those who were in groups had their heads together and were whispering intently, but none spoke out against Zedekiah.
“Now, brothers and sisters, we must take the next step. Despite our best efforts to slow human progress from the shadows, the last two centuries have brought exponential growth which has culminated in the emergence of a world wide network of shared knowledge. My projections indicate that, if allowed to grow unchecked, the human race will either destroy itself or spread into the stars within the next two hundred years. I leave it to you to determine which is the more odious fate.”
Zedekiah paused and regarded the crowd through his steely eyes. Caleb felt his employer’s gaze sweep across him. It made his skin crawl.
“I propose that this is the hour when we make the decisive move to protect humanity from their own devices, and from the corruption of the shards. Brothers and sisters, it is time for us to make our presence known.”
The room hissed as everyone but Caleb and Zedekiah gasped. There was a long moment of silence, during which Zedekiah regarded the crowd wordlessly and Caleb wondered at this society where calling the human race a threat was met with blithe acceptance, but daring to propose issuing a press release was treated as blasphemy.
The moment of calm passed and the storm struck with a vengeance.
All throughout the room chairs were pushed back, fists pounded on tables, and robed figures leapt to their feet, gesticulating angrily as they screamed at Zedekiah in a language that Caleb could not understand. Caleb pushed his chair back, preparing to make a run for the door or window. Was this why Zedekiah had instructed him to be in attendance tonight? If the boss expected Caleb to protect him from a whole room of angry immortals while completely unarmed, he would be sorely disappointed.
The air in the room stirred and Caleb felt the hairs on his arms standing up on end as, without even a hint of ceremony or external motions, Zedekiah was wreathed in a crackling blue fire. He appeared to grow, then Caleb realized that his employer was rising up from the stage as wings of blue lightning sprouted from his body.
Caleb swore and jumped to his feet, knocking the chair to the floor behind him.
“Silence!” bellowed Zedekiah.
The crowd started back as one, their voices drowned and driven to silence by the force of Zedekiah’s command.
“We have waited too long. Humanity now stands on the brink destroying themselves and we must assert ourselves before they step over the edge. We will reveal ourselves and call upon the power of our acolytes to bring the rulers of the world under our command.”
“Acolytes?” one of the immortals near the stage cried. “Imagining for an instant that we follow your lead, how can those few devotees we have gathered hope to capture the governments and armies of earth? Do you forget, Zedekiah, that we have spent centuries watching the humans. That is our mandate: to watch. Not to establish a shadowy cabal capable of seizing power at a whim.”
“Brother Amir is correct. Even I have but a few dozen devoted followers, but that will be sufficient. We shall not use them as an army, but a source of power. How many times in the past two millennia has a single human founded a religion which grew to a world power? Humans are weak. They continually seek leaders, prophets, and new gods to worship. Were I content to wait, and unconcerned that others of our kind might oppose me, I do not doubt that I could single-handedly found a religion that would convert half the planet within a century.”
“And what about… those who placed us here?” someone called from the crowd. “Surely they will destroy you if you attempt to seize power for yourself.”
Zedekiah paused then and looked down on his audience from on high for a long moment. Then the wings of glowing energy folded in upon themselves and Zedekiah descended to stand on the stage again.
The audience stirred, nobody speaking above a whisper.
So that answers my first question, at least halfway, Caleb thought.
Ever since Zedekiah had contracted him to deliver Jeanne Tavernier’s location to Oliver Lucas, Caleb had wondered why the immortal and his kind had never taken over the world. That would have been the obvious action, he thought. If not take over the world outright, then take a cue from the vampires in any number of films and establish a hidden society which manipulates the world from behind the scenes. Caleb could not believe that the threat of reprisals from their fellows had been solely responsible for keeping the immortals in check. He had seen enough posturing and power challenges in both his military and corporate careers that he firmly believed that power struggles were an innate aspect of human nature.
But if there was something else watching the watchers, keeping them from drawing too much attention to themselves, that might explain why even the most powerful among them was little more than a reclusive billionaire.
Zedekiah pounded his cane on the stage and declared, “We can resist our masters, I am sure of it, but only if we stand together. If we oppose one another in this, either our creator will destroy us or humanity will ascend and we will have failed in our purpose.”
“What about the shards?” a woman called from the audience. “We have heard of the accord you struck with the human Oliver Lucas. Remiel came to me personally to explain the deal and ask me to join against you if we came to war. As I hear it, you can’t take any action or this human Lucas will give control of the shards to the humans. Even if they are unable to reassemble the tree, possessing the shards will exponentially accelerate their development.”
Zedekiah grinned and looked directly at Caleb. He raised his cane and pointed at Caleb, saying, “Allow me to introduce Caleb. Through him, and several other loyal servants, I have succeeded in mitigating whatever risk Oliver Lucas might pose. Please, Caleb, step forward and explain what you…”
The air in the ballroom split with the sound of a lightning bolt as an ovoid of silvery purple light burst into existence on the stage to Zedekiah’s left. Caleb felt every hair on his body stand on end as throughout the room robed figures threw back their hoods and rose up on flickering fractal wings of light. Even the woman in red, who had remained seated smoking quietly throughout Zedekiah’s arguments with her fellows, leapt to her feet and tapped into whatever supernatural power source the immortals all seemed to possess. For his part, Caleb gripped the edge of the table, preparing to flip it to form a shield, and began calculating his odds of reaching the door and making it past the armed guards versus smashing through the curtained window behind him.
On stage, the ovoid of purple light flickered, pulsed outward once, then collapsed in on itself to take the form of a short woman in a flowing yellow and red sari. The instant that the light faded from around her, she fell to her knees, then drooped forward until her hands rested on the floor.
“Gadra! What is the meaning of this intrusion?” Zedekiah growled, his own wings already fading. He strode across the stage as quickly as his limp, which was now significantly more pronounced, would allow.
Sensing that the woman was more likely an unexpected messenger than an enemy, Caleb relaxed slightly. He wished that he had been able to bring a weapon with him and idly wondered what his chances were of disabling both of the guards at the front door and taking their rifles.
“Ruin!” cried Gadra, still bent on hands and knees before Zedekiah.
“Ruin? What can you…” Zedekiah began, but he was interrupted as the woman suddenly cried out.
Screaming as if in agony, Gadra rocked back on her knees and raised her hands and face to the ceiling as if crying out to god. As she did, her screams resolved from incoherent sobbing into words and phrases, though not a language that Caleb had heard before. The only word he could make out, if it was even a word, was something that sounded like “oak bee” being repeated over and over.
Caleb stood, a look of puzzlement on his face, as all around him wings of light faded away and the immortal order of watchers sank to the floor of the ballroom, their faces set in expressions of horror. Some glanced at one another, their faces ashen.
He turned to the woman in red. “Mind telling me what the hell is happening?”
The woman turned her wide, angular face towards Caleb and raised a pencil-thin eyebrow at him. Even through her apparent shock, she spoke with a bemused contempt. “Don’t really know much, do you?”
“I’m just his assassin,” Caleb said, jerking his chin towards Zedekiah. “What’s this oak bee thing?”
The woman laughed sardonically. “You might say he is Zedekiah’s brother. One of the few of our kind to try and seize power in this world.”
Caleb cocked his head to one side, questioningly.
On the stage, Zedekiah silenced Gadra with a savage blow from his cane. She crumpled to the stage, her desperate cries reduced to soft, plaintive whimpers. Zedekiah drew, held, and released three deep breaths as he stood, looking down at the weeping woman. He turned to the assembly and stared out at the shocked faces for a long moment.
Then he slammed his cane against the floor and bellowed, “Okabiel the Fallen has escaped and already ravages his way across Japan. We have no choice, brothers and sisters. We must act now to rally the humans to our cause before they become fodder for his wrath.”
Heavy rain fell over the slopes of Mount Eboshi, stained a sickening gray by the ash carried west from the ruins of Narusawa. The dark rain made the already treacherous drive along the winding mountain road all the more hazardous and the few residents and vacationers who had not fled the region were steadfastly bunkered in their homes. Only a single car slipped through the unnaturally early dusk, crawling along the murky road up the side of the mountain.
Slouched in the passenger seat, Oliver Lucas tapped and swiped at his phone, sending out yet another message to his network of underworld relic dealers and trusted friends. It had been over an hour since he and Theresa had left Aokigahara forest and he had been attempting to make contact the whole way.
Nobody was replying.
“You’re sure that this Zedekiah has your cousin?” Theresa asked, glancing away from the road for just an instant.
Oliver looked up from the phone and regarded Theresa. Her straight blond hair was matted with blood, dust, and bits of broken foliage, her clothes were stained with blood and had been torn at the shoulders and knees. As terrible as she looked, Oliver knew that he was twice as battered, which was why Theresa was driving.
He set his phone down on his thigh, then winced as the hastily bandaged wound in his leg protested at even that slight pressure. Oliver was so exhausted that he could not even work up the energy to swear at himself. He merely grimaced and moved the phone to his other leg. “Sure as I can be until someone replies,” he muttered. He lay his head back against the seat and continued, “All the safety checks I keep set have triggered. She isn’t replying on any of our emergency channels. Her phone locator says she hasn’t been online for two days.”
Theresa swore and adjusted her grip on the steering wheel.
Neither of them said anything for several long moments. Theresa guided the car off the local highway and up the narrow two lane street which cut across the face of the mountain. She kept her eyes focused on the road as she worked her jaw and considered whether to ask the next question. She wanted to, she knew they would have to face bitter reality eventually, but she could not bring herself to risk upsetting Oliver when so much had already gone wrong.
Oliver kept his head back and allowed his eyes to drift shut, but he did not fall asleep. His mind churned through plans, possibilities, plots for taking revenge on Zedekiah, but it was like trying to wade through a pool of molasses. The combined mental and physical exhaustion of the last few hours threatened to drag him down into a bottomless morass of apathy.
“I’m sorry,” Theresa said.
Oliver slowly opened his eyes and turned his face towards Theresa without lifting his head. “You haven’t done anything. Well, except for trying to steal those documents from me in China, that kinda pissed me off.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Theresa said. She slowed the car as they approached the gated drive to Yuuki Mori’s home. “I meant…”
“I know,” Oliver interrupted. He drew a deep breath and pried his head from the rest, sitting upright and looking forward out the windshield. “There’s not much to say, unless you’re going to promise to help me get revenge.”
Theresa nodded. She had been thinking about that, and the prospect of joining Oliver against the Watchers terrified her more than she cared to admit. Still, Oliver deserved his revenge and if anyone could help him strike back against Zedekiah, it was her.
She pulled the car up to the front gate, slid down the window, and reached out to press the call button on the wrought iron post beside the crushed stone drive.
A plaintive voice came through the speaker, “Ms. Mavros, is that you?”
“It’s me. Open the gate,” Theresa said, her voice harsher than she had intended.
“Is Mr. Lucas with you? What about Ms. Mori?”
“Open the damned gate, Haruka,” Oliver snapped.
There was a long pause. Had he not been severely weakened by blood loss from a knife wound in his right leg, which had not been helped by hiking across kilometers of rough terrain to escape Aokigahara, Oliver might have climbed out of the car and attempted to scale the gate, damn the consequences.
The latest in a string of wealthy, history-obsessed patrons who paid Oliver to track down and recover priceless artifacts, Yuuki Mori had hired Oliver to locate a triptych bearing samples of an ancient language. He had followed what few clues she possessed, first to China where he had been forced to join with rival treasure hunter Theresa Mavros, then to an abandoned Soviet psychic research research facility in far-east Russia, where they had been betrayed by their guide and nearly killed by two separate Russian death squads. Oliver and Theresa had barely made it out of that research station alive. Oliver had returned to Japan, prepared to deliver the triptych to Yuuki Mori, only to discover that his patron had disappeared into the mists of the Aokigahara suicide forest.
The same forest which had swallowed him for a week, during which his whole world had been ripped apart.
“I said open the gate. We’ll tell you everything once we’re inside,” Oliver said, keeping his tone more moderate.
The iron gate slid silently aside into the shrubbery and Theresa pulled the car forward into the curved driveway.
“There better not be any more sigils waiting for us in her house,” Theresa muttered.
“We know the fence is marked,” Oliver replied, grimacing.
“Don’t I know it,” Theresa said. She put the car into park and pushed her door open. “Hold on and I’ll help you out.”
Oliver ignored her and pushed his door open. He grabbed the door frame and, grunting at the searing pain it brought to his leg, levered himself up and out of the car. The world faded to black and Oliver sagged against the open car door, panting as he silently prayed that he would not lose consciousness. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on the cold metal of the door frame between his fingers.
He felt hands on his sides and turned his head to see Haruka standing behind him. Theresa hurried around the front of the car and together they helped Oliver limp to the front door of the house. Once inside the frosted glass box of Yuuki Mori’s home, Haruka guided Oliver and Theresa to a sleek kitchen decorated with glass, steel, and bamboo. Haruka pulled a molded bamboo laminate chair away from a side table and Oliver fell into it.
“I’ll be right back,” Haruka said before hurrying out of the kitchen.
“I don’t know how you made it out of the forest,” Theresa said, shaking her head.
Oliver tried to shrug, but only succeeded in bobbing his chin slightly. He lay his head back against the glossy yellow wood and sighed. “Sheer determination. I don’t know how much of that I’ve got left. John Wayne always made this sort of thing look so easy.”
“What happened?” Haruka asked, returning with an armload of towels and a first aid kit. She dumped the supplies on the counter and knelt in front of Oliver to examine his leg. “You’ve been gone for over a week. I had nearly given up hope of any of you returning alive. And when I heard about the terrorist attacks in Narusawa…” She trailed off and stood to retrieve a pair of angled medical scissors from the first aid kit.
“Terrorist attacks? Is that how they tried to cover it up?” Oliver muttered.
“Well, that’s what the news said at first, but now I do not know what to believe. All of the licensed broadcasts are saying it was terrorists, but the social web is filled with rumors that the city has been completely destroyed by some sort of monster. There are even pictures circulating, but you know as well as I that it’s impossible to trust anything online these days.”
“It’s true,” Theresa said. She pulled out a bar stool and sat heavily upon it. She rested her elbows on the brushed steel counter and covered her eyes with her hands. “Haruka, I don’t know if it’s safe to tell you this, but I’m just too damn tired to care. When Yuuki left you, what would that have been, almost two weeks ago now?”
Haruka nodded and stood, still holding the scissors, waiting for Theresa to continue.
“You were right about her going to the suicide forest. She didn’t go there to kill herself, though. She went to try and contain an ancient demon which had been trapped there hundreds of years ago.”
“A demon,” Haruka said, hesitantly.
“An oni,” Oliver muttered. “Like in the legends, only real.”
Haruka nodded slowly, then knelt beside Oliver and began cutting away the bloodstained cloth of his right pant leg. Oliver winced as the clotted blood pulled at hairs, but said nothing. Haruka cut up to the knee, then stopped and shook her head, muttering obscenities in Japanese. She switched back to English and glanced over her shoulder to Theresa. “This is bad. Give me a hand towel. I don’t think the bandages will be enough.”
Theresa tossed a soft, sea green hand towel to Haruka and began pulling nonstick absorbent pads from the first aid kit. “I wanted to bring him to a hospital, but he insisted on coming here first.”
“No hospitals. Too many questions,” Oliver muttered. “Besides, with the Oni loose…”
“You don’t have much to say about what happens next right now,” Theresa snapped.
“Probably best to stay away from cities,” Haruka said. “I saw this morning that there were rumors of insurgents being hunted in Otsuki. The Cabinet is considering enacting emergency measures nationwide. They say it is to prevent the spread of terrorists, but no group has claimed credit for the attacks.”
Haruka cut away the crude bandage that Theresa had applied to Oliver’s leg while he lay unconscious on the floor of the Oni chamber. Dark blood welled up from a long, deep wound in his thigh. Haruka whimpered, bit her lower lip and pressed the clean hand towel to the wound. “We’re going to need to clean this. I should be able to stitch and bind it, but it’s going to leave a terrible scar. Pass me the alcohol and hold his shoulders.”
Theresa moved to stand behind Oliver and lay her hands on his shoulders.
He stirred, opened his eyes, and looked up at her. “Bandage it tight and get me some liquor. I’ll be fine,” he muttered.
“That’s right. You’ll be just fine, Oliver,” Theresa said. She pressed down on his shoulders, looked at Haruka, and nodded.
Haruka pulled the towel from the wound and poured rubbing alcohol over Oliver’s leg.
They bandaged Oliver’s leg as best they could, pushed a couple of expired antibiotics that Haruka found in Yuuki’s medicine cabinet down his throat, and put him to bed in a guest room. Oliver protested at first, but before Theresa had even pulled the door shut behind her he had fallen asleep.
Not long after, Haruka and Theresa sat across the table from one another in the library. Haruka cradled a hand-thrown teacup in her delicate fingers, breathing in the steam as she gazed out the tall windows towards Lake Motosu, invisible through the gray fog boiling through the valley. Theresa raised her own glass and took a sip of the whiskey, an expensive Yamazaki single malt she would never have paid for herself.
“You wonder why I am helping you,” Haruka said, setting down her teacup. “And whether I will betray you.”
Theresa took another sip, cleared her throat, and replied, “Actually, I’m not too worried about that. What I want to know is how much you knew about Ms. Mori’s plans.”
“Don’t play innocent with me, Haruka. Oliver might be worse off than I am, but we are both lucky to be alive.”
“How is that lucky?” Haruka asked, nodding towards the room where Oliver lay.
Theresa leaned forward and set her glass down on the tabletop with a clink that echoed through the room. She pointed an accusing finger at the window, towards the enclosed yard. “Your boss had a way with sigildry, Haruka. You know, magical writing. Surely you know about the fence? The way it shocks anything that attempts to pass it, even though it isn’t connected to electricity.”
Haruka straightened her head and stared at Theresa in shocked silence. She took two slow, contemplative pulls at her teacup before she nodded.
Theresa continued. “Yes. I know about that. Mori thought she knew enough about sigils to strengthen the bonds that had held the Oni for hundreds of years. Though she’d worked it all out from those bits of history she had Oliver collecting for her. But she was wrong, Haruka. Dead wrong. Something she did let the Oni into her mind. It drove her mad. It caused her to attack Oliver and me when we arrived to rescue her.”
Haruka shook her head. Her jaw slackened and her face drained of color. “No,” she whispered.
“Yes,” Theresa snapped. She slammed her palm down on the glass tabletop and leaned forward over her trembling glass of whiskey. “I know that I’m god-damned right on this, Haruka. Your bitch of a boss wrote some sort of explosive sigil and stuffed it down my freaking pants. Threatened to trigger it if I didn’t help her.”
Haruka raised her left hand and delicately scratched at the back of her neck, beneath the fringes of her hair. She continued to shake her head, slowly.
“So tell me, Haruka, how much did you know about this? Because I’m damn near certain that you aren’t completely innocent in Mori’s little projects.” Theresa stopped speaking and glared across the table at Haruka. After a long moment of silence, Theresa snorted and leaned back in her chair. She snatched her drink from the table and swallowed the remaining amber liquid in a single gulp. “Think about that for a minute, eh? I’m going to go get the bottle and down at least another hundred bucks of your liquor while you decide whether your own dignity is worth the destruction of another city.”
Theresa shoved her chair back and heaved herself to her feet. The pain of her bruises and strained muscles was dulled by the alcohol, but she was going to need a solid night’s sleep after this. Maybe several. She had nearly reached the library door when Haruka called to her in a soft, almost pleading voice. She turned back and saw the woman, now standing beside her chair facing out the windows.
“Ms. Mavros, please come back,” Haruka said again.
“And what?” Theresa snapped.
“I need to show you something.”
Theresa glowered, weighing the empty glass in her hand. She shrugged, set the glass on a nearby bookshelf, and stalked back across the room towards Haruka.
“Stand behind me,” Haruka said.
Theresa glanced around. Seeing no obvious traps or, on a second glance, signs of sigils drawn or carved into the floor or ceiling behind Haruki’s chair, she stepped up to stand behind Haruka. Approaching, she saw that the woman’s small frame was trembling, her shoulders heaving as if she were crying silently.
“Look here,” Haruka whispered, pushing the hair at the back of her head up with one hand.
Theresa frowned and leaned forward to peer at the thin lines of ink peeking out from beneath Haruki’s hairline. She breathed in slowly through pursed lips, hesitated for a moment, then reached out to push Haruki’s hair aside a little at a time, examining the lines through the narrow band of skin revealed with each brushing motion. “What is this?” she whispered.
“My bonds,” Haruka replied. “The true reason I could not leave with you. The reason I have not left this property in fifteen years.”
Marks of Binding
Oliver remained in bed for three days before Haruka and Theresa would let him walk farther than the attached guest bathroom. The first time he tried to leave the guest room he protested as they pushed him gently back into bed, then woke three hours later having not realized that he had fallen asleep again. After that, Oliver conceded that he needed the rest. He did, however, insist on keeping his phone on the bedside table so he could continue reaching out to contacts and keep abreast of the news during the few, fractured hours he spent awake each day.
None of the news was good.
Oliver had always suspected, even in a way hoped, that he would uncover a secret that would change the world. He had imagined that he would find the last of the shards, assemble the mechanism, and finally prove to everyone who had doubted him that his theory of a preternatural origin for human civilization was true. It had been a power fantasy, and he knew that. And while he had begun to question whether his quest for knowledge without concern for the wisdom of revealing his findings to the world was the safest path, he had never imagined that things could go as bad as this.
Japan was burning. The oni had struck Narusawa within hours of being released and then, its appetite for destruction seemingly only whetted by the deaths of over three thousand people, it had struck northeast towards Otsuki. That city was now a war zone. Few official reports had emerged, but internet sources painted the city as a madhouse, with nearly twenty thousand people using every weapon at their disposal to kill one another. Japan’s strict restrictions on firearms and blade weapons had slowed the pace of the slaughter, but that only meant that reports were emerging of formerly congenial neighbors beating one another to death with gardening tools, mowing down pedestrians with construction vehicles, and throwing one another off the roofs of the few low office towers. Despite the best efforts of Special Unit officers, and even units of the Ground Self Defense Force, to contain the threat, rumors were now circulating that an unusual uptick in violence had been reported in the southwestern outskirts of Tokyo.
Uncontrolled violence was spreading across the nation like a virus. Some commentators even openly asked whether the nation had been struck by a biological weapon that caused an increase in violent behavior, though the government continued to deny any such event. Despite the government’s insistence that no biological cause had been identified for the violence, other nations were beginning to impose restrictions on flights in and out of Japan. America was still allowing flights, but support was growing for mandatory collection of retinal scans and blood samples on all flights from Japan.
Perhaps the only ray of light in the whole situation was that, on the second day of his convalescence, Oliver received a message from Hank.
“Thank God you’re still alive,” the message began. “I heard about what happened to your parents on the news. You have my heartfelt condolences for that. When I tried to contact Amber to offer what assistance I could, I discovered that she and Thomas were missing. Nobody had heard from them in days and neither were answering their phones. Well, that didn’t seem like a good sign, so I took it as a warning to go on an unexpected vacation of my own, just in case you had opened up a can of trouble soup. I’m out of Virginia now, not going to say exactly where, and I ought to be safe. Figure two weeks should be enough time for matters to calm down. Get back to me as soon as you can.” The message closed with a string of seemingly random text.
Oliver ran the text through an OpenPGP decryption engine, revealing an additional message had been encrypted so that only Oliver could read it. The message, which was securely signed with Hank’s PGP identity, gave a private Telegram username that Oliver could use to contact Hank securely.
Oliver loaded Hank’s private communication details into his messaging app and tapped the icon to establish a voice connection. He eagerly watched the connection. With everything going wrong, Oliver needed something familiar to give him hope that he could fix the trouble that Yuuki had unleashed.
The connection went though and Hank’s round, brown face appeared on the screen of Oliver’s phone. “Oliver? You alright?” he drawled, his eyebrows drawing together in concern.
Oliver looked at his own thumbnail image in the bottom left corner of the screen. His face was pale, except for dark splotches of scabs and bruises which were fading from blue to yellow, his red hair was disheveled, and he couldn’t remember how long it had been since he had shaved. “I’ve been better. It’s good to finally hear back from someone.”
“Where have you been? When I didn’t hear from you for a week I almost pressed that button. You know, the big red one connected to your Blow Up the World Machine.”
Oliver managed a half smile. “I’m glad you didn’t press the button. Listen, Hank, a lot of shit’s gone down in the last few days.”
“No kidding. Sorry about your family, again. Do you know anything about what happened to Amber and Tom?”
“Yeah. Zedekiah has them. And I think he was trying to get my parents when… well… you know.” Oliver’s voice trailed off and almost set the phone down. He bit his bottom lip and looked away from the phone for a moment, collecting his thoughts. He had not spoken civilly with his mother for years and rarely had any contact with his father, but the thought of never seeing them again, never redeeming himself in their eyes, caused his chest to ache.
“You’ll get through this, man,” Hank said.
“Yeah, thanks.” Oliver drew a deep breath, plastered a half smile on his face, and looked back into the camera. “Zedekiah has Amber and Tom. I need to help them, Hank.”
“How can I help?”
A genuine smile curved Oliver’s mouth and softened his cheeks. “I need to retrieve the shards.”
“You aren’t going to try and make a bargain with that bastard, are you?”
“I’ll do what it takes to protect what family I have left. If I have to deal with the Watchers, so be it, but that’s not my first choice.”
“What can I do?”
Oliver adjusted his leg and swore as a stab of pain shot up his leg. When the pain receded he replied, “I don’t actually know. I’m laid up here in Japan. Got stabbed in the leg and lost a lot of blood.”
“Not a good place to be right now,” Hank said.
“No, and I think it’s only going to get worse. Hank, I was there when that thing escaped. I should be dead.”
“Hank, I’m not joking. The Oni, the demon, whatever the hell that thing is, it had me in its hands. It looked inside of me and for some reason I can’t even imagine it let me go.” Oliver grimaced and shook his head. “That thing read me like a book and something it found caused it to put me down instead of ripping me in half. I should be grateful, I should take this as an opportunity to strike back, but I can’t shake this feeling that whatever I do I’m somehow playing into the Oni’s hand. I mean, it wouldn’t have released me unless it wanted me to do something.”
“I think you’re over thinking all of this, Oliver.”
“I’ve had a lot of time to think since I’ve been laid up.”
Hank smiled and inclined his head, then his face took on a more serious expression and he said, “You say that a demon from Japanese mythology had you in its clutches. That is already far beyond what any rational person might accept. Don’t imagine that you can comprehend the plans of angels and demons.”
Oliver nodded, slowly. If there was one thing that he had learned over the last couple years, it was that however much knowledge he gathered about the Watchers, about the shards, about the supernatural world that existed just beyond the veil of the observable reality, he absolutely did not possess the wisdom to understand all of those facts.
After nearly a minute of contemplative silence, Oliver nodded again and looked into the camera. “I need to gather the shards, Hank. Whether I trade them to Zedekiah to free Amber and Tom, or somehow work out what their purpose is, getting those pieces in my hands again is the key.”
“I only have the trigger that releases the map, Oliver. You never gave me the keys to the vaults.”
“Yeah. I don’t think you can get the shards yourself, but you can help pave the way for me. I’m going to forward you access codes for one of my online accounts and the locations of all the banks where I stashed the shards, that way you can start planning without having to release my deadman’s switch. I’ve got a lot to do here, but if you can work out the logistics of getting me to America and traveling to each location, I’ll meet you and we can gather the shards together.”
Oliver pushed aside the blanket and turned his phone so Hank could see the crude bandage on his right leg. “I’m not exactly fit to drive right now.” He turned the camera back on his face and continued, “I know I’m asking a lot, Hank, but would you be willing to do this for me?”
“Oliver, it would be my honor.”
Five minutes later Oliver set his phone on the bedside table and, bracing himself between his uninjured leg and the wall, hauled himself out of bed. He limped past the small guest bathroom, into the hall, and towards the kitchen, where he could hear Theresa and Haruka conferring in hushed voices.
“Oliver!” Theresa cried, looking up and past Haruka as she spotted Oliver limp into the kitchen doorway. “You should be in bed.”
“We need to talk,” Oliver grunted, his lips light. “And I’m bored of that little room.”
Before either woman could react, Oliver held up his left hand and shook his head. He limped into the kitchen and around to the same chair he had sat in while Haruka cleaned his wounds. The women watched in concerned silence, but neither attempted to interfere.
Oliver sank into the chair with a pained sigh and looked at each of the women in turn. Theresa’s face was etched with concern, but her eyes were cold. She had probably seen worse injuries in her line of work and, come to think of it, she had been shot through the shoulder less than two weeks before. Odd, he thought, that she had been the one to care for him. She didn’t even seem to be favoring that shoulder anymore. For Haruka’s part, she looked a wreck. Her normally pristine makeup and hair were both disheveled and the skin beneath her eyes sagged. She looked as if she had not enjoyed a full night’s sleep in weeks.
“We’ve been talking a lot, Haruka and I have,” Theresa said, breaking the silence.
“Oh?” Oliver grunted, raising his eyebrows.
“There are a few things you might not have known about Yuuki Mori, things which are rather important. Tell him, Haruka,” Theresa urged. She stood up and crossed the kitchen to the electric kettle beside the sink. “I’ll make more tea.”
Haruka sighed and drained the last of the tea from her cup, then looked at Oliver through downcast eyes. “Mr. Lucas, I am truly sorry for what Ms. Mori did, but there was nothing I could do to prevent her.”
“It’s not like you could have known that she would try to kill Theresa,” Oliver said. “It’s one thing to study magic, a little more dangerous to use it to electrify your fence, but to try and kill someone is miles beyond any of that.” He gave Haruka a reassuring smile and shrugged one shoulder, tiredly.
“It goes much farther than you know, Mr. Lucas.” Haruka stood and moved her chair to sit beside Oliver. She bent her head and leaned forward in front of him.
“Haruka, what are you doing?” Oliver asked, raising his hands and leaning back in his chair.
“It is alright, Mr. Lucas. Use your fingers to part my hair. Examine my scalp.”
Oliver looked past Haruka to Theresa, but her back was to him as she filled the kettle with filtered water from the tap. He shook his head, looked down at Haruka, and delicately pulled back her fine black hair to examine the pale skin beneath. Only, her skin was not white, or pink, or brown. The skin beneath Haruka’s dark hair was almost completely covered in brightly colored traceries of intertwining sigils.
Oliver breathed an obscenity and bent forward, his pain and weariness forgotten in the sudden examination of a new, and utterly unexpected, puzzle. He could see only a thin sliver of scalp at any given time, but as he combed Haruka’s hair delicately from side to side he began to build a mental picture of the complex sigil embedded in the flesh of Haruka’s head.
“This is incredible,” he whispered. “I had no idea she was so advanced in her studies.” He bit his lower lip and grimaced. The words had come out unbidden, a symptom of his excitement. “I’m sorry. I forgot for a moment that this is your head I’m examining,” he added.
“Do not worry, Mr. Lucas,” Haruka said. She sat up and lay a hand on his arm. “I can tell that you are excited by my tattoos, and I cannot fault your interest. At least you are not the one who placed them on me.”
“It’s just so fascinating. I’ve seen full body tattoos before, and obviously both Theresa and I have gotten far closer than we’d like to the effects of sigildry in the last few days, but it had not even crossed my mind to combine the two. Did Yuuki do that to you?”
“Yes,” Haruka said. She pushed her hair back and wiped away the tears which had welled up in her eyes. She sighed, looked up at Oliver, and continued, “I am reluctant to tell you everything about my past. I’ve told some of it to Theresa, but please let it suffice to say that these are not the only tattoos on my body.”
“Yuuki plucked you out of the yakuza, didn’t she?” Oliver asked.
“That’s all I need to know.” Oliver had done his best to avoid the various incarnations of organized crime as he traveled and collected relics across the world, but he had been especially cautious to avoid the gangs of Japan. As the island nation had embraced ever more ubiquitous surveillance and profiling technology to protect its citizenry, the gangs had taken to ever more malicious methods to maintain control over their domains. It was the definition of asymmetric warfare, of domestic terrorism. Until the Oni had been released, the average Japanese citizen was more likely to be hit by a malfunctioning autonomous vehicle than to be the victim of random violence, but those averages broke down rapidly among those who found themselves entangled with the yakuza.
“Ms. Mori promised to protect me from my family if I would swear to serve her. Considering my situation before, it seemed like a good deal. When she insisted on marking my head with a tattoo, but promised that it would be completely covered by my hair, I saw no reason to object. It was an odd request, but no worse than anything I had seen among my relatives.”
“That’s more than just a tattoo,” Oliver said.
“Yes. That is what I learned after she finished.” Haruka accepted a cup of tea from Theresa, gave her a faint smile, and returned to her story. “Ms. Mori marked my head here in the kitchen using a traditional wood and needle tattoo tool. It hurt. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried as I lay on the counter and Ms. Mori tapped the lines into my skull. When she finished she showed me the pattern that she had used. She explained that I was now bound to her home more assuredly than any medieval vassal. Then she showed me the video.”
Haruka paused and sipped at her tea. She closed her eyes and shook her head, slowly.
“Video?” Oliver prompted.
“I’d rather not describe it,” Haruka said. “Suffice it to say that Ms. Mori showed me a video of what would happen to me if I stepped beyond the fence.”
Oliver raised an eyebrow and looked at Theresa.
“That’s right, Oliver,” Theresa said. She leaned against the counter and tapped at the rim of her teacup. “It looks like good old Yuuki has known how to draw explosive sigils for a good long while. And I got off lucky just having one stuffed down my pants. Haruka refused to be in the room when I watched it, but she showed me how to access Mori’s files. I went through them last night and, well, she was studying some terrifying uses of sigils. Tried most of them out on animals and even a few on people.”
Oliver turned his gaze to Haruka and gave her a gentle smile. “Did you know why Yuuki went to the suicide forest?”
Haruka hesitated, then gave the slightest of nods.
“How did you know?”
“She had been studying the sigils for decades, ever since she received the walking stick from the monastery at Phoenix Gate. She only recently learned the location of the Oni Cavern, but she has been researching the use of these sigils for longer than I have known her.”
“Do you understand the sigils?” Oliver asked, leaning forward and looking Haruka in the eye.
She lowered her eyes and shook her head. “No. At least, not well. I have access to all of her files, and she encouraged me to learn, but it always felt wrong to learn the same magic which bound me.”
“So…” Oliver drew out the word, considering his next question carefully. He did not want to offend Haruka, but the thought of someone being so close to the resources needed to learn such powerful magic and intentionally ignoring it struck him as a wasted opportunity.
“I need a copy of Yuuki’s data,” Oliver said. “All of it.”
“What for?” Haruka asked.
“This isn’t over. We need to get out of Japan while we still can and find some way to stop the Oni before it does more damage.”
“How can you even hope to stop it?”
“Yeah, Oliver,” Theresa added, cocking her head to one side and narrowing her eyes. “I get that you need to go through her research, we might even find a way to protect ourselves, but how do you expect to stop the Oni? You were there in the forest. How many people did they sacrifice to capture the Oni before? Unless you’ve got a ready supply of peasants to massacre and a neat little death cult all prepped to kill themselves, I don’t see how we can stop this. Let the governments work it out. Or the Watchers. Anyone with more resources than a wounded grave robber.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to stop it, but I have to try,” Oliver said. “I can’t just sit by and watch as that demon destroys everything we know. Two cities already. Two cities in only a week. Imagine what will happen in the next year.”
“But, Oliver…” Theresa started.
“No. You’re not going to talk me out of this. I’m going to America as soon as my contact can get me a ticket out of Japan. I’d suggest that you come with me. Haruka, I feel for you, but unless you know how your binding sigils function, I don’t know if we can help you. Are they triggered by passing the fence? Or going too far from something in this house?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Lucas. I’m sorry.”
Theresa scowled and said, “You really shouldn’t travel yet, Oliver. Your leg…”
“Will heal or not. If the antibiotics don’t do the trick, I’m better off in a country where demons aren’t taking down entire towns. At least in America I can just walk into any emergency room and claim I injured myself in my workshop.”
Theresa took a long, slow pull from her teacup, then set it down and began to drum her fingers on the countertop. Haruka looked back and forth between the two of them, then focused on Oliver and gave him a sad smile. “I’ll go prepare a copy of the files.” She stood and lay a hand on Oliver’s shoulder. She looked down at him and gently squeezed his shoulder. “Thank you for trying, Oliver. I wish that I had been able to do something more to help you.”
You could have killed Yuuki Mori in her sleep years ago, Oliver thought, but he gave her a half smile and said, “I’ll do my best. You just get me whatever you have so I can try to understand that language.”
Haruka lifted her hand from Oliver’s shoulder, gave Theresa a hesitant nod, then shuffled out of the kitchen, still carrying her half empty teacup.
As soon as she had disappeared, Theresa dropped into the chair beside Oliver and whispered, “Do you trust her?”
Oliver responded with a half shrug and a noncommittal grunt.
“I don’t think she’s going to kill us in our sleep, but she’s broken, Oliver. Truly damaged in ways I’m only beginning to understand.”
“Got to be some strength in there to not have taken a walk outside the fence by now,” Oliver muttered.
“Well, yes.” Theresa sat quietly for a long moment, then continued, “Are you serious about going to America?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to get the only leverage I have and use it to pry what remains of my family away from that bastard Zedekiah.”
“You still haven’t explained exactly how you got involved with those fallen angel types.”
Oliver leaned over and prodded Theresa in the shoulder. She grimaced, but did not cry out in pain. He raised an eyebrow and said, “And you haven’t explained why you’re taking all of this supernatural shit in stride. Or why you stopped wearing your sling. No way your shoulder is healed up yet.”
Theresa laughed, darkly, and shook her head. She stood and moved back to the kettle to brew another cup of tea. “All in good time. I’m coming with you to America. You’re going to tell me how you got involved in the affairs of angels and I’m going to help you with whatever infernal machine you’re trying to assemble.”
“Sounds more like a statement than a request,” Oliver grunted.
“You’re damn right it is.”