It was early Saturday evening by the time our plane landed at LaGuardia. We followed the signs and made our way down to arrivals. Andreas seemed to know where he was going, despite his assurances that he was unfamiliar with the city. I followed him blindly, thinking to myself that this might just be the blind leading the blind. We stepped outside, and he paused and looked up and down at the rows of cars waiting for arriving passengers. Spotting what he was looking for, he turned and led me to a black Crown Victoria. A man in a nondescript black suit, tie, and cap sat perched on the hood. He gave Andreas a nod, and stood up. He was tall and slender, built much like Andreas but with sharp, narrow hawk-like features.
Andreas bent down to whisper in my ear. “He’s one of us. You’ll learn to tell the difference.”
It was too dark, and I was too distracted to pay much attention to our commute. My first trip to New York City, and I couldn’t even say how we got from the airport in Queens to our final destination on the island of Manhattan. Our angelic chauffeur drove us to a beautiful old brick brownstone building across the street from Gramercy Park. Tall columns capped with scrolling ionic capitals framed the entrance. A heavy oak arched double door was recessed underneath a deep-set epistyle. It was a classic, stately monument of all I had ever thought upscale Manhattan should be.
My stomach flipped with butterflies. I looked at Andreas as we walked up the stairs. He squeezed my hand as he rang the bell. “It’s going to be alright,” he assured me.
I nodded in acceptance, hoping he was right, and then the door swung inward. We were greeted silently by what I presumed was the butler, an elderly gentleman in a dark suit, sporting a bowtie and white gloves. I bet if he bothered to speak he would even have an English accent. He led us down a marble-clad hallway, lined with side tables sporting oriental porcelain vases filled with lilies. They released a pleasing perfume that flooded the hall. The ceilings rose high above us, covered with ornate Victorian tin tiles that were tinted with a patina of age.
He led us into what I can only call a large sitting room; the furniture and wallpaper were far too classic and elaborate to call the room a living room. Perhaps a parlor would have been the proper word. I mused over it, trying to muster up from my brain the proper Victorian vocabulary for our setting, but alas, it eluded me. I should have paid better attention to history class. The butler closed the door behind us, leaving us alone inside. The ceiling was covered in the same tin tiles as the hallway. The sofas and chairs were straight out of the Victorian era, lending a pleasant continuity to the entire building that I had seen, so far. A large oriental rug took center place in the room, covering a deep mahogany wooden floor. Sofas and high-backed arm chairs bordered it, upholstered in a pale champagne silk fabric embossed with a delicate floral pattern, which off-set the deep mahogany wood frames. End tables with elaborately carved arched legs and frames of the same wood topped in pale marble were scattered throughout the room, bearing delicate stained-glass tiffany lamps, which suffused the entire antique room with a warm, colorful glow. Mahogany bookshelves occupied one wall. Opposite it, French doors opened onto a small courtyard.
Andreas stepped to the French doors and looked out onto the trees in the courtyard. He seemed tense. The well-preserved setting put off an air of stiff, austere formality, not comfort, so I walked over to him, rather than sit down.
“Have you ever been here before?” I asked.
“Once,” he said, staring out the window, his jaw clenching and unclenching rhythmically with tension. “About eighty years ago or so.”
Eighty years? How old was he? I had more important questions to ask than that, though. “Who is Ariel?” And why was he so tense? He said Ariel would have answers; answers should bring relief, not tension.
He turned toward me and exhaled a deep breath. “She is…” he paused, staring off into the distance, organizing his thoughts. An unreadable expression flashed across his face before he met my eyes again. “She is a healer. She is very old, and very powerful.” He grabbed my shoulders and fixed his eyes upon mine, his eyes gravely serious. “She will not harm you, Rhiannon, but please think before you speak here,” he pled. “Don’t say anything rash.”
I opened my mouth to say something rash, wanting to chew him out for even suggesting I didn’t think before I speak, but I thought again and decided not to.
He nodded his head. “That’s better.” He patted my shoulder patronizingly.
I glared at him, wanting to give him a piece of my mind. I was insulted!
He knew it too, he could feel it. He sighed and rolled his eyes. “You humans are so like children sometimes.”
I stared at him fiercely. “You’re deliberately trying to provoke me now, aren’t you?” I said tightly, crossing my arms.
He relaxed visibly, and gave me a small smile and a shrug. “It’s getting easier to read you.”
I punched him in the arm.
On that note, the door swung inward. It was the butler again. “She will see you now,” he said. I had to admit I was very disappointed, he sounded American, not English. We followed him to an elevator, which descended down into the basement of the building. The elevator doors opened. Marble floors and tin ceilings gave way to cinderblock and concrete. There was a short hallway, which ended in a wide set of metal double doors. A single door stood across the corner from it. “You wait here,” he said to Andreas. He walked up to the single door. “You may go in,” he said, gesturing for me to enter.
My palms felt clammy, and my stomach flipped with nervousness. “Don’t be worried,” Andreas whispered to me, and gave me a little push towards the door. The butler opened it courteously, and I stepped inside.
I was in what appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, a doctor’s examination room. It seemed so out of place to find one here, in the basement of this classic high-end brownstone. It held the standard exam table against a wall, round rolling stool, small desk, and metal cabinets. The last thing I wanted was more doctors. I’d had my fill back in Seattle. Ignoring the exam table, I pulled out the chair from the desk and sat with a grumble.
A moment later, in floated the most ethereally beautiful woman I had ever seen. I said float, because although her feet touched the ground, she moved with such fluid grace that they might as well not have been. She was tall and thin, and she glowed with a pale blue light. Long, fine pale blonde hair floated around her face, and it occurred to me that this must be where the ideas of halos stemmed from, because the light emanating from her lit her hair with an unearthly glow. For all her fantastic appearance, she wore a very human lab coat. She was ageless; she could have been forty as easily as twenty-five. Her eyes were a pale sky blue, large in her thin face, dominating her small nose and mouth. She smiled at me, closed the door behind her, and floated over to the stool.
“Rhiannon, I am Ariel,” she introduced herself, wheeling the stool up in front of me. Her voice held a musical quality that reminded me of violas.
I swallowed hard. “Well,” I said, my voice sounding funny in my ears, “Andreas said you were a healer, but I have to admit I wasn’t expecting this,” I gestured with my hands to encompass the exam room setting.
She laughed softly. “Unlike many of the elders who disdain humanity, I find that a touch of familiarity puts humans at ease.” Her voice was kind, and her smile gentle. So far her bedside manner was impeccable. She looked at me shrewdly. “I believe adjusting to the unknown is easier if one involves the known whilst doing it.”
I nodded. “Thank you,” I said. I meant it. As much as I hated doctor’s offices, at least they were a known and familiar element, of which I had had precious little lately.
“Now give me your hands,” she said, holding hers out, palms up.
I did, looking at her quizzically. She closed her eyes. Her pale blue aura flickered and faded while she held my hands, and I could tell she was concentrating. After a moment she opened her eyes and looked at me, letting my hands go.
“How much has Andreas told you about our abilities?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Not much. He taught me how not to glow, and how to teleport from my living room to my kitchen.”
“Ah,” she nodded. “So he told you about the numen.”
’The what?” I asked.
She smiled. “The energy that surrounds us, that we are made of. It is the numen from whence all magic stems.” She nods. “In more familiar, human terms, matter is energy, energy is matter. As a scientist, surely you are familiar with the first law of thermodynamics?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow at me.
“Umm,” I thought out loud, looking up at the ceiling, trying to recall something I’d learned my first year at college. I let out a little laugh. “Botany is a far stretch from thermodynamics,” I shrugged, “But isn’t that the one that says nothing can be created or destroyed?”
She nodded her head. “Matter is energy, energy is matter, and neither can be created or destroyed, they can only change forms. Our magic stems from the numen, which we can harness to change matter and energy.”
“Numen,” I said slowly, feeling the word on my tongue, committing it to memory. “So that’s what I see when I concentrate, and that’s what I twisted when I beamed into my kitchen?”
She nodded her head sagely.
“And you heal with it?” I asked, curious.
She cocked her head to the side. “It’s a bit more complicated than that. Simply put, my gift enables me to intuit a person’s physical state and affect change by accelerating the immune system. It’s a useful gift. Anything above and beyond that, though, requires ritual magic.”
Ritual magic brought to mind images of people in robes drawing circles and pentagrams, burning incense and waving wands, intoning complex Latin phrases. I wondered if there was any truth to that. “I never believed in magic,” I said softly.
She let out a little laugh. “You humans are such curious creatures. As children you have an unshakable faith in all things magical. As adults you convince yourselves it doesn’t exist. You live such short lives, so full of tragedy and comedy, but so small in your minds. You yearn so desperately to believe that there is something beyond yourselves. You invent deities and religions to explain the unexplainable, and use science to break it down into pieces you can analyze and comprehend. You fear that which you do not understand, and when you are confronted with those things you consider impossible you react with close-minded violence,” she said sadly. “Open your mind, Rhiannon. Let go of the fear and disbelief that keeps you small.”
I nodded. I understood that now. It wasn’t an easy thing to accept, but I was no longer freaking out, was I? “So, what you’re saying is that you can tell what’s wrong with me?” That would be a cool ability. I wondered if I could pick that up if I hung around her long enough.
“That’s a negative way of putting it, but yes, I read you when I held your hands.” She nodded her head. “I wanted you to understand how I did before discussing it, though,” she explained. “I find that it is difficult for humans to accept something at face value without understanding how it works, and their skeptic disbelief of magic doesn’t help.”
“I’ve been getting that a lot lately,” I said snidely. “I read somewhere once that magic is simply science not yet discovered,” I said slowly, questioningly. If that were true, I would find all of this a little easier to accept at face value.
She cocked her head thoughtfully to the side. “That’s an interesting way to put it,” she said, but neither confirmed nor denied it. She smiled wryly. “I am a doctor, I am used to human skepticism.” She pulled out a needle and a tube. “I would also like to draw your blood so I can analyze it, if you don’t mind. Many of my peers disagree with me, but I find having scientific data to augment my reading is extremely useful.” I let her draw a vial of my blood.
“Now, would you like to invite Andreas in, or shall he remain in the hallway, for my opinion?” she asked me.
“In, please. He started this, he should know, too,” I said, feeling nervous.
She opened the door and ushered him in. He stood next to me, protectively close. Ariel’s expression was inscrutable. Andreas bristled with tension. I took in a deep breath, forcing myself to relax, hoping he’d pick up on my relaxation as well.
“Your blood catalyzed a permanent change that has altered her on a molecular level,” she told him flatly. He stiffened next to me. I let out a little gasp. She shook her head. “I do not know if it can be undone.” She looked at me sadly. “Your nervous system has been growing at an exponential rate, providing you with an increased sensory input. Your brain is learning to process this. You understand?”
I nodded my head slowly. It made sense to me. “That’s why I was feeling like I was crawling out of my skin?” That feeling had mostly gone away, although the heightened senses were still there, they were no longer driving me bonkers. Whatever changes Andreas had started seem to have slowed down to a crawl at last.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Your brain isn’t used to processing so much input, but brains are remarkably adaptable, and with your accelerated metabolism and rate of healing it is happening fast. You are in a perfect state of health.” She eyed me carefully. “That is what I know.”
I let out a sigh. Andreas shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “How did this happen, though, and how can I undo it?” I asked.
She frowned. “That is what I do not know.” She shook her head. “I can tell you what has happened, I cannot tell you why.” Her sympathetic gaze swept from me to Andreas, and it switched to anger. She stood up and approached him. “You reckless fool,” she hissed. “You performed a save without proper authorization or training. You were out of line. Do not think there will not be consequences for your actions. When the council next convenes you will be summoned to face charges of an unauthorized save and exposure to a human.”
Andreas said nothing. He dropped his head. I dropped my jaw. Did he break some kind of angel law? What was going on? No wonder he had been so tense since arriving here! Ariel turned away from him, walking to the other side of the room. “Wild magic and mortals do not mix,” she said softly. “What were you thinking, Andreas?”
“I was thinking that this mortal nearly sacrificed her life to save mine, and she deserved her life,” he said tightly. “It was an emergency. There wasn’t time! She was dying!” He finished forcefully.
She turned and looked him square in the face. “Then you should have let her go.”
I jumped up. “Hey, excuse this mortal!” I couldn’t believe she had just said that! “I’d rather be alive than dead, regardless of what’s happened. I just want to know what’s happened! Surely there’s someone who has an answer, or am I just wasting my time here?” I stared at Ariel tight-lipped. So much for my promise to Andreas to think before I spoke. So much for her good bedside manner. For all her so-called sympathy for humans, she thought that Andreas should have just let me die. She had definitely dropped a few pegs in my book.
Ariel arched a delicate brow and looked at me thoughtfully. “There is one who might,” she said, nodding. “But I warn you, any answers will come with a price.”
“This is a bad idea,” Andreas whispered fiercely. We stood in a large square chamber that occupied most of the basement of the brownstone.
I elbowed him. “Shh, they’re about to start!” We stood in front of two great circles engraved into the floor. Various strange symbols were etched in between them around the circumference, none of which were familiar to me. Seated just outside them was a man Ariel called Vijay. He was tall and thin, like all angels seemed to be. He was also the only angel I had seen so far who was touched with age. His dark complected face was lined, and his beard and dark hair were peppered with gray. Standing behind him was Ariel. She had shed her lab coat in preference for a pair of navy slacks and a pin-striped silk blouse. Her pale blue glow was suppressed. Standing in the four corners of the room were four burly men whose smell reminded me of Grant. I wondered if they, too, might be werepeople, although I was not picking up any unwelcome abilities from them so I was doubtful. Ariel had called them downstairs “for protection,” she told us. Protection from what, I did not know. I was tempted to ask, but didn’t want to come off as an idiot, so I just went along with it, and subsequently found myself standing there clueless as usual, in this strange barren cinderblock and concrete room with its etched floor.
“I am ready to summon the rakshasa,” said Vijay.
“You’ll want to watch the numen for this,” Andreas whispered. “And for the sake of all that is wild and free keep your mouth shut, this is a dangerous, stupid idea,” he finished with a mutter.
“Proceed,” Ariel said with formal aplomb, and a flourish of her hand.
Vijay began speaking words in some language I didn’t recognize, chanting them with the intonation of ceremony. “Aham hvayati Indra, puurvapaala. Aham hvayati Yama, dakSinapaala. Aham hvayati Varuna, paczimapaala. Aham hvayati Kuvera, uttarapaala.” While his convoluted words spilled forth I closed my eyes and concentrated until I could feel the numen flowing through me. I opened my eyes, rich with the energy. Vijay’s words sparked a line of energy that raced through the circumference of the inner etched circle counter-clockwise, like a lit fuse. When it reached where it began, a dome of energy went up, encircling the area around it in a perfect half-circle of sparkling numen.
He stood up and began walking around the ring of the outer circle, stopping at each engraved symbol to envoke a word. With each word the symbol glowed with the unearthly light of numen. “Akasha, vayu, agni, prithivi, ap,” he said.
The hair on the back of my arms stood up as he progressed. “What’s a rakshasa, and what is he saying?” I whispered quietly up to Andreas.
He bent low to reach my ear. “The language is Sanskrit I think. I don’t speak it. Now quiet, if he gets interrupted mid-summons, something bad could happen.”
“I thought all magic was done in Latin,” I whispered ignorantly. Mid-summons? Who, or what, was he summoning? What was a rakshasa? A sense of foreboding filled me, but I swallowed it down and shut up instead. All the stories I’ve ever heard about summoning of demons and ghosts and other supposedly fictional creations flitted through my brain. What was truth and what was fiction? I no longer knew.
“There are a few good languages, now hush, woman!” He wrapped a hand around my mouth to silence me. I was miffed, but silent. I pulled his hand down and glared at him in my silence, emoting nasty emotions as strongly as I could, hoping they were messing with his head.
Vijay stood back at the beginning of the circle again, and pulled out a knife. He sliced it along his palm, and held it out, dripping blood across the dome of energy. The blood dripped onto the sparkling sphere, spilled down its side for a ways, and then fell through to the inside of the dome, dripping slowly onto the concrete floor beneath. Then he held his arms out wide and chanted stridently in a deep and booming voice that echoed off of the cinderblock walls. “Dadaami mama rakta bhoktavya upa Nikumbha! Aham abhikrozati Nikumbha upa udgayati aara kaalaanala yathaa tvaM anugrahaM karoti. ZiksSana samaryaada yuuyaM vedata yathaasagGam, TvaM gaccha prati yatra dhuumaH tatra vahni!” With that, he clapped his hands, and a spark raced around the outer circle, to fuse back at the beginning, and it rose into a second sparkling dome above the first one.
Smoke began curling inside the circles, rising up from the concrete floor, until it filled the entire translucent inner dome. A deep red light emanated from the smoke, filling every corner of the room with an eerie blood-red glow. The floor rattled and shook, and then with an ear-splitting boom, the smoke sucked inward, and in its place stood a shifting-shimmering creature.
I knew, without having to ask, that a rakshasa was a demon. He (She? It?) flickered intangibly in between a solid and translucent shape: black clawed feet, elongated heel jutting out, giving his azure blue, scaly legs the appearance of an added joint; he was naked save for a necklace of skulls hanging around his neck, covered in scales from the waist down, and a furry chest, with two pairs of bare arms, all four of which ended with wickedly sharp looking claws dripping venom; his face was a death mask of snarling fangs that dripped hungry drool, and his eyes, which bore elongated vertical pupils, glowed with the same blood-red glare that emanated from his body. A wild, tangled mane of blood-red hair tore down his blue back. In short, he looked ugly and evil, and the vibe that I was picking up off of him didn’t deter that impression one whit.
He let out a screeching snarl, and lashed out at the dome with a clawed hand. His claws screeched against the energy like nails on a chalk board. Sparks of numen showered upon him, and as they landed on his blue skin he drew back as if in pain. His image flickered briefly out of existence for the merest of seconds, like a television broadcast receiving interference, only to reappear quite solidly. He bent down, wiped up the spilled blood onto his hand, and licked it greedily off his fingers with a long forked tongue. He was hungry. I shivered.
Vijay stepped back, and sat down, wrapping his hand. He clenched his jaw, but otherwise did not move. I guessed that he had to maintain some rather intense concentration in order to keep the summons flowing smoothly. The hideous creature began to flicker again.
The rakshasa demon looked out at us, sweeping his red gaze across the entire audience. His gaze landed on me. I shrunk back behind Andreas, wishing I was a turtle. He stared at me with those malevolent red eyes. After a moment he barked out a harsh laugh. He laughed so hard his body shook with it. His laugh rattled in his chest like a dying man’s cough. “So this is the reason you summoned me, Ariel?” he finally asked hoarsely. He leered at Ariel.
Ariel stepped forward. “Nikumbha,” she said, nodding her head towards him. “We seek information. I see you came dressed to impress,” she added.
Andreas slipped an arm around me and squeezed my shoulders securely. I felt safer. “Rakshasas dress themselves in illusion,” he murmured to me. “They can feed on fear. He’s trying to provoke you, but he’s impotent behind the circles. He’s incorporeal, he can only touch things for the briefest of seconds at the expense of a great deal of energy.”
“Must you ruin my fun?” he snarled at Andreas. I shrank back another fraction of an inch, but Andreas held me tight. My heart pounded and my palms were clammy, and every nerve wanted to run, but I didn’t, trusting that Andreas was right. He wouldn’t knowingly put me in harm’s way, since if I was harmed he would be too, right?
Ariel cleared her throat. “Do not change the subject, rakshasa,” she ordered. “We seek information, what is your price?”
Nikumbha laughed harshly again, and scratched the dome with a claw, sending sparks of numen flying. “Do not play games with me, Atlantean. You summoned me, you imprisoned me behind your magic, you tell me what it is you desire first,” he said with a hungry leer.
Ariel looked towards me. “This woman was saved. The save was good but flawed, and there were side-effects. She wishes to know why.”
“If this woman wishes to know, she can deal with me herself,” Nikumbha wheezed, staring at me intently with those horrible eyes.
Andreas squeezed my shoulders. “Tell him,” he whispered.
I looked at the ground, not wanting to look the horrible demon in the eyes. “Andreas… he saved me,” I started softly. I licked my lips. Fear had left my mouth dry. “And ever since then I’ve been picking up everyone else’s abilities like a sponge. I don’t know how to control it, and it’s driving me crazy, and I want to know why!” I finished. My voice had gained strength. I looked up at the demon, feeling the fear start to fade finally. He was nothing but a prisoner in his magical cage of energy.
Nikumbha cocked his head to the side and looked at me. “Is this true?” he asked Ariel.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “Andreas broke the rules to save her. I can intuit what has happened to her, but not why.”
Nikumbha’s gaze flicked from me to Andreas and back again. Then he started laughing again. Only this time it wasn’t the harsh laughter of before, it was more of a giggle. A hoarse demonic giggle, if there was such a thing. Hearing him giggle was really quite unnerving. He giggled so hard he fell to his knees, and had blood-red tears streaming out of the corners of his eyes, and his four hands quivered. His shape shimmered and shifted, and by the time he stopped laughing he was a giant lizard man. “Oh,” he cried out once the spell of giggles had subsided, “I haven’t been this amused since the crucifixion!”
“That was real?” I asked. I’d always been too much of an atheist to put much stock in religious stories, and after the past few days I really didn’t know what to believe in, all bets were off.
“Oh of course it was!” beamed Nikumbha. “They,” he pointed at Ariel, “used to love to interfere in the humans’ world, playing god, trying to influence them this way or that in order to get them to behave in an acceptable way – their acceptable way,” he added with a sneer. “They quit doing it once we started doing some influencing of our own.” He leered at me.
A shiver went down my spine. “Jesus was one of us,” Andreas muttered. “The demons convinced humans to kill him. His martyrdom sparked events that spiraled out of our control.”
Nikumbha howled with laughter. “It was the butterfly effect at its finest!” He shifted form to resemble the pope, complete with the pontifical head gear. “And Jesus was the Atlanteans big giant butterfly.” He wrapped his arms around himself, and gave himself a great big hug, a farsical expression of grief on his face. He wiped a tear out of his eye. “Ah, it was glorious.”
Well well, this was quite the revelation! So he was real, but he wasn’t the Christ Christians believed him to be. I shook my head.
Andreas glared a warning at the rakshasa demon. “Since then we’ve tried to keep our footprint in humanity to a minimum. Stepping out of line is forbidden.”
“What happens to those who do?” I asked.
He looked seriously at me. “You don’t want to know.”
“Oh, but she does!” Nikumbha said gleefully. “And this question I’ll answer for free! They kill them. There is no trial by jury, or fair justice for a rogue, just swift obliteration. Murder.” He glowered at Ariel.
Ariel shook her head. “You twist the facts, rakshasa. They are returned to the energy from whence they sprang. Energy is matter, matter is energy, and energy is life; there is no obliteration. Nothing is created or destroyed, just reorganized.”
I shuddered at her explanation. There was no son of god, and god’s angels weren’t the benevolent creatures I had always been taught, either. Was I with the good guys or the bad ones? Why must everything be many shades of grey?
Nikumbha sneered. “Paint it any color you want, but it’s all the same.”
“Enough!” Ariel shouted. “You speak as if demons have room to judge! We strip them of their bodies, we do not obliterate their essence!”
“And then imprison their souls for an eternity of servitude, blah blah blah.” Nikumbha rolled his eyes. “I’ve known a few genies in my days, and let me tell you, death is kinder.”
I was stunned. This demon had a way of slipping in all sorts of details into a conversation. So they didn’t kill law-breaking angels, they sentenced the angelic criminals to genie-in-a-bottledom. My thoughts reflected on the Disney flick, and I couldn’t help but grin.
“Do not change the subject, rakshasa, we will not be swayed by your attempts at confusion!” Ariel commanded.
Nikumbha sighed. “Fine then.” He shifted his form back to the azure blue four-armed, blood-red maned one and jutted out his lower lip. I swear he was pouting. Can demons pout? He looked at me. “I can answer the girl’s question, but I demand payment in blood!” he cackled.
Andreas jumped forward, hiding me behind him. “No!” he shouted.
“Oh come now, Atlantean,” Nikumbha bargained, “How can I know what she is and what happened if I cannot taste her blood?” He folded his arms across his chest. “Without that, there are no answers.”
Ariel stepped forward. “Andreas, calm down.” She gestured for Andreas to back down. He stepped back beside me again. She turned her gaze to the demon. “You will not get free of the circles to harm her, rakshasa. But I offer a compromise.” She held up the vial of blood she had taken from me.
The demon shook his head, and crossed his arms. “Completely unacceptable. I demand payment fresh from the tap.” He faked a yawn. “And do hurry up, I haven’t got all day.”
I shook my head. “How can I trust that you won’t just try and kill me or something?”
He gave me a wounded look. “Why, I am hurt, human, truly. Don’t you trust me? I am bound by the rules Ariel’s pet magician set up. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.” I swear, he was pouting. It was not an attractive expression on him, to say the least.
Ariel nodded her head in agreement. “Vijay is the best. He can try to break the rules, but he won’t succeed.”
Nikumbha growled in response. “Do not treat me like an insignificant Bhuta, Atlantean.”
I thought about it for a moment. “I’ll do it,” I agreed.
“No, you can’t!” shouted Andreas. He grabbed me by my shoulders and shook me. “You cannot trust demons, Rhiannon, especially not a rakshasa!”
“Stop it, Andreas,” I said softly. I placed a hand on his chest and pushed him back. “I definitely don’t trust him, but I need to know! So back off.”
I stepped forward toward the numen bubbles. “How do we do this?”
“You can pass in, he cannot pass out,” Vijay said in between clenched teeth.
I took one more step further until the bubble was so close I could feel the numen spark against me like static electricity. “Rhiannon,” Ariel said, “This is your question and your price. You do not have to pay if you do not wish to. But a word of warning: do not pass all the way through,” Ariel cautioned. “An arm will suffice.”
I nodded at her. I looked at Nikumbha. The blue demon towered over me. Saliva dripped from his fangs, as he shimmered in front of me. I shuddered, and wiped my palms off on my jeans.
He shifted form again, and Lucas stood in front of me, tall and gorgeous and deadly, all except for Nikumbha’s red eyes with black-red pupils, which stared out of Lucas’ face malevolently. He grinned lasciviously. “I thought a more familiar form would be comforting.” Nikumbha’s voice sounded very wrong coming from Lucas’ face.
I shuddered in spite of myself. “Damn you,” I hissed.
He bowed with a flourish. “I aim to please. Come on now.” He crooked his hand. “Pass it over. The clock is ticking.”
I screwed my eyes tight, and slid my hand inside the translucent domes. My arm crawled with energy as it bisected the spheres, first one, and then the second. I cringed but held steady. I opened my eyes. Nikumbha was staring at my wrist hungrily. “Do it already!” I snapped.
His form focused and solidified, and the instant it did, he grabbed my wrist and viciously tore into it, pouncing on me like a starving man on a piece of bread. I could feel my flesh shred as his teeth ripped my wrist open. Pain blossomed out of my wrist. Where Lucas had brought pleasure, Nikumbha brought the fire of agony to my nerves. I let out a silent wail, and sank to the ground, my knees buckling. Tears stung my eyes and I gasped a ragged breath, clenching my teeth.
As he again began to shimmer in my view, Andreas roared and lunged for me. “Enough!” he shouted, grabbing for my arm. But his hand passed right through me. Nikumbha and I were shimmering synchronously, in time with each suck he made on my wrist. I turned to look at him, and he was no longer sucking my blood, he was sucking my energy. I could feel it ripping through me and out my arm.
In panic, I braced my feet on the floor and tried wrenching my arm away from him, but he held fast like a demonic leech. He began to pull me in, and I slowly felt myself slip forward on the floor, inch by inch further inside the bubble. He was far stronger than me. He pulled his mouth away from my wrist and sneered, holding my arm fast in his hand. Blood dripped from my wrist onto the floor. I reached out with my mind, grabbing a hold of a handful of energy behind me. “Let go!” I shouted, yanking and twisting away from him, at the same moment I yanked backwards on my mental hold of energy.
With a world-lurching pop, I teleported a foot back, and slammed into Andreas, who was still behind me trying to get a hold of me. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to free myself from his grasp and back into phase with the real world, and enough to leave me curling on the floor retching, in agony.
In an instant Andreas had me in his arms. I could feel fury pouring off of him like cheap cologne. Ariel rushed over, and laid a hand on my head. Immediately my headache subsided. Andreas clutched me to him tightly. “I’m alright,” I said hoarsely.
“She will be fine,” Ariel assured him. He stood me on my feet. Blood was dripping down both of our wrists. Ariel tended my wrist, and the wicked gash began to knit instantly. She then looked at Andreas. “You formed a blood link?” Her voice was icy cold.
I heard Nikumbha’s hoarse laughter from behind me. I turned towards him, to see him back as the big blue demon again. My blood was dripping down his chin. He snaked his tongue out to lick up the last drop, and smacked his lips with relish when he was done. I shuddered in disgust.
Ariel swung to Vijay in fury. “He violated the spell. How is that possible?”
Nikumbha laughed hysterically, as Vijay just sat there concentrating, not responding. “There is no violation if she is like me. Your little sorcerer’s spell thought she was a demon!” he laughed.
“That is enough from you, Nikumbha!” Andreas shouted. “You have your payment, now what is your answer?”
Nikumbha chortled. He pointed a finger at Andreas. “You screwed up, angel boy! She tastes of otherkin. At least a quarter. You might want to ask her family.”
I shook my head. “That can’t be! My parents were human!” I cradled my injured wrist in my other hand.
“Shows what you know,” he cackled at me. “You stupid angel! You catalyzed dormant genes, and now they’re active, and combined with your Atleantean blood she’s out of control, forever altered. The powers of every being she encounters are duplicated and amplified in her, only to fade away as soon as she moves on. You are obviously either clueless or have a death wish, because you gave her too much blood and forged a blood link, coupling your life to hers, like a fool. I’d say just kill her now, but then you’d be dead, too.” He giggled gleefully.
“How do I fix it?” I demanded.
“Well now,” he said with a toothy grin, “that’s another question, and another price. What say I answer this and you just owe me one?” he asked, drooling.
“No!” Andreas boomed. “If you want a favor, I will owe you a favor, Nikumbha! He turned to me, and gripped me by the shoulder. “You don’t want to do a rakshasa’s bidding. You paid for the last one, I shall bear the price.”
Nikumbha giggled gleefully. “Oh this is going to be such fun!” He pointed at Andreas. “You have nothing I want, angel. She, however… I am intrigued. I’ve never seen a being who can shift the way she did. Yes, she may owe me,” he said to me.
“That’s it?” I asked. He wanted me to just owe him one? What kind of a payment was that?
“No!” objected Andreas again. “Don’t trust him, Rhiannon. You give him one foot in the door and bad things will happen.”
I shrugged. What’s the worst that could happen? If he tried anything ever again I could just teleport out of harm’s way, or just keep him in a bubble. That would work, wouldn’t it? “I’ll do it,” I said to Nikumbha. Andreas sighed in resignation.
“Excellent!” Nikumbha rubbed his hands together in delight. “You cannot undo what’s been done, this is a permanent situation!” he boomed. “Only way to keep yourself safe, angel boy, is to lock her up for the rest of her life. But be prepared to die in another sixty years or so if you do,” he chuckled. “Or you can make her immortal.”
Andreas gritted his teeth. “And how am I supposed to do that?”
“That’s three questions! Another price!” Nikumbha threw up his hands triumphantly.
Andreas shook his head. “I already know the answer. There’s got to be another way.” He looked crestfallen.
Nikumbha shook his head, a gravely serious expression on his face. “There are two ways, Atlantean, make your choice.”
“Who were my parents?” I demanded. This was too much! Who was I? What was I? I had to know.
He laughed. “If you really want to know, you’ll have to come with me.” He beckoned me forward with three of his four arms.
“No!” Andreas barked. “That will never happen, rakshasa. You have one visit, but nothing more, we are done bargaining.” I wholeheartedly concurred.
“Send him back,” Ariel told Vijay. Vijay spoke a few more incomprehensible words in Sanskrit, and Nikumbha disappeared with a flood of smoke back to wherever he came from.
Ariel escorted us back upstairs to the sitting room. Her butler met us at the door with a tray of hot tea. I sunk into one of the armchairs, exhausted, and accepted a cup of tea gratefully.
Ariel sat on the sofa, but Andreas paced across the floor angrily.
She sipped her tea. “Oh child,” she said sympathetically, “This is a heavy burden to bear.”
I nodded in agreement.
“And you!” she said to Andreas. “How could you so foolishly form a blood link?” She shook her head. “The rakshasa told you what your options are now, but I advise you not to make any rash decisions until I have the results on her blood back from the lab. I will have more answers then.”
With all her magic she still relied on human science. It was comforting in a way, a link to something familiar. And familiar things were currently in precious short supply. I sighed. “I don’t even know what I am anymore. And what do angels and demons have to do with me? I don’t want any of this, and I don’t want any of these abilities,” I muttered. I took a deep breath. “I just want things to go back to the way they were, but they never will, will they?” I frowned.
“I’m afraid not,” Ariel said.
We finished our tea and her butler showed us to guest quarters. They were sumptuous and antique, Victorian like the rest of the house. We had an entire suite all to ourselves, two bedrooms branching off of a common sitting room. Dinner was set up on a table, steaming on two plates underneath gleaming metal lids. We sat down and dug in voraciously. Neither of us had eaten since before the plane, and I had relinquished any remaining contents of my stomach back in the basement.
After dinner, I changed into shorts and a tee shirt and crawled into bed, exhausted. Andreas insisted on lying down next to me, on top of the covers. I thought it was ridiculous, but I didn’t object. I figured he was feeling very mortal by his connection to me, and that mortality scared him.
“So tell me,” I said with a yawn, “Exactly how much trouble are you in? The rakshasa said that those who cross a line are stuffed into bottles.”
He patted my shoulder. “I’m in trouble, yes, but not that much trouble,” he assured me.
I nodded my head. “What did he mean when he said there are two ways to make someone immortal?”
“Well, there’s the obvious first: be turned by a vampire,” he explained. He yawned. Yawns are contagious. I found myself yawning again. “It takes a massive dose, and it’s nearly lethal. It’s as liable to kill you as to turn you.”
I shuddered, and remembered Lucas. “What’s the second?”
“Be turned by me,” he said softly. “Equally massive dose, and nearly lethal to both of us.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“Think about it long and hard. You will be immortal. You will never age. You will never bear children, unlike my kind. You will probably have essentially the same strengths and weaknesses I do, to a point. It might break the blood link, but it might make it mutual, I honestly do not know if it would be a blessing or a curse.”
“That’s a lot to absorb,” I said softly. I was in no position to even consider that right then. I needed to just absorb one thing at a time, or I would feel like I was drowning.
“But think about it seriously, Rhiannon,” he continued. “I do not want to die, and it would be too cruel to simply lock you up, I cannot do that, but I can guarantee that as soon as word of your existence spreads you will become a walking target. There has never been anyone like you before, and everyone will want a piece of you, and every piece of you they get is a piece of me.”
“No one gets a piece of me,” I objected. “All the pieces belong to me! Dammit. I don’t want any of this!” I curled up on my side, hugging my knees. Might as well paint a target on my head. All thanks to this angel, who the rakshasa called an Atlantean.
“Hey, Andreas,” I whispered, “Why’d he call you an Atlantean?”
“It’s because we came from Atlantis,” he whispered back.
This was a day of revelations. I was taking them in stride now. “So Plato wasn’t just making that stuff up, huh?”
“There’s a grain of truth in probably every myth and legend,” he yawned. “Now get some sleep.”
“Hey Andreas,” I said again. “Why did Vijay use Sanskrit?”
He groaned and rolled over. “There are a few languages good for ritual magic. I imagine he uses Sanskrit because he comes from the Indian subcontinent. He helped create the language. It’s practically his native tongue. Now shut up and go to sleep!”
“Hey Andreas,” I said once more, slightly hoping that I was annoying him by this point. “What’s the difference between a demon and a rakshasa, anyway?”
“There are several breeds of demons,” he said with a long suffering sigh. “They are one of the more powerful ones. They know just about every secret worth knowing, and love to bargain and gamble for it. Now let me sleep!”
“Hey Andreas,” I said one last time.
“What?” he growled. I think he probably wanted to smack me for keeping him talking. I found that somewhat comforting. He might be an immortal angel, but he still had buttons I could push.
“Why did you save me, anyway? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I’m happy to be alive.” I was happy to be alive, even if I was less than happy about the circumstances I was in.
“Because it was the right thing to do,” he muttered. “Don’t make me regret that. Shut up and go to sleep.”
What a day it had been. I’d learned how to beam up like Scotty, met a demon who ate fear like popcorn, found out one or both of my parents wasn’t who they had seemed, and that Atlantis and Jesus were real. So to speak. What would tomorrow bring? I wondered, as I drifted off to sleep, if the answer to my parents’ murder might hold some answers to me.