Hecate had been very insightful. Jeremiah was unfamiliar with the concept of an Anchor before, but once it was explained to him, he understood why Henry had promised the boy would be more prepared to face Jeremiah than Henry had been. He’s assumed this whole time that was just an exaggeration, or possibly just hopeful arrogance about the way he’d raised John, but it sounded like he could be a real problem. Jeremiah was ecstatic.
Not at the prospect of having to fight an Anchor, of course, but rather the redemption of his bloodline. Jeremiah had spent decades believing his only surviving legacy in the world was a frail, albeit resourceful, mortal. That no matter what he managed to accomplish in his life, it would all go to dust the moment he died and his memory was held only by a human who hated him. It had affected his drive after a while. It almost seemed pointless to seek anything grand or magnificent, if there was no way to secure it long-term, while his own flesh and blood was constantly harassing him. But the knowledge that there was an Anchor out there, who didn’t yet know him, who might yet be turned to continue his purposes, that lit a fire in Jeremiah’s chest. It was time to step out of the shadows. To begin pulling on the threads he’d been weaving for so long, and make real changes to his fortunes. With Henry gone, and a grandson who could make real waves in both the physical and metaphysical realms, there was something approaching hope.
And, hey. If he refused, if he insisted on chasing his father’s folly, then Jeremiah would have something interesting to do with his time. And a true conquest over an Anchor was bound to improve his standing in the world of spirits. However this played out, Jeremiah intended to take the opportunity to get what he deserved. The tricky part, however, was knowing how to confront John.
He tried to go to the house, first, since it was listed as John’s inherited residence. To scout around and learn more about his grandson. Stop by some time when he wasn’t home, pop out of the metaphysical realm in the house, dig through some information, and leave to formulate a plan. His suspicions were verified when he tried; having an Anchor living in the house had completely destroyed the wards keeping him out for so long. What he hadn’t anticipated, though, was that having an Anchor living in the house also made it impossible for him to step sideways on the property. Or within a few dozen yards of the property. He could get in, of course. Locks and doors and windows were only so strong, after all. But that path would require damage, and damage was too much of a risk. He couldn’t show his hand that clearly just yet.
Then he saw the girl from the funeral come out of the house and head down the street.
Jackie, he had learned her name was. He watched her from the side of the road and considered a very short list of reasons she would be at the house when John wasn’t. The particulars didn’t matter, however; what mattered was that they were close, very close, and that gave him an opportunity.
So he tracked her for a couple days, forming a plan. It wasn’t difficult, ultimately. She was quickly shown to be a mage of some sort, one who was actively seeking out loci and trying hard to reach through to the spiritual realm. It seemed like she was looking for something. Jeremiah didn’t know what, and didn’t much care. He got his hands on a map of the local ley network, sorted out how she was searching, and which sites had the best chance of success. Some local spirits knew of a locus that was particularly weak, one she would surely be able to punch through, one she would spend time at. One where he would be very powerful. One where he could prepare to confront his grandson.
On June 16, she arrived at the site. And Jeremiah was already in the metaphysical realm, waiting for her.
18 May 2007
“You know, I’ve been tracking down experts on matters of the supernatural for a few decades now, which probably doesn’t sound long to you.” Jeremiah lifted the poker from the fire and watched as it started to cool. “But in that time, I’ve noticed that most beings who know a lot about human interactions with magic are eager to talk about it. So imagine my surprise when I go to find spirits who know about people that can degrade magic itself, and they don’t want to say a word!”
“Fuck off,” the naga growled. Jeremiah turned to face her, holding up the poker. The woman was hanging upside down, her arms bound behind her back, a metal stake stabbed through the fleshiest part of her tail and holding her to the ceiling.
“It’s amazing how people always find a way to get that one out, no matter how bad things are for them. Don’t you think?” The naga responded by spitting at him. Jeremiah stabbed the still-glowing poker into her side. The naga hissed but managed not to scream. “They really do train you well in Iravati. I’ll have to visit some time, learn some other stuff. But why all this effort? Why not just tell me what you know? Do you have some kind of arrangement to keep quiet about them?”
“I have nothing to say about them! They are a blight upon the world and that is all I care to know!” The naga gasped for air. These outbursts were growing more difficult.
“Now I doubt that very much.” He set the poker back in the fire and began testing his knives. “The rivers tell me your city has had notable dealings with beings like the ones I seek, and you’re a herald tasked with knowing what comes and goes. Are the rivers wrong?”
“None of their kind come to Iravati. Not in my lifetime.”
“Do you know the last time one did?”
“It was…centuries ago, I think. It severed Iravati…from the world of man.”
“How?” Jeremiah walked to the naga and grabbed her by the hair. She took a sharp breath, but said nothing as he pulled her face closer and showed her the knife in his other hand. “What do they do? Are they all the same?”
“You’re not going to get more than that from her,” a voice said from behind him. Jeremiah turned to find a dog sitting next to the fire.
“Are you the famous Hound?”
“I am a hound. Word has it you only speak English and Aquan, and The Hound considers both languages beneath him.”
“And why should I take the word of a knockoff dog, when all the rivers speak of Iravati and its connection to the magic destroyers?”
“Iravati is a victim, which the rivers know well. The Anchors, however, are the purview of my Mistress. You are dabbling in matters far beyond your ken.” The dog howled, and the room shook. The walls melted, and beyond them lay a great landscape of roads and trails, pathways marked in the very fabric of the world. He could make out hundreds of gates, some closed, and some open, each situated directly on a path. Jeremiah looked around in every direction. “We can give you the information you seek. For a price.”
“So this naga is no longer useful to me?”
“That naga was never useful to you.”
Jeremiah considered these words for a moment before swinging the blade and slicing open her throat. He let go of her hair and walked away as she sputtered and gasped, the ichor flowing over her face and dropping in loud plops on the ground. He wiped the blade clean on his pant leg as he approached the dog.
“What is this price?”
“There was a mishap. Some beings useful to the Mistress have wandered off. Simply retrieve them and bring them to the Crossroads, and she will tell you more about the Anchors.”
“That sounds like work suited for you more than I.”
“There is very little separating us in the eyes of gods. Do you want your information or not, Riverborn?”
“Very well. Tell me about these lost beings.”
25 August 1979
Jeremiah knew a few things for certain. First, Elizabeth was going to be no help in getting Henry off his back, as she seemed perfectly content with the path Henry had chosen. Second, the oath Jeremiah had taken when Henry was born was somehow reflecting any damage he did to Henry back to him. Third, the books he’d inherited from his mother, which may have contained information he could use to circumvent that oath but which certainly contained information on hunting and killing supernatural creatures, was missing from where he had left it stored. Fourth, Jeremiah had never actually bothered reading any of those books, and therefore was woefully unprepared for how to handle someone who had. And finally, when Jeremiah returned to the house after seeking some healing magic and finding his books missing, it was warded against him; this seemed to indicate that either Elizabeth or Henry, or possibly both, were actively reading and using the books.
It wasn’t quite powerlessness that Jeremiah felt in the wake of these realizations, but it was a hell of a lot closer to it than he ever wanted to be. He found himself inching even closer to that point when he felt a bullet rip through his shoulder.
He was in Cincinnati by that point, considering his options and finding that he didn’t like any of them. There was nothing for it, he’d decided; like it or not, he was going to have to learn more about his nature and the world of magic. Thus far he’d only bothered with the stuff that was immediately useful to him, like his control of water and ability to sidestep reality. But now he didn’t know. Could he be killed so easily? If so, was it possible that the simpering little bastard he’d left behind, with no power to call on and no will to wield it, had now claimed the upper hand over him?
Is that all it took?
He was willing, albeit hesitantly, to explore that notion further, but suddenly found himself busy scrambling off a park bench and grasping the surprise wound. He frantically looked for the source of the shot, and found it when another was fired. This one just missed him, but more importantly, Jeremiah was watching where it had come from when the muzzle flashed. In one step he was out of the physical realm; then it was a mad dash aided by some water spirits hanging around for the river, and another step out to catch Henry turning to leave the roof.
Jeremiah threw a punch with the uninjured arm, sending Henry crashing to the ground. He felt the blow resonate across his own face, causing him to stumble backward. Before he regained his footing Henry was up again and landed a blow where the blood was starting to stain Jeremiah’s shirt. The pain shot through Jeremiah’s arm and chest, and he barely managed to focus his vision enough to dodge the kick from his son. He pushed, not directly against Henry, but willing the water in Henry’s body to throw him backward. It worked, and Henry crashed into the door of the roof access stairs. He felt the impact on his own back, but Jeremiah noted that he wasn’t also thrown. There were limits. He could work with limits.
Henry was trying to catch his breath from the shock of the impact when Jeremiah produced a knife and lunged. He tried to pull himself away, but Jeremiah was faster than him. Jeremiah grabbed him by the neck and slammed his head against the door again. Henry’s vision was blurred from the impact, and Jeremiah pulled him close enough to smell his breath.
“How do you think this ends, boy?” Jeremiah hissed.
“You can’t kill me. Anything you do to me comes back on you. You’re marked.”
“And you think you can use my curse against me? You think you can use my mark to benefit yourself?” Jeremiah brought the blade in, slowly, and carefully cut a line down Henry’s face. Henry screamed, but Jeremiah pushed through the feeling of the same cut opening on himself. “Your mom may be right, Henry. I may be some kind of Cain. But you? You are no Lamech.”
Henry felt the knife pull away from his face and closed his eyes, focusing on setting the pain aside long enough to finish the task. When he opened them again, however, Jeremiah was gone.
2 May 2007
Jeremiah stepped out of the metaphysical realm into a clearing in the Allegheny National Forest. The energy in the site was deadly calm, but focused on a low stone altar in the center of the clearing. He made a wide arc through the clearing, looking at footprints and the remains of magical signatures. Those remnants were the most interesting aspect of all to him; usually when someone used magic in a site, even a weak spellcaster, the mark of their magic remained loud and clear on the site for weeks at minimum.
“It wasn’t time that degraded these signatures, was it?” he asked, mostly to himself.
“No,” a feminine voice answered. He spun around and looked into the trees for some sign of who was talking to him. “Did you come here because you thought it was?” There. Two ravens sitting on a branch, one with a faint blue glow beneath its feathers, both unmistakably spirits.
“What business is this of yours?” he demanded. The blue, apparently female, raven laughed. The other, in a masculine voice, answered.
“All things are our business, Jeremiah. What business is it of yours?” he asked.
“It’s a family affair.” Jeremiah turned back and began walking toward the altar.
“Oh yes. Always a family affair with you people,” the blue raven said. Both ravens took flight, making a spiral around the clearing and landing on the altar. Jeremiah stopped and put his hands in his pockets.
“How do you know me?”
“We know everyone. That’s part of the deal.”
“The deal that allows things like you to exist,” she answered. Jeremiah quickly pulled his hand from his pocket and clenched his fist in their direction. Nothing happened. “Oh, you didn’t think we were made of wet matter like normal birds, did you?”
“It was worth a shot.”
“I very much doubt that.”
“What happened here?”
“I don’t think that concerns you yet.”
“Will you tell me when it does concern me?”
“We won’t have to,” the other raven replied. “Besides, you’re not really here to learn about all that. You’re here because you’re trying to find your grandson.”
“Is he near?”
“Not near enough to be a danger to you.”
“He is no danger to me.”
“If you insist.” The bird began preening as Jeremiah stepped forward, running his hand along the edge of the altar.
“He did this?”
“Not all of it,” the blue raven answered. “But he did destroy the magic at play here.”
“Is that not all of it?”
“That’s never all of it.”
“It must have strained him to do this much damage to this much magic.”
“Why do you only talk in circles?”
“We don’t. Sometimes we give people direct information. Sometimes we say nothing.”
“And why do I not deserve direct information?”
“It isn’t a matter of deserving. It’s a matter of the way things must be.”
“And how must they be?”
“You,” the other raven said, looking back to Jeremiah, “must take a lesson from this and prepare yourself accordingly.”
“And what lesson is that?”
“Your magic will not save you from him.” The ravens took flight again, this time circling Jeremiah once and then going straight up and vanishing from the world. Jeremiah watched them, then touched the stone again.
“Then I suppose I shall have to find something that will.” He placed his hands back into his pockets, turned away from the altar, and walked to the edge of the clearing where he disappeared.
8 August 1979
Elizabeth had a hell of a day at work, and wanted nothing more than to slip into a more comfortable outfit, pour a drink, and listen to music until she passed out. Henry was still away, and she had just picked up a new record the day before, and she even had tomorrow off. It was shaping up to be a good night, despite everything. She walked into the dark living room, locked the door behind her, and threw her keys in the bowl on the little table nearby.
“You didn’t make yourself easy to find.” That voice. Elizabeth would never forget it as long as she lived. In one movement, she had spun to face it and drawn a pistol she kept under her dress just in case this moment ever came.
“And you still ain’t taking hints, Jeremiah,” she hissed. There was a click, the sound of the lamp, as Jeremiah turned it on. There he was, in the flesh, just sitting in her living room as if he belonged there. Elizabeth corrected her aim, now that she could see his forehead.
“I don’t mean to impose, Liz. But I have some concerns about our boy and thought I should try talking to you about it.” He tapped his fingers on the wound that was still healing across his face. “Where do you think Henry is right now?”
“Ain’t none of your business what I think or know about that boy anymore. You turned killer and ran off.”
“Can’t I show a little concern? For his safety?”
“Not now. Not ever. You had your chance, when I was in court, when we were driven out of my home, when we struggled to pull a life together here! You didn’t give a shit then, and you expect me to believe you give a shit now?”
“Now listen,” Jeremiah started, pressing his hands into the arm rests. Just as he started to push against them to stand, Elizabeth pulled the trigger. It was too high, she hadn’t adjusted properly when he started to lean forward, but it hit bone and left a bloody mess on the wall behind him. Jeremiah slumped back into the seat and grabbed his head, screaming curses.
“Why should I listen to you?”
“Henry did this!” He screamed, pointing at the older wound on his face. “He’s come after me, Liz, and I can’t have that, you hear me? You stupid fucking mortals are picking a fight you can’t win!”
“You bleed like someone who can lose to us mortals.” She cocked the hammer back and leveled the gun at him again. “You run along now, Cain, unless you wanna bleed some more. You lost your home, you got your mark, and don’t you ever forget that you earned it by what you did to your family.” They stared at each other for a long moment, and then Jeremiah growled.
“You’ll regret this.” With that, he vanished.
“No,” she said, “I won’t.”
30 April 2007
The Barzai stood on the altar, looking down at the red spiral carved into the almost perfectly flat stone. It was hard to find a naturally-occurring stone this perfect, but he was deeply proud that they had. In the moonlight especially, it looked magnificent. It would make a fine place to call forth their latest abomination.
Everything had been fine. Preparations were going well, the selected cult members were sanctifying themselves for the ritual, things had been running smoothly. Until he came to check the site and found a fingerprint in the paint.
“Who are you?” he muttered, staring at it. Probably that cabin. The one up at the end of the trail nearby, which someone had said seemed like it had people in it suddenly. The altar was well hidden from the trail, and far enough from the cabin that they didn’t need to worry about anyone noticing them, but yet, someone was here. Touching the spiral. Leaving the smallest little sign of their presence to toy with him. He was furious. He knelt down, hovering his hand over the fingerprint, and began an incantation. The space under his hand started to glow, then his eyes did the same. He focused, willing himself to find the source of the fingerprint, to see them, to know exactly who they were and what they intended.
Instead, he screamed and fell backwards from the altar, clutching his face. He writhed on the ground for a little while, screaming and whimpering, until finally he managed to get himself under control. As he rolled over and rested on his knees and catching his breath, he looked down at his hands. His vision was blurred, but he could see the blood on them, from his eyes.
“What magic is this?” he growled.
“Quite the opposite, I’m afraid,” a voice composed of hundreds of other voices said from behind him. The Barzai jumped to his feet and turned around to face the spirit. He’d recognize that voice anywhere.
“My Lord Buné,” he said, kneeling before the man. Buné was ten feet tall, dressed in a finely-tailored black suit with a serpent scale pattern on it and a brooch of a pair of trees, one broken. The spirit had serpentine eyes and stern features, a pair of horns that each resembled a tangle of thorns growing straight back from his temples, and long black hair. “Will you not be the Great Serpent when we call on you tomorrow?”
“I will, and you will address me as such when that time comes. For now, I am here on business.”
“Of course. What can I do for you?”
“You must know that the people in that cabin nearby are not simple campers, Barzai.”
“I…have noticed. They have found the altar and shielded themselves from me. I was about to work a counter to the shielding.”
“Don’t bother, it won’t work.”
“You are trying to use magic to look upon a closed gate. Attempting stronger magic will only hurt you more.”
“Does that mean…”
“Yes. The Omen is here.”
“Is he alone?”
“No. He brings powerful mages and one other mortal.”
“He will not stand in our way. We will prepare for him and make use of the others.”
“Make it so. But be careful. I will be very displeased if you fail me again.” With that, Buné was gone. The Barzai stood and wiped the blood that remained off his face. His vision was clearer now, almost back to normal. It would have to do. They had much work and very little time to finish it.
18 February 2007
“So wait,” Bob said at this point, setting down his beer, “where does everyone else come in?”
“Like who?” Rick asked. They were sitting in his living room, waiting on Charles, who had slipped out to pick up the pizza. Rick’s beer was nearly empty, and he looked down the bottle as he mentally debated whether to wait for the pizza before grabbing another.
“Like Matteson. You guys are always hanging out with Matteson and he wasn’t even mentioned.”
“Oh, pfft. That’s because we didn’t meet him until eighth grade. He grew up over on the other side of town. But see he knew Tony, I think from scouts or something, and Tony’s mom was in my mom’s book club, so we knew Tony from way back.”
“And then when you all ended up in high school, Tony introduced you.”
“Yeah. And Charles couldn’t stand the guy! He was all ‘this guy’s weird and creepy’ and Tony was like ‘don’t be racist’ and Charles was going ‘weird and creepy isn’t a race’ and I thought it was hilarious.”
“I mean, he is weird and creepy.”
“Of course he is! The dude is like, constantly haunted!”
“So how’d you guys end up with him?” Bob leaned back in his seat and swirled his beer a bit. He always did that. Rick couldn’t figure out why. Before he answered, though, the door opened and in came Charles with dinner.
“You never told your boyfriend why we started hanging out with Matteson?” Rick asked, watching over his shoulder as Charles shut the door with his feet and handed him the pizzas.
“Don’t rush to get up or anything,” Charles said. “And why would I?”
“I don’t know, I thought it was funny.”
“You would.” Charles pulled off his boots and hung his coat on the railing before making his way around and snuggling in close to Bob. “Hold me, I’m cold.” Bob set his beer down, grabbed a slice of pizza, then wrapped his arm around Charles.
“So what happened?” Bob asked. Charles snatched the pizza from Bob, who sighed and grabbed another piece from the box.
“Okay okay, so,” Rick started, leaning forward, “it was coming up on Halloween, right, so we were going to one of those haunted corn mazes over in Ohio, you know the ones. And then we were gonna stay over at Tony’s, so my dad gives me and Charles a ride over and we’re gonna meet Tony and do the maze and then afterward his dad is gonna drive us back to his place. But when we get there, it’s Tony and Matteson. Seems he’d also been invited but we didn’t know.”
“Tony did shit like that,” Charles mumbled through a bite of food.
“Yeah, he does. Anyway, so, we do the maze, but we get a bit lost, and Matteson’s talking to the fucking corn, and Tony had told us about how Matteson saw spirits but we didn’t believe him so we’re kinda making fun of him, but he got the right information and led us through the maze like he knew the way. It was great.”
“Doesn’t sound very funny,” Bob said.
“I’m not there yet. So after that we get McDonald’s and go to Tony’s and after his folks are in bed Tony busts out this Ouija board he’d borrowed from someone at school, his parents would’ve flipped if they knew he had it, so it’d been hiding under the couch. And he and I start doing it, you know, the thing with the questions and it’s moving around and Charles is sitting there with us and he won’t touch it, but Matteson’s just sitting on the other side of the room looking like he’s bored with the idea before it even starts. So we’re talking to this spirit, and Tony’s telling us it must be the ghost of this guy that got murdered in the house in like the thirties, he’d found out about it and that’s why he got the board. And Matteson finally turns to the thin air next to him and goes ‘you know, this would be more plausible if you were at least over there,’ and we just look at him, and Charles goes ‘you’re being weird and creepy again, why do you keep pretending there’s someone there, don’t you know imaginary friends are for kids, you still piss the bed too?’ and on and on like this and Matteson just grumbles and looks back to the empty space and goes ‘can you just do a thing please?’ and then the Ouija board, I promise you, this thing lifts right up into the air! And Charles starts trying to scramble away but the whole board just gets hurled at him, hits him clean in the face!” Rick cracked up, and Bob just stared at him.
“Is…is that the funny part?” he asked.
“THANK you!” Charles said, rolling his eyes. “I nearly shit myself over that, and he’s been laughing about it for years!”
“Well fine,” Rick said, composing himself. “At any rate, we realized then that there was something going on with Matteson, and I wanted to know what it was, so we started hanging out with him more, and eventually got to encounter some spirits, and that was that.”
“And the best thing to come out of that so far is that I met you.”
“Aww, thanks,” Bob said, “hope that makes it all worth it.”
“You’re adorable, really,” Rick said, standing and dusting himself off, “I’m just taking this chance to get a new beer for completely unrelated reasons.”
“Wasn’t Jackie coming over?” Charles called after him as Rick made his way to the kitchen.
“Yeah! She should be here soon.”
“It’ll be good for you to gawk at something else.”
“You know what, I bet it would.”
19 May 1985
Peter and Abigail Whitman had a hell of a time getting into their first home. The projects they had been in since their wedding kept pace with their attempts to bring in more money, ensuring they could never quite set aside the cash they’d need to move out. Ultimately, Peter had to pick up an extra job and arrange to be paid under the table. It wasn’t legal, admittedly, but they avoided notice long enough to scrape together the bare minimum to secure a house on Sharon’s west hill. It needed some work, and Peter was probably going to have to walk to work for a while, and it only had two bedrooms, one of which would need to be shared between their young son and the child in Abigail’s womb, but it was theirs. That was enough.
They were in the house a month before they managed to have any real conversations with the neighbors, what with the pregnancy and Peter’s hours and all the work involved in moving in and sorting out a plumbing issue that was more of a hassle than they’d been led to believe. It was another week before the couple next door arranged to have a few other neighbors come by the house with food to help the Whitmans acclimate to the place. At this meeting, Abigail was surprised to encounter Janet Pawluk, now Janet Fielding, who had been a good friend in high school before leaving for college and losing touch with basically everyone Abigail knew. She’d recently moved back to the area with her husband and son, who Abigail just had to meet. So it was, the next day, that young Rick Fielding was plopped down in the living room in front of young Charles Whitman to entertain one another while their mothers slipped into the kitchen to catch up. The following Tuesday, the couples got together to play Rummy and the boys, already in their pajamas in case they fell asleep since it was almost eight already, found themselves staring at each other once again, this time in the Fieldings’ den.
And so it went, week after week the couples played cards and the boys were gradually accompanied by younger siblings. And then they were riding bikes together, and playing on the same Little League team, and finally in third grade got assigned the same teacher. And then they were tearing through the neighborhood together, sometimes with a friend from Charles’ church or the kid of someone from Janet’s book club and sometimes with a stray cousin, but always Rick and Charles. Sleepovers and music lessons and little wrestler figurines that seemed to drift from one house to the other without the parents having any idea which kid they actually belonged to. Charles was the first person to know about Rick’s crush on Rebecca Williams, and Rick was the first person to know that Charles might actually be gay, yes, like Elton John, but probably not quite like Elton John, whatever that meant, but that was later.
Because somewhere along the line they realized that West Hill Elementary ended after sixth grade and then they were going to be in the high school, with all those annoying brats from Musser and the stuck up pricks from Case and they didn’t really know what that meant but they did know it involved a whole lot of new people. New people who might like that show Rick laughed at and Charles didn’t, or had similar ideas about music that Charles tried to explain but Rick didn’t really understand. So they made a pact that they were going to be best friends forever, and not let anyone at that high school come between them, and they pricked their hands with safety pins until there was blood and spit on the blood and shared a secret handshake and that made it official. And they saw the little band aids on each others’ hands at school the next day and knew for certain that they really meant it.
3 March 2007
It had taken some time, between finalizing preparations with Roderick and gaining clearance from his father and working out the details of what he should take and say, but Michael Hudson finally stood in front of the Ravi River, north of Lahore. It was hot, much more hot than it had been when he left England, and he was still trying to get comfortable. To a certain degree, he was hopeful Iravati would be more tolerable.
The sun began to rise, and the river shimmered in a way that was only barely detectable through the spell he’d cast specifically to spot it. There, just upstream of him, was the actual entrance. He walked over to stand before it, set his bag down, and braced himself. It was no surprise to him when the gates of the city were suddenly thrown open from the river, and a group of naga soldiers rushed out to surround him. Each had a spear pointed at him. He held his arms up to show he had nothing in his hands.
“You dare return to Iravati, Hudson?” a larger naga guard demanded, slithering out behind the troops and approaching him.
“I have come to make restitution,” Michael answered.
“And why should we believe you?”
“You and I both know you aren’t the one I’m here to convince.” The guard’s eyes narrowed. “You may arrest or escort me, whatever suits you. But what I have here,” Michael said, nudging the bag with his foot; the soldiers tensed, “is a carefully researched plan that would allow us to undo the magic that severed Iravati from the world. It will require the cooperation, and consent, of the Queen of Heaven, and either a very powerful mage or a collection of mages. I would, of course, be willing to offer my services.”
“And you expect her to simply go along with this claim?”
“I hope to present it to her. I can only offer this; what your queen does with it is her business.” Michael and the guard stared at each other for a tense minute, then the guard yelled out an order in a language Michael didn’t speak. The spears were raised and the soldiers rearranged themselves to leave an opening in their ranks that led directly to the guard and the gate. The guard slithered forward, grabbed the bag, and returned to the gate. Michael felt a nudge at his back, and stepped forward. The soldiers kept pace with him. He sighed, lowered his arms, and entered Iravati surrounded by naga.
The ship tore through the sea faster than Benedict could remember ever moving. It plowed straight through waves, never rocking or lurching in any direction as its sails filled with winds he couldn’t feel and carried them on. Akshainie had pretty quickly made her way up the rigging, staying out of the way as much as possible and even helping when asked, but mostly taking full advantage of the view and the strength of her lower body wrapped around the mast to keep her in place. Benedict, on the other hand, stayed planted as firmly as he could on the deck, holding on to the railing and trying his best to keep the spray out of his face.
The ship cut southwest away from the Orkneys, dashing between Sweden and Denmark into the Baltic Sea, then into a river. Shortly after the river looked to be getting too narrow for Benedict’s comfort, the ship tipped forward and dove into the water, only to immediately emerge in another river. They did that three times, hopping from one river to the next, until the last river gave way to open sea again. The ship never slowed as it went, and continued to maintain speed as it turned up another river and flew along.
“The Indus!” Akshainie called down. Benedict looked out at the people along the banks and in the water as the boat passed harmlessly through them with awe. It certainly did look like Pakistan, or at least as much of Pakistan as he’d seen before, and then they took a tributary, and then another, and there was Lahore on their right. As suddenly as they had started, the ship ground to a halt, and Akshainie climbed down from the rigging. Benedict continued holding the railing until she reached him and held out her hand. The whole trip, near as Benedict could figure, had taken maybe an hour. “You coming?”
“Iravati, I believe!” Ingrid called as she and Tidh approached them. Benedict let go of the railing and nodded to Akshainie, who lowered her hand and turned to face the reunited pair.
“It is indeed! Thank you!”
“Thank you!” Tidh answered, wrapping his arm around Ingrid. “Without you, I’d still be lost in that cursed sea, bitter and alone.”
“What happens now?” Benedict asked, straightening his shirt.
“Now, we go back. I’m still under the authority of the Deep, and it won’t be happy bout me sailing halfway round the world without permission.”
“We’re going to confront the Deep,” Ingrid explained, “try to free Tidh from his obligation, make a new life for ourselves.”
“What if the Deep won’t give you up?” Akshainie asked.
“We’re ready to fight if we must,” Tidh answered, “together, this time. I don’t think it’ll know what hit it.” Benedict shook his hand.
“Godspeed to you all, then,” he said. Tidh nodded and called for the gangplank to be lowered, and after some more goodbyes Akshainie and Benedict took to shore. They watched as the plank was withdrawn, and Tidh barked out his orders, and the sails again filled with wind. The ship dove straight into the water and vanished. Akshainie and Benedict continued watching for a moment before she patted him on the back.
“We all need something to drive us, I suppose,” she said. Benedict agreed. “Come along, let me show you mine.” With that, she led him to the entrance of Iravati, and once it was opened for her, the two stepped below the river.