It may have been summer, but the Wave Hill Gardens’ ground felt cold. I crawled through the grass, trying to get to a position where I could see what they were doing. Unpleasant, yes, but I lacked alternatives.
There were eight people, four men, and four women, all dressed in the same manner: heavy boots, leather pants, Kevlar body armor, gloves, padding on elbows, knees, and around joints, all painted black.
Their faces were dark but painted in bright colors. The leader, a man, had two lines of yellow and blue going down his forehead and over his eyes. Beneath, he wore a mustache and a stubble beard. A pair of maces hung strapped by his waist.
The others bore similar weaponry of curved swords, ornamental spears, polearms, and crescents. I didn’t see firearms on any of them, and it did not bring peace to my mind. Katherine once explained that she used a longsword because guns didn’t really work on people using aether-based defenses. But she never cared to explain why, probably because that knowledge fell into the layer of the Veil I was not authorized for. The one she never told me about. In retrospect, Katherine excelled at hiding information.
As I crawled, a flash of white light blinded me for a split second. I blinked, and it was gone. The people I followed looked around in confusion but then continued.
What the hell was that? The park’s surroundings had gone dark though with all streetlights suddenly turned off. I reached a position sideways from the aether beacon where thorny bushes provided cover. The price for advancement was paid in branch lashing, which awarded me new scratches and tore my clothes. I made sure to protect my hat though.
The darkness made my eyes dart around. Being its annoying self, my mind instantly started serving me images of spider and snake demons crawling through the darkest shadows.
At the park’s other side, Mina strolled around in her wolf form, but with black fur, acting like a stray dog. I wasn’t surprised they didn’t notice her. And holy shit, if she could change her color together with her size, I understood why she could sneak up on me so easily.
They approached the beacon, which was now a bright column of purple light, and I realized I had no plan. I didn’t have any backup to call and didn’t want to shoot anyone. This thought should have occurred to me earlier. Their leader stepped toward the beacon, fell onto his knees and started chanting out a prayer in the language I didn’t recognize. By their appearance, I expected it to be Hindi.
Four others joined him while the remaining three kept sentry. I didn’t like the look one of the women gave to my direction. She was tall, dark-haired, had a pair of curved swords strapped to her back, and stared at my bush with narrowed eyes.
I held my breath and sweat covered my brow. The incantation intensified and a spark of yellow light appeared in front of their leader. That distracted her. She turned and observed.
Aether swirled around the group, yellow and blue, and melded with the purple beacon. Since the colors blinded me, I had to force aether out of my eyes to see something.
A yellow portal opened at the beacon’s base. The difference from Evelyn’s portal struck me. Hers was a violet circle, theirs a yellow rectangle.
The leader rose to his feet and walked into the portal. The other seven stood guard, hands on their weapons. Mina turned her stroll into a prowl and snuck toward the portal from its other side.
My heartbeat sped up. To do nothing was apparently not an option as Mina intended to act. The sweat covering me became ice cold. I needed whatever he would bring out to analyze it and figure out what Evelyn was actually gathering. I mean, what if Evelyn got what she wanted from the last portal and thus didn’t need to open any more of them? In that case, I would have nothing to go on to figure out her next step.
The leader walked out of the portal, holding a blue-yellow crystal that shone with dim light. He motioned to his group and spoke in a calm tone, his English without any accent. “Jasika Kali, step to me.”
The woman with swords stepped before the man and knelt in front of him.
The portal disappeared, and he raised the crystal into the air. “By the duty laid upon me, I, Amarendra Vishnu, hereby grant you this blessing. May you bear your divine ancestor’s legacy with honor.”
The woman tilted back her head and opened her mouth.
Oh, hell no. If she ate it, I wouldn’t have anything left to analyze. I leapt to my feet, drew my colts and aimed at the leader, Amarendra. I did my best to sound calm and confident, but my pumping heart made it difficult. “Hold that thought, fellas. How about you give me the crystal, so nobody gets hurt?”
The second of awkward silence that passed through the air felt like a year. He turned toward me, and his brown eyes bore no sign of fear. This wasn’t the first time someone has aimed a gun at him.
I gulped and tried to maintain a steady tone. “Toss me the stone.”
He smiled beneath his mustache. “You are a curiosity, my friend. You see, on the one hand, you seem to have an idea of what is going on here, so you must be no stranger to the supernatural world.” He tossed the stone toward Jasika and grabbed the two maces. “And yet you carry no real weapons.”
Mina launched from the ground, turning into human mid-leap in a twist of white aether and reached after the thrown crystal. Jasika bolted to her feet and grabbed it first. Jasika’s companions drew weapons and swarmed Mina. She weaved among the strikes but didn’t catch Jasika.
I aimed at Amarendra’s knee and shot. One. The bullet shattered and bounced off his trousers. That’s not how .45 caliber bullets were supposed to work.
“I’ll handle this,” Amarendra shouted and bolted toward me.
I leapt back and shot twice from each gun. Two, one, three, two. All hit his chest and bounced off. He swung his mace at my head. I ducked and slid sideways. Aether filled my eyes upon my command. In the color-inverted world, an armor of yellow and blue aether coated Amarendra.
I shot from my left gun at his waist. Three. The bullet shattered off the blue-yellow aether armor. But sparks flew as it did and the armor weakened in the spot, its disc-filled pattern loosening. Shields like this were supposed to be stationary. To be able to move with it, his coating had to be less durable than a standard aether shield. A larger caliber or higher velocity weapon might have worked.
But I didn’t have any.
Amarendra spun and swung a mace. I leapt into a roll and sprung to my feet, glimpsing Amarendra’s allies running away from Mina. She didn’t pursue them and headed toward me. Amarendra jabbed a mace at my head. I ducked. He whirled and kicked me in the head.
I softened the hit by tilting my head. My vision still blacked out for a second and I flew sideways, dropping my guns. Not that they were useful.
Amarendra stepped above me, wearing an amused smile. “Well, cowboy, you tried.”
My body didn’t obey the command to move.
Mina rammed into him, elbow first. She knocked him to the ground. He rolled over and leapt to his feet. Mina went after him, her legs sliding on the ground with ease, her hands weaving in jabs and punches. Amarendra kept defending.
I tried to regain my senses. The arms came first. And then I climbed to my wobbly legs.
Wheels screeched on the ground as two vans drove into the park. They drifted to turn, throwing dirt into the air. Their back doors aimed at us. Amarendra started a wide swing at Mina but leapt backward instead of following through. He dashed toward the vans with Mina at his heels.
I spurted forward and tackled him. My shoulder hit his waist. He was like a statue of steel. Pain shot through my body as I rammed into him. He kept running, and I hung on him, trying to slow him down.
The door of the van ahead opened. Inside, Jasika stood by a heavy caliber machine gun.
Amarendra rammed his elbow into my back.
I fell to the ground with a shout of pain.
He jumped into the van.
Mina whirled before me and shielded me with her body. The machine gun roared into the night. Its fire deafened my ears and filled the air with the scent of gunpowder and blood. Mina’s blood. The bullets dug into her back, but she kept holding me beneath herself.
The vans started driving away, the machine gun still firing. Horrified, I lay beneath her, tears sliding down my face. The machine gun fell silent, and the vans drove away. Mina’s blood was everywhere.
She grunted in pain and turned her eyes toward me. “Remove the bullets from my back.”
I stared at her, mouth gaping. “You’re… alive?”
I crawled from under her. Her back was a mess of torn flesh and blood. My stomach expressed its opinion by calling for evacuation. I turned sideways and vomited. Even after my bowels emptied, I kept retching.
With gritted teeth, I turned back to Mina. Her back was almost fully healed. I watched her flesh reforming and skin re-stretching over the wounds.
I reached for the nearest one to pull it out. The slippery blood made it near impossible to catch. Long seconds of trying got me one bullet.
Her flesh finished reforming itself around the bullets, leaving them stuck inside.
She glanced at me over her shoulder. “Guess you didn’t get all of them.”
I stared at the single bullet in my hand. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She turned and slowly rose, grunting with pain. “I’ll get someone to cut them out.”
With a sigh and hollow insides, I went to get my guns. My head kept spinning while my stomach wanted to throw out a second round.
I returned the colts into the holsters and put the hat back onto my head. Mina stood by a tree, panting, her face twisted with pain.
My insides clenched. This was my fault. I supported her from under her shoulder. “We have to take you to a hospital.”
Right. Someone with dozens of bullets stuck inside her healed back couldn’t go to a hospital. Or anywhere else. “Doesn’t Lucielle have her own medics around?”
To hell with it. I fished out my phone and dialed Katherine.
She picked up after five beeps, her voice tired. “Lucas?”
“I need help. Could you pick me up on the Wave Hill, asap?”
She paused for a split second, and her voice rose in urgency. “What happened?”
With a tight chest, I looked at Mina. She was clearly suffering, barely standing, grunting with pain even when standing still. I forced my tone to neutrality, and said, “My friend got shot, and I need to help her remove the bullets.”
“Call an ambulance then.”
“I can’t. This involves a lot of aether and abilities that are above my clearance level.”
“Okay, sure… all right,” Katherine said, breathing out the news. “Taking your friend to a Church’s medics is a no-go as well, right?”
“Yeah…” My voice trailed off. I felt like shit to do this to Katherine, but Mina needed help, and I knew no one else I could call. “Sorry.”
“I’ll be there in ten,” Katherine said and hung up.
I pocketed my phone, glancing at Mina. “We need to move before the police get here.”
“You’re getting your friend in trouble.”
I didn’t have an answer. Yes, but what else could I do? I refused to watch Mina suffer. And I had to somehow make up for screwing this up. Amarendra and his crew were no amateurs, unlike me, and this was the result. We left the park and hid in the bushes up above.
Everywhere I could see was blacked out. Street lamps, houses, everything was dark. I kept moving along the road, happy for the moonlight.
The police arrived with four cars, undoubtedly called by people who heard the gunfire. Men in blue swarmed out of them and started searching the park. They had a long night ahead of them since they would find a pool of blood, shells from a high caliber machine gun, and no bodies.
On the plus side, they were bound to chase after the two black vans that left from the park minutes ago.
Katherine came in dark-green Mazda 6 with a grass-green cross painted on the hood. She lived in a cloister to save on rent and food and used the money on the car. And I was about to stain it with blood. An extra reason for my heart to remain sunken in my stomach.
We left the bushes and walked toward the car. Katherine rolled down the window.
Her eyes were tired and ginger hair messy, but her tone betrayed annoyance. “Oh, no, no, no, you two are not entering my car like this.”
Before I could reply, she leapt out and walked to the trunk. She wore boots, t-shirt, yoga pants, and a trench coat, all dark green. She must had been home and just grabbed the coat and boots. Katherine fished two rolls of plastic from the trunk and brought them to us. “Put these on.”
I rolled out the plastic and realized it was a body bag. The question of why would Katherine have body bags in her trunk felt pointless.
After I covered myself in one, I helped Mina to do the same. I realized Katherine didn’t know they had met, so I introduced the girls.
For the first time, I wasn’t the one who didn’t know the context. I carried Mina into the car and sat onto the front seat. Thankfully, Katherine left my interrogation for later.
The moment Katherine started the engine, a song by P.O.D filled the air, deafening my ears.
Not that I had anything against Christian metal, God forbid, but the volume was excessively high. The thundering bass made my head pound and ears ring.
By the divine mercy, we arrived at our destination deep in Queens within minutes. Katherine parked on the grass by a small cloister hidden among trees of the local park.
I helped Mina out of the car and Katherine led us in through a side entrance. The stone walls were rough, but not covered by dust. The wooden beams supporting the construction lent it a medieval feeling, which made my skin crawl. I had no idea how could anyone live in places as confined as these. Here, every room could be a torture chamber and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been at some point in the past.
Katherine took us to a room with a large table. A small, circular window placed beneath the ceiling allowed the moon to peek inside. Wooden drawers rimmed the walls. Medical tools covered with plastic lay On the top of each cabinet. Boxes of pills were inside the cabinets behind the glass doors.
“This is the room the local butcher, I mean, doctor, uses,” Katherine said. “He won’t be here before nine so you’ve got time till then.”
I helped Mina to the top of the table, where she lay with face down. I offered Katherine my friendliest smile. “You cannot see this. Sorry.”
Because the last time I told someone about Mina, Vivian murdered the person within the next few hours. “I cannot tell you.”
Anger flared through Katherine’s eyes. “Jesus Christ, Lucas, just tell me!”
I kept her gaze, wishing I could. “We’ll talk after I help her.”
We kept glowering at each other. Katherine was the first to lower her eyes. “All right. But we talk once you’re done, understand?”
She gave me the directions to her room—for the case I needed something—and to the room where Mina and I could sleep during the day. I thanked her once more and watched her close the door behind herself.
I turned to Mina. “So, how do I get the bullets out?”
She gave me a long, inquisitive stare. When the silence became awkward, she narrowed her eyes. “You don’t look like a doctor.”
“Will there be no problems if a church doctor sees you?”
“No problem at all…” Her eyes fixed onto the wall opposite of me. “But Vivi will kill him afterward.”
“I’m not letting that happen.” I raised my chin. “So, how about you tell me how to help you?”
She sighed. “Get a scalpel and tweezers. I’ll suppress my regeneration. You’ll cut my back and fish out the bullets. Be gentle.”
I tried, really. But I sucked at this. My stomach flipped and made me retch within the first ten minutes. I pushed aether into my eyes. The unnatural colors of spilled aether made everything appear less real. That helped me focus.
My arms still trembled, which made removing each bullet an effort. This took too long. I pushed aether into my arms. They tingled, but after a while of trying, forming Mina’s octagonal pattern helped me steady my touch. She made as little sound as she could, but even when she didn’t whimper in pain, I wanted to stab myself with the scalpel instead.
Since most of the bullets dug deep into her body, it took me five impossibly long hours to remove all of them. For the most part, I felt like I was torturing her. Every fiber of my body felt sick.
But she saved me by taking the bullets in my place and this was the least I could do for her.
Once done, I sagged down by the wall, exhausted. Mina slowly rose from the table. Her face remained twisted with pain while dried tears covered her features.
Her face twitched as she tried to smile. She didn’t manage. Mina put her fingers onto her cheeks and pushed them to stretch her mouth into a smile. “Thanks,” she said and opened the door. Aether swirled around her, and she shifted into the white wolf.
I watched her limp away. The forced smile was sure to haunt me for the nights to come. Only now it occurred to me I should had searched for some sedatives. I sunk my face into my palms.
No time to pity myself. I had to clean the room. After a minute of searching, I found the maintenance room two doors away. From there, I took a bucket and a mop. Washing blood made my mind replay all the times I cut into Mina, forcing me to relive the nightmare.
When I was halfway through, Katherine appeared in the door. She held a bottle of beer in one hand and a pack of six more in the other one. “When I said we could go grab a pint, this wasn’t what I meant.”
I held myself by the mop to stand as close to upright as I could. “Got something to write on?”
She sighed, eyeing the carnage around. Mina’s regeneration used her aether to remake all blood she lost, so there was no limit to how much she could bleed. The blood in the room could have easily filled five human bodies. And I had no reasonable explanation to offer to Katherine.
“What type of messed up shite did you get into now?” she asked softly.
She rolled her eyes and left. I almost finished cleaning the room before she returned, holding a beer-stained notepad and a pair of pens. We sat down by the table, and she handed me a beer, Guinness.
I grabbed the bottle and drank beer for the first time in my life. The stark taste almost made me vomit. Why would anyone pay to drink this? But Katherine would behead me if I complained.
She put down the notepad and wrote, “You’d better start talking now.”
I took my pen and replied. “I’m neck deep in business with extremely dangerous people. We need two anonymous phones to text each other.”
The pen became heavier than a sword. But a flash of the memory of the mage Vivian killed left no doubt for what I had to write down. “Can’t tell.”
She downed the rest of the beer and reached for another. “You’ll have to give me something now.”
She downed the beer in one go and grabbed another one, glaring at me.
The silence became insufferable. “Three involved parties. Evelyn, some Hindu sect…” I stopped writing and realized my beer was empty. Maybe there was something to this black stuff.
Tiredness nearly overwhelmed me. I didn’t want to do this to her. But I was in over my head, and I needed help. In my mind, I apologized, but wrote down, “and Lucielle’s agents.”
Katherine spat out the beer and shouted, “Tell me you didn’t accept a job from them.”
No need to answer as my troubled smile did the talking.
Katherine traced a cross over her chest, pulled out the cross on her amulet and kissed it. “I will pray for your soul.”
A sense of dread filled my veins. Katherine was the person who would walk face first into a demon lair, especially when she had a beer beforehand. And she had more than a few tonight. Then again, maybe she was just overreacting.
Yes, she was definitely overreacting.
Katherine pulled out her phone and dialed a number. Without waiting for anything, she said, “Code triple six at NYC. Call in the VI.” She hung up.
I stared at her with my mouth wide open. Code triple six? “What the hell is VI?”
“Nothing interesting,” she replied. “The next time you go investigating the portal locations, I come with you, understand?”
I met her jade gaze and nodded. I would figure out how to make that work with Mina later. This night, I got drunk for the first time in my life. I downed one beer after another, vomited them out, and drank double that. I ended in a barren cell reserved for nuns. The sleep found me soon, but not before I desecrated the cell with vomit. My stomach wasn’t designed for drinking.
When I woke up, Mina sat on a chair by the stone wall. My head pounded and my stomach wanted to file its resignation. I blinked a few times to refocus my eyes, which were hurting from the sunlight seeping in from the two windows. Everything ached, and my mouth was dry as desert.
Mina wore different loose, black pants, and a new pullover. She was reading a novel named Heavenly Desires with a half-naked angel on the cover, fully absorbed.
I rolled to a side not to face her.
“Morning,” she said.
How did she notice I woke up? Didn’t matter. “Morning.”
“You have two minutes to get dressed.”
I turned, but her face was calm, undisturbed, eyes fixed on the novel. “Why?”
“You need training.”
“I can train tomorrow.”
She reached behind herself with her other hand and pulled out the leather cane. “Punish them with the rod and save them from death.”
Right, that reason. The mere act of getting out of the bed hurt. I washed swiftly in the simple bathroom the room had and dressed afterward. The clothes from last night were a mess, but I lacked alternatives.
I stepped toward her with heavy legs, clenched stomach, and made a slight bow. “Ready.”
Her scrunched nose left no space for how much she liked the scent of the dirty, blood-drenched clothes. She didn’t comment about it though and instead, said, “Do ten pushups, and then stop in a plank position.”
An eerie fear passed through my gut, making it clench. My ability to read people was terrible at best. Yet something about her cold gaze, controlled face and white knuckles on her fingers as she held the cane hinted me she wasn’t happy about yesterday. I got to the ground and did the ten pushups, not too deep and not too fast.
When I stopped in the upright position, she broke the silence. “Now, remember how much this hurts.” She hit me with the cane on the back. Pain burst through my body, making me shake. That hurt. In retrospect, she got shot because of me. And I then spent hours cutting through her back to get the bullets out without giving her sedatives or pain medication. She was right to be angry.
“Now, push aether into your body. Imagine building a wall around yourself. Say when ready.”
I realized the trap she set for me. She basically offered to teach me how to use aether for combat, but at the price of beating the hell out of me. Everything that happened around Lucielle’s people was a trap, wasn’t it? In retrospect, Vivian making Lucielle pre-pay me a part of the bounty also made me indebted to her, robbing me of the option to quit. This was going to hurt. But I needed the knowledge because I wasn’t too useful last night.
I did what she said, spending long minutes moving the arcane energy through my body until I had the feeling I created a shielding layer around myself, using the hexagonal pattern I watched Katherine use. “Ready.”
She hit me. Pain burst from the spot, but weaker than last time. “Not enough. Try again.”
I took twenty-two more hits with the cane until I managed to form a defense strong enough to pass the test. The last hit barely hurt, but I still didn’t want to know how my back would look after this. As if my bruised, swollen face wasn’t bad enough.
“Good,” she said. “From now on, you keep this up whenever we train. When you feel cold, stop.”
“You use aether from your soul’s reserve. But the body needs some to function,” she replied. “If you use more than what’s in reserve, you drain the body one. That feels cold. You die if that runs out.”
Okay, this alone made up for the pain. Finally someone explained to me how these things worked. And as much as I hated getting flogged, I saw no alternative but to endure more in the future. Mina knew a lot about magic in general and, unlike Katherine, was willing to share the useful parts.
“When you learn how to keep the armor,” Mina said and hit me with the cane. The impact shattered my shield and sent me crashing to the ground, screaming with pain. “I’ll teach you how to attack with it.”
That was a bit too rough even for her. I didn’t get up from the ground, searching for a way to get a moment to rest. “You just imagined you were hitting someone else, didn’t you?”
She paused, her voice resumed in a much softer tone than before. “Maybe.”
A curl formed on her lips and her eyes became glazed, looking at something that wasn’t there. She hesitated for a long moment but then spoke. “My kind comes in batches of four to six. We were five. Me and my four brothers. But my father wanted only sons. He considered having daughters a weakness. When I was young, my father would tie me to a pole so my brothers could use me for a punching bag.”
The image of a young girl, which my mind pictured as my little sister, tied up to be used for a punching bag made my stomach twist. My father left us when I was young. I hated him for it, sure, but leaving was better than abusing us. “And Lucielle saved you?”
“Sort of.” She bent the cane as if getting ready to hit someone. “I ran from home. Luci met me on the street. She took me in, gave me a new home and a purpose. For her I fight, I bleed, I kill, I die.” She aimed the cane at my face, its tip an inch before my eye. “You have ten seconds to get up. Or you will bleed.”
I bolted to my feet without a care for how much it hurt. The fast movement made me shout out in pain.
Mina smiled in the way I didn’t like. She was more than angry about last night and apparently intended to repay me a hundredfold, one hit by the cane at the time. Her eyes bore a spark as she measured me with a stare. “We go running.”
I put on my most amiable smile. “I need to see Katherine first.”
“She will sleep for half a day. You will see her another time.”
Okay, that excuse didn’t work. My mind raced for another one, but Mina apparently read my hesitation.
She said, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial,” hit my thigh so hard I wobbled and then she motioned me toward the door.
I wanted to argue, but she held the cane as if she itched to smack me again. I gathered my things, stowing my colts in my backpack. In my mind, I whispered a silent apology to Katherine. I didn’t even manage to thank her for helping us last night.
We snuck out through the side entrance and went running. Mina overflowed with the desire to beat me until nothing but my crushed bones remained. She kept me running for two hours before I collapsed to the ground, too exhausted to continue.
She picked me up over her shoulder and carried me to my apartment, where she threw me in the shower.
“I need to handle something,” she said, spun on her heel and left.
A chance. Instead of passing out, I dragged myself up to my feet and stumbled out of the apartment. I needed to revisit the Dewin Institute’s library and the less company I had, the better. After all, I had to sort things out with the mages before they got the wrong idea.